Living a Life of Vow

“Being at home right here in this body,” says Blanche Hartman, “this is living a life of vow.”

Blanche Hartman
1 May 2003

To live the life of a vow, says the late Zen teacher Blanche Hartman, is to be at home right here in this body.

In our Soto Zen tradition we have a ceremony called tokudo in Japanese—”entering the Way,” or “attaining the Way.” The opening line of the invocation is, “In faith that we are Buddha, we enter Buddha’s Way.” The main elements of the ceremony are confession and repentance to purify the mind, followed by receiving the precepts and vowing “to follow this compassionate practice even after becoming Buddha.” So here we have both faith and vow, which, together with practice, I have found to be the three main supports of my life.

This has come as rather a surprise to me. As one who majored in chemistry and probability theory in college, I had thought of myself as a very practical person, more inspired by logic and reason than by faith and devotion. (Devotion, by the way, means “of vow.”) But I have come to realize that the people in my life who have really inspired me and encouraged me were people of deep faith and devotion, and those qualities have been contagious.

As stated in the invocation above, the faith I am speaking of is not faith in something external. It is faith that “all beings have the wisdom and compassion of the awakened ones, but because of their attachments and delusions they don’t realize it.” According to the Avatamsaka Sutra, this is what Shakyamuni Buddha said on the morning of his enlightenment. It is a radical faith in the basic goodness, the wholeness of all beings. As Suzuki Roshi said the first time I heard him lecture, “You’re perfect just as you are.” He also said, “There’s always room for improvement,” and, “Zen is about making your best effort on each moment forever.” So even though we are already complete, because of our attachments and delusions we need a lot of effort to actualize the wisdom and compassion that is our basic nature.

That is where the devotion comes in. By entering the Buddha’s Way, we enter a life of vow. At the end of every lecture or class we chant the four vows of the bodhisattva: “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them (or awaken with them). Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them. Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them. Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.” This is a big vow. How can we do this?

It means an endless vow.

When I first came to practice, I thought, “I’m a mess now but I’m going to get straightened out and then I’m going to get on with my life.” After some years I realized, “I’m never going to get finished with this.” Momentarily I was disappointed and then I thought, Pollyanna that I am, “Oh, that means you will never use up this practice. I can never wear it out. It’ll last my whole life.”

The same is true of our vow. Our vow will sustain us and inspire us to practice for the rest of our life and maybe for lives to come. These vows will be our guide and our support and our inspiration for our whole life.

In Japan, since the thirteenth century, both homeleavers (monks and nuns) and householders (laymen and laywomen) have been entering the Buddha’s Way in the tokudo ceremony by taking the same sixteen bodhisattva precepts we use today. The ceremony begins by purifying the space with wisdom water, followed by the invocation mentioned above, then the initiates are purified with wisdom water. With the body thus purified, the next step is to purify the mind with confession and repentance. Now the initiates are ready to receive the precepts.

They begin with taking refuge in the Three Treasures: Buddha, the awakened teacher; dharma, the truth of things as-it-is; and sangha, the community of practitioners. This taking refuge in the Triple Treasure is, I believe, common to all Buddhists everywhere. In Zen we sometimes say, “returning to Buddha,” or “being one with Buddha,” to emphasize that each of us is originally not separate from Buddha.

The next three vows in the ceremony are sometimes called the three pure precepts: avoiding evil, doing good and benefiting beings.

The remaining vows are the ten grave or prohibitory precepts, calling our attention to actions which cause suffering, to remind us to be awake with our actions of body, speech and mind so as to minimize suffering. We vow to refrain from killing, from taking what is not given, from misusing sexuality, from false speech, from intoxicating mind or body of self or others, from speaking of the faults of others, from praising self at the expense of others, from being possessive or stingy, from harboring ill will and from disparaging the Three Treasures.

Following each set of vows, beginning with repentance, the initiates are asked three times, “Even after realizing buddhahood, will you continue this compassionate practice?” and they respond, “Yes I will!”

In this ceremony the initiates also receive a dharma name and a dharma robe and a dharma lineage blood vein. Each one is a constant reminder of these vows. Every morning we put the dharma robe on our head and recite the robe chant:

Great robe of liberation
Field far beyond form and emptiness
Wearing the Tathagata’s teaching
Saving all beings.

Each month on the day of the full moon we renew our vows in the bodhisattva ceremony. Every day our liturgy begins with the three refuges. There is a verse for waking up in the morning:

This morning as I wake,
I vow with all beings
To see each thing as it is
And not to forsake the world.

There is a verse for bathing:

As I bathe this body,
I vow with all beings
To wash this body free from dust
Healthy and clean within and without.

For home-leavers there is a verse for shaving the head:

Now I am being shaved,
May I with all beings
Cut off all selfish desires forever.

