Atonement: Taking Responsibility

by John Daido Loori, Roshi

Featured in Mountain Record 26.4, Summer 2008


photo by Paul Qaysi

All evil karma ever committed by me since of old,
Because of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance,
Born of my body, mouth, and thought,
Now I atone for it all.

Many rites of passage that take place in the context of Buddhist practice include the Gatha of Atonement near the beginning of the ceremony. The Gatha of Atonement, or At-one-ment, creates a pure and unconditioned state of consciousness. It initiates an attitude of mind conducive to entering the rite of passage, a mind receptive and open to transformation. Rites of passage mark the entrance point into different realms, relationships, or states of being.

Taking the precepts as one’s life is a serious matter. When we vow to maintain them, making a commitment to manifest our life with the wisdom and compassion of the Tathagata, we enter a different realm. And in that passage, the Gatha of Atonement establishes a clean slate.

Before a student actually arrives at this point, much hard work has already been accomplished. The practice of Zen, as well as the practice of the precepts, begins with a sense of inquiry. Before we enter, we search. If there is no search, the cup is full. There is no place to put the tea. When Master Deshan, an academic expert in the Diamond Sutra, came to southern China, he was on a mission. He came to show the barbarians in the south that “the special transmission outside the scriptures” was utter nonsense.

He was indignant, full of himself, not able even to consider that there was anything to seek. There was no opportunity for Deshan to learn anything. He had all the answers. He knew; he was very clear on that. The great doubt was not raised until his encounter with an old woman selling cakes by the roadside. She offered him one of her cakes for free if he could answer a question. Quoting a line from the Diamond Sutra, she asked, “If past mind, future mind, and present mind are ungraspable, with which mind will the venerable monk eat this cake?” Deshan was unable to answer.

At this point the question appeared for him and his search began. The cup was turned upside down. The spiritual search begins when we open our mind and heart, raising to consciousness the possibility inherent in human life. We call it raising the bodhi mind. This raising of the bodhi mind simply means seeing, hearing, feeling, experiencing, and realizing in ways that were not even imagined before. It means opening the doors of perception and awareness.