The Four Bodhisattva Vows, from the Boundless Way Zen liturgy:
Beings are numberless; I vow to free 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.
As the sun's transit across the sky gets shorter and shorter, I find myself touching into a deep sorrow about what it means to be human.
Perhaps it's the darkness, or maybe just the accumulation of anniversaries of deaths and endings of all kinds from the past. So much loss touches my heart, both personal and global. Sorrow accompanies love and connection within the truth of impermanence. If we could wall off our hearts from feeling love, perhaps things would be easier. And there are so many of us who try to do just that. When the going gets tough, some of us get going as fast as we can away from the pain of connection. We run as far as we can from the truth of the transient nature of all phenomena. We cut off connection to people, or we try to escape into fantasy and various distractions. The internet can be very helpful in this regard.
I am saddled with a personality that, when faced with loss and the retreat of affection, impulsively moves me towards the people who have left me, trying to win them back. As a coping strategy, it succeeds intermittently. But more often, it makes the other person back away further. And it exhausts me. It's like grabbing the autumn leaves as they float to the ground, trying to paste them back on the trees. Once something goes, it's gone. Although the problem for me is, unlike the leaves, sometimes people come back. And so I get positive feedback for continuing to reach out to those who have retreated.
Recently, I was inspired by a dear Dharma friend and student, Jeanie Erlbaum, to look into this matter in a new way. She talks about reversing the order of the Four Bodhisattva Vows, which, when you really look into them, seem quite impossible. How can I save all beings? End all of my delusions? Enter all the Dharma gates and be a Buddha? For someone like me, the continued action towards unattainable goals feels very familiar. But Jeanie suggests turning them all around.
What if all beings are actually working on freeing us? Just thinking in this way, I feel a sense of relief through my whole body. And gratitude for everyone, even the most difficult people. And the endless passions, if we open to them fully, end up ending us -- our addiction to our limited ego identities. Sadness, anger and fear burn us up, and all that is left is the awakened heart. Everywhere we look, Dharma gates are getting ready to enter us. We can receive the teachings of this boundless world, no matter what shape these gates take. Some of them are quite beautiful, some painful, and everything else in between.
And then there's this Great Way of the Buddha. In this reversal, we are already the embodiment of awakening. Awakening looks like us.
On this day when darkness comes early, I invite you to open to receiving -- the activity of all beings set upon freeing us, the passions which melt and transform the heart, and the gates of the teaching opening to us and taking us in. And perhaps most of all, take a moment to look in the mirror and see the Buddha that greets you there. As one Tibetan teacher once said, the world is "kindly bent to ease us." Turn toward that kindness, and feel the ease filling your body, heart and mind. It's a small turning, but a profound one.