The 4 Great Vows
Beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to end them
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it
Suzuki Roshi translates this as: “Although sentient beings are innumerable, we vow to save them. Although our desires are limitless, we vow to be rid of them. Although the teaching is limitless, we vow to learn it all. Although Buddhism is unattainable, we vow to attain it.” The question of whether it is possible is sort irrelevant, the process of trying to uphold your vow is where good stuff comes from. I love these vows.
Someone asked me the other day why Austin and I decided to get married. In the past, I know I had questions about the purpose of marriage and why we needed (wanted) it. At first, it wasn’t anything I could really put into words, just a feeling that the tradition was important to me. Now after practicing Zen for a while I have fleshed it out a bit more and found a lot of meaning in vows. That taking formal, even ceremonious, vows is really important to me. They’re helpful. Our wedding was a time to look right into the eyes of someone I love, in a way we don’t often do, and make a commitment to do the hard work.
I think that in the past I also believed there was maybe a flaw in the institution of marriage because you were making a promise you did not know you could keep. In Zen we often make vows like this. There is something really epic about making a vow in spite of that. The parameter is so wide in fact that you can never fail.
I have a faith in the Buddha Way that is deeper than all the questions I have about what practice looks like. I trust the tradition, I trust the teachers, and I trust a practice that encourages, even requires, inquiry and seeing something for yourself rather than taking someone else’s words for truth. That the difficult work is where the good stuff is. That when sitting zazen is hard and miserable as long as you keep showing up something good is happening. That you just keep choosing to show up for your life. And sometimes it is helpful to make vows so you have something to carry you when the path gets really rocky.