The Bodhisattva's Vow Barry Magid May 19th 2012

This morning I’d like to begin a discussion of Bodhisattva’s Vow which we’ll continue in our discussion group later on if you’d like. The first thing to notice about this text is in the title: Bodhisattva’s Vow. The way we usually think about the word Vow is as if it’s a promise or a commitment to do something, usually something that we’re going to do with some difficulty or reluctance, like I vow to give up smoking or drinking, or I vow to give ten percent of my income to charity, or something like that. But throughout here we don’t get any sense at all of that kind of use of the word Vow, the kind of struggling to do the right thing in the face of resistance. Instead it begins this way:

“When I, a student of the way, look at the real form of the universe, all is the never-failing manifestation of the mysterious truth of the awakened life. In any event, in any moment, and in any place, none can be other than the marvelous revelation of its glorious light.”

It starts out with a statement of realization. It doesn’t start with a statement of aspiration or promise. It says When I realize the true nature of things, this is what it looks like and everything is going to flow out of that state of realization. It’s very similar in that sense to the way the Heart Sutra begins:

“Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, doing deep prajna paramita, clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions, thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.”

Realization comes first, and out of it flows compassionate action. Here in the Bodhisattva’s Vow we have a similar movement. We begin where most of us are trying to get to, with realization. That’s the first step. All this other stuff we’re doing is just the preliminary, but the realization comes first and then we’re going to see what flows out of that.

The sense is that everything, any event, any moment, any place, everything is that marvelous revelation, the mysterious truth. It doesn’t state quite yet what that truth is, but there’s a sense in which everything is already manifesting it.

Now, the next section shows how this realization manifests itself, how it flows into our life.

“This realization made our ancestors and teachers extend tender care,
with respectful hearts, even to such beings as birds and beasts.”

“This realization made our ancestors . . .”: the realization itself compels us to extend this tender care, not in the sense of an ought or a should, but in the sense of something that has been made clear and obvious. Once you see this, you just automatically, naturally, behave in a certain way. We can say, if you want to think of the realization here in terms of non-separation, when we see ourselves as non-separate from life, we automatically extend the same care we would extend to ourselves to all beings.

It goes on:

“This realization teaches us, that our daily food, drink, clothes, and protections of life, are the warm flesh and blood, the merciful incarnation of the awakened one. Who can be ungrateful if not respectful even to senseless things not to speak of human beings.”

Here we make a little turn into the metaphor of the incarnation of the awakened one as our daily food, drink, clothes and protections of life. Now if we read this part, it’s pretty clear that this is a metaphor. We’re not tempted to take this literally, but we’re shown a certain perspective, that we are part of the body, one body of the awakened one: “Our daily food, drink, clothes and protections of life are the warm flesh and blood of the awakened one.” We’re part of one body. Since every thing that we encounter is part of the body of the Buddha, we show it respect even to senseless things, even to inanimate objects, everything in the world is part of this Buddha body, in this broad metaphorical sense.

Again, “this realization teaches us,” so it’s not something here that we’re striving to do or realize, it’s more that from the perspective of realization we see that everything is the one body of the awakened one, that we are in some sense, some very deep sense, at home in the world. It’s a statement that absolutely negates any kind of alienation or separation that we might feel. Realization is about complete embeddedness, embodiment, interconnection.

Now, in the next section we get something that sounds more like an admonition:

“Even though they may be fools, be warm and compassionate towards them.
If by any chance they should turn against us, become a sworn enemy and abuse and
persecute us, we should sincerely bow down with humble language, in the reverent understanding that they are the merciful messengers of the awakened one, who use devices to emancipate us from blind tendencies produced and accumulated upon ourselves, by our own egoistic delusion and attachment, through countless cycles of space and time.”

Well, that’s a mouthful. A couple of different things are happening there. First, it’s as if we’re acknowledging that our realization that gives us this immediate sense of embeddedness and non-separation may bump up against some limits. In the natural course of things we will have some experience, maybe just a small one, of this kind of realization, where we feel totally at home in a world that is protecting us, that is the body of the awakened one. And yet, that feeling, even if it’s genuine, is very likely to bump into some harsh realities at one point or another. Now what kinds of realities? Well, it starts with encountering fools, right? What do we do about people who don’t realize this? How do we respond or react when we have this realization but the other fellow doesn’t? Are we still going to feel that same connection to someone who denies the reality of our deepest view of the world?

So here, this section enters into the things that challenge us by making us feel separate. At first it’s the encounter with delusion. We’ve got our realization, but how are we going to respond to the people who don’t have it, who still are caught in the grip of separation and delusion? There is this admonition: We should be warm and compassionate towards them, which we may find even harder than being respectful to such beings as birds and beasts. That came first and that looked easier. It’s people that are the problem.

