First off, I’m leading an on-line retreat through Tricycle magazine this month. This is my first try at something like this. There will be four installments and the first one (or maybe two) is free. So take a look and see what you think.
Yesterday I attended my first ever Catholic Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Logan Square in Philadelphia. Too bad St. Peter and St. Paul, from all accounts I’ve heard, probably weren’t very fond of each other. Peter, of course, was the rock upon which Jesus was gonna build his church. But then that upstart Paul who never even knew Jesus when he was alive came along and got way more popular with his revised version of the Lord’s message. Much grumbling ensued. Perhaps they get along in Philly now, 2000 years later.
It’s a really beautiful church and they put on a lovely show. I was surprised how few people were there, though. Of course it’s such an enormous space that there were probably more people than it seemed.
I was struck by how similar the Catholic Mass is to the standard morning Zen service. I’m sure there that Japanese Zen has been somewhat influenced by Catholicism, especially during the Meiji Restoration, when the Japanese were importing all kinds of things from the West and reformatting much of their own culture in Western terms.
But the rituals we do at a Zen service predate that influence. So it would be only certain ceremonial nuances that have been influenced by Catholicism. It’s not that the Zen morning service was an attempt to mimic a Catholic Mass.
The Mass at St. Peter and Paul is, as far as I can tell, a pretty standard Mass. They still use a big pipe organ and not a rock band or even a sprightly folk combo with a banjo. It was all fairly conservative and traditional.
Much of the ritual is similar to what goes on in a Zen temple. You kneel when you enter the church and again when you get to your pew to take your seat. This is similar to the way we bow when entering the zendo and bow again to our cushions before sitting down to begin zazen.
Even the idea of confession of sins and asking God’s forgiveness for them has Zen analogues. On the night of the full moon each month, many Zen temples perform a ceremony in which we ritually confess our “ancient twisted karma” and ask for the mystical influence of the Buddhas and ancestors as well as the concrete help of our fellow sangha members to help us do what is right and avoid what is not right. This isn’t part of the usual daily (or weekly) Zen service. But nonetheless it’s similar to what goes on in Catholic Mass.
In Zen we chant our hymns to the accompaniment of drums and bells rather than sing them to the accompaniment of a pipe organ. But the effect is much the same. It creates a feeling of communion with the other members of the congregation and instills a sense of importance to the proceedings.
Here is a video about Zen services I just found. This service is done in a style I’ve observed and led at Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico. I believe it’s derived from the way they do services at Sojiji Temple in Japan. The service form I learned at Tassajara follows the style done at Eiheiji Temple. There are minor differences. But overall it’s pretty close. There’s a photo of Maezumi Roshi in this video, so it’s from that lineage.
Here is a not all that great video made by an American guy lurking around during a service at Eiheiji. He is kind of clueless as to what’s going on and can’t stop roving around getting random views, so it’s not terribly informative. Unfortunately this is the best video I’ve been able to find on YouTube of an Eiheiji style service. I spent way too much time looking for others. If anyone knows of any, please send them to me.
I’ve often written about my own struggles with religious ritual. I didn’t grow up in a religious family. But I did see how religious ritual was used to dominate and control people. I couldn’t see any real value to it other than just to make people dull and stupid, to make them eager followers of whatever the guy in the purple dress up front wanted them to do. I was not a fan.
Over time, my view has changed. I now feel that ritual may be a necessary human activity. We want rituals. We need community.
Still, it has to be handled very carefully. I think the Zen morning service strikes a nice middle ground, providing just enough ritual with little in the way of heavy indoctrination or efforts to control the congregation. Not that it can’t be bent to do this. But I feel the nature of what we chant makes that a little harder. You’re often chanting about how each person must find the way for themselves, for example. It’s hard to come along after that and tell people what to believe and who to vote for.
Anyway, I liked my first Mass and may go again.
But for now, I’m getting back to my Dogen book. I haven’t felt this confident that I was on the right track with a book in a long time. Well, at least not since I was writing There Is No God. But this one may be even right-er than that!
But, like they do at St. Peter and Paul’s, I need to beg for you to put something in the donation basket as it passes by. This deeply into a book, I really have no other means of support than your kind donations. The last checks I received for previous books have long ago been sent to my landlord. That’s all gone and there are not going to be any more of those checks this year. So I thank you for your support!
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Here’s my upcoming touring schedule:
Aug. 2 9:30 AM Dogen Sangha Los Angeles 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230
Sept. 5-7 Houston Zen Center (I will probably do events in Austin around the same time)
Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland all events to be determined
Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland
Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany
Oct. 9-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany
Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany
Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany
Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany
Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 26: Lecture in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands
Oct 29: Lecture in Rotterdam, Netherlands
Oct 30: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Oct 31: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov 4-6 (or 3-5 possibly) Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK
Nov 7-8 Something in Manchester, UK (to be determined)