Shu-jō mu-hen sei-gan-dō
Bon-nō mu-jin sei-gan-dan
Ho-mon mu-ryō sei-gan-gaku
Butsu-do mu-jō sei-gan-jō
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.
The first time I chanted these lines 12 years ago, I was fascinated. They were the mystical embodiment of my perception of Zen at that time—undefinable, unattainable and magical. Over these years since, my perception of Zen have changed as I delved in to the practicalities of practice itself, sitting, forms, dokusan (practice conversations) with my teachers, reading and listening.
Yet today, I am still fascinated with the Bodhisattva vows. In April 2013, I received lay ordination called Jukai where I accepted and acknowledged the Bodhisattva precepts as an ongoing path within myself. That day, I received my dharma name of Shinki Buzon, Profound Capacity Dancing Mountain. My life changed. Never before had I consciously done anything like that–in front of my teacher, other students and friends, I committed to live a life according to Buddhist principles.
The process leading to Jukai at SFZC has many steps of study, discussion with a teacher on the precepts, practice with the precepts, more discussion, sewing the rakusu, unsewing my mistakes, sewing some more, relying on the guidance of those more experienced in all of the above and living with my own instincts. On the day of Jukai, I questioned what I was doing and why, after years of pushing away all sorts of possible involvements, was I joining this cult. I remember using that word cult in my mind and not in a positive way. As we chanted through the building, bowing at altars before we entered the Buddha Hall for the ceremony, I told myself to run now as this was my last chance. This very thought was still in my mind and vanished exactly when I stepped over the threshold of the Buddha Hall.
Each morning when I sit, I recite my intentions. For many years, one has been “My intention is to awake with all beings”, another way of saying “saving all beings.”
I want to acknowledge that parts of my talk today have been inspired by Shohaku Okumura’s Living by Vow which looks deeply at what he calls the eight essential zen chants and texts. The first vows that he examines are the four Bodhisattva vows that I chanted earlier.
I love the idea of saving all beings. I would say who doesn’t, but I realize this is my way, not everyone’s way. A good part of my life has been geared toward saving all beings…my professional career, my activism, my openness to my friends and family. Yet it took a long time maybe 40-50 years to get myself to consider saving me. Saving all beings was my co-dependency. As long as I was busy saving all beings, I didn’t have to look at myself—my problems and issues, my long-twisted karma from my family history, from my cultural history, from my being a white person in a racist society, from my being a racist in a racist society.
Often one is prodded to spiritual practice by something they find lacking in their souls. Quickly enough the ideas, the readings, the classes can engulf us and keep us satisfied. Ah, I am making progress and pat myself on the back. But by themselves these actions only activate the mind and create a new distance from our original intent. Frustrated, I would ask, “How is this helping me? How will my personal problems be fixed?” Eventually I hit the metaphoric wall of realization (and believe me Zen has lots of these walls everywhere) that Zen is not about fixing me. Zen practice allows me a portal to look at reality and with this one jumps back to a larger view, the greater mind. Zen is not an intellectual activity, despite the strong tradition of scholarship and writing—it is a body practice. That is why we focus on sitting and observing the world with our body and feelings. As far as I have experienced, this cycle of questioning oneself and one’s actions and recommitting repeats over and over, each time coming back to the body.
One of the early and continuous lessons from Zen is, “We are already enlightened, we just don’t know it.” In David Chadwick’s book, To Shine One Corner of the World, he reports Suzuki Roshi, wryly saying it another way, “Each of you is perfect the way you are … and you can use a little improvement.”
I accept this is a truth. I accept that imperfections, mistakes, wrong paths, uncertainty, pain are just as much a part of understanding, acceptance and perfection as are peace, happiness, equanimity and the right path. “Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But right there in the imperfection is perfect reality.” Suzuki Roshi said in Not Always so.
Throughout these twists and turns of my Zen experience, I kept returning to the four vows. I would like to share my understanding and experience of the four vows today. My caveat is that I am not an expert and approach my topic with Beginner’s mind. I can offer you only one person’s incomplete version of the reality that surrounds us.
