Sunday, January 24, 2016

Notes on the Great Vows

In Zen practice we frequently chant "Shu Jo Mu Hen Sei Gan Do". "Beings are innumerable, I vow to save them". When I began practice I’d never seen the Sino-Japanese version of the verse, and we chanted

All beings, without number, I vow to liberate
Endless blind passions, I vow to uproot
Dharma gates, beyond measure, I vow to penetrate
The Great Way of Buddha, I vow to attain

“All beings, without number” seemed redundant – of course all beings could not be counted. This is often misunderstood as a poetic vow to save everything, or to refer to a vast number of beings, like the dizzying multitudes that populate Vedic cosmology. The Sixth Patriarch said "save them in our own minds", but this seemed to refer to some sort of inner mental experience, and didn’t address the real suffering throughout the vast world.  This seems to be a popular way of reading the vows today, at least based on my readings online. There are vast numbers of beings, and delusions, and also Dharma entry points, so the practice of aspiration is to open into that and live as best we can in accord with the teachings and practices, arousing Bodhicitta.

After some years I discovered the Japanese version of the vows, but didn’t connect the MU in each verse to the MU of my zazen.  Once in sesshin the verse “from beginningless greed, hatred, and ignorance” stared through me and the Great Vows started to seem more like the Heart Sutra. “Beginningless” no longer gave rise to the concept of a vast stretch of time.  Sitting more zazen, the depth and transparency of these words hewed more to Bodhidharma’s words than Shantideva’s.

meets the great Buddhist emperor Wu, who asks him, “I have built many temples and ordained many monks. What merit is there in this?” Bodhidharma replies, “None whatsoever.” The emperor then asks, “What is the highest meaning of the ultimate truth?” Bodhidharma answers, “Empty, without holiness.” Astonished, the emperor then asks, “Who is it that faces me?” and Bodhidharma, thrusting home the final arrow, replies, “I don’t know.”

The first half of each verse of the Great Vows makes the point. "Shu Jo Mu Hen" ....NO beings. No thing at all. No passions, no liberation, no gates, no surpassing of them, no boundaries. And yet...we take the vow. After an experience of transparency, or opening, there is a great fragility and the old structures cannot contain the experience. How to step back into the mad world of anger, folly, and the relentless pace of American life? The latter half of each of the vows now seems like a map, something to guide me, not the territory of course but a lodestone to sail the nothing holy sea.

Perhaps a more bony translation would read

No beings/I vow to save them
No blind passions/I vow to abandon them

No Dharma gates/I vow to wake to them
No Buddha Way to go beyond/I vow to embody it

As I’ve learned zazen practice these past 25 years I’ve seen many teachers promote kensho as something that makes us immune to suffering, like an inoculation against identifying with loss and grief. There are people who seem to function like this, slipping into the amoral nihilism that Theravada teachers, and the Vajrayana Lam-Rim practitioners, have cautioned of. Too little grounding in the maps of Shila and overdoses of “without-no-bounds” can leave us stuck, especially if we have an inward bent to our personalities, or a thick skinned type of narcissism. But for me, and others I believe, long practice lowers the walls and defense, and after an experience of no-thing it’s even harder to be in the world, as the pain is very real and unremitting.

When prison canga is iron and has no hole,
(Echu's) followers have neither peace nor rest.
When you intend to uphold the teaching of Zen,
You must climb a mountain of swords with bare feet.

This is agony, sometimes, and unbounded all at once. So we flow into the great nothing holy, no numbers vast or not vast, and follow our guides as we’re able. Zen is not the way of the inner journey, but the cultivation of neither inside nor outside, and no ending of inside and outside. Coming forth from that is no easy realization, and still more difficult as practice. After the structure has collapsed, one must come down from that peak or wither there, while the world cries out still.

American Zen so often seems to collapse in upon itself, realization of no-boundary stopping, like a migrating turtle embayed, at the place where there is only Mu, no-thing, in all directions. I hear people say things like “when I meditate, the whole world is at peace”, as if their own mental state is a barometer for the ten thousand things. Please do not miss the rest of the vow.

This translation, of unknown provenance, has it thus:

The Four Encompassing Vows

Masses [of] creatures, without-bounds,
[I/we] vow to save [them all]

Anxiety [and] hate, [delusive-desires] inexhaustible,
[I/we] vow to break [them all]

Dharma gates beyond-measure
[I/we] vow to learn [them all]

Buddha Way, nothing-higher,
[I/we] vow to accomplish [it]

When I’m struggling with words maps for practice, I try to find the oldest versions of them that I can. I tried to find the etymological roots of this Vow in the early Sutras from Kushana, which were taken to China by monks like Dharmaraksha, Lokaksema, and Kumarajiva in the early centuries of the last millennium. The Lotus Sutra contains the spirit of the Vows, but if there was a Sanskrit or Prakrit original it has not yet been found. It seems to have first become a gatha under the banner of Tien-T’ai Chih-I (538-597), who structured each vow as a response to, and practice pointer for, each of the Four Noble Truths. The first vow addresses the arising of dukkha, the second defilements (kleshas), and so forth. But do not be deceived by the apparent conflict between boundless greed, hatred, and ignorance and the magnitude of the Vows. As some ancient worthy in old Gandhara must have realized, they’re not something we have to accomplish – they’re what we already are. And of course, there is the task of practice. In this era of decontextualizing meditation practice, and jettisoning the ancient aspiration, I find all this very reassuring.