Request for Dharma: Creation, Expansion & Adaptation (Part 1)

//Request for Dharma: Creation, Expansion & Adaptation (Part 1)

Request for Dharma: Creation, Expansion & Adaptation (Part 1)

Hualien from Amitabha Monastery

Next week Sarah and I will be going to visit Dharma Master Heng Yin at Amitabha Monastery. This visit corresponds with our 3rd wedding anniversary, which Heng Yin attended, creating a nice bit of symmetry. While discussing the visit, Heng Yin asked me to teach the nuns at Hualien a new chant in English. Sarah suggested the “Request for Dharma” I’d written last year. I resisted, explaining that though attractive, this new melody was not musically compatible with the current ceremony. By contrast, although “clunky,” and perhaps in need of replacement, the current English version was compatible with the contemporary usage*.

*Aside: At this point, and to my great surprise, Heng Yin sheepishly admitted that she was the composer of the current “clunky” English version. Apparently Venerable Master Hua wanted an English version ASAP, so Heng Yin and another nun huddled in a room off the Buddha hall and produced it … another bit of symmetry.

In my last post I discussed the creation of a native English liturgy, contrasting this with the expansion or adaptation of current Chinese models. In this posts and the next, I will look at the creation, expansion and adaptation of liturgy in light of DRBA’s (Dharma Realm Buddhist Association) “Request for Dharma.”

Let’s start with an overview of the “Request for Dharma” ceremony.

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Request for Dharma: Origin

Requests for teaching have been part of Buddhist tradition since its inception. In the Ayacana Sutta’s enlightenment story, the Brahma Sahampati, Lord of the World, comes to the Buddha and implores him to teach the Dharma.

“… behold the people submerged in sorrow, oppressed by birth & aging.
Rise up, hero, victor in battle! O Teacher, wander without debt in the world.
Teach the Dhamma, O Blessed One: There will be those who will understand.”

First turning of Dharma Wheel

First turning of Dharma Wheel

Responding to Sahampati request, the Buddha agrees to teach the Dharma to “those with ears.” Referred to as the “first turning of the wheel,” the Buddha begins by instructing his five ascetic companions.

“[I’ll] teach these five excellent ascetics the Dharma before I teach anyone else, [as] they will understand my Dharma when I teach it for the very first time.” ~ Lalitavistara Sutra

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[tagline_box backgroundcolor=”” shadow=”no” shadowopacity=”0.1″ border=”1px” bordercolor=”” highlightposition=”top” content_alignment=”left” link=”” linktarget=”_self” modal=”” button_size=”” button_shape=”” button_type=”” buttoncolor=”” button=”” title=”The Dharma as Medicine” description=”” margin_top=”20px” margin_bottom=”10px” padding_bottom=”10px” animation_type=”0″ animation_direction=”down” animation_speed=”0.1″ animation_offset=”” class=”” id=””]The request for Dharma shows a cultivator’s sincerity and receptivity.
The cultivator relies on the teacher’s compassion and wisdom.

If a doctor force-feeds drugs to a sick person encountered at the mall, the police wouldn’t characterize this distributions as therapeutic. In the same way, applying the medicine of Dharma should be only done upon request. As I understand it, a teaching without a request is not considered a true dharma teaching.[/tagline_box]
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Request for Dharma: Sutras

Sutras frequently start with a request for Dharma. Usually told in narrative form, a monk, layperson or even a celestial being asks the Buddha to explain a concept or principle.  (A notable exception is the Amitabha Sutra which the Buddha teaches without request. The Buddha indicated that the concepts in this sutra where so profound, no living being would know to ask about them.)

In the Surangama Sutra, the disciple Ānanda is tricked and narrowly avoids breaking a precept.

“When Ānanda saw the Buddha, he bowed and wept in sorrow…
Respectfully and repeatedly he asked the Buddha to explain for him the elementary steps that lead to attainment in the wondrous practices of calming the mind, contemplative insight, and meditation in stillness practices through which the Thus-Come Ones from all ten directions had become fully awakened.”

Sangha members also receive requests for teaching. In one of my favorite stories, a layperson comes to the Jade Grove intending to make an offering to, and request Dharma from, the Buddha. At that time, the Buddha and his disciples were away on a trip, leaving only a young novice to watch the gate. Undaunted, the devout layperson persuades the novice to come to his house, accept an offering, and teach Dharma. The Novice accepts that offering, but when the layperson bows down to requested Dharma, the novice panics. “How can I teach the Dharma?” The layman, bowed to the ground and waiting patiently, doesn’t notice the novice’s hasty retreat. When the layman finally looks up, the novice is gone. <source?>

6th Patriarch Huineng

6th Patriarch Huineng

In a later example, after receiving an offering, the 6th Patriarch Huineng (惠能, 638–713) is asked to explain a difficult concept.

“One day, Prefect Wei hosted a large vegetarian feast on behalf of the Master. After the meal, the Prefect asked the Master to ascend the dais [take the formal lecture seat]. Along with the officials, scholars, and assembled people, he respectfully bowed and asked, “Your disciple has listened to the Master’s explanation of the Dharma. It is truly inconceivable, but I now have a few doubts, and hope you will be compassionate and resolve them for me.”

The Master said, “If you have any doubts, then ask, and I will explain them for you.”