According to Okumura, a bodhisattva is a person who lives by vow instead of karma (habits, preferences and ready-made systems of values.) Honestly, I’m not the best Zen student or Buddhist. I take shortcuts whenever possible and like to believe that those shortcuts are justifiable and good in themselves. So if I am already enlightened, by living by vow, I must be a bodhisattva or at least on the path. Since Zen is often so hierarchical, I always thought that there must be an official test for being a Bodhisattva. Maybe it is as simple as saying “Person, Man, Woman, Camera, TV”, I don’t know.
Okumura says, a Bodhisattva is defined by their commitment to the vows. Consistent repetition of the vows settles them in the body. Even if you do not know Japanese, the sounds of the words alone begin to work their way through the mind to the body where they live and flourish. Start with the vows, repeat them without expectation and let them sink in.
So let’s look at the vows.
Beings are number less, I vow to save them. As Zen teacher Marc Lesser points out, Beings are numberless—there are no beings. There really are no beings, he wasn’t kidding. If all beings are interconnected, then what we imagine as ourselves disappears. At the same time, our personal self does not disappear. Both/all exist simultaneously.
Today we are all staring at a computer and Zoom demonstrates our connectedness and individuality. When you are on gallery view, you can see the pulse beat of our humanity together. If we are all unmuted, occasionally you will notice individual boxes spontaneously light up, even when someone else is speaking. We may be listening to the speaker and at the same time, we are connecting with everyone. The lighted boxes flip around as people move, sigh or make a remark.
If you can flip to speaker view, you see that the speaker is commanding attention like when we are in the I or me mode. We are the center of attention. But speaker mode does not eliminate the other boxes; the speaker is not alone. Our challenge is to accept and live with the interconnected beings of the ultimate reality and the individual being that has a body that experiences conventional reality. No single being can be saved by itself, just as all beings interconnected cannot save themselves.
I can easily imagine saving friends or people in my sangha, but what about all of the other people—the difficult family members, the person at work who is abrasive and annoying, people that don’t wear masks when they should, acquaintances that post right wing memes on Facebook, people who threaten or carry-out violence, people who don’t practice Buddhism… For numberless beings, I seem to have a large and growing list of people who I believe I cannot save or maybe in my heart of hearts, don’t want to save.
We will get to delusions, next, but as a preview of that topic, the list of people I don’t want to save that I just recited is a really a list of delusions and not necessarily people. If there are no beings, then how can there be these beings I can’t cope with, do not want to deal with and blame for not wanting to be saved? I can only turn to myself. What parts of me in our interbeing do I not want to sit with? What parts of the me/interbeing need a little improvement in my perfection? How am I abrasive, threaten, hold fixed views, don’t want to get along with family and others, don’t want to acknowledge other ways of living except for my own and a select few others? In a paraphrase of Senju Earthlyn Manuel, in The Way of Tenderness, a Bodhisattva has to practice with the limitations of our own perceptions of the mental spiritual state of our family, society, beingness.
Right now, an important question for me is how are my fixed views as a white person skewing my interactions with our reality. What am I bringing to saving all beings from a point of whiteness? I believe (whether it is true or not) that I have pondered this from my identities of a gay, cis-male from a working-class background. And those ponderings may inform my view of whiteness. Yet, in this moment, I am coming to greater awareness of how, in my own process of awakening, my whiteness limits my worldview.
Many of us are used to either/or viewpoints and mentality. For me it is easy to get fixed on what is right and what is wrong. I believe in my versions of right and wrong and if pushed I can find people and theories to back me up. So while ethics and morals are not intrinsically bad, using them as a moral battering ram can be. Saving all beings means engaging with those we might choose not to and engaging in ways that may not be comfortable. Saving all beings means engaging with those parts of myself that I am not familiar with, don’t want to be familiar with or want to push away. As several teachers have pointed out, sometimes saving all beings is simply doing less harm. Or as another Zen teacher Valorie Beer once said, “My job is to save all beings from my own stupidity.”
Which leads us to…Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them. We are certainly experiencing this statement of reality these days. Corona appears to be inexhaustible but that is not enough. Racism appears to be inexhaustible, but that is not enough. Violence in all forms and manifestations is inexhaustible and that is not enough. Unemployment and poverty appear to be inexhaustible but they are not enough. Environmental degradation is certainly inexhaustible and even that is not enough. I can add to this litany all of my own personal delusions and all of the ones I don’t know about.. Another way to state delusion as are inexhaustible is We cannot even have enough delusions to satisfy our desire for delusions. A fundamental truth recognized by Buddha: our humanness is defined by our struggle with delusions, especially the basic one of not recognizing our interbeing.
