Editorial: Doing the Impossible

Featured in Mountain Record 25.3, Spring 2007

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
The dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unattainable; I vow to attain it.
—The Four Bodhisattva Vows

Commitment is a difficult subject to talk about for many reasons, not the least being that it is so hard to come by these days. In popular culture, commitment is often equated with confinement. It is not seen as a value to strive for, but as a somewhat inconvenient contract to be gotten around whenever possible, or a burden to be borne as best one can.

In the religious arena, on the other hand, commitment takes on a radical significance insofar as it is understood to be the very means to freedom. Spiritual practitioners recognize commitment as the crucial ingredient to living an awake life. Sr. Joan Chittister speaks of the commitment to celibacy, for example, as "the surge that makes us capable of thinking of someone else besides ourselves for a change."

From a Buddhist perspective, commitment is inextricably linked to vow, and the ultimate expression of vow in the Mahayana tradition is the bodhisattva vow: to postpone one's own enlightenment until all beings are saved from delusion. This is, of course, an impossible vow. Yet it is because it is impossible that it is so powerful.

Ultimately, it is not more impossible than vowing to not just survive but thrive in a prearranged marriage, as Eliezer Shore describes in "Under the Mountain." It is not more impossible than taking the solemn vow of monastic ordination in response to a calling, that "feeling for the sacredness and mystery of life," in Daido Roshi's words. It is not more impossible than parenthood.

But whether our vows unfold within the context of lay or monastic practice, environmental or social activism, celibacy or marriage, the example of those who have gone before us is clear.

In these pages, Shantideva holds up right effort as the "sword of mindfulness" with which we can cut off the mental afflictions that obstruct our commitment. Master Dogen lauds the many masters who singlemindedly have given their bodies and lives to the dharma. Daido Roshi offers the Buddhist precepts as the basis of a unique environmental ethics—one in which we commit to not separate ourselves from this great earth. All impossibilities... or are they?

"Commitment helps us to remember, and live within, what we should not forget," Shugen Sensei reminds us. Coupled with vow, commitment becomes the fuel and the rudder for all of our actions.

To truly commit is to vow to do the impossible. It is to care more, to serve more, to give more to this life than we ever thought we could


Mn. Vanessa Zuisei Goddard, MRO
Mountain Record, Editor