This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Tuesday, November 12, 2013.
Healing myself and others, I vow to save all beings.
— from the Bodhisattva Precepts (BoWZ shorter version)
Sometimes a word or phrase will jump out at me as we chant or recite it during the liturgical portion of our service. One word or phrase seems elevated above the rest, like a sonic bubble bursting through the surface of awareness.
This happened recently when we were reciting the shorter version of the Bodhisattva Precepts. The phrase “healing myself” leaped out.
“Healing myself and others, I vow to save all beings.”
I’ve held this phrase as a little koan during the weeks since. As a pebble in my palm.
How is it that we heal ourselves by vowing and working to save others? How is it that we save others as we do this?
It seems fair to say that we’re conditioned to think of ourselves as separate beings, and that this gives rise to a fair amount of psychological (and, by extension, possible physical) suffering.
There no doubt are many practical benefits – physical, psychic and social – that flow from a strong self-sense. We are embodied in a realm in which all is constantly in flux – where things, including us, come into being, cease to exist, and change states between those two moments. Where we inevitably experience harm and loss between our coming into being and our ceasing to exist. We’re no doubt programmed for protection of the skin bag that we are during this brief life, and this self-sense seems to be part of that program.
This program is only part of the picture, however, and yet it tends to monopolize our attention. For many of us, it is the overwhelmingly dominant perspective.
Despite the fact that many Asian cultures are considered to be, and likely are, more communally-oriented than US and European cultures, this sense of psychic, even cosmic, isolation seems to be a pervasive feature of human experience. Buddhism, with its many forms of antidote to this experience – its many ways to help us open our eyes, minds, hearts, arms and hands to the reality that we are and always have been thoroughly part of it all – arose from and has thrived in the cultures of Asia, after all.
In reality, though we are distinct, we are not separate.
The kind of suffering that the Buddha, and all teachers that have followed him, experienced and diagnosed and developed an approach to alleviating is the suffering we experience when we don’t genuinely feel – don’t know in our bones, know beyond knowing – that we are truly part of it all.
One common dictionary definition of the word “heal” is to “make whole.” I heal myself as I become whole.
From the Buddhist perspective, whole really means everything – the whole universe, the whole shebang. From the farthest reaches of space-time to the poodle in your lap. The stuff we understand and the stuff we may never understand conceptually, but which we stand under and stand in and embody, whether or not we’re capable of wrapping our minds around it.
All right here. All me.
Sure, we can’t both ride that bike at the same time. We have to develop wise and compassionate norms about how to produce and allocate and consume resources, and we have to develop wise and compassionate norms about treatment of beings in all the ways we are distinct in our not-separateness.
This is all part of what it means to be whole, personally and collectively.
But the not-separate orientation seems to be harder for many of us than managing our distinctiveness, our individual existence (hard as that is).
Zen has many resources for helping us realize and lean into our not-separateness, among them: zazen, in which we practice just being here, nothing more, nothing less; the teachings; our liturgy, in which we move together and become a chorus; koan practice, in which we join with a teacher and the many teachers of old to discover something for ourselves, and for all beings, in one of the lovely, often quirky stories that have been preserved and passed to us; and service opportunities.
So how does all this heal each of us and heal others?
As I age, and as I continue to sink into Zen practice and let it sink into me, I feel more and more insignificant, I must say.
What a relief!
Imagining ourselves as somehow capable of standing outside of or above it all, looking for that place or believing you’ve found it – well, that’s a very fragile way to go through life.
On an individual level, we’re healed by coming to know we’re in the soup. We’re part of this whole mess, this whole beautiful, wondrous mess. By aligning our perspective, our plans, and our actions with that reality.
And, yes, others are saved in the process.
This notion of saving others used to grate on me somewhat. In this culture, notions of religious salvation and efforts to save others smacks of proselytizing in order to save others from the devil in this life and beyond. It also can sound filled with hubris, like “Here I come! Zen Superman to the rescue of all of humanity!”
But there are more nuanced ways to think about how our practice may be saving others:
Saved from our delusions that cast others as characters in our own private dramas.
Saved from the tendency to view and treat people instrumentally if we unconsciously or consciously, subtly or not-so-subtly regard ourselves as masters of the universe, rather than part of the chorus that is the universe.
Saved from what happens when we check out: loss of the contributions we’re capable of making.
Saved by the reduction in harmful conduct that tends to come with orienting our lives in accordance with the realization that we are part of it all.
Saved by the generosity and compassion and skillful service that can flow from that orientation.
I now see this notion of healing – of wholeness and integration – as a key to understanding and living all of the precepts. Each of the other precepts offers a specific perspective on and guidance in what it means to be healed and whole in a particular domain of life.
We are here, in this zendo now, to heal ourselves and one another. To enact and honor our wholeness.
Our inescapable wholeness.
It’s lovely to be here with you, to be part of it all with you.