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.

Mara and the Buddha

(originally in Sati Sangha newsletter, June, 2017)

Recently I’ve been re-reading Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma in a Secular Age. In this excellent book I was fascinated by his discussion of the Buddha’s exchanges with Mara.

In Buddhism Mara is a demon who represents various unhelpful qualities, everything from death to personal obstructions, such as greed or ignorance. Mara tempts the Buddha, much in the way Satan is said to have tempted Jesus.

Probably the best known story of Mara concerns the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Mara sent 3 women—perhaps even his daughters– to tempt the Buddha away from his vow of sitting under the Bodhi Tree until he obtained enlightenment. Of course Mara lost the battle, the Buddha was not distracted from his pursuit of enlightenment, but the story remains a relevant one for our modern struggles to live wiser, more compassionate lives.

What most interests me in Batchelor’s thinking is his telling of other occasions when Mara arrives to the Buddha and the Buddha simply says, “I know you, Mara” and he, Mara, then disappears. In other words, awareness of Mara and what he is about leads to his ineffectiveness and lack of power over the Buddha. In these situations at least, nothing more is needed than the comprehension of Mara, an understanding of the trap of the hindrances, and in this bare recognition there is transformation and clarity for the Buddha.

Also, it interests me that Mara never goes away permanently, he periodically appears to the Buddha throughout his life. I think here there is a lesson for us, too, for we will have many occasions when we struggle with our own meetings with Mara—whether it’s in the form of our ignorance, or unhealthy desires, our reactivity, or our shortcomings.

But as some of these stories point out, it is by recognizing and knowing Mara that we have the opportunity to transform our lives, to gain wisdom. It’s not a matter of driving or pushing him away, or being hard on ourselves for our lack of success. So, when the neighbor’s leaf blower starts just as we sit down to meditate, we continue with our practice, our curiosity about what’s arising in us. Because it’s probably best not to be inattentive when Mara arrives.