Gan ~ GS16, 10th February 2021 (Transcription)

I’d like to say something about gan 願. Gan is a Japanese word which is usually translated as “vow”. So, we have the bodhisattva vow. It could also be translated a “prayer” or “aspiration”. So, the ultimate gan is “Gan ga sa butsu: I vow to become a Buddha.” This line appears in Tanbutsu Ge.

Now, in Pureland we have the sense that you’re only probably going to become a Buddha through the influence of another Buddha. You need to be in the presence of a Buddha to become a Buddha. It’s a bit like a piece of iron being magnetised by another piece of iron that’s already a magnet. So, this being in the presence is very important, and, of course, this carries over into our practice: being in the presence of the teacher, going to teachings, going on retreat and so on. All of this is a form of being in the presence.

But, of course, being in the best presence would be being in the presence of Amida Buddha. We aspire, we have a vow, we have a prayer to be born in the presence of Amida Buddha, in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha. This gan is the nembutsu: Namo Amida Bu. “I aspire to be born in the presence of Amida Buddha”. And in trying to live this gan, we try to turn every element of life into a situation where we are entering into the presence of Amida Buddha.

Of course, in life, in ordinary life, there are many kinds of vows, many kinds of prayers. Many of the prayers that people make are nowhere near as elevated as the prayer to become a Buddha. We might pray for good health; we might pray for wealth and happiness. Some people might even pray for the death of their enemies and other things that might not be wholesome at all.

Life often is regulated by implicit vows. Many of the psychological problems that people have are because at some stage of their life they have implicitly made some sort of vow, perhaps a vow never to let such and such a thing happen to them again, maybe a vow to get revenge on their enemy, or whatever. So, people live out these aspirations, these intentions that have often been made at some time of crisis in their life. Something awful happened to them and they vowed never to let it happen again. Perhaps they don’t do this consciously, but it’s there in the mind.

So, the bodhisattva vow, the vows of a spiritual practitioner, these are vows that displace existing less wonderful vows. So, in a sense, in making a bodhisattva vow one is setting up a condition that ultimately will defeat the existing conditionality. It is like driving out one peg with another peg.

So, vows play an important part in Buddhist practice. Traditionally, we have the bodhisattva vow:

However numerous sentient beings may be, I vow to save them all.
Whatever teachings there may be, I vow to master them all.

This is a vow to be unconditional in one’s actions. So, the vow is a kind of condition, but it’s a condition that defeats conditionality. And the best vow: Gang ga sa butsu! - One day I will be a Buddha - and, in order for that happen, I must bring Amida into my life. So, Namo Amida Bu, Namo Amida Bu!

Thank you very much


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