Gatha is a Sanskrit term meaning verse or hymn. In Buddhist literature it is used to designate the versified portion of the sutras.
As I prepare to embark on a journey through Buddhist gathas, three thin volumes sit at my side. One is a translation of the Dhamapada that my mother helped make more accessible to a Western audience, one is a sliver of a book by Thich Nhat Hanh entitled Present Moment Wonderful Moment, and the third is a book by Robert Aitken Roshi called The Dragon Who Never Sleeps.
Verse and meditation have been intimately linked since the beginning of religious thought. Part poetry, part affirmation, part vessel for wisdom, gathas cover a vast territory. Short and incisive, they supply us with a pocket practice we can carry anywhere and pull out at anytime. They are equally as useful for beginners as they are for advanced practitioners. The use of verse as a carrier for wisdom is not only found in Buddhism but also in other religions throughout the world. The Torah, the Psalms, the Bible, and the Koran are just a few examples of illuminated words that contain an experience of enlightenment within their syllables.
When we encounter just the right words a door to a more expansive reality opens up before us. We can enter there. The words may be different for different cultures, different ages, and different personalities, but their effect is the same. When we meet these words, the spiritual world becomes, not simply beautiful thoughts, but a very real experience of the numinous in the present moment. Gathas can bring us here. They remind us of the joy and depth that is available regardless of our circumstances.
Looking at these skinny little books, almost pamphlets really, it’s clear that an inquiry into gathas is not going to be about research or scholarship. Gathas are art forms. Because of this we can’t think our way through them. We need to feel and experience a gatha. It is a dance between our awareness and the present moment. The way into a gatha is through our own flesh and blood life-the dishes being washed, the snarky thought, the food being eaten, combined with an openness to experiencing life fresh. Here are a couple of gathas:
When I feel I haven’t got
I vow with all
To light incense, and making my
Touch the place of no time.
Robert Aitken, Roshi
Entering the meditation
I see my true
I vow that once I sit
All disturbances will stop.
Thich Nhat Hanh
The above gathas deal directly with meditation, but no situation is too small or too large for a gatha:
When the traffic is bumper to
I vow with all
To move when the world starts moving
And rest when it pauses again.
Robert Aitken, Roshi
May I cut you, little flower,
Gift of Earth and sky?
Thank you, dear bodhisattva,
For making life beautiful.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Each of these gathas deal with everyday life. Can you hear how different the voices of Aitken Roshi and Thich Nhat Hanh are? Both navigate the depths, yet each psyche is unique. Your awakening does not look like my awakening or Aitken Roshi’s awakening or Thich Nhat Hanh’s awakening, even thought we inevitably touch the same, basic truths. This is the case with the world’s great religions and mystical systems as well. Each system dives deep into the heart of the matter and brings up its treasures, conveying the depths using different languages and imagery for different cultures.
The challenges you encounter each day are different than the challenges I encounter. Because of this we may be attracted to different gathas. A gatha about ox herding is not so relevant to today’s city dweller. A gatha about waiting in traffic is not so relevant to someone who doesn’t drive. Allusions about plants and the seasons appeal to some, allusions about graffiti and bus stations to others. Images and language evoke different things to different people given their life experiences. For this reason we need to continue creating new poems, new literature and new gathas. They are living art forms.
We all have some experience of this depth of wisdom. It’s who we are. A gatha is designed to remind us of who we are and tap into that depth, as we are all prone to forget, over and over. Both beginners and seasoned practitioners need to be reminded of the bigger picture many times a day, regardless of how long we’ve been at this spiritual awakening journey. A gatha can aid in the realization of this purpose.
Nobody knows the best language to use or what situations we encounter daily better than ourselves. With a little support we can learn how to write our own gathas from that deep, still place within us. Using language that is meaningful to us, our homemade gathas will touch our hearts powerfully and directly. They will remind us of who we really are throughout the unique particulars of our day.
Hearth is embarking on a gatha writing experiment. What words resonate with you? Which parts of your day do you most need a gatha? How can you tap into a more awakened reality in order to bring more awareness into the mundane? If you feel called to explore this with us please contact me at email@example.com