Wishes and Prayers

Happy New Year dear fellow pilgrims. I pray that 2023, the Year of the Water Rabbit, brings you good health, many moments of spontaneous joy, lots of warm fuzzies and relief from any suffering. Do you have any wishes or prayers for 2023?*

During the past month, I yarn-bombed the beautiful old tree in front of Wabi’an, covering its branches with the colourful lengths of knitting I’d done over the past year while listening to audiobooks, podcasts and the telly. Thus decorated, the tree became “The Wishing Tree”, ready to receive the wishes of my grandchildren, which they wrote on small wooden boards and tied them to its branches. This custom is common in the grounds of temples and shrines all over Japan, where the wooden plaques, called ’ema’, carrying the prayers and wishes of petitioners, can be seen waving in the breeze.

Among their wishes, one grandchild (11yrs) wished for the end of Covid and on the reverse side wished that Russia would end the war in Ukraine, one grandchild (6yrs) wished for a unicorn, and one grandchild (3yrs) wished for three babycinos!

Whilst I was genuinely moved by my granddaughter’s wishes for the pandemic and peace, and laughed at my granddaughter’s wish for a magical creature and my grandson’s desire for lots of frothy milk, it reminded me of an important practice that I first learned when taking the thousands of prayers on pilgrimage in Japan to the sacred sites of Kannon, Goddess of Compassion, and which I remind myself of daily when reciting prayers that have been sent to me by fellow pilgrims to be offered here in Wabi’an.

In the early days of my role as a “Prayer Vessel”, reciting the prayers at the pilgrimage temples, entrusted to me as their proxy by fellow pilgrims from around the world, I have to admit to a flawed personal failing: I found it quite challenging to stand before the temple altar and recite the prayer from a mother asking for healing the cancer of her beloved child, with the same complete open heart and full sincerity as the person who wanted to get a good sale price for their house. Somehow the content of these prayers just seemed too diverse to recite with equanimity. However, my role was not evaluate the respective ‘merit’ of these prayers, but to offer the prayers, each and every one, each and every time, with a completely open heart and without judgement and so this challenge became my constant practice.

Gradually, after visiting many sacred places and reciting the prayers over and over, what I came to realise was that all of the prayers were completely equal and each was to be honoured equally regardless of their content. That is, the words within a prayer are not somehow ‘better’ or ‘more worthy’ than any other words. If a prayer is offered with sincere intention, those words become the vehicle for that intention; the content of the prayer becomes the manifestation of that open-hearted intention and sincerity, which is sent out into the world in the form of words.

And so it became a deep practice to allow that innate Compassion that we all possess to flow freely within me, without the obstruction of my own prejudices, and offer each and every prayer with the same humility, complete attention and earnest intention. And as I gained more practice, the compassionate act of offering prayers developed to a point where “I” no longer recited the prayers but became a simple embodiment of the words expressing themselves: as if the prayers were reciting themselves in the voice of their own petitioner. It was such a privilege and blessing!

When truly reciting prayers with deep humility and equanimity, it is just like when the breeze takes the wishes of my grandchildren and carries them to the ears of the one who needs to hear and act, the breeze does not choose or reject which wishes to carry: They are all equally carried and equally received. My granddaughter said that she hoped the wind would carry her wish to Putin and he would hear her voice in his dreams. I hope so too. And I hope my grandson gets his babycinos! And who knows what a ‘unicorn’ might look like ๐Ÿ˜€

And I sincerely pray that your own wishes, prayers, aspirations, intentions and hopes are heard and answered in 2023. Happy New Year.

*Is there a difference between “wishes” and “prayers”? I don’t think so. Unfortunately, in our Western culture, “prayer” is a loaded word with many often undesirable religious connotations and colouring. That is why I often just ask a fellow pilgrim, “What do you wish for?” and whatever the reply, it is heard by me as a “prayer”: a heartfelt desire for something to change in themselves or in the world.

My Grandfather’s Clock

There is a wonderful medieval Japanese folktale that tells of a group of discarded tools and household items, thrown onto a pile of rubbish, who became animated spirit objects called tsukumogami. The tsukumogami, which included abandoned teapots, fans, shoes, scissors, rosary beads, pots, hammers, etc, were angry at their previous owners, who had failed to honour all their hard work by throwing them away, and so they wreaked havoc and mischief on their owners until they are pacified by a Shingon Buddhist ritual. The tsukumogami then became devout Buddhists and subsequently all achieved enlightenment.

It is believed that when they reach one hundred years of age, all tools and household articles become sentient beings. Therefore, there are many rituals held still in Japanese temples where you can offer your used tools and pray for their enlightenment. One lovely ritual, observed annually at temples and shrines throughout Japan on February 8th, is called Hari Kuyo and involves placing your used sewing needles into a block of tofu so that they might retire in a soft place after all their hard work.

