The Great Vows Project -A Talk by Larry Keil (June 12, 2016)

Posted by on Jun 13, 2016 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on The Great Vows Project -A Talk by Larry Keil (June 12, 2016)

I wanted to share with you a project I have been working on for the past couple of months. This project is a rewording of the Great Vows for All. This came about when I was reading the Diamond Sangha newsletter and noticed that some of the teachers were looking at a rewording of the four great vows. I was not particularly taken with some of what they came up with, so wondered what words I might use if I rewrote the vows.

This became an engaging task for me–trying to be as faithful as possible to the meaning of the original Chinese characters and yet using words more familiar and with more meaning for me. I have thought of new wordings during the day and sometimes at night—this really became a situation where I could neither swallow or spit out the “hot iron ball” we find in the first case of “The Gateless Gate”.

I do not intend to present something that will be used by the sangha or anyone else, for that matter. My rewording has brought more clarity to me about how the vows work in my life, and my digging for alternate wording has opened up and brought new life to the old vows.

I am not a Zen historian and know nothing about the Chinese characters that are used to translate the vows into English. So I am indebted to Nelson Foster, Michael Kieran and Don Stoddard, Diamond Sangha teachers, who know much more than I about these things. I took the meanings they ascribed to the characters and then looked for synonyms to find more appropriate words for my experiences and preferences. I also used some commentaries from Aitken Roshi, Jack and others in our sangha, and some comments made by Scott Ruplin published recently in the newsletter from Mt. Lamp. The article in the Diamond Sangha newsletter by Michael Kieran that has the new wording appeared in the Jan-Mar 2016 issue and can be found online at:  This article is very insightful and worth reading.

I also spent some time pondering why we say the vows at all and looking at what a vow means. One reason we chant sutras and have ceremonial rituals is “to remember to remember”. This phrase comes from a native American plant healer and botanist who gave this answer to explain why certain native American ceremonies have been performed year after year.  In her case these ceremonies help her remember and keep alive an indigenous culture that understands plants as beings with their own songs and sensibilities; as companions, teachers, neighbors and friends. In my case, our ceremonies and rituals help me remember, as Whitman says, “that I am large and contain multitudes.” One of my teachers, Joan Rieck, used to say “We are all back-sliders”, and I, certainly, time and again, forget who I am.  Reciting the vows gives me a chance to remember to remember.

And what is a vow? It is an activity, an action that communicates our intentions and aspirations. And just as the weather forecast is not the actual weather, our vows are not the words but what we actually do moment by moment. “Words don’t butter any parsnips”, as Aitken Roshi used to say. We actualize our vows by paying attention, forgetting the self by uniting with the task at hand, and responding appropriately to what is happening at this particular moment. Through paying attention we encounter the world directly and erotically, that is, with passion, love, and intimacy–not with logic, reason and concepts. As Jack has mentioned a couple of times in talks, the Latin root of attention means to stretch—to enlarge ourselves, grow into our true body, make whole. Paying attention allows us to participate passionately in the underlying unity of all things.

The first part of each of our vows describes the way things are—the mystery that is expressed in the Heart Sutra: “form is emptiness, emptiness form, form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form”.  Aitken puts it this way: “Vast emptiness with infinite possibilities”. The second part of the vows is our intention of action in the face of the way things are, a reminder to pay attention, and engage the world as it unfolds right now.

Our current vows are recited as follows:

Great Vows For All

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.

Greed, hatred and ignorance arise endlessly, I vow to abandon them.

Dharma gates are limitless,  I vow to wake to them.

The Buddha’s way is unsurpassed, I vow to embody it fully.


The proposed new wording by the Diamond Sangha teachers is:

Four Infinite Vows

All beings without limit, I vow to carry over.

Kleshas without end, I vow to cut off.

Dharma gates without measure, I vow to master.

Buddha’s way without peer, I vow to fulfill.


My wording goes like this:

Generous and Inexhaustible Vows For All

Beings come forth without number, I vow to wake up together with them.

