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We Must Do the Impossible

July 15, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Towards the end of each Zen service we vow:

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.

Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.

For many years I felt that each of these vows was impossible and unattainable, but I chanted them as best as I could because I wanted to be a “good” Buddhist. I knew that I didn’t understand these vows any more than I understood the obscure statements of the Heart Sutra, which is also a part of daily Zen services, but I continued chanting. Everything about Buddhism seemed totally beyond my understanding.

After a while I noticed that something in myself did understand what was going on. While the ego may have found these chants to be impossible, a deeper part of myself felt attracted to them. These chants were expressing in words a part of myself that was beyond words, a part that seemed as impossible, unknowable, and as far away as the most obscure parts of the Heart Sutra. Many of our Zen chants that seem to “make no sense” have brought this part of myself a little closer.

Suzuki Roshi, in his chapter on “bowing” in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, says: Although Buddhism is unattainable, we vow to attain it. If it is unattainable, how can we attain it? But we should! That is Buddhism. To think, “Because it is possible we will do it,” is not Buddhism. Even though it is impossible, we have to do it because our true nature wants us to.

I think that what Suzuki Roshi said about Buddhism is true about all of the other sacred traditions of the world. All spiritual practices, if done sincerely, take a lot of effort and discipline. All scriptures, even the ones we can quote by heart are really very difficult to understand. Who can really say that they understand the creation story of Genesis or the visions of Revelation?  Who has found a way to respond to the sacrifice of Christ? Who has found their way back to Mt. Sinai?  Each of these things is as impossible and unattainable as Buddhism.

We have found ways of incorporating these “impossible” narratives and prophecies into our thoughts and thereby have made our religions much less challenging, more possible as it were. We are always trying to make sense out of things so we can go on with our lives. It is uncomfortable to live with a question about ourselves and the world that will not go away. Although a religion may give us comfort while we grapple with these deep questions, it should never make us feel comfortable.  It should not provide us with answers but should instead deepen our questions.  Deep questioning and doubt must saturate our being.  Hakuin said, At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully.

Addressing how his contemporaries were leading comfortable Christian lives, Soren Kierkegaard spent his entire philosophical career trying to make Christianity “difficult” and foreign. He tried to make the life and teaching of Jesus unknown again. We are fortunate to be living at a time when Buddhism has not yet been acclimated to our usual way of understanding things. Buddhism still seems foreign to us and so makes us feel unknown again.

So, we vow to save all beings, end all delusions, enter all Dharma gates, and attain the Buddha Way, not because this makes sense, not because it makes us comfortable, but because it challenges us to live in a new way. We chant, form is emptiness, emptiness is form, not because we understand it, but because it stops our over active intellect from trying to make sense of everything. It puts our lives into question as we struggle to find a relationship to the unknown. Anything less would be to try to put a limit on what is essentially limitless. We must do the impossible.



From → Zen Buddhism

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