by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

In Buddhism a spiritual life requires the practice of taking a vow. Mahayana Buddhists take the vow of the bodhisattva, which has four parts: to taste Truth, to save all beings, to master the teachings of the Buddha, to accomplish the Buddha Way.

In Zen we speak of living in vow. This means we attend wholeheartedly to the activities of everyday life. When it is time to get up, we just get up. When it is time to wash the dishes, we just wash the dishes. But you might wonder, what is the difference between living in vow and just forming a habit?

We form habits every day–watching TV, going to school, going to work. Habits are linked to our desires. If there is no satisfaction in a habit, you won’t continue it for long. Living in vow, on the the other hand, is to carry out your routines with no sense of attempting to satisfy your individual desires. Under all circumstances, beyond your likes or dislikes, you have to carry on. It’s pretty hard, but it’s very important. This is the difference between habit and vow. The difference is total.

This applies not only in Buddhism but in other practices as well. For example, if you want to have a peaceful life through the practice of yoga, you have to exercise daily. Day by day, under all circumstances, you form the routine of yoga practice. Slowly your heart and mind will then change, and your spiritual life will develop.

The changes that occur through spiritual practice are not really your business. If you make them your business, you will try to change your life directly. If you try to change your life directly, no matter how long you work at it, you will not satisfy yourself. So if you truly want to change your life, you should just form the routine of doing small things, day by day. Then your life will be changed beyond your expectations. If you practice continually, day after day, you will become a peaceful, gentle, and harmonious person. There is no explanation for this.

Living in vow is like taking a trip down the Mississippi River. If you go to the center of the river, there is no need for any extra effort. If you go to the center of your life, the river of your life will carry you. If you practice in this way, you will find a natural rhythm to your life. Start with taking care of the little things in your life on an everyday basis, and eventually you will get to the middle of the river.

Before you reach the middle of the river, practice feels hard. Most people give up. But they give up only because they don’t see their life in the long range. They want results, right now. Life is very hard on us if we take this attitude. We become nervous, irritable, and cold-hearted.

If you learn to take a long-range view of life, you will continue to practice routinely, and you will get to the middle of the stream. Then, without any extra effort, your body and mind will move along in peace and harmony. A sense of gentleness, generosity, and magnanimity will come forth from each pore of your body. Your vow will have become your life.

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Excerpted from “You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight” by Dainin Katagiri (Shambhala, 2000). If you decide to purchase this book, please consider buying it directly from the publisher. Thank you.