“We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things…. Choose a place where you won’t do very much harm and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.” – E.M. Forster
Bodhisattvas, or people who consider themselves such, can be annoying. A vow is not an identity ripe for reification; it’s an awareness, a commitment, and a reminder of how often we fall short. As with the Dharma in Genjokoan, if we think we have it, we’re far away.
I’m remembering the chalkboard in high school math, where my teacher has drawn a curve that approaches infinitely closer to a line without ever touching it. We might consider our lives a failure because we can never fully reach our aspirations. But if a vow has guided the entire trajectory of our lives, we can’t say it accomplished nothing.
The central vow I made at my ordination was the bodhisattva vow to “save all beings.” My Zen teacher, Shohaku Okumura, has said that “saving” all beings means being one with all beings. This understanding has been vital for me, because people sometimes idealize priests and elevate practice centers above “the real world.” But such separations undermine our vows.
When I arrived at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in 2005 to begin my formal training, I was struck by how often students referred to in here and out there, as in, “People are so much nicer in here than out there.” I had no idea what they were talking about. The practitioners at Tassajara seemed like people anywhere – fully human, endowed with “both thief nature and Buddha nature,” as Kodo Sawaki Roshi put it. Since I had recently immigrated from out there, I would’ve noticed a substantial difference in niceness. What I saw instead was discrimination.
Would a bodhisattva see herself as a bodhisattva, which necessarily means seeing some other people as not-bodhisattvas? In other words, would a bodhisattva think in such dualistic terms? Would she elevate herself above others?
Zen practitioners are taught the image of the bodhisattva helping people across the river separating samsara from nirvana. And yet these two shores are one land, as Dogen Zenji tells us over and over in his dazzling displays of poetry and paradox, which all come down to one truth: each thing is everything. Practice is enlightenment. Delusion and enlightenment are interdependent, woven together to make Buddha’s robe. Samsara and nirvana suffuse each other. Our difficulty is in perceiving them within each other. When we’re suffering in samsara, nirvana feels so far away that it doesn’t exist. And when we’re at peace in nirvana, samsara doesn’t matter. Sickness and health, life and death, so many things feel like this — like mutually exclusive domains with no bridges between them.
The bodhisattva’s task is not only to find the oneness, the unity of form and emptiness, of difference and sameness, but to be this oneness, to manifest the equality of all things as a reminder and inspiration. This is “so-called enlightenment”: being and acting in harmony with all things. Seeing the world whole, living it whole, and loving it whole – “joyful participation in a world of sorrows,” in the words of Pico Iyer. Standing for all you’re worth, facing the sunshine, because bodhisattvas need joy as much as determination.
I think some people naturally do this work in the world, without needing to make any particular resolution. Others have to spell it out, to affirm for ourselves, “This is what I’m devoting my life to.” And then spend every day thereafter trying to figure out what we’ve promised, and what our promise means in each moment. I don’t think it means always being nice and giving people what they want, or never saying no. If you can’t say no, then your yes is meaningless. The bodhisattva no is important.
I first learned about religions other than Christianity and Judaism when I was twelve. My history teacher said that Shinto holds everything in the world to have a spirit, even things we don’t consider alive. I looked down at my desk, initials carved on top and gum fermenting underneath, with newfound curiosity and respect. I have no memory of Dr. Pisani’s descriptions of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, or Islam, but I’ve never forgotten that moment of wonder, the possibility that everything I’d taken for granted might be party to a sacredness secretly shared by all things.
Partly thanks to that moment, I’ve believed fiercely since childhood in the equality of all people and things. This conviction has held its own against our society’s pervasive brainwashing, overt and subtle, deluding us that certain races, genders, and classes of people are more valuable than others. And that human beings naturally matter more than other living and non-living things.
Such discriminations result in devastating inequities in people’s access to necessities, opportunities for fulfillment, health, safety, and freedom. On a wider scale, privileging human beings above all other life and non-life wreaks havoc on our planet, our home – the ultimate no-win situation. Each thing is everything.
Just before I left Japan, I visited Eiheiji with a friend. There I met a Japanese priest I really respected. I asked if he’d ever been to Tassajara, and what he thought of it. He hesitated as people do when they don’t want to say anything negative. I assured him that I was going there anyway; I was simply curious about his opinion. He thought Tassajara was one of the most beautiful places in the world to practice, but that some of the longtime practitioners there “had dead eyes.”
I could imagine what he might be referring to (the studiedly serious “I am a Zen person and must behave accordingly” expression), so I asked him what he thought caused this condition. He said, “I think American Zen students feel a need to worship their teachers, and that’s unhealthy for both students and teachers. Here in Japan, a Buddhist priest is a very ordinary thing. No one expects us to be God.”
Sometimes I’m reluctant to wear my robes, especially when I first join a sangha; I imagine they can create a feeling of separation for people who don’t have them. I also don’t like some of the projections they invite. But I believe it’s part of a priest’s job to work to overcome such projections and perceptions of separation. People wear different clothes, but if I allow mine to represent “betterness,” I’m corrupting the robe’s intention: to symbolize humility and vow — the vow to be one with all beings.
