Bernie’s Rap on the Gate of Sweet Nectar at ZCLA, Part 1

This talk was given at ZCLA at Roshi Bernie Glassman’s workshop on the Gate liturgy in April 2015. It was transcribed by Scott Harris.


We are chanting my translation (with Maezumi Roshi) and adaptation (with Maezumi’s encouragement) of the Japanese Soto Zen liturgy Kan Ro Mon; Ro actually, literally means dew. But in the Buddhist sense, it has the same feeling as “nectar.” Gate of Sweet Nectar—so it’s a special kind of “dew” that helps you to realize the oneness of life—that is to appreciate your spouse. And Mon just means a collection of words, or phrases, or verse.

I trained here under my teacher, Maezumi Roshi from ’66 to ’80. And I trained with him about six blocks away from ’64 to ’66. There was a period where every evening we chanted the Kan Ro Mon in Japanese. So we didn’t know what it said.

And somehow I fell in love with it. And I left here to start the Zen Community of New York. I chose New York to start the Zen Community of New York, because they sort of fit together, and also I’m from New York. So it was a logical thing. But before I went, I sat down with him. I had been doing a lot of translations with him over the years. I was his first student to do koan study, so we translated all the koans in sort of two systems, so about 600 koans. Because about the time I started, he didn’t like the translations that existed. And I would memorize them, come in, say. “What are you talking about?” Then he would say the Japanese, then translate it for me, and I would write it down.

I did a lot of different translations with him. But we had never done the Kan Ro Mon translation. And as I say, I sort of fell in love with it, without knowing what it said. So I asked him to work with me to translate it. And he did.

So we translated the Kan Ro Mon, and we used the phrase “Gate of Sweet Nectar” for the title. And then he also said to me that this particular liturgy dates back to the time of Shakyamuni Buddha.

One of his Shakyamuni’s disciples, Magdalena, came up to him and said, “Hey boss, [Because Shakyamuni Buddha is our boss] I had a dream, and in that dream I saw my mother hanging upside down in the lowest region of Hell—fires all around, and whatever. What can I do?”

And Shakyamuni said, “Chant this.” And he gave him a chant. Now it wasn’t like this. It was much smaller. And if you want to get a little bit of a gist of what it was see D.T. Suzuki’s book Manual of Zen which has a version of this. And you’ll see it’s very short. I don’t know if we have any records of what it was that Shakyamuni gave Magdalena.

When we did the translation, Maezumi Roshi said, you know, this starts off in the days of Shakyamuni, and in later days it was changed to include a lot of Tantric stuff.

So Roshi said to me, “You can change it dramatically.” Because he had always been saying to me that “your goal is going to be to take the Dharma that you grasp from me, and put it into this day and age.” He’d say to me, “I’m Japanese. I can’t make it American.” That’s what he’d say to me—over and over. So make things relevant to the day and age, which I tried to do. Make whatever changes you want to do.

So what I did within this text is take some things from Judaism. In Judaism there’s a very important prayer called Shema Yisrael—Listen, O Israel. That word, Shema, is similar to the word attention, in the Gate, in my opinion. So that’s very important. Everything I’m going to say to you now, and tomorrow is my opinion, man. I may change my opinion tomorrow about what I say today. So just take it as my opinion. Don’t take anything I say as truth, or right, or wrong, or whatever. It’s Bernie’s opinion; as of whatever day this is, whatever time this is.

OK, but in my opinion that Shema and that attention (in the Gate) are the same. And in the Shema there’s some words that are written in what is called a mezuzah. A mezuzah is put on doorsteps of Jewish homes. So when you go in, you’ve got to kiss that thing, man. Otherwise you’re gonna be zapped by God. So you better kiss that thing. And there’s also some things you wrap around your arm, and your head, and whatever. There’s a little box, and in that box is these same words. So I put those words in the Gate.

So when you chant The Gate of Sweet Nectar, you should know that God is not going to zap you, because you’re chanting those words. And I’ll point them out when we get to them.

I also love metta meditation. If you’ve done any Insight Meditation work, you’ve done metta meditation, but it’s throughout the Therevada world. So I have metta meditation in there.

There’s another big piece that comes from The Psalms. And it was put in here; I mean I got it from this Rabbi that’s sitting over here, Don Singer. He’s a Rabbi, and been involved with us. We met, I don’t know forty some odd years ago. Yeah, we met a long time ago. At any rate, those words are from the Psalms, right? That’s the end of the Gate, the last four lines. And I think Shlomo might have sang them. No? You started that?

Rabbi Singer: Well I put it in the English.

Bernie: You put it in the English. He did it in the Hebrew? The tune was who?

Rabbi Singer: That’s from a traditional tune. [sings] This is our light. The length of our days. Day and night we meditate . . .

Bernie: So that’s part of the Psalms, see. So that’s in there too.

Rabbi Singer: And Shema—I know it’s your opinion, but it’s the truth. It is in the imperative form. Listen.

Bernie: Yeah, I know. But I never use the word truth. I mean I stopped using the word truth, false, good, and bad. I only deal in opinions. And anything anybody says to me is an opinion. And what I realized, only a year ago, is that opinions is the language of nonduality. So if anybody asks you what’s nonduality, you can tell them that only dealing in opinions is dealing in nonduality, that is because opinions don’t have values. They’re not good. They’re not bad. They’re opinions. So this is maybe a little off the beat, but an important thing—you know the image, when climbing to the top of the mountain? And so for any tradition, this image can be used. What’s the language at the top of the mountain? You see this is a non-dual place. So I already gave you the answer. The language up there is your opinion. So if we can talk about opinions, we’re all on the top of the mountain. And you are kicked off right away if you say something is good, or bad, or . . .

[Audience laughs]

So it’s simple. Stay out of duality, and just share opinions, and talk. So up there it’s a lot of discussion, but it’s all different opinions. You could have gotten up there through Zen, through Judaism, through Christianity, through Islam, through Atheism. You could have gotten up there so many ways. And you share your opinions, which you do. You drink coffee, you smoke cigars, and you share your opinions. It’s a wonderful life.

[Audience laughs]

Who could ask for anything more? And you can do it right away. See, all you have to do is stop using dual words. And stop projecting, like this guy up here, because he’s sitting on a chair knows some kind of truth. No! I’m sharing my opinion.

