Living by vow

Lately I have been reading this wonderful book by Shohaku Okumura, “Living by vow: A practical introduction to eight essential zen chants and texts”.  Shohaku trained with the great Japanese Soto Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama Roshi at Antaiji Temple in Kyoto, and one of Uchiyama Roshi’s most important teachings is encapsulated in the title of the book. On the subject of living by vow, Shohaku writes, “. . . part of the definition of a bodhisattva is a person who lives by vow instead of living by karma. Karma means habit, preferences, or a ready-made system of values. As we grow up, we learn a system of values from the culture around us, which we use to evaluate the world and choose our actions. This is karma, and living by karma. In contrast, a bodhisattva lives by vow. Vow is like a magnet or compass that shows us the direction toward the Buddha.”

How do we decide on the right course of action in our lives? What guides us in our daily lives? For most of us, before we come to a spiritual practice like Zen, the foundation of our decision-making maybe comes from our family history, or our personal preferences, which are probably conditioned by our family history, or just by force of habit. This is living a life of what Buddhists call karma.

The word karma has sort of a bad reputation in our society because both because it is misunderstood and because it is used in different ways in different Asian traditions. In Zen, especially as we have come to understand it here in the west, karma doesn’t really have anything to do with past lives or with any sort of spiritual determinism. It’s really very concrete and specific. Our karma is the set of our accumulated habits. This is not just the things we usually think of as habits, like drinking coffee or smoking cigarettes. We also have many habits of mind. Often these are things that got established in our families, the ways we related to our parents and our siblings. Maybe we are drawn to a partner who reminds us, consciously or unconsciously, of one of our parents, or we find that we are playing out unresolved issues from our childhood over and over again in our adult relationships. This is karma, and for many of us, it is the material we work through in psychotherapy. Until we come to grips with our karma, most of us tend to be tossed around by these habits and maybe we don’t even understand why our lives aren’t working out the way we want them to.

Once we make our way to a meditation practice, we begin to see the power of living by vow, although we may not think of it in those terms. As Uchiyama Roshi explains, the practice of zazen is fundamentally a practice of vow and repentance. When we sit, we make a vow to simply be present and not respond to the karmic life that unfolds in front of us. As we see after sitting for even a few seconds, though, it’s actually an impossible vow. The structure of our minds is such that it’s really impossible to remain completely present. When we find that our minds have wandered, we simply and gently bring our attention back to our breath and our posture. This is repentance. It’s not some sort of dramatic beating ourselves up, like “Oh I’m such a terrible person! Please forgive me!” It’s just the recognition that we have, for the moment, missed the mark, and we recommit ourselves to this vow to simply be present.

Once we begin to break the karmic chains, once we are no longer so tossed around by our habits, what replaces them as our guideline for action in the world? Our vows. When we formally become Buddhists in the ceremony of jukai, we take the Bodhisattva vows and the precepts, which form a good basis for ethical and sane decision making.

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 precepts are sometimes worded as a vow, sometimes not, and they can be worded in either positive or negative ways, but at their simplest they are:

(1) I vow not to kill

(2) I vow not to take that which is not given

(3) I vow not to misuse sexuality

(4) I vow not to lie.

(5) I vow not to intoxicate mind or body of self or others.

(6) I vow not to slander

(7) I vow not to praise self at the expense of others

(8) I vow not to be possessive

(9) I vow not to harbor ill-will.

(10) I vow not to abuse the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

If the word vow seems to grandiose, maybe the word we can use is “intention”. Maybe that’s a bit more realistic. For some people, the idea of a vow entails a requirement that one may never fail, and then, if we do fail, we may feel disillusioned and disappointed in ourselves and maybe even give up. So don’t set yourself up for that, don’t be too dramatic about it. Shohaku writes, “A life led by vow is a life animated or inspired by vow, not one that is watched, scolded, or consoled by vow. The simple phrase living by vow emphasizes that the person and the vow are one thing. Our life itself is a vow.”

–Taisan Joe Galewsky


Finding your place

As many of you know, I am a climate scientist at the University of New Mexico.  Every year, I spend a couple of weeks working at our field site in the northern Chilean Andes, at a place called the Chajnantor Plateau, located at an altitude of about 17,000 feet, where we are studying changes in Earth’s hydrological cycle.  It’s an extraordinary place, one of the very driest places on Earth’s surface, and it’s home to several astronomical observatories.  We’ve been working there for several years now, and we are starting to see the fruits of spending some extended time really focusing on getting to know this one place.

