By Rev. Jon Turner
In the Middle Ages, a favorite image that occurs in many, many contexts is the wheel of fortune. There’s the hub of the wheel, and there’s the revolving rim of the wheel. And if you attached to the rim of the wheel, let’s say fortune, you will be either above, going down, at the bottom, or coming up. But if you are at the hub, you’re in the same place all the time. And that’s the sense of the marriage vow, you know. I take you in health or sickness, you know, in wealth or poverty, but I take you and you are my bliss, not the wealth that you might bring me, nor the social prestige, but you.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Vows are very important in Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, we have the Bodhisattva Vow to save all beings before one becomes a Buddha. In Pure Land tradition, we have the very specific 48 vows of Bodhisattva Dharmakara. For example, the Eighteenth Vow:
If when I become a Buddha, the sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully trust me, wish to be born in my Land and call my name even ten times, do not achieve birth there, may I never attain Perfect Enlightenment.
Vows are important for several reasons. One, they are inspirational. They orient our practice. Two, they are aspirational. They give us a goal and a reason to practice. Both of these are very valuable. It is important to state one’s purpose out loud. It makes it concrete and substantial. It helps us take ownership for the direction of our lives. In a sense, we are stepping onto the path for ourselves and others.
But there is more to a vow than just declaring a future goal. Actually, future goals are precarious things because there is no stated path or practice on how to achieve them. This is why 90% of all New Year’s resolutions fail within the first week or two. Thus, it is better to state a vow that is based upon a process. Like “I will walk the dog around the block everyday” rather than “I will lose ten pounds.”
So then what is going on with our two Bodhisattva vows? Declaring to save all sentient beings? How exactly is that done? These vows actually seem impossible in the extreme but these vows work because it forces the Bodhisattva to focus on process.
For example, this quote concerning Bodhisattva Dharmakara’s resolution to become a Buddha:
At that time the Buddha Lokeshvararaja recognized the Bodhisattva Dharmakara's noble and high aspirations, and taught him as follows: “If, for example, one keeps on bailing water out of a great ocean with a pint-measure, one will be able to reach the bottom after many kalpas and then obtain rare treasures. Likewise, if one sincerely, diligently and unceasingly seeks the Way, one will be able to reach one’s destination. What vow is there which cannot be fulfilled?”
There is also a paradox at work here in that only a Buddha could make such a vow. So even though the future outcome has not yet occurred, it illustrates the mind of a Buddha in the present. Someone who is that selfless is already a Buddha.
This can also be found in our wedding vows. It is the same mechanism. We say we will take our future wife for better or for worse, in sickness or in health, for richer or for poorer. Of course, this is very easy to say at 25 years old when you are marrying your high school sweetheart. We say it when we are young, healthy and without a mortgage. All is good. It is inspirational and aspirational. We say it and we mean it but it is a hypothetical that is living in some imagined future. Likely a future where people don’t get older, sicker or poorer.
But if it is said authentically, from the depths of our heart then something very special happens. In effect we become the kind of man that will stay forever devoted to our spouse. In that moment, we are transformed into the man who will be head over heels no matter what may come. We have become what has not yet come to pass. Our love now transcends worldly concerns – it is a timeless love. My True Self loves your True Self. Thus, the vow is true in the present though it will occur in the future. We are stating our dedication to our spouse no matter the future. Our bond is something much more than physical.
So too for our two Bodhisattvas who are delaying their Buddhahood for others. There selflessness is Buddhahood and this in turn saves all sentient beings in the here and now. So a true vow is deeper than a wish or a hope. It is stating the contents of one’s consciousness. So future practice and effort are no longer necessary. There is only the effortless unfolding of this reality in our everyday lives. Our practice is the natural outcome of this realization not the cause of it. This is how an impossible goal can become a lived process and path. So no matter what may come we are grounded in the vows that we make. But only if they come from deep within our heart and mind.
In gassho, Rev. Jon Turner