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what vow is this?

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Till now our fledging meditation group has stayed clear of chanting — something that’s integral to monasteries and priest-led practice centres. We’ve limited rituals to ringing a bell here and a han there; we bow as we arrive and depart, when taking and leaving our seats, and as part of tea service. During this week of rohatsu, however, we’re adding the four-line chant of the Bodhisattva Vows to our morning and evening sittings. It begins with this line:

Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.

You what? Why not end world hunger or make peace on earth while you’re at it? Outright silly, you say? Meaningless? Get real! And who are you to “free” anyone? And free from what? Delusions? Greed? Illness? Sadness? Bad habits? Arrogance? Old age? Just a few that come to mind: states I wish I could be free of. Bingo! Start right here, right now.

What keeps me from being a kind person, a happy man, a good neighbour, a forgiving brother, a generous friend? How about this for a vow: May I be free from fear, anxiety, anger, hatred, prejudice. May I accept myself as I am, warts and all. May I cut myself some slack.

That’s a start: my mantra for today. May your day go well.


how far will you go?

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Would you knowingly harm, injure, or kill another being? Most likely not — what an outrageous question. Yet the very thing arose when I was standing at the counter in a French chacuterie, waiting to buy some goat’s milk cheese made in Quebec. And there, in the display case, where several bins with freshly made sausages, also some duck confit, and various smoked bits of meat. “Times like this,” I mused to the counterperson, “I’d be willing to become a carnivore.”

What is it, I wondered later. How serious am I about the precept of doing no harm, of saving all sentient beings? I realize this isn’t so much about whether carrots have feelings or potatoes had mothers but about the length I’m prepared to go in keeping a vow. Do I love you, for instance, when all’s well — and stop loving you when the passion has died and you’re merely another human? Do I extend my heart of compassion to someone dying at hospice and then side-step the weird creature standing at the street corner asking for change to buy a cup of coffee?

How do we practice loving kindness in all its manifestations and still retain a sense of personal boundaries. How much of myself do I give before my heart feels empty and I become resentful? Does it really matter — in the great scheme of things — whether I eat a sausage once in a while, or every day, or never ever? What matters, I believe, is intention: the resolve to meet each situation with as much openness and determination I can muster; to do my utmost to be honest and caring in all circumstances — and to cut myself some slack when an obstacle throws me off-track. And to reflect on what happened and resolve to try again, without regrets or self-blame.

… secret vows (david whyte)

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whyte d



All the true vows
are secret vows
the ones we speak out loud
are the ones we break.

There is only one life
you can call your own
and a thousand others
you can call by any name you want.

Hold to the truth you make
every day with your own body,
don’t turn your face away.

Hold to your own truth
at the center of the image
you were born with.  . . .

©2004 David Whyte from “All the True Vows” (partial) in The house of belonging. Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press. 


speaking (of) vows

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I occasionally mention the vow “to be of service” which I made on December 31, 2000. This simple promise was not imposed on me but naturally arrived at my heart’s door during rohatsu, a weeklong silent Zen retreat. This vow has informed my everyday decisions ever since: each time I serve, it is re-charged.

normanAnyone can make and live by vows. You don’t have to be a monk or work in a hospice. Norman Fischer writes:

There are many ways to life a life of vowing. I have known people who live their vow through art or work or service, others do it simply by remaining for a long time in a particular place that they have come to know well and to love. Perhaps most movingly, I have also known people for whom the need to overcome great suffering–personal tragedies like abuse or loss, social forces like sexism, racism, or homophobia, a physical or mental illness, the long tragic course of addition–has been a vital and courageous path of vowing.

source: Fischer, N. (2003). Taking our places: the Buddhist path of truly growing up. HarperSanFrancisco, p. 127.


nothing special

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outdoor-parisBy now you may have noticed that I do more than drinking hot beverages and eating whole-wheat cranberry scones while sitting at the little café down the block. I also watch and listen to other early birds, including a fidgety pair of swallows preening their wings in the sun. A ‘regular’ stopped by to say that she’d seen a name in the obituary column and wondered whether I’d known the deceased. “I scan the paper every morning, wondering whether you might have known that person,” she told me and we talked for a little while how one might live in the face of other people’s pain and loss each day and not become depressed or permanently sad oneself.

Taking her leave, she said, “I admire what you do [at hospice]” to which I replied, without another thought, “So do I [admire what I do, that is].” Nothing heroic or saintly; simply to be of service four days a week, to be allowed to enter into intimacy with others at difficult moments of their lives. 

My café neighbour departed and I returned to my reading:   

It’s a myth that spiritual people are not attached, that they’re somehow above the trials and tribulations of ordinary live. Not only are they affected by things, they’re tremendously affected by them. For rather than living in the realm of ideas and feelings about suffering, they live in the realm of action.

How do they know what action to take? …

When we bear witness, when we become the situation—homelessness, peacemakerspoverty, illness, violence, death—the right action arises by itself. We don’t have to worry about what to do. We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time. Peacemaking is the functioning of bearing witness. Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises.

[The Buddha taught that] loving action is Right Action. It’s as simple as giving a hand to someone who stumbles or picking up a child who has fallen on the floor. We take such direct, natural actions every day of our lives without considering them special. And they’re not special. Each is simply the best possible response to the situation in that moment.

source: Glassman, B. (1998). Bearing witness: a Zen master’s lessons in making peace. New York: Bell Tower, p. 84. 


got boundaries?

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teresaI’m in trouble at work. My manager is unhappy. You’re working too many hours; when your shift is over, I want you to go home and live your life. Ten years ago I vowed “to be of service,” which later became “To save all sentient beings.” What better place to pursue such noble intentions than at a hospice, where the need for loving-kindness never ends. And it’s all there, in this Buddhist prayer:

May I become at all times, both now and forever,
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a servant to all in need.

What a paradox: I vow to do all that while knowing that it’s an impossible undertaking. Once more I’m reminded of the temptation to see things as either/or. Reminded also of the Middle Way, the Buddha’s path of moderation away from extremes. 

Here then is my prescription for the next week: Do your best in every moment, then rest. Get up again, pay attention to your breath, listen to your heart, look at a flower, eat the best chocolate … and do your best to serve others, then rest again. With every step, do no harm, do good, aim to alleviate suffering … and include yourself as one of the beings requiring loving attention. That should keep you occupied. Ah!