So the history, we added different things. Also within the history, as I said, it starts off by somebody wanting to help his poor mother who had died, and was now suffering in Hell. It then moves on top be a liturgy to give support to ancestors—to everybody who had died. It then moves on—and this for me is a critical shift—it then moves on to be a liturgy for all those who have died that nobody knows had died. You know, there are homeless people freezing to death in the winter, especially in the East—nobody knows.

In those days there were people dying in wars. And the news wouldn’t get back home until a year or so later. So there are all kinds of people dying that nobody knew about. So this liturgy was also for them. Because nobody knew, and so nobody was doing any liturgy. So this was for them.

When I started working with it, I made another shift. I started chanting this liturgy for all aspects of society and of myself that I’m not taking care of. Not a big shift from all those people that were dying that nobody knew about, and nobody was doing services for. See? But an important shift, because it’s now for all of my aspects that I’m not taking care of, and all of society’s aspects. So I made the shift of it originally being a liturgy for only dead people. And the Soto sect in particular is full of liturgy for dead people. Most of the liturgy that I learned was liturgy for dead people. I don’t know maybe they were a patriarch, not matriarchs—now we do, we include the matriarch—but it was all for dead people. I wanted it to be for live people too. For those aspects of ourselves and society that aren’t being served.

So that’s what this liturgy is about. And with that in mind I made different shifts in the wording.

About twenty-five years ago, I did my first Street Retreat. I started a practice I called Street Retreats, where I went to live in the streets. And people came with me. And I think I’ve done my last Street Retreat, because my body says, “Bernie, what the hell are you doing?!” And you know, I ache for about a week after it. So three years ago was my last. But then a year and a half ago, I went to do another. So that was my last. So, we’ll see.

But on that first Street Retreat, every day we gathered in a circle, and Hans Hokensen was on that. And he said, “You know, I think we should dedicate the merit of this retreat [He had never chanted this.] to all Buddhas.” And I said well, that’s a nice idea. And somebody else said, “But we should also include all creations.”

Those are two lines inside of this liturgy. I was flabbergasted. They had never seen the liturgy. And they’re chanting lines within it.

So from that day on—and as I say, twenty-five years of Street Retreats—whenever I did a Street Retreat, we always chanted this liturgy. And many of the people that have started Street Retreats in my lineage always include the Gate. A guy in Belgium does Street Retreats all the time, and he does this. And Michell Dubois . . . , a man in France, we were on a Street Retreat in Cologne—the city of Cologne, in Germany. We were doing a Street Retreat, and he was on it, and Frank De Waele  was there, Cathrine Pages, a bunch of . You don’t know these people, but it’s OK. They’re all members of the Zen Peacemaker Order. And if you join the Zen Peacemaker Order, you will meet all these people. Because that is becoming an international sangha of friends, or people that will meet each other at different places, and share things. And they’re wonderful people all around. If you go visit those countries, you can stay at their places. It’s a good deal, man.

Anyway, we were chanting this. One day we were chanting it, and Michell says, “I’m gonna start a soup kitchen.” It came out of this. Because you’ll see, this Gate, we’re gonna invite everybody. So he said, “I’m gonna start a soup kitchen” in Paris. And he started one for the homeless. And the first week he served five hundred people out of his kitchen, out of Cathrine’s kitchen. And that soup kitchen is still going. It serves about three hundred people in a setting. And it came out of chanting the Gate of Sweet Nectar.

Here, each week the folks are chanting the Gate of Sweet Nectar, and bringing food to food pantries.

People bring food, put it on the alter, and that food goes to the food pantries. So Michell did the same thing, only for 3-5 hundred homeless people a week. He’s one of the most disorganized people you could meet. He’s a wonderful, sweet guy. And just imagine him going to the markets. And his grandfather had been the chef to King Louis. So he has that in his genes. He’s a wonderful cook, but so disorganized you can’t believe that anything would come out. But he goes through to the open markets the day before, and he gets second-hand stuff. But gourmet stuff, and he makes gourmet meals. So he’s serving gourmet meals to 3-5 hundred homeless folks a week. And it comes out of this.

So that’s a little bit of the history and flavor of this particular liturgy.

Once we started to do Bearing Witness retreats at Auschwitz—we now do that in various places, but the first of that was done in Auschwitz about twenty years ago. We do that annually. But it was obvious that this had to be chanted, because we’re inviting all of the hungry spirits, all of the unsatisfied, all of those that had been forgotten. There are so many that died at Auschwitz that nobody even knows about. And so this became a standard liturgy to be chanted at Auschwitz. And it’s translated into Polish, German, French, Italian, a number of languages. And that song that you heard at the beginning, that’s by Krishna Das. Krishna Das is a wonderful—in my opinion, he’s the best Kirtan singer. And he’s a wonderful guy. And I asked him to take that whole beginning in this Gate, and put it into a Kirtan tune. And he did the first four lines. I’ll point it out. We chant it, what he used to work with. But he only did the first four lines. But he has sung that at Auschwitz. And it’s amazing how . . . Yeah, he sang it at some of my wife Jishu’s ashes at this tree in a huge field, that’s where they had dumped a lot of human ashes. And this tree has like three trees coming out of one. And so when we first put it there, this was sung for her, and many times after. Just two years ago Krishna Das was there. He did the service, and he sang. We have that video on the website.

What I’ve done many times—it’s not done here—is I’ve used his . . . Can you sing it? Lead us in the tune?

Audience: [Sings]

Calling out to hungry hearts

Everywhere through endless time

You who wander, you who thirst

I offer you this heart of mine

Calling all you hungry spirits

Everywhere through endless time

Calling all you hungry hearts

All the lost and left behind

Gather round and share this meal

Your joy and sorrow, I make it mine

Roshi Egyoku: So that it of the last line should be them. We haven’t gotten around to changing it.

Bernie: So, I’m going to use a word that I hate. So I will contradict myself as soon as I say it. The tradition is to have that song appear as it appears in this. And tradition is a word that I dislike, because I think it’s a cop-out. It’s saying that what you learned from your teacher, or your parent, or someone, that that’s the right thing. And in my opinion there aint no right thing. And I believe in not knowing—coming to something without any ideas. So if I come that way, I can’t call on tradition. It doesn’t make any sense. And I have to look at it fresh, and bear witness to what’s happening.

