New Year Zen

On Wednesday, the Toledo Zen Center held a special New Year’s liturgy, in lieu of the normal weekly service. According to Chikyo Sensei, this was the first time the sangha was large enough to do the New Year’s liturgy. We even had a couple new people in attendance, which was fun; we all got to do new things together this time.

Our usual service involves a brief chant (usually the Heart Sutra), then seated meditation (zazen) for about 30 minutes, then walking meditation (kinhin) for something like ten minutes, then a talk by Chikyo, then a community discussion (usually over some green tea).

The New Year’s service was very different. It was basically two services in one; one to close the old year, and another to open the new. Without going into too much detail, we chanted while each individual in the sangha offered incense at the altar, then Chikyo offered a dedication, followed by another chant. We did this sequence twice: once for the old year, and once for the new. During the close of the old year, the theme seemed to be not only compassion for others and their struggles, but atonement for our individual karmic deeds over the past year. The new year was also dedicated to compassion; to serving others, helping them along the path, and all of us realizing the great way together.

Being raised in the Christian tradition, I always thought “atonement” had to involve pain and suffering, or some sort of punishment — “Christ atoned for our sins” and all that. I’m now coming to understand a new meaning of the word: to literally become “at one” with what you’ve done and said and thought, to repent, to make amends. It’s both simple and complex. It can be a challenge to accept what you’ve done and stop beating yourself up over stupid mistakes or bad outcomes. Become at one with it and move on.

The New Year’s service also helped me to realize that 2007 was, for me, a year of blessings in disguise. Something sh!tty would happen, but that sh!tty thing would open the door to something new that I hadn’t even considered before. Some opportunities involved major life changes, others just helped me realize the direction I should (or shouldn’t) go in the future. It’s hard to have regrets or hold grudges when cause and effect work to make me thankful for the sh!tty event that started the dominoes toppling.

In terms of the service itself: offering incense was a new experience for me (and for most of us). During the discussion afterward, one person mentioned that he was taken aback by the energy he felt in walking up the center aisle, surrounded by the chanting of fellow sangha members. I agree. Even though I’m not a “religious” person, and I’m not keen on going to church to worship a greater being, I find that I still crave gathering with spiritually like-minded individuals, all working toward a common understanding and a betterment of oneself. Knowing that a dozen other people are wishing you well — YOU, and only you, right now at this moment — essentially praying for you, but more directly, not via a greater being as a third party — being in the middle of that understanding and goodwill is a special thing.

I look forward to becoming an official member of the sangha shortly, and to realizing the great way with them this year, together.