This time, in addition to doing our own work, we got to spend some time working with some of the many other scientists who work in the area.  For several years, we have been interacting with the cosmologists who have observatories on the Plateau, and we got to spend some more time with them this year.  They are studying the first 300,000 years after the big bang, trying to find evidence for a process called inflation, which is a hypothesized exponential expansion of the early universe.  They study this by looking for tiny ripples in what is called the cosmic microwave background, these echos of the Big Bang that they are measuring from the Chajnantor Plateau.

We also spent some time with some anthropologists who are studying pre-Hispanic irrigation practices in that part of the Chilean Atacama desert.  We saw some old ruins from the Atacaman people and some slightly younger ruins from when the Incas invaded.  It was extraordinary to see this sweep of history that occurred all before the arrival of Europeans.  You could see the individual adobe bricks from the Incan structures and we walked along the Inca Road that connected Cuzco all the way to Santiago.

Our own work is helping us to understand the ongoing changes in climate that are affecting our planet, but we also were looking at features from the last ice age, 21,000 years ago, when this region had large glaciers on it, and from the Miocene epoch, about 20 million years ago, when that part of the Andes was beginning to be tectonically uplifted.

It was remarkable to me that just by hanging out in this one place, we could learn about literally most of the history of the universe!  For some time, I have been feeling there would be real benefit in focusing on one particular place and really getting to know it across the broad expanse of time, and it felt like a validation of that as many threads of our work have started to come together.

During this time, I thought a lot about our Zen practice and often thought of a quote from Dogen’s Genjo Koan:  When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.  When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.  This is one of those great quotes from Dogen that summarizes the entirety of the practice in just a few words.  What he’s saying is that when we orient ourselves in space and time, when we really get to know a place, whether it’s a mountain or a watershed, a yoga studio or a zendo, or even just our zabuton or our own minds, when we really know that place right at this point and right at this time, that is the manifestation of our practice.  When we sit in zazen, we watch our thoughts and moods and different shades of feeling and study them in detail, just like we might get to know the ancient pathways of the Incas or the subtle ripples in the cosmic background radiation.  We really get to know them, and through that, we find this sense of place right where we are.

Most of the time, most of us are not connected to that sense of place in our own lives, in our own hearts.  Before we come to practice, we are tossed around on the turbulent seas of our own desires and our unseen and unknown impulses.  Simply put, we don’t know ourselves.  Eventually, if we’re lucky, a friend might suggest to us that a meditation practice might be helpful.  By this time, we may be desperate for some relief so we give it a try.  Bit by bit, over time, we start to map out the different pathways and ripples of our hearts.  We start to become known to ourselves, at least a little bit.  And with that knowledge comes the kind of orientation that Dogen speaks of, and we start to find some stability in our lives.  These are the real fruits of our practice.

This sense of place must also be at the heart of any Buddhist response to the world’s ecological crisis.  No one speaks more eloquently of this link than the great poet Gary Snyder.  In 1974, he wrote:  “[There can be] no transformation without our feet on the ground. Stewardship means, for most of us, [to] find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there—the tiresome but tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters—local politics. Even while holding in mind the largest scale of potential change. Get a sense of workable territory, learn about it, and start acting point by point.”

“That’s why I talk about watersheds,” he explains in an interview in Shambhala Sun from 1996. “Symbolically and literally they’re the mandalas of our lives. They provide the very idea of the watershed’s social enlargement, and quietly present an entry into the spiritual realm that nobody has to think of or recognize as being spiritual.  The watershed is our only local Buddha mandala, one that gives us all, human and non-human, a territory to interact in. That is the beginning of dharma citizenship: not membership in a social or national sphere, but in a larger community citizenship. In other words, a sangha; a local dharma community. All of that is in there, like Dogen when he says, ‘When you find your place, practice begins.’ There are several levels of meaning in what Dogen says. There’s the literal meaning, as in when you settle down somewhere. This means finding the right teaching, the right temple, the right village. Then you can get serious about your practice.  Underneath, there’s another level of implication: you have to understand that there are such things as places. That’s where Americans have yet to get to. They don’t understand that there are places. So I quote Dogen and people say, ‘What do you mean, you have to find your place? Anywhere is okay for dharma practice because it’s spiritual.’ Well, yes, but not just any place. It has to be a place that you’ve found yourself. It’s never abstract, always concrete.”

So this brings us back to our practice of zazen.  To find our place where we are, we come back to the zendo over and over again, week after week, year after year, and we just keep coming back to the breath over and over and over again.  In doing this, we get to know the landscape of our hearts in intimate detail.  Over time, we find this sense of place right in our own lives, wherever we are and whatever we are doing.  And that is actualizing the fundamental point.


–Taisan Joe Galewsky