Summary of Faith & Practice Part 30
TEXT: we would be as the vow-body of Buddha
The term ‘vow’ here is a translation of the Japanese term ‘gan’. It could also be rendered as ‘prayer’ or ‘deep intention’. ‘Vow’ is perhaps too strong and ‘prayer’ too weak; too strong because of the implication of self-will and too weak because of that of complete impotence. In fact, one cannot bring about a result alone, unaided, but that does not mean there is nothing to do at all. Buddhism is a middle way.
We can reflect upon the fact that people in general have many implicit ‘vows’ or ‘scripts’. These are not enlightened vows, they are simply implicit resolve ’never to let such and such happen to me again’ or ‘to always do better than my sister’, or ‘to get revenge’, or 'to make my parents sorry', or whatever. Such ‘vows’ shape lives. They are not particularly rational - a person may go on, in a sense, trying 'to make his parents sorry' long after they are dead and buried. According to the implicit vows that a person is living, so do they become and such things are self-perpetuating unless and until disrupted. Such disruption may be by a shock or an inspiration or some combination of the two. Sometimes therapy can help a person to change their vows. Religion too. Buddhism invites us to take refuge in the most perfect resolve to ‘save all sentient beings’. This text makes us aware that we can live or adopt such a script or vow even without fully knowing what it means or implies.
In the Tan Butsu Ge we find the line ‘Gan ga sa butsu’, meaning ‘my vow/prayer [is to] become Buddha’. In Buddhism, intention is considered to be hugely important. Wrong intention generates karma. Right intention frees one from karma. A Buddha is somebody who has awakened spiritually in a way that fills them with right intention, or, we might say, releases their right intention.
Actually, we are told in the sutras that the way to attain Buddhahood is to make offerings to innumerable Buddhas. If we were freed from our karmic obstacle this is what we would be doing. Every act would be an offering to one Buddha or another. Relying upon other power does not make one passive - it gives one the freedom to act and the confidence to do so.
The action of a Buddha is not stereotyped. A person of pure intention does not advertise the fact, and is not necessarily found occupying a particular role, nor wearing a ‘Buddha label’. It is possible that he might lead a Dharma centre, but she might be a shopkeeper or a gardener. Right intention takes different forms according to need and circumstance. To live by vow is not pretentious.
Vow intention matures, even far into the future. Vow is not wasted. We can consider a pure vow as like a seed - like tathagatagarbha. It will grow, mature, ripen. It will bear fruit. Mostly this process will occur unconsciously. Since right intention does not feed karma it can go completely unnoticed, yet is immensely powerful.
Pure intention is transmitted by inspiration. When one is grasped by the tathagata one is changed in a deep way. In the performance of religion we enact the forms. We make vows. We keep precepts. We make offerings. These actions are all good and bring good results. However, they may still be be ordinary acts or they may be ‘paramitas’. An act is paramita when it is performed in a way that is spontaneous and deeply felt as a result of a pure inspiration.
Thus it is right intention that is transmitted. This is as the way that a piece of iron becomes a magnet by being in the presence of another magnet. In effect Buddhas teach largely by example. Shakyamuni aimed to create a cadre of arhats who would be ‘worthy’ and so have a leavening effect upon society, but he did not expect anything of his followers that he did not do himself.
Thus, there is a sense in which we can and do become part of the body of Buddha when we are suitably inspired and have faith, since, without any particular consciousness of it being so, we do become part of the Buddha's intention. However, at the same time, we are still creatures of karma. Thus, the good that we do is not really our own.Becoming conscious of karmic obstruction thus becomes an antidote to pride which is itself the most potent obstacle to spiritual awakening.