Changing Gathas @ Sweetwater ZC

What is a gatha?

    A gatha is a Buddhist hymn or verse. At Sweetwater ZC we chant several gathas. First thing in the morning we chant the Gatha of Atonement, before morning service we chant the Verse of the Kesa, before Dharma talks we chant the Gatha in Opening the Sutra, after Dharma talks and at the end of each practice day we chant the Four Bodhisattva Vows, before work practice we chant the Samu Gatha and before eating meals together we chant the Meal Chant.

Why change the gathas?

    On Saturday October 12, 2013 we gathered together for Study Council on Gathas in the yurt. The day after this workshop someone asked why we changed the gathas, saying, “weren’t they fine they way they were?” There is that old saying: if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. However, there was an incredible process that a group of us went through that day we changed the gathas. We not only studied four gathas in their original Chinese version, but also created new translations of them. Hopefully after reading a little about our process you will come to understand more about the study we went through, the learning that took place, and how the shared-leadership and group work is unfolding here at Sweetwater ZC. By bringing strengths, weaknesses and all that is in between to the study council, we used ingredients at hand, as Roshi Bernie Glassman might say—to make our best meal.

The Group Process

    The Study Council opened with some moments of zazen. As in all councils, we began with a check-in. Each of us expressed where we had just come from, what we were bringing to the circle, and any thoughts and/or feelings about studying and changing our gathas. The gathas we have been chanting here at Sweetwater ZC for the last 15 years or so were translated from their original Chinese characters at some point when Roshi Taizen Maezumi was at Zen Center of Los Angeles in the late 1960’s.  When Maezumi Roshi’s successor’s opened Zen centers or began practice groups, they took these gathas with them. Many of these sister temples to Sweetwater ZC already went through the process of re-translating these earlier translations to reflect contemporary understandings and styles of individual Zen centers and practice groups.

    Now it was our turn. We set out to work on four of the gathas that day. Roshi Seisen printed out several versions of how other centers had translated these gathas, Jitsujo brought English translations of the original Chinese characters, and Doshin researched many Buddhist technical terms from each gatha in Pali and Sanskrit. We started the process by setting our overall intention. We wanted the Sweetwater ZC gathas we chanted to be accessible to everyone. This original intention was to make translations so that any person that comes into the zendo, or meditation hall, for the first time will be able to grasp their meaning. However, as we got deeper into study, we realized that some technical terms, very subtle and specific to Buddhism, needed to be kept close to their roots in Buddhist philosophy. The following paragraphs outline the changes we made and some reasoning behind these changes.

    Most of the morning was spent on the Four Bodhisattva Vows, and the most changes were made to this gatha. We first changed “sentient being” to “being.” Even though the original characters 衆生 directly translate as sentient being, we decided to remove the term sentient, because we wanted to include everything that is alive, e.g. the earth, trees, air, water, etc. Removing it makes it more succinct, and does not change the overall meaning very much. Next we decided to change the translation of the character 度 from “save” to “serve.”  The character 度 is often defined and literally translated as “to save.” However, in Buddhist term 度 means to ferry, to cross over to the shore of liberation, which is Nirvana. In Zen or Mahayana traditions this term represents the bodhisattva vow of ferrying all beings over to the shore of Enlightenment. The character 度 (Jp: do) is also the same do in the Japanese term tokudo, or ceremony to become a Zen priest. We therefore decided to change “save” to “serve” in the new translation because we see this role as an act of service, whether we are a priest or a lay practitioner. Similar changes were made in Verse of the Kesa. We changed “saving all sentient beings” to “serving all beings.”

    Before we made any changes to the Four Bodhisattva Vows, the first line was: “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” By studying this line we discovered that there is no subject identified in the original Chinese version. For example, the first line could literally read as “ sentient beings without boundary vow willingly to cross over to the shore of liberation.” There is actually no subject identified in all four lines of the Four Bodhisattva Vows. Not having a subject in a sentence is consistent with Chinese culture and language, as well as very common in Zen poems, verses, and scriptural texts. Looking more closely, we also found that ‘numberless’ was a translation of 無邊, which literally means ‘without boundary.’ This idea that all beings are without boundary led us to making the subject of these vows “we” as opposed to “I”. After more than an hour, we reached a consensus that the first line of the Four Bodhisattva Vows would become: “Beings are boundless, we vow to serve.” We decided to leave off the “them” at the end of each line because the action of serving, for example, does not necessarily refer back to the subject of the sentence.

