In monasteries in Japan, after morning zazen, we would move from the monks’ hall to the dharma hall and chant for about an hour. We’d chant about the relationship between relative and absolute reality, emptiness and form; we’d chant the names of teachers and abbots who came before; we’d chant about the power of compassion. And after each sutra, we’d dedicate the merit of that chanting to all beings throughout space and time. We were tired, and sometimes it was hard—our legs would fall asleep, for one thing—but it was beautiful, too. I love this practice of loudly, repeatedly declaring truths and promises that, if I’m being honest, I’m still working to understand, and probably always will be. It has a feeling of risk, like saying “I love you” to someone for the first time—you know it matters, but you also don’t know what will come of it.
These days, a lot of groups are chanting online, and it’s a little awkward. If people unmute their microphones, then it’s a cacophony of delays and electronic noises and confusion. And if people stay muted, then it’s strangely solitary—each person sees every other person’s mouth moving, but the only voice they hear is their own. It’s hard to recreate that group feeling.
At Zen Nova Scotia, we’ve tried to address the problem by going small: that hour long ceremony from my monastery days has been reduced to about five minutes. But in exchange for going small, we’ve gone big with what we say:
Beings are countless; I vow to free them all.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
Dharma gates are infinite; I vow to enter them.
The awakened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
These are the bodhisattva vows, the north star of a selfless being (and of those who aspire to that selflessness). We chant them three times, bowing at the end of each round, then move out of meditation and into our ordinary lives, reminded of our most basic—and most ambitious—intentions.
Over the years, I’ve heard lots of people try to address the scale of these vows by saying, essentially, “Hey, we know these are impossible, but just say them anyway.” On one level, of course, that makes perfect sense. Every vow is a paradox—if something is inexhaustible, how can I put an end to it? It isn’t logical. So I might decide the whole thing is just poetry, an inspiring overstatement.
Another approach is to take these vows on as a problem with a mystical solution. I’d guess that the majority of Zen students have thought, at some point in their practice career, By sitting in zazen, I will save all beings. I will end all delusion. I will enter every dharma gate. I will embody the way. That’s a beautiful notion, but unfortunately, it has nothing to do with zazen (Zen meditation). Zazen isn’t a tool for accomplishing something else—it just is what it is, fully self-contained. It isn’t a magical key or medicine. It’s just sitting still, being quiet, letting things be as they are.
So how do we chant these vows in a way that is meaningful? How do we (a) not reduce it to mere lip service and (b) not lie to ourselves? I don’t know, but I think there’s a place in the middle where we can be both honest and realistic, and it looks like this: accept the vows at face value—that is, looking exactly as difficult as they look—while also acknowledging that you have no idea how to achieve them. We do this all the time. When we get married, we tell someone we probably haven’t known that long that we will love and honor and cherish them forever, no matter what happens. And we mean it. That doesn’t mean we know how—or even if—we’ll pull it off, but we know that if we don’t mean it at the start, then there really isn’t much point. So we say it, and it’s honest, even if behind that honesty is a world of unknowns. When we have kids, we look at their tiny faces and tell them we’ll always keep them safe. And we fail. But we never stop. We never give up. We never roll our eyes and say, “Well, I know I said that, but come on—let’s be realistic.” No. We never drop that vow, ever. Our ability or inability to perfect it has nothing to do with it. It isn’t even a question.
More than at any other point in history, we know, without question, how connected we all are. We can make a big vow; we know that our thoughts and words and actions matter to other people, to other beings. We don’t need to know all the particulars. We don’t need to be told what’s possible. We can just agree to the responsibility we feel, to that desire—maybe encapsulated in the bodhisattva vows, maybe not—to offer something of meaning for others, to give. So go ahead, say it. Shout it, if you want to. The only one who needs to hear it is you.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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