Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Living by Vow - Introduction

A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts


All Buddhist schools have rituals, services, and ceremonies. At almost all such formal activities we chant verses, poems, or sutras and dedication of merit (ekō). Each Buddhist school has a collection of these writings, often called a sutra book (kyōhon in Japanese), used in daily practice. This book presents my lectures on some of the verses and sutras in the sutra book.

In the Sōtō Zen tradition, the official sutra book published by the administrative headquarters (Shūmuchō) is Sōtōshū Nikka Gongyō Seiten. This collection was translated into English and published by Shūmuchō in 2002 with the title Sōtō School Scriptures for Daily Service and Practice. Before the publication of this sutra book, each Zen center in the United States created its own book, sometimes using different translations. Many centers still use their own versions. The text I used for the lectures in this book is MZMC’s sutra book.

As is often said, there is no perfect translation, especially in the case of religious scriptures. A translation optimized for meaning is often difficult to read and chant. But to create a beautiful verse we may have to sacrifice the exact meaning of the original texts. Each teacher and translator has a different interpretation and mode of expression. The translations in the MZMC version, which I use except for the meal chants, are no exception. Sometimes I offer an understanding of certain words that differs from the meaning expressed in the MZMC translations. My interpretation is based on my study and practice, but it is not the only correct one. My hope is that this book will help practitioners understand the meaning of the verses and sutras in the context of their own practice. Perhaps my commentary will be a foundation for better translations in the future.

I believe that all verses and scriptures in the Sōtō Zen tradition are based on the Mahāyāna teaching of the bodhisattva vow. That is why I titled this book Living by Vow. It is meant to be a practical introduction not only to Sōtō Zen practice but also to Mahāyāna teaching in general.

Sōtō Zen Buddhism is part of the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition in which practitioners are called bodhisattvas. We receive bodhisattva precepts and take bodhisattva vows. The historical origin of Mahāyāna Buddhism is not yet clear. In Japan, until the nineteenth century, all Mahāyāna sutras were considered the recorded sayings of Shakyamuni Buddha. When modern historical and critical Buddhist study was estab lished, scholars found that Mahāyāna sutras were created at least several hundred years after Shakyamuni Buddha’s death. When they began to study the origin of the Mahāyāna Buddhist movement, some scholars thought Mahāyāna developed from Mahāsāṃghika, one of the early Buddhist sects. Later, scholars such as Akira Hirakawa (1915–2002) proposed that Mahāyāna Buddhism grew from lay Buddhist movements in various areas of India, a claim derived from the study of stūpa worship and biographical literature praising Shakyamuni Buddha’s bodhisattva practice. Examples are texts such as Mahāvastu, Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddha-carita, and the Jātaka tales. When I was a university student this was a new and exciting hypothesis. Many Japanese Buddhist scholars accepted the theory, although opinions differed on details. Schol ars hypothesized that there were bodhisattva gaṇas (i.e., sanghas) that existed independently from monastic sanghas. Today, some Western scholars criticize this hypothesis and suggest that Mahāyāna began as a movement of a small number of elite monks who aspired to live and practice in the forest like Shakyamuni Buddha when he was a bodhisattva in his previous lives.

Either way, one of the fundamental ideas of Mahāyāna Buddhism is to take the bodhisattva vow and practice like Shakyamuni to attain buddhahood. The story that Shakyamuni Buddha took the bodhisattva vow appears not only in biographies of the Buddha but also in accounts of his past lives. I think that Shakyamuni’s vow originated when he rose from his seat under the bodhi tree and decided to teach. This story, which probably came into existence several hundred years after the Buddha’s death, was the original inspiration for bodhisattva practice. I would like to introduce a story from the Pāli canon. Although it is not a Mahāyāna text, all the essential points of the bodhisattva ideal are already there. One important difference is that in the Pāli tradi tion the term bodhisattva refers only to Shakyamuni himself before he attained buddhahood. Only later did tradition create past buddhas such as Vipaśyin Buddha and the future buddha Maitreya. But Mahāyāna Buddhists believed that any one of us could become a bodhisattva if we aroused bodhi-citta (bodhi-mind), took bodhisattva vows, and practiced the six pāramitās, or perfections.

