I Vow

When we take the precepts of a Bodhisattva, with every one we say, “I Vow.” What does this mean?

Sensei Sandra Jishu Holmes
1 January 1998

A teaching by the late Sensei Sandra Jishu Holmes.

When we take the precepts of a Bodhisattva, with every one we say, “I Vow.” What does this mean? The vow exists on both the absolute plane and on the relative plane. Bodhisattvas make a public announcement that they have raised the bodhi mind in the form of the Four Great Vows and the Sixteen Precepts.

I vow to liberate all beings.
I vow to cut down all desires.
I vow to study and practice well to master the Dharma.
I vow to realize the Supreme Way.

Why do we do this? What is it all about? Looking at these impossible vows, how do we practice? Having taken these vows, don’t we still get angry, depressed, frustrated?

In the beginning we think that these feelings are obstacles on our path and a sign that we are not good practitioners. But gradually we come to understand that this is our practice; that this is the actual material that we have to work with in our practice.

This is actually an AHA! experience: “Oh, now I see it. Now I know what my practice is. Now I see where to put my effort: to save all sentient beings I must work with my own anger, ignorance and aggression. Paying attention to all this stuff is my spiritual practice of being a Bodhisattva.”

However innumerable the sentient beings, I vow to save them all.
However inexhaustible the passions, I vow to extinguish them all.
However immeasurable the dharmas, I vow to master them all.
However incomparable the truth of Buddha, I vow to attain it.

When I first started practicing I wanted the practice to turn me into a saint, or at the very least into someone I could approve of. But our job is simply to learn to see, not to worry about who we are. As long as we are trying to improve ourselves, we can be sure that we have a self to improve. Egocentricity loves self-improvement. Ramana Maharshi said that you should act without thinking that you are the actor. The actions go on despite our personal egos. A person comes into manifestation for a purpose and that purpose will be accomplished whether the person considers oneself to be the actor or not.

I vow to save all beings from difficulties.
I vow to destroy all evil passions.
I vow to learn the truth and teach others.
I vow to lead all beings toward Buddhahood.

Dogen Zenji said that it is through the daily actions of our body and mind that we directly become enlightened. There is no need to change our existing body and mind, for the direct realization of the Way is neither to be bound by old viewpoints nor to create new ones. To practice the Buddha way is not to look aside. It is to be with whatever you encounter right now. This itself is called samadhi, or shikan (doing something wholeheartedly).

Our lives shimmer with samadhi, only we don’t see it. Sawaki Kodo Roshi said, “You don’t eat in order to take a shit. And you don’t take a shit in order to make manure.” We don’t practice in order to become a better person; we don’t become a better person in order to achieve enlightenment. Sitting in the midst of our passion, aggression and ignorance, we have boundless material for working with any situation. The way we work with the next situation is not by trying to get rid of anything or to become a better person, but by finally acknowledging our real situation.

I vow to deliver all beings from suffering.
I vow to cut off all afflictions.
I vow to study all approaches to truth.
I vow to fulfill the way of universal enlightenment.

We do not practice for the sake of gaining enlightenment. We are constantly being pulled around by enlightenment. Our practice is to guard our heart, so that our first reaction is openness to what is actually happening and willingness to be present to it without having to modify, correct or improve the situation or ourselves. In other words, the ordinary events of our daily life is our practice. Being open and present is our practice.

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to ferry them across the ocean of suffering.
Confusion is inexhaustible, I vow to uproot it all.
The gates to Dharma are endless, I vow to know them all.
The way of the Buddha is unsurpassed, I vow to actualize it fully.

In this very moment I have the opportunity to fulfill my Bodhisattva vows. After making this Great Vow, the Bodhisattva belongs to the entire universe. The vow itself possesses universal significance; the vow itself is a cosmic force.

From a talk given by Sensei Sandra Jishu Holmes in February, 1996.