The Nature of Vows
and Precepts

by Josho Pat Phelan


I would like to begin with three quotes. In the book Moon in a Dewdrop, the Dogen translator, Kaz Tanahashi wrote, "Although one person's practice is part of the practice of all awakened beings, each individual practice is indispensable, as it actualizes and completes everyone's activity as a buddha." This reminds me of a passage in Zen Master Dogen's text, Bendowa or the Wholehearted Practice of the Way, where he wrote, "Although this inconceivable dharma is abundant in each person, it is not actualized without practice, and it is not experienced without realization." Shohaku Okumura wrote, "According to Dogen Zenji, the meaning of our practice is practice at this moment, right now, right here, actualizing the Buddha's teaching. Without our practice there is no Buddha's teaching." For me, these passages resonate with each other and express the need for and importance of our individual practice. Buddhist practice and teaching exist today, and are available to us because innumerable people in the past kept it alive, through their personal practice and vows.

I would like to talk about vow and the importance of having a vow in Zen practice. When I began sitting zazen, my practice consisted of trying really hard to sit, and to sit without moving for forty minutes. And the only way I could do that for the first couple months was to sit with other people, whose presence helped anchor me on the cushion. But after a couple of months, I was finally able to sit zazen by myself. For the people I was sitting with in Oregon and at the San Francisco Zen Center, the periods of zazen were always 40 minutes, so it didn't occur to me that when I sat alone it could be for less time. Being macrobiotic at that time and still confused about exactly what Zen was, I even wondered if the periods of zazen were 40 minutes because that is how long it took to cook brown rice. Later, after I had been sitting daily for almost three years, I went to Tassajara, the San Francisco Zen Center's monastery. But even then I didn't have a sense of how to extend practice from zazen into my daily activity. I knew we were supposed to, and I wanted to, but I just didn't have a good sense of how to do it.

One summer in particular, during the Tassajara Guest Season when we worked long hours and sat less zazen than we did during the practice periods, every once in awhile, while I was working it would occur to me, "Right now I could be practicing, but I'm not;" and I felt like a failure. But over the years, I've found that coming back to my vow throughout the day has provided a continuity of practice outside zazen. And, I have come to find that thoughts like, "Right now I could be practicing," or "Right now I could be mindful," are themselves returning to practice — momentarily waking up. But the feeling of being a failure is extra and counterproductive. So, just wake up and remember practice!

Jakusho Kwong was a disciple of Suzuki Roshi. In his book No Beginning, No End, he wrote, "Suzuki Roshi liked to say that we should know everything, including our lives, through and through." Kwong Roshi said that this is the Bodhisattva vow. "When we live...with a commitment to living life... through and through, we are actually making the vow to include all parts of life — all parts of our lives, as it is..." He said, "Then whatever you fear is not so great, the pain is not so great, these are just the conditions of our life, and our practice works to undermine the grip of these conditions." He said, "Actually when you give yourself to practice through and through, which means through and beyond feelings and thoughts, little by little, you begin to allow something great to surface, something without beginning or end...And if you stick to your vow and stay with it, to your surprise something in you will naturally open."

Our deep intention — the intention to practice, the intention to be open-hearted, the intention to awaken, to be free, to relieve suffering, or whatever form your fundamental intention takes, when it is nurtured, becomes a vow. Suzuki Roshi referred to this as our inmost request. Reconnecting with our vow, keeping our vow alive and fresh is a powerful tool for practice. In practice we try to change the direction of our lives from actions that are more or less unconsciously based on or driven by karma to more conscious actions based on vow, and our intention or vow is one way to bring practice into our everyday lives.

Katagiri Roshi spoke of the difference between living unconsciously, unquestioning, just going with the flow of our karma versus living by vow. He said, "Ordinary life is to live in past karma [or past actions] as a cause and live in delusions as a conditioned element." "But," he said, "this is a very ordinary type of life....for bodhisattvas, there is another type of living....The bodhisatta life is the person who is living a vow, who aspires to help others. This is the cause of a bodhisattva life."

I encourage you to try to clarify your vow. Being aware of our deep intention or vow, helps us become authentic. It's part of getting down to the fundamentals of who we really are. Your intention or vow might be something like the Three Refuges or the Four Bodhisattva Vows, or simply the vow to practice for the benefit of all beings, or it might be something more visceral like returning to your bodily presence by joining your exhalation whenever you think of it, or simply returning to your hara or lower abdomen where you may feel calm and grounded. Whatever form your vow takes, look for ways to return to or reconnect with it throughout the day. I've found that offering incense and doing three or nine floor bows, and saying my vow is very helpful for interrupting the momentum of my mental world and for reconnecting with a quiet, open mind, and I suggest trying something like this at intervals throughout the day. For example, when you wake up in the morning, say your vow, and let that guide your intention as you begin your day. When you get to work, pause and center yourself on your breath or reconnect with your intention as you face your work. You might do this again before or after lunch, when you get home, and before going to sleep, setting your intention as you let go and enter the less conscious realm of sleep.

The Zen meal chant for formal meals includes the line, "Thus we eat this food and awaken with everyone." I chanted this for years before it finally struck me that this could be a vow, "As we eat this food, may we awaken with everyone." or "As I eat this food, I vow to awaken with everyone." This aspiration is a way of dedicating our activity to the awakening or liberation of all beings, and it can bring the mind of practice to whatever we are doing. So, as I eat this food, as I drive this car, as I brush my teeth, as I take this breath, and, maybe for some of us, as I light this cigarette, may I awaken with everyone.