But traditionally this appears where it is in your book. But I’ve done many times, put it before the liturgy starts. So here if you go to a place where they do the service, and if they have the money, they have a big bell. And they are hitting the big bell to call everybody to come in to do the liturgy. Instead of that big bell, I sing this song. I’m calling everybody in, because I like that feeling. And at Auschwitz, same thing—we chant that until everybody has come together, and then we start.

So it’s just another variation on a theme. As you know, it’s very important to have variations on a theme. And I encourage anybody, everybody that’s going to use this liturgy to start with something . . . I mean there’s a subset of you who are going to be trained how to do all the bells and whistles, and stuff like that—and shaking of stuff. But I also encourage—adapt. Do what feels good for you.

So for example, my wife Eve Marko, in her Zendo, they don’t use a ryoban. A ryoban, it means the bosses. And it comes out of a monastic model. And the people that go on a ryoban are the various bosses of the place—the big shots. And if they don’t have enough big shots, somebody goes around and says, “You, go on the ryoban. Be a big shot.” But in a big monastery there are specific things—the head of the kitchen, tenzo, is one of the big shots. Godo Roshi, the head of training in the meditation hall, that’s another big shot. The head of the guest—Yudo—I don’t know if Yudo is here, but that kind of position, the head of the guests, he’s on the ryoban.

One side is sort of the administrative heads. The head accountant, that’s really the boss of the monastery. The Abbott, they come and go. The guy who handles all the finance and whatever, he’s forever. He’s got all the money, so he’s really important. He’s on there. And then on one side is all the executive types, administrative types. And of course Ino is one of those positions, because they’re the leaders of the chanting. They’re the heads of the liturgy of the monastery. Then on the other side is heads of the training. It’s sort of different. The administrative heads are there for a long time. It’s a job, man. You’re there for twenty, thirty, forty years. The trainees are there for three months. There’s a head trainee and different trainees.

So that’s called the ryoban. And that’s a form. In your head if you’re using that form, you put people you want to honor. And you think through, who do I want to honor? It doesn’t have to be the bosses. You could put kids on the ryoban. You could find a homeless person, bring him in, and put him on the rioban. Be creative.

So that’s one way. My wife, Eve Marko, in her center she does it in a circle. She does this liturgy. I don’t know, maybe it’s because she never ordained, and she doesn’t get into all these things. She’s learned about them all because unfortunately she’s married to me. But also when she was studying she learned about all these things. And she was our head Doan. A Doan is generally in charge of the bells and stuff, drums, things like that.

I want to introduce the word MC. Master of Ceremonies, that’s a term used in the Episcopal churches, many churches—Master of Ceremonies. And here the MC is really Roshi Egyoku. That person knows all the positions, and is directing people how to do them. And they can change. You know, she can change how they want it done. And that’s common throughout the world, that there’s somebody that’s . . . In the theater it would probably be the production person. I don’t know what the equivalent is. So the fifteen people that we’re training today, that are gonna train in these different positions, what’s very important is that they also understand everything, which is that they become MCs.

And I would like to see that we have within the Zen Peacemaker Order a number of MCs. So that when there’s something important that’s happening, and the place, wherever it is, in Iceland doesn’t know—we can send an MC there, and he’ll tell you. That’s very common in Japan. You don’t have any big event without bringing in an MC. The local priest doesn’t know how to do all these things. They’re not trained in that way. So MCs become very important.

And within our lineage, I think I fill that role, as an MC. And also Egyoku does, and I think Enkyo does. Not too many people are trained in all of the things that we know. Of course there’s a lot more that we don’t know. So anyway, for those that are going to train in positions, train in positions but also keep an eye open for the whole thing, including the officiant’s role.

OK, we’re ready to start. So, I was talking about different forms—so, it can be done in a circle at Auschwitz. What we do is we make the tree the alter, and we form a semi-circle around the tree. That’s the format generally. But the form and the format is what feels right for the place. And I’m just throwing out a few different formats, to say that I like the idea of being creative, and think of new things. Another thing that I like that they do—well, not all the time, but what they’ve done a lot at my wife’s center—is where you saw the officiant going up and blessing some food. They have kids with boxes of candy going around and feeding everybody in the room during that part. And the kids love it of course. And the parents love it of course. Everybody loves it. These kids come in and they’re feeding them sweets and different stuff.

But anyway, you can see the creativity that can be brought to it. It’s nice to know a traditional way. And it’s nice to know that there can be variations. I should say of course you know there are going to be variations. It’s nice to feel free to deal with variations.

Jishu, my previous wife who died. She used to tell me a lot that she loved doing services when I wasn’t there. Because when I was there she was nervous that she was going to make a mistake, and I would yell at her or correct her. She wanted to be free. If she did it, what’s the difference? It was a little different. But I was very rigid in those days. And that can be harmful.

So the first thing that we chant . . . Well, we’ve already talked about Krishna Das. Let me just point out, if you skip to “Supplication for the Raising of the Bodhi Mind,” So page 6, “Supplication for the Raising of the Bodhi Mind,” and you see where it says, “Raising the Bodhi mind, the supreme meal is offered.” That’s the part that Krishna Das wrote as The Hungry Hearts. So if you read this calling out to hungry hearts, then read that first . . . I asked him to do the whole thing, man. And he got as far as the first four. He’s a performer. He performs all around the world, and he always sings this. And he always tells the story that, “I did it for Bernie, and then I gave it to him, and he says’ ‘Well how long till I have to rest?’” And he still hasn’t done the rest.

And then we’re chanting . . . It says, “Invocation for the Manifestation of the Ten Buddhas.” Three, (I’m gonna count them) four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve. So there’s twelve here, and there’s one more that’s going to be added—the mother of the Buddhas. Can you imagine that I fell into that trap, that old trap of leaving out the mother of the Buddhas? I chose the term that I wanted to have here. It’s a common thing to chant the names of ten Buddhas. I chose ten, but it seems like there’s twelve. Or whatever. But I’m lucky I have wonderful female Dharma Successors that are always catching those errors. So this will be in there soon.

Roshi Egyoku: Well, we do have a lot of Prajnaparamita, but with a qualifier. I don’t know that we want to leave her at the end. So we might move her further up on the list.

Bernie: Because mothers generally are at the beginning.