Yet, perhaps, the biggest delusion is that delusions are inexhaustible. We know from our experience that delusions can be exhaustible, they can disappear in a puff of smoke, in a moment of stillness, in a flash of awareness. Keeping them exhausted is something else. By acknowledging our ability to acknowledge our delusions big and small, we have a place to act from, a way to experience life directly without filters.
Yes, they won’t end, which is why…
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them. You may have noticed the vows never use the word but. The first phrase of each vow offers a vision of reality that appears to be part of reality yet encompasses all of the reality. The second phrase does not negate the first one (the way the word but would). The second phrase gives the action for us to follow. Sure there are a million bazillion ways to enter the dharma, and we can still enter them. Is it a delusion that we need all of these entry points? With million bazillion beings aren’t all of the entry points occupied? More importantly, who needs so many dharma gates? Don’t we need just one? Will it not lead us where each part of us needs to go? Just as there is no end gate that says you have achieved it all, there is no beginning gate. Just gate among gates among gates reminding us of our vow and of our delusions.
I have a Facebook acquaintance who has world views to which I do not subscribe. This person recently posted video meme debunking the corona virus. I was furious (and this was just 15 minutes before I was going into a sangha meeting.)
I had (notice the use of had…always an indicator to ask oneself, do I really have to?) to respond and wrote, “If you can’t believe that virus is dangerous, I don’t know what to say. I am saddened to think that you feel a need to share nonsensical propaganda. Please take me off your mailing list. I hope you remain healthy.”
Fairly quickly, the response, “Where did you get the idea that I don’t think it’s serious? I just look at other information outside the mainstream”
My quick response, “I pay attention to public health officials. The rest is non-information. This video falls into that category. If one believes in the seriousness of this pandemic, then that person encourages their friends how to best support themselves and survive this disease.”
Despite what I thought was a measured response that did not attack this person and tried to skillfully communicate, I went into my sangha meeting furious, ready to cut the person off, drop the friendship. I was caught in my own anger and wrestled with this for the entire time I sat. I even thought at one time “How dare they break my Bodhisattva vow!” (another aside, when statements like that enter my mind, it is a good sign for me to stop and examine my great capacity for absurd thoughts.)
I decided to utilize a practice called tonglen where one breathes in negativity and breathes out positivity. I began to breathe in my negativity (which was super easy due to all of the intense thoughts that were bothering me) and then consciously breathed out equanimity, safety and good health to all. I did that until the bell rang.
After, we finished, I went back to FB and saw their answer, “Got it!” I was so caught up in my righteous anger and my time spent in sitting occupied with the fight, that I was somehow disappointed that they did not leave me anything else to be mad about. Tricked again by my own mind.
What can I learn from this? Hmmm, maybe I can trust my vow after all. And even if I saw a different response, maybe I still could have trusted my vow. Maybe my vow includes being angry with myself, using my sitting time to sit with my emotions and using that time to defuse or accept the emotions for what they were.
Why did I bring up this story? Because this was a dharma gate. We do not choose dharma gates, we surrender to the dharma in whatever way it meets us. Every situation, every moment and every breath is a dharma gate; everything is an invitation to enter. Now. Fully. We have entered them with first breath and will continue entering them until our last.
And finally we get to…Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it. The vow to follow the three treasures, the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path. We have the guidelines, we have the instructions, we have the wisdom. We will get it wrong and the climb back on the path or more accurately, the path includes dead ends, falling, not seeing the signposts, having it rain and hail on us, having our memories of all of these things overcome us. The path also has everything we need, every experience, every ability, every sense already. Nothing is lacking. We practice is with our entire being that is why we say become it. We are Buddha and with our vow we have continue to become it.
With gratitude, I thank you for listening to me today.
This is a dharma talk that I gave a the SF LGBT Sangha on 3 August 2020. You can listen to the full talk although the first 5 minutes were a bit spotty due to a weak internet connection.