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The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, Rinzai Zen version

If you are a connoisseur of proverbial wisdom, you know which road is paved with good intentions. And if you’ve ever bestowed a well-intentioned gift, only to find it unwanted and unappreciated, you may be forgiven for suspecting that good intentions, especially those that ignore actual conditions and circumstances, may be as unavailing as last year’s New Year’s resolutions.

In the popular imagination, Zen is sometimes viewed as a philosophy of “going with the flow.” Rather than impose our narrow intentions on things as they are, we should relax and let events unfold of their own accord. Such a view is not without a basis in Zen teachings. No less an authority than Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, asserts that “the true purpose” of Zen is “to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.” But in the foundational teachings of the Buddhist tradition, of which Zen is a late flowering, the issue of intentionality plays a pivotal role. “The thought becomes an intention,” the Buddha is reported to have said, “the intention manifests as an action, the action develops into habit, and habit hardens into character. Therefore watch closely the thought and let it spring from concern for all beings.” Far from being extraneous or antithetical, intentions and their manifestation in action, habit, and character lie close to the heart of Zen practice.

As the foregoing statement suggests, awareness of intentions can begin with awareness of our thoughts, even as they are arising. In the language of Zen, this practice is known as “mindfulness of the mind in the mind.” With practice, we can learn to monitor our thoughts and patterns of thought, and we can watch how readily our thoughts turn into conscious intentions. In similar fashion, when we are engaged in such routine activities as taking a shower or getting dressed in the morning, we can note how even our most habitual action is preceded by an intention, conscious or otherwise. By becoming aware of such subtle intentions, we develop the capability to recognize our more consequential intentions and their impact on our lives.

Beyond awareness training of this kind, we can also explore traditional practices designed to support good intentions and foster wholesome qualities of heart and mind. Prominent among those qualities are what is known as the Four Immeasurable Minds (brahminviharas): loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Typically, the traditional practices begin with the intention to cultivate a particular quality in oneself. In metta, or loving-kindness meditation, for example, we initiate the exercise with such sentences as “May I be filled with loving-kindness. / May I be well.” As the meditation proceeds, we widen the circle to include a loved one, an acquaintance, a stranger, an enemy, and all living beings. Like similar exercises for cultivating compassion, equanimity, and gratitude, the objectives are, first, to articulate our intention and, second, to cultivate the desired quality itself. These active, daily practices can also serve as a form of mindfulness training, insofar as they reveal how remote our mental state might be, at any given moment, from the one desired. We may wish to be filled with loving-kindness, but in our present state, we may feel anything but loving.

In concert with these practical measures, there is the deeper practice of taking vows. The Zen tradition embraces a wide variety of vows, which may be taken both by monastics and lay practitioners. Some are limited in scope and pertain specifically to the conduct of everyday life: “Waking up, I know I have twenty-four new hours. / I vow to live mindfully, and to view all things with the eyes of compassion.” But at their most profound, Zen vows are both open-ended and life-altering. They chart a challenging course for serious practitioners. Best-known among such formulations are the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, two of which read: Shu jo mu hen sei gan do (“Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all”) and Bo non mu jin sei gan dan (“Delusions are inexhaustible; we vow to extinguish them all”). To those grand—and self-contradictory–assertions, the cynical observer might retort, “Good luck with that.” But it is in the nature of such vows to formulate not concrete, finite goals but unattainable objectives, acknowledging at once the nobility of those objectives and the impossibility of fulfilling them in one lifetime. A declaration of our best intentions, the Great Vows are a confession of our highest values and an affirmation of our shared humanity. And, in the words of Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura Roshi, they are also “a manifestation of the foundation of our being.” To return to the “reality of life in the midst of this reality,” writes Okumura in his book Living by Vow, “is our practice. This practice is based on vow.”

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The true purpose: Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970), 33.

The thought becomes an intention . . . : Guy Armstrong quotes this passage, which has been attributed to the Buddha, in his book Emptiness (Wisdom, 2017), Kindle edition, 122.  “I doubt it was he who said it,” Armstrong notes, “but I think he would agree.”

A manifestation : Shohaku Okumura Roshi, Living by Vow (Wisdom, 2012), 51.

 

 

 

 

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