Roshi Egyoku: Let’s take our rightful place.

Bernie: Yeah. But for me, what’s important relating to this, is that in my opinion, or how I would like to see this done is that you are . . . What’s the word we’re saying? Invocating? Or inviting—that you are inviting that aspect of you that is iconicized by these things. So when you say being one with Mahaprajnaparamita, what you’re doing is you’re manifesting yourself as Mahaprajnaparamita.

There is a practice that I know of . . . that takes thirty days to chant this. And during that time . . . So at this period they are sitting to become one with Buddha, Dharma, Sangha . . . And that’s like a week. So this part is a week. We’re asking you do it very quickly, man. When you’re chanting, it’s not that you’re paying homage to something outside of you. You’re recognizing that part of yourself.

Having said that, I would like to just acknowledge change, because these are all aspects of ourselves that we feel good about. I would like to have some shadow aspects in this. Because what we want to do in this service is become the whole thing, man. And the whole thing is not just the good things we like. And in fact we’re going to do invitations later on. But this beginning, we want feel like we are the whole thing, and now we’re going to do this liturgy. OK.

So I’ve never done it, but it would be interesting to do a Sesshin, where each day you’re trying to manifest as one of these qualities.

OK, so now here we are. We’re the whole thing, the whole Indra’s net. And then we start. So it’s sort of interesting if you think about it. Here we are, the whole thing. And now what’s going to happen is we’re going to invite everyone to enter me—enter my practice circle. Or another way of putting it—I’m going to invite myself, that’s the whole thing, to be all of these different pieces. And I’m going to delineate all these different families. And . . . used the five Buddha families of the mandala. The mandala being the circle of life. It was divided; there was a division of that whole circle into five energies.

So this liturgy is going to invite all of the denizens of those five energies into where? Into me. Starting off with me being all of that, but now I’m going to delineate all these different parts of myself. And in order to do that, you need to have a certain amount of energy, and all kinds of stuff.

So first I’m going to chant some Dharanis, so that I get all that energy, man—I can do all of that. No sweat, as they say.

So first I sort of describe what’s going to happen. We’re raising the bodhi mind. In a way, if I manifest this out of all these different things, then that’s raising the bodhi mind. If I also am feeding everybody, and teaching everybody . . . And you’ll see included in this is the feeding of everybody, and the teaching of everybody. And I’m that everybody. Then that’s all raising the bodhi mind. So what it’s saying is if I’m having raising the bodhi mind, the supreme meal. And the supreme meal is the raising the bodhi mind. The supreme meal is manifesting as everything, not leaving anything out.

It’s not so simple, things we leave out, because we’re afraid of them, or we don’t like them, all kinds of reasons. The supreme meal is offered to all of the hungry spirits throughout space and time.

All of you hungry spirits in the ten directions, please gather here. Sharing your distress, I offer you this food, hoping it will resolve your thirst and hungers.

Now one thing I did, because I sort of liked this so much, this particular liturgy, is I made a koan system out of it. And every line was a koan. And there are (I’m happy to say), there are two people that finished that koan system. One is my wife, Eve Marko. And one is a guy named Michael O’Keefe that many of you know, because he’s an actor. He lives in New York, and he lives in L.A. He’s practiced here. He’s practiced there. He finished the koan study. And he had hoped to be here, but he couldn’t. But he gave Roshi Egyoku a fair amount of the mudras. Because he’s the only that I know—there are mudras that the officiant uses throughout this—and he’s the only one I know that knows them all. I mean as part of dharma succession with most of my dharma successors, we went over all of that. But unless you do it quite a lot, you forget. And I can’t remember any of those. He does this every day. He goes through the mudras. So he keeps them. So he helped Egyoku to make pictures of them, and we have them all down. We had—I don’t know what happened to them—I had pictures of all of the mudras.

Maezumi Roshi had the mudras when I was doing the translation. But he didn’t do them. I mean it’s a lot of work. And if you’re not in a Tibetan school, you can say, “Screw it. They’re mudras, that’s Tibetan people that do that. That’s not my tradition.” But he knew them all.

Audience member: How many are there, Bernie?

Bernie: Mudras? Not that many—six, seven, would you say?

Roshi Egyoku: Eight, nine.

Bernie: Eight, nine.

Roshi Egyoku: You’ll get them this afternoon.

Bernie: All of you are going to do that training. So that’s another thing, in my time it was only given to priests. There are novice priests, people who have what I have, the Japanese word is tokudo, the word we us is tokudo. Is that the word we use here?

Roshi Egyoku: Ordination.

Bernie: Tokudo actually (these are sidelines), Tokudo, that translates as ceremony. And there are two types of ceremonies in the beginning of the practice, early on. There’s the ceremony, tokudo shukke, the ceremony of leaving home. And ordination is a translation of that.

Roshi Egyoku: Or initiation is I think also. It’s more accurate.

Bernie: Initiation, it’s the beginning. And I use the term Novice Priest after you do that. And there’s also the ceremony of staying home. And that we tend to call Jukai, which means receiving Precepts. You receive Precepts in both ceremonies.

So literally, one is the ceremony of starting the path of priesthood. And the other is becoming a Buddhist. It starts off with the initial thing of the days of Shakyamuni Buddha, taking refuge. And in many Buddhist schools they still take refuge. And it’s just taking refuge in Buddha, taking refuge in Dharma, taking refuge in Sangha. And then you say, “Mazel Tov, you’re a Buddhist!”

The Soto school made it bigger. You’ve got to say more things. Then in the Zen Peacemakers Order, we include the Three Tenets, not knowing, bearing witness . . . And we changed the wording of the Precepts with the founding teachers included, Roshi Egyoku, and Roshi Halifax, and Roshi Marko, and Roshi Genro Gauntt, and Roshi Enkyo, and Roshi Jishu, and Bernie. And we spent about a year coming up with the wording that we like. And it can evolve. It will evolve.

So another way for me, when you do that taking refuge thing, I call it entering a club. So in the days of Shakyamuni, you want to enter my club? You got to take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And do I have to study anything? No, you don’t have to study anything. You just have to say, “I’ll take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.”

We make it a little bit more difficult in the Zen Peacemaker Order, to become a member of the club. We have a lot of candidates, and I encourage everybody to become a member of the Zen Peacemaker Order, because it’s a wonderful thing. And it’s almost as good as coffee. But anyway, I think we’re doing beautiful things.

