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Our vows make us Barry Magid May 13th 2023

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Most of the time when we talk about the self in Buddhism, we’re trying to explain the idea of no self, and it involves ideas like the emptiness of the self or the impermanence of the self or the interdependency of the self, but this talk often leaves unaddressed another important dimension. That’s the dimension that includes things like continuity, commitment, vow, condition, habits, character.

It seems sometimes that it’s very hard to link up these two kinds of discourse: the one that insists on impermanence and emptiness of the self and the other which is all about what has to be permanent and carry on and maintain itself day in and day out, year in and year out.

In our ordinary way of talking about things like commitment or vows or habits, we often use the language of choice or decision or will. I make a vow. I make a decision. I make a commitment to go to the gym every day, to show up in the zendo every day, to pay my bills on time, to get married, to sign a mortgage. All of these things are framed in the language of a “me” who is making choices and decisions. If we say the “me” is empty or impermanent, how are all of these things happening and how is a commitment made to do something a year from now or ten years from now, or to commit to a habit that I’m going to engage in everyday? Why are all these things in some fundamental sense undermined if not invalidated by the impermanence of the self?

One response to this dilemma, I’d like to suggest, is that our language has things exactly backwards. We want to talk about “I make a vow” or “I make a commitment” or “I make a habit,” as if the “I” is our starting point, and I then decide to start to do x, y, and z. But what if we think of it all happening in the other direction, when I engage in things like commitments and habits and traditions and vows, and the doing of those things generates a “me,” that I am the product and the sum of the things I am doing, the things I commit to, and these add up to the values and ideals that make my character, that make me who I am.

Now we can get into a situation where we can have a chicken or egg problem, and we don’t quite know which comes first, but I think that a lot of what happens in practice is that we allow ourselves to be shaped by something that we commit to. We don’t really know what we’re getting ourselves into, we don’t really know what it’s going to do to us or how we’re going to look when we come out the other end, but for whatever reason, we fall under the sway of practice, or a teacher, or an idea, and we give ourselves over to this discipline and this community and this tradition, and after time, it makes us who we are.

Part of what I’m suggesting is that in reversing our ordinary way of talking about things, we stop seeing will or motivation as something inside us, and that we exorcize, but rather, we see the form of life that we’re participating in creates in us certain things that are like commitments and motivations, and I think this happens in every kind of level. I think at the simplest daily level, I can look at the unmade bed, I can look at dishes in the sink, and from one perspective I can stand there and ask myself, Do I really want to make the bed this morning? Do I want to wash those dishes now? Do I feel like doing that? Do I want to do that? Is there something I’d rather do? How important is it? That’s the kind of description that starts with me and how I’m feeling and what I want to do, and whether I’m a procrastinator or I have the willpower to do something that it’s a little unpleasant or boring, and will I decide to make the bed or not? But I think from the perspective of practice, after a while it starts to feel like the motivation is actually outside, not inside, and then it feels like the bed needs to be made, the dishes need to be washed, the motivation to do them is sort of in the situation itself. In a funny way the unmade bed calls out to me that it needs to be made.

Now that kind of call and response depends on a whole circular system in which I become the kind of person who makes their bed every morning, and when you're that kind of person, and you see an unmade bed, you make it. And when you make the unmade bed, you reinforce the fact that you are the kind of person who makes their bed every day. It becomes a kind of virtuous circle, and it’s unclear where the starting point is after a while. It doesn't make sense anymore to ask do I want to make the bed, because I’m a certain kind of person who’s going to respond to that situation in a certain kind of way. The same thing happens to me every day in terms of coming to sit with you all. Come six o'clock in the evening, I don’t particularly ask myself: Do I want to sit this evening? Do I feel like it? Do I think it’s going to be good for me? No, it six o'clock so it's time to sit and I sit. In a way I’m that kind of person and I’m committed to doing that, and it’s the doing that makes me that kind of person.

I think it’s very interesting when we start to picture things in terms of having our motivation on the outside. It’s not so much about choice and decision and will power. It’s just how are we going to respond to what’s in front of us and what needs to be done? Somebody once told me that there’s a great adage for procrastinators that goes “Touch paper once.” If a bill comes in, if you pick it up and touch it, you’ve got to pick it up and pay it then. If an email or letter, in the days of letters, once you pick it up, you answer it. You never pick it up, put it in the to-do pile for some other day and let all those bills and letters and chores pile up and procrastinate. You only touch paper once. Motivation is in the commitment to just doing things that way. When something needs to be done you just do it.

