The Four Great Vows

One of the sanghas to which I belong recently became a California non-profit. As part of that process, we wrote our bylaws. And, like our parent organization, the Five Mountain Zen Order, we decided to include the Four Great Vows in those bylaws.

Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all.

Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all.

The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all.

The Buddha way is inconceivable; we vow to realize it.

Most of us, when reading or reciting these vows for the first time, are struck my the impossibility of actually keeping them. And that’s okay; some vows aren’t meant to be “kept” so much as “attempted.”

One of the most important things I’ve learned is that intention is the key to the spiritual life. I remember Khenpo Ugyen Wangchuk giving a teaching on this in 2013. It can be tricky, because it requires tremendous self-knowledge and honesty. “Oh, I meant well…” isn’t good enough. Mistakes are fine, provided they come from a sincere heart.  But we must be clear about the sincerity and strength of our intentions. If we enter the spiritual life half-heartedly, we’re deluding ourselves that anything will change.

We also need effort, but that flows naturally from powerful intention. Let’s use meditation as an example. I intend to meditate every day. But I still have to follow up my intention with the effort of sitting my butt on the cushion. If I can’t seem to make that happen, then my intention wasn’t strong or heart-felt enough. If my intention is deep enough, if it’s felt in my bones, if I can’t imagine a world where I’m not meditating every day, then I’ll exert the effort and get it done.

All of which means: we’re not off the hook on these vows! We have to try. We help sentient beings whenever we can, from catching and releasing a bug that came into the home, to giving a stranger directions. We look fearlessly at our own spiritual ignorance and attempt to illuminate the dark places through meditation. We read, study, attend Dharma talks, and question everything until learning takes place. And we watch how we keep our minds, moment to moment.

What’s the point, if the vows can’t be kept? First of all, it makes a difference to that stranger who was lost! But even more basically, it’s training in how to keep going, even in the face of impossibility. If we can look at the enormity the Four Great Vows and commit to undertaking them, how much easier is that daily meditation practice by comparison!

May all beings benefit.

Jabo Prajna Chop Small

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