Thoughts and feelings arise without end, I vow to welcome them and let them go.

This moment unfolds without boundaries, I vow to open fully to it.

The way of loving kindness is without measure, I vow to embody and cherish it.


In the title GU means enlarge, expand, great, magnanimous. We have used the word “Great”, but I think some of the depth of the meaning of GU is lost with that word because we use “great” in our normal vocabulary all the time. “I feel great”, “the game was great”, etc.  I use the words “generous” and “inexhaustible” to put a little meat back on the bones of “great”. The use of the word “infinite” in the Diamond Sangha teachers’ translation means “dynamically expansive” but doesn’t conjure up much in me. Generous means “larger or more plentiful than is usual or necessary.” This seems to fit the bill as to the activity of embodying these vows: I find as I breathe these vows they expand who I am and gift me in ways I could never imagine or expect. This reminds me of a walk I had some years ago with my mother. As we passed by some lovely roses, her face lit up and she exclaimed “They are just so, so, so generous!” She was gobsmacked by the unexpected magnanimity of the roses. And I like the word “inexhaustible” to describe the nature of the vows, they are fresh every breath and cannot ever be used up.

In the first vow, I use “come forth” to show the dynamic character of the way things are. The use of “without number”, as with all the other “withouts” in the first line of each vow, puts us in the field of complete emptiness, there is nothing one can number and nothing for the concept of “number” to hold on to. This is the emptiness that contains infinite possibilities, coming forth now as the sound of a jet, now as the call of the chickadee.

In the second part of this vow, the main character is DO— “to cross over, carry across, ferry over.” I like “wake up together” better than “save” to mean making a shift, seeing into one’s true nature or crossing over. “Save” has always been difficult to me to understand, as it implies a separation—me saving them. And it has that religious, messianic ring to it. We save all beings by waking up together with them. As the Buddha said when the morning star saw through him: “I and all sentient beings of the great earth have, in the same moment, attained the way.”  Our waking up is always inclusive—nothing can be dismissed.

 Tung-shan was about to depart. Nan-yuan said, “closely study the

Buddhadharma. Widely confer it benefits.” Tung-shan said, “Closely

Study the Buddhadharma—no question about that. What is ‘Widely

Confer its benefits’?” The master said, “Not a single thing dismissed.”

                        (The record of Tung-shan, p. 31, trans. By W.F. Powell)

This waking up together also reminds me of the metaphor of Indra’s net. This is the web of creation, where each node of the net is a precious jewel perfectly reflecting and being perfectly reflected by every other jewel. When one part of the net stirs, the whole web reverberates.

In the second vow I use “thoughts and feelings” instead of “greed, hatred and ignorance”. The characters BON NO are the Chinese translation of the Buddhist term “Klesha”, meaning “mental or emotional states that incite unwholesome behavior.” I don’t have any familiarity with “klesha”, so prefer “thoughts and feelings”, which I know well. I also think that even so-called good thoughts and feelings can incite unwholesome behavior so prefer the more general terms than to focus on specific more pejorative concepts.

In the second part of this vow I use “welcome them and let them go” rather than “abandon” or “cut off.” The Chinese character DAN is translated “cut off, sever, uproot, put a stop to, dismiss”. I actually like “abandon” but it implies that something is already there. I add “welcome”, which is not found in any translation, to set the attitude that whatever is before me is itself a spark of light, something to pay attention to and not dismiss lightly. As we recite in the Kanzeon Chant:

Thought after thought arise in the mind:

Thought after thought are not separate from mind.

Of course we can hold on to thoughts and feelings and weave a wonderful or awful story around them, so we have to also be able to let go when appropriate, to use the thoughts and feelings but not be used by them.  This is “cutting off the mind road”. Aitken says this is

“To cut the tape of incessant chatter, the internal monologue that

inevitably relates to ‘how I am, how I was, how I will be’”.

