In my efforts to establish, maintain, reestablish and re-maintain a meditation practice – a life practice based on meditation, really – I have found that the daily devotional is helpful and adds a dimension of delight to the process.
Though it has little in common with our culture’s general idea of a “devotional,” the Buddhist version of this practice does much to create an atmosphere of calm, focused attention that is supportive both of the meditation time on the cushion and of the efforts to bring this state of mind to bear during the process of daily life activities.
For someone trying to start a practice without much experience in a temple or meditation center, it may be helpful to outline how this “devotional” works for me. Of course, this is my adaptation and reflects my personal experiences, so it’s just one model to help in developing a practice that suits your temperament and experiences.
An altar is a good place to begin. My altar is a simple bamboo table with a few items that mean something to me arranged on it. The traditional Zen altar has a Buddha-rupa (a statue of the Buddha usually), a small container of rice, a candle, an incense holder, a bell, a vase of flowers, and perhaps a relic, a piece of wood, or some other esthetically pleasing natural element. Any other elements that connect you with the notion of larger spiritual practice are appropriate.
I light my candle and incense to begin, and offer an incense chant borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh, which contains the same elements as the traditional offering but with expanded content that makes them more meaningful for us: (the / represents sounding the bell)
In gratitude we offer this incense to all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas throughout space and time;/
May it be as fragrant as Earth herself, reflecting our careful efforts, our wholehearted awareness, and fruit of understanding slowly ripening;/
May we and all beings be companions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas;/
May we awaken from forgetfulness and realize our true home./
This I follow with the traditional verse on karma: (each of the rest are repeated three times)
All my ancient twisted karma,/ from beginning-less greed, anger, and delusion,/
Born of body, speech and mind,/ I now fully avow (or atone)./
Then a verse from a friend which seems to catch up the idea of social karma for me:
Now I will feel the old/ Force of forests held/ In each remaining tree./
The next is some lines based on Chogyam Trungpa’s recommendations for personal vows, but really reflects the things that I need to remind myself of in my vows. I usually mentally remind myself not to take the dualism in these statements literally:
I vow to pursue Bodhichitta and develop a sense of gentleness;/
I promise not to blame others but to take their pain on myself;/
I promise always to put others before self./
I end with the Soto version of the three great vows, in Japanese:
Shu jo mu hen sai gan do;/
Bon no mu gen sai gan dan;/
Ho mon murrio san gan gakku;/
Butsu do/ mu gen sai gan jo./
[As I don’t seem to have these written down, I’m relying on memory for the spelling – it’s 12th Century Japanese, so don’t try to translate! In English, it’s rendered as “Beings are innumerable, I vow to save them; Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to extinguish them; Dharma teachings are immeasureable, I vow to master them; the Buddha’s Way is endless, I vow to follow it to the end.”]
Then bows to the Three Treasures: (Buddha)/ (Dharma)/ (Sangha)/.
After sitting I usually recite some version of the dedication of merit and do the three treasure bows again.
In English, the Soto dedication of merit is: “We pray that this merit universally pervade all existence and that we and all / sentient beings achieve this understanding. We pay homage to all / Buddhas of the past present and future, the /World-Honored One, /Great Bodhisattvas, /Great /Heart of Wisdom.”