Atonement: Taking Responsibility
by Abbot John Daido Loori, M.R.O.

All evil karma ever committed by me since of old,
Because of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance,
Born of my body, mouth, and thought,
Now I atone for it all.
Many rites of passage that take place in the context of Buddhist practice include the Gatha of Atonement near the beginning of the ceremony. The Gatha of Atonement, or At-one-ment, creates a pure and unconditioned state of consciousness. It initiates an attitude of mind conducive to entering the rite of passage, a mind receptive and open to transformation. Rites of passage mark the entrance point into different realms, relationships, or states of being. Taking the precepts as one's life is a serious matter. When we vow to maintain them, making a commitment to manifest our life with the wisdom and compassion of the Tathagata, we, indeed, enter a different realm. And in that passage, the Gatha of Atonement establishes a clean slate.
Before a student actually arrives at this point, much hard work has already been accomplished. The practice of Zen, as well as the practice of the precepts, begins with a sense of inquiry. Before we enter, we search. If there is no search, the cup is full. There is no place to put the tea. When Master Te-shan, an academic expert in the Diamond Sutra, came to southern China, he was on a mission. He came to show the barbarians in the south that "the special transmission outside the scriptures" was utter nonsense.
He was indignant, full of himself, not able even to consider that there was anything to seek. There was no opportunity for Te-shan to learn anything. He had all the answers. He knew; he was very clear on that. The great doubt was not raised until his encounter with an old woman selling cakes by the roadside. She offered him one of her cakes for free if he could answer a question. Quoting a line from the Diamond Sutra, she asked, "If past mind, future mind, and present mind are ungraspable, with which mind will the venerable monk eat this cake?" Te-shan was unable to answer.
At this point the question appeared for him and his search began. The cup was turned upside down. The spiritual search begins when we open our mind and heart, raising to consciousness the possibility inherent in human life. We call it raising the bodhi mind. This raising of the bodhi mind simply means seeing, hearing, feeling, experiencing, and realizing in ways that were not even imagined before. It means opening the doors of perception and awareness.
My own experience with Buddhist liturgy stands in my mind as a good example of this shift in the level of perceiving and appreciating. As a monk I participated in hundreds of services and ceremonies. I sat through them, chanted and bowed my way through them, and I did not get it. I couldn't hear it. It didn't touch me. Then one day it all turned inside out. The invisible became visible. I have no idea how it happened. Not only did I start to see, hear, feel, and realize what the meaning of liturgy was, but it also assaulted my whole body and mind. It opened my eyes- not gently but by ripping my eyelids off. It pierced my heart like nothing had ever pierced it before. Why did that shift occur? I understood the chants before. I appreciated their meaning. I was clear on what was taking place. I knew the logic of the rituals. Yet, somehow, it did not touch me. Why? It is one of those mysteries. Why do people fall in love? Sometimes it happens with somebody that you have known for a long time. Suddenly there is "love." A whole transformation takes place.
Usually, out of that transformation and opening emerges practice. And practice is doing. Practice means commitment and action. We are no longer observers standing on the sidelines. We become participants. Unfortunately, simply to participate in the ceremony does not guarantee any results. I have given the precepts to probably 150 people in the fifteen years we have been at Zen Mountain Monastery. There are a number of recipients who disappeared from training within months of going through the ceremony. Some people think that receiving the precepts is like getting a badge of some sort, their diploma assuring them a better moral life. They consider themselves graduated after jukai. I advise some people who are persistent about receiving the precepts to wait. I ask them to let their practice mature. I do that when I have a feeling that the request to receive the precepts is not happening for the right reasons. It may be more a matter of hierarchy or status within the community than a matter of the heart.
The transformation associated with the rite of passage does not take place just because you go through the ritual. There needs to be the search that brings you to the point of inquiry, and there needs to be a raising of the bodhi mind. That raising of consciousness needs to have taken place, otherwise a new way of seeing, hearing, feeling and realizing doesn't happen.