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Request for Dharma: Vinaya

The above examples follow similar patterns: an offering is made, the supplicant bows to the teacher and instruction is requested. Ānanda’s request seems to have been driven by emotional distress, but Prefect Wei’s request to Huineng seems to follow a more established formula. It would be interesting to know when requests for instruction started to be codified into ceremonial procedures.

Changlu ZongzeThe earliest extant complete set of Chinese Vinaya rules, Chanyuan qinggui (禪苑清規– The Rules of Purity in the Chan Monastery), was compiled from earlier sources in 1103 C.E. by Chan Master Zongze (長蘆宗賾, died c. 1107). Contained within, Zongze describes a process for requesting instruction, a procedure which is not unlike contemporary practice. One at a time, requesting monks light and offer incense. The leader of this group then bows to the teacher and makes the following request:

“For us, X [group leader’s name] and fellow monks, the questions of life and death are extremely significant. All things are impermanent and fleeting. So we humbly request the abbot’s compassion to give us instruction on the causes and conditions of attaining enlightenment.”

Should the teacher agree, the leader returns to the group, after which all unfold their mats and bow three times. Interestingly, instruction did not necessarily commence immediately, but could happen at a later time.

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Request for Dharma: Contemporary Practices

Dharma Realm Buddhist Association

In DRBA temples, a member of the community offers incense to the teacher and the Dharma realm, circumambulating around the temple’s alter and the teacher three times. After returning to the group, the layperson bows three times and chants the “Request for Dharma”.

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恭請大德僧聽,
為此法會及一切眾生,
請轉妙法輪,教導我們,
如何了生脫死,離苦得樂,
速證無生。

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“Will the Sangha with great virtue, out of compassion.
For the sake of this assembly, and all living beings.
Please turn the wonderful Dharma-wheel,
to teach use how to end suffering and attain bliss, and end birth and death,
and quickly realize non-birth.”

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When Dharma is requested, a response is typically chanted by the teacher. This response should be viewed as part of the ceremony.

For at least 900 years, and probably much longer, Buddhists in China have been following a similar procedure. Supplicants offer incense, bow three times, call on the teacher’s compassion, and request instruction on “the great matter” (ending birth and death).

The first 5:30 minutes of the following video constitute a request for Dharma (bowing happens off screen). This is followed by a response from the teacher, which apparently is specific to DRBA.

I am not sure of the provenance of the text currently used by DRBA.
Perhaps a reader will be able to clarify.

Thai Forest Tradition

A layperson in the Thai Forest Tradition bows three times, puts their palms together and recites a request for Dhamma in Pāli. The assembly then bow three more times. For our non-Pāli readers (me), pay special attention to the English translation. Notice that the text used is markedly similar to the original request made by Brahma Sahampati in the Lalitavistara Sutra.
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Brahmā cà lokādhipàtī sàhampàti
Kàtañjàlī anàdhivàraṃ àyācàtha
Santādha sàttāppàràjakkhà-jātikā
Desetù dhammaṃ ànùkampìmaṃ pàjaṃ

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“The Brahma Sahampati, Lord of the world,
With palms joined in reverence, requested a favor:
Beings are here with but little dust in their eyes,
Pray, teach the Dhamma out of compassion for them.”

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Here is a layperson performing the Pāli version:

After the talk has concluded, the assembly joins their palms together in acknowledgement and thanks, reciting:
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(One person:) Hánda mayaṃ dhammakathāya sādhukāraṃ dadāmase
(All respond:) Sādhu sādhu sādhu anúmodāmi

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(One person:) Now let us express our approval of this Dhamma Teaching.
(All respond:) It is well, I appreciate it.

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Next Time

In the next post, I will focus on the musical aspects of the request, leaving the response for a latter time. I will also define what I mean by “native”, “expanded” and “adapted liturgies.”

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Sources

By |2016-08-06T07:31:07+00:00June 19th, 2016|Buddhist|0 Comments

About the Author:

I am currently living and studying Buddhist music and liturgical development at Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts. I received a B.M. in instrumental performance (tuba) and a B.M. in music theory from West Chester University, a M.M. in Composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.Ed in Instructional Design from San Francisco State, as well as a Ph.D. in Composition at the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, he has been creating online music theory courses for Rutgers University, working as an instructional designer at UC Berkeley, and blogging at about music and technology. (http://musictoolbox.org)

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Stephen Wilcox

Stephen Wilcox

Currently living and studying Buddhist Music at Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts, I am doing my best to learn all I can about this amazing liturgy. I received a B.M. in instrumental performance (tuba) and a B.M. in music theory from West Chester University, a M.M. in Composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.Ed in Instructional Design, as well as a Ph.D. in Composition at the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, he has been creating online music theory courses for Rutgers University, working as an instructional designer at UC Berkeley, and blogging at about music and technology (http://musictoolbox.org) His dissertation, Cho-Han, was performed by Osmo Vänska and the Minnesota Orchestra as part of the 2007 Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute. A BMI award winner and MacDowell Fellow, he attended the Summer Composition Workshop in Hoy, Scotland, where he worked with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. His other honors include awards from the Arts Fund, NACUSA, New Music Delaware, “Friends and Enemies of New Music”, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Prism Saxophone quartet.

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