Monday, 25 February 2013

A Reading of the Bodhisattva Vow

Credit to "Psychedelic Buddha" search on Google Images

All beings, without number, I vow to liberate 

Endless blind passions I vow to uproot 

Dharma gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate 

The way of the Buddha I vow to attain
Beings are numberless; I vow to awaken with 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.”

Greetings readers.
As always it is a pleasure to address you and make your acquaintances. Today’s post is going to be focused on “the greatest of all vows,” “the vow made for those who are ready,” “the very vow that the Buddha himself took,” etc etc.

Are you noticing that there is some importance to this vow? We may all have heard the vow and read various versions of it, but how much do we really think about it beyond its obvious peaceful message?

My first encounter with the vow was being told that it was something that “I should do” as a “Buddhist.” I took the vow at a Zen Center and began my Buddhist journey. Yet it has only been somewhat recently that I have begun thinking about the vow a lot more.

What does it really mean?

Is it as peace-loving-hippie-mumbo-jumbo that so many people are led to believe?

Is this a vow of passivity or a vow made by a person for action?
Is it both?

What does this vow mean to the Buddhist who takes the vow and then in doing so, promises to live for the sake of others. I don’t mean to go on and on about such weird questions (which I will address) but we, like people in all other traditions, forget about the intensity of what we talk about, claim, and vow to do.

Before I actually begin talking about the vow I invite you to take a few minutes and read the vow a few times and just think about it. My words are the way that I read it and the way I believe it can apply to everyone, Buddhist or not, but when an individual vows to end the suffering of the world, the understanding must first be on one’s own terms. We must internalize what we are vowing to do before we can move forward because, although helpful in most cases, rationalization of something like this can only get us so far.

Silence, Thought, and Voice

After having taken a few minutes to think about the vow myself, I return!

“All beings without number, I vow to liberate.”

First, the vow states that the being who takes this vow will not attain Nirvana until everyone else has attained it first. That statement combined with the rest of the vow logically concludes that we will be around for a very long time. I believe it is important to note that this is not a literal statement but a hyperbole emphasizing the gravity of such a vow. These sorts of exaggerations are all over the place in Zen Buddhism, some of which can begin to make sense after reading a few times, but most of which take practice….practice….practice.

So how can I, one person, who is still so fundamentally a part of everyone and everything else, able to liberate anything? And even more so, what does this liberation mean?

Liberation has been understood as an intensive awareness of the present moment.


We’ve heard that done to death but what does that mean, “present moment” and “intensive awareness?” It is true that awareness in the present moment is attentiveness to one’s breath as it continues on its own. Yet just like our breath, when we begin to pay attention to our surroundings, we are able to influence them on a much greater level and even have results.

When we are able to be aware—which includes study of what is taking place in the world, within our homes, within our minds and hearts, we can be liberated. But just like our breath, awareness instantly brings another aspect to it, which I believe is often lost in Buddhism, action. The entire vow is a call to action and liberation cannot exclude that aspect. When we begin to pay attention to our breath there is a dynamic that is instantly born—it influences us as we influence it. We can’t possibly control it because it needs to continue somewhat on its own and it can’t possibly control us entirely because we can, for just a few moments, stop it, change its pattern and then learn.

This is the same way with the world and one of the most basic Buddhist principles, interdependency. Vowing to liberate all beings becomes a teaching opportunity for all people, in their own way, on their own terms but for the awareness of the whole. We move to action because we notice that world is not always a “liberating place” but that injustice does exist.

Endless blind passions I vow to uproot.”

My personal Dharma teacher always used the metaphor of picking weeds out of the ground when using any imagery of “uprooting.” It is a physical as well as mental task of reaching into the ground, becoming dirty and then pulling out the plants that are harmful to one’s garden. With each tug we realize that we are, in fact, destroying the life of one thing (to which we will return) and also focusing on this one task with our minds clear from other things. This is similar to Thich Nhat Hanh’s “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.”

The other irony in this phrase is “endless blind.” The common reading of this is that the passions that are ruling one’s life are “blind,” they have no purpose, no goal, and they have no substance to them. Where as this reading is not a bad one, it puts some pressure on the Buddhist to answer the following question:

“Are not Buddhists living for the moment? Isn’t the passion that is driving the Buddhist just as blind as the other passions that Buddhists fight against?”

