Tag Archives: Bodhisattva vows

Book Review: Living by Vow

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

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Vows and Duty: Guiding Principles For A Buddhist Monk

David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I generally avoid making a distinction between a lay practice and the refined-life-practice of a Buddhist monk in a public discussion.  While the roles within a Buddhist community and the Sangha leadership may have different aspects and responsibilities, the depth and wisdom between a lay and monastic practice can be much the same depending on individual commitment and capacity for understanding.  From a Western point of view, many contemporary Buddhist teachers avoid defining a Sangha as only a community of monks/nuns, but take a pluralistic position that is inclusive.   This is a useful and productive attitude that recognizes the values imbedded in the principles of our interdependence and interconnectedness.

However, there is an aspect to a life dedicated to the Bodhisattva ideal that is undertaken when one takes formal vows and commits themselves to living as monks, either as temple-monks or itinerant-monks.  The intentional action to submit to a monastic life of purpose is unique and enhances an individual practice beyond a specific defined role.   It is this unique motivation and life that I would like to present today.  I address my thoughts to those individuals that have taken, or are in training to take, the step of professing monastic vows.  Although many of the lessons here can be adopted into a lay practice as well.

First and foremost, becoming a monk (I wish to use the term to include both men and women) is not to adopt a different type of practice from a lay one.  A Buddhist practice, is a Buddhist practice.  Wearing monk robes does not change that.  What makes a difference is “how we are” as we live within the monastic tradition.  Of course having the time to devote to a dedicated practice without some of the worldly distractions is an additional element for a monastic life.  So, the question that arises is, “What makes one a monastic?”   The Christian tradition has a nice answer to this question that revolves around a “special calling and religious vocation.”  We Buddhist generally don’t use these phrases to explain why one comes to understand their desire to become a monk.  Make no mistake though, Buddhist monasticism is a vocation, as it is a human experience reflecting the spiritual dimension, answering a deeper self-awareness that even for me is hard to define.  When we are moved to step onto the monastic path, we must understand just what it is we are committing ourselves to.  “Why” is not as critical as “what” in this case.  So the question expands to, “WHAT makes one a monastic, and WHAT is required of us?”   The answers to these questions are critical to one’s understanding of how their life will change, and how the monastic-practice sets priorities and challenges, as we monks engage our everyday Buddhist practice.

As Buddhism moved West and encountered a culture familiar with monastic traditions (Christian), some assumptions on what a Buddhist monk was were taken for granted.  We Westerners saw robes, ritual, temple buildings, chanting, and deep spiritual characteristics of the few Buddhist monks we came in connect with, that reinforced the idea of “monkness”.   But the difference between Christian and Buddhist monastic practices were not obvious to the casual observer.  It has taken a few decades for the Buddhist monastic structure to find roots in the West, and attract Western men and women to the Buddhist monastic life. Continue reading

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Building A Spiritual Practice

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I have been speaking recently about the importance of living a life by vows, either as lay Buddhists or especially for those of us that have taken monasticism as a life’s vocation.  Our monastic vows is a way of intentionally committing us to a social life of rigorous action honoring the Bodhisattva ideal above other competing personal responsibilities.   We are beginning to see in the West, however, a new secular teaching community arise that reflects, perhaps, a more realistic attitude to an ordained life within our communities beyond the walls of a monastery/temple.  In addition we are seeing monks that have decided to live outside of these “walls-of-practice”, but still adapt the monastic precepts as a guiding force for daily living.  No matter how we see our Buddhist practice developing, however, building the spiritual dimension to how we see the world around us is critical for having a well balanced life and worldview.  For after all, seeking the wonder of our Universe and spiritual wisdom to understand our role in it, is what it means for us to be human.  A spiritual life is both one of interior riches, and exterior displays of wisdom.  We must learn to balance these two aspects of practice in order to have a mature spiritual life.

I am reminded of the story of an elementary school teacher that gave her students a drawing assignment.  As she went around the room looking over the students work and giving encouragement and help, she was absorbed in the joy of the assignment as well.  As she approached Stephen totally entranced and furiously working on his picture, she was confused at what she saw on the paper.  When she ask him what he was drawing, he replied, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”  But she reminded him that no one knows what God looks like.  “They will in a minute!” exclaimed Stephen, as he returned to his work.  What Stephen is teaching us is a can-do, I’m on top of this, I know what I am doing spirit of the intrepid spiritual seeker.  He was lost “within himself”.  He is reflecting the “Buddha with-in”, or the natural nature of what is possible when committed to an ideal.   Then I suppose we grow up and loose the clear mind of the child.  Building a spiritual practice is like stepping back on the path we use to have before cultural influences cloud our minds.

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