Best Practices for Bodhisattvas

Traditional Buddhist vows can seem hardcore, but they’re just maps for a good human life. Josh Bartok translates them into values we can relate to.

Josh Bartok
28 April 2017
Photo by Garrett Sears.

During a recent Zen retreat, someone asked me, “Are there ‘best practices’ for living in alignment with awakening?” I pointed him to the vows and precepts that many Buddhists take.

Vows are at the very heart of Buddhist practice. When we take a vow, we express our steadfast commitment to the spiritual path, to living ethically, and to the service of all beings. Vows and precepts express ways to live that generations of great teachers have found helpful and have transmitted to us. They allow the dharma to penetrate deep into our hearts, influencing the way we meet our lives and the world.

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with another way to meet these core Buddhist teachings—not as vows but as values. I have found it useful to ask myself: What am I valuing now? What values am I enacting with my choices? What values do I truly endorse?

One of the great gifts of Buddhist meditation is that it strengthens our capacity to be choicefully present in our lives—to live by intention rather than being buffeted about by inner reactivity or outer circumstances.

Values function as guiding principles; they are tools of navigation in the tumultuous sea of our human life. They help us discern who we want to be and how we want to live. Unlike vows, values are not upheld or broken. Unlike goals, values are not met, obtained, accomplished, or finished. They are beyond success or failure. They are simply lived, as best we can.

One of the great gifts of Buddhist meditation is that it strengthens our capacity to be choicefully present in our lives—to live by intention rather than being buffeted about by inner reactivity or outer circumstances. Over time, meditation can help us see when we are enacting values we don’t actually endorse.

Below, I share some of the ways I have clarified my own values as I reflect on traditional Buddhist vows, precepts, and philosophy. I’m not putting these forth as alternatives to the traditional forms, nor am I suggesting that others adopt my values. I hope that this offering will encourage and support you in doing your own work of values clarification, in the service of living the life that matters to you.

In my own tradition of Zen, following Dogen, we speak of the sixteen precepts, comprising the three refuges, the three pure precepts, and the ten grave precepts. These sixteen precepts are the lifeblood of the Buddha, the essence of the path. So they’re a good place to start.

The Three Refuges

The three refuges are: “I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the dharma; I take refuge in the sangha.” Taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, collectively known as the three treasures, is at the very heart of the Buddhist life. Since the time of Shakyamuni, Buddhists of all traditions have affirmed their entering the path by taking refuge.

Some Values Based on the Three Refuges

  • I value the wisdom, experience, and guidance of people who have found liberation amid suffering, and I value remembering that liberation is possible.
  • I value all teachings that help me understand suffering, touch gratitude and connectedness, and live in alignment with my highest values and aspirations.
  • I value the companionship, support, and guidance of anyone doing the sacred work of becoming fully human, in turn offering my companionship, support, and guidance to others.

The Three Pure Precepts

Traditionally, the three pure precepts are: ceasing from evil, doing good, and saving all beings (or actualizing good for others). Today, some Zen schools frame the three precepts as not-knowing, bearing witness, and taking action. These precepts are powerful because of their all-encompassing vastness and seeming simplicity. They require us to clarify for ourselves what living by them really means.

Three Sets of Values Based on the Three Pure Precepts

  • I value attending to the myriad ways in which I cause harm or am complicit in harm-causing, directly and indirectly, individually and collectively; I value seeing how I cause harm when my mind is overrun by grasping, aversion, or delusive certainty.
  • I value seeing the essential humanness in others, remembering that, but for causes and conditions, others who cause harm are just like me and I am just like them.
  • I value remembering that the only salvation is together with all beings, with neither self or other excluded.
  • I value diminishing suffering and doing less harm to myself, the world, and all beings.
  • I value okayness—unconditioned enoughness—and ways of living that cultivate it.
  • I value being of service to the world and all beings.
  • I value not-knowing and befriending life’s inevitable uncertainties; I value remaining with my own painful feelings of doubt, which are the cost of living from not-knowing rather than delusive certainty.
  • I value not turning away from suffering in myself and others, remembering that bearing witness is itself whole and complete, even as I do what I can to relieve that suffering; and I value remaining with my own distress and feelings of helplessness or powerlessness that bearing witness may entail.
  • I value the perspective that includes brokenness as part of wholeness, suffering as part of freedom, and death as part of life.

The Ten Grave Precepts

The ten grave precepts are traditionally framed in terms of “refraining from”: refraining from killing, stealing, misusing sex, lying, using intoxicants, speaking of others’ errors and faults, praising oneself and putting down others, being stingy, harboring ill will, and defaming the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Some Zen schools also include a positive formulation alongside them, such as affirming life, being giving, honoring the body, and so on.

I imagine the great Buddhist teachers of the past saying to me, “You know, Josh, you may find in your own life, as we have in ours, that you will create and experience less suffering if you don’t kill, steal, lie, and so on.”

I find it helpful to think of the ten grave precepts as advice rather than commandments. They are a distillation of what generations of Buddhist masters have found to be helpful in their navigation of this thorny, muddy business of being human. I imagine the great Buddhist teachers of the past saying to me, “You know, Josh, you may find in your own life, as we have in ours, that you will create and experience less suffering if you don’t kill, steal, lie, and so on.”

