A Zen Prayer for the Dead

A Zen Prayer for the Dead

After my father died, Zen Master Yangil Sunim wrote a prayer for me to recite first thing every morning until the Ghost Festival (also known as Ullambana Day) in August. The vivid and almost joyous energy of Sunim’s poetry was a daily consolation to me.

I’m sharing this prayer (which I have lightly edited for spelling and grammar) in case it is helpful to anyone else who is mourning a loved one:

Listen to my prayer, escort of eight Bodhisattvas
And you, Ji-Jang Bodhisattva, rowing the boat.
The Prajna Dragon Boat!
The Nine Levels of the Lotus Seat!
Play the heaven’s music and dance
To the Lord Amitābha’s world
Where the five-coloured light shines.
Please lead him to a realm of paradise
Where there is no suffering at all.

Notes on Sunim’s Prayer

  • The “eight Bodhisattvas” are the special retinue of Shakyamuni Buddha: Kṣitigarbha, Avalokiteshvara, Mañjushri, Vajrapani, Maitreya, Akashagarbha, Sarvanivaranavishkambhin and Samantabhadra.
  • “Ji-Jang Bodhisattva” is the Korean name for Kṣitigarbha. This bodhisattva is revered as the protector of the dead from the punishments inflicted by Old Yama and the other Ten Kings of Hell.
  • The “Prajna [i.e. Wisdom] Dragon Boat” is a mythic vessel in which the virtuous dead travel to Amitābha’s Pure Land. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Korean temples (like Sunim’s home temple of Tongdosa) were often decorated with paintings of Prajna Dragon Boats.
  • The “Nine Levels of Lotus Seat” is a refence to the belief that there are nine grades of seating in the Pure Land. The highest grade of lotus seat is closest to Amitābha’s throne, where one can most intimately receive his blessing and instruction. The karma of an infinitude of past lives determines which level a dead soul assumes. Traditionally, the nine levels are given the following ranks: the best of the best, middling of the best, worst of the best, best of the middling, middling of the middling, worst of the middling, best of the least, middling of the worst, and worst of the worst. Although no one wants to get stuck in the nosebleeds of heaven, the doctrine of the Nine Levels at least suggests that even “the worst of the worst” have a place in paradise.
  • The “Lord Amitabha’s world” is a reference to the Pure Land. Drawing from devotional Indian scriptures like the Sūtra on Contemplation of Amitāyus, many Buddhists believe that enlightenment is best achieved when one is reborn in a heavenly realm without suffering where the celestial Buddha Amitābha perpetually preaches the dharma. Entry to this Pure Land can be gained through a variety of devotional activities, especially contemplating Amitābha and reciting his name.
  • “The five-coloured light”: In the Sūtra on Contemplation of Amitāyus, when Shakyamuni wishes to give his listener a vision of the Pure Land, instead of speaking, he opens his mouth and issues rays of five-coloured light.