When we don’t indulge our self-centered thoughts and feelings we become free to participate in the suffering and joys of the world, now feeling despair, now helping others, now dancing and singing. This isn’t as easy as my words make it out to be, — when we open to what is we are also opened up in ways that can break down our normal defenses and make us more vulnerable than we may really want to be. This raw, deep, engagement with the world may find tears streaking our face at unexpected times.

In the third vow, I use “this moment” to replace “dharma gate”. The character HO MON means dharma openings, or any phenomena that gives a chance for realization when we are open to them. To me, each moment comes forth anew with many possibilities for engagement. I also like the action and dynamism of “unfolds”, implying endlessly new and fresh patterns and experiences.

This vow reminds me that the events in our lives always unfold in ways beyond how we think they will. To understand this was very important to me recently as my health, both physical and mental, went south after an operation. I thought I knew what to expect, but reality intruded and my vow to open to it, whatever it might entail, was the task at hand. This was also the message I saw once on a poster in a rehab center that said: “Life is about how we deal with plan B”.  And I would add plan C, D, C, etc. Of course one doesn’t just “open to it” one time and everything is honky-dory going forward. The vow is a continuous remembering to pay attention and then acting to welcome each moment. Of course, I deal with plan B unskillfully at times and suffer because of that. But that suffering has its own light and presents another opportunity for me.

In the second part of this vow I use the words “open fully”. The character GAKU means “study, master, learn or realize”. Robert Aitken says that GAKU, to master, suggests receptiveness. He says,

“after all, how does one master or understand an opportunity?

When you are receptive and not lost in thoughts, that sound, touch,

glimpse or scent is your great chance.”

I also like this quote from Garrison Keillor about mastery:

“There is no mastery to be had. You don’t master a story

any more than you master a river. You love the attempt.

You feel lucky to canoe down it.”

We “master” each moment by opening fully to it—flowing with it and feeling gratitude for the experience.

In the fourth vow, I use the words “loving kindness” because these words have more meaning for me than “Buddha’s way”. When we pay attention, love seeps in and saturates us as inexorably as the tide saturates the sands. From this place, kindness is a natural expression. I agree with the Dalai Lama when he said “My religion is very simple; my religion is kindness”. I have tried to turn toward love and kindness as my path in the world and I understand those words deep in my marrow. The words “without measure” reminds me that this is a natural and right way to be, and puts us in the field of no metrics, no comparisons, no way, no love, no kindness, no concepts at all—just the deep sense of feeling at home as I let a car cut in front of me, pick up litter as I wander my neighborhood, or help a friend move.

We are already embodied in this world, not separate, limited or alone. What is it that stands up and sits down? When we forget ourselves by paying attention to what is happening right now we inhabit our full bodies, containing and being contained by all beings. Aitken said “Actualized by the morning star, the Buddha found himself in his original, expansive home, as that home.”

I also add the word “cherish” which is not found in any of the translations. Aitken said “Zen shows us a way to cherish who we are and what we have.”  I think the sense of gratitude we experience when we turn toward this moment is a generous gift inviting an appropriate response. How do we show and act on this right now?

In conclusion I can say that my investigation into and rewording of the “Great Vows” has allowed me to understand more deeply what I have been chanting for years. I now see more clearly how the vows help me “lean into” this moment by reminding me to pay attention, open to, and welcome reality. Vowing to embody and cherish the way things are helps me remember how dearly I hold the world and how dearly I am held by it.

I want to end by reading a poem by David Whyte.

Everything is Waiting for You

Your great mistake is to act the drama

as if you were alone. As if life

were a progressive and cunning crime

with no witness to the tiny hidden

transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny

the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,

even you, at times, have felt the grand array;

the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding

out your solo voice. You must note

the way the soap dish enables you,

or the window latch grants you freedom.

Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.

The stairs are your mentor of things

to come, the doors have always been there

to frighten you and invite you,

and the tiny speaker in the phone

is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into

the conversation. The kettle is singing

even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots

have left their arrogant aloofness and

seen the good in you at last. All the birds

and creatures of the world are unutterably

themselves. Everything is waiting for you.


— David Whyte