    The characters 煩惱 in the second line of the Four Bodhisattva Vows was previously translated as desire. This term was very challenging to translate for us. Desire is the translation of 欲 in Chinese and trsna in Sanskrit and tanha in Pali, which is more often defined in English as craving or thirst. While 煩惱 is generally defined as worry, anger or distress, in Buddhism this term refers to our mental afflictions and defilements, which is kilesa in Pali and samkesa in Sanskrit. We may have spent two hours trying to figure out how to best translate this one term. Some of the words on the table besides mental afflictions and defilements were worry, vexation, bindings, entanglements, mental disturbances, wrong views, knots, delusions, issues and bullshit.  Eventually we took a vote and settled on delusions, which we thought best represented the root of our mental afflictions—the delusion that we are separate. Avidya in Sanskrit or avijji in Pali, often translated as ignorance or delusion, is considered the root of the twelve linked Chain of Dependent Origination, and a root of the three poisons, i.e., greed, anger, and ignorance. In Early Buddhist scriptures his term refers to mental defilements that keep us from seeing the reality of our intrinsic interconnectedness.

    Next from the second line of the Four Bodhisattva Vows, we looked at the character 断, which is defined as ‘to cut off, end or eliminate evil’. Zen Masters are often depicted as cutting off students’ mental afflictions, entanglements, ideas or concepts with a sword of wisdom and compassion. We all seemed to agree that our vow was to transform these delusions as opposed to put an end to them. This may be because a lot of study at Sweetwater ZC is around the Five Buddha Families, which actually come from Tibetan Buddhist traditions. In any case, we often refer to these families as Five Wisdom Energies, i.e. Buddha, Vajra, Ratna, Padma, Karma. Each wisdom energy includes shadow energy. It is through practice that greed transforms into compassion, anger into wisdom, and ignorance into openness. Our understanding is that though we may ‘cut off’ a hateful idea, e.g. “I hate hate!,” the practice is transforming the energy of anger into wisdom. It maybe that we are deviating from the meaning of 断 or ‘to cut off’ in the original translation. However, for now, the second line is changed from “Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them,” to “ Delusion is inexhaustible, we vow to transform.” Discussion around this line may continue with future practice and study.

    The third line of the Four Bodhisattva Vows was previously “The Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them.” The first part of this line, 法門 無量, can be literally translated as the Dharma gates are immeasurable. Dharma gates are Buddhist teachings or doctrine; they are our entry into enlightenment. The second part of the line refers to the vow of studying the dharmas. Dharma capitalized, usually refers to the teachings of the Buddha, and dharma, with a small “d” are manifestations of our general state of reality. This studying is depicted in the character 學 means to learn, study, or undergo the threefold training of precept, meditation and wisdom, which are portions of the Buddhist eightfold path. Seeing that immeasurable is synonymous with everywhere and that gates are to entered, we translated the third line as “Dharma gates are everywhere, we vow to enter.”

    At this point we quickly decided to change the first part of the last line from “The Buddha Way is unsurpassable” to “Awakening is unsurpassable.” This first part of the last line, 佛道無上, literally means “Buddha Way is without a top,” but it can also be literally translated as “to awaken is most supreme.” It is important to note that Enlightenment or the realization of truth that Buddha experienced is assessable to all people of all faiths and belief systems, not just Buddhists, and once a person attains this realization they don’t have to become Buddhist.  The second half of this last line refers to the vow of accomplishing the Buddha way through the character 成, which literally means ‘to become Buddha.’ The way we accomplish Buddhahood or realize the truth for ourselves is through our practice. So we decided to change the last line from: “The Awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it,” to “Awakening is unsurpassable, we vow to practice.”

