Nancy’s talk continuing with the Four Bodhisattva Vows chanted after Dharma Talks and in our precepts ceremonies. See also the first talk by John Wiley.
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 will speak about the last two of these Great Vows—entering boundless gates and becoming what cannot be surpassed.
As John discussed so well last week regarding the first two, these vows are enormous, impossible if taken literally. So… how can we commit ourselves to doing what is implied in the vows themselves, to be impossible? How do reconcile our desire to save all beings, end all delusion, understand and be the living limitless Dharma, ultimately attaining the enlightenment of Buddha, with this impossibility?
I had been practicing Zazen for about three or four years, repeating the vows along with along with everyone else at the appropriate times—just like I recited the prayers and responses expected during the millions of Catholic Masses I attended growing up. And, just like that experience, I had been saying the Bodhisattva vows by rote for years. But, at the close of just a random day of sesshin at Samish some years ago, I actually heard what I was saying—and the enormity-this massive chasm between what I was saying and how I was practicing- how I actually wanted to be living my life—hit me–I mean, like a really big brick-WHAM!-and I couldn’t finish chanting the vows. I just started sobbing-and as everyone filed out I sat back on my cushion and cried and cried. I felt devastated-sickened by the certainty that I had failed, and would continue to fail. I had gotten caught not just in taking the words literally, but more overwhelming, the desire I felt to fulfill those vows, to BE that Buddha-and if I couldn’t do that…well, how worthless could I get?
I know how melodramatic this sounds—but it is what happened. Consumed with delusion that I should be that Buddha-but couldn’t-broke my heart.
Well, after I scraped myself off the zabaton and sniffled back to my cabin, I did not have a sudden enlightenment. I did realize I was indulging in two familiar paths of thinking: the striving of perfectionism and then the self-pity that ultimately follows. So this talk is a very good talk for me to give, as I have had to revisit that evening, and consider how my understanding of the Bodhisattva Vows has changed and continues to change with the study of the Dharma.
Last week John gave us the definition of vow. I would like to offer a sort of companion definition of the word “intentions”, as I believe that concept is instrumental in how to practice with the Great Vows. Webster’s defines “intentions” as: purpose or attitude as to the effect of one’s actions or conduct [on others or events]. Applied to the vow, “Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them”, Reb Anderson explains that though we say “enter”, the Chinese character in that vow literally means “to learn” or “to understand”. To learn or understand is not only directed towards studying the written words of Buddha’s teachings. He states that in practicing the 3rd great vow, “We recognize that everything that comes to us is the gateway to the truth and we vow to use every meeting with every other living being a thing as an opportunity for realizing the truth”. At the same time, there is no demand to enter all the possible gates, to force the creation of those opportunities, only to recognize them as they present themselves.
The Awakened Teacher’s Forum, a Buddhist internet site, discusses that the 3rd Vow also encompasses the practice of skillful means, citing examples of how Buddha suggested different practices for those who sought his help, depending on their individual needs, For one he “might emphasize Samatha [or just sitting] practice”, for another he would demonstrate that transmission of the dharma could be found outside the Doctrine, as in the case of Mahakashyapa’s smile.
Gil Frondale, a Soto Zen and Vipassana teacher and student of Jack Kornfield, sees the 3rd Great Vow as corresponding to both the 3rd and 4th Noble truths. The “Boundless Dharma Gates” offer multiple ways out of the truth of suffering and the causes of suffering. Although Buddha offers the eight-fold path as a guide away from suffering, the boundlessness of the Dharma Gates allows for myriad ways to find freedom from attachment and aversion.
The 4th Great Vow, “Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it” is the one that truly had me sobbing on my cushions that night of great delusion and self-pity; believing I had to become The Buddha before I could be a Buddha. Not realizing that Buddha nature is in everyone, being and place, I put myself outside the realm of reality, refusing to see that I was already there. Fear of not being good enough, turning my concern on myself rather than outward, to others, I REALLY suffered.
Reb Anderson writes that this vow can also be expressed as “Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to manifest it”. Manifesting Buddha’s way is allowing your own Buddha nature to be at the ready; practicing maintaining your awareness outward, towards others, so that when the opportunity to help others, learn from others arises, you are ready to engage. In this vow I am especially aware of the meaning of “intention”; maintaining the awareness of the effects of my actions on others. Again from thee Awakened Teachers Forum, there is a story that tells of three people, traveling in a desert and dying of hunger and thirst. They suddenly come upon a wall, look over it and see a paradise of food and drink and cool shade. Two of them rejoice and leap over the wall into that wonderful place. The third also rejoices, and turns back to the desert to help others find the paradise. And that is one of the best ways I can think of to manifest the Buddha way.