Asking for Help: Zen & Prayers & Kanzeon

Asking for Help: Zen & Prayers & Kanzeon September 17, 2021






I’m deeply moved by the Serenity Prayer which most of us know through the work of Alcoholics Anonymous. Its deep origins are probably the collective insight of the human condition. The sentiment appears first in English, best we can tell, as a seventeenth century Mother Goose Nursery rhyme.

For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.

The Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr acknowledges, how it “might have been spooking about for years, perhaps centuries, but I don’t think so. I honestly believe that I wrote it myself.” I’m confident both statements are true. It is ancient wisdom. And Niebuhr put it to the words we mostly think of when we think of the need to walk a harmonious middle way between action and surrender in the face of what is.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Of course the AA version we mostly know, the one that people in all sorts of situations have found to provide comfort and guidance is:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

I’m not sure whether I like serenity or grace best. A worthy reflection all by itself, I’m sure. Whatever, I find these words very helpful, a serious pointer to sorting things out, to seeing what can and what cannot be done, and going a long way to both taking action and letting be.

And I find myself thinking about the specifics of these various events, including raging forest fires and the harsh reality of cancer. And where our decisions about what to do or not fit in here. My Zen clergy friends, in the face of these things, many of them, offer up chanting. Specifically the chant verses associated with the Bodhisattva Guanyin, in Japanese pronunciation, Kanzeon.

This is an old favorite for Zen types, chanting an appeal to Kanzeon in times of distress. I’ve not always liked this chant, it smacks a little too much of my childhood appeals to Jesus to have my fat pulled out of various fires. But, in recent years I’ve mellowed a bit, and take some atavistic comfort in the practices. In fact, we do a version of it at most all our regular Zen group meetings.

In our Empty Moon Zen sanghas the version we use goes like this:

Enmei Jikku Kannon Gyo

(The Eight-Line Kanzeon Sutra)

(In Sino-Japanese)

Kan ze on
na mu butsu
yo butsu u en
yo butsu u en
buppo so en
jo raku ga jo
cho nen kan ze on
bo nen kan ze on

nen nen ju shin ki
Nen nen fu ri shin

There is a longer version, taken from a chapter of the Lotus Sutra, which I find very moving. This is the version used at the Vermont Zen Center.

The Lotus Sutra Scripture of Kanzeon Bodhisattva
(PDF version has symbols and instructions for chanting.)

Lead Chanter:
In verse Mujinni Bodhisattva asked,
“World Honored One possessor of all grace
For what reason is the heir of the Buddha named Kanzeon?”

The World Honored One answered too in verse:
“Listen to the actions of Kanzeon
Which have their application to all!
Her vow is deep like the ocean
Unfathomable though kalpas pass
A myriad of Buddhas she has truly served
And made a great, pure vow.
If you hear her name and see her body,
and bear her in mind,
Your life will not be in vain;
And you will end all sufferings.
If someone wants to hurt you
And pushes you into a great firepit,
If you think on the power of Kanzeon

The firepit will change into a pond.
If you’re cast adrift upon the vast ocean
And meet danger from dragons, fish and demons,
If you think on the power of Kanzeon
The waves will not drown you.
If from the peak of Sumeru
Someone would push you down
If you think on the power of Kanzeon
Like the sun you will stand firm in the sky.
If evil ones chase you
And push you from Mount Diamond,
If you think on the power of Kanzeon
Not even a single hair will be harmed.
If robbers surround you
Each with a sword drawn to strike,
If you think on the power of Kanzeon
Compassion will awaken in them.
If you suffer by royal command
And your life is to end in execution,
If you think on the power of Kanzeon
The sword will be broken to bits.
If you are imprisoned,
Shackled, and chained,
If you think on the power of Kanzeon
The fetters will drop and you’ll be released.
If someone wants to injure you
With curses or poison,
If you think on the power of Kanzeon

These ills will return from whence they came.
If you meet evil rakshas,
Poisonous dragons or demons,
If you think on the power of Kanzeon
They will not dare to harm you.
If you are surrounded by evil beasts
Whose teeth and claws are fearfully sharp,
If you think on the power of Kanzeon
They will run away in boundless retreat.
If vipers, lizards, snakes or scorpions,
Threaten to scorch you with poisonous breath
If you think on the power of Kanzeon
They will turn away quickly at the sound
of your voice.
If clouds thunder and lightning flashes,
If hailstones beat and rain pours down,
If you think on the power of Kanzeon
Immediately they will vanish away.
If sentient beings are in great adversity
And immeasurable suffering presses them down,
The wonderful power of the wisdom of Kannon can relieve the sufferings of the world.
Endowed with transcendent powers
Full master of wisdom and skillful means,
In all the worlds in the ten directions,
There’s no place she doesn’t manifest herself.

The suff’rings of those in the troubled states:
Hell dwellers, hungry spirits, and beasts;
The sufferings of birth, old age, illness and death all by degrees are ended by her.
She of the true gaze, she of the pure gaze,
gaze of great and encompassing wisdom,
gaze of pity, gaze of compassion—
ever longed for, ever revered.
She is a spotless pure ray of light,
A sun of wisdom dispelling darkness.
Subduer of woes of storm and fire
Illumining all the world.
Her will of compassion shakes like thunder;
Her mind of mercy is like a great cloud
Which sends down sweet dew of Dharma rain to quench the flames of earthly desires.
In disputes before judges or in the midst of battle,
If you think on the power of Kanzeon
All enemies will flee away.
She has a wondrous voice,
The voice of one who perceives the world,
A brahma voice, voice of the rolling tide,
A voice unsurpassed in all this world;
Therefore you should always think on her.
Have no doubt, even for a moment

The pure seer Kanzeon will be a refuge
When suffering distress or the misery of death. She is endowed with every quality.
Her eye of compassion views all sentient beings, her ocean of blessings is beyond measure. Therefore you should pay homage to her.”

Then Jiji bodhisattva arose,
Stood before the Buddha and addressed him thus:
“World Honored One, they who hear this scripture
Of Kanzeon bosatsu, and hear of her deeds
And transcendent powers,
No small amount of merit will they gain.”

Lead Chanter: (All with hands in gassho)
When the Buddha taught the scripture of the life and work of the All-Sided One, all present then in number eighty-four thousand strong, with all their hearts cherished a longing for the Supreme Enlightenment, with which nothing in all the universe compares.

So, I find myself thinking of the serenity prayer and its artful call to distinguish between what we can address and what we cannot, and the heart’s longing to be of help, even when one cannot do any specific “thing.”

Of course, there are also times, when we don’t know if our wishes have any effect on the shape of things, the currents of events, but nonetheless, even if it’s unlikely, we want so badly to be of use, and so we pray, we chant, our heart’s longing sung out into the universe.

I find myself feeling those feelings a lot of late.

No thought of gain…

No thought of loss…

Just the heart’s song…

A sort of tumble into the heart of not knowing…

Namo Kanzeon Bosatsu!

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