Presence of Vow

Taigen Leighton
Mt. Source Sangha, Bolinas - January 10, 2004

One of the traditional Buddhist practices or approaches to practice is vow, or in Sanskrit Pranidhana. It could be translated also as commitment, or dedication. I want to talk about its use as a specific physical practice.

The Bodhisattva Way of practicing together to help support and realize universal liberation is to express and actualize our caring for all beings. Paradoxically, the style in Soto Zen practice is to start with the highest vows, as well as the highest form of meditation. So we begin from these inconceivable vows: to free all beings; to cut through all delusions; to enter all of the gateways to truth; and to realize the Buddha way. This ultimate level of vow may seem like some fairy tale or fantasy. But how we actually carry that out is connected to very practical, everyday vows. Both levels arrive together. The ultimate vow is to free all living beings, to awaken together with all beings, to be willing to just be ourselves, sitting here on our cushions, and to see everything arising together. We see how in various ways we support each other, or don't support each other, or get all tangled up together. It is just that here we are, together. Maybe another word for vow is willingness. This includes our dedication and intention to practice uprightly together, and allows something to happen within which we are all connected.

Again, these four inconceivable vows that we chant are not in the realm of ordinary human activity. They go beyond. And yet they are connected to us. One of the ways to talk about this ultimate vow of freeing all beings is also to see ourselves in an ultimate way. What is, for you, the most important thing? This is our practice as we sit facing the wall, trying to sit upright, being present until the bell rings. As we sit, naturally thoughts and feelings arise, intentions appear. We see all of the ways in which our mind is jumbled around. Suzuki Roshi used to ask, "What is the most important thing?" The most important thing may be different for each of us. The most important thing could be different today than it is tomorrow. The most important thing may change during a period of zazen. But there must be this consideration of what is really important to me. What is my life about? This is the same level as freeing all beings. How can we give a name to the meaning of this precious, wonderful, impermanent life? Just to look at what means the most to us is an important part of our practice, and connects to this ultimate vow. How do we free all living beings? How do I find what I want to do with this life? It is alive, and changing.

Suzuki Roshi also said that the most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing. But it is also important to find out what are the fairly important things. Perhaps there is not one single most important thing. Maybe we can never say what that most important thing is; but sometimes we can. I have heard people say what is the most important thing for them. But it might change. We should also investigate what are some of the important things. What really matters to you as you sit there on your cushion, trying to be upright, inhaling, exhaling?

How is this related to Mahayana Buddhist practice of the basic vows we chant? "Delusions are inexhaustible I vow to end them." This is about my delusions, and of course everybody else's delusions, the government's and the culture's delusions; delusions are everywhere. "Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them." Actually there are innumerable gateways to enter into reality, into truth, into caring, into being this person right now, and into freeing all beings. Such entryways are as plentiful and numberless as the delusions. Maybe they are not different from the delusions. Every delusion, every hang-up, every problem, may also be an opportunity or entryway into deep reality.

Finally, "The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to realize it." The Buddha Way is not one thing. It is a way or path. I have been referring recently to this saying by Dogen from his "Awesome Presence of Active Buddhas" essay: "Just experience the vital process on the path of going beyond Buddha." There is a vital process, a path, and it is alive. How do we realize it? How do we turn toward it? How do we remember: oh yes, I said I wanted to practice awakening, and here I am. In a way, this is most alive when we realize that we have not been taking care of what is really important to us.

I have been speaking about the level of ultimate vow. But the actual practice of vow, as a practice, can be very specific and concrete. Vowing is one of the transcendent practices that also include the practice of generosity, the practice of patience, the practice of meditation, the practice of prajna or wisdom, and the practice of knowledge, which is knowing how to enact our practice intention. Vow is a specific practice that we can actually work on, just like we endlessly work on how to be generous with ourselves and others, how to be patient with all of the problems of the world and all the problems on our own seat. We can actually take on this practice of vow. This practice is not just the ultimate vow to free all beings, but part of how we do that is to take on particular practices, particular limited commitments, such as coming here this morning to hear a Dharma talk. Driving to Bolinas to sit for the day is the practice of vow. We have an intention and we try and do it. There can be innumerable kinds of things we can take on as actual practices, various large and small projects, whatever you see that needs to be done. If a fence is needed over there, we might see if we can build it. Once we are engaged in the level of ultimate, inconceivable vow, then very specific, concrete activities are part of the practice of commitment or vow.

Vow is relevant now in early January, because we may make New Year's resolutions. Sometimes these can be frivolous, but New Year's resolutions are a way of enacting the practice of vow in our culture. There are many gateways to Dharma, even in our primitive, corrupt culture. Of course we can take on a New Year's resolution any month of the year. Any time we could take a resolution for a week or a month or a year or a lifetime. But people think about it when it is January 1st.

