The Four Great Vows

A Series of Dharma Talks by Ven. Shikai Zuiko o-sensei

1: All Beings

by Ven. Shikai Zuiko o-sensei

Dainen-ji, October 18th, 1997

[Following three strikes of the gong, the Godo chants "The Four Great Vows" in Japanese and then in English]:

Shi Gu Sei Gan
SHU JO MU HEN SEI GAN DO
BON NO MU JIN SEI GAN DAN
HO MON MU RYO SEI GAN GAKU
BUTSUDO MU JO SEI GAN JO

[One gong strike]

All beings without number I vow to liberate.
Endless obsessions I vow to release.
Dharma Gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate.
Limitless awakening I vow to unfold.

[Three gong strikes]

The "Shi Gu Sei Gan: The Four Great Vows", is chanted in this monastery and in many, if not all, other Zen monasteries to end formal sittings. Here at Dainen-ji, we chant this at the end of the formal sitting in the morning and we chant it at the end of the formal sitting in the evening. We chant "The Four Great Vows" during sesshin, at the end of oryoki. Some of you have attended the formal sittings and some of you have heard "The Four Great Vows" chanted before. And some of you have chanted "The Four Great Vows" yourself or with the Sangha. For example "The Four Great Vows" are chanted by students doing retreats.

Chanting, of course, is a form of practice and, as with any of the forms, chanting is an opportunity to align body, breath, speech and mind with the Teacher and the Teachings, the Lineage, and with this moment. This Saturday morning we are in the Hatto at Dainen-ji. The Hatto is completely full today; every zabuton and zafu is occupied and we are sitting zazen.

Now if zazen were all that there were to practise then that would be convenient. Zazen is essential to practice but it is not the only form. As associate students and general students, you are already familiar with other forms of practice: you are familiar with kinhin, practise whilst walking or walking practice; you bow in gassho monjin at the entrance to the Hatto, yet another opportunity to see how you are. Chanting practice is a bit different in that what we're doing is making sounds and although Anzan Hoshin sensei has said that we could chant the phone book and still make very good use of that form of practice, we actually chant, particularly in the case of "The Four Great Vows", words which actually show us what it is we are doing when we are practicing, actually instruct us in how to practise.

Our topic is "The Four Great Vows". I hope that it will be useful to start by explaining what "The Four Great Vows" are not. "The Four Great Vows" are not a creed, they are not a dogma, they are not an article of faith, nor are they prayers or hymns. This is a vow and a vow is a solemn promise to do something. In the case of this practice, each time we chant or hear "The Four Great Vows" we are vowing to practise and Wake Up to who and what this is, to who and what this life that is living us all is.

"The Four Great Vows" provide us with instruction and a reminder of that instruction, a reminder of what we are doing. Now, what we understand of "The Four Great Vows", of course, will depend on what we understand of practice. Zen Master Anzan Hoshin's understanding and practice and expression of "The Four Great Vows" will necessarily be vaster than yours. Next year or perhaps if you become a general student or a probationary formal student or formal student or take lay monk's vows, you will be doing this because your understanding of the vows is deeper and therefore your understanding of your practice is deeper. And because your practice is deeper, your understanding of what is being spoken of each time you hear "The Four Great Vows", is deeper and different and vaster. Something that I believe to be the case is that each one of us sitting here has come to practice, has sought instruction because there was a realization of the truth of "The Four Great Vows". We may not have known what the words were but there was something that we knew, that when we hear "The Four Great Vows" makes us perhaps go "Yes! Yes! That's it!"

It would be useful at this point if we were all to have a look at "The Four Great Vows". So if you direct your eyes down to your right knee, you will see your chanting text. Please notice how the chanting text is placed so that you can return it to exactly the same place so that you do not cause anyone else, the next person to come along any entanglement because of how you have had a lapse of attention. Now lift the text up and turn to page 15.

[Students pick up texts]

So we will just read through this. I will read and you can follow along just with your eyes.

Shi Gu Sei Gan: The Four Great Vows
SHU JO MU HEN SEI GAN DO
BON NO MU JIN SEI GAN DAN
HO MON MU RYO SEI GAN GAKU
BUTSUDO MU JO SEI GAN JO

And in English,

All beings without number I vow to liberate.
Endless obsessions I vow to release.
Dharma Gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate.
Limitless awakening I vow to unfold.

So now you can put your text down and should you attend a formal sitting you will know how to pick up the text. You will know that the text should be placed so that the cover without the printing on it is facing out and you will know that page 15 is the page upon which "The Four Great Vows" is printed.

