This universal vow is the vow which the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara made, acting as representative of all Bodhisattvas. We are told of this in chapter 7 of the Lotus Sutra. The term Bodhisattva means “Enlightened Being”. Avalokiteshvara (Sanskrit) is better known to us as Kanzeon, Kannon, or Kwannon in Japanese, or also as Kuan Yin in Chinese. This being is known as the Bodhisattva of compassion. He hears the sound of the world, that is to say the sighs of the beings that are suffering, and he reacts to them. In the course of the Buddhist history this figure has changed it’s gender a few times; was temporarily depicted as woman and then again as man, or without explicit gender features. It is not a historical being that once really lived.

With this vow he made, Avalokiteshvara committed himself on not entering Nirvana, on renouncing the final liberation of  reincarnations, as well as reaching Buddhahood until all sentient beings are led to liberation from suffering. This fundamental attitude is the great ideal in the Mahayana Buddhisme, to which also our Zen school belongs. By way of contrast the Hinayana Buddhisme, also called Theravada Buddhisme, emphasizes the individual liberation, the personal entering of Nirvana.

Each time when we start Zazen at our Dojo we recite the Heart Sutra, the Great Light Dharani, and at the end the Four Great Vows:

However innumerable all beings are, we vow to save them all
However inexhaustible delusions are, we vow to extinguish them all
However immeasurable Dharma teachings are, we vow to master them all
However endless the Buddha’s way is, we vow to follow it

These Four Great Vows are in their meaning identical with Avalokiteshvara’s vow. They are adapted to the feeling of us practicing humans to be still far away of Buddhahood. Out of this feeling, and being honest, it seems to us completely impossible to fulfill these vows. Nevertheless we repeat them over and over again. They are none other than the complete expression of our intrinsic Buddhanature. Whenever we recite these vows wholeheartedly, and decide to try to fulfill them as best as we can, at this moment we are none other than Buddha. To live this attitude, no matter what happens, without if, or when, means to be liberated from suffering, to be liberated from separation. This attitude lets us dissolve into the whole, lets us overcome the narrow and limited views of the individual and egoistic being. Exactly in this lies the immeasurable depth of these vows which we recite again and again. May our compassion extend over the whole universe and become deep as the ocean.      

The word Sesshin is used in Zen cireles for a period of time in which the
practice of Zazen (sitting meditation) is conducted as the main occupation of the participants.
Sesshin can last something between 1 and 10 days, and the hours of Zazen
practice during a Sesshin day can vary between 8 and 16 hours.

The word Sesshin literally means:
Se = to touch, to get in close contact;
Shin = our heart-spirit (our original, true being).
So Sesshin means to make
the utmost effort to get in close contact, to become aware of our innermost
true being. This true being, our heart spirit, is always within us. From there
we are alive, from there our heart is beating and our liver is functioning.
And from there our senses perceive, and from there our compassion arises.
These vital abilities we usually take so much for granted, that we ignore
them. We are much more interested in what we perceive and whether we
like it or not. And the daily battle we fight to get what we like, and to avoid
what we don’t like lets us forget about our most inner being. When we are
able to return to this inner home, all struggles are forgotten. And we will be
able to enter again daily life – renewed, refreshed and with a sense of
unshakable trust in our self, that is to say, in our true being, that has
nothing to do with what we have learned at school and during our
professional career,

To overcome our intense fascination for the play with our likes and dislikes
strict discipline is asked for, Therefore Sesshin is always strict and
demanding in discipline. Zazen practice is nothing else than the effort
needed to get away from our entangled mind, which circles around the
qualities of the circumstances we live in, and which tries to get control of
them to our advantage, again and again. When we return to our true being,
we learn to accept things and circumstances as they are. We learn not to
fight against what is, but to live in harmony with the universe and
ourselves. Zazen means to ignore our thoughts and follow our breath deep
into our unconscious. Down there, well protected from our attempt to
consciously control everything, lies this treasure, the well, from which our lives
spring. In itself it is everlasting, serene, and seemingly empty – but full
with potential

 

Mountain is Mountain, Water is Water

Commentary:

When we start to practice Zen as beginners, it is completely natural for us that a mountain is a mountain, and water is simply water. With time, if we conscientiously continue to practice and our insight into the real nature of the universe deepens, we come to the view that a mountain is not really a mountain. It looks like a mountain, we call it a mountain, but in its true nature it is “empty”, has no real existence. The ordinary, relative view on phenomena gets joined by an absolute view, in which things appear as empty, as just perceived forms, just like a film on a screen, or a Fatamorgana. In the course of our practice we switch constantly back and forth between these two views, until with time a holistic vision takes over which embraces and combines both aspects. Then we can agree from our deepest heart, and with profound understanding to:

MOUNTAIN IS MOUNTAIN – WATER IS WATER!

 

Everlasting Pure Wind

Commentary:

There is a Zen saying:
A cool wind blows softly through our mind – no matter what happens.
No matter what happens – a cool wind blows softly through our mind.
This “wind”, what is it? We know the Kôan of the flag that moves with the wind. The monks discuss whether it is the wind that moves the flag, or whether it is the flag that moves with the wind. The master tells them: “It is your mind that moves!” Basically neither the wind, nor the flag, nor the mind moves. This “basically” is the everlasting pure wind, which brings forth the countless phenomena in a wonderful and mysterious way. It blows without blowing. It blows through us and through the whole universe and moves all things, without beginning – without end. When we surrender completely to its blowing, everything is all right as it is. Then a cool wind blows softly through our mind – no matter what happens.

