Thursday, February 3rd
- Martin Goodson

A Word from our Patrons

Powering up the practice with help from our patrons.

Panorama of giant Buddhist sculptures in a section of the Longmen Grottoes, including statues of Vairocana, Kasyapa, Ananda, Guanyin, Mahasthamaprapta and the Four Heavenly Kings. Dates mostly to the Northern Wei (386 - 534) and Tang dynasty (618 - 907).


By WikiLaurent - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

If you’ve watched Module 0 of the Living With Uncertainty: A Buddhist Primer course (which goes live on 4th February 2022), then you will have already been introduced to the idea of spiritual patrons.

In the course, which takes a long and in-depth look at the early teachings of the Buddha, our patron is The Medicine Buddha (Yakushi Nyorai). As the teachings are medicine to cure the disease of dissatisfaction (dukkha), and delusion (avidya), this makes sense as this theme of medicine to ‘cure specific illnesses’, is also a theme that resonates through the sermons of Master Rinzai.

As we launch the Community site I think it is a good time to pay some attention to potential patrons for us as we begin our journey together in our online Dharma Centre.

Maybe we could begin by pondering the question: ‘What is a patron?’

In this neck of the woods, you don’t have to look far back in time to see that most of society functioned on the principle of patronage. Artists, musicians playwrights had to have someone or a series of ‘someones’ who would fund all that time being creative. It’s difficult contacting the muse if you have to worry about where your next meal is coming from.

The other thing you might need a patron for is protection. In fact that is a major part of the job description. The imperial court of Rome and the royal courts of Europe are fine examples of why it is a good idea to have a powerful name to invoke to watch your back. Loss or withdrawal of patronage was a serious, even lethal, problem for those in the lower echelons.

The early Christian church used the Roman ideal of patronage and applied it to the saints and martyrs. That is how it all started here in the West.

However, neither patronage, nor its application to spiritual beings was limited to this part of the world. Many of the deities of India, China and the spirits of Shinto in Japan also were ruling, tutelary or place-based guardians with active roles in the community. The Buddhist scriptures, both early and later, adopted arhats, Buddhas & bodhisattvas to play a role that reminds us in everyday life that we are always dependent on strengths and virtues, which ‘I’ do not possess myself.

Buddhism has a strong emphasis on what could be termed the ‘special dead’. A reflection of the fact that ancestor worship is and has always been a very important aspect of spiritual life for everyone in the Buddhist diaspora. These ‘special dead’ are the old masters and patriarchs of the lineage that connects the people teaching the Dharma in the present with a line stretching back to the Buddha.

This was brought to life by my own late teacher, Daiyu Myokyo, when she first started her training at Daitokuji monastery in Kyoto. Her first teacher was the Lord Abbott of that esteemed training site, Sesso Soho Roshi. In an early meeting with her when he took her on as his disciple he said: “ I can only teach you the Zen that I myself was taught by my teacher Zuigan, who was taught the Zen he knew by his master Tetsuo who was taught the Zen he knew by…” and so he went on to recite backwards the lineage through Japan’s early history of Zen, to China and back to India and to the Buddha himself 2,500 years ago. It had a profound effect on Daiyu Myokyo.

On top of this are the buddhas and bodhisattvas whose existence is entirely spiritual who never existed in history - the Meditation Buddhas and others mentioned in various Mahyana sutras, also Kannon Bodhisattva, Monju Bodhisattva, Jizo Bodhisattva and all the Dharma guardians to be found in the various scriptures. the theory goes that all these beings, whether historical or mythic/imaginal are repositories of vast levels of merit. Merit is a term which is connected with karmic theory in Buddhism, suffice to say for our purposes it provides influences inwardly and outwardly that are enabling of something to a good end. Coupled with this vast repository is the vow that all buddhas and bodhisattvas have taken a vow to assist all beings, this makes it a universal vow meaning anyone and everyone can call upon them.

In addition, by helping others along the Buddha’s Way to walk the Bodhisattva Path means they also continue, even in death, to fulfil that earthly vow to assist all beings. This makes the whole arrangement extremely powerful and why would we not want to tap into it?

This was the reason why The main Zen Gateway site runs its series The Way of Devotion, giving some knowledge and insight into the extensive pantheon of spiritual beings that inhabit the Buddhist cosmos.

Some practitioners are somewhat reluctant to give too much credibility to these beings being much more than metaphors or maybe psychologise them but do not want to give much more existence to them it being seen as something of a ‘backward’ step. However, I think this is a much neglected area of practice, even for Zen students, and keeping to the Buddha’s own exhortation to test his teachings as ‘a goldsmith tests gold by burning and rubbing’, we should try to put personal judgements to one side so we can at least see if the centuries of devotional practices are anything more than quaint sops for the laity, to ‘keep them in line’.

From personal experience, devotional practices and rituals can and do move the whole practice up to a new level. Why struggle on your own when there is such a powerful resource that we can draw upon.

What follows is an example of a Korean Bodhisattva image empowerment for the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion.

Don’t worry you don’t have to try all this at home, but it does give a taste of the power of such ceremonies and how they open up the heart.

Enjoy! May the merit of you watching this video bring happiness to all beings. May all beings attain Buddhahood!

Image Dedication Ceremony from Korea