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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

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , , , , ,

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

Sensei Eko

October 27, 2011 1 comment

Sweetwater Zen Center is very happy to announce Herb’s transmission as Sensei Eko. His transmission name is Ein for Eternal Circle. Helping Seisen start SWZC back in 1999,  Herb has been a long time driving force for our Zen Center and the greater community here in San Diego.

On October 9th, 2011 the official changing of the robes “dene” ceremony took place with great attendance. Even the Great Master Zoe made an appearance.

Congratulations to our newest Sensei Eko for the many years of practice and the more to come!

Categories: Meditation, Shiho, Transmission

Being One with All Buddhas in the Abundance spheres

Sweetwater Zen Center 2011 Fundraising Letter

“Being One with All Buddhas in the Abundance spheres, extending generosity, perfection of both body and mind appears.”

At the Sweetwater Zen Center, we chant this Gata on Abundance every Sunday.  We want the energy and power of such abundance to inspire this year’s fundraising.  The universe is giving us everything we need, so please join us in celebrating our full life by donating to the Sweetwater Zen Center.

Since we depend upon your generosity to keep going and maintain our beautiful temple, we want to share some of the wonderful things that are happening due to your support.

While zazen is our main practice, the Sweetwater Zen Center has grown over the years into a diverse community, holding the space for many home-based programs as well as outreach opportunities for spiritual and personal growth.  For instance we continue to focus on communication techniques through workshops on depression and weekly communication groups such as Non-Violent Communication and “Council Practice” (sharing from the heart).  These are essential both for our intentional community and for our Zen practice and most of them are offered free of charge.

We offer a wonderful winter celebration as our annual New Years program at the end of the winter intensive period with a home-dyed sand Mandala in the yurt and fire ceremony.

We have also begun taking meditation to the streets of downtown San Diego each month for day-long sitting practices (or zazenkais) which includes offering meals to the homeless population. Also this October we are very excited to host and participate in a four-day Bearing Witness Street Retreat with Genro Roshi.

Sweetwater Zen Center carries your compassionate donations through volunteering efforts to prison meditation, children’s outreach and hospice work. Please participate by giving what you can to aid the center’s outreach services. For sustainability we keep visions of installing a second grey-water reuse system to maintain the beautiful garden to be as green as possible. Since our membership has grown in the past year, so too has the need to meet a larger capacity for a Zen student dormitory allowing overnight stays for sesshin.

Whether it’s just one of the $20 bills the bank teller just handed you or perhaps it’s the $300 rebate you received in the mail, your charity keeps our practice healthy and the legacy of our lineage thriving. For $500 donation we will be honored to display your name on a beautiful tile plaque at the entrance to the Zendo.

We rely on your compassionate giving to accomplish so many wonderful things for our community. All these practices, both traditional and new, have made our community one of the most harmonious practice spaces in Southern California.
We aim to raise $10,000 by the end of this year. Please give as soon as you can and you will see it come back ten fold.

Please use the paypal button below to donate. If you would like to send a check, please make it out to Sweetwater Zen Center and send to 2727 Highland Ave, National City, CA, 91950.

In Gratitude from,

The SWZC Annual Fundraising Team

Chudo and Jisho’s Jukai

On August 3rd, 2011, Margy (Jisho) Brookes and Indulis (Chudo) Tupesis took Jukai from Seisen Saunders Roshi.

Jukai is a formal public ceremony where a lay practicing student takes vows to follow the 16 Bodhisattva precepts. Within SWZC’s tradition, those precepts are the Three Treasures, Three Tenants and Ten Grave Precepts.

This rite of passage requires a precept class, hand-writing the lineage and sewing a rakusu.

Jisho, Chudo and Seisen

Congratulations to Jisho and Chudo!

Categories: Jukai, Meditation, Precepts

Summer Intensive Recap

At first my breathing was my breathing,
Then my breathing became like a clock trying to measure and control time.
Later my breathing returned and forgot it and relaxed.
It took a week.
So it goes.
My experience:

The practice period allowed me to deepen my zen practice and to connect with myself more.
After this experience I feel more enthusiastic about my life. I honestly appreciate each moment much more. I have a great appreciation for MY LIFE as it is.
Thanks SWZC for providing a space where we can come together and support each other.
Roosevelt Roshin Ulloa
Winston missed jukai; is working in the garden.
This summer practice period showed me the spaciousness  of quiet and subtleness.  I have never spent so much time sitting in one spot. It was a consistent pushing myself of to see where I am except I did not need to push at all. My drive and vigor are renewed as I am set, yet again, to make the most out of every moment. This is really what I get out of deep practice periods. This stronger perseverance I take everywhere is my present to myself.

Summer Intensive Training has begun!

Summer training began with a six day sesshin from the 21st to the 26th. The Zen Center looks beautiful from the continued samu practice of pulling the weed’s seeds. The Rock Garden dedicated to Maezumi Roshi also received diligent work practice in realigning the railroad tie borders. Dharma talks were given by Seisen Roshi and Dharma Holders: Herb Deer and Kyoshin Velez.

A special note, the Gate of Sweet Nectar service is being held in the Yurt at 9:30am for the Summer Intensive. The Buddha Hall was converted into a temporary dormitory until August.

To see the Daily Schedule for Summer Intensive Training, click on the menu-bar page next to Contact.