On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

December 09, 2010

Making the Altruistic Vow

Dogen (1200-1253)

To awaken to the Bodhi-mind means to vow not to cross over to the other shore of enlightenment before all sentient beings have done so.  Whether layperson or monk, living in the world of celestial beings or of humans, subject to pain or pleasure, all should quickly make this vow.

Though of humble appearance, a person who has awakened to the Bodhi-mind is already teacher of all mankind. Even a little girl of seven can become the teacher of the four classes of Buddhists and the compassionate mother of all beings; for in Buddhism men and women are completely equal.  This is one of the highest principles of the Way.

After having awakened to the Bodhi-mind, even wandering in the six realms of existence and the four forms of life becomes an opportunity to practice the altruistic vow. Therefore even though up to now you may have vainly idled away your time, you should quickly make this vow while there is still time.  Though you have acquired sufficient merit to achieve Buddhahood, you should place it at the disposal of all beings in order that they may realize their own enlightenment in order that they might be of benefit to all beings, helping them to cross over first to the other shore.

There are four kinds of Wisdom that benefit others:  offerings, loving words, benevolence, and identification, all of which are the practices of a Bodhisattva.  Giving offerings means not to covet. Although it is true that, in essence, nothing belongs to self, this does not prevent us from giving offerings.  The size of the offering is of no concern; it is the sincerity with which it is given that is important.  Therefore one should be willing to share even a phrase of a verse of the Law, for this becomes the seed of good in both this life and the next.  This is also the case when giving of one’s material treasure, whether it be a single coin or a blade of grass, for the Law is the treasure and the treasure is the Law.

There have been those who, seeking no reward, willingly gave their help to others. Supplying a ferry and building a bridge are both acts of giving offerings, as are earning a living and producing goods.

The meaning of loving words is that when beholding all beings one is filled with compassion for them, addressing them affectionately. That is to say, one regards them as if they were his own children. The virtuous should be praised and the virtueless pitied. Loving words are the source of overcoming your bitter enemy’s hatred and establishing friendship with others.  Directly hearing loving words spoken brightens the countenance and warms the heart.  An even deeper impression is made, however, by hearing about loving words spoken about oneself in one’s absence.  You should know that loving words have a revolutionary impact on others.

Benevolence means to devise ways of benefiting others, no matter what their social position. Those who aided the helpless tortoise or the injured sparrow did not expect any reward for their assistance; they simply acted out of their feelings of benevolence.  The foolish believe that their own interests will suffer if they put the benefit of others first.  They are wrong, however. Benevolence is all-encompassing, equally benefiting oneself and others.

Identification means nondifferentiation—to make no distinction between self and others.  For example, it is like the human Tathagata who led the same life as that of us human beings.  Others can be identified with self, and thereafter, self with others.  With the passage of time both self and others become one. Identification is like the sea, which does not decline any water no matter what its source, all waters gathering, therefore, to form the sea.

Quietly reflect on the fact that the preceding teachings are the practices of a Bodhisattva.  Do not treat them lightly.  Venerate and respect their merit, which is able to save all sentient beings, enabling them to cross over to the other shore.

Constant Practice and Gratitude

The opportunity to awaken to the Bodhi-mind is, in general, reserved to human beings living in this world.  Now that we have had the good fortune not only to be born in this world, but also to come into contact with the Buddha Shakyamuni, how can we be anything but overjoyed!

Quietly consider the fact that if this were a time when the true Law had not yet spread throughout the world, it would be impossible for us to come into contact with it, even if we were willing to sacrifice our lives to do to.  How fortunate to have been born in the present day, when we are able to make this encounter!  Listen to what the Buddha said:   “When you meet a master who expounds the supreme Bodhi-wisdom, do not consider his birth, look at his appearance, dislike his faults or worry about his behavior.  Rather, out of respect for his great Wisdom, reverently prostrate yourself before him three times a day—giving him no cause for worry.”                                                                  

We are now able to come into contact with the Buddha Shakymuni and hear his teachings due to the compassionate kindness that has resulted from the constant practice of each of the Buddhas and patriarchs.

If the Buddhas and patriarchs had not directly transmitted the Law, how could it have come down to us today?  We should be grateful for even a single phrase or portion of the Law, still more for the great benefit accruing from the highest supreme teaching—the Eye Storehouse of the True Law.  The injured sparrow did not forget the kindness shown to it, rewarding its benefactor with four silver rings.  Neither did the helpless tortoise, who rewarded its benefactor with the seal of Yun-pu-ting.  If even animals show their gratitude for kindness rendered to them, how can humans fail to do the same?

The true way of expressing this gratitude is not to be found in anything other than our daily Buddhist practice itself.  That is to say, we should practice selflessly, esteeming each day of life. 

Time flies faster than an arrow; life is more transient than the dew.  No matter how skillful you may be, it is impossible to bring back even a single day of the past. To have lived to be a hundred years old to no purpose is to eat of the bitter fruit of time, to become a pitiable bag of bones.  

Even though you have allowed yourself to be a slave to your senses for a hundred years, if you give yourself over to Buddhist training for even one day, you will gain a hundred years of life in this world as well as in the next. Each day’s life should be esteemed; the body should be respected.

It is through our body and mind that we are able to practice the Way; this is why they should be loved and respected. It is through our own practice that the practice of the various Buddhas appears and their great Way reaches us.  Therefore each day of our practice is the same as theirs, the seed of realizing Buddhahood.

 All the various Buddhas are none other than the Buddha Sakyamuni himself.  The Buddha Sakyamuni is nothing other than the fact that the Mind itself is the Buddha.  When the Buddhas of the past, present, and future realize enlightenment, they never fail to become the Buddha Sakyamuni. This is the meaning of the Mind itself being the Buddha.  Study this question carefully, for it is in this way that you can express your gratitude to the Buddhas.

Dogen (1200-1253)

Excerpted from Master Dogen An Introduction with selected writings by Yuho Yokoi

If all you read was the title of both selections you could intuit the heart of this teaching.  Making the Altruistic Vow…serves to focus on our intentions and purpose here and now.  What have we committed to? What better time of year to contemplate this lofty vow than now?  We face the return or decline of light/Light with the Solstice and the New Year time where we all question where we have come and where we are going….

The speed of life filled to the brim with distractions pulling us away from our intentions serves as a potent test of our commitment.  To stay true to our practice, focusing on how we actualize our part of saving all sentient beings, is a powerful contemplation.  Dogen spells out very direct and simple ways and the most elevated of them as well….

We must begin and continue on this Way over years and lifetimes.  We pick up the thread of our practice every day and find creative ways to implement these teachings.  At heart we want to wake up, and the forces around us want to lull us back into sleepwalking.  Together we weave this tapestry of compassion, courage, and kindness that serves to remind us why we are here.  Each day may we share light and depth with every being we encounter; each day may we  Wake Up! anew and begin again.

With Renewed Enthusiasm,