How did I get on to all of that?

Audience member: You were talking about the mudras . . .

Bernie: Yeah. They were only passed on to this person that entered the priest’s path. You get to a certain point, and guess what—your teacher says, “You finished your training as a Priest, as far as I’m concerned. And of course there’s more to learn. And I’m going to give you another ceremony, and now you’re a full Priest.”

Traditionally these mudras were only given to those full Priests. Today we are breaking tradition! And all of you that are in that training, there’s about fifteen of you that are gonna learn all of this stuff—you’re gonna learn the mudras. Whether you’re a full Priest, or a shlemiel, we don’t care. You’re all gonna learn it. And of course you can forget it. That’s going to be easier.

But it’s interesting; we both had the same thought. I had that thought. I know that she’s been working on this for a while. And we’ve been back and forth, and with Michael. And I was thinking is she going to do this for everybody, or just for the full Priests? And then I said, you know in my opinion, this should be done for everybody. So I get here and I ask her, what are you going to do? “I’m gonna give it to everybody.” So, isn’t that nice? We had the same . . . That’s mind-to-mind transmission.

The mantras were a little tricky to translate. Some of these mantras, the actual wording is lost. I worked with Francis Cook, who did a lot of translation work. He’s a professor out here, and also studied here. And I worked with him. He’s the one that told me that a lot of these Dharanis, mantras, were lost. They were mistranslated. I mean we have something, but it’s gibberish. Because it got translated from the Indian to the Chinese, and then to the Japanese. And they lost the original.

If they had the original, he could give me the correct—in his opinion—translation. Because he did give me, and then Peter Gregory said, “Well there are other ones.” See, you never know, man. There are different opinions. Guess what—different translators translate things differently. It’s just like us as humans, when we talk to each other, we hear things differently. And then when we say to somebody else, it comes out different. So same with translators. There’s no translation that is the correct translation. There are various opinions, different ways to translate.

But at any rate, we did the best we could. I did the best I could, I think. I referred with different people. And another thing that I would apologize—some of what we’re chanting in so-called Sanskrit.

Everybody knows in Sanskrit—I’ll give you a simple example—the word Om appears a lot. It’s a special sound. The Japanese can’t make that sound. So they had On. So if you ever see an On in a Japanese kind of thing, you know that that’s a transliteration of Om. And the word Om has such a powerful thing. On doesn’t seem to me to have that same power. So there are things like that, that I try to catch. But I may not have, so you should know that.

Let’s stop for a second, and ask if you have questions. I mean I don’t like to talk to people . . . I think I’ve said enough to have some questions arise.


Audience member: The mudras are accompanying what? Dharanis? I missed out what that meant.

Bernie: Yes, so we have to be a little careful, and I don’t know if I’m the right one to answer. It doesn’t matter that much. There’s a subtle difference between Dharani and Mantra. And sometimes you see something called a Dharani, and sometimes a Mantra. But there is a little difference.

Mantras and Dharanis are chants. Dharanis and Mantras are chants, and Mudras are hand positions. It’s interesting, I’ve never heard of foot positions.

Roshi Egyoku: They do have body positions, like the royal ease positions.

Bernie: Yeah. I don’t know any liturgy that’s using other than hand positions, but you would think there would be more than just hand positions. But any rate, I don’t know them. And generally yes, they are accompanying a Dharani, or a Mantra.

Roshi Egyoku: Well, they accompany the entire Gate actually.

Bernie: Which is mostly Mantras and  . . .

Roshi Egyoku: Yeah. But there’s not any part of the Gate that does not have a Mudra associated with it.


Audience member: In this Prayer of Raising the Bodhi Mind, could you say something about this language?

So that being joyously reborn you will play freely in the Fields of the Pure Land. Raising the Bodhi Mind and practicing the Enlightened Way, you become the future Buddhas without any further regress.

And I can kind of see that two ways. One—that you’re joyously reborn now to play freely in the Fields of the Pure Land, or it can sound very kind of reincarnation-like. I just wondered if you could say something about that.

Do you understand what I’m asking?

Bernie: Yeah. I do. And you introduced an important word that we all have different feelings about, and interpretations. You introduced the word reincarnation. So I have many ways of looking at reincarnation, and I have my own theories of reincarnation, which we’re probably not going to get to. But I don’t know, if it’s going to pop up. But that theory of reincarnation comes out of my theory of nothing. I have a theory of nothing.

Audience member: I should say I understand this in a particular way, but the language I could easily see as being more about reincarnation.

Bernie: Well, so one way of looking at reincarnation—to me, in my opinion—is that every moment we are being reincarnated. So that’s the usage here.

Now you have to put this in context, you know. So we’re starting off by becoming the whole thing, the whole Indra’s net, or everything. Now the whole thing is not static. The whole thing is constantly changing. So we’re also saying . . . In my opinion, the words, “you will be liberated,” means you will drop all your conditioning. That you will be in the state of not knowing. The state of not knowing is the state of liberation, because anything can happen.

Liberation is defiled by anything you attach to, any conditioning that you are attached to. It’s not defiled by your conditioning. It’s defiled by the conditioning that you hold on to, that you attach to. It’s defiled by the attachments, which in my opinion are things that are thought patterns created by your brain. The brain, if it doesn’t have those kind of thought patterns, those attachments, if you can get rid of all those attachments, the brain is just receiving the whole energy field, all of Indra’s net. And that’s total liberation.

And in that space, you’re free to play. Whatever you’re doing, you’re not playing based on your conditioning. You’re playing based on whatever’s happening. Man, you know? It’s so cool! I love it. It’s such a wonderful thing to get out of your conditioning, and be able to be free.

And one way to get out of your conditioning, for all of you people that belong to whatever—drop the word tradition. That’s a conditioning. That’s a conditioning. We open. You can look at things that are going on. Once you call it tradition, you’ve put an attachment to saying that’s the right way it should be done. That’s generally the way people use that word, tradition.

“Oh look what they’re doing! That’s the way it’s supposed to be done.” And then I look, and I say, Oh, guess what? We’re in the liturgy hall, and the officiant was wearing socks. And she’s the Abbot. And the previous Abbot, he was wearing socks too! That ain’t tradition. Tradition is you can’t walk in those rooms with socks. Unless you’re wearing what they call bessu, a Japanese form of sock. That’s tradition.

