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Posts Tagged ‘Living by Vow A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and texts’

buddha-quote-thinkingAtonement is not a word we use much in America, especially today.  Yet, with what is going on in our country and around the world we sure do need more work on it, more thinking about it, and more doing something about what we need to atone for.  I don’t think we can atone for the “sins of our fathers” as they say, but we can atone for our own negative thoughts, words, deeds, and behaviors.

Atonement has been defined in many ways such as reparation for a wrong doing or making amends for your actions, words, and/or deeds.  Or even read as “at one meant.” In, Buddhism we have a gatha or chant that we recite at the end of our sitting period. It is simple yet powerful.

All harmful karma ever committed by me since of old
On account of my beginingless greed, anger, and ignorance,
Born of my body, mouth, and thought,
Now I atone for it all…

Kaz Tanahashi in his book Zen Chants reminds us that “We are in the midst of changeable and unchangeable karma in each moment.  We are bound by cause and effect, but at the same time we are partly free of cause and effect. This is the case during meditation, when we can be completely free from the chain of causation.  At this time, we can be anybody and anywhere.  We are what we meditate.  We are also the source of cause and effect (page 146).[1]

Each time I recite this chant I feel like I’ve been given a new life, and a new opportunity to get something right!  To have a “do over” as we might say today.  I may not be able to have a “do over” with someone who has passed away or no longer will take my calls, texts, or emails, but atone I must—to forgive myself for my behavior or words or deeds that harmed or hurt another.  Regardless of whether the person is someone you know or a total stranger if we have harmed then atonement is the best action to take.  If we decide not to take that action it doesn’t mean that we’re done with it anyway!

I once worked with a congregant of mine who had a very bad relationship with his brother.  Upon his brother’s untimely death, he went into a great depression for how he had left their relationship.  It came to me when we were together one day for him to simply meditate on the love that he had held back from his brother and ask an imaginary angel to deliver him a message of repentance, love, and compassion.  Not long after he said that his brother had come to him in a dream and they hugged and forgave each other, and his pain and suffering was relieved.  His love for his brother was evident in his countenance he was smiling joyfully.

He was freed from the chain of causation through atonement! How chained are you?  What will you do about it? Will you atone and be released from those thoughts and emotions?  Or do you choose to live with the pain, anger, and animosity?  The choice is yours—which will it be.

[1]Tanahashi, K. (2015) Zen Chants Thirty-Five Essential Texts with Commentary. Shambhala: Boston and London

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So what is the vow anyway?  There are various translations of the bodhisattva vow, sometimes called the four vows, the way we say it at our Southern Palm Zen Group sangha is below:

Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.
The Enlightened Way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

As you can tell by the words above in many life times we would not be able to free every being on the planet, nor would we be able to transform all of our daily delusions about life.  Plus knowing that reality is relative to the person, country, culture, and more makes it “unknowable” as well, and finally becoming enlightened is rare indeed.  Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has self-actualization at the top of the pyramid and it has probably only been attained by a few people ever on planet earth.  And I am not one of them!

Shohaku Okumura writes about the four vows in his book Living by Vow A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts:

We are ordinary human beings and yet, if we take these four vows, we are bodhisattvas.  In reality, we are ordinary human beings with inexhaustible desires.  We have to study the teachings and practice endlessly, day by day, moment by moment, to attain the Buddha’s enlightenment.  This is our vow.  In making these four vows, we are bodhisattvas.

As we said, there is a contradiction inherent in these vows: we vow to do things that are impossible. . . .our practice and study are like trying to empty the ocean with a spoon, one spoonful at a time. (page 19).[1]

And yet we do it.  We take the vows, we practice as best we can and sometimes we compare our practice to others and get discouraged or get an overblown ego.  Neither is correct.  To be a bodhisattva is a journey with no end, but one that can bring great peace, compassion, and help to us, our families, friends, neighbors, community and ultimately the world.

Even if you are the winner of the National Spelling Bee there will be words to still discover, spell, and define, the number is limitless. And yet, the contestants still try and they keep on studying.  Such is living life by the 4 vows.  The journey is never ending, the path is never straight, the way is often up a rocky road and sometimes strolling on soft green grass. It can be filled with joys and sorrows, fun and laughter, pain and pleasure.  Regardless of the path we may travel, when we take the vows we do our best in this moment ONLY to live those vows.

I start each day by freeing myself from my delusions about myself and the world that I live in, then I open myself to the idea of reality being boundless and not limited by my past experiences and knowledge, and that walking the path of the bodhisattva is a path that could lead me to enlightenment and that is simply fun to imagine!—Even if I don’t attain it today.  I hope you’ll join me on this great adventure!

Things to focus on this week:

1.  I will begin each day affirming the four vows.

2.  I will remind myself that living by them is done by being mindful and taking baby steps along the path throughout the day regardless of the current circumstances.

3.  I will remember that I am a bodhisattva even when I don’t feel like it or think I am acting like one.

4.  Lastly, I will keep a journal of the opportunities that have been presented to me so I can keep track of my progress and my opportunities for growth.


[1] Okumura, S. (2012) Living by vow: a practical introduction to eight essential Zen chants and texts. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA

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