With practice -the doing, the commitment, the action- there comes discovery and realization. As a result, the precepts begin to be actualized as our own life. We make conscious, in a very personal way, the identity of the life-stream of the Buddhas and ancestors with the life-stream of all sentient beings. Not the life-stream of the Buddhas and ancestors in identity with our life-stream alone, but the life-stream of the Buddhas and ancestors in identity with all sentient beings, which, of course, includes oneself.
Real atonement takes place only when the bodhi mind has been raised and practice is engaged. When that has happened, we're dealing with a very powerful spiritual magnet that attracts everything into the sphere of practice. Raising the bodhi mind, practice and enlightenment thus become one reality.
All evil karma ever committed by me since of old. Every cause has an effect, and every effect is the next cause. But we should always appreciate the fact that cause and effect are one; they are not two distinct events. Cause does not precede effect, and effect does not follow cause. This is why karma does not move in only one direction. Remarkably it moves backward in time and space as well as forward in time and space. It permeates the ten directions.
Because of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance. Greed, anger, and ignorance are the three poisons. They are the basis of evil karma. Transformed, they become the three virtues- compassion, wisdom, and enlightenment, and these qualities are the basis of good karma. They describe a way of being in harmony with the nature of all things. Born of my body, mouth, and thought. Body, mouth, and thought are the spheres of action where karma is created, both good and evil. What we do with our bodies, what we do with our words, and what we do with our thoughts, all lead to consequences, all establish specific karma. We should appreciate this fact thoroughly.
Body language speaks outwardly and inwardly. When you clench your fists and grit your teeth, you create anger mentally and physically. When you place your hands in the cosmic mudra, you create a state of consciousness that reflects introspection and peace. What we do with our bodies is who we are. It is for that reason that the posture of zazen is so important. When we bow, we manifest the body karma of the three virtues. When we gassho we manifest the body karma of the three virtues. It is nearly impossible to communicate the meaning of this in words. Most of it is a process of personal discovery. If you just sit cross-legged and make the cosmic mudra with your hands, you may appreciate how that mudra affects your whole being, how it can turn your attention inward to the deepest aspects of yourself. There are other mudras, some that turn you outward, toward the world, but all of them are about the karma of body.
Words are also karma. What we say has a tremendous impact on our lives and on the world around us. When we vow to attain the Way, we connect with the karma of that vow. In chanting the name of the Buddha, we are one with the Buddha. There is no separation. On the other hand, "God, give me a Mercedes" creates an immediate separation. When our words are motivated by compassion and wisdom, they manifest as wisdom and compassion. When our words are motivated by greed, anger, and ignorance, that's what they manifest. When we express goodwill, we create the karma of goodwill. When we express anger, we create the karma of anger.
There is also the illusive karma of thought, which is all too often unrecognized. Thought, in and of itself, has the ability to transform. Actually, transformation can occur in all three spheres, but generally we pay little attention to the cause-and-effect power of thought. We think it is a very personal, invisible process, and that nobody knows about it. But thoughts radiate like signals from a telecommunication satellite. We project what we are thinking in hundreds of ways. What we think touches the world and it touches us.
When thoughts move inward, and these thoughts are thoughts of greed, anger, and ignorance, we end up chewing up our own bodies. We end up destroying ourselves. This happens on both an individual and a collective level. Sometimes it is easy to see this in people's faces; somebody who is fifty years old looks a hundred; somebody who is a hundred years old looks fifty. Why? It is about body, mouth, and thought. It is karma that creates who we are, how we live our lives, how we relate to each other, and how we relate to ourselves. It is that simple and that important.
Now I atone for it all. When at-one-ment takes place with the whole body and mind, you have created a state that is pure and unconditioned. Spiritual realization and moral action are one reality. They are codependent - just like cause and effect. Enlightenment is not beyond good and evil, as popularized and consumerized Zen would have us believe. It is rather a way of using one's body and mind and living one's life with a clear and unequivocal moral commitment. Enlightenment is realized and actualized not only in the realm of good and evil but also within all dualities, and is at the same time not stained by those dualities. To take the Gatha of Atonement is to enter the practice of the precepts with the whole body and mind, prepared to make the enlightenment of all Buddhas, past and present, one's true self.