Book Review: Okumura's 'Living By Vow'

Not too long ago, the post that I’ll refer to here as A Defense of Ritual brought to a close a three-part exploration of what I termed ‘the dichotomy between universality and ritual,’ i.e., the dichotomy between the universal practice of zazen (seated meditation) and those idiosyncratic rituals that, directly or indirectly and to varying degrees, support it. Regular readers will recall that I used the chanting of the Three Refuges as an example. I noted then that, while the act of reciting “I take refuge in the Buddha... I take refuge in the Dharma... I take refuge in the Sangha...” might have everything to do with the practice of Buddhism, it simply does not rise to the level of universality. What it does do, however, is provide a philosophical context for the universal practice of zazen – context that many practitioners require in order to feel grounded in their sitting practice.

The reason for revisiting this ostensibly closed exploration of the dichotomy between universality and ritual is that it provides, for my way of thinking anyway, a perfect platform from which to examine Shohaku Okumura’s latest offering – Living by Vow: A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Though the book was first published sometime this past summer, I only recently became aware of it while visiting Sanshinji – the Bloomington, Indiana temple of which Okumura is the abbot. If one is inclined to believe in synchronicity, one might see it in the timing of my finding this book right on the heels of publishing A Defense of Ritual. I wanted to review it right away, in fact; so much so that I even contemplated it being Part 4 in the ‘Universality and Ritual’ series. Alas, it apparently needed to percolate for just a little bit longer. Consider the remainder of this post a review of this very useful book.

Cover artwork by Eiji Imao
Different people require different levels of support for their practice of zazen. Some might be motivated to keep up a solitary and unadorned (but regular) sitting practice for the pure and simple reason that they can see its benefits manifesting in their lives. Others might need to experience the support of a group and at least a modicum of shared ritual in order to maintain the motivation to do that which they find difficult, even as they recognize its merits. Some can take the practice of zazen and work both it and the insights gleaned from it into the religious tradition of their choosing. Still others need their sitting practice to be supported by the meaning-providing framework of the religion of Buddhism itself, or nestled snugly within the ritualistic practice environment that it provides. It is this last group to which Living by Vow speaks most saliently, though religious practitioners of other faith traditions and orientations will likely gain inspiration and insight in reading how Okumura brings to everyday life some of the deepest and most difficult to understand teachings of the Zen Buddhist tradition.

We may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but the front cover artwork of Living by Vow is a great place to begin a discussion of its contents. Within this context, the Eiji Imao painting almost begs to be interpreted as a visual representation of the ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form’ teaching contained in the Heart Sutra. The rich blue and vaguely non-uniform background at once evokes a sense of both no-thingness and infinite possibility – just as the Buddhist concept of emptiness, sunyata, suggests. Growing out of this emptiness, rooted in its “soil” so to speak, are eight trees whose spacing imparts a sense of worldly depth – a spatial and temporal horizon. Surely these eight trees are intended to represent the eight Zen chants and texts discussed therein, and their visible roots the fourth of the seven points of practice as outlined by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi during his last formal talk as abbot of Antaiji Zen Monastery – namely, “live by vow and root it deeply.”

“Live by vow and root it deeply” – despite what thoughts of nihilism and anarchy, or hopelessness and meaninglessness might arise from an incorrect or incomplete or doubt-laden understanding of the Buddhist concept of emptiness, we choose to live in a manner that honors all life and supports all beings. This choice is not necessarily an obvious, logical, or easy one, or one that is supported by society at large. Thus, it is a choice best not made in the absence of adequate consideration; rather, it might best be accepted in the form of a vow.

Each chapter of Living by Vow explores a different verse or text, some of which will be unfamiliar to even long term students of formal Zen practice – depending, of course, upon the practice environment in which they have trained. For instance, The Three Refuges, are chanted after each standalone sitting at the practice center with which I am most familiar. One would have to practice in the mornings, however, in order to gain familiarity with the Heart Sutra and the Robe Chant; and one would have to take part in the more formal Sunday service in order to chant the Four Bodhisattva Vows and the Verse of Repentance. The Meal Chants, on the other hand, are only engaged in during the much more infrequent daylong practice periods involving oryoki, the ritual eating of food. The other two, the Verse for Opening the Sutra and Sandokai, were not part of the repertoire of practice with which I am most familiar, though they are included in the Soto Zen School’s Scriptures For Daily Services and Practice. The former is recited prior to lectures in Shunryu Suzuki’s lineage and the latter, incidentally, is the subject of his popular book, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, titled after a line of the Sandokai.