As you also know from reading "Before Thinking" and in particular Anzan sensei's teisho, "The Five Styles of Zen", the fourth mode of Zen practice is "Daijo Zen" which is the practice of the "Mahayana" or the "Great and Open Way ". As Anzan Sensei says,

"This way embraces everything that is arising for us and is not simply concerned with our own liberation but recognizes that the liberation of all beings is inseparable from our own because we are inseparable from all beings and work for that liberation".

The whole of the Mahayana is embodied in the "Shi Gu Sei Gan: The Four Great Vows". But you don't just memorize them then spout them forth. As the Sensei says, we embody them. We are those vows; that is what we do.

Today we're looking at the first line, the first vow: "All beings without number I vow to liberate." And that raises questions. It shows that in the Mahayana, the Great and Open Way , practice is not just for your own benefit but it is for the benefit of all beings. Now we do understand that how we are - how you are - affects everybody else and the way everybody else is affects us - affects you - and there is no clear line separating us from everything else. There couldn't be. Someone twitches in the Hatto and we feel it. We might twitch as well. Someone breathes next to us and we find ourselves affected by it. We notice a presencing of experiencing, a movement of knowing. Perhaps we notice ourselves becoming edgy or irritated. Our attention starts to move towards that and we find ourselves becoming something or something coming into being; something that's irritated.

The first great vow reminds us that "All beings without number I vow to liberate". At the moment of noticing that becoming, that coming into being of a separate self, a self that is separate from everyone and everything else (which of course is impossible; each thing does make everything else what it is)...at the moment of noticing that becoming, that coming into being, we have noticed something about our experiencing and we practise mindfulness of breath in that moment, As attention ceases to move towards that being, that becoming, that being is liberated, it is released. All other beings in the Hatto are of course liberated from the possible effects of that irritated being. Moment after moment we practise "The Four Great Vows" for just as all the Mahayana is contained in "The Four Great Vows", all of practice is spoken of in each Great Vow and each Great Vow speaks of the other three. They are all talking about Awakening, about Waking Up, about recognizing that you are Buddha in this moment and this moment and the next.

Continuing our investigation of the first of "The Four Great Vows": "All beings without number"? Wow! Is that even possible? Now hold on! What exactly is a being? OK, I can understand the movement of attention into becoming something that is irritated at the person next to me..."

But that's not all it is. It can also mean recognizing when someone else is stuck and offering our help, knowing that perhaps they have other things to do which you can't do and doing what you can do, can help free them, can help them do something else that will be of benefit to someone else. So it reminds us to pay attention to those around. But it also means paying attention to anything, any presencing, any moment of knowing - colours, forms, sounds - they come into being and then are gone. We can't hang onto them. By noticing we can only liberate. By noticing and practising we can notice that there is more and more available to us.

Practice is also about taking responsibility. Taking responsibility means looking at what we do and how we do it and looking at how we are. There are many facets to this taking responsibility and to this liberating of beings; it's not as simple as it sounds. In the newspapers recently there have been a number of articles about laboratory animals. Now, liberating beings doesn't mean storming a lab and releasing the lab animals and indeed, when we think about it, we can recognize very clearly that that can cause more suffering for the very creatures whose suffering we wish to ease. By releasing animals into a world of which they have no knowledge we perhaps are putting them at greater danger.

There is a story that I heard some time ago and it was about a chimpanzee. This is when there was a lot of money available in the United States in particular for interspecies study and the study of the communication between species. There were chimps who had been taught to sign.

One particular chimp, Lucy, had been, since she was very young, in a lab with her person. And this person was like a mother to her, had raised her, cared for her, and taught her language. Well, the money ran out and the experiment came to an end and the people and the person who had raised and cared for and taught Lucy decided after a great deal of thought, because they were certainly not uncaring people, that the best thing for all concerned was to send Lucy to a retirement camp, a camp specifically for chimpanzee who had been retired from labs and from zoos and other human endeavors really, in her country of origin which was in Africa. Lucy had a very difficult time and the reports were that although the other animals were of her own species, they were strangers to her. They were savages and, by her standards, illiterate. So she took to hanging about the periphery, near the fence, spending most of her time alone. And she was there for about six years.

The people, particularly the person who had cared for her, came to that country to visit and they went to see Lucy. Lucy saw them and recognized the woman who had cared for her immediately and she went over to the fence and looked at her with pleading eyes and signed to her: "HELP - HOME".