In one of Ed Brown's cookbooks, he tells a story about two monks in a Christian monastery. One day one of the monks noticed the other monk smoking during evening vespers and asked, "How come you are smoking? When I asked for permission to smoke while I was praying, I was told, ‘No. When you pray, you should only pray.'" The other monk responded, "Well, I asked if it was alright to pray while I was smoking." From the outside, these activities probably look the same, but there is a difference in intention. Sometimes there is a shift from doing whatever we need to do to take care of our lives, so we can then practice for an hour a week or an hour a day, to a constancy of practice that continues throughout the day using whatever we need to do as a vehicle for practice. So, the focus is on practice, and we work or cook dinner, shop for groceries or car pool, as the activity we have at hand to practice with.

Renewing our intention to wake up as we go about our activity brings practice into our daily life. We can begin with whatever we're doing by fostering our intention to wake up, or by trying to loosen the tangle of our conditioned, habitual reactions, for the benefit of all beings, including ourselves. This is a form of the Bodhisattva Vow. The Bodhisattva's Vow is the wish to end suffering, all suffering, our own as well as everyone else's. Kwong Roshi said, "in practice we make an unconditional vow not to give up on ourselves... the physical practice is the means by which we manifest this vow."

The first of the Four Bodhisattva Vows is, "Beings are numberless, I vow to save them or I vow to free them." The Sanskrit word that is often translated as "free" or "save," literally means "to ferry across." The Bodhisattva is sometimes depicted as a boatman on a raft who ferries beings from the shore of delusion to the shore of realization or "the other shore." The Bodhisattva's vow is to remain in this world until all beings have awakened or crossed over. But, actually, there aren't two shores, there is only right here; and this place, this experience, can be felt as tight and oppressive, as distracted, foggy and confusing, irritating, or as spacious and clear — it is our own mind that determines how we experience our world, whether we experience nirvana or samsara.

Here, we say this vow as, "Beings are numberless, I vow to awaken with them." At the San Francisco Zen Center, we used to chant this as, "Beings are without end, I vow to be one of them." Translating the vow this way implies that we don't try to remove ourselves from the difficulties of the world, which isn't so different from the difficult parts of ourselves, rather we try to open to them and accept them for what they are. In Living by Vow Shohaku Okumura wrote, "To save all beings means to be one with all beings. We cannot become one with others by means of our individual efforts. But we can wake up to the reality that from the beginning we are one with all beings." He said something I find interesting, "When we sit, we face the absolute, the infinite, and we let go of thought.... we are measured against the absolute. That is our practice of vow and repentance. No matter how great or how small our accomplishments, they are all the same compared to the infinite."

In the Chinese text, the Platform Sutra, the Sixth Ancestor Hui Neng or Daikan Eno talks about the Four Vows, and he described the beings we are to save, and they aren't just people or animals, they also include the "beings" within our own mind, such as deluded mind, grasping mind, angry mind, jealous mind, judgmental mind, and so on. These are also the beings we practice and awaken with. As each of us wakes up to our delusions and increases our own clarity of mind, the total clarity in the world increases. So, as we become clearer, it supports clear-mindedness in everyone. In practice, there isn't so much distinction between my clarity, my open-heartedness, my joy and everyone else's — the boundaries aren't so distinct.

In Buddhism the meaning of compassion is the wish to relieve the suffering of others. I think the basic cause of suffering is duality, the wrong view that we are separate from others. I think one way to develop compassion is not to turn away from suffering — to be willing to open our hearts to suffering. Jakusho Kwong said that if you feel afraid to let suffering come in, "you can practice imagining yourself doing it." I think this is important — awareness and compassion grow and strengthen over time, but we have to begin. And one way to begin is by imagining ourselves meeting suffering, imagining ourselves opening to our own fear and pain, as well as opening to our own clear, spacious mind. Because when we try to protect ourselves from pain, whether our own or someone else's, we build barriers which further reinforce our feelings of separation, thereby reinforcing duality. Being open to the difficulties of others can also help us open up to the difficult or disregarded parts of ourselves — it goes in both directions. So, "Beings are without end, I vow to be one of them," or "I vow to be one with them." I think that ending suffering means ending duality and, therefore, ending suffering is liberation.

Our actions of body, speech and mind, create momentum, like a ripple in the water with far reaching effects, affecting people we don't even know. Sometimes we can see the effects of an action or decision made years earlier. When we take vows, an intention is created, the seed of an effort to follow through. The nature of a vow is vast, beyond words. We continually define and redefine our vow as we renew our intention to fulfill it. If you have a well defined task with a beginning, middle, and end, like mowing the lawn, you can estimate or measure the time and effort needed. But a vow like the Bodhisattva Vow is immeasurable. The intention we arouse, the effort we cultivate when we call forth this vow, extends us beyond the limitations of this life.

Two ways to work with vow are to investigate and to dedicate. To investigate, ask yourself a question such as, "How do I engage my vow, right now, while driving my car, while taking a shower, while cooking dinner?" Or, "how can I awaken with all beings while taking this coffee break?" "How can I see through delusion right now, while shopping for groceries?" We investigate the vow by keeping it present, by learning how to be aligned with our vow in the midst of our activity. When asked, "How do you save all sentient beings?" Katagiri Roshi answered, "By chewing your pickle quietly during the [zendo] meal so you don't disturb the person next to you." Another way to practice with a vow is to dedicate a particular activity to the liberation of all beings. Again, as I drink this coffee, as I smoke this cigarette, as I wash my face, may I awaken, may I have clarity of mind, with everyone, or may I have clarity of mind for the benefit of all beings. Whether you investigate "saving all beings" or dedicate your activity to waking up, both bring attention to your intention.

If you don't know your personal vow or inmost request, both in zazen and in your daily activity, you can ask, "What?" "What is most important?"

© Copyright Josho Pat Phelan, 2018


Zen Talks Page   Home Page