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 😀
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.