We must be very careful of everything that we do. We need to understand what our practice is because as Anzan Sensei says "If we do not understand our practice we will practise our misunderstanding." With the first great vow: "All beings without number I vow to liberate" you have a template; you have something that you can use during this coming week to look at how you are, how beings are, to notice interactions that you may previously have not noticed.

"The Four Great Vows" are useful for what they are not because what they are not, teaches us. "The Four Great Vows" are not rules, they are not there to help you generate a feeling tone about being a person who liberates beings; they are not a strategy of how to be. They are instruction. Each of the Great Vows is talking about the same thing; releasing colours, forms, sounds, thoughts, feelings, all beings, into liberation. Practice is growing up, taking responsibility for being a real human being.

The Sensei says in Five Styles of Zen "Being human means dignity, compassion; realizing that one's life is the life of all beings".

Next week we'll look at the second of "The Four Great Vows": "Endless obsessions I vow to release."

Thank you for listening.

[With three strikes of the gong, the Godo chants]:

All beings without number I vow to liberate.
Endless obsessions I vow to release.
Dharma Gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate.
Limitless awakening I vow to unfold.

2: Endless Obsessions

by Ven. Shikai Zuiko o-sensei

Dainen-ji, October 25th, 1997

Welcome. You've come back! And for the same reason you came to practice in the first place. There was recognition of the truth of the Teachings, the truth that is made explicit by "The Four Great Vows".

As you walked through the nippy October air there may have been thoughts about what you'd rather be doing, perhaps there might have been an occasional thought about how inconvenient it is to come on a Saturday morning to practise. As I mentioned last week, it would be "convenient" if the only form of practice was zazen. Then, of course, we would only practise when we were sitting. It would be "convenient" if we could isolate practice to something fixed. Anzan Hoshin sensei says that "in order for our practice to be the embodiment of reality, we must release our divisions between self and other, this and that, formal and informal practice".

The forms of practice are forms for the practice of reality: Chanting is speaking, kinhin is walking, oryoki is eating, zazen is sitting. The forms are a means to embody reality. "The Four Great Vows" speak of how we embody the open formless space of who we are.

[Following three strikes on the gong the Godo chants]:

All beings without number I vow to liberate.
Endless obsessions I vow to release.
Dharma Gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate.
Limitless awakening I vow to unfold.

[Two gong strikes]

As we discovered last week one way of looking at "The Four Great Vows" is to see that each vow speaks of the same thing but in a different way. After last week's examination of the first Great Vow, "All beings without number I vow to liberate", a student remarked that perhaps the first vow should be the last because only after releasing obsessions, penetrating Dharma Gates and unfolding limitless Awakenings are we able to practise the first Great Vow to liberate all beings. In discussing this Zen Master Anzan Hoshin said that another way of looking at this matter of "The Four Great Vows" is that the first vow is the fundamental vow to realize who we and all beings are and the next three vows speak of how we do this.

Practice is the practice of our life as it arises moment-to-moment. As the Sensei says in "Before Thinking: Beyond Convenience", "Our life is very simple, very direct, very beautiful, very vast and very terrifying, but it is not at all convenient."

Your life inconveniently presents itself and practice inconveniently presents itself when you are walking, working, in the bathroom, talking to someone, watching television; not just when you're sitting zazen. But zazen is the form that allows us to look into this moment-to-moment arising that shows us how we are. Because our life is so vast and so terrifying, one of the things that self-image will do is to try to make experiencing controllable in the mistaken belief that it is possible to control our life; one thing that self image will do is to occupy itself with obsessions and obsessions are numberless.

As the vow states, the second of the great vows: "Endless obsessions I vow to release." Now, obsession is the act of obsessing or the state of being obsessed. Obsessed is to be preoccupied, haunted, to fill the mind continually, to take control of, to torment, dominate, grip, possess, hold, plague. An obsession is a persistent idea or thought dominating a person's mind. Interestingly, the word "obsess", which means "beset" or as a "besieging force", is from the Latin "obsedare" which means "to sit down before." So it is as though we have no choice but to sit down before these thoughts or rather to have these obsessions sit upon us, making us incapable of doing anything else. We human beings will obsess about anything: body parts, illness, dirt, germs, animal, hoarding, saving, repetition, counting, sexual fantasies, violence to self or other, horrifying images, a sense of unworthiness, a sense of poverty, a sense of superiority, doing things right. These are all thoughts, just as colours, sounds, music, names, titles, numbers, phrases, memories, unpleasant images, impulses to hurt, to harm, saying or not saying certain things, obsessing over needing to remember, over losing things, over the way the person next to us is breathing, are thoughts.

