Sunday, May 20, 2007

What is expected, what is required?

When you recite the Bodhisattva vows, what is expected? What is required? I am going to put it right out there that you should not take my pondering of these questions at face value. If you really need an answer to this, please(!) seek out a Dharma teacher such as a Buddhist monk or priest. Anyway, I was thinking about how in some Buddhist services there are often chanting/recitation portions, and in Mahayana traditions these likely include some form of the Bodhisattva vows. Now it is also true that not everyone who goes to such services strictly consider themselves Buddhist nor do they necessarily aspire to directly following the Bodhisattva path. I was considering how this could be off-putting to some, especially those who are first-timers who may simply be exploring Buddhism.

After all, in many sacred traditions, such vows and some ceremonies and rituals are considered very serious. Those who do not truly believe are even encouraged not to participate (Communion Service in Christianity comes to mind). Now, obviously no one has to do anything they don't want to in any kind of Buddhist service I've ever heard of, and many people will feel like going along with the service even if they do not take everything they say in the recitations and chanting with deadly seriousness. Still, this question provoked me to wonder what my own thoughts were about the importance of the Bodhisattva vows, and what I might say to someone who had such concerns. I wondered what I would say not because I am in a position to dispense such advice to others (see the bold text above) but because I wondered what I really thought about the issue.

So what did I find out? My first reaction was that no one is going to follow a visitor (or even a regular) at a Buddhist service around to see if you are living up to the vows (which would be fruitless as well as creepy), and hopefully no one is going to kick you out of a service open to the public unless you super-pinky swear to actually and totally believe everything being said and base your whole life on it. This was mingled with another reaction - any vows are only as powerful as the intent and follow-through of the person making them. You can vow anything you like, but what you do about it is up to you. These seemed like the makings of a reasonable answer. Then something else occurred to me.

If you just spent some amount of time doing other practices, such as seated, walking or working meditation, or some form of visualization, or chanting, etc, then you have already helped to fulfill the vows of the Bodhisattva. The recitation of the vows is just the vocalization of the efforts you have/are about to make through participating in other exercises, including things such as listening to a dharma talk. So, then, no, you would not be a hypocrite in reciting the vows even if you don't consider yourself a Buddhist, because even that act is part of the work of liberating sentient beings. However, if you take the vows seriously and want to take a more direct and active role in pursuing the Bodhisattva path, if you truly want to dedicate yourself to working toward the complete enlightenment of all beings, then what is required? What must you give? What must you part with? Only everything.

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