The Hopeless Vow of Freeing All Beings

Here's the text of the dharma talk from last Sunday:

The hopeless vow of freeing all beings and liberating them from suffering

Dharma talk

Sunday, September 27, 2015

I want to talk today about the hopeless vow of freeing all beings and liberating them from suffering. In the morning chants, after we have avowed our own karma and taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, we make these impossible vows: 

Beings are numberless, I vow to free them;

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them

Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it. 

Just that first line is a koan, all by itself. Beings are numberless, I vow to free them. What does that mean? What should I do? Where do I begin? What is the process? It’s completely impossible. This made me feel pretty hopeless and discouraged. It was not a rallying cry to action but more like another overwhelming failure in the making. I had a moment that felt familiar, like when I was very young and I was supposed to be taking care of all my little sisters and brother. I didn’t know what to do, and worse luck, they were completely uninterested in my “help.” Which was mainly telling them what to do (cleaning the house, for example) and punishing them when they failed to do it. It was overwhelming and discouraging. So this first line really troubled me. 

How can we think about this vow? One day, I had an insight about it. I realized:

I cannot free all beings from their own karma, nor from the causes of it, but I can free all beings from mine:

From my anger

From my judgments of them

From my distancing myself 

From taking from them

From sowing doubt and discord in them

From my expectations of them

From thinking of them as “them” instead of “us”

From making them invisible

From my arrogance in “helping”

From pushing in front of them

From ridiculing them

From gossiping about them

From classifying them or labeling them

From making up stories about them

From confusing them

From my disapproval

From my impatience with their slowness, their lack of skill, their so-called “stupidity”

From separating myself from their sorrows and their triumphs

From expecting them to satisfy my needs

From wishing they were different

From all attempts to fix them or “correct” them

From my tuning out what they are saying 

From my anxiety and fear

From my using them for my own purposes

From undervaluing them

From being “wounded” by them

From my delusions about “how things should be” or “how things are”

From making myself more important or special than they are

From being wrong

And besides these, also I can offer some illuminating and active care as freedom:

From allowing them to dwell in the darkness of their conditioning and circumstances

From feeling alone and lost

From feeling unappreciated

From feeling uncared for

From feeling that they don’t belong

In my own practice, this is the work I do, cultivating the capacity to liberate all beings from…me. This is the well of practice that never runs dry. 

You can begin this work facing out or facing in, it makes no difference, because what is within you also needs to be liberated in this way. So you could begin by liberating those parts inside you that are suffering, that you ignore or despise, or you could focus your attention and energy outward toward other beings. But I recommend a two-fold approach of working in both directions, as the Song of the Grass Hut says, “not stuck inside or outside or in-between.” Sometimes I think it is like training a dog, when he picks up something he shouldn’t eat, and we say, “drop it.” Dropping our own opinions, judgments, and conditioning is instant freedom—for ourselves and others. As we study the self in our practice, how can we make this a continuously liberating process? As we get up from our seat and move about the world, how can we make this a continuously liberating offering?

Writing Exercise:

  1. What is one way that you feel you could liberate all beings, from you?
  2. What small practical step might you take in that direction?
  3. Part a: What do you expect the results might be? Part b (yes or no): Would you be able to completely let go of that expectation?
  4. How does this make you feel inside?

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Appamada is not just the occasional mindful thought or attentive state of mind, it’s actually a commitment to being attentive. It’s more than just a meditative state of mind, it’s more than just being mindful. It has to do with that primary ethical or moral orientation we have in life, with which we bring into being whatever activity we’re engaged in. Whether in formal meditation, in our interactions with other people, in our social concerns, or in our political choices, it’s the energetic cherishing of what we regard as good.

—Stephen Batchelor


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