Now the second one gets a little complicated because now not only do we have to deal with idiots, now we have to start dealing with enemies:

“If by any chance they should turn against us and become a sworn enemy, abuse and
persecute us, we should sincerely bow down with humble language, in the reverent understanding that they are the merciful messengers of the awakened one, who use devices to emancipate us from blind tendencies.”

Here the language gets slippery, because before we said everything we encounter is the warm flesh and blood of the awakened one. It’s pretty clear that’s a metaphor, but how metaphorical is this? I think there’s a tendency to slip into a language where we think messengers of the awakened one suggest we’re slipping into a kind of theistic language, where the universe is trying to tell us something. You hear that language all the time now, right? That there’s actually a meaning or purpose, a hidden function in these people becoming our enemies. Life is trying to teach us something.

Now Joko could use that kind of language, but again we have to be very clear that we’re speaking metaphorically, and try to understand what kind of teaching this is, and what kind of device it is. Most basically, I would say, if we are attempting to extend a realization of non-separation, anything that pushes a button of separation in us is teaching us the limits of our realization, is showing us that we’ve come this far but there’s still farther to go, and this is the boundary that we have still unconsciously or automatically to our realization. It’s very easy to get caught up in a sense of the completeness or perfection of our realization, no matter how small. And we all need to bump up against something that shows us that, well, actually, no, that’s not the whole story. Right? If there’s anything that will make us feel like we are separate, it’s encountering an enemy, someone who is clearly declaring themselves “not us.” If an enemy is not available, parents work pretty well, as in Trungpa’s old saying, If you think you’re enlightened, just go home to your parents’ for the holiday. But this is a statement of the messenger of the awakened one, something in life that teaches you where your boundaries are.

The next part of that is “emancipate us from blind tendencies produced and accumulated upon ourselves by our own egoistic delusion and attachment in countless cycles of space and time.” Again, what is it that we’ve produced and accumulated? This is a statement about how we’re going to understand karma and something about cause and effect. Now, if we take this too literally, if we lose the metaphor, what we get is this kind of literal karmic picture that we’re suffering now, we’re being persecuted now because of some egoistic bad behavior in a past life that is now coming around to bite us on the ass. We’re getting what we deserve from our past bad behavior. See, as we go through this, there’s this whole temptation to slip into more and more literal language about karma and the instrumentality of life. It’s almost as if there’s an intention behind everything. How can we understand it if we don’t go down that path?

I think we should see this as saying that our whole sense of separation arises out of our history, both personal and cultural and historic, that we create and are born into a world in which suffering has created and maintained and perpetuated a sense of doer and done-to, of perpetrator and victim, and that whole way of looking at things is part of our personal, cultural inheritance that we are going to have to figure out how to come to terms with in light of this realization and non-separation.

To the extent that we are not in fact separate from the whole stream of life, we have brought this on ourselves, all of life has done this through generations, and now we’re the latest manifestation of it. This is how it unfolds and this is what we’ve inherited and we have to come to terms with that sense of things. In a sense you can say It’s the legacy of historical fact of trauma repeating itself over and over, generation to generation, in which with every trauma we’re made to back up and feel separate. Every time something hits us and hurts us, we create this boundary, and that is our inheritance, those boundaries are our inheritance that we have to come to terms with and see for what they are, in the light of realization.

“Bow down with humble language in the reverent understanding,” is, in a sense, precisely our practice to see and experience those boundaries of separation. That was really Joko’s point, over and over again. Don’t try to cultivate some state of oneness. Try to find your edge all the time, and that edge is defined by hurt, anger, anxiety, resistance. That’s the boundary that life will always teach you. It exists. It’s always coming to give you that lesson.

It concludes with a return to its original place of realization. We’ve gone through the realization, its manifestation, its bumping up against resistance, the use of metaphor including the metaphor of almost a kind of divine messenger, and now we’re going to conclude with a statement of complete realization, if you work through those resistances.

“Then on each moment’s flash of our thought will grow a lotus flower;
And on each lotus flower will be revealed perfection, unceasingly manifest as our life,
just as it is, right here and right now.”

This is the perfection of our life just as it is, right here and right now. That means you have to see the lotus blooming. What are the blossoms of this lotus? Well, in one way we have to say they are pain, suffering, delusion. Life blooms with all these things and yet it is perfect in its every manifestation -- including insentient matter, the birds and beasts, the fools, the enemies, our own pain and suffering. These are all petals of the lotus. Right! It sounds nice but we really don’t believe it.

“May we extend this mind to all beings, so that we and the world together
may attain maturity in the wisdom of the awakened life.”

That, in some sense, is one statement of vow here: May we extend this mind, may we try to engage the world from this place of non-separation and realization so that we actually all participate in it together. Like I say, it’s very important, and I think the bulk of this Vow says so: It is to not focus in on the part of the realization, where everything looks perfect and pretend that we’re going to occupy that place, pretend that that’s how we feel all the time. What’s really important is to pay attention to our limits, to be honest about how, when we read this, we don’t believe a word of it.

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