Every morning in the Zen Center, the very first thing we do before starting 108 bows, is to recite the Four Great Vows. The first vow is “Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all.” Our practice is not for us, not for “me.” It’s for all beings.
Sometimes people ask: “What is this point about ‘…we vow to save them all’. Is that really possible, or necessary?” And the answer that I give is that this vow is not something we measure or estimate or analyze in terms of possible/not possible. This vow is aspirational, a compass just to clarify and reinforce the direction of our practice so strongly, that we should also have the mind to help even those beings who are trapped in the deepest hell of mental suffering. “We vow to save them all.” This is the soul of the Mahayana way, and it is the soul of Mahayana’s radical, wayward child, Zen meditation.
Yes, it is true that we do not “save” others. This speech is just an expedient means, a toy to train us, a medicine for our minds, mere training wheels on the vehicle of our practice. As the Buddha dialogues with his student, Subhuti, in the Diamond Sutra:
Subhūti, what do you think? You should not claim that the Tathāgata [Buddha] thinks ‘I will save sentient beings.’ Subhūti, do not think such a thing. Why? There are in fact no sentient beings for the Tathāgata to save. If there were sentient beings for the Tathāgata to save, it would mean that the Tathāgata holds the notions of self, person, sentient being, and life span.Chapter 25
Subhūti, when the Tathāgata says ‘I,’ there is actually no ‘ I.’ Yet common people take this to be an I. Subhūti, as far as common people are concerned, the Tathāgata says that they are not common people.
So, doing this vow (any and all of these vows) every day is not some claim or goal or even belief: It is all about creating unshakeable direction for our practice, for our lives, no matter what the condition or situation.
There is a powerful teaching-story about the importance of other-oriented practice. It concerns the Buddha and a person named Kandata with very heavy karma who is lost in the deepest Hell. This is an excellent story — very simple and clear. And because its content is not “religious” in nature (not specifically “buddhist”), but ethical, moral, I know that some people in Asia read it to their children, in the manner of Aesop’s fables, as a guide for setting one’s ethical compass for how we live our lives — with direction to help others.
Here is an excellent translation of the original story, by one of Japan’s greatest short story writers, Ryuunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). He is regarded as one of the greatest writers in the Japanese language, often known as “the father of the Japanese short story” (two of his stories were made into Rashomon, the classic 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa).
The Spider’s Thread
It was a normal day in Heaven. It was morning, and Buddha was standing beside a pool. In the pool there were many flowers. The flowers sat on the top of the water, and they were very beautiful. Buddha began to walk. He walked around the pool and looked at the flowers. The flowers had a beautiful smell. The smell grew inside the flowers and moved into the air. All the air around Buddha smelled amazing.quoted from https://easystoriesinenglish.com/spider/
Buddha stopped walking, and looked hard at the pool. Between the flowers there was water, and under the water, there was Hell.
The water was like a piece of glass. Above, there was Heaven, beautiful and lovely. Below, there was Hell, ugly and horrible. The water stood between the two places.
Through the water, Buddha could see all the horrible things in Hell.
First, there was the Sanzu river. It was a river full of dragons, and it had a bridge going over it. Only good people could walk across the bridge. There were demons standing in the water, and if a bad person walked across the bridge, the demons would take them and throw them into the water, so that they would be eaten by the dragons.
Then, there was the Mountain of Needles. It was a huge mountain made of sharp needles. When a truly bad person came to Hell, they had to climb the Mountain of Needles.
There was also the Lake of Blood. The Lake was made of very, very hot water, and it smelled horrible. Bad people in Hell had to swim in the boiling water, and their blood filled the Lake. And of course, there were many other horrible things in Hell, but Buddha did not like to look at them.
Among the groups of bad people in Hell, there was one man called Kandata. Kandata had been a very evil man. He had killed people, stolen from people, and even burned houses with people in them. He was truly an enemy of all good people. But once in his life, he had done something good, and Buddha remembered this.
One time, Kandata was walking through a thick forest. He was going to steal from a man who lived in the forest. As he was walking, he saw a spider beside him. Kandata raised his foot, and was about to stand on the spider and kill it, but then he stopped.
‘No, no. Even something this small has a reason to live. It would be truly evil to take its life away.’
So he let the spider live, and went to steal from the man.
As Buddha looked down into Hell, he thought of how Kandata had saved the spider. He decided that Kandata was actually not that evil. Because he had saved the spider, Buddha thought he should give Kandata a chance to leave Hell.
Luckily, next to the pool of beautiful flowers, a spider was walking. It was a spider of Heaven. It was an amazing green colour, and it was making a beautiful gold thread. Usually, spiders only made weak, white threads, but this spider’s golden thread was strong and made of shining gold. So Buddha took the spider’s golden thread and dropped it into Hell deep below him.
At the bottom of Hell, Kandata was swimming in the Lake of Blood, along with many other bad people. Occasionally, he saw something bright, and he thought it was something that could save him. But when he looked harder, he saw that it was just the needles on the Mountain of Needles, shining in the light. All around him, people cried in pain and sadness. Kandata had stopped crying, because he was too tired. He felt truly awful, because he knew he would never leave Hell. He swam in the Lake of Blood, quiet and sad.
Kandata saw something shine, but he knew it was only a needle, so he did not look up. But it kept shining, so eventually he raised his head. Above him, in the darkness of Hell’s sky, there was something bright and gold. It was a long thread that was slowly coming down into Hell.
Kandata couldn’t believe his eyes. His chance to leave Hell was coming down to him like a present. He would climb onto the thread, and climb out of Hell! If he was lucky, he might even be able to climb into Heaven. He no longer had to swim in the Lake of Blood, and climb the Mountain of Needles. He would be free!
So Kandata climbed out of the Lake and ran to the golden thread. He took it in his hands. The thread was thin, and easy to hold onto. Kandata climbed up and up and up. Because he used to steal so much, he was very good at climbing, so it was no problem to climb up the golden thread. However, between Heaven and Hell were thousands and thousands of miles, so even for a great climber like Kandata, it was a difficult journey.
After climbing for a long time, Kandata was tired, so he decided to take a break. He looked below him to see how far he had climbed. