06 June 2013

The Four Vows 1: The Liberation of All Beings

All beings without number, I vow to liberate.

If we treat this as a standard declarative sentence, with subject, verb and object doing their usual work, the first of the Bodhisattva vows is meaningless.  I, being the kind of fathom-high critter I am, do not even know how many numberless beings there are (it's a commonplace that we have not yet neared the end of taxonomizing beetles, let alone the rest of the insects, for instance), and it is not at all clear what it would mean to "liberate" them.  "Liberate them" from what?  How?  By myself?  Really? How much time will that take?

No, the first of the Bodhisattva vows is not uttered in the realm of conditioned existence.

If we treat the first vow as an expression of enlightened mind, in which the emptiness of "I" is seen through and through, then there is no I and no numberless beings, either, and they are, in their radical non-selfhood, already liberated. 

Indeed, the first of the Bodhisattva vows is uttered in the realm of the absolute.

Now here's the rub: it's a bogus move to start in the realm of the absolute and derive from it something about what should be done in the realm of conditioned existence.  There is nothing in the absolute on which to hang anything about conditioned existence.  That's precisely why the one is the absolute and the other conditioned.

Put differently: uttering the first Bodhisattva vow commits me to nothing particular whatsoever in terms of day-to-day action in the world.   Since I cannot derive something about conditioned beings from the absolute, I cannot derive what action to take with respect to them, either.  With an even finer point on it: the first Bodhisattva vow cannot be used as leverage for any kind of action or ethical position or theory or principle or maxim or -ism.

None, near as I can tell.

And yet….

I have seen what happens in the actions of everyday men and women, conditioned beings in a conditioned world, once they have begun to glimpse the absolute.  And it's not like, "Oh, John's doing thus-and-so, and that's a sign of his insight."  No, it's infinitely more subtle than that.  It's more like, "Oh, I hadn't expected that out of John.  Wow, where'd that come from?"

And in being able even to say that much, we find ourselves, the world and all beings therein – even if only for a moment – all very much at ease.

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