 

White Clouds fluat, float

Commentary

The clouds in the sky! Constantly they are changing, moving and they stay ungraspable, and without solid substance. Sometimes they are lovely, but sometimes they are dark and seem to be threatening, or even dangerous. We advice the beginners in Zen to treat their thoughts like clouds; to let them come and let them go, without doing anything with them. Here the clouds stand as a metaphor for our thoughts, our opinions, our judgments, our ideas, our hopes and wishes, and our illusions. Ceaselessly they float through the empty sky of our consciousness. It requires much practice to just let them come and let them go. Often they appear to be fascinating and interesting, and we are tempted to interfere with them, to pursue and further develop them. When we are able to let it be, and to stay patiently and persistently with our breath, then they calm down. Then we become stable and firm, and get into a deeply rooted calmness and composure. This state is called Samadhi.
On a much deeper level, all phenomena, that which we perceive with our senses as reality, can be seen as clouds, coming and going, moved by the “Everlasting Pure Wind”. Everything is impermanent, everything is changing, and nothing lasts forever. The Diamond Sutra ends with the following beautiful verse, which expresses in a poetic way this vista:

So I tell you:

All composite things are like a dream,
a fantasy, a bubble and a shadow,
are like a dewdrop, and a flash of lightning.
They are thus to be regarded.

– And so you should

Think in this way of all this fleeting world:
As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
a dewdrop, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
a flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.

 

Fundamentally not a thing exists

Commentary:

Normally we are convinced that the world, and also the sun, the stars and the moon exist, because we perceive them with our senses. But if we look at this in a honest, sober and accurate way, we have to admit: All we have at first is just this perception; we see, hear, taste, smell and feel. Only in a second step we interpret what we perceive and call it, following the common consensus, a tree, or a car, or whatever. Only with this step the perception becomes a “thing”. It becomes so to speak independent, different and apart from other “things”, or perceptions, and also from the perceiver. In deep Samadhi, in the depth of our own unconscious, we can become One with the surrounding, the situation, the “things” that are around us. In this state the perception, what is perceived, and the perceiver cannot longer be differentiated. Anybody who has made this experience of being One, knows about the deep feeling of “coming home”, which arises within ourselves at that moment; knows about the recovery that comes with it. Within this absolute connectedness with the boundless universe, and all the phenomena that arise in it, actually “not a thing” exists. Whether we human beings know it or not: Our heart deeply longs for this being in the good hands of the absolute connectedness.

Nichi nichi kore kôjitsu
Every day is a good day

Master Unmon said to his disciples, “I do not ask anything about your spriritual condition before the fifteenth day of the month, but tell me something about it after the fifteenth day of the month.” Nobody answered. So Master Unmon geve the answer for us all: “Every day is a good day.”
On the fifteenth day of the month, according to the lunar calendar, there is a full moon, which implies clear enlightenment. “After the fifteenth day of the month” means after such realization.
As for “Every day is a good day”, many are deceived by “good” and think that good is the opposite of bad. Thus, many think that “good day” means happy, beautiful day. Unmon, however, did not mean it that way. Unmon’s “good day” is far more profound. He was pointing to right here, right now, unprecedented, unrepeatable, absolute day. A good Kôan for us all is: “What kind of day is this?”
I would like to add my own comment here. From the enlightened point of view, from the absolute point of view, every single moment is as it is, and cannot be otherwise; and every day is as it is, and cannot be otherwise. No matter how we perceive the day – as boring, rainy, awful, splendid, happy or sad a.s.o. – we cannot escape it’s suchness. To fully accept each moment, to fully accept each day as it is, this is the key to “every day is a good day”. Things are as they are, and so are the moments and the days. This “as they are”, or “as it is”, means in itself “good”, far beyond good or bad. Zen practice is the practice of radical acceptance.

The Master (Rinzai) addressed the monks, saying: “Followers of the Way, as to Buddha-Dharma, no artificial effort is necessary. Just be natural, don’t strive (*Buji).

Shitting, pissing, putting on clothes,
Eating food, and lying down when tired.
Fools may laugh at me, but the wise understand.

A man of old said:

If you seek something outside yourself,
you are a great fool.”

_______________________________________________

*Buji: Nothing to do, to be free from contrivances, to be all done. He or she, who has nothing to do, is the noble human being.
From the translator’s notes:
Bu means no, or negation. JI is event, matter, action, phenomena, affair, or thing. Literally Buji means to negate all Ji.(…) When we completely realize the true nature of the universe, what seems to be Ji is, in fact, none other than Buji. There is nothing to do, no matter how hard we try. From a slightly different perspective, the closest English word to Buji is now, or as-it -is. Right now, can you improve now-ness, or as-it-is-ness? Of course not. At this moment, can you or your circumstances be otherwise? When you understand that the present moment is all there is, you have no choice but to come to a radical acceptance, and it is this radical acceptanc which is none other than true peace and composure. Buji means to be one with suchness, the unconditional nature of “let it be”, with nothing wanting, nothing superfluous.