Four Vows, continued

Let’s continue looking at the four vows. Again, they are: 

Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.

The Buddha way is unsurpassable, I vow to realize it.

(Robe worn by Georgia O’Keeffe, Nevada Museum of Art.)

Last time I talked about the first vow, so this time I will go into the others. Our second vow is, Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them. Here again is an apparent contradiction; if delusions never end, how do we end them? 

The topic of ending reminds me of my first koan, which was how do you stop the temple bell? Or perhaps it was, stop the temple bell. Either way I was confused. It wasn’t until I began to understand that there’s very little stopping of anything that I set aside the literalness of the koan. Eventually I saw the question as how do I become the temple bell? 

The same goes for our delusions: greed, anger and ignorance.  They constantly arise. So first we have to see this arising, not try to stop or reject it, and then we can ask ourselves, how do I become selfish or angry? How do I ignorantly divide and separate myself from the world around me? Just looking this way and observing our suffering is a beginning to ending our delusions. 

With the third vow we have a more positive situation– Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them. Dharma in this case can have two meanings. One, it may refer to the endless teachings of the Buddha and the texts related to them. This is a literal understanding. We enter the gate of learning the Dharma, the texts, and teachings. 

The other way is to interpret Dharma gate as a metaphor inviting us to enter into each of our life circumstances as teachings, as Dharma. Our life fills with boundless Dharma gates. Seeing our life this way is to realize our numerous circumstances are not trivial. The Dharma is everywhere, it is timeless, always present, whether it be the annoying neighbor, Covid 19, or social unrest, we have boundless opportunities for practice.  We won’t always see things this way; this teaching goes against our selfish nature. And that is why we take the vow.

The Four Vows

Some context for Mahayana thinking: In Zen monasteries there is a long period of intensive practice called ango. At the end of ango the students leave the monastery to wander and visit other teachers. One time the Zen teacher instructed his departing students to go to the place where there are no grasses for ten thousand miles (grasses are a metaphor for our many entanglements in the world, in other words our problems). The teacher was telling them to find a place without entanglement. No one said a word as they left. 

What would you have said? 

Later when another teacher heard of this event he remarked, “I would have said, ‘There is no such place!’” There are weeds everywhere. 

So often we want to believe in a place where there are no problems. We might think if we just practice harder then we will find it. But Zen is about this present moment–no special place– sometimes we are entangled, sometimes we are not, either way we face and live the present moment. 

So now, onto the 4 Vows, often called the Bodhisattva Vows. When reciting the four vows we are adopting a Mahayana practice which developed a strong presence in the Buddhism of China, Tibet, Korea, Japan and later the rest of the world. 

Before going into each vow, I want to discuss the word vow, and how it’s actualized in Buddhism. Here, our vow is not intended as a promise we are making to something or someone. It’s not a commandment that we live in fear of breaking. Instead, we are aspiring to an attitude or state of mind that each vow addresses. The vows encourage us towards a mind that is benevolent, courageous, and most of all, persistent. 

In most Buddhist temples the vows are part of the service, and even first-time visitors with no understanding of Buddhism may say the vows. But I would like us to hold off on the rote recitation of the vows, and instead take some time to consider each one, ponder them, and perhaps develop the aspiration to fulfill them. Then, if we are inclined, we can include them as part of our practice. 

Here are the Four Vows according to Soto translation: 

Beings are numberless, I vow to free them

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them

The Buddha way is unsurpassable, I vow to realize it

As you’ll notice, each vow is impossible to fulfill! Yet we vow to fulfill it. What’s going on? Let’s look at the first vow: Beings are numberless, I vow to free them. A few observations, if beings are numberless, then freeing them will take us forever. What does it mean to free them? Free them from what? And is there really a “them?”

Maybe we shouldn’t take this literally, and instead step back and see what we are being called to: A wholehearted practice which includes compassion and action which we never complete. Our practice includes our self and others, and like the boundless grasses it goes on forever. 

Sweeping

In Zen China, the legendary poet Han Shan is often seen in ancient paintings beside his friend, Shide, who usually has a broom and a wild grin. That broom tells us a lot about Shide; it displays his mind. 

Today as I was sweeping near my doorway, I remembered a scene from 30 years ago at a Zen center.  I was in retreat in downtown L.A. and for some reason I had a quiet room off the zendo, which I appreciated.  One morning, as I was leaving my room for the chore period, and feeling ambiguous about showing up, I stepped onto the porch and saw our teacher on his hands and knees sweeping the dust. I was surprised that a person of his position would have done such an ordinary task. But as I considered him, I was humbled by his wide, generous idea of duty to the center and his students. 

To return to the Zen person, Shide–I think his broom is a symbol of ordinary action, the ever-present possibility that action is close at hand. Shide’s sweeping is active participation in the dharma, and nothing is too ordinary to be overlooked. So, for Shide, there’s no sitting around. 

I’m sure Han Shan and Shide knew they were ordinary people in ordinary settings–like us. Yet, they are shown as awake and fully engaged, almost always able to find a kind of nirvana in their situation.