Practice, all the forms of practice, and especially when you are establishing mindfulness practice…zazen asks you to recognize that the reality of the presencing of these thoughts and provide you instruction on what to do. Zazen sits you down in front of what you believe to be uncontrollable, that which you believe has sat you down or sat down on you and immobilized you. By following instruction, by paying attention, you start to know a thought as a thought, a story as a story, an obsession as a thought with a story, and you start to understand because you can know this thought, this obsession. You start to understand, maybe just a little bit and maybe not all the time, what Anzan Sensei means when he says "There is nothing that knowing can be because only knowing is".

You are not that thought or obsession about who or what you are or what the world is. You remember to practise from time to time when you notice the presencing of a favourite obsession because you know you are not that. You feel the breath moving the body in and out, you see the seeing, hear the hearing, know other bodily sensation and that obsessions is released into the vast expanse of Knowing. You have embodied the second of "The Four Great Vows": "Endless obsessions I vow to release".

"Endless obsession" - Endless! Now "endless" can seem to present a daunting and a formidable, impossible task. But what it really means is: Don't try to put an end to them otherwise you have a story about what you would be, what you would be like, without those obsessions. As Anzan Sensei says "When obsessions cease we don't even notice because we're not obsessed with defining ourselves in any way".

Next week the third of the great vows: "Dharma Gates without number I vow to penetrate".

Thank you for listening.

[Following two strikes on the gong, the Godo chants]:

Shi Gu Sei Gan
SHU JO MU HEN SEI GAN DO
BON NO MU JIN SEI GAN DAN
HO MON MU RYO SEI GAN GAKU
BUTSUDO MU JO SEI GAN JO

3: Dharma Gates

by Ven. Shikai Zuiko o-sensei

Dainen-ji, November 1st, 1997

The First Great Vow, "All Beings without number I vow to liberate", states our intention. The second, "Endless obsessions I vow to release", reminds us of what we are going to do. The third, "Dharma Gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate", again Teaches us, instructs us, as to what we will do.

"Dharma Gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate".

When we are obsessed, when we are dominated by our thoughts and feelings in a cycle that is seemingly endless, we can feel as if we are sat upon, as if we are squashed by the weight of our obsessions. All we need to do is to sit up; to sit up straight in zazen.

Sitting up straight, Dharma Gates open everywhere; reality presents itself everywhere. Being sat down upon by obsession is like having a monkey on our back, but by just sitting up straight whatever tries to sit upon us just slides off. When we sit up straight in the posture of zazen, in balance point, everything slides off.

Following this thought, that thought, the body bows and sways with the disposition of attention. Coming back to where we are, right now, right here, we just sit up straight without trying to shrug anything off or put anything on. When we sit up straight richness presents itself; infinite opportunities of the moment present themselves; Dharma Gates. We recognize that how we understand and how we misunderstand are all opportunities to be entered into.

In "The Four Gates of Zen Practice", Zen Master Anzan Hoshin defines "Dharma" in Sanskrit, "Dhamma" in Pali, and "Ho" in Japanese, as having many levels of meaning. When the "d" is in small case, "dharma", "dhamma", means "phenomena, mental events, things, experience". When the "D" is capitalized, or the word Dharma is used in conjunction with the word Buddha, it means the Way, or the Teachings. The Sensei says, in "Before Thinking", in the teisho entitled "Shamata and Vipashana", that in Zen we are concerned with the essence of "Buddhadharma". "Buddhadharma" means "The Way of Waking Up". The way of experiencing directly what our life is, and the way of penetrating into what it is that is experiencing it. And so we sit up straight in zazen.

There are so many dharmas arising and falling, moment after moment, that there is no need to measure them or count them. That would be impossible. So, Dharma Gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate.

The tradition says that there are one thousand and eight Gates to reality. As the Sensei says, "One thousand and eight Dharma Gates: Why one thousand and eight? Picture one thing. Now picture two things; four things; eight things; sixteen things; thirty-two things. You can't. One thousand and eight simply means numberless, infinite". And so as we sit in the posture of zazen, these numberless, infinite Dharma Gates present themselves; colours, forms, sounds, thoughts, feelings, memories, sadness, anger, hope, fear, a pain in the knee.

This third of "The Four Great Vows" calls us to penetrate each dharma, each moment, and we penetrate, we pierce each dharma with this posture of zazen, with kinhin, with teisho. We practise penetrating this moment with the needle of attention, penetrating this moment completely; the breath, sensations in the fingers and the toes, this moment, are all the tip of the needle. Penetrate; pierce so completely that there is no separation between body, mind and moment.