I have a few New Year's resolutions that I've decided I would try and act on this year. One of them is just when I walk down the street to say hello to people, to notice them, to make eye contact. Sometimes I forget. It has been kind of fun. People say hello back. People actually want to greet each other. There are certain places where it may happen more naturally than others. I don't know if people in Bolinas say hello to each other as they pass on the street. Maybe they do more than people in San Francisco. It's just a little thing, but I really like this as a practice. It's really simple; anybody could do it.

I also had a resolution to try and manage my different activities more effectively. I am reserving Thursday and Friday as writing days, since I have a collection of writing projects I want to work on. I have been tending to try and fit those in around other things. I'm trying to organize my time more effectively. So that is a New Year's resolution. Who knows if I actually will be able to do that? But I am going to try.

I'm sure some of you have these kinds of practical resolutions. Whether New Year's resolutions or not, they are projects, specific limited commitments, that we try to take on. We all wonder how to take care of the things around us in the world. How do we take care of family and friends? How do we take care of the things that we want to do? This level of what is important includes many things. It includes something as simple as making sure to get exercise every week, or calling a friend that you haven't spoken to in a long time. There are lots of things that come up if we are looking at what is my intention, what am I up to. They can be wonderful bodhisattva activities, or they can be ordinary things. I had a kind of vow last month to see a lot of the new Christmas season movies. So I did. I like movies. I used to work on movies. I don't know that it helped anybody. I don't know if it even helped me; but I enjoyed doing it. We have many different things that we want to do.

Part of this practice is to bring into consciousness the things we want. You may think that you don't have any resolutions, that you don't have any particular vows. But actually, unconsciously we have many. We have things that we think we should do. We have patterns going back to our childhood that we may not be aware of, but that are our habitual modes of conduct. When we actually take on vow as a practice, and say, for example, I am going to say hello to people on the street, taking that on as a conscious intentional vow, when we consider our intentions, we can also see our unintentional vows. There are things we do habitually that maybe we do not need to do, or maybe we do not really want to do. But we still think we should do them. Maybe such an intention has actually helped get us somewhere, but perhaps we no longer need to do that. Maybe it was a good thing to do for a while, but now I don't need it. When we are aware of our intentions, we can see them, and we have a choice. Maybe I do not need to go to movies any more. Somebody in our sangha told me that she doesn't go to movies because she would rather spend that time with friends. That was nice. I liked her vow; really appreciated it. But I still went to the movies myself. Some of them I went to with friends.

We each have various vows already. So in the practice of sitting still and examining what is important to us, what we care about, we can see our unconscious habitual vows. And when we see them we have a chance decide whether we really want to do that. Maybe you do. But it is not about what you think you should be doing, but what is it you really want to do. Freeing all living beings is not something that you should do because somebody else says you should. Ending all delusions is not something that I think you should do, or Buddha thinks you should do, or Suzuki Roshi thinks you should do. We chant those vows because then we have a chance to see whether that is a path we want to be near. We may not know how to do it. We may not know how to say hello to the people walking by on the streets. But we can decide that is something we want to try and do. When we start to do that, we see all the ways that we are caught by habits. Substituting a limited positive intention, vow, or commitment may be like assuming a positive addiction. Positive does not mean that it is necessarily good according to somebody else's idea, but we can say I myself really want to do that. I really did want to go to those movies whether they were good or not. Sometimes you can have a really good time at a bad movie.

The practice of conscious vow is a little like mantra practice. Even though that's a different realm of practice than vow, it's quite comparable in terms of this aspect of arousing consciousness. I encourage use of mantras to remind yourself of your practice intention during the day, while you are busy, but even sometimes during zazen. We sometimes chant the Heart Sutra, which ends with this old traditional Sanskrit mantra supposed to have beneficial effects: "Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi svaha." We chant other teaching poems in English, and sometimes a phrase may strike us. You can use that as a mantra, a phrase you say silently to remind yourself of something. We sometimes chant from the Song of the Grass Hut: "Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely. Open your hands and walk innocent." You can just say that to yourself, over and over, when you feel like it. "Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely. Open your hands and walk innocent." We may not know what it means, but that does not matter. Or it could be a line from a popular song, such as: "Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be." When we do this practice of repeating some teaching as an intentional conscious mantra, we may see the other mantras that are there, our unconscious mantras, negative mantras about ourselves or the world. We may unconsciously be telling ourselves: I can't do that; I don't want to see those people; I don't want to say hello to that person.

