To be, or not to be…a Bodhisattva?


Photo Credit: Marilyn Maddison

So, last night at the zendo, I was present for my first ever Ryaku Fusatsu or Full Moon ceremony, which involves, amongst other things, the recitation of the Bodhisattva Vows and Precepts.


Not to be confused with the formal Jukai ceremony, wherein an advanced Zen student is initiated and given his/her Dharma Name, this was, nevertheless, my first time reciting the Bodhisattva Vows, and I was surprised at my reaction to them.

It begins with repentance, and like the entire ceremony, it’s call and response; every line is read by a lay leader and each line is repeated by everyone else in attendance, and all of it is chanted in a dirge-like monotone:

All my ancient twisted karma
From beginningless greed, hate, and delusion
Born through body, speech and mind
I now fully avow

Ancient twisted karma…that’s intense and foreboding! At this point I was already feeling a bit overwhelmed. Of course, I’d just been sitting and meditating for nearly an hour, and I’m still very much a beginner, and that means that an hour of meditation is equivalent to a brutal mental wrestling match.

Then, after a chant of homage to the seven Buddhas before Buddha and various other sages, we recited the Four Vows:

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
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it

Now THOSE are some significant commitments! They make my wedding vows seem like pinky promises. How can anyone really be expected to live up to those vows? Isn’t it just a set up for massive guilt?

Moving on, there’s some recognition that keeping these vows could be a rough road, as you recite a kind of list of resources called The Refuges:

I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha

Ok, so, I won’t be in this alone, there are clues as to how to proceed, and a community of people (Sangha), who have also take the vows, to support me.

Yeah, that made me feel better, until…

Finally, there was the Buddhist equivalent of the biblical Ten Commandments, the 16 Precepts, which started off with three big-picture items, that, while huge in scale, seemed like common sense and mostly doable:

I vow to refrain from all action that increases suffering
I vow to perform all action that increases awareness
I vow to live for and with all being

But, then we got into the nitty gritty:

A disciple of Buddha does not intentionally or maliciously kill, and cherishes all life
A disciple of Buddha does not steal, and respects the possessions and lifetimes of others
A disciple of Buddha does not misuse sexual energy, and is honest and respectful in mind and action
A disciple of Buddha does not intentionally deceive, and speaks the truth
A disciple of Buddha does not misuse drugs or alcohol, and keeps the mind clear
A disciple of Buddha does not speak of others’ faults, and is understanding and sympathetic
A disciple of Buddha does not praise oneself by criticizing others, and overcomes one’s own shortcomings
A disciple of Buddha does not withhold spiritual or material aid, and gives it freely when needed
A disciple of Buddha does not give vent to anger, and seeks its source
A disciple of Buddha does not speak ill of the Three Treasures (refuges), and cherishes and upholds them

What?! Now I’m a disciple all of a sudden? Where did I sign up for that? AND, you want to boss me around, diss my social enjoyment of alcoholic beverages, tell me what to do in the bedroom, and then ask me not to be angry about it?!!!

Sitting and meditating are one thing. Nothing dogmatic about that. Makes sense purely from a mental health perspective. But, I’ve got a lot of pent up distrust of religion, which explains my reaction to what was otherwise a really beautiful experience.

The chanting was actually quite mesmerizing, soothing even, and the experience of making these kinds of commitments, or at least considering reaching for and making these commitments, in the company of a community of others, was a rather empowering and hopeful one.

In fact, as I read over what I’ve written here, I feel a renewed determination to meet my cynicism head on, to work at a more regular meditation practice, so that I might be better able to brush off those skeptical, critical, sarcastic and angry thoughts, to better able to simply be in the present moment, where all those seemingly monumental achievments are possible.

2 thoughts on “To be, or not to be…a Bodhisattva?

  1. When you said, “Now THOSE are some significant commitments! They make my wedding vows seem like pinky promises.”, I thought it was so funny.

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