In the teisho "Needle in a Bag", Anzan Sensei says: "If we pierce this moment of hope and fear with the needle of zazen, with the needle of mindfulness, we are also pierced to the heart".

He goes on to say: "As we stitch together these moments of our lives with the needle of Wakefulness, we will find more and more that everything is unbound".

The Dharma, the Teachings of Reality, show us over and over again that reality is so rich. We are provided with endless opportunities to take responsibility for the treasury of who we are, to allow us to express this richness.

"Dharma Gates Beyond Measure I Vow to Penetrate".

Next week, the fourth of the Great Vows, "Limitless Awakening I Vow To Unfold".

Thank you for listening.

4: Limitless Awakening

by Ven. Shikai Zuiko osho

Dainen-ji, March 7th, 1998

All beings without number I vow to liberate.
Endless obsessions I vow to release.
Dharma Gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate.
Limitless Awakening, I vow to unfold.

The first of The Vows proclaims our intention to liberate all beings. The second and third speak of what we are going to do and of how we are going to do it. And the fourth, "Limitless Awakening I Vow to Unfold", reminds us that we will do this without limit, never stopping until all beings are liberated. This progressive relationship between the Four Vows is, of course, an interpretation we might find useful rather than how "The Four Great Vows" are formally structured.

Anzan Sensei says,

"In Zen we are concerned with the essence of Buddhadharma. Buddhadharma means The Way of Waking Up. The Way of experiencing directly what our life is, and the Way of penetrating into what it is that is experiencing it"

In "Needle in a Bag" Anzan Sensei instructs us to

"Pierce this moment of hope and fear with the needle of zazen, with the needle of mindfulness and then, as we stitch together these moments of our lives with the needle of Wakefulness, we will find more and more that everything is unbound."

As everything is unbound, released everywhere around as reality, practice must be unbound. Practice is simply seeing this moment, penetrating into this moment, not only on the zafu, not only in the Monastery, but in the street, in our homes, in our workplaces, on the toilet, shopping. Opportunities to practise, innumerable opportunities to practise present themselves moment after moment. Some opportunities are more attractive to self-image than others. The more attractive, invariably seem to be those which involve content, and the content found most interesting by self-image seems to be in the area of thoughts and feelings, story lines, self-obsessed film scripts, and novels about yourself: "How are you doing? How do you think the other person is doing? How do you think I'm doing? What do they mean? What's going on?"

Most of our day to day activity, however, necessarily involves questions of what to do about our everyday - and by definition - mundane or worldly activities such as shopping, cleaning, laundry, getting dressed, brushing our teeth, eating and shitting.

Did you replace the used up toilet paper roll? Or were you so concerned with your own obsessions about what's going on that you were not even thinking about the next person who may use the washroom? Wake up! Did you leave your shoes askew, directly in the path of the door to be opened by the next person? Wake up! Did you notice a leaf lying on the floor of the entranceway and decide to ignore it? Wake up! Did someone bring you an egg and some toast, and rather than seeing the generosity of that moment did you choose to speak of why it wasn't appropriate? Wake up!

Did you notice a person behind you in the grocery line becoming agitated and irritated and you yourself become agitated and irritated in return thus helping them to propagate their state? Why not let them go before you? Why not just let go? Wake up!

As Anzan Sensei says, "It's everywhere. It is what you are. You are the richness of this moment and this moment, each and every moment is very rich."

Each moment presents beings to be liberated, obsessions to release, Dharma Gates to penetrate, limitless awakening to unfold. WAKE UP!!!

"Butsudo", "Buddhaway", the Sensei translates as "Limitless Awakening". Why? Well, it's not the Buddha's Way alone, but our Way as well - yours and mine - of Awakening to who we are. We are each and all Buddha. "Buddha": one who has Woken Up. It reminds us each time we hear the Vow that we must Wake Up. We must recognize when we are dreaming. Butsudo: The Way of Awakening. The Way goes out limitless past all horizons. Our Way embraces all beings through releasing our images of "self" and "other", "this" and "that", into the limitless and radiant expanse of Reality. Each moment, unfold, Wake Up.

A great bow to the Buddhas and Dharma Ancestors and to Zen Master Anzan Hoshin for the Teachings of the Buddhadharma, for the gift of the priceless jewel of practice and Awakening, for "The Four Great Vows".

All beings without number I vow to liberate.
Endless obsessions I vow to release.
Dharma Gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate.
Limitless Awakening, I vow to unfold.

Thank you for listening.