Master Dogen’s Vow is part of the common chanting liturgy of Japanese Soto Zen. Dogen is the 13th century master who brought Soto Zen to Japan, and in Soto Zen he’s a big deal. But you might enjoy the vow also, even if you aren’t into Soto Zen. This is just the first verse:
From this life throughout countless lives,
we vow with all beings to hear the true Dharma.
Hearing it, no doubt arises, nor is faith lacking.
Meeting and maintaining it, we renounce worldly affairs,
and together with all beings and the great earth
realize the Buddha Way.
I’d like to unpack this just a little. Reading this, you might think this vow is way beyond where your practice is right now. Maybe you have lots of doubts. Maybe you’re nowhere close to renouncing worldly affairs. But here is another way to look at it.
As a young monk Dogen was driven by a particular question. His teachers told him that all beings possess Buddha Nature. If so, he wondered, why is it necessary to practice? His resolution to this question is central to his teachings.
We usually think of practice and enlightenment as a linear process — we practice for awhile, and then maybe we “get enlightened.” However, Kazuaki Tanahashi writes that Dogen also saw this process as circular —
For him, each moment of practice encompasses enlightenment, and each moment of enlightenment encompasses practice. In other words, practice and enlightenment–process and goal-are inseparable. The circle of practice is complete even at the beginning. This circle of practice-enlightenment is renewed moment after moment. . . . In this view you don’t journey toward enlightenment, but you let enlightenment unfold.
So faith — in the sense of trust or confidence — is already present. Enlightenment is already present. You don’t have to “get” it; just let it unfold. The vow is an expression of what already is, even if we aren’t aware of it.
[A version of this post was published on About.com Buddhism September 12, 2013.]