Sentient beings are numberless
I vow to liberate them
The Head monk walked into the zendo on day six of Osesshin and announced that two planes had just crashed into the World Trade Center. This was on Whidbey Island. On the the right of me was one of my best friends, Chris, who I had lived with at Tahoma One Drop Monastery for the summer, feeling out if we would take the plunge and go to live in Japan in the training monastery. On the other side of me was a very sweet guy named Ray who worked in wardrobe in Hollywood movies.
Seeing that there could be such confusion in the world, being in the zendo on day six and hearing about this was a big motivator for me to actually buy a plane ticket to Japan. Seeing the world needed help, and I needed some answers about how to be helpful. Having spent the summer with a brilliant head monk, I saw the potential of this training. I saw that monk hold everyone in compassion in a way I found mysterious and powerful, and it gave me hope to find a way to be helpful on this violent world.
I took a job sharpening and buffing exacto knife blades for 12 hours a day to make money for the ticket. I hoped to one day be of some use in the world.
The Great Vow, the vow to save all beings, is the central point of Mahayana Buddhism. Our enlightenment is not for ourselves, but for the benefit of everyone who is suffering. This Great Vow is the driving force for us to go to train in Zen. We are suffering, others are suffering. And the vow is the anchor for us to get through difficult training. We keep going, because we want to be of use to the world. In the monastery, we chant it several times a day. It is drilled into us.
After a year in the monastery, all of the people who had come to train at the same time as me had gone home to live their lives or to take a break. I felt like the messed up one, who could not go home, as I unmistakably needed the training. It was all very urgent for me. It felt like my only chance in this life for transformation and peace.
One day, walking through the kitchen, I heard that the person who had sat to my left in that osesshin of 9/11, Ray, had committed suicide. The next morning I went into the Roshi for sanzen, tears falling down my face, wondering what I was doing there in that crazy monastery across the world. I told him about Ray, who he of course knew, and he looked at me with his magical teary eyes, and said in his deep voice: “You can do zazen now. You must do zazen for Ray.”
Several months later, I became very ill and had to stay in a dark room on the tatami all day. I almost lost my eyesight. And in that time, in moments of real vulnerability, laying in the dark, I saw that if I got out of the way, something mysterious, this great life energy, began to move through me, healing me, wiping out thoughts, bringing great peace and joy. My feeling was that my body, my health, my state of mind were being guided by the Great Vow, to open up to it. I knew that my life could not be about my small self anymore, but be directed by this greater energy moving through me. Or I’d just get sick again, I’d be out of the flow of this greater power. The vow, intimately tied to this great life energy, felt like some kind of destiny force. This gave me real faith the universe, faith in life. Faith in the path. I felt embraced by this huge moment.
About a year later, guided by this vow, acting as a vessel for it, I had a transformation, kensho. Through that experience, I saw that wisdom springs fourth from this Vow, in spite of me still just being this kind of idiot (baka). A part of me disappeared, to be filled by the Vow. I felt the great wisdom and loving beacon of the Patriarchs, and that prajna, consciousness, this Great Life Energy, enlightenment, the Great Vow, were all the same thing. Many people come to Buddhism because they are suffering. And through training, their suffering is relieved. And then they go on with their lives and try to live by the Vow, like a tool, or they forget about the vow all together. But I saw that enlightenment was tied to the Vow, and the two were the same, as our small self melts into the wisdom of this great life energy. That feeling has never left.
After kensho, the vow seemed to surge through me, and it became clear that my life was about sharing this love, joy, state of mind with society. So I became ordained, giving my life to the Dharma to have it do with me what it pleased. That part of my life I was this happy fool in indigo robes serving the vow.
This ordained idiot blissed out vessel for the vow, just kind of flowing through the koans, my life no longer my own. Sharing this light with society and new practitioners, not being able to tell the difference between myself and this guidance.
Later my karma shifted, and I moved away from the monastery, and came home to the Douglas Fir and Salish Sea of the Pacific Northwest, to be a husband and father (something not allowed in my specific tradition). This was a difficult transition, as the robes were a very clear expression for me to share this vow with the world.
Someone recently asked how The Great Vow, the vow to liberate all sentient beings, is active today in our everyday practice. I would say that now, my life, my body, my consciousness, are still just vessels for this vow to liberate all beings. To serve society. So it is still with me at every moment. It is the guiding force in my life. I have a great drive to serve society, to inspire and offer myself. Of course, I am not at all perfect, and life is messy, but this way of being is there all of the time. Aligned with the vow, my life is a green light. Misaligned with this guidance, I’m just creating problems for myself and others. Wisdom is tied to the vow. The vow is at my fingertips. I feel that it creates my form in space. I’m half dead without it. My self and the vow can’t be separated. So instead of koromos and tabi, I am fixing supper for my girls and trying to transmit this love, the love of the universe, to my clients, friends, and family, in my goofy, sometimes beautiful, foolish way.
Thanks for reading!