Zen Buddhist Gathas

If I were to ask non-Buddhists to read one Buddhist book, it probably wouldn’t big one of the big sweeping volumes about the history of the religion, and it definitely wouldn’t be the new agey self help from the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh. It wouldn’t even be the punk-to-monk semi-autobiographies by Brad Warner or Noah Levine, even though those are some of my favorites. It would probably be The Dragon Who Never Sleeps by Robert Aitken. It’s a slim, rarely-mentioned and highly underrated collection of Zen Buddhist gathas. Gathas are little poems (in Aitken’s format, the second line is always “I vow with all beings”) that illustrate some of the best moments for practice in our lives.

Here are some of my favorites:

When someone offers a drink
I vow with all beings
to acknowledge the sorrow it causes
as it warms and gladdens our hearts.

When the outcome proves disappointing
I vow with all beings
to look again at my purpose-
was it Dharma or something else?

When I panic at losing my bearings
I vow with all beings
to acknowledge the error is panic,
not losing familiar ground.

When my efforts are clearly outclassed
I vow with all beings
to face my own limitations
and bring forth my original self.

Looking up at the sky
I vow with all beings
to remember this infinite ceiling
in every room of my life.

When a car goes by late at night
I vow with all beings
to remember the lonely bakers
who secretly nourish us all.

When a train rattles by at the crossing
I vow with all beings
to remember my mother and father
and imagine their thoughts in the night.

If you practice with gathas, please share some in the comments.

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4 Responses to “Zen Buddhist Gathas”

  1. Thanks for sharing the gathas.

    Now, “new-agey” tomes from the Dalai Lama and Thay?

    The wisdom of these books is derived from the very “old-agey” Dharma of the original Buddha. I find compelling the ability of writers like the Dalai Lama, Thay, Kornfield, and others to tak ethe wisdom of the orignal teachings, and weave them into contemporary life.

    Nothing new age about this stuff. IMO

  2. Dharmacore:

    My comments above sound like I’m snarky and a “know it all.” I’ve read more of your site; you’re clearly right on target in so many ways. So, read my comments with the sense that I was surfing, wrote a quick note, and upon reflection, understood that I was telling you something you well understand, already.

  3. buddhanotes Says:

    Lol. Even after reading your site, the dig at His Holiness and to Thich Nhat Hanh is just as you said — snarky, not on your part on on the part of the original author.

  4. When my heart really hurts
    I vow with all beings
    to cry and be sad instead of
    get mad and make other people’s hearts hurt.

    When I wish I am different
    I vow with all beings
    to not judge by any standard
    and feel just what I am like.

    When my stomache aches from anxiety
    I vow with all beings
    to feel how much it hurts
    and relax into it.

    As for the Great Matter of Life and Death
    I vow with all beings
    to live awake and die awake
    timelessly right now.

    When I think I should
    I vow with all beings
    to follow my heart
    kindly.

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