Changing Gathas

I wrote this article for the Sweetwater Zen Center blog several years back about the study council we had on re-translating the gathas we chant. This was the first blog I ever wrote. It was also a powerful process to look more deeply at the meanings of each Chinese character, to process these meanings as a group, to listen to one another, and translate them based on our combined understanding.

What is a gatha? A gatha is a Buddhist hymn or verse. At Sweetwater Zen Center we chant several gathas. First thing in the morning we chant the Gatha of Atonement, before morning service we chant the Verse of the Kesa, before Dharma talks we chant the Gatha in Opening the Sutra, after Dharma talks and at the end of each practice day we chant the Four Bodhisattva Vows, before work practice we chant the Samu Gatha and before eating meals together we chant the Meal Chant. Why change the gathas? On Saturday October 12, 2013 we gathered together for Study Council on Gathas in the yurt. The day after this workshop someone asked why we changed the gathas, saying, “weren’t they fine they way they were?”

There is that old saying: if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. However, there was an incredible process that a group of us went through that day we changed the gathas. We not only studied four gathas in their original Chinese version, but also created new translations of them. Hopefully after reading a little about our process you will come to understand more about the study we went through, the learning that took place, and how the shared-leadership and group work is unfolding here at Sweetwater ZC. By bringing strengths, weaknesses and all that is in between to the study council, we used ingredients at hand, as Roshi Bernie Glassman might say—to make our best meal.

The Group Process

The Study Council opened with some moments of zazen. As in all councils, we began with a check-in. Each of us expressed where we had just come from, what we were bringing to the circle, and any thoughts and/or feelings about studying and changing our gathas. The gathaswe have been chanting here at Sweetwater ZC for the last 15 years or so were translated from their original Chinese characters at some point when Roshi Taizen Maezumi was at Zen Center of Los Angeles in the late 1960’s. When Maezumi Roshi’s successor’s opened Zen centers or began practice groups, they took these gathas with them. Many of these sister temples to Sweetwater ZC already went through the process of re-translating these earlier translations to reflect contemporary understandings and styles of individual Zen centers and practice groups.

Now it was our turn. We set out to work on four of the gathas that day. Roshi Seisen printed out several versions of how other centers had translated these gathas, Jitsujo brought English translations of the original Chinese characters, and Doshin researched many Buddhist technical terms from each gatha in Pali and Sanskrit. We started the process by setting our overall intention. We wanted the Sweetwater ZC gathas we chanted to be accessible to everyone. This original intention was to make translations so that any person that comes into the zendo, or meditation hall, for the first time will be able to grasp their meaning. However, as we got deeper into study, we realized that some technical terms, very subtle and specific to Buddhism, needed to be kept close to their roots in Buddhist philosophy. The following paragraphs outline the changes we made and some reasoning behind these changes.

Most of the morning was spent on the Four Bodhisattva Vows, and the most changes were made to this gatha. We first changed “sentient being” to “being.” Even though the original characters 衆生 directly translate as sentient being, we decided to remove the term sentient, because we wanted to include everything that is alive, e.g. the earth, trees, air, water, etc. Removing it makes it more succinct, and does not change the overall meaning very much. Next we decided to change the translation of the character 度 from “save” to “serve.” The character 度 is often defined and literally translated as “to save.” However, in Buddhist term 度 means to ferry, to cross over to the shore of liberation, which is Nirvana. In Zen or Mahayana traditions this term represents the bodhisattva vow of ferrying all beings over to the shore of Enlightenment. The character 度 (Jp: do) is also the same do in the Japanese term tokudo, or ceremony to become a Zen priest. We therefore decided to change “save” to “serve” in the new translation because we see this role as an act of service, whether we are a priest or a lay practitioner. Similar changes were made in Verse of the Kesa. We changed “saving all sentient beings” to “serving all beings.”

Before we made any changes to the Four Bodhisattva Vows, the first line was: “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” By studying this line we discovered that there is no subject identified in the original Chinese version. For example, the first line could literally read as “ sentient beings without boundary vow willingly to cross over to the shore of liberation.” There is actually no subject identified in all four lines of the Four Bodhisattva Vows. Not having a subject in a sentence is consistent with Chinese culture and language, as well as very common in Zen poems, verses, and scriptural texts. Looking more closely, we also found that ‘numberless’ was a translation of 無邊, which literally means ‘without boundary.’ This idea that all beings are without boundary led us to making the subject of these vows “we” as opposed to “I”. After more than an hour, we reached a consensus that the first line of the Four Bodhisattva Vows would become: “Beings are boundless, we vow to serve.” We decided to leave off the “them” at the end of each line because the action of serving, for example, does not necessarily refer back to the subject of the sentence.

The characters 煩惱 in the second line of the Four Bodhisattva Vows was previously translated as desire. This term was very challenging to translate for us. Desire is the translation of 欲 in Chinese and trsna in Sanskrit and tanha in Pali, which is more often defined in English as craving or thirst. While 煩惱 is generally defined as worry, anger or distress, in Buddhism this term refers to our mental afflictions and defilements, which is kilesa in Pali and samkesa in Sanskrit We may have spent two hours trying to figure out how to best translate this one term. Some of the words on the table besides mental afflictions and defilements were worry, vexation, bindings, entanglements, mental disturbances, wrong views, knots, delusions, issues and bullshit. Eventually we took a vote and settled on delusions, which we thought best represented the root of our mental afflictions—the delusion that we are separateAvidya in Sanskrit or avijji in Pali, often translated as ignorance or delusion, is considered the root of the twelve linked Chain of Dependent Origination, and a root of the three poisons, i.e., greed, anger, and ignorance. In Early Buddhist scriptures his term refers to mental defilements that keep us from seeing the reality of our intrinsic interconnectedness.

