Happy New Year! If there’s one word that expresses 2022, it’s gratitude. The lockdowns and restrictions of the pandemic woke us up to how much we had taken for granted. Now it feels wondrous to be able to practice together in person again — sitting, chanting, bowing, working, caring for each other and for our temples — and continuing to offer sesshin, dokusan and Dharma classes online as well.
Many new practitioners discovered the Zen Studies Society because of our online presence; long-time members who had moved away or are home-bound due to ill health have been able to join us consistently this way. Now we greet 2023 with renewed dedication, taking refuge in the Three Treasures, Buddha, Dharma, Sangha: our true home.
We do so in the midst of widespread suffering and loss. Sangha members have died; others have lost beloved partners, spouses, friends. Most of us have fallen ill with Covid at least once, and several of our Dharma friends have died from it. We cannot ignore the global issues — war and gun violence, political oppression and economic inequity, hunger, homelessness, extreme weather, species extinction, and all the other aspects of the climate crisis — and we know the pandemic is not over. The coronavirus will continue to spike with new variants throughout our lifetimes, and cut lives short — in the United States alone, more than 1.1 million people have died during these past three years.
One of the recitations always included in our morning service is Torei Enji’s “Bodhisattva’s Vow.” It’s among the first texts we memorize, coming as it does after Kanzeon chanting, when the lights are off, and having been translated into English by Katsuki Sekida.
Torei Enji (1720-92) was Hakuin Ekaku’s most esteemed Dharma heir. When Hakuin acquired Ryutaku-ji, he insisted that Torei become the first abbot. In our era, Ryutaku-ji abbots included Gempo Yamamato and Soen Nakagawa roshis, and Eido Roshi trained there as a young monk.
It was Torei who wrote Hakuin’s chronological biography and compiled The Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamp of the Zen School, a book all of us need to read and re-read on a regular basis; it sets out the Hakuin system of traditional Rinzai Zen training, and includes the 20th-century Zen Master Daibi Unkan’s extensive commentary. Myokyo-ni Osho brought the book out in April 1990, with translator Yoko Okuda-san.
“Bodhisattva’s Vow” opens with language that might strike us as romantic and idealistic in the face of the issues and problems that beset us: “When I, a student of Dharma, look at the real form of the universe, all is the never-failing manifestation of the mysterious truth of Tathagata.”
“All?” our cynical minds might secretly retort. But when we really see “the real form” with our clear Dharma eye, our non-dualistic eye, every phenomenon is a manifestation of …. Words cannot express it. We have to use a place-holder like “the mysterious truth,” or “thusness,” or “as it is,” which is always manifesting. It’s form that is exactly emptiness, as the Heart Sutra says. It encompasses everything, all potentiality, functioning freely in vast, unlimited space.
“To regard the form of no-form as form, whether going or returning, we cannot be any place else,” as Hakuin puts it in “The Song of Zazen.” No matter what challenges come our way, we can see them as “the never-failing manifestation of the mysterious truth of Tathagata” — as none other than THIS.
“Bodhisattva’s Vow” continues, “In any event, in any moment, and in any place, none can be other than the marvelous revelation of its glorious light.” This light — atta dipa! —is always revealing, and what we do in zazen is to strip away, thought after thought, the illusions that cloud our vision. Those illusions spring from our attachment to temporary forms, believing them to have some independent, permanent existence.
As the Buddha tells us in the Diamond Sutra, “The mind should be kept independent of any thoughts that arise in it. If the mind depends on anything, it has no sure haven.” And the Buddha says, in one of my favorite passages, “A Bodhisattva who practices charity with mind detached from form is like someone with open eyes in the radiant glory of the morning, to whom all kinds of objects are clearly visible.”
“This realization,” Torei says, “made our ancestral teachers and virtuous Zen masters —” makes each one of us — “extend tender care, with a worshipping heart, even to such beings as beasts and birds.” We have no problem extending this care to our dogs and cats, or to the beautiful cardinal bright red against the falling snow. But how about those humans whose opinions and harangues strike us as ignorant at best, even dangerous? It’s downright embarrassing how quickly the mind can become dependent on the thoughts that arise in it, leading to instant antipathy and intolerance.