Within each chapter of Living by Vow is a wealth of insight and information from one who has been studying these verses and reflecting upon their depths for most of his life. Whether providing context for their recitation, expounding upon their historicity, elucidating on the English meaning of the Japanese or Sanskrit words contained therein, recounting the teachings of others on their meaning, or telling stories from his own experience that bring them to life, Okumura’s text is at once a scholarly resource and thoroughly engaging read. And yet, even with the wealth of information that this book imparts, it also conveys an underlying simplicity. For instance, says Okumura: “I believe that all verses and scriptures in the Soto Zen tradition are based on the Mahayana teaching of the bodhisattva vow. That is why I titled this book Living by Vow” (p. 2).

The Four Bodhisattva Vows

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.

Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.

The dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them.

The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it. (p. 13)

Okumura interestingly points out that each of these four sentences contains a contradiction. On one hand we have the numberlessness, inexhaustibleness, boundlessness, and unsurpassableness of sunyata, and on the other hand we vow to overcome this vastness with the “puniness” of our own lives and practice. Says Okumura: “Our practice is to take one more step toward the infinite, the absolute, moment by moment, one step at a time” (p. 20). “Because our vow is endless, our practice is never complete” (pp. 6-7). “This awakening to our own imperfection is repentance” (p. 34).

Which brings us to:

The Verse of Repentance

All the karma ever created by me since of old

Through greed, anger, and self-delusion

Which has no beginning, born of my body, speech, and thought

I now make full repentance of it

Okumura conveys a beautiful and touching story about repentance which I can’t help but recount since this post provides me with the opportunity:

When I was at Pioneer Valley Zendo in Massachusetts, I had to cut many trees to clear the land and plant a garden. I killed many small animals, insects, and worms. Once, for example, after I dug a well the hole filled with rainwater and a skunk drowned. My intention was to work for the Buddha Dharma and to create a place for practice. To do so I harmed many creatures. Even when we try to work for the benefit of all beings, we harm others. We cannot predict the consequences of our actions. All of us have to eat to live. Even if we don’t eat meat, we have to eat vegetables. This means we have to kill vegetables. To live as a human being is to be supported by others’ lives and deaths. Even if we are not conscious of it, we may create evil karma that can injure ourselves and others. As bodhisattvas we cannot live without repentance. (p. 56)

A full one quarter of Living by Vow is given over to the Heart Sutra. Readers of my own five-post series on the Heart Sutra will certainly enjoy Okumura’s 75-page exposition in which he addresses many of the questions that I sought to address – albeit in a much more scholarly and comprehensive manner. Gosh, if this book had come out earlier, I might not have felt the need to go down that path on my own! I’m joking, of course. Each of our wholehearted attempts at understanding the Dharma constitutes time well spent. In my case, my own struggles with the material allow me to appreciate Okumura’s treatment all the more. Perhaps one final quote from this particular chapter will bring this review full circle:

In bodhisattva practice we try to see the reality before separation. When we see the reality of our life, we find that we are not living as an individual substance but are more like a phantom, a bubble, or a flash of lightning, as the Diamond Sutra says. We are phenomena caused by many different elements and factors. We live with the support of all beings. This dynamic interpenetration works constantly. Nothing exists independently. We live together in this universal movement. Our existence is movement. We have to accept this ever-changing reality as our self. (p. 189)

Please check out this wonderful book. I trust that you will find much between its covers that will both deepen your practice and broaden it. For me it was deepening my understanding of universality and ritual, and the vow connecting each to the other.


Okumura, S. (2012). Living by vow: A practical introduction to eight essential Zen chants and texts. (D. Ellison, Ed.) Wisdom Publications.

Image Credits

Living by Vow front cover artwork by Eiji Imao.

Copyright 2013 by Maku Mark Frank


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