By: Mn. Dr. Brian Jin-Deng Kenna
Living By Vow written by Shohaku Okumura is a wonderful guidebook for any Zen Buddhist Practitioner. Master Okumura has brought the Zen Master out of Japan and into our living room as he weaves some of the common Soto Zen chants and text around the core Buddhist principals as reflected in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Okumura uses his vast knowledge of the Japanese language, customs and culture, mixed into a blender with his years of experience teaching in the West to produce a book that is both practical and relevant for a Buddhist practice in the 21st Century.
Starting with the Bodhisattva Vows, Okumura covers 8 of the chants and vows most central to Soto Zen, and by extension, the Mahayana tradition. Within each chapter of Living by Vow, Okumura provides lessons based on his years of experience and understanding of Buddhist principals. As he gives us a history lesson of the meaning of the English, Japanese and Sanskrit words, and relating them to different legacy teachers interpretations and lessons, or his own, he is breathing new life into chants whose words can become stale over time.
Okumura dedicates 75 pages to the chapter on the Heart Sutta. One of the core fundamental Suttas in Zen Buddhism, yet one of the most difficult to really and truly comprehend. Perhaps a quote from this particular chapter will bring this review full circle:
“In Bodhisattva practice we try to see the reality before separation. When we see the reality of our life, we find that we are not living as an individual substance but are more like a phantom, a bubble, or a flash of lightning, as the Diamond Sutra says. We are phenomena caused by many different elements and factors. We live with the support of all beings. This dynamic interpenetration works constantly. Nothing exists independently. We live together in this universal movement. Our existence is movement. We have to accept this ever-changing reality as our self.” 1 (pg. 189)
As the title states, this is a practical book. Okumura is giving us direct instructions and ways and means that support all aspects of our Buddhist practice. From chanting, to meditation, to making the vows we take real and personal. Not just static words that are recited at a ceremony, but vows and lessons that we should take with us on our personal journey each and every day.
I would absolutely recommend this book for both beginners and advanced practitioners alike. It is a book that one will want to read many times for the important insights on the human condition and Zen practice it contains. If you desire to become more intimate with your Zen practice this book will become a regular source of knowledge and encouragement.
1 Living By Vow, by Shohaku Okumura and Edited by Dave Ellison. Wisdom Publications 2012