[Audience laughs]

It’s crazy, man. So you could certainly say, oh in Japan, you can’t go into some particular temple, into the Zendo, or whatever, with socks. And that’s the tradition of that temple. If an old person who’s not in good health comes in, they’ll let them wear socks. Because most of those people who are training are young kids.

When I first moved to New York I had these wonderful old people studying. And I said am I going to force them to go barefoot in this cold? They’re old. And I said but I don’t break tradition. And I came to what this word means. And I was saying tradition, because I thought that was correct. It was correct to make these old people go barefoot on cold . . . It was cold in New York. Cold floor, that’s crazy, man. So over the years I’ve had to continuously look at that word, and see what it means to me.

How did I get to that?

Audience member: Reincarnation.

Bernie: Oh, I got it. So this line underlines everything I just said. See that? Wow. I’m glad you asked because I never thought of that before.

My first Dharma Successor is a man named Peter Matthiessen, he died recently. He was a great writer, in my opinion, and one of his books that did very well is called At Play in the Fields of the Lord. I’ve used that phrase, “at play,” a lot. And it comes from that. And I have to admit my teacher didn’t like that translation. It’s a translation of the word . . . I’m trying to remember the Japanese, Jijuyu Samadhi. And so I translated that into play. And Maezumi Roshi didn’t like the word play. I love the word play.

So in my opinion that’s a good translation. It’s a very important term, that kind of Samadhi. How would you translate it? Anybody here . . .

Audience member: Well it’s from the Latin translation, and “at play in the field of the Lord” is from the Proverbs in The Bible.

Bernie: No, I know. I mean how would you translate this word Jijuyu Samadhi? It’s sort of like an unattached . . . It’s a free kind of Samadhi, literally. But play was going a little too far for him.  

Roshi Egyoku: I think sometimes we do see it as play now.

Bernie: I’m just saying he was more serious than that. He didn’t like that word.

Audience member: If I may, it also includes, “delighting a human being, causing God to laugh.”

Bernie: Yeah, that’s the inspiration. And Peter Matthiessen I think took the title of his book from that, from what you said.

So I use it a lot when I can, but especially when I run into this particular word. I translate it this way. But it’s basically an unattached, you know, a nonconditioned state, which you’re free to do. And it’s considered (I think, if my memory is right), it’s considered the highest level of Samadhi. One is totally free.


Audience member: When we talked about in here, it’s always been confusing to me when I was looking at this. We have dharanis, and mantras, and then we have prayers, we have invocations. How do you distinguish those, or do you?

Bernie: So, I’d have to look through it again. But without looking, because this was done a long time ago, and it changes constantly. If I went through it, I’m sure I would change a lot. So as I stand or sit now, for me when I see the word invocation, what comes up in my head is being one with. An invocation for me is removing the subject/object relationship between myself and what I’m invocating. I think that’s a fancier way of saying, “being one with.”

To me mantras and dharanis both cast a magical spell. And I don’t believe in magical spells, but I do believe in magic. I’ve done a lot of magic work. I love magic work. So they’re used to ask for health. They’re used when you’re going on trips. They’re not used when you’re going on acid trips. They’re used on different . . . when you’re wishing somebody well. But they should do it on acid trips.

[Audience laughs]

Audience member: When you say that it’s like . . . A couple weeks ago somebody was giving a talk about the science of body posture. Like if you stand up like this . . . you feel really free. . .

Bernie: Not if you have arthritis.

[Audience laughs]

Audience member: . . . and if you bend over like this . . . you’re trapped. Is that the same kind of thing as a dharani?

Bernie: Well, in my opinion I would apply mudras to what you just said. But maybe dharanis and mantras would be verbal expressions of that. You know?

Roshi Egyoku: They’re like a concentration of energy, in a very particular way.

Bernie: Yeah, and usually to make some kind of change that you want. So we would hope, see, that you’re making those changes for something nice. But there are people that are using those mantras and dharanis to cast spells on you. You know, they’re hoping that you’re going to get sick, not well. Or they’re hoping you’re gonna trip. So they can be used in different ways. And then they say oh, that’s black mantras, or red mantras.

So in Judaism we have a dharani that’s used all the time. “Kenahora.” And you know what it literally means?

Audience member: “Without the evil eye.”

Bernie: So if you say anything good, “My son just graduated college—kenahora.” That kenahora means the evil eye won’t come on you, and on my son, or on anyone. See? It’s a protection. And my father, who was born in Romania of a Jewish teacher, learned how to get rid of the evil eye. If you didn’t say kenahora, and the evil eye came on you, he could come along and get rid of the evil eye. So he had other mantras.

So these mantras and dharanis are all over the place. And certainly mudras—when we sit in the Soto sect, we generally sit with what’s called the Ocean Mudra. And it’s supposed to be a relaxing mudra. But other people sit with a different mudra. There’s all kinds of mudras, and they’re supposed to do different things. And where you place them, and what chakra you’re doing is gonna have different effects.

Now we know mudras. If you raise up your fist, and go like that . . . That’s a mudra. And that’s evoking a certain thing. Very different than a gassho, which is a mudra. So the hand position we know evoke different kinds of feelings and emotions. And there are people then that study these and create new ones to evoke different images. Whether they work for you or not, it’s not the question. And you have to experiment, and see if it’s useful or not, and get into the business of mudra-making.

More questions? Why don’t you say your name when you ask a questions? And stand up so we see you.


Audience member: My name is Sarah. In a prayer for transferring the merit of this practice, I was wondering if you could speak just to the language of the “dharma world of true reality.” I’m just a little curious about that, alongside what you were saying about using words like true or false, or good or bad.

Bernie: Where?

Audience member: On page seven.

Bernie: So, this is a great example. If I were to reread it now, I wouldn’t use that term. I have to say that when I did this translation with Maezumi Roshi, that was about thirty-five years ago. And then I revised it probably around ’82—thirty-three years ago. And I haven’t revised it since then. Some of my dharma successors have revised what I have done. But I haven’t gone back and looked over it. Thirty-three years, I’ve changed a lot, man. So I should. And we’re trying to make this the basic liturgy for the Zen Peacemaker Order, because it’s about dealing with the issues we’re hoping you in Zen Peacemakers will be doing.