    In the afternoon we worked on the Verse of the Kesa, Gatha of Atonement, and Gatha in Opening the Sutra. Changes made to these gathas were more minimal than the Four Bodhisattva Vows. In the Gatha of Atonement, we decided to change “all evil karmas” to “all harmful karmas,” mostly because the word evil has a variety of Judeo-Christian connotations, as well as personal triggers for many us. Even though the characters 悪業 are often translated as evil karma, it is derived from the term akusala in Pali, akshula in Sanskrit or unwholesome actions that stem from our greed, anger, and ignorance. Our karmic actions are categorized as wholesome, unwholesome, and neutral in Early Buddhism. Akshula refers to the roots of unwholesome actions, so that it is less about making a moral judgment about unwholesome actions and more about seeing the reality of what is. The other thing we changed in Gatha of Atonement was “body, mouth and thought” to “body, speech and thought” because the character 語意 actually refers to speech, language, and words.

    In the Gatha in Opening the Sutra, we mostly studied and discussed the line that describes the Dharma as “rarely encountered.” The characters 難 遭遇 can be defined as ‘difficult to meet with or encounter.’ Yet, in terms of Buddhism, 遭遇 represents ‘one who has arrived’ (Pali: patta; Skt: prapta), or being fully grown and accomplished. It is the power of attaining everything (Pali: patti; Skt: prapti). This meeting or encounter is to enter and penetrate everything (Skt: upanipata). When Roshi Bernie was here in July he pointed out to us that the opportunity to encounter this is always right here. On the other hand, Roshi Seisen always says that—at the same time that just this is always right here, we don’t see it; we don’t see it, because of our delusions and our attachment to ideas and concepts. The first half of the gatha then became “The Dharma, incomparably profound and infinitely subtle, is always encountered, but rarely perceived, even in millions of ages, now we see it, hear it, receive and maintain it.”

    In the second half of this gatha, we mostly discussed the characters 如來, which translate as the Pali term tathagata. As Doshin explained, Tathagata is a compounded word in Pali and Sanskrit that can mean ‘one who has thus gone’ (tatha-gata), or ‘one who has thus come’ (tath-agata). Tatha (Pali) or Tattva (Sanskrit) means ‘thus’ or ‘that,’ and Tathata means ‘suchness.’  The word ‘Tathagata’ can therefore be defined as ‘one who is gone to suchness.’ This suchness refers to ‘being’ or reality as it is. Tathagata is also a name that refers to the Buddha. Our discussion led to a final agreement that the Buddha’s teaching and the Tathagata’s true meaning represent the teaching of thusness, which is none other than opening up to the unfolding of our life right here, now.

    As Roshi Seisen put it at the end of the workshop day: “Changing the gathas was a BIG DEAL!” It was also a great opportunity for us to look at the original Chinese and create something that reflected the training and practice we are doing at Sweetwater ZC these days. The above summary is an account of how I rendered this day that we changed the gathas at Sweetwater ZC. I hope that since it is on a blog that others who participated in the Study Council will freely offer their perspective, thus clarifying any important points and filling in gaps I may have missed. I also hope that others who did not participate will feel free to ask questions. Roshi Seisen is offering these Study Councils each month on a variety of topics. Everyone may see this as an opportunity to engage in the community here at Sweetwater ZC. No matter what level you are in you Zen training and practice, you are welcome to participate. The schedule and other information can found at All Gathas are listed on SWZC website.

Thanks for reading! Tina Jitsujo Gauthier

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Don’t Speak Ill of The Three Treasures

October 23, 2013 Leave a comment

The 3 Treasures, also called the 3 Jewels, are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. As Buddhists we vow to take refuge in them as our spiritual foundation, this means that we turn to them for support and guidance in our spiritual path.

Literally the Buddha refers to the founder of Buddhism; Sidartha Gautama, the Dharma refers to his particular teachings as recorded in the sutras, and the Sangha were the priests who followed him and practiced together.

Figuratively speaking, we commonly translate the ‘Buddha’ treasure to refer to the awakened nature of all beings. The ‘Dharma’ treasure means any or all teachings that we get from those who are awakened, and the ‘Sangha’ treasure is the community of people who practice together, both priest and lay.
We also interpret these treasures as aspects of ourselves. We embody all 3 treasures at once since we already possess the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha in our true selves.

