Jun 30, 2020
Martin Goodson


Religious observance usually refers to ritual practices; in the original sense of the word the aim was to be informed by the wisdom of the spiritual power whether conceived as 'deity' or 'original nature'.

Ora et Labora (Pray and Work). This 1862 painting by John Rogers Herbert depicts monks at work in the fields... By John Rogers Herbert.


Wikimedia Public Domain. Sourced from the Tate website.

In the hallway of Shobo-an, Zen Buddhist Training Temple, there is a tea towel hanging up with one of the rules attributed to St. Benedict, the founder of European monasticism. It is one of the rules of hospitality, and to summarise, it says that all visitors are to be made welcome and as long as they obey the house rules and join in willingly with the community they may stay as long as they please. If one should complain about something, then the abbot should give the grievance a hearing, as God may have sent him for precisely this purpose. If however, having addressed the matter, the complaining does not desist then the abbot should explain the need for the complainer to do so. If the complaining persists further then two stout monks should explain the matter to him.

The point to take in here is the acceptance that the ‘complaint’ may be sent from God and this must be taken into account when hearing the case.

How often, if I am in charge of something do I dislike, even fear, being challenged. How it slights my status and impugns my sense of pride. But here there is the recognition that outer circumstances are not separate from one’s own heart and may in fact be the messenger bringing just what is now needed to maintain harmony with the Dharma.

The term ‘observance’ in a religious sense is often taken as the following of external rules or of a moral code or ritual practices; it is indeed these things, but it can also have a deeper meaning. In Roman times, before the Emperor set off to conquer foreign lands he would first want to know the will of the gods. The auger, or priest responsible, would go out onto the hills surrounding Rome and observe the flights of birds. From this he would divine whether or not the gods favoured such a venture. This practice features in all religions in one form or another. From the Ancient Egyptian priests who consulted the goddess Ma’at to settle legal disputes to cardinals in Rome who lock themselves away to choose a new pope, there is an awareness that important decisions are to be inspired.

Chinese Buddhism, being influenced by Taoism, saw the Dharma as the source of harmony to which human behaviour was to align itself. Therefore reading the signs became a spiritual skill that protected both the individual and the group from delusion and from going astray. For the Zen practitioner this skill is developed through a process of emptying out the heart. For religions that use prayer, the heart of prayer is the equivalent to this, as it opens out the heart deliberately and calls upon the ‘inspiring spirit’ directly.

In meditation (zazen), the heart is quietened and the problem is allowed to arise in the heart alone. The most important part is not to give rise to grasping thoughts; if this happens then there needs to be an immediate return to the count on the breath until the heart settles and naturally empties out again. The answer, when it comes, may happen on the meditation seat or sometime afterwards, usually when the focus of the heart is elsewhere.

There is a beautiful story from Jewish folklore about a king who tests the faith of a poor cobbler who says that he has complete faith that God will provide if he is asked. The king takes away the means of the man to earn his living and the man prays and is inspired to take up another profession when, upon finishing his prayer, he sees a man carrying firewood. When the king finds out he prohibits one man to sell wood to another. Not to be outdone, the cobbler again prays to God for help and this time when he lowers his eyes he sees a man carrying water and this now saves him and his family from destitution. The story goes on in this way and the king is simply not able to outwit him. In the end, after the king reveals his own identity he offers the man and his family to join him in the palace as the king has realised he would make an excellent advisor. You can both read and hear the complete story here.

The open heart is in constant communion with the world around it, and our practice of giving myself away clears the space so that the world can be heard.


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