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


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