By Rev. Jon Turner
When I went to Japan for ordination in 2012, we had to study and practice very hard to learn the SA HO. It is an elaborate ritual of chanting and movement. I wasn’t sure what SA HO meant but it was clearly marked in the Japanese service book as 作法. It is analogous to seeing an old friend but not being able to remember their name. That was the case for SA 作. To my pleasant surprise I remembered the second character. HO法 is the character for the Dharma.
I didn’t know it yet but HO was being used with one of its variant meanings. In this case, not for Dharma but instead for method. Later I looked up my long lost friend SA 作 and I was correct, I had seen it before. It is in the eighth verse of the Sanbutsuge:
Gan ga sa butsu
がん が さ ぶつ
願 我 作 仏
Vow I Make Buddha
This is often translated as “I vow to become a Buddha.” So SA作 can mean to make, to establish or to actualize. I prefer the translation to actualize or to realize over to become. Become implies a change of being while the others connote a change of perspective. But the significance of SA HO作法 in my red Japanese service book had not hit me yet. I still thought of it as the really elaborate ritual we had to do for ordination. Perhaps SA HO were just sound characters representing a word from India. Or maybe it meant that we make the Dharma when we perform this ritual.
Recently, I was re-reading the book Zen Ritual. When I first purchased this book I thought that it was an oxymoron. That was the reason I bought it. It was an intriguing title for me since everyone knows that Zen abandons all ritual. This is an American caricature of Japanese Buddhism. The subtitle of the book was Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice. This is theory as practice. In other words, we realize or actualize through performance and process.
Then I came to page 189. The same page that I had highlighted ten years ago while attending the Institute of Buddhist Studies. There it was, a quote from Patricia K. R. Arai:
“My first speculation is that back in the thirteenth century, [Zen Mater] Dogen might have thought of activities that today scholars, including myself, are tempted to apply the term ‘ritual’ to as SA HO or, rendered in my own translation, as “method of actualizing.”
SA HO 作法 was not a very difficult and elaborate ritual that I had to master. It was not even “the” SA HO 作法 but instead it was merely “a” SA HO 作法. It was one of many methods of actualization that is performed in the Buddhist tradition. This is a literal translation of SA 作 as to actualize and a HO 法 as a method. It is how we embody the teachings.
Growing up Protestant, we viewed rituals as excessive. Ritual was the practice of Catholicism. I shared this bias. Many new to Buddhism don’t appreciate our rituals either. The word “ritual” carries with it these negative connotations and we have to be very careful when labeling something in another religion that looks similar to our own. Many religions appear to be doing the same practices yet their meaning and self-understanding can be quite different. For example, the makuragyo service is not last rites though both are performed at the time of death.
I spent six weeks once teaching the importance of Buddhist ritual. For example, saying the Name Namuamidabutsu is a ritual as is bowing and chanting. We discussed how activities can transform the way we think. We embody theory through practice. At the end of the course, a gentleman came up to me and said that he really enjoyed the class and learned a lot. That it was interesting but he told me he still hated ritual and he was not interested in ever doing any of them.
It was then I learned that preserving this word “ritual” was just too demanding and labor intensive. There was just no way to overcome the history behind this word. Since then I have been using words like process or practice instead. I am now beginning to realize that perhaps I should begin using English words more like SA HO 作法 as Buddhists have done since the thirteenth century. In other words, we are performing methods of actualization when bowing, chanting and saying Namuamidabutsu. These are not mystical practices. They are theory in practice. It is where the head and heart meet and the teachings become actualized as a living tradition. It is where one manifests Buddha.
Rev. Jon Turner