So I should go through word-by-word the “Dharma of True Reality.” I’m sure . . . I’m not sure—I would imagine that was a straight translation. And I would not use truth in anything I did now. So I will change that.   

Audience member: To the “Dharma world of just my opinion, reality”?

[Audience laughs]

Bernie: So that brings up a good example of trying to do a good translation right now, that the one that was just put out I find awkward.

[Audience laughs]

With this I didn’t have a chance . . . I did a lot of translations. As I said, I did a lot with Maezumi Roshi, and then I did a lot more with a Japanese guy that was a student of mine, Kosho, and Peter Matthiessen. Because Kosho knew the Japanese really well. I had the sense, or I had an opinion of what was trying to be said. And Peter Matthiessen was a wonderful wordsmith, so he could put it into something that sounded right. What we just heard was horrible wordsmith—in my opinion—but close to the meaning I would have.

So if we start with that, “The Dharma of True Reality,” and we try to get a translation, one of the problems . . . I do have books with the original. I have the original, and a word-by-word of what’s in the original. But it doesn’t matter. As I said, I changed many things.

Let me just think for one second. “The Dharma of True Reality.” What the hell is “True Reality”? So I’m going to let my mind work a little. OK?

So I say Dharma of True Reality, and True Reality morphs for me into just this. “The Dharma of Just This.” I think I might go with that. I might go with that. “The Dharma of Just This.”

The way I operate in everything—so I want to bring it to this example too—I operate via the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order. So again, what popped up was Just This. But I would still try to drop that “Just This” for a second, and not have any idea what it could be, and I’ll bear witness to “Dharma of True Reality,” and see what comes up.

I do that in all aspects of my life—the Three Tenets. And for me it’s worked very well, or I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve had a good life—in my opinion.

So far what keeps popping up is “Just This.” But I’ll spend some more time with it, and that’s what I will do going through the text.


Audience member: I believe it may be a strict translation of “Dharmakaya,” possibly—if that might help.

Bernie: Say more. You said a strict translation . . .

Audience member: Oh yeah, the original, when you originally translated it, it might have been from the word, Dharmakaya was the word it was translated from.

Bernie: No. I have to go and look at the translation, but I doubt it. In the original if it said “Dharmakaya,” would probably remain “Dharmakaya” or would become “Dharma Body.” I mean Dharmakaya literally is Dharma Body. That’s a straight translation. I’ve never heard Dharmakaya translated as “Dharma of True Reality.” The word Dharma is in there, but that’s . . . “True Reality” is the key. What’s the original “True Reality”? I doubt that the original . . . I have to look.

There are certain words that have crept into our Buddhist thought that a very philosophical—that absolute and relative—that comes from the world of philosophy. The original doesn’t have that. The original is more poetic. So truth is a tricky word. And many times the word that gets translated as truth is actually in the name of this temple—Shin, in which the Roshi has used essence, rather than truth. A lot of people would say, “Buddha Truth.” And that Shin is not mind, it’s really essence. But it gets translated a lot as truth. So that’s what I would think more. And Dharma in Japanese is Ho. Hoshinji is another famous temple, which could be translated—and I think badly—as “Dharma of True Reality.”

The “Essence of the Dharma” could be. That would be my guess without looking at the original. I don’t know if I would do that as “Dharma Essence.” I mean that’s a possibility. But “Just This” is clearer for me. I tend to try to use when I translate non-Buddhist terms. So if I say “Dharma Essence,” I don’t know how clear that is to you. But what is “Dharma Essence”? Is it a new perfume? But just now, “Just This,” that’s fairly clear. You can’t make too much of that. It may not be too clear to grasp what “Just This” is, but still, the thought is clear.


Audience member: I have one thing that came up when you bore witness to this, and this is in the lineage of my co-witnessing. I would say in the “Dharma World of Co-Arising” came right up for me. But I had another question.

Bernie: Where are you . . .

Audience member: In your same thing where you would say “Dharma World of True Reality,” I would say, “Dharma World of Co-Arising.” But I also wanted to know your, kind of how you look overall at ritual and liturgy, and how you see that operating in the Zen Peacemaker Order. What are some of your opinions on that?

Bernie: Yeah, OK. So, I don’t want to brag, but that was one of my fortes, liturgy. I somehow grasp it very quickly I think, and then I had the opportunity to see liturgy as it was played out in Japan, and various places. So I wasn’t stuck into thinking that the liturgy we were doing at Z.C.L.A. was the right liturgy, or the tradition, because I saw all different plays. And in fact, my teacher Maezumi Roshi was not so big on liturgy. He brought monks from Japan to teach us. And they always came with little different ideas. You know, so it was always different. So that helped.

It helped me to realize that there are a lot of differences, and that there’s an importance to that. Because the founder of the Soto sect said each place should have it’s own . . . He used the word fu, which means literally air, or wind. You’ve heard of the word typhoon—that’s a big fu. Fu is also in the way we use style—it had a certain air. So he thought everybody should have it’s own style.

But I was quick to pick up the various ways it was being done in these different places. You know, I would hear it, or see it, and I would remember it. Nowadays I forgot everything. I can’t remember anything.

So I’ve always liked it. I’ve thought a liturgy is sort of celebrating. A celebration—in that context the liturgy was celebrating the essence. And so I would want liturgy to be in that way—somehow a celebration of what’s going on.

So for me, this Gate is a celebration of the Zen Peacemaker Order, or the Zen Peacemaker movement, or of that. And the reason I choose this as that celebration is because it’s dealing with all those aspects that people aren’t taking care of, including of myself.

I started this whole thing because in ’76 I had this experience of all of the hungry spirits in the world, the universe. And my immediate reaction was a vow to feed them, to serve them. So you can see this liturgy is directly dealing with that. And I think the Zen Peacemaker Order is directly dealing with that, and celebrating the hugeness of us as an international sangha, as people to become friends with like minded people around the world, and to work on taking care of the things that this thing is trying to ask us to do.

So the simple answer is that liturgy for me is a celebration. And the more complicated answer is what I just rambled.


Audience member: My name is Julia. Two things—what came up for me in the translation is “The Dharma World of Reality As It Is,” which is very simple to your “Just This.” “Reality As It Is,” because it is a philosophical . . .

