Our possible impossible vows

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Greater Boston Zen Center one Tuesday night during the summer of 2012. I’m posting it now to complete my series of talks about the major elements of our liturgy.

I’d like to talk a bit about the Four Vows — how I have come to understand and experience them.

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.

The Buddha way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

We’ll often hear it said in Zen circles that these vows are impossible to fulfill, and indeed they are.

There are beings suffering everywhere that you and I will never meet; there is suffering in our midst we’ll never perceive.  There is the starving, AIDS-afflicted child in Africa, and also the colleague I see in the hall every day who doesn’t share her sorrows with me.

There are forms and causes of suffering that no person can end alone:  war, poverty, global warming.

The Four Vows are aspirational and inspirational.  They prod us to help as we can, to strive to help more than we think we can – but, of course, we cannot literally save all beings from all forms of pain, sorrow, and hardship, at least not in the relative sense of saving beings.

This is a difficult reality — downright depressing, from one perspective, if we allow this truth to sink in.  And this discomfort, if we permit ourselves to experience it, hopefully does move us to do something.

Impossible as it is to save all beings from all suffering always in this sense, however, the Four Vows also have a paradoxical, even teasing, quality.

Infinite beings.  I nonetheless vow earnestly to save each one.

Really?  You must be kidding.

Actually, our translation of the first vow doesn’t say “infinite” beings, it says “numberless” beings.

What does that mean, “numberless beings”?  Zero beings?  Zero and not zero beings?

Just as this line — each of our vows — truly and profoundly recognizes the distinctness of each and every thing, and the reality of personal suffering, it also, and equally, truly and profoundly speaks from the perspective of that being in which all beings participate.

The perspective from which there is no subject, verb and object.

The perspective from which there is no possible and impossible.

No savior, saving, or saved.

This is the perspective of the absolute to which one’s attention frequently is called by Zen teachers and texts.

Someone very dear to me is an alcoholic.  I have been pained by and struggled with this fact for years, as have others I know who care deeply about this person, who I’ll call Sam.

I have tried — many have tried — to help Sam acknowledge and address this condition.  Over the years there have been individual and collective efforts to appeal to and influence Sam through reasoned discussion, a jointly authored letter of concern, interventions of various kinds, accompanying Sam to AA meetings — you name it.

Sam has seemed to recognize his drinking as a problem and make a real effort to stop at times, but most of these periods have passed, with Sam cycling back into a phase of denial (often belligerent denial), alienation, and darkness.

Alcoholism, as I’m sure many of you know, is a complex condition, with a variety of possible contributing causes that differ from person to person.  Some are genetic; some environmental. It’s no easy thing to address. The data on long-term recovery from alcoholism are not very confidence inspiring.

The periods of struggle and darkness have been so hard for me and for others close to Sam.  There’s the sadness for Sam; the desperate desire to see him happy and well.

And there’s my own fear and anger and frustration and sense of loss of Sam as I knew him, and knew us, in the years when he seemed more in control of his drinking, rather than the other way around.

While sitting with many of you one Tuesday night about a year ago, I had this sense that Sam was sitting with us; that I was sitting here with Sam as I sit here with all of you week after week; as I sit here tonight with the heat and the whir of the fans and everything else.  I had this sense of Sam sitting here in this way, too.

This was a turning point in my relationship with Sam.

I had so wanted to save Sam, but my efforts weren’t paying off in the way I had hoped, and they likely were just contributing to our growing alienation.

Sitting in that emptiness, with the numberless beings, Sam and I somehow both seemed less in need of saving.

And our fears, anxieties and judgments, and my own and others’ efforts to make Sam a “project,” didn’t seem to have the same ability to hold us captive at that moment.  Our delusions — mine and his — indeed were inexhaustible.  Opinions, fears, judgments, emotions — all bound to keep arising endlessly.

And they could be ended — ended by knowing there’s no need to end them.  Ended by dropping the delusion label, accepting them as features of the moment, and knowing they needn’t color my outlook completely, and always, nor dictate my every action.

A Dharma gate opened during that sit, a gate that always was open, and which remains open now.  Each moment, each encounter, a gate.

The gate is open, even when I see no hope and am sure it’s closed.   The way is boundless, even when I think it’s impossibly narrow.  Sam and I are walking the path, even when I feel lost, when he seems lost.

The Buddha’s way is our way.  There’s no Buddha but us Buddhas.  We can’t help but embody Buddha.

The Buddha way is unsurpassable because it is none other than this.

Right here.  Right now.

This very moment that has arrived.

And this can’t be surpassed, much as we might try in our own ways to transcend it.

Sitting here with Sam, I knew Sam was Buddha, that I was Buddha, that our struggles are the Buddha’s struggles.

Realizing this, encountering Sam in daily life has been different.  Less tension-filled.  For me for sure, but also for him in relation to me, it often seems.

For my part, I’ve found it easier just to be with Sam.  And, when it has seemed appropriate, to encourage in a gentle, un-pushy, less needy way that Sam seems actually to experience as encouragement.  I do think I’m increasingly meeting Sam as Sam, and not as someone who is constantly falling short of my own selfish, idiosyncratic image of what a “perfect” Sam would be.

Sam has been in a considerably better space at the moment, and he has been for some time, but I’ve also found it easier — though not entirely easy — not to freak out completely when there are signs that maybe things won’t be better indefinitely.

[Sam’s condition very much has been up and down during the nearly three years since I gave this talk.]

I’d like to think this capacity to relate to Sam and his condition a bit differently has been one small factor among many others that are helping him deal with his condition differently.  I honestly don’t know.  When we have visibly cheered up someone who was crying, or found a cure for some disease or whatever, it’s more clear that we’ve made a difference, that we’re saving beings.

I do know there’s been a small, but important, shift in our relationship. This shift certainly has helped me, and I do think it likely has helped Sam just a bit.

I can trace that shift back to the realization, sparked by sitting with you, that Sam and I and our struggles are part of this greater stream of life, and that things are always okay from that perspective — or, rather, things just are.  Suchness.

So perhaps holding these twin perspectives together — the relative and the absolute; the reality that there is terrible suffering we should work to end, even though we can’t possibly end it all, and the reality that all is ultimately as it should be at this very moment, which is simply to say it’s the only way it can be, actually as it is — and letting these perspectives be “not one, not two,” can help motivate us to act skillfully to do some good in the world; to avoid a detached complacency, on the one hand, or despair and/or less skillful action, on the other.

Perhaps our impossible vows are possible after all.