This story comes from the Khuddaka Nikāya of the Pāli canon.

One part of this Nikāya, the Jātakas, comprises 547 tales of Shakya muni Buddha’s previous lives. One of these stories is of Sumedha (the Buddha in a previous life). When he took a vow to become a buddha the Buddha Dīpaṃkara predicted that Sumedha would successfully attain buddhahood in a future life. This story illustrates the origin of the bodhisattva vow and many of the important points of bodhisattva practice. It is interesting that the archetypal image of the bodhisattva already existed in the Pāli Nikāyas. This story took place countless eons ago. In a city called Amaravatī lived a Brāhmin named Sumedha, who was an outstanding person from a prestigious family. When Sumedha was still young his parents died. A minister of the state, who was steward of the family’s property, showed Sumedha the wealth accumulated for seven generations that he inherited from his parents. The family treasury was filled with gold and silver, gems and pearls, and other valuables.

When he saw the treasure he thought, “After amassing all this wealth, none of my parents and ancestors were able to take even a penny with them when they passed away. Can it be right that I should seek to take my wealth with me when I go?” Then he told the king that he would give all this wealth to the poor and leave home to become a spiritual practitioner.

He saw that a life transmigrating within samsara—the cycle of birth, sickness, aging, and death—was suffering and he wanted to find the path of deliverance into nirvana. Sumedha thought, “Suppose a man, after falling into a heap of filth, hears about a distant pond covered with lotuses of five colors. That man ought to search for that pond. If he does not, that’s not the pond’s fault. In the same way, there is a lake—the great, deathless nirvana—in which to wash off the defilements of my harmful karma. If I do not seek it that will not be the lake’s fault.” So he left home and entered a forest in the Himalayas to practice as a hermit. Because he was a person of great capability, he attained superhuman knowledge and supernatural power.

While he was practicing thus, Dīpaṃkara Buddha appeared in the world and started to teach. Dīpaṃkara Buddha visited a city not far from where Sumedha was living. The people of that city invited the Buddha and his assembly of followers for a meal. In preparation they began to fix the road, which was flooded, and decorate it with flowers. Sumedha flew there by means of his supernatural power. He asked why they were working so hard and were so excited. They explained that Dīpaṃkara Buddha was coming. Sumedha was delighted and offered his help. Because people knew that Sumedha had supernatural pow ers, they asked him to fill the muddy part of the road with soil. But Sumedha, although he could easily have filled the muddy road using his supernatural power, wanted to use his own hands instead. He started to carry soil by hand. Unfortunately, Dīpaṃkara Buddha and his assembly arrived before his work was completed.

Sumedha did not want the Buddha to walk through the mud, so he loosened his matted hair, lay down on the ground, and asked the Buddha to walk on him—a dramatic expression of his commitment to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Even today, some Buddhists make prostrations by laying their bodies full length on the ground. When we make prostrations in the Sōtō Zen tradi tion, we place five parts of our bodies—both knees, both elbows, and forehead—on the ground. We place our hands palm up at the level of our ears as if to accept the Buddha’s feet on our hands. This is the form we use to express our respect and gratitude to the Buddha.

When Sumedha, lying in the mire, looked up at Dīpaṃkara Buddha, he made a vow: “If I want I could now enter the Buddhist sangha and by practicing meditation free myself from deluded human desires and become an arhat. Then at death I would at once attain nirvana and cease to be reborn. But this would be a selfish course to pursue, for thus I should benefit myself only. I want to help all beings as Dīpaṃkara Bud dha is doing now. I am determined. I vow to attain what Dīpaṃkara Buddha attained and benefit all beings.” Upon seeing Dīpaṃkara Bud dha, Sumedha abandoned his earlier intention to escape from samsara. Now he aspired to live like the Buddha, staying in samsara to help all living beings.

