Chant Book Talks: Bodhisattva Vows part 1

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May our intention equally extend to
Every being and place
With the true merit of buddha’s way.

Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.

Tonight I am going to talk about the chant we do after the dharma talk, which begins with “May our intentions equally extend to every being and place with the true merit of Buddha’s way. Beings are numberless, I vow to save them, Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them, Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them, Buddha’s way is inexhaustible, I vow to become it.”

Next week, Nancy Welch will talk about the last 2 vows and tonight I will cover the opening line and the first two vows. I am not someone who can put together a talk quickly. I have to think about what I am going to talk about, usually do some reading and research and writing the talk takes awhile too. But I like doing them, in part because I always learn something from the process—sometimes from the reading, sometimes from reflecting on some part of my practice, or how the topic applies to my practice. And that happened here as well.

The first thing that struck me was the word “intentions”, which is defined by Webster’s as “exertion of the mind, determination to act in a certain way.” I think meditation practice has helped me enormously to be more aware of my intentions, especially with speech and actions. If I am lucky, before I speak or act, I have some time to reflect on what I intend and what the impact might be. ;And also during and after speech and actions, noticing the impact. So sometimes I can stop myself when I have doubts about what I am about to say or do. I can also try to repair damage or do better next time if I have made a mistake. When I was younger, I didn’t pay much attention to how my words or actions impacted others, and I am really grateful for how much the practice has helped me notice this over the years.

But what came up for me about intention is something else besides words and actions. I am not sure how to describe it but I started asking myself questions like, “in general, what are my deeper intentions in life, beyond what I say and do? How do I want to live my life? What do I want to pay attention to? What do I want to give my energy to?” Those kind of questions. I have thought about these things before, but they often get put aside by more day to day things. I appreciate being reminded of these questions I often don’t have answers to those kind of questions or when I do, the answers end up changing. And maybe the answer isn’t so important, but asking the question is and I have been keeping those questions in mind more often since working on this talk.

Paying attention to this fits in with the 2nd step of the eightfold path—right view or right thought. Since thoughts are the forerunner of actions and, according to the Buddha, what we think along with what we say and how we act creates karma, so thoughts can be as important as what we do and say and intention has an impact on speech, actions and thinking.

For the vow part of this chant, I have been reading Living by Vow by Shohaku Okumura. Shohaku is a Japanese priest, in his mid 60’s trained in Japan, who came to the U.S. nearly 30 years ago. He was involved with the Minnesota Zen Center and later founded his own center in Bloomington Indiana. He is an excellent writer, especially when writing about Eihei Dogen. Another of his books I looked at in preparing for this talk was Realizing Genjokoan—which is a guide to understanding some of Dogen’s writings. The usual definition of vow is “a solemn promise, a personal commitment, a religiously binding promise made to God or a saint or any diety—a promise to perform some act, or service or make a gift.” Part of the definition of a bodhisattva—one who seeks enlightenment through the practice of Buddhism—is living by vow rather than living by karma. According to Okumura, karma involves habit and preferences or a ready made system of values based on the culture we have around us. Living by vow is like a compass that shows the way toward Buddha. Okumura talks about vow as a foundation for our life that is not moved by human sentiment. We vow towards Buddha, towards something absolute and infinite, Vows are our direction. A bodhisattva vows to help others and stay behind in the world, not entering nirvana until all others have entered first.

The bodhisattva vows are connected to the 4 noble truths. The first truth—the presence of suffering in our lives—and the vow to save all beings, and the 2nd truth—suffering is caused by delusion—by misunderstanding how life really is—by clinging and aversion—and the 2nd vow—delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.

I remember Norman Fischer talking about these vows in one of his talks and saying its impossible to meet these vows, they are unattainable—no one can save all beings or end all delusions. So, you don’t have to feel bad or guilty about not succeeding, and at the same time, since the job is never done, you don’t ever give up. Keep at it day after day, year after year—it will never be finished. You do this in a way that is sustainable—saving all beings includes each of us—its ok to rest or take a break, to work in a healthy, sustainable way. Okumura is saying the same thing when he writes “To vow to save all beings doesn’t mean we believe that we have the power to help all those who are in trouble. Imagining that were so would be arrogant. To save all beings means to be one with all beings. Norman makes a similar point in his 3 recommendations to priests—which is good advice for all of us. 1. be humble 2. Try to be helpful 3. See everyone as Buddha.

Realizing our oneness with all beings and all things is a life’s work and perhaps the work of several lifetimes and the same can be said of becoming free from delusion. Studying the obstacles that affect each one of us and studying Buddha’s teachings and trying to bring them into our daily life is also the work of a lifetime and more. I want to quote something from Living by Vow and then something from Realizing Genjokoan, so first, “Our practice is the whole of our life, not something special that we do only in the monestary or at a sesshin or retreat. These are important parts of our practice, but the Buddha taught us just to awaken to the reality of our lives and live on the basis of that reality. According to Dogen, our sitting is not part of our practice, but rather other activities are part of our zazen. This is what is meant by the phrase ‘our zazen is absolute.’ “ In Realizing Genjokoan, Okumura makes a related point about Dogen’s views.

“Delusion and enlightenment lie only within the relationship between self and others. Delusion is not some fixed thing within our minds that, if eliminated, will be replaced by enlightenment. As long as we are alive we exist only within relationship to everything that we encounter in our lives.”

So, delusion or enlightenment lies in our interaction with everything we encounter in life at each moment, one moment after another, after another

I was thinking, what would be some day to day examples of trying to work with these 2 vows? With the first vow, smiling at a homeless person and saying good morning instead of ignoring him or her. Picking up some garbage and throwing it away instead of walking around it. Really listening to someone with an open mind, without thinking about how you will respond and trying to listen at the same time. Things like that come to mind.

Working with delusions seems harder, maybe because they can often be hidden and hard to notice. It would be interesting to have a group discussion sometime, maybe a sangha conversation about working with these vows, so we could benefit from each other’s practice and experience. When I think of delusions for myself, one that I run into a lot is an opinion about how things ought to be—what ought to be done, when it ought to be done and how it ought to be done—whether that applies to me, another person, and organization—like an insurance company (and we have been dealing with those a lot these days) or the government. To work with this I have been trying to notice what my opinions are, seeing how things actually turn out when it doesn’t go “my way”, and noticing if it really matters. Often it doesn’t and sometimes the result is better. So, I have been trying to turn down the volume on my opinions—they will still be there, I am sure, but I am trying to put less weight on them.

So these are some of the things that have come up for me studying this material. I like the idea of keeping at it, trying to see more clearly, being kind to ourselves about mistakes—acknowledging them, learning from them and continuing on. I think that when we pay attention to these vows in day to day life, in our imperfect, human way, then the merit of Buddha’s way is being expressed.

Thank you for listening

About Seishu John Wiley

John is a Lay Entrusted teacher of Red Cedar Zen Community.
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