The Bodhisattva Vow-the whole thing is hopeless, but we’ll do it

John Daido Loori

A hazy autumn moon, solitary and full,

falls as it may on the winding river ahead.

There are those who seek perfect clarity,

yet sweep as you may, you cannot empty the mind.

(The Capping Verse to Dongshan and Shenshan Cross the River)

“You can’t teach someone to walk a tightrope wire by telling them to move their muscles a certain way. The only way to learn is by doing it. Somehow your body acclimates to it, your mind learns, and it seeps into your subconscious. It happens all at once. Is the Dharma any different? Of course you’re going to fail; step after step after step. Yet you will learn every time you fail. You say you’re going to stay with the breath, and pretty soon you start chasing after thoughts. You acknowledge your distraction, you let it go, and you come back to the breath. You keep doing this until you’re able to stay with the breath. After a while you get pretty good at it, but all of a sudden you seem to be back to square one and you can’t stay focused for even five seconds. Your mind is all over the place. Then it comes back.

Repeated practice creates learning. Repeated mistakes create learning. That is why Mistake is in reality called learning. The state of no-mistake is called nowness. It is called “now.” It is called “thus.” In nowness there is no before; there is no after. There are no goals, no agendas, no fixed direction. There is just the moment. It arrives as it departs, simultaneously. It has no before or after. It is so difficult for us to grasp this truth. We need goals. We want agendas. We crave direction. The notion of wandering aimlessly is very frightening for most of us…

The state of no-mistake is called nowness. In nowness there is no before or after, no goals, agendas, or fixed direction. Like the meandering river, it twists and turns in accord with circumstances, but always knows how to find its way to the great ocean. When you are on the river, you may be paddling north for an hour, and suddenly there’ll be a bend up ahead. When you look at your compass, you see you’re going south. You may have to go the same length, except now you’re paddling in the opposite direction. Then you go east, then you go west, then north again. Is the river making a mistake on its journey to the ocean?

Should the river be like a pipeline, one straight channel without bends or curves? Think of a river flowing through the forest. It is all curves and bends. It changes from season to season. When trees fall down and block it up, it rises up behind them, opening a new path. It twists and turns in accord with circumstances. It responds spontaneously, dealing with each moment as it comes up. Ultimately, the river will make its way to the great ocean.

If you wish to travel like this you must go alone. Alone. Not lonely, but alone. All one, containing everything. And not carry any baggage. Put down the backpack, take off the blinders. Whatever you are carrying will affect what you do. Most importantly, You must trust yourself implicitly. Give yourself permission to be yourself.

The capping verse: A hazy autumn moon, solitary and full, falls as it may on the winding river ahead. It falls as it may, randomly. In its haziness, it is not controlled. The hazy moon of enlightenment is imperfect. Anuttara-samyaksambodhi is imperfect. It has pimples and bumps.

It is the Tenth Ox-herding Picture with the old sagely guy stumbling through the marketplace with a bag on his back. He is laughing at falling leaves, playing with children. This is a step beyond the crystal-clear moon of enlightenment. Dogen says, “No trace of enlightenment remains, and this traceless enlightenment continues endlessly.” There are those who seek perfect clarity, yet sweep as you may, you cannot empty the mind. Keizan Zenji said that. Sweeping itself can sometimes fill the mind. The simple activity of emptying fills it.

Remember, the whole thing is hopeless. Taking care of the environment is hopeless, but we’ll do it. Achieving enlightenment is hopeless, but we’ll do it. Clarifying the mind, emptying the mind — impossible. We’ll do it. Just like the Four Vows say: “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” How in the world are we going to do that, if they’re numberless? “Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them. The dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them. The Buddha Way is unattainable, I vow to attain it.” Utterly hopeless. Yet we’re doing it.

We are Don Quixotes, jousting with windmills. That is our practice. The apparent impossibility does not make one bit of difference in our resolve. What is required is the kind of tenacity, the kind of vow that comes out of this practice. Imperfections notwithstanding, we will ultimately take care of this earth, and of each other. That is our vow.”

From Commentary from a Dharma Discourse by Roshi John Daido Loori on Dongshan and Shenshan Cross the River


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

2 Responses to “The Bodhisattva Vow-the whole thing is hopeless, but we’ll do it”

  1. “Sweep as you may, you cannot empty the mind.” For me that is a fundamental statement of my practice today, a good day. Things are on my mind, yet with zazen I do not seek to eliminate them. My breath sweeps, yet I am not trying to empty the mind. These thought-forms are fundamentally empty, they emerge from emptiness.

    Another way I have been expressing this in recent weeks is “Patience includes impatience.” So I have a button pushed, my impatience causes my mood to shift. My patience allows this impatience. Same with anger. Peace allows for anger. This is my work at age 54, 17 years zen practice, 37 years yoga.

    Thanks for Metta Refuge, it is my home page on Safari, I need to start reading the posts more!

  2. Beautiful, Steven. By it, I’m reminded that it is not so much the outcome that bears the import, but what we become during the process.

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