It aways feels like a great privilege and pleasure--indeed, a blessing--when Thanissaro Bhikkhu comes up from the Metta Forest Monastery in Valley Center to sit with us on a Sunday afternoon. He is possessed of an extraordinary range of knowledge, a depth of humanity, a sharp wit, and a spirit of good cheer that never fail to raise the spirits and enlighten.
This time, after the hour-long sit, I had the opportunity to ask him for his thoughts about blessing. It has been on my mind since little Luka was born because I have felt the need for some ritual to welcome him into the world and start him on his journey--something akin to baptism but, since I no longer share the Christian faith, not baptism. And not, from Ellie's religious tradition, the "briss." In this context, I have been wondering whether "blessing" involved the invocation of some ultimate authority, a divine being whose absolute power would give the blessing meaning. My father blessed, I have always assumed, with the authority of the God he was trained and ordained to serve. He was but the intermediary: the blessing did not quite come from him, a mere mortal, but passed through him to the recipient.
The same with prayer, which requires the pray-ee as well as the pray-er, some authority capable of receiving and, hopefully, granting it. Whether a rain dance or a down-on-your-knees, hands-pressed-together supplication, it would make no sense without a belief in a responsive--and responsible--power. Buddhists, generally, chant, but do not pray. As I understand it, the chant is a repetition of words of wisdom in the belief that the discipline of repetition will write the words more deeply into the heart of the practitioner; and perhaps join him or her in community with those who share the intention and devotion. It's an affirmation rather than a plea.
It was reassuring to know that there are Buddhist blessing rituals. To bless new arrivals in the world, Than Geoff told me, the custom is to wait until the baby is old enough for a first "haircut"--a ritual that involves snipping off a lock of the baby's hair, which is then given to the parents. (Better, perhaps, a lock of hair than the foreskin!) There is chanting, too, for the occasion. The purpose is akin to metta--to extend wishes for the child's well-being and happiness on the journey of life and not, as with baptism, to enroll him into a faith of which he can have as yet no understanding.
When I asked in a follow-up question what gives the authority to bless, if not some external, divine power, Than Geoff suggested that it comes from within, from the years of experience in meditation and the practice of a virtuous life. I like to think that my father's right to bless came from the same source, since I have trouble believing that it came from God. It's more likely, though, that it came from suffering, of which he did a great deal during his life. He used to give me his blessing at the altar rail every Sunday as a child, before I was old enough for the wine and wafer at the communion ceremony but would accompany my mother as she knelt reverently to receive hers. I still remember the touch of my father's hand on my head as he recited the words of a blessing I have now forgotten. And when he was on his deathbed, decades later, I placed his hand on my head and asked him for that blessing one more time, and listened to him fumble for the words he, too, had now forgotten.
It occurs to me sometimes, without arrogance I hope, that I might now myself be empowered to pass on that blessing from my father, with the intention described yesterday by Than Geoff. It need not be with the ritual "laying on of hands," but can be practiced silently, without the ritual. It's more of a thought, an energy, and in fact I experience it every day in the practice of metta, as a prelude to meditation. But here's the odd thing: the ritual does speak to me, alluringly, at some deep level of my being. When I find myself thinking about it, I actually feel a tingle in my hands that seems to want release... But then I accuse myself of presumption, and quickly back away. I still await the opportunity to overcome my reserve.