178. The death of ritual

Ritual starts out as neither magical or symbolic, and neither does language. But both, in decay, reach these points, and then we’re in a fix: the corpse can’t see the living being.

At first, ritual is a complete effort in the present moment. It opens up our hearts like verandah doors opening up to sunlight. It’s not for anything. Its dignity and beauty is entirely itself. Ourselves.

Then superstition arrives. We imagine that we can do something with it. Redeem a dead person. Banish ghosts. Rearrange.

And that degeneration provokes the subsequent, Protestant one. So then ritual, like its child, language, must be symbolic.

It’s hard to grasp the measure of the loss


170. The zen lineage

When we chant the lineage, we chant the six primordial mythical buddhas, then the historical Buddha, then the generations of teachers following him, down to the present day.

The superficial problem – aside from the mythical buddhas – is that the lineage is made up. Some of the people named probably didn’t exist at all, and others almost certainly didn’t say or write what has been attributed to them.

In full knowledge of this, my teacher said that he accepts the lineage completely. How so?

Rinzai said that there is a true person – this person – who has no rank. This person is always going in and out through your face.

When we chant the lineage, all the names are provisional names, for this person.

And in the lineage of your own life, this person appears. All the demons, ghosts and false persons do not obstruct this person. And they don’t matter.


144. The buddha way

We might think that the four vows are distinct.

The second vow is often rendered as:

‘Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them’.

On hearing this, we might imagine our goal is to stop all this inconvenient feeling and thinking, and to live in a kind of spacious equanimity for ever.

This is completely mistaken. Our vow is to let everything flooding through and around this person from moment to moment fully live.

We do that by not appropriating this flood of experience to the self. We see this with the third vow, Dharma Gates are endless, I vow to enter them. In other words, Non duality.

The last vow is ‘The Buddha Way unattainable, I vow to attain it’.

The first three vows are an expression of the Buddha Way. The Buddha Way expressed from moment to moment. Listen

Pay careful attention to the words. The Buddha way unattainable, I vow to attain it. But this way of non duality is ungraspable by the I, the source of duality.

The Buddha way is not a something in the distant future. It is Now. Now.



143. Save all beings

The first of the four bodhisattva vows that we chant after sitting is usually rendered as ‘beings are numberless I vow to save them’. We sometimes abbreviate this to ‘save all beings’.

What does this mean?

With Buddhism in India, the original emphasis was on personal salvation. When Buddhism fruitfully collided with Chinese culture, the emphasis changed to universal salvation. The pivotal person became the bodhisattva, the person who would save all beings. Hence the vow.

It fits in with a broader idea in Chinese culture of heroic, beneficent figures.

But I wonder if, in our age of rampant individualism, and consequent spiritual materialism, if the usual translation is helpful for us? Perhaps it would be better for us to say – although the grammar is problematic – Being numberless I vow to save (it).

Being rather than beings.

And Being ‘being’ numberless in two senses. Numberless because this full dynamic functioning (Zenki/ dependent origination) is infinitely faceted: me, you, the walls and the doors, the trees and the birds and the stars and so on. And numberless also because there’s only this wholeness: there isn’t one or two or three or four.

How do we save all Being? By not burying (it) underneath the self.

So not an infinite number of beings to save over an infinite length of time, but an infinite number of moments, and always this moment, this moment of practice, in each of which everything can fully live.


64. The Bodhisattva Vows

1. The first bodhisattva vow is:

All living beings, I vow to save them

We need to understand the dual meaning of I (Jiko). It means both the personal I, the ego, but it also means the I which is not separate from all of existence.

Taking the ‘I’ in the second sense, the vow is a simple statement. ‘Vow’ and liberation ( ‘save them’) are simply facets of non duality

2. The second bodhisattva vow is:

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them

We should not understand this as meaning that by great effort, sometime in the distant future we will have no more delusions forever after. That would be a wrong understanding.

We should understand that liberation and delusion, Buddha and Mara, are the two poles of our nature as human beings. We can get rid of neither.

However, when we practice Zazen, when we allow our delusions to freely arise in vast space; to live, to change, to disappear, then is this not ending them? Not forever, because time is a delusion too, but just for this moment

3. The third bodhisattva vow is:

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them

Because dharma gates are boundless, they are innumerable. And so, they are all dharmas.

If our mind makes each thing a word picture, there are two things, and they can never become one. If each dharma is a dharma gate, then we can ‘enter’ it, and dualism falls away. The vow is also a statement, a statement of non duality.

Because dharma gates are boundless, each dharma is vast beyond measure, and cannot be grasped. Each dharma is thusness

Because dharma gates are boundless, there is no boundary, no separation between each dharma. So, to enter one dharma is to enter all dharmas. To fully encounter one thing is to fully encounter all things.

4. The final bodhisattva vow is:

The Buddha Way, unsurpassable, I vow to realise it

What is the Buddha Way? It is dropping off body and mind. That is, it is decentering our sense of separateness, affirming the whole ness, the dynamic wholeness of everything, which we variously call emptiness, dependent origination, impermanence.

But our sense of self, and of the world as something out there, pleasing or obstructing us, is like a coat which, no matter how often we drop off, we still find around our shoulders again. It is our nature as human beings to clench the fist of the self. And so it is our vow as Buddhists ( to use Uchiyama’s phrase) to open the hand of thought, endlessly, for the rest of our lives.

If we think we have surpassed this, that we are enlightened, this is the most dangerous delusion.

5. Master Dogen said:

When human beings see water, fish see palaces, gods see strings of pearls, demons see blood, or pus.

He doesn’t say that the fish are mistaken, or that the gods are mistaken. But we want to.

The dead weight of the self pushes the world flat, into an image. To then fret to what extent the image is true or false is to miss the primary repression


55. Chanting The Heart Sutra

I must have chanted the Heart Sutra several thousand times, perhaps more.

If I imagine that these have occurred within my life, and my life occurs within time, suffering can never be alleviated.

Although it may sound absurd, if we say the Heart Sutra is chanting me, is chanting all practitioners, in all times, at this time, then something which we have held tight and concealed can start to alter.

And it is not just the Heart Sutra.

We have to understand that we are not the container of life, we are its’ expression.


28. Heart Chanting

When we chant the Heart Sutra, we’re not just making a noise.

But we are making a noise. Seen from the concrete perspective, it’s just noise.

Seen from the abstract persective, it’s just meaning. But both these persectives are expressed and transcended by the simple action.

If we see zazen as a concrete act, we understand neither zazen or the concrete. If we see it abstractly, it’s lost too.


17. The First Vow

Kusen collaboration artwork by Margaret Kerr

The final chant after sitting is a dedication that any merit we gain from chanting the Heart Sutra is not retained by us, but is for the benefit of all beings. But really, the dedication is wider than that; it embraces our sitting too.

Our sitting is itself a devotional act. The doors of the heart are thrown wide open. And so, zazen is not the cultivation of compassion, it is its expression.

In this context, we can understand the first vow: “All living beings, I vow to save them”. Imagine the opposite: “I vow to save myself”. It’s not possible. You can’t save yourself, you can only postpone the catastrophe.

We are saved by the vow. It shelters us and all beings. All beings are saved.