Some Values Based on the Ten Grave Precepts

  • I value affirming life and honoring the reality of interdependence; I value attending to the impact of privilege and nonprivilege.
  • I value cultivating a sense of enoughness with regard to material, relational, and spiritual attainments; I value entrusting to the universe what belongs to the universe and not arrogating it for myself.
  • I value mutuality and commitment in relationships, remembering the support and stability that loving relationships bring; I value attending to issues of gender oppression and equality.
  • I value listening fully and speaking openly, remembering that truth is vastly larger than what arises in my mind and that “I don’t know” is often the actual fact of the matter.
  • I value clarity of mind and turning toward my life; and I value the enoughness of the dharma and my experience as it is.
  • I value the perspective that life is one continuous mistake, and that even mistakes are grace.
  • I value meeting others on equal ground, connecting to the good in everyone and recalling that I am exceptional neither in my wholeness nor my brokenness.
  • I value making use of the entirety of my life and circumstances, sharing all that I find useful, even if that makes me feel less special.
  • I value finding a way to work with my mind even amid painful conditions, both inner and outer.
  • I value the specificity of my life as the only conduit through which I can actualize my values, while remembering that there are other values and other paths that are equally valued and valuable.

The Principle of Karma

In its simplest form, the principle of karma is this: all things arise as they do because of causes and conditions. This is true from a relative perspective, and it is true from the side of the nondual. The fact of karma is like the fact of gravity: it functions irrespective of my belief, understanding, or endorsement. The functioning of karma is the bedrock truth of the dharma.

Some Values Based on the Principle of Karma

  • I value the perspective that what I do matters.
  • I value paying attention to the way I use my mind, my speech, and my body.
  • I value making choices that are useful, skillful, and kind.

The Six Paramitas

The Sanskrit word paramita often gets translated as some version of “perfect” or “perfection,” such as “the perfection of patience.” It is also used in a construction involving “beyond,” as in “wisdom beyond wisdom.” This emphasizes the nondual, transcendent quality of these virtues—wisdom beyond mere worldly wisdom, generosity vastly larger than the mere giving of things, etc.

Personally, I find the idea of trying to embody “perfect patience,” etc. daunting. But when I look at the paramitas as values, their relevance to me becomes instantly apparent. Of course I value these things!

Some Values Based on the Six Paramitas

  • I value generosity.
  • I value restraint.
  • I value patience.
  • I value diligence.
  • I value wisdom.
  • I value the cultivation of wisdom and choicefulness.

The Four Bodhisattva Vows

The essence of Mahayana Buddhism is expressed in the four bodhisattva vows. In the Zen school, they often take this form:

Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
The Buddha Way is unattainable; I vow to attain it.

These vows are, in an obvious sense, impossible to fulfill. This is, as software developers might say, a feature rather than a bug: it liberates us from dependence on outcome, compelling us to find meaning wholly in the lived acts of vowing-and-doing. We accept in advance that failure is not only an option but is required.

Falling short, we discover and reveal our humanness—and the spiritual work we have yet to do.

And yet the seeming impossibility of the bodhisattva vows can rob them of their relevance to our lives. One way we can re-empower these vows is to explore the values they point to and discover how we can express them in large and small ways.

Some Values Based on the Four Bodhisattva Vows

  • I value a spirit of service, doing what I can, when I can, in the amount I can, to make positive contributions to the world and beings everywhere.
  • I value noticing when I get caught up in my own stories, and I value returning to choicefulness and kindness.
  • I value welcoming opportunities to learn and grow, even though they may be scary, difficult, or painful.
  • I value trying to live my values as best I can, knowing I will never be perfect.

The Gatha of Atonement

A gatha is a short verse used as a focal point of practice. Atonement means, quite literally, “at-one-ment”—being at one with the big mess of the situation as it is, taking responsibility for the full catastrophe. One form of the gatha of atonement traditionally chanted in the Zen school is this:

All evil karma ever created by me since of old,
because of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance,
born of my body, mouth, and thought,
now I atone for it all.

“Evil” in the Buddhist view refers simply to this: harm-causing actions arising from greed, anger, or ignorance (and any action caused by greed, anger, or ignorance is inherently harm-causing). The word “beginningless” reminds us to look at the whole web of interconnected causes and conditions that gives rise to this one thing that is self-and-the-universe.

In our spiritual practice, we must be able to include, hold, and name our inevitable failures. Falling short, we discover and reveal our humanness—and the spiritual work we have yet to do. Atonement is a process of clear-eyed acknowledgement and deep acceptance—and it is an indispensable part of change.

Some Values Based on the Gatha of Atonement

  • I value acknowledging my inevitable unskillfulness and harm-causing, intended and unintended, each time I notice it.
  • I value recognizing that, all things considered, I am doing the best I can and that my difficulties are honestly come by. Like everything else, they are the product of causes and conditions.
  • I value remembering that falling short of my aspirations is part of being human.
  • I value taking responsibility for causing harm, doing so without finding fault with myself or others.
  • I value making amends for harm I cause—and doing what I can to redress it.
  • I value giving myself permission to start fresh in each moment, continually reorienting myself toward my real values and aspirations.

The Koan of Values

This one precious life-and-death, this one bright pearl of a universe, can you value this without reservation?

I encourage you to carry the koan of values with you as a constant companion. Ask yourself: What do I value? What values am I endorsing and enacting? Who do I mean to be? How do I want to be in the world?

But don’t just ask: really clarify the matter—personally, intimately—for yourself.

Josh Bartok

Josh Bartok

Josh Bartok (Keido Mu’nen) is the abbot (head teacher and spiritual director) at the Greater Boston Zen Center. He is a Dharma heir of James Ishmael Ford Roshi in both of the roshi’s lineages: the ordained Soto Zen lineage of Jiyu Kennett, and the koan introspection lineage of John Tarrant.