But thanks to our ongoing practice, we quickly return to “This realization,” which “teaches us that our daily food and drink, clothes and protections of life, are the warm flesh and blood, the merciful transformation of Buddha.” Everything is supporting us; the Buddha’s transformation body is revealing “through our own material body,” as the Sixth Ancestor, Eno (Huineng), puts it. Eno also tells us, “Our nature is pure like the clear sky above, and our wisdom is like the sun and the moon, always shining. But if externally we become attached to objects, the clouds of delusion cover up our nature, and we can’t see it. Then, because we meet a good friend who explains the true teaching, our delusions are blown away and everything inside and outside becomes perfectly clear.”
Experiencing this, we really feel the impact of Torei’s question: “Who can be ungrateful or not respectful even to insentient things, not to speak of human beings?” Insentient things — when we treat every object as worthy of our homage, our lives become so rich. Some of you were present when the traveling Buddhist Relics Tour came to Hoen-ji, with showcases filled with the sarirai, the bones and ashes of buddhas and bodhisattvas, presided over by the tall golden figure of Maitreya, the future Buddha, a smaller version of which was presented to us and has been on the altar ever since.
But what about everyday insentient things? The screen you’re reading this on; the keys you think you left in your coat pocket; the sparkling ice on the sidewalk, each with its own mysterious presence. You may know the koan, “The sermons of insentient creatures,” which led to Master Tozan Ryokai’s great awakening.
“… even to insentient things, not to speak of human beings? Even though they may be fools, be warm and compassionate toward them.” In my mind, I always change that to the first person singular. Even though I may be a fool, I can be warm and compassionate toward myself. It’s necessary, if I’m to extend that mind toward so-called others.
Then Torei really hits home: “If by chance they should turn against us, and abuse and persecute us, we should bow down with humble words, in the reverent belief that they are the merciful avatars of Buddha, who uses devices to emancipate us from harmful karma that has been produced and accumulated upon ourselves through our own egoistic delusion and attachment throughout the countless cycles of kalpa.”
This passage is quite a koan when we become aware of wide-spread societal injustice and suffering. It’s especially profound for those of us who have a history of abuse and persecution, whether physical or psychological. It’s crucial that we recognize and work with that history, which can bring long-lasting negative effects. Anger and hatred often lurk unexamined, going underground, producing toxic reactivity in all kinds of harmful ways. This is precious grist for the mill of our practice, even though at first we may not be able to work with it, and may need skillful therapy in tandem with spiritual guidance. We know how heavy a burden getting stuck in negative emotions can be; we know how dangerous the eruptions can be when pushed down, sublimated.
The Twin Verses of the Dhammapada can be very helpful:
“He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.
“He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — those who do not dwell on such thoughts will surely become free from hatred.
For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law. People forget that their lives will end soon. For those who remember, quarrels come to an end.
“Bowing down with humble words” does not mean becoming a doormat, or pretending things are OK when they are not. But we have to learn how to transform our emotions, rather than getting stuck in an endless round of self-pity and self-flagellation, and that’s what practice is all about. As we develop compassion and insight, as we learn how to love ourselves, we can see the confusion and fear in those who abused and persecuted us. Rather than identify ourselves as victims, we can begin to appreciate the perpetrators as avatars of Buddha — unwitting actors through whom we can learn how to free ourselves from “our own egoistic delusion and attachment.” We have the power to do this.
Then, Torei says, “in each moment’s flash of our thought, there will grow a lotus flower, and each lotus flower will reveal a Buddha.” Instead of thoughts that weigh us down with repetitive patterns based on a belief in a separate self, when we free ourselves from such delusions, each thought emanates from the clear mind of samadhi, and reveals our true nature. The Pure Land is right here; it’s arising “every moment, everywhere.” Torei ends with the crystallization of our Bodhisattva’s Vow:
“May we extend This Mind over the whole universe, so that we and all beings together may attain maturity in Buddha’s wisdom.”
On January 23, 2023, we will enter the Year of the Rabbit, an auspicious and gentle sign representing the spiritual healing, grace, and purity of the moon goddess. Let us resolve to attain maturity in Buddha’s wisdom, so that we can respond to circumstances with clarity, loving-kindness and nobility, honoring our interconnectedness with all beings.