Dīpaṃkara Buddha, seeing Sumedha lying in the mud, understood that the young man had vowed to become a buddha. He told his assembly that in the distant future Sumedha would become a buddha named Gautama. Hearing this prediction, Sumedha was delighted and believed his vow would be realized. Having praised Sumedha for his vow, Dīpaṃkara Buddha and his assembly departed. Thus Sumedha became “the Bodhisattva,” which in this case means “the Buddha-to be.” This is an early example of the path called bodhisattva practice chosen by Shakyamuni Buddha.

Sumedha then realized that to become a buddha he should practice the ten pāramitās: the perfection of giving (dāna), the perfection of moral practice (śīla), the perfection of renunciation (nekkhamma), the perfection of wisdom (paññā, known more commonly by the Sanskrit prajñā), the perfection of diligence (viriya), the perfection of patience (khanti), the perfection of truthfulness (sacca), the perfection of deter mination (adhitthāna), the perfection of loving-kindness (mettā), and the perfection of equanimity (upekkhā). This list of ten pāramitās is found in the Pāli canon. It is interesting to note that five of them (giv ing, moral practice, patience, diligence, and wisdom) are present in the Mahāyāna list of six pāramitās. The sixth pāramitā, missing in the Pāli version, is meditation (dhyāna). But in some Mahāyāna sutras, for instance the Ten Stages Sutra, ten pāramitās are mentioned: the six pāramitās just mentioned and these four: skillful means (upāya); vow, resolution, or determination (pranidhāna); spiritual power (bala); and knowledge ( jñāna).

The image of Shakyamuni as a bodhisattva is broadly similar in early Buddhism and Mahāyāna. One significant difference is that Mahāyāna Buddhists have always held that anyone, even ordinary people like us, can be a bodhisattva if they arouse bodhichitta, take the bodhisattva vow, and practice the six pāramitās. None of us can expect to receive a prophecy assuring us of attaining buddhahood, but since all beings intrinsically have buddha-nature, it is certain that we will complete our vow and attain buddhahood.

The archetypal image of the bodhisattva in this story suggests that all Mahāyāna Buddhist practice is based on the bodhisattva vow. The vow has two aspects: becoming a buddha and helping all beings become buddhas. These two cannot be separated. We vow to become buddhas together with all beings. That is, we vow not to become a buddha until all beings become buddhas. We vow to stay in samsara on purpose to walk with all beings. This explains why the Zen master Guishan Lingyou (Isan Reiyū) said he would be reborn as a water buffalo, for the water buffalo, which walks in muddy water to help farmers grow rice, symbolizes bodhisattva practice. The bodhisattva vow is an essential point in Mahāyāna teachings and practice. All the verses and sutras discussed in this book are based on or relate to this concept.

Repentance, or atonement, is intimately connected to vow. My teacher Uchiyama Kōshō Roshi always emphasized that vow and repentance are two sides of one practice. Because our vow is endless, our practice is never complete. This awareness of incompleteness is repentance. In The Hungry Tigress Rafe Martin tells the story of the beginning of Shakyamuni Buddha’s search for truth. In this story Shakyamuni was a king named Suprabhasa. One day the king asked his elephant trainer to bring his great white elephant for him to ride. The trainer said that the elephant had escaped to the jungle but it would return because he had trained it well. The king did not believe him, grew angry, lost all self-control, yelled at him, and told him to leave. Next morning, the trainer reported that the elephant had returned. “The training was good,” he said. “We have conquered his old, wild ways.” When he heard this the king thought, “Though I am a king holding great power over others, I have as yet failed to conquer what is closest—myself. I was unable to control my own anger. This will not do.”

Such a reflection and realization of one’s own incompleteness is repentance. It is the origin of Shakyamuni Buddha’s search for the Way. This same realization gives us the energy to study and practice diligently.

