We’re in the middle of our study of vows. We’ve done two workshops on the process of taking personal vows, but in these talks we are looking into the taking of Buddhist vows, among which are the Four Bodhisattva Vows. This evening we’ll look into the last vow, The enlightened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
What is the enlightened way, or the Buddha way? Bernie constantly asked that question after his big stroke. I remember talking to him about this at the rehab hospital where I’d visit him day by day for 6 weeks, and he recounted to me that a long-time Zen practitioner had been with him that day. She had asked him a question, he’d given her answer, and her reply was: “What has this got to do with the Buddha way?”
His response to her was: “Was is the Buddha way?”
I remember the look in his eyes. He was so surprised that she could put it in this way, as if the Buddha way was clear to her and now she just needed to connect it with something else. “I had to ask her what she meant by Buddha way,” he told me. “And what did she say?” I asked. “She didn’t know,” he said.
That was the first of a series of basic questions that he started asking once he got home. What is the Buddha way? What is Buddha? What is practice? What is Zen? In all the years I knew him, if there was one thing he disliked it was when people talked about things—including Zen—as if they knew, as if they had it all figured out. But after his stroke this questioning became more basic, almost as if someone had wiped out his memory of all he’d learned, practiced, and done, and he was starting from scratch.
In our public schmoozes on Thursday nights, he’d ask these questions again and again. Now that things had gotten slower for him, he could learn them anew just like he learned to walk again (with a cane), lift his right hand just a little, eat on his own. Nothing was automatic anymore, everything was new and fresh, and this was the Buddha way for him. He genuinely wondered at those for whom it wasn’t new and fresh. He never answered his own questions, he just repeated them aloud almost every day, as if he was rediscovering this Buddha way today, and was going to rediscover it again the next day, and the next.
I vow to embody it. Some sanghas say: I vow to attain it. Both have their own place and function.
There’s the long arc of our life story. The chapter Life Span of the Thus Come One in the Lotus Sutra begins with the words: “Since I attained Buddhahood many eons have passed.” Many Buddhists believe that Shakyamuni lived and practiced for many lifetimes before his enlightenment experience, and he says that eons passed between that experience and his expounding of the Lotus Sutra. China’s Sixth Patriarch, Ta-chien Hui-Neng, milled rice for eight months before his teacher, Ta-man Hung-jen, came to check him out and asked if the rice was white yet. Hui-Neng answered, “It’s white, but it hasn’t been sifted yet.”
Practice as a function of time is implied here, including progress and attainment. We practice till awakening and we practice afterwards. The process of integration takes lifetimes.
In the chapter in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha says that his death is illusory, and when people are really suffering and they pray to him and ask for guidance, he is always back teaching in Vulture Peak with his monks. This passage had a deep impact on me even as I couldn’t make sense of it.
It started making sense after Maezumi Roshi died, and certainly after Bernie died. The two may have shifted form, but the energy that was released with that passage was explosive. I continue to be astonished, in Bernie’s case, by how many people evoke him and his story who never knew him, never met him. I realize that when he lost his form as a living human being, he became an icon for dharma-based social action, radical inclusiveness, and deep compassion. And I think to myself that the Buddha was right, that right there in Vulture Peak—or in Yonkers, or in Montague—the Buddha is still giving teachings.
What do we do when we’re in trouble, when we’re suffering? We reach for the Buddha. We reach out to a book, to a person, maybe to a teaching given on Zoom or a podcast, workshop or retreat. We look to people who’ve attained for guidance and inspiration. All of that is very important.
Embody points to something else, to down-to-earth, daily life. It points to the fact that it doesn’t really matter where you are in the arc of attaining Buddhahood. Whether you’ve attained big or small kenshos, there will continue to be blind spots for all of us, places of confusion and deep attachment. But boundless reality is here and right now. Every moment invites me to come out of my head and embody life fully.
Over the long haul we have a long view. We make up a story about whether we attained Buddhahood or not—how we didn’t or why. But moment by moment, we don’t have a clue about that; we can even surprise ourselves. Think of people who jumped on train tracks in the path of an oncoming train to help a stranger who’d fallen. They didn’t plan to do this, they just did it. The moments of our life don’t have to fit a long narrative, they’re diamonds all by themselves.
So what is the enlightened way, Bernie used to ask again and again. What is it? Is it a story of the greatness of a few people, or does it point to something more mundane, something all of us can embody all the time? It’s unsurpassable. It can’t be exceeded or transcended, it has nothing to do with life and death. It causes ripples and ripples and ripples with no end.
These vows are infinite. Human beings, our delusions and our embodiment of everyday life—all are infinite. Made of stars, we have elements in us that go back to the Big Bang. We are infinity itself; that is why we take these vows.