In a way it’s very freeing. Sometimes people hear things like that and they feel like they’re being forced to do something. It’s a big “have to.” Like when I open the bill I have to pay it right away, but actually my experience of that kind of thing is that it’s enormously freeing because you’re not thinking about it all the time. You’re not arguing with yourself, should I do it now or should I do it later? It’s right there so you do it.

Now you might think it’s hard to distinguish enlightenment from an obsessive disorder under these circumstances. Anything that can be done, can be done badly, but there is something about settling into an automatic rhythm or set of habits that just carry you along, and a lot of what we do in practice is to just step into that stream of habit. Sesshin is the most concentrated example of that, where for a week or so, however long, we give up choice, and when the bell rings, we stand, and when it rings again we sit down, when mealtimes come we eat and we eat what we’re served. There’s a whole way in which we just surrender to the schedule and the conditions and the rhythm of sesshin, and I think it’s one of the most valuable and persistent lessons of sesshin to just surrender to that routine and discipline. You may have all sorts of stuff going on in your head, you may be sitting there doing Mu and you may have some big insight or you may sit there and be full of confusion for a week. As long as you get up when the bell rings and just do the next thing, as long as you just keep showing up regardless of what you think or feel, something’s going to be happening at a different level. There’s a way in which you are oddly liberated from choice and free of likes and dislikes.

Now, doing that involves a great deal of trust. You’re surrendering to a discipline, maybe a teacher, or a form of life, where you’re surrendering decision-making and your own desire. Isn’t that dangerous? It could be. That’s often something that, as I say, when we sign up, we don’t necessarily know what we’re getting ourselves into. But we’re allowing ourselves to be shaped.

While I thought about this talk this morning, I had this old memory of being a teen-ager and this must have been back around 1967, say, and I took my girlfriend to a Simon and Garfunkel concert that was happening in Forest Hills, Queens. It was a big date. It was a big deal, as a teen-ager, to do such a thing. But the opening act for Simon and Garfunkel turned out to be The Doors. I think Light My Fire had just come out, and The Doors did this opening act which, you know, couldn’t have been a bigger mismatch, for most of the audience was there to see Simon and Garfunkle and not see Jim Morrison come out in his black leather pants. He was just something completely unexpected and different. And I listened to that opening set, and I found myself saying, and I remember this after all those years, I’d follow him anywhere. It surprised me as I said it. I was a very ordinary nerdy highschool kid from New Jersey, and following Jim Morrison anywhere was not in the cards, and I was lucky that I didn’t have any chance to put that into motion.

But it says something about how we get activated. We get pulled in by something, by charisma, by just an image of what we think is something new that’s just going to open up a whole new life. I remember another song from those days, I now forget whose it was, but I guess it was a British group: “We’ve got to get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do.” I always thought that was the end for people growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, you know. So if you’re in that situation, you're really susceptible to join whatever circus comes to town. You want to get out of here. Right? And you can be lucky or you can be unlucky about the particular circus you join. I can look back and I enjoyed some fortunate circuses in my time, but in the long run I got pretty lucky with the Zen circus, and what that did to me, and to follow that one all these years.

It raises this whole complicated question about how it is that we come to fall in with or think we choose what we’re going to join up with or surrender to. I think this dovetails with this week’s reading on the sangha by Kyogen because in a large part, as much as the teacher, the sangha represents the embodiment of the community, the discipline and the form of life that we’re signing on for. And we look at these people and we look around and we sort of have to decide: Are these my people? Do I feel like I'm home here? And what goes into that kind of initial reaction or not? Sometimes we get swept away by feeling like we’ve joined this ideal community. Sometimes we’re faced with all kinds of people and we can’t understand what we’re doing here with this crowd. But in some kind of way, there’s this display of your particular choice or commitment or vow in action. You come in and you see this group of people doing all that and you think, well, this is how they’ve turned out. This is what it looks like to do that for a certain number of years.

We have to, at some level, both allow ourselves to be shaped by that kind of immersion and at some point decide: Is this working? Is this working for me? Do I belong here? It’s a very strange dialectic between being shaped and choosing and making a commitment. This happens in every level in terms of making vows, when we study the precepts or becoming my student or becoming a member of the sangha. We're both choosing and we’re being chosen. And the interplay of that is something that is actually rather subtle and mysterious.

In a strange way we are choosing to allow ourselves to be acted on and to be shaped by this tradition and this discipline and this community and this teacher. We give ourselves over to that. What kind of person will we become? What kind of “I” will be forged in the crucible of that particular set of habits and disciplines? That’s what we’re here to find out.

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