To Avow

To Avow

One of the most ancient ceremonies in Zen Buddhism is called ryaku fusatsu.  It is the ceremony in which we recommit ourselves to the Bodhisattva vow and to the ethical precepts.  We call it the Bodhisattva Full Moon Ceremony because it is traditionally done every full moon.  Ryaku means ‘simple’ or ‘abbreviated’, because the full ceremony is very complicated and is only done rarely even in the large Japanese temples.  Fusatsu means “to continue good practice”.  The ceremony is quite beautiful, even in the abbreviated forms we use in the US, and it begins with a very important part in which we avow our actions:

All my ancient twisted karma

From beginningless greed, hate, and delusion

Born through body, speech, and mind

I now fully avow.

The word that is here translated as ‘avow’ sometimes translated as ‘repentance’, but that is a word with a lot of negative cultural overtones, and avow captures the meaning perfectly.  In feudal times, to avow meant to acknowledge a person or patron or client as ours in some relation, or to affiliate oneself with another.  It also means “to own the deeds of an agent” or to “declare as a thing one can vouch for.”

So in this chant, we are acknowledging or owning or taking responsibility for the impact of our actions on others.  Our karma is our accumulated set of habits.  The first two lines point out that our karma is indeed very old and very complicated and that our greed, or clinging, or hatred, or aversion, and our delusion, or ignorance, didn’t just begin when we were born.  These three poisons are something that just comes along with the package of being a human being.  But the next two lines don’t let us off the hook.  This karma is made manifest in the world through the actions of our body, the words we use, and even the thoughts in our head.  And we take responsibility for that, for the part of this karma that we bring into the world.

It’s not that we are begging forgiveness from God, or that we are berating ourselves as being terrible people.  Instead, we just know, as deeply as we can, and acknowledge that our body, speech, and mind affects everyone around us and we are committing ourselves to really understanding how that works in our lives and how we can influence others in a positive way.

Our meditation practice brings us some calmness, sometimes called shamatha or simple mindfulness meditation.  To be calm is good, but it’s not enough.  It’s not enough to be a calm jerk.  We need to couple shamatha with vipassana or insight into our hearts and into how karma works in our lives.

I have found that long retreats are an especially good forum for cultivating this insight.  The difficulties that arise during such retreats, and how we relate to them, can be seen as a microcosm of how we relate to all of the difficulties in our lives outside of the zendo.  By paying close attention to the nature of these difficulties and how we respond to them, we can really learn how to avow our karma and engage with the world from a more humble, more open place.

Shohaku Okumura talks about this in his wonderful book, “Living by Vow”:  We live in the reality of our life whether or not we observe the precepts.  No one can escape from this reality.  Even when we are deluded, we live in reality as deluded human beings.  Ultimately, there is no separation between reality and delusion.  In other words, reality includes delusions.  Even though we live in the reality that is beyond discrimination, we have to discriminate in our day-to-day lives.  We have to decide what is good or bad.  Without discrimination, we can do nothing.  Even as we practice the Buddha’s teachings, we have to make choices.  This is the unavoidable reality of our concrete lives.  Even when we try to manifest the reality beyond discrimination, we have to discriminate and make choices about the best way to do so.  Avowal means that although I think this is the best thing to do in this situation, I recognize that it might be a mistake.

In other words, our practice doesn’t let us off the hook.  Even as we come to see our own delusion, our own greed, our own aversion, we still have to make decisions about how to live in the world and relate to others.  We’re not going to go live in a cave by ourselves, most likely.  We have to continue to work in the world and relate to our friends and families as best we can, even knowing that we are pretty confused.  Hopefully, as we get to know ourselves better through zazen, we can make better choices, but it is essential that we grow in humility.  Action, grounded in humility, is our way.

Okumura goes on:

Our practice is not a means to get rid of delusive thoughts.  Being mindful of true reality is not a method to eliminate delusions.  In fact, when we sit in zazen, we sit squarely within the reality before the separation of delusion and enlightenment.  Delusion and enlightenment are both here.  Neither is negated or affirmed; neither is grasped.  We sit on the ground of letting go.  This is the meaning of Dogen Zenji’s expression “practice and enlightenment are one”.  There is no state to be attained other than our practice of letting go.  We practice within delusions and manifest enlightenment through sitting practice and day-to-day activities based on zazen.  These practices enable us to settle our whole existence on that ground.

Our practice is not a means to an end.  We’re not going to put an end to our delusions.  Instead, our practice becomes a foundation for our lives, a continuous reminder that we are, basically, confused human beings who can often make a mess of things, but that when we are grounded in practice, we can infuse our daily activities with this spirit of humility, awareness, and letting go.


–Taisan Joe Galewsky

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