By sitting in zazen we take refuge in the Buddha treasure, by listening to Dharma talks or reading books we take refuge in the Dharma treasure. In sharing our practice with our Dharma brothers and sisters we take refuge in the Sangha treasure. When we do any or all of these we heal our separation and suffering. No matter what we are struggling with or questioning, we can always take refuge in one or more of these treasures to gain insight, reassurance or support that can help us in our path.

So if we talk about the errors and faults of these treasures it’s important for us to appreciate how serious and profound a statement this is, and how important it is to be thoughtful and present. They mean so much to so many people, that we want to be careful and respectful.
This can mean talking about a particular teachers issues or actions, being critical of a different Buddhist denomination or sect, or gossip about the issues within our own community. And since we see ourselves as these treasures, we break this precept if we disparage ourselves in any way, or harm ourselves, which is the worst case scenario.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s important to point out what’s wrong or inappropriate with a teacher or community. This is why this precept should never be used to discourage people from speaking up about wrongdoing or abuse, which unfortunately, has happened before.

In this case it would go against the precept to be silent. We honor the treasures are when we speak up about what doesn’t look or feel right to us and we are all responsible for taking care in this way, even if it means saying painful things that none else wants to hear.

So an essential part of our practice is developing our ability to discern when we are talking about our teachers or community for selfish reasons while also being courageous enough to speak up when something is really wrong.

In our Sangha we emphasize compassionate communication, using I statements and taking responsibility when sharing our pain. We use horizontal structures such as ‘council’ and non-violent communication to empower everyone to share difficult things with support and openness without blaming others or gossiping.

It takes a lot of intention and determination to cultivate a culture of communication that is open hearted and willing to address problems and mixed feelings. But it’s essential for a healthy Sangha to have the means to express grievances and issues. More often, than not, we are blessed with wonderful Dharma brothers and sisters and teachers who are here to support us through the worst and best of our times.

So if we must speak ill of these treasures we can check our motives and our practice to make sure we are acting with as much integrity as we can.
It is a never ending practice to use right speech, and so we can count on breaking this precept regularly as we continue to grow. Sometimes just trying to be aware of ourselves while we are complaining or gossiping about these treasures is as good as it gets. But if we can cultivate this awareness then we have the chance to start taking responsibility for our feelings and judgments.

Taking care of our ourselves, our teachers and our community is the greatest gift we can offer the Dharma. Taking responsibility for how we talk about the Dharma is our chance to care for the teachings that have helped us in so many ways, ways we may not even realize.

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Summer Doings and Comings and Goings

Dear Sweetwater Members,

I hope that everyone’s summer went well. For those of us in San Diego, I’m sure that it is hard to believe with this week’s heat that summer is coming to an end and fall is just around the corner. Nonetheless, here we are at Labor Day weekend.

As many of you know, we had a very active summer here at Sweetwater. The season started with shukke tokudo, or priest ordination, for Richard Kozan Cummings in May. That was quickly followed by the start of Ango (90 days of intensive practice) that culminated with a Hossen (Head Trainee ceremony) for Robert (Bobby) Chowa Werner in July and another Hossen for Kozan in early August. As of this week, we have returned to our normal interim schedule. (For current daily schedule, click here Daily Schedule)

In all of this hustle and bustle, we have had the pleasure of welcoming 2 new members to the Sweetwater Zen Center Membership, Gerre and Jill!!  I will let them introduce themselves below. We have included pictures so that you can say “Hi” when you see them around SWZC or around town.

“I’m Jill, an ex-hippie retired craftsperson living in south San Diego with my husband Bill and dog Abby.  I’m old (73) and I’m new (to Zen).  If I haven’t met you, please say hello when you see me — the one with curly gray hair.”