Bernie: Yeah, I’m not so comfortable with “Reality,” that’s my problem.

Audience member: Ah. “The World As It Is,” then.

Bernie: Yeah. That’s more comfortable to me. And we may say, I would think we would say that the world as it is has a name, and that would be Reality. But reality is just a concept—in my opinion—so I don’t use it.

Audience member: So the other thing, I wanted to pick up on the question from before, because I didn’t hear you use the word prayer, as a separate category. Is invocation a prayer, or is there some difference between them?

Bernie: You know, really to be good, I’d have to go through and see how it’s used here. So I was answering independent of what’s happening in the Gate—just on those terms. So I would say that dharanis and mantras could be translated as prayers. That’s just an English term for it. And dharanis and mantras have a little bit more magic associated with it. Prayer, because it’s a word in the Christian Judaic tradition has its own connotation. And I don’t know if we would call prayer magical. But in both cases well wishing is sort of what comes out of . . . You’re doing dharanis and mantras as means of well wishing, and prayers too.

Audience member: Would you say it’s a state of mind?

Bernie: Yeah, definitely. Or not definitely—be careful. I would say, in my opinion, it’s a state of mind. And so there are practices to achieve that state of mind. And mudras are one of those practices. The use of mudras can help us achieve that state of mind. But also the dharani, or the mantra, or the prayer can get us to achieve that state of mind. But it is a state of mind—in my opinion.


Audience member: I had the same question. So all of the language here, it’s really about evoking a certain energy in yourself. I mean what is the intention here?

Bernie: Yes, I would say so.

Audience member: I guess because my point is a lot of times different people conceive of prayer, coming from that particular idea, is you’re asking someone else for something. But the way I’ve always related to it is it’s really about evoking . . . It’s like the being one. You know, it’s like that kind of a sense of it.

Bernie: Yeah, in my opinion, I agree with your thought, with your opinion. But I would go one step further, or I think it’s one step further, that you’re doing that not just to evoke that in your state of mind, but in the state of mind of the crowd, of the environment, or the universe. That’s where you should be heading.

Now if it’s just to evoke it in one’s self—and I think a lot of it is all about that—that to me is very limiting. That’s a small part of Indra’s net. How do I evoke that in the whole Indra’s net? And this is about the whole thing, man. It’s breaking it into different parts. And we’re going to treat different parts in different ways, but it’s about the whole thing. It’s not just about . . .

So if you’re using me, in the sense of me as the “whole thing,” then we’re fine.

Audience member: You know one of the things, when we do this, there are eleven positions, because I usually assign them, or often do. And we talk a lot here about practicing in that way, practicing as one body. And how much you see all these different people that have various positions in the Gate of Sweet Nectar service. And it’s all flowing in all these different ways. And then all of the participants, who are chanting. So it really is you’re evoking an energetic in this body, but also in the one body that’s there. And then of course throughout all space and time.

But the thing that’s great about this service in particular is there are so many different moving parts to it, that as it moves together, you really get a sense of the continuous flow that’s really required.

Bernie: Yeah, that’s a nice opinion, in my opinion.


Audience member: I just had an opinion coming on the question of the prayer, and the mantras, and the dharanis. You know, I’m reflecting where I come from, and we use the word for prayer as a devotional practice. When I’m a hungry ghosts, I don’t have space to raise the bodhi mind—I’m a hungry ghost. And the only practice that’s available to me is prayer. I’m praying for that aspect of me to arise. So I actually like that . . . I don’t know if it’s by chance, but the way I’m reading this is that because I’m inviting all of these parts, some of this liturgy is actually being sung by the hungry parts in me. And that’s why we pray. And then when I shift into the bodhi mind, I can include all of that.

Bernie: That’s another nice opinion.


Audience member: I like the English, “Pray tell.” I mean there’s something so . . . In truth, pray tell. It just . . .


Bernie: So let me give an example of a part of this that we’ll probably talk more about tomorrow.

There’s a part where the officiant goes up to the alter to feed the hungry ghosts—literally, with food. When she goes up there . . . And of course we’ve done some preliminary work, which we’ll see. She has to make a lot of food because she’s going to feed all the hungry spirits of the everything, including all of us. So we’ve already done some stuff, but now she’s also doing some stuff to make the food that’s up there enough to feed everybody and whatever. And she does her reading, and we’re chanting along with her. Turning the wheel of compassion.

And then she comes back, and we keep chanting. Why do we keep chanting? She’s already fed everybody.

[Phone alarm goes off]

In the Zen Peacemaker Order, we ask everybody to spend one minute at noon in silence for peace in the universe. And most people have put that on their iPhone at noon so they’re reminded. And no matter what the situation, we spend a minute in silence. And if you don’t want to, you can get up and make noise, but most of us spend one minute.


That’s another reason to join the Zen Peacemaker Order, so you can set your alarm to go off at noon. I’ve been doing that since 1980—every day. And I thought of the idea of doing that at a conference I was at with a guy named Brother David. He’s the only one I knew before we made this a practice. He’s also been doing this since then. I do it no matter what. I’ve done a lot of big things, meeting with banks, or meeting with mayors, or whatever. And the alarm goes off, I explain to them—they can join me, or not join me.

So now with this Zen Peacemaker Order, so people doing this around the world, can you imagine? Pretty soon we’ll have peace because so many people do that at noon. One minute, man. That’s enough.

So, why do we keep chanting after she comes back to the alter? The reason is that many hungry spirits are too embarrassed to come and get fed at the alter. I don’t know if you’ve ever met anybody who thinks they’re not worth it. So all of the hungry spirits who think they’re not worth it, they don’t come.

This last time around, this third time around, after she’s back to the alter, that’s for all of those who were too ashamed to come. They didn’t come for whatever reason. They tripped and they sprained their ankle, they couldn’t come. Whatever the reason, they didn’t come. And most of the reason is they didn’t think enough of themselves. They thought they weren’t worth it. And we think they are worth it. So we’re gonna feed them also.  

So that is a prayer for those who didn’t accept our first prayer of coming to be fed. It’s a prayer for those who don’t think they’re good enough to be fed.

Share :

Bernie’s Rap on the Gate of Sweet Nectar at ZCLA, Part 1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click Subject for Related Content
Our Journal