The practical aspect, connected to the ultimate level of freeing all beings, is actually taking on some very limited specific practice. It may be saying, "Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely," or just saying hello to people. Try taking on some intentional specific physical practice, something we actually do, like going and visiting a friend who's sick. These practices are endless.

This is actually how we put our zazen to work. For a while I have been discussing zazen as a creative act, a mode of expression. As we are sitting, naturally this body and mind is expressing our Buddha nature. No matter what posture we are in, how we are expresses something, always. When we take the position of the Buddha it expresses a particular kind of openness, awareness, and uprightness. And when we are willing to do that, to be upright and just be present with ourselves and face ourselves, not running away from who we are, it allows a kind of expression and creativity that connects to other activities in our life. We may decide to take up watercolors, or write poems, or ride bicycles, or engage other creative activities. One way to do that is this practice of vow. So this practice of vow is a way of specifically joining our own creative energies, our own expressive personal Buddha nature, to the kind of deep connection that we have some access to in zazen. This is so even if you are sitting for forty minutes wondering when the bell is going to ring, and wanting to move around because your knee is hurting. Even in a so-called crumby period of zazen, still there's something going on that is deeper than your idea of whether this is a great period of zazen, or a crumby period of zazen. So this might be a crumby Dharma talk, but maybe it includes something useful.

Maybe calling this "vow" sounds too big, too serious. Just make a commitment to something, even if some of us are nervous about commitments. How do we decide to take on something? Again, it might be just going to a Dharma talk, or going for a swim this afternoon. It could be a very small thing. But we actually decide, I'm going to do that. Then we do it. This strengthens our zazen. This strengthens our connection to freeing all living beings.

In Buddhism we have various ways to check ourselves in this practice. The precepts are also a way of looking at our practice of specific vows and universal vow. There are ways to remind ourselves of what our deepest zazen mind wants to do. So we say: a follower of Buddha does not kill; a follower of Buddha does not take what is not given; a follower of Buddha does not lie; a follower of Buddha does not misuse sexuality; a follower of Buddha does not encourage intoxication. These are all a kind of vow. Formally when people take the precepts they make a vow to follow these precepts. So we have a little ceremony, and people receive a Dharma name. This is a kind of vow practice. But these precepts are reminders of how awakening heart expresses itself, and the values we feel in that experience. We see our inner intention to not be harmful to ourselves or others, and to lessen harm in the world. And we see our own direction to helpfulness and kindness.

These precepts are not about how you should not do this or that. They are actually ways of expressing something positive to which we want to make a commitment. I want to encourage you all to take on this practice of just sitting every day; even ten minutes. Twenty minutes may be better, but just enjoy being present with your life as it is. And connected to that, we take on other practices. That is a kind of vow, the commitment to sit every day. Next year I will have been doing this for thirty years, every day. That's my basic vow. I have missed perhaps a few days in those years. Committing to sitting zazen is a way of committing to other things too. Whatever it is that is your gift, is your joy, is your innermost desire, or one of the inner desires. That is how you are actually going to take on being the person you are, and enjoy doing what you enjoy doing.

You may think that you should not enjoy doing the things that you enjoy doing. You may think they are bad. But actually you should enjoy doing what you enjoy doing. If you like eating ice cream, please enjoy when you eat ice cream. That is a kind of practice of vow. See what it is that you actually like to do. See how that works and what that is. You may finally decide you do not really like to do it. But you cannot find out until you are willing to actually take it on. This is like our practice in zazen. Can you be clear and say, yes, I want to do this. I want to go to the movies.

But this practical approach to vow that I am describing is always in the context for us of the fundamental inconceivable vow of the bodhisattva way, to be helpful to all beings. When we care that All Beings are happy, this informs our wholehearted engagement in the particular practical activities we take on. Then they are not separate. Saying hello to people on the street can be part of your practice of freeing all beings. Going to the movies might be a way of entering all Dharma gates. The most important thing for us is not separate from taking care of particular, supposedly small matters.

This bringing our intention to our life and our activity helps us see this vital process on the path of total emancipation. This vital process is the path of going beyond Buddha, not getting stuck in some version of Buddha, but actually making Buddha alive in our life. We see what we want to do, and how that connects with everyone else. Also we encourage everybody else to do what they want to do. There is a level of trust or faith involved in this. Can I trust that it's okay for me to be the person I am? Can I trust that I actually can do what I want to do, that I can enjoy doing what I want to do? This is what's sometimes called Buddha nature. We say, okay, here I am. I will do this and I will look at it, and see if I still really want to do it. Of course we change. So I have just said a little bit about this practice of dedication, or vow, or commitment, to actually take on enjoying our life, and sharing our life, and bringing our life to our life.