“My name is Gerre, and I feel very blessed to have found such a spiritual gem as Sweetwater Zen Center. My life began with my Irish parents in England and then later in Vancouver, Canada. I seem drawn to the south as first I moved to Washington State with my husband and now San Diego, and for the future we are looking at Ecuador or the Baja for a possible winter home. My life is very much caught up with my 14 year old daughter who is a gift beyond words for me. We adopted her from China when she was only 8 months old and I have loved every part of our life together so far. I thank all of you for creating such a loving and accepting space here at the center and I look forward to my journey with all of you.”

In addition to welcoming these new members, we also had some people say goodbye. Rosaleen Etsudo McCormick is taking some time away from SWZC to explore other spiritual paths that may be able to support her in ways she was having difficulty finding in Zen practice.  We wish her well on her journey!

As well as these comings and goings, some congratulations are in order.  Tina Jitsujo Gauthier completed her PhD in Religious Studies and Kristen Saranam Gorenflo completed her Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Counseling at the end of this last school year. Also, Zendo Aarau, which is run by Sensei Sara Kokyo Wilde in Switzerland, successfully settled into a new location.

I look forward to seeing many of you soon and continuing to enjoy the wonderful community and practice energy that we have here at Sweetwater Zen Center!

Ryan Ando Lennon

Steward of the Membership Circle

Some Definitions – A Small Glossary

October 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Often there are terms used in the practice of Zen that need some defining. Here at Sweetwater Zen Center you’ll often hear us say:

Zazen – Zazen is Zen meditation. You’ll find much more information in the Zen Practice area of our website:

Council – a group practice of  listening and speaking from the heart. We generally practice council each Wednesday evening, and during Sesshin. You can learn more about Council and how we practice it at:

Sesshin is a Zen intensive retreat. Find out more at:

Jikido is the timekeeper for Zen practice.

You Didn’t Miss It After all!

October 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Ever missed one of Seisen Roshi’s dharma talks, or one by Eko? How about a special event like a talk by Bernie Glassman or Genro Roshi?

There is a good selection of talks on Youtube, as the one below demonstrates:

Just go to and in the search box, type: sweetwater zen center

You can choose from there.

Also, just in case you missed it, there are podcasts or audio recordings of many of the dharma talks on our website.

From the home page choose: Resources

Then choose Dharma talks and you’ll be presented with a selection.

Or use this link:

Generally speaking just click on the link you want, and assuming your speakers are on, you’ll hear the talk.

Amazing what we can do with tech these days.

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Tina “Jitsujo” Gauthier Ordained

September 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Tina “Jitsujo” Gauthier, shown here to the left of Sesien Roshi, was ordained as a priest at SWZC. Her ordination took place in SWZC’s Zendo.

Before the ceremony, Kokyo and Jitsujo got ready in the gaitan (entrance) to the Buddha Hall.

Jitsujo lives at the Zen Center of Los Angeles and is often found at SWZC, attending sesshins and studying with Seisen. Here she is after the ceremony with friends from ZCLA.

Tina’s family was also present, sharing in her joy.

Following the ceremony.

A Ph.d. student at University of the West’s Religious Studies program, she is also an artist. You can see some of her work at her website, – take a look.

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Robe Changing Ceremony for Kokyo

August 1, 2012 Leave a comment

SWZC celebrated Kokyo’s (Sara Wildi) Transmission at a robe changing ceremony (Dene) on Sunday, July 29, 2012. The actual Transmission ceremony (Denbo) was held in private, as is the custom, at the beginning of the weekend on Friday.

Seisen, decked out in what she called her ‘party robes,’ conducted the ceremony; the love between teacher and student was obvious.

Kokyo receives her gold robe from Seisen

Among the guests was Elder Bob “Sokan” Lee,who served Precepter for Kokyo’s transmission. Sokan is a Sensei as well as a retired pediatrician and family therapist. He reminisced about meeting Kokyo years ago when she picked him up at an airport and drove him to the Mountain Center Zen Center.

Koyko and Elder & Sensei Bob “Sokan” Lee

Following the ceremony the community joined in the Meal Gatha…

Meal Gatha with part of the community

… then enjoyed a luncheon celebration.

Kokyo & Eko share a laugh following the ceremony

Congratulations to both Kokyo and to Seisen!

Photos by Kristin Gorenflo of Serotonin Photograph

Categories: Transmission