Living By Vow

By the time you read this post I will be away on two weeks’ much appreciated break. Getting a new project off the ground is quite a bit of work on top of one’s ‘day job’ and I shall be glad of a rest. I shall be taking with me a sewing project. Simple, manual work is conducive to a calm and meditative state of mind, and I find sewing particularly relaxing, 

I am making a kesa, the outer robe that a monk wears for meditation and ceremonies, made by sewing together around 40 rectangles of fabric. The traditional story is that the Buddha was inspired by the patterns of the rice paddies and instructed his monks to make their robes based on the regular layout of the fields.

I am also taking with me the new book Living by Vow by Shohaku Okumura who is a Soto Zen priest in the lineage of Kodo Sawaki Roshi and a scholar of Buddhist literature. I am certainly no scholar myself, so I am always relieved when I find a book that explains the teachings of our tradition in a way that I feel I can understand.

In this book Okumura uses his own life experience to illustrate the practical significance of the Bodhisattva Vows and seven other verses and scriptures that are recited regularly in Soto Zen temples. One of the chapters is on the Kesa Verse, which is recited at the end of morning meditation. Monks place their folded kesas on their heads whilst saying the verse. Dogen Zenji heard this verse in Tiangtong monastery in China in 1223 and it moved him to tears. He passed it on to his disciples and it has come down to us in the present day. The translation Okumura quotes is

Great robe of liberation.
Virtuous field far beyond form and emptiness.
Wearing the Tathagatha’s teaching
I vow to save all beings.

Virtuous field can also be expressed as field of virtue, or field of merit, which is, of course, the name we have chosen for this project. As Okumura says, ‘This body and mind is the field we work. It is not a field of fortune from which we can expect to receive blessings without practice. We have to cultivate our life.”

Another (smaller) book I can recommend (and that I just found at a sale price at Wisdom Books) is Bringing the Sacred to Life – The Daily Practice of Zen Ritual by John Daido Loori in which he talks about why we have services and ceremonies (ritual) in Zen practice.

As this post is turning into a book review, I might as well tell you that I am also reading The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood, subtitled ‘Why There Is No You Inside Your Head’. Bruce Hood is a scientist, and he uses the latest neuroscience to argue that our individual concept of a self is an illusion. I am finding it fascinating, and very illuminating about how and why our brains create a self out of the bundling together of all our past experience.

So, I am looking forward to two weeks of reading, sewing, walking, eating, sleeping, meditating, just letting my days unfold.

P.S. I am writing this on a day when our Internet connection is down. Most of my work is on the computer, so I look on such days as days of grace that free me to do other things. But then I have always been a glass-half-full type of person.

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