In the Shingon Buddhist tradition, all things are said to possess a spirit and thus all things – humans, animals, plants, rocks, fabricated objects – are ‘alive’ and are all capable of being enlightened beings. This stems from the deeper principle that no thing in the whole universe exists as separate to any other thing – we are all completely interdependent. The great Vietnamese monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, calls this “interbeing“. And enlightenment is the deep realisation of the truth of this interdependence.

This belief that everything is alive is also very prominent in the worldview of First Nations peoples and accounts for their inseparable connection to Country, of which they are not only the custodians but Country is an integral part of their very being.

My grandfather’s clock

Many years ago, my grandfather made me a clock: he found the various pieces he needed strewn amid the discarded debris at the local shire rubbish tip in Shark Bay, where he lived in the far north-west of Australia. He found an old clock face, bits of metal to make the workings, some metal tubing cut to fit the clock face, a piece of wood to house it in, and the handle of a discarded sewing machine case.

Although my grandfather died in 1992, the clock remains as the manifestation of the actions of his body moving through the red dusty country of Shark Bay, amid the heat and smells and sounds of the rubbish tip; the actions of his hands manipulating tools, which he also found or crafted, as he fashioned the clock in the hot corrugated iron shed that looked out over the blue ocean on one side and the red desert on the other; the sounds of his breath as he sighed over mistakes or sang snatches of old bush songs.

All of my grandfather’s thoughts and actions and breath are the clock itself, not inside it, but of its very essence and substance. And when I received the clock from his hands, with gratitude and delight, I too became a part of that story, that being, that clock. And of course, in a very real DNA way, I am also my grandfather on a cellular level. And so my grandfather’s clock is a living being, that is at once my grandfather and also not-my-grandfather. The clock and my grandfather and myself all inter-be.

And as I walk past the clock many times every day, glancing at the time, I feel a deep gratitude when I hear his heartbeat tick-tick-ticking in syncopated rhythm with my own heartbeat as we continue to inter-be: my grandfather, the clock and me.

What if everything you interact with is alive? How does that change your relationship to the things around you: your phone, a cup of tea, the trees, the ants, your house, the clouds? Feel your breath flowing out into the living world, feel your breath drawing that living world back into your body. What does it feel like to inter-be with all the things present right now in the space around you?

“Thank you” to Country

Within the grounds of my home temple on Mt Koya, there stands a small Shinto shrine that enshrines the local indigenous spirits of the earth, water, trees and sky. Part of the daily morning ritual for the community of monks and nuns is to stand on the open verandah, facing the shrine in the garden to offer thanks for to the native deities for their continued presence and protection. It is a reverent act of gratitude to Nature.

For over a thousand years, Shinto shrines have co-existed within the same grounds as Buddhist temples throughout Japan, with the two religions supporting each other: simply put, Shinto honoured the spirits of nature, Buddhism honoured the ancestors.

And here where I live, on Bindjareb Country in the Noongar Nation, as part of my daily ritual when I open up the doors to Wabi’an to greet the morning, I recite a prayer in Noongar that was generously written and gifted to me by local Elder, George Walley, in which I thank the spirits and the ancestors for taking care of Country and all who dwell upon it. Just as in Japan, this is a reverent act of gratitude to the local spirits of the earth, water, trees and sky.

In this part of the world, the Noongar word for “thank you” is “yaankga”. You can hear George pronouncing this word here. What is the First Nations word for “thank you” where you live? Why not make it a part of your daily routine to express your gratitude to the spirits of Country in their local language?


Me too! “Doomscrolling” was the Macquarie Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2020 and throughout the year I embraced it with gusto! I would find myself awake at 3am scrolling through the newsfeeds in Australia, in the UK, in the USA, in the world, reading the latest updates globally for pandemic news and more news on the chaos in America and other political hotspots. It became like a vital urge to know everything. And it developed into a deeply entrenched habit. A bad habit.

Of course, it was natural to be concerned about what was happening with Covid19 and it was indeed sensible to be kept up-to-date and informed. But I found that my mind was in a constant state of ‘noise’, like an annoying buzzing sound in the background of everything I did. When my attention to the pandemic went beyond the need-to-know level and gradually escalated to catastrophising, it began to impact on my mental health. And before I knew it, I was just feeling anxious all the time.

One night, in the wee hours, when I was doomscrolling away, it suddenly hit me that I was constantly feeding this shit to my mind and it wasn’t healthy! The constant buzz of negativity was now becoming like the dark, consuming background to my whole waking (and sleeping or non-sleeping!) life. I wanted to stop this obsession with the newsโ€ฆ but how?

There is a teaching in one of the old Pali sutras, which says:

Whatever a person frequently thinks about and ponders, that will become the inclination of their mind. If you frequently think about and ponder unhealthy states, then your mind will incline to unhealthy states. If you frequently think about and ponder healthy states, you will abandon unhealthy states, and then your mind will incline to healthy states.

