The Reality of Chan Practice

{Sharing} Celebration of Buddha's Birthday - Bathing the Buddha with a Beginner's Mind

During normal, pre-pandemic times, the Buddha's Birthday (also known as Vesak) is a joyous and festive occasion at the Chan Meditation Center (CMC). Perhaps comparable to Christmas in the West, the Buddha's Birthday is one of the most important, if not, the most important holiday in Buddhist cultures, a community event that is celebrated with food, entertainment, presents and ceremony. At CMC, ordinarily, there would be lots of people, a vegetarian feast, dance and musical performances, a magic show, gifts. But not this year.  Needless to say, due to the pandemic, this year, there was none of that. I was in front of my computer, chanting the liturgy in Pinyin along with the monastics and watching the monastics and some volunteers bathe the baby Buddha on behalf of those of us at home. Yet somehow, that, along with the backdrop of a hopeful and still uncertain pandemic future, made the occasion all the more poignant and special. It seemed that the absence of the decorations, food, sounds, movements, laughter and people, brought the words and meaning of this occasion into sharp focus. 
 
When I first got interested in Buddhist practice and started attending CMC, as a non-Chinese speaker, I focused on meditation. I avoided the Chinese chanting services but was curious. What were they chanting? Does chanting work? I was encouraged to attend and try it out. A monastic advised me to focus on the experience of the chanting. Don't focus on the meaning of the words but the sounds of the words. How do you feel after the service? Now, this I was able to do. If there is one thing that meditation has taught me, it is to observe my thoughts and emotions and how my body feels. I decided to treat the experience of chanting service as a kind of human experiment. Indeed, after participating in the chanting services, I noticed that my body and mind felt lighter, freer, less vexed, serene, happy. 
 
My skepticism extended to the Bathing the Buddha ritual. How is pouring water over a statue even a practice?  How efficacious can this be? Can something so simple be effective? Bathing the Buddha does not require any particular training. You simply join your palms, bow, read some words to yourself, ladle some water and pour it over the statue and bow again. Anyone can do it -- young children, the aged, the sick. And again, I tried it, and my mind felt less vexed, my body, lighter.   
 
This year, yet still again, I had my doubts. Bathing the Buddha without a statue, without water? At home, in front of my small laptop?  But I joined the ceremony and wondered, how will I feel afterward? Will I feel different? Again, I felt noticeably relaxed, happy, peaceful and was glad that I participated. I don't know why or how all this works. I just know from experience that it does. So I attend these services with the expectations that the experience will be positive, more from past experience than blind faith. 
 
Venerable Dr. Chang Hwa gave a Dharma talk on the significance of the first words of the baby Buddha, that is that all sentient beings have self-nature or Buddha nature which is pure and utmost, but mostly unseen and hidden. In order to see and practice this self-nature, one must let go of attachment. Venerable compared the Lotus Sutra and the Gatha for Bathing the Buddha to describe the Buddha's mission for being born into this world-- to disclose, to demonstrate, to help realize and to help enter Buddha nature. 
 
Venerable stated that we human beings have narrow views like frogs in a well. The Buddha came into this world to disclose the teachings and help us broaden our views and understand that everything is impermanent, empty and without existence, that craving leads to suffering, and ceasing craving leads to the ceasing of suffering.  
 
The Buddha demonstrated and helped sentient beings experience the truth of impermanence, suffering, no self and emptiness. The Buddha helped people not only see the true nature of our minds but experience it and provided methods so that we may directly see, know and enter Buddha nature. It is as if we are always under a cloud; once we practice, we suddenly see blue sky.
 
Venerable described the minds of human beings as shrouded in ignorance, much like being in a dark cave.  The Buddha says, "Come here, I have a treasure box." The Buddha opens up the box and shows us what is inside - valuable and exquisite jewels. Then the Buddha tells us that everyone has a treasure box and teaches us how to find and open the treasure box.  

 
Gatha for Bathing the Buddha
 
I now sincerely bathe all the Tathagatas,
As pure wisdom adorns the ocean of merits.
May sentient beings distance themselves from defilements,
And realize the pure Dharma body of the Tathagatas.
 
The first line of the gatha describes the Buddha's transformation body, the Buddha's human body which is manifested in order to help humans.  The second line describes the Buddha's retribution body or the Buddha's treasure which is wisdom and merit.  The third line tells us to keep away from defilements (illusory views and attachments) which we have inherited from our past lives.  The fourth line describes the pure mind, the dharma body which is without form and is the essence of Buddha nature. 
 
Venerable Dr. Chang Hwa ended the ceremony with a transfer of merit and the wish that the pandemic will end quickly and the world may soon be healed.
 
It was reassuring to see our monastics and longtime volunteers despite their masks. I look forward to returning to the Center and to a Buddha's Birthday that is filled with people, food and noise.  For now, I am home and return to what is usually a tedious chore of dishwashing that has transformed, for now, into a blissful activity. 

 
Text: CJ
Photo: Yin Ting