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the great vow

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In Zen (and in other branches of Mahayana Buddhism) there’s a vow known as the Bodhisattva vow. It undergirds all Buddhist practice and—without my conscious awareness—informed my own vow-taking nine years ago (see Tuesday’s post). With this vow, recited daily at monasteries, practice centres, and before settling on our meditation cushion, we renew our intention to help save all sentient beings … for as long as we live and in lives to come.

There are many wordings (due to nuances in translation); the one used at Great Vow Zen Monastery goes like this:

Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
The Buddha way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

The Bodhisattva vow is reflected in the book-length collection of verses by the 8th-century Indian scholar Shantideva. Undeterred by its flowery language and the seeming impossibility of its aims, I frequently turn to the following verses to guide my spiritual/hospice practice:

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road;
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,
And a lamp for those who long for light;
For those who need a resting place, a bed,
For all who need a servant, may I be a slave.

bodhisattva_dancers2According to Buddhist legend, a bodhisattva was trying to reach all the people of the world. As two hands were not enough, she/he was given 1,000 of them. Many statues and this dance form depict the many hands. In some countries, the bodhisattva is shown as a woman, in others as a man, called Chenrezig in Tibet, Avalokitesvara in India, Guan Yin in China, and Kannon or Kanzeon in Japan.


One response »

  1. Irene Monroe

    This reminds me of a Rumi poem, something to the effect of :

    Be a Lamp, or a Lifeboat,
    Or a ladder
    Help someone’s soul to heal
    Walk out of your house
    Like a shepherd


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