Majjhima Nikaya 19

There is no doubt about it – any bad habit is very difficult to stop. However, I do believe that the years I have invested in a meditation practice, although clearly is not a panacaea for every mental ailment, did in fact help me. It provided me with an awareness tool that I needed to even realise there was a problem. In the midst of one of my doomscrolling sprees, I had just enough mental space to bring in that sudden awareness that is essential to breaking through a habit you want to change. The awareness is the key and the first step. And of course, as with many moments in our lives, it was simply a “WTF am I doing?” moment!

So here’s how I changed my doomscrolling habit. This was my own process and I found something that worked for me, but that doesn’t mean that this particular solution will work for you. Nonetheless, I think the underlying process is a useful tool that you could adapt to your own personality and inclinations.

The first question I asked myself was, “What can I replace the newsfeed with, so that I can begin to cultivate a ‘healthy’ state of mind?” My solution was to subscribe to a feed from Tricycle (Buddhist journal) called “Dhamma Wheel”: a daily quote from a Buddhist sutra, which then has a brief Reflection and a recommended awareness Practice for the day.* So it is just one small thought or action to use throughout the day, which acts as an anchor for my day and provides an alternative background to the doomscrolling.

So instead of turning to my newsfeed the moment I wake up, I read the reflection and just make a note to myself of one thought or action that I can focus on during the day. At the start of this change, I made a conscious decision not to look at the newsfeed after reading the Daily Dhamma, just to try and curtail the habit. It was actually pretty difficult and I was surprised by that! Doomscrolling had really hooked me in.

This method of replacing doomscrolling with reading something inspirational may sound a bit corny, but it has been surprisingly effective. If you’ve been stuck in doomscrolling, I would highly recommend finding some online uplifting daily feed that suits your own personality and try it. There are plenty of offerings out there to suit any spiritual inclination. I actually find the Buddhist Daily Dhamma helpful because it isn’t just a saccharine feel-good inspiration meme, of the kind that proliferates Facebook feeds! Instead, it is giving me something to reflect upon and then act – it is the daily shift to action that has helped me change that doomscrolling habit.

This new practice doesn’t mean that I just turn away from what is happening in the world – well, let’s face it, that is pretty much impossible anyway! No, I’m still aware of the headlines but I’m no longer actively engaging with doomscrolling – it is no longer an anxiety producing buzzing. Instead, I can remind myself throughout the day of the note I’ve made first thing in the morning, which becomes a gentle humming background instead. It’s such a relief ๐Ÿ™‚

*Just to let you know, “Dhamma Wheel” is a paid subscription, which acts as an engaging year-long course in Buddhist teachings from Tricycle’s online courses, but you can also get a free “Daily Dharma” inspirational quote from Tricycle by subscribing with your email address, which also link to an online article.

Year of the Ox

2021 is the Year of the Yin Metal Ox, which suggests a combination of the Feminine with Strength and Resilience. A reflection on this suggests to me that it is a year to focus on our innate, intuitive wisdom that can be harnessed to help us remain strong and to see through any of the difficulties that 2021 may present. The flexibility implied in the Feminine can also help to prevent that Strength from turning into a rigid Metal form: think of Gold, which can be beaten and beaten, but it will just get more brilliantly burnished and spread out into fine and malleable forms without losing any of its beauty.

On my kitchen wall I have a lovely old scroll that I obtained in Japan many years ago: I was immediately taken by its whimsical image, without any understanding of its symbolic meaning. I love the laziness of the image: a peasant quietly and happily playing her flute, sitting comfortably astride an ox, that is glancing up to the clear, bright full moon as it walks through a darkened field, lit up by the moonlight. I always feel instantly relaxed when I look at it.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that the image is a part of a series of Zen images called The Ten Oxherding Pictures that relate to the ten stages of Zen practice. You can read more about the meaning of each picture here and here.

The picture that I have is Stage Six: Riding the Ox Home. It refers to having tamed your mind, represented by the ox, to the degree where you are on your way home together, in harmony, in peace, no longer having to struggle to tame the stubborn ox-mind. In practice terms, it is the stage where you’re able to tame your thoughts and sit in meditation in peace, without being carried away by your incessant thoughts.

The feeling is one of peace, of being freed from fears and worries and anxieties and now you can become truly creative, finding expression from a free and open mind, tapping into the wellspring of creativity. It is really inspiring, isn’t it!

Yet what I notice about my scroll, as opposed to others that I’ve seen, is that the ox here has turned its head towards the full moon, which represents enlightenment, or our innate wisdom-heart. Why? Perhaps it is a gentle reminder that when you feel happy and content and playful and creative – and all the good things that come from an engaged spiritual practice – it is easy to get absorbed in those good vibes and actually forget that more practice is still needed to be free from suffering and to be a compassionate agent of change in the world. So it reminds me to always fully enjoy the good vibes, but remember to keep up my daily practice and don’t become too complacent ๐Ÿ™‚