Recently, at Zen Nova Scotia, we’ve been talking a lot about vow—what vow means for each of us, but also what it means for us as a group. Every time we gather, we recite the bodhisattva vows:
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.
This is just one translation of many, and each reflects a different understanding of the dharma (for example, some say “reality is boundless” instead of “dharma gates are infinite”—we can spend a lot of time trying to determine if that difference is big or small). But as we dissect these verses word by word, looking at all the possible variations, we keep circling back to one small-but-not-small thing: they all say “I.”
The thing is, there’s no “I” in the original. There’s no “we” or “you” either—it’s just implied. I’m not saying “I” is wrong; in fact, that’s almost certainly what was originally intended. I’m just saying there’s an opportunity here.
“Beings are countless; I vow to free them all”—it’s a powerful, beautiful thing to say, and a person can spend a lifetime wrestling with the question of whether or not they’re actually capable of accomplishing it. Saying it out loud is a way of trying on a kind of awesome responsibility, sitting in a seat regardless of whether you think it’s meant for you. If you’ve never said such a thing, I recommend that you start. Say it every day. See if it sinks in a little.
But it’s easy to see the danger, too—namely, that “I” am over here, and “they” are over there; they need to be freed, and I am the one to do it for them. If we take this up too literally, we can fall into the trap of sympathy, of feeling sorry for others instead of recognizing that we are always already suffering with them. The whole story of a bodhisattva, of one who takes up these vows, is that no one can be free unless and until everyone is. So even if someone’s particular bondage is foreign to me, even if I cannot imagine what it feels like to be in those shoes, as long as they are bound, I am bound with them. As long as they are suffering, I am not free from suffering.
There’s another part to this: you’re not alone. The Zen tradition is clear that no one else can do this work for you, but the truth is, countless beings already do the work with you. How many bodhisattvas do you know? They may not call themselves that; they may not even know the term. But they’ve framed their thoughts, words, and deeds in terms of generosity. Whether these same words or none at all, when you take up these vows, you take them up in partnership with everyone who is of the same heart. You are supporting them, and they are supporting you. We should be careful not to forget that.
Beings really are countless. We watch them on the news, and we see how hard it is for so many, and we forget we’re watching ourselves as well. What’s hard—for anyone, anywhere, anytime—is also hard for us. You might feel isolated. You might try to stand apart. We all do, sometimes. But you can never truly be separated—not by an inch, not by a breath. So maybe it isn’t “I vow to free them all”; maybe it’s “We vow to free us all.” Try that on. See what it opens up.
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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