Living by Vow
by Robert Althouse

On Saturday, July 16 from 9am to 1 pm, Robert will teach "Living by Vow: Six Paramita Workshop. This is a wonderful opportunity for you to deepen your practice and learn about what it means to live a Zen-inspired life from a Zen Master.

In our Core Primer classes at Zen Life & Meditation Center, we teach that mindfulness is an intentional awareness that is embodied and without judgment. I'd like to explore with you the nature and power of intention. An intention can be semi-conscious, but as it becomes more explicit to you we could say it becomes a vow. You always have a choice. You can live by your impulses. You can live by whatever emotion is rising in your heart at the moment. Or you can live by larger principles that help frame and give your life meaning and purpose. 

If you pause for a moment and think about your own life, you'll realize you have many vows. If you're a parent, you vowed to be a good parent and raise your kids responsibly. If you got a degree in college you probably made a vow to yourself to finish school because sometimes it was not easy going. If you learned how to play a musical instrument you probably vowed to stick with it even though the practice periods were often boring and repetitive.  

And that's the power of living by vow. Vows help you channel and direct your energies towards what is meaningful for you. There are different kinds of vows. Some vows you may take because you suffered with something as a child and as a result you became a physician or a psychologist because you really wanted to help people heal from that suffering you experienced when you were younger. Some vows inspire you. Martin Luther King was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi vows to speak truth to power through nonviolent resistance. 

So there as many kinds of vows you have in your life. And one inspiring vow that comes from living a Zen-inspired life is the bodhisattva vow to liberate all sentient beings, or put another way to live your life for the sake of healing suffering wherever it resides in the human heart. This is a big, universal vow. For those who live their lives by this vow, there are six principles or practices called the Six Paramitas that we study and work with. They are  generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation and wisdom. These are six inexhaustible practices that help you activate and embody this bodhisattva vow and live a Zen-inspired life.

They help you be a more decent human being; to be larger when you're feeling small. They help you learn how to be less reactive in the face of challenging people and circumstances. They help you be more patient with some of the irritating details of your mundane life. They help you have more equanimity and compassion for a wider range of people around you. In short, these deeper kinds of practices that arise from an inspired vow to save all sentient beings, help point your compass to true north, to keep you on track and remind you of what is most important to you. 

You probably can recall times in your life when you were at sea or unanchored to vows. You were probably much more susceptible to other people's agendas or their charisma. They might have been fun to be with and they may have convinced you of the rightness of their points of view, but in the process you lost your own footing and started to feel lost, disoriented and perhaps depressed. 

So vows can anchor you in your own deepest embodied knowing; an intuitive aspiration that is unique to you and no one else. You vowed to learn to dance hula. You vowed to be a poet or a writer. You vowed to raise children as best as you possibly could. You vowed to be a teacher and be the best you could be for your students. 

Someone once asked my root teacher, Maezumi Roshi, "Christians believe in a soul that continues after this life. Do Buddhist believe in something permanent that continues after death?" Maezumi Roshi thought about the question and said, "No" But then he added, "Rather, we believe in vow."