The verse of the Triple Treasure clearly states the connection between refuge and vow. When Sumedha, lying on the muddy road, asked Dīpaṃkara Buddha to walk on him, he took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Dīpaṃkara noticed Sumedha’s gesture and vow and predicted that he would be a buddha. By taking refuge, we make clear the direction we intend to follow. Taking refuge in the Buddha, we vow together with all beings to walk his path of wisdom and compassion; taking refuge in the Dharma, we vow to share the teachings and wisdom as boundless as the ocean; taking refuge in the Sangha, we vow to create harmony without hindrance.

In the Mahāyāna tradition, people become Buddhists when they take the bodhisattva vow, repent their previous way of life, and take refuge in the Triple Treasure. Some of them choose to leave home and practice at monasteries. In the traditional Sōtō Zen monasteries, monks in training live in the monks’ hall where they share their entire time and space with other practitioners. Their practice of vow includes not just the study of Dharma teachings and meditation practice but all the activities of daily life, including sleeping, eating, working, washing the face, and shaving the head. In addition to shelter, food and clothing are the most important elements of the monks’ lives. The robe chant and the meal chants originate from this way of life dedicated to the bodhisattva vow.

In the robe chant verse, sometimes called the “Verse of the Kesa,” we affirm our aim to practice with the same vow that Shakyamuni Bud dha and all other bodhisattvas including Dōgen Zenji took—to save all beings. Dōgen Zenji himself took a vow when he first saw Chinese monks venerate the robe (okesa/kesa) by putting it on their heads and chanting. His vow was to introduce the okesa and encourage Japanese people to venerate it as a part of bodhisattva practice.

In Shōbōgenzō “Kesakudoku” (Virtue of the Kesa) Dōgen Zenji quotes a Mahāyāna sutra, the Sutra of Compassion Flower (Hige-kyō), in which Shakyamuni Buddha, when he was a bodhisattva in one of his past lives, took five vows regarding the okesa (or kaṣāya). One of his vows was that he would help students put on the okesa with respect and veneration. Then Dōgen Zenji commented on these vows:

Truly, the kaṣāya is the buddha robe of all the buddhas in the past, present, and future. Although the virtues of the kaṣāya [from any buddha] are boundless, attaining the kaṣāya within the Dharma of Shakyamuni Buddha must be superior to getting it from other buddhas.

This is because when Shakyamuni Buddha was in the causal stage [of practice] as the Great Compassion Bodhi sattva, he took five hundred vows in front of the Jewel Treasury Buddha. He particularly took vows regarding the virtues of the kaṣāya.

Even mundane daily activities like eating are related to vow. In the Zen tradition, monks sleep, meditate, and eat in a building called a sōdō (monks’ hall). When we have formal meals in this hall, we chant verses to remind ourselves that eating is also a bodhisattva practice. We remember Shakyamuni Buddha’s life and give praise. Then we vow to receive the food that comes to us from the network of interdependent origination, share it with all beings, and fulfill the bodhisattva vow to attain buddhahood together with all beings.

The Heart Sutra explains the practice necessary to achieve this vow. After Sumedha received Dīpaṃkara Buddha’s prediction, he decided to practice the ten pāramitās. In Mahāyāna Buddhism the sixth pāramitā, meditation (dhyāna), is considered to be a bodhisattva practice. The Heart Sutra, one of the early Mahāyāna Prajñāpāramitā Sutras, empha sizes the pāramitā of prajñā, or wisdom, as the most essential of the six. Without prajñā, the other five practices cannot be pāramitās (perfec tions). Although a relatively recent sutra, the Heart Sutra is considered the essence of the large collection of Prajñāpāramitā Sutras. It points to the essential role of prajñā in our efforts to fulfill our vows. To fol low the bodhisattva path, we study and practice prajñā-pāramitā, the wisdom that sees impermanence, no-self, emptiness, and interdepen dent origination. When we clearly see this reality; that we and other things exist together without fixed independent entities, our practice is strengthened. We understand that to live by vow is not to accept a particular fixed doctrine but is a natural expression of our life force.

