Midwest Sangha Weekend: Talk on the Four Vows 1

Dharma talk given in Kansas, at the Kwan Um Midwest Sangha Weekend, April 12–14, 2019

Thank you for four mistakes. When it works from the outside in, it provides a useful architecture, but it’s not yours. It’s something that holds you up. When it springs from the inside out, it doesn’t matter how you say it, it’s how we live it.

            I’m supposed to talk about the first vow, but I can’t explain it because it’s not something you understand. And I can’t give instructions because I don’t think it’s something we do. Maybe it has something to do with how we live in the space that we are currently in. So that doesn’t belong to me, other than for me. And it belongs to you, for you. To the degree that we completely own that, then the vows are complete. And to the degree that we’re borrowing that, if we borrow it wisely, it’s good external architecture to give some space for it to spring from the inside.

            The translation we use—“Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all”—sounds like we’re doing something for somebody or doing something to somebody or doing something at somebody or even doing something. And of course, we’re always doing something, but maybe we’re doing too much.

            We translate jung saeng as “sentient beings,” but apparently it just means “many beings.” Mu byon means “endless,” and so won do is about helping you cross to the other side. Baker Roshi at San Francisco Zen Center mentioned a translation that said, “Being is without end; I vow to be with it.”

            The vows sound beautiful. And they are in some way, but what’s more beautiful is when it springs from you.

Here are a couple of things about how I approach it, because I think that’s all I’m qualified to say. One aspect is that I’m starting to learn how to receive others as my teacher. And, so that makes me a student. And if I’m a student, then in that mindset there’s some quality of generosity and gratitude and receptiveness and kindness and engagement and listening and receiving and giving, because that lives in the mind of a student. That would make everybody else my teacher. If you’re my teacher, then you save me, and if you’re the person who saves me then you’re a bodhisattva. So if I live in a way that allows other people to be bodhisattvas for me then I’ve already saved all beings. Does it really work like that?

            Somebody once asked me, “Sentient beings are numberless: what does that mean?” I asked “Why do you make sentient beings suffer?” If we don’t make sentient beings suffer, then we’re saving them from us. And that’s kind of all I have the power to do. If I do it at all, that’s because I have a little bit more authority over that than over you.

Hui-Neng once said that this vow doesn’t mean that “I, Hui-Neng, save you, sentient beings.” It means “The sentient beings in my mind of their own accord return to their fundamental nature.” If you splash water and it goes up, then it goes down by itself. It never wasn’t water, and it does return to its waterness.

            Whatever we create in our mind has life; we just gave it life. There are countless sentient beings in my immediate world that I’m creating and participating with, and now they have life. If I allow those to express and return to fundamental nature, then they’re already saved.

            So I practice relating in that way, letting my mind already be on the other shore. And maybe that’s a gift. And maybe that’s all I have the power to give. Because then if Stan teaches me Stan, and Judy teaches me Judy, and Thom teaches me Thom, I have some capacity to relate to them as they are, because they’re helping me learn what that is.

            All we have is how we live and occupy this moment. If we embrace that with the full depth of its meaning, then that vow takes care of itself.


Read the other talks on the Four Vows given with this one:

Talk by Zen Master Jok Um

Talk by Zen Master Ji Haeng

Talk by Zen Master Bon Hae