Next from the second line of the Four Bodhisattva Vows, we looked at the character 断, which is defined as ‘to cut off, end or eliminate evil’. Zen Masters are often depicted as cutting off students’ mental afflictions, entanglements, ideas or concepts with a sword of wisdom and compassion. We all seemed to agree that our vow was to transform these delusions as opposed to put an end to them. This may be because a lot of study at Sweetwater ZC is around the Five Buddha Families, which actually come from Tibetan Buddhist traditions. In any case, we often refer to these families as Five Wisdom Energies, i.e. Buddha, Vajra, Ratna, Padma, Karma. Each wisdom energy includes shadow energy. It is through practice that greed transforms into compassion, anger into wisdom, and ignorance into openness. Our understanding is that though we may ‘cut off’ a hateful idea, e.g. “I hate hate!,” the practice is transforming the energy of anger into wisdom. It maybe that we are deviating from the meaning of断or ‘to cut off’ in the original translation. However, for now, the second line is changed from “Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them,” to “ Delusion is inexhaustible, we vow to transform.” Discussion around this line may continue with future practice and study.

The third line of the Four Bodhisattva Vows was previously “The Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them.” The first part of this line, 法門 無量, can be literally translated as the Dharma gates are immeasurable. Dharma gates are Buddhist teachings or doctrine; they are our entry into enlightenment. The second part of the line refers to the vow of studying the dharmasDharma capitalized, usually refers to the teachings of the Buddha, and dharma, with a small “d” are manifestations of our general state of reality. This studying is depicted in the character 學 means to learn, study, or undergo the threefold training of precept, meditation and wisdom, which are portions of the Buddhist eightfold path. Seeing that immeasurable is synonymous with everywhere and that gates are to entered, we translated the third line as “Dharma gates are everywhere, we vow to enter.”

At this point we quickly decided to change the first part of the last line from “The Buddha Way is unsurpassable” to “Awakening is unsurpassable.” This first part of the last line, 佛道無上, literally means “Buddha Way is without a top,” but it can also be literally translated as “to awaken is most supreme.” It is important to note that Enlightenment or the realization of truth that Buddha experienced is assessable to all people of all faiths and belief systems, not just Buddhists, and once a person attains this realization they don’t have to become Buddhist. The second half of this last line refers to the vow of accomplishing the Buddha way through the character 成, which literally means ‘to become Buddha.’ The way we accomplish Buddhahood or realize the truth for ourselves is through our practice. So we decided to change the last line from: “The Awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it,” to “Awakening is unsurpassable, we vow to practice.”

In the afternoon we worked on the Verse of the KesaGatha of Atonement, and Gatha in Opening the Sutra. Changes made to these gathaswere more minimal than the Four Bodhisattva Vows. In the Gatha of Atonement, we decided to change “all evil karmas” to “all harmful karmas,” mostly because the word evil has a variety of Judeo-Christian connotations, as well as personal triggers for many us. Even though the characters 悪業 are often translated as evil karma, it is derived from the term akusala in Pali, akshula in Sanskrit or unwholesome actions that stem from our greed, anger, and ignorance. Our karmic actions are categorized as wholesome, unwholesome, and neutral in Early Buddhism. Akshula refers to the roots of unwholesome actions, so that it is less about making a moral judgment about unwholesome actions and more about seeing the reality of what is. The other thing we changed in Gatha of Atonement was “body, mouth and thought” to “body, speech and thought” because the character 語意 actually refers to speech, language, and words.

In the Gatha in Opening the Sutra, we mostly studied and discussed the line that describes the Dharma as “rarely encountered.” The characters 難 遭遇 can be defined as ‘difficult to meet with or encounter.’ Yet, in terms of Buddhism, 遭遇 represents ‘one who has arrived’ (Pali: patta; Skt: prapta), or being fully grown and accomplished. It is the power of attaining everything (Pali: patti; Skt: prapti). This meeting or encounter is to enter and penetrate everything (Skt: upanipata). When Roshi Bernie was here in July he pointed out to us that the opportunity to encounter this is always right here. On the other hand, Roshi Seisen always says that—at the same time that just this is always right here, we don’t see it; we don’t see it, because of our delusions and our attachment to ideas and concepts. The first half of the gatha then became “The Dharma, incomparably profound and infinitely subtle, is always encountered, but rarely perceived, even in millions of ages, now we see it, hear it, receive and maintain it.”

As Roshi Seisen put it at the end of the workshop day: “Changing the gathas was a BIG DEAL!” It was also a great opportunity for us to look at the original Chinese and create something that reflected the training and practice we are doing at Sweetwater ZC these days. The above summary is an account of how I rendered this day that we changed the gathas at Sweetwater ZC. I hope that since it is on a blog that others who participated in the Study Council will freely offer their perspective, thus clarifying any important points and filling in gaps I may have missed. I also hope that others who did not participate will feel free to ask questions. Roshi Seisen is offering these Study Councils each month on a variety of topics. Everyone may see this as an opportunity to engage in the community at Sweetwater ZC. No matter what level you are in you Zen training and practice, you are welcome to participate. The schedule and other information can found at Thanks for reading!

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