While training at Okumura Roshi’s temple in Indiana, I supported myself by helping international graduate students with their English speaking and writing. One, a Chinese Buddhist, liked to confide her romantic woes. Once I empathized, “Yes, I just hate when that happens!” She looked shocked. “But I thought as a priest you would have transcended all that!” All what? Love? Anger? Disappointment? Emotion in general? Maybe transcended being human altogether? Nice work if you can get it. But it isn’t to be had, not in this incarnation at least.
One of the reasons I don’t think of myself as a bodhisattva, despite my vows, is that a bodhisattva is described as a person capable of abiding eternally on the sunny shores of nirvana but electing not to, out of her great compassion and desire to rescue those still tossed on the rocks of samsara. I certainly can’t take credit for renouncing a permanent nirvana dwelling I’ve never had. I also can’t immediately think of anyone I know who would qualify as a bodhisattva under this exacting definition.
As far as I can tell, most of us commute regularly between samsara and nirvana; I don’t think we have any choice. That’s the nature of our life, moment by moment. It’s also the nature of nirvana and samsara – the shores always shifting as the river flows onward. Who could be just one thing? How fortunate that each thing is everything! Mary Oliver wrote, “There is only one question: how to love this world.” I wholeheartedly agree with her – it may not be my only question, but it’s the one that moves me the most. For me, it’s the fundamental bodhisattva question.
I do love Zen practice, and what I love most is that it changes lives. Living by vow changes lives. It has changed my life, and I’ve seen it change other lives. When I lived in Maine, I sat with some people and we discussed Hojo-san’s Homeless Kodo book, one chapter at a time. Most of us had never practiced before. Except for me, no one was wearing any special clothes, and we weren’t in a temple; we sat in a living room overlooking a river that had once separated the two worlds of a mill town: where the workers lived and the owners resided.
I’d edited Homeless Kodo with my usual ambivalence about editing, but each week I witnessed its words help people transform themselves: smoothing family relationships, putting work challenges in perspective, calming mindstorms. It was remarkable to see words having such tangible power in the world, since writers often feel we’re shouting into wind. As poet John Keats had inscribed on his tombstone, “Here lies one whose words were writ in water.” Like too many artists, he died convinced his life had been a failure, without any idea what his poems would mean to generations. Bodhisattvas do not necessarily know they are bodhisattvas. Maybe they cannot know it, because then they would stop being it.
In my twenties I had a one-day tenure as a volunteer at Planned Parenthood, counseling women who’d just received the results of their pregnancy tests. My client was in tears. She was a migrant farmworker who had several children already and couldn’t afford another. I couldn’t think of anything useful to say; I murmured a few words, listened to her talk and cry, and concentrated very hard on not crying myself. After half an hour, she thanked me and left. I called my supervisor the next day and quit, explaining how useless I’d felt, and how I’d very nearly cried, which could hardly have been reassuring to the client. She told me that in fact the client had felt better after our session; she said it was the first time someone had really listened to her.
What I experienced as a failure became a koan about help: what is it? Giving people what they need or what makes us feel good? What are our motivations? Are we serving them, or validating ourselves? What are the limits of one person’s ability and responsibility to help another? Are false assumptions or hidden judgments on either side hindering our efforts? Can we help someone without a trace of selfishness in our hearts?
I once read that counselors assume they help people through their words and methodologies – Jungian, cognitive behavioral, whatever they trained to do. But the writer asserted that people are helped most not by what we say, but by who we are, and by the quality of our relationship with them.
So how do we become better bodhisattvas? We work on ourselves. Zazen, and especially sesshin, has been one of my ways of working on myself, of gathering my heart-mind, of remembering the difference between society’s values and my vows, between so-called reality and the true nature of life. People are sometimes surprised that I still sit four or five-day silent sesshins whenever I can, often at home. To me it feels very straightforward — I just sat for long enough that sitting became a normal thing to do. Turning off my email and phone and not doing what’s expected for a few days became acceptable and even essential to me.
Recently I heard a Dharma talk at my new sangha. A friend from Tassajara, a priest, writer, and hospice counselor spoke of his challenges in meeting suffering, and how he returns to our practice when he feels himself overwhelmed by the cries of the world. Afterward someone asked, “Practice is great, but what are we supposed to do about all the suffering when we stand up from the cushion?”
With a beautifully rueful smile, my friend said, “I don’t know.” I really respected this answer. It takes courage to admit “I don’t know” from the teacher’s seat. And it’s true. He can’t know what she should do when she stands up, because the bodhisattva vow must be manifested uniquely according to each person’s desires, abilities, and limits. Realizing our individual incarnation of a universal vow is the work of our lives. And vow isn’t static; it changes along with the person who vows.
So if you ask me tomorrow what the bodhisattva vow means, I might give you a different answer. And that would be all right. In the deepest regions of life, I prefer questions to answers. Questions are alive. And any question worth its salt has as many answers as the ten thousand things.
This post is excerpted from an essay in Boundless Vows, Endless Practice, an anthology of writings on the bodhisattva vow published recently by The Dogen Institute. The book is available here: https://dogeninstitute.wordpress.com/purchase-pubs/
Also, I’d like to note that despite my occasional critiques of institutional Zen, I’m endlessly grateful to my two training temples, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and Sanshin Zen Community.