Zen Buddhism originated in China. “Sandōkai,” a poem written in the ninth century by the Zen master Shitou Xiqian, is a Chinese expres sion of Buddhist wisdom that sees emptiness. In the very beginning of “Sandōkai,” the author clearly states that the mind of the Buddha has been intimately transmitted through ancestors in the Zen tradition. “Intimately” means from person to person, not through written words and concepts. When the first ancestor of Chinese Zen, Bodhidharma, traveled from India to China, he was practicing his bodhisattva vow: to transmit and share the true Dharma, the mind of the Buddha, with Chinese people. Dōgen Zenji commented on Bodhidharma’s practice in Shōbōgenzō “Gyōji” (Continuous Practice), “This way of protecting and maintaining practice [gyōji] stemmed from his great compassion and his vow to transmit the Dharma and save deluded living beings. He was able to do it because he himself was the dharma-self of transmission and for him the whole universe was the world of transmitting Dharma.” In the same way, transmission of Buddha Dharma from Asian Bud dhist countries to the West is the result of many Buddhist monks and laypeople who live by vow. Shitou, the eighth-generation ancestor from Bodhidharma expresses prajñā as the merging of the two truths, ulti mate (ri) and conventional ( ji). At the end of “Sandōkai” he encourages us to practice wholeheartedly and not waste time.

The “Verse for Opening the Sutra” explicitly points to the impor tance of vow. When we chant it before a dharma talk (open the sutra), we vow to listen, understand, digest, and apply the teaching to our practice. This is another expression of the third bodhisattva vow. Not only written texts and Dharma lectures but everything we encounter is a sutra that shows us, day by day and moment by moment, the true reality of all beings, continuously deepening our understanding and practice.

In the Sōtō Zen tradition, our practice is based on Dōgen Zenji’s teaching of continuous practice and the identity of practice and verifi cation. The bodhisattva Way is not linear. It’s not a path that we move along from a starting point to a finish, as in a board game. In Shōbōgenzō “Gyōji,” Dōgen explained that we practice together with all buddhas, bodhisattvas, and ancestors.

In the great Way of the buddhas and ancestors, there is always unsurpassable continuous practice which is the Way like a circle without interruption. Between the arousing of awak ening-mind, practice, awakening, and nirvana, there is not the slightest break. Continuous practice is the circle of the Way. Therefore, [this continuous practice] is not [activities that we are] forced to do by ourselves or by others [buddhas and ancestors]. It is the continuous practice that has never been defiled [by our three poisonous minds]. The virtue of this continuous practice sustains ourselves and others. The essential point is that, in the entire earth and throughout heaven in the ten directions, all beings receive the merit of our continuous practice. Although neither others nor our selves know it, that is the way it is. Therefore, because of the buddhas’ and ancestors’ continuous practice, our continuous practice is actualized, and our own great Way is penetrated. Because of our own continuous practice, the continuous practice of all buddhas is actualized, and the great Way of buddhas is presented. Because of our own continuous prac tice, there is the virtue of the circle of the Way. Because of this, each and every one of the buddhas and ancestors dwells as a buddha, goes beyond Buddha, upholds Buddha mind, and completes buddhahood without interruption. Because of continuous practice, there are the sun, moon, and stars; because of continuous practice, there is the great earth and empty space. Because of continuous practice, there is the self and its environment, and body and mind; because of con tinuous practice, there are the four great elements and the five aggregates. Although continuous practice is not some thing worldly people love, nevertheless it is the true place to return for all people. Because of the continuous practice of all buddhas in the past, present, and future, all buddhas in the past, present, and future are actualized.…Therefore, the continuous practice of one day is nothing other than the seed of all buddhas and [is itself ] the continuous practice of all buddhas.

All aspects of our practice—zazen in the monks’ hall, chanting of verses and sutras during services, ceremonies in the Dharma hall—and all our other activities in daily life are the practice of the bodhisattva vow actualized moment by moment. We chant these verses and sutras as an expression of this interpenetrating reality with all beings through out endless time and boundless space.


How to cite this document:
© Shohaku Okumura, Living By Vow (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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