When I Took Bodhisattva Vows I Did Not Promise To Look At The Bright Side by Miriam Sagan

When I Took Bodhisattva Vows I Did Not Promise To Look At The Bright Side

Organized religion has always exerted a push/pull on me. My father was a rabid and bossy atheist who forbid his children any religious or spiritual experience or expression. When I ran off to San Francisco I soon found myself at SF Zen Center, and then married to a Soto lineage monk. In my thirties I studied Judaism with a Hassidic woman teacher, learned a bit of Hebrew, and immersed in a mikvah. Then back to Buddhism—koans with the remarkable Joan Sutherland-roshi. And now, voila, an interfaith Beit Midrash torah study group led by a thoughtful rabbi.
I’m a lightweight ping-ponger by most standards…at best a seeker …at worst shallow. I even like my friends’ religions and find myself from time to time at the Christian Science Mother Church, singing along at Christ in the Desert, or deep in a discussion about Ramazan.
But I also can’t deny that certain experiences have been central, and compelling. I took Boddhisatva vows daily at SF Zen Center, at my first wedding ceremony (the second time I got married it was by ketuba!), and I still chant them as needed, even when I’m driving.

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them
The dharma gate is boundless, I vow to enter it
The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it

…or, variations…I vow to let them save me, The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable/I vow to become it…

In any case, those vows cannot be undone, nor would I wish to. I cannot be a person who never took these vows, in the same way I cannot be an “ex” Jew. Of course, I—or you—could spend a lifetime working with these vows. How does each bit function? What does that mean about today’s mundane tasks? Does this mean I shouldn’t be a drug pusher, or arms manufacturer (traditional Buddhist bans). Can a classroom teacher save all beings? And so on.

Here’s the thing, though. These vows are a promise to live consciously in ambiguity. To get a hold of my reactions, to not overstate the positive or the negative. It even has a name—The Middle Way. And the moderate ancient Greek philosophers would approve.

Which leads me to social media (#drinkthe hemlock?). Sometimes when I blog or post something that has some vulnerability for me, I wish I hadn’t. Because I need encouragement to stay in the middle. Whatever our current problem is, I don’t want to eat lotuses and say life is so delightful I can just ignore it, nor do I want to flip out and declare it the worst thing ever.

And, despite my vows, I’m just not that good at this. But since I knew the vows were impossible, I continue to take them.

7 thoughts on “When I Took Bodhisattva Vows I Did Not Promise To Look At The Bright Side by Miriam Sagan

  1. Interesting POV,however I want to share that born and bred in a fairly devout traditional Hindu family ,my parents taught me to respect all faiths and not proclaim that my religion is the best and has all the answers.I do not know the Middle way,or any’ way’,I just celebrate everything,whether it is Eid or Diwali ,Hannukah or Christmas and unfortunately I have been chided severely by some for wishing them a ‘Merry X’mas’ when they are Buddhists!
    So much for compassion!
    love and light,

  2. Hi Angelee–I really can’t defend any religion or its practioners. I think the association of religion & intolerance (which you were fortunate to be raised without!) has kept me from being particularly religious. However, my soul needs spirituality and experience…so I keep looking. I enjoyed hearing about how you were raised–it comes through in your writing.

  3. All my life I have struggled with the politics and demands of organized religion (my mother’s Holocaust experience caused great pain and guilt and joylessness). The great music and elegant ceremonies of faiths around the world cannot blot out the pain religion continues to impose. Even Buddhists — in my mind the most evolved of folk –are involved with cruelties now in Myanmar. How I admire the vows you took and the concept of the Middle Way. Since Trump was elected I find myself thinking truly evil thoughts that I have never harbored before, warlike thoughts, astoundingly shocking thoughts. I am nowhere near the middle way anymore. Still, it is beauty, art, love, that balances the scales in favor of the sanity of a middle way…

  4. I thing we can torture ourselves with straining toward the impossible (it’s certainly been one of my least useful pastimes), but we can also save ourselves (and maybe others) by straining toward the impossible. Maybe there’s a stronger relationship between the Middle Way and paradox than it first appears…

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