There is a verse for offering incense, for brushing the teeth and washing the face, and, of course, a whole extended ritual for receiving food. In short, there are vows for all of the activities of our daily life to constantly remind us that all our activities of body, speech and mind are to benefit all beings. At the end of the day, we say:

This evening as I sleep
I vow with all beings
To still all things
And to put an end to confusion.

In 1988, two years before he died, Dainin Katagiri-roshi, founder and abbot of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, wrote this poem:

Peaceful Life

Being told that is impossible,
One believes, in despair, “Is that so?”
Being told that it is possible,
One believes, in excitement, “That’s right.”
But, whichever is chosen,
It does not fit one’s heart neatly.

Being asked, “What is unfitting?”
I don’t know what it is.
But my heart knows somehow.
I feel an irresistible desire to know.
What a mystery “human” is!

As to this mystery:
Knowing how to live,
Knowing how to walk with people,
Demonstrating and teaching,
This is the Buddha.

From my human eyes,
I feel it’s really impossible to become a Buddha.
But this “I,” regarding what the Buddha does,
Vows to practice,
To aspire,
To be resolute,
And tells myself, “Yes I will.”
Just practice right here now,
And achieve continuity,
This is living in vow.
Herein is one’s peaceful life found.

This is the road undertaken by those who choose a life devoted to practice. As I mentioned, this path may be taken by householders as well as homeleavers. There is zaike tokudo, remaining at home and attaining the Way, and shukke tokudo, leaving home and attaining the Way.

When Suzuki Roshi suggested to my teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi that he be ordained, Sojun said, “What’s a priest?” and Suzuki Roshi said, “I don’t know.” Sojun then went to the other teacher at Zen Center, Katagiri Sensei, and said, “Katagiri Sensei, Suzuki Roshi wants me to be a priest. What’s a priest?” And Katagiri Sensei said, “Hmm, I don’t know.” So this is a good koan for those who may decide that they want to be ordained as a home-leaver—”What is it?”

As with any koan, it’s a question that’s always with us. It’s not a question that we say, “Well, now I know; that’s it; I got it.” It’s not like that—it’s always right here before us as an open question. Sojun says, “I still don’t know what a priest is and I hope I never do.” This question should always be alive for us. It should always be with us, encouraging our practice and encouraging our inquiry and encouraging our effort.

This “leaving home”—what is that? Sometimes it is called the homeless life. In Japan, a person entering the homeless life in this ceremony would be called an unsui, “cloud water”—one who moves from place to place as necessary without obstruction, without attachment, like a cloud; and one who fits into whatever situation arises without resistance, like water.

One thing it means is to find your home wherever you are. To realize that wherever you are is home; not to be seeking for some special place, to be making some cozy nest, but to find yourself at home wherever you are and in whatever circumstances you may be. To put aside the worldly concerns of looking for material comfort, and instead to cultivate mental comfort, comfort of the spirit and mind and heart.

This being at home wherever you are means being comfortable wherever you are. Not having to have some special place or special things to make you comfortable. Right here in this very body in this very place as-it-is, to be at home. That’s one way we can think about what is this homeless life.

Those of us who have chosen Zen practice have discovered that sitting zazen is a good thing. This is how you can find your home right where you are. This just sitting, just being this one as-it-is, is finding yourself at home and at peace with this one. It is finding out how to express this Buddha in the world.

Commitment and renunciation are significant elements in what a homeleaver is. Shaving the head is symbolic of renunciation. But really what is to be renounced is self-clinging, so shaving the head is just to remind us to renounce whatever it is that we cling to, whatever it is that we attach to. Let it go, let our life flow through our hands like a river and not try to grab some piece of it and hold onto it. Just to be present with it and find out how to express our vow in this moment, in this circumstance, right where I am right now, instead of trying to figure out how to make it the way I want so that it’ll be just what I always dreamed of. It won’t be. There will be many surprises.

And if we’re open to embracing the surprises as they arise, then there will be inconceivable joy. If we fuss and fume and say, “This isn’t what I expected,” then there will be inconceivable misery. Just to welcome your life as it arrives moment after moment, to meet it as fully as you can, being as open to it as you can, being as ready for whatever arises as you can, and meeting it wholeheartedly, this is renunciation—this is leaving behind all of your preferences, all of your ideas and notions and schemes. Just meeting life as it is.

Renunciation is: “Just this is enough.” I really like that as a description of renunciation. Can you meet your life as it is and say, “Just this is enough”? Or are you always looking for something more? That’s where suffering comes in: “This isn’t enough; I need something more.” Then it always feels lacking. How can we meet our life as it is wholeheartedly, just like this? This is what our practice is; this is finding your home in the midst of homelessness, right here.

Blanche Hartman

Blanche Hartman

Zenkei Blanche Hartman (1926-2016) was a Senior Dharma Teacher and the first woman Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center.