This is a valid question and part of the answer lies within Buddhist practice. The question assumes that discerning these passions is as easy as pointing at them on a piece of paper. That’s just simply not the case. Each person is different and needs to pay attention to how passions (which are inescapable, thus being Endless) to which are blind and really create no difference.

A critique of Buddhism is that it does not offer sufficient reasons to act against injustice. This critique may hold true for some specific situations through out the world’s history and Buddhist reaction to it—however—recent decades has shown a new logic used by Buddhists all around the world (like Thich Nhat Hanh) to stand up against injustice, instead of just remaining on the meditation cushion.

The reason I bring that up is that both questions:

“Are not Buddhists living strictly for the moment?” and “Is there any really good case for Buddhists to act against injustice, according to their own sutras?”

is because I believe that this one statement “Endless blind passions, I vow to uproot” addresses both of them.

Not only are these questions asked in some ignorance, I believe, because the story of the Buddha himself is a story of fighting poverty, injustice, greed, and the status quo all in one. He left his caste to become a holy man, and then “after his Enlightenment” he opened the Sangha up for men and women. We can look back at the rules that the women had and how much harsher they were against the men but we must place this within its own time. There was certainly injustice in our own terms but really, instead of judging the past, can we not be thankful for the progress that we have made instead?  We can ask a question like this:

“What a beauty it is to see that justice was given in its own way to women back then and now be thankful for the progress that we have made?” This is not a question of passivity because our work is never done for we have not seen the Enlightenment of all sentient beings. We Buddhists see the beauty in our moment, now, but we see the work that needs to be done. There are a number of sorts of blindness in Buddhist thought and the one that I believe deals with this question is “the Blindness of Enlightenment.” This very old Dharma phrase is a teaching that focuses on the negative stillness that one can fall into when one is “Enlightened.” In fact, it means the opposite, that one is not Enlightened if such a belief is held. We constantly walk the middle way of Enlightenment and something else, never really knowing which one we are in but always knowing still that either side is just an arm’s length away.

The rest of the vow is a showing of how this amazing idea of uprooting the illusions that plague us can take place, and so we move on to the rest of the vow taken in all at once.

Dharma gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate 

The way of the Buddha I vow to attain
Beings are numberless; I vow to awaken with them. “

The teaching is so vast that I could never point at it directly but I vow to learn.
The way of the Enlightened One I vow to live
Life is numberless; I vow to awaken it within all things.

The Dharma now spans countless schools of thought, generations and now cultural divides. I have heard that American Buddhism is not “Buddhism” but only Eastern is. That is just simply not the case and we learn the Teaching (the Dharma) in our own contexts and our own vocabularies.

A Chinese Zen practitioner can look south and see the wisdom of Esoteric Buddhism who can also look south and see the wisdom of Theravada teaching. A Theravada Buddhist can look to another faith tradition and see teaching there. There is so much wisdom in the world that the Buddhist vows to access. To study the texts can get us so far but I believe that right action (a point on the Eight Fold Path) can help us penetrate the Teaching. A monk begs for food and then teaches. A student listens and then begins his/her own school of thought that also acts. We build homes for those who are in need of homes, both by teaching and by physical labor. The teaching can never be just written texts but also ethical experience.

With our realization that we are already Buddhas, each and every single one of us we vow to live the life as such. What are the Buddhas through the ages? One can look at a list of thousands of individuals who are the Bodhisattvas and see what they represent:

The list goes on

And on

And on.

The Buddha in this case can, of course, be Gautama Buddha but it does not have to be. The door is open for the practitioner to listen to oneself and see which of the Bodhisattvas impacts his/her own life the most and then begin to meditate, begin to act.

We return to the statement of the difficulty of this vow and the importance of it as well. Yet we do not wait here in the last statement of the vow but we grow just as we see those around us grow. We are constantly changing and with the change that is universally shared we continue on our paths of the rest of the vow by action, meditation, and the rest of the list of right actions, views, thoughts, etc.
This vow is central “non-negotiable” in that to separate action and spiritual growth would be an illusion. We, as Buddhists, cannot sit blindly as the world continues to be polluted by molten metal and even more dangerous than that, the melting of our own hearts. We simply do not have the time for that. We work as hard as we can to aid this world and that is the most simple of all Teachings, it is the most central of all Teachings and is “the most important vow one can take.”