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.  

Like This

May 5, 2020, Dharma Talk, Bill Cooper, Bellevue WA

In Stephen and Martine Batchelor’s new book there is this quote by Dahui:

“The one who can recognize dim and dull is definitely not dim and dull.”[1] What do you think about this? Even better, can you just see the point? 

Here we have Buddhism, or at least Zen, in its completeness. We are encouraged not to get lost in self judgement, or any thought, dim or dull, but to come back to the practice of mindfulness, being aware. 

Aware of what? One could answer the present moment. OK, and how do we do this? Mindfulness is linked to states of recollection and remembering, but not necessarily of past events. I believe this teaching encourages us to remember the present moment, to recall our practice of mindfulness, and to do it in the present. 

This is not my teaching, or interpretation. It’s stated throughout Buddhist texts, oftentimes as, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking. In contemporary teachers I find it in writings of Ajahn Sumedho, most recently in his book “Don’t Take Your Life Personally.” Here is some of what he has to say: 

I encourage you therefore to trust in the awareness of the present and to carry it through by really working at it, by really questioning. When you start thinking about yourself…notice that it is a mental state you are creating and then notice simply that it is ‘like this.’ 

It isn’t a question of denying those things [our thoughts] but you will no longer identify or attach to them; you will rather recognize that it is ‘like this.’  [2]

(I have to qualify this last sentence. We may occasionally recognize or be able to see that it is ‘like this,’ but it won’t become a permanent mental state– that would in fact violate the Buddhist teaching of impermanence.) 

So, please don’t look for a big experience in your practice or something confirming how wonderful or enlightened you are. Those are daydreams. Mindfulness is the practice of remembering to be aware of what’s in front of us, and fortunately, it’s ordinary and always here. It’s like this.


[1] What is This?, Batchelor, Martine and Stephen, Tuwhiri, May, 2019, p. 108. 

[2] Don’t Take Your Life Personally, Sumedho, Ajahn, Buddhist Publishing Group, 2010, p. 88.

Dharma Talk, April 2020

Disclaimer: these are my thoughts, not necessarily the “way things are.” I hope you find them helpful; if not please don’t worry about it. Dharma talks are not explanations of what you should believe, my only purpose is to encourage your own practice. 

The first time I met Ajahn Rithi at Wat Atammayatarama in Woodinville, I asked him to teach me the dharma. He said practicing the dharma is to “take care”:  take care of the eyes, take care of the ears, nose, tongue, body and thoughts. 

I try to remember this when I begin a sitting in meditation. For me meditation has become an act of care–moving from my negative, fearful states and their self-centeredness, to an experience where I begin to shift and to receive what the world is offering: its sounds, its pace, its lack of a center.  Sitting still and accepting what comes forth.  In brief I am simply becoming aware of what arises. 

If I drift too far into my imagination, I prefer to come back to the present moment, such as the breath. 

The trickiest state for me to see is the one where I judge my practice. For instance, I often wish my mind were calmer instead of ruminating over some incident or situation. I’m so identified with this self-criticism, that I see it as “true,” or more accurately as “me.”

Occasionally, if I’m lucky, I’m able to see that judging and criticizing myself for not being calm prevents calm from occurring. 

In some Theravadin traditions there are 16 steps or points to meditation, such as knowing feelings, experiencing samadhi and so on. One time I asked Ajahn Rithi how was I supposed to know which one to do? He laughed and said, “Just be aware, all the time, wherever you are.”

Poem by T’ao Ch’ien

Who can speak of immortality when simply

staying alive makes such sad fools of us?

We long for those peaks of the immortals, 

but they’re far-off, and roads trail away

early. Coming and going together, we’ve

always shared the same joys and sorrows.

Resting in shade, we may seem unrelated,

but living out in the sun, we never part.

This togetherness isn’t forever, though.

Soon, we’ll smother in darkness. The body

can’t last, and all memory of us also ends.

It sears the five feelings. But in our 

good works, we bequeath our love through 

generations. How can you spare any effort?

Though it may be true wine dispels sorrow,

how can such trifles ever compare to this? 

(Translated by David Hinton

Copper Canyon Press, 1993)

Buddhism and Taoism

It can be helpful to remember that much religious or spiritual philosophy is metaphor, adding a non-literal, poetic expression to our thinking. 

I’ve found several ideas in Taoism to be helpful, not only for appreciating my practice but also adding a beautiful metaphor. One such is the idea of tzu jan

When Buddhism began arriving in China around 200 AD, it was met by the indigenous philosophy of Taoism. Taoism developed from the oral stories and feminine influence in the Paleolithic time, before the more hardened, militaristic patriarchy which came later. 

From tzu jan comes the metaphor of “the ten thousand things,” in other words, tzu jan is the whole of the universe coming forth. Literally it means “the self ablaze.” It is a poetic expression of the emerging, generative nature of all that is–and we are a part of it. 

Perhaps when we’re sitting in meditation the flow of images and thoughts that often occurs, wave upon wave, is not something to be shunned, or viewed as irrelevant. Can we perhaps appreciate our images our glimpse of this endless generative process, “the way things are,” an endless arising and passing. 

And all the notions we may have about ourselves: our desires, plans, and joys, are also a part of this flow, coming and going, arising for a time, then returning to an unknown, the Tao, only to reappear later in another form.