Jul 28, 2020
Jenny Hall

Verses from the Dhammapada 173

The Great Bodhisattava Vow to help all sentient beings starts with the empty and open heart. Jenny Hall looks at this connection in practice.

The man who overcomes his misdeeds with good actions brightens up the world like the moon passing from behind the clouds.

This verse points to the first Great Bodhisattva Vow to benefit all sentient beings.

The man who overcomes his misdeeds…

Misdeeds are the intentional actions which as the late Ven. Myokyo-ni always liked to point out miss the target. They do this because they are initiated by ‘me’. The Buddha taught that this ‘me’ made up by ‘my’ thoughts is driven by delusion and the other two fires of greed and ill-will.

… with good actions…

When ‘I’ am emptied out then reality is clearly seen. This ‘emptiness’ called ‘choiceless awareness’ by Krishnamurti, responds appropriately. The vow to benefit all sentient beings is fulfilled.

There is a Sufi story about a man who was so good that the angels asked God to give him the gift of miracles. God, in his wisdom, told them to ask the man if he would like this. The angels visited the man and offered him the choice of three gifts: the gift of healing by hands, the gift of conversion of souls or the gift of virtue. He refused them all. The angels said that as he had rejected them all, they would select one on his behalf. Finally the man said that he would like to do good without ever knowing it. The angels didn’t know what to do. Finally they decided that the saint’s shadow should have the power to cure illness, relieve pain and comfort. As the man walked by, the dry earth sprouted grass, flowers bloomed, water flowed in dried up streams and sad people became joyful. The saint just went about his daily life. He became known as The Shadow.

… brightens up the world like the moon…

The saint did not strive to do anything special apart from his everyday routine. In the same way the Zen training encourages us to wholeheartedly give ourselves into the daily life practice. By so doing the warmth and clarity of the open heart brightens everything encountered. As Hui-neng said:

“Learned audience, regarding the vow to save infinite sentient beings, it does not mean the accomplishment is by me. We save all of them by purifying our own minds.”

… passing from behind the clouds.

In the Heart Sutra that we chant the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Avalokitesvara relies on the Great-Wisdom-Gone-Beyond and so his heart is free from hindrances. These hindrances are like the clouds obscuring the moon. What are these hindrances? If the chanting of the vow to benefit all sentient beings is only half-hearted the thought may arise “How can I promise to do this? It isn’t possible!” It is this fear that arises when ‘I’ attempt to respond to even a small need.

A neighbour asked for help on a regular basis with her shopping. Momentarily there was a feeling of panic and then a hasty reply, “Yes, I could do some on a Saturday.” thereby excluding any other day which may be inconvenient for me. This ‘me’ always wants to arrange and control everything to my advantage. We forget that within the open heart free from ‘me’ there is always boundless time and energy. By just giving ourselves into the next thing to be done all is accomplished with ease.

A friend recovering from an illness asked for help. Time was spent in zazen. On arriving at her house ‘choiceless awareness’ took in the situation. The floor needed clearing of dirty towels before help with a shower was given. Clean clothes needed to be found and the dirty ones placed in the washing machine, cups had to be washed and dried before a cup of tea was made. Each task naturally led to the next. Not only do we make judgements about how much time and energy ‘I’ can give but we also judge those needing assistance.

My husband was washing the car windscreen one morning when a rather bedraggled man staggered into the Close. He was attempting to light a cigarette. His shaking hand and the wind made the task impossible. My husband beckoned him into the garage for shelter. The man was able to light up.

“What a lovely day!” he exclaimed as he went on his way.

There was no judgement of the man’s smoking, just an at-one-ment with the situation.

Iris Murdoch is said to have felt sadness when she encountered such objects as a discarded bottle. She felt such compassion that she would pick it up and find a home for it.

When we are ‘at one’ with the dirty towels, the water, the soap, the cup, the kettle there is true affection because there is no ‘I’ dividing us. William Law said:

Love is infallible

It commits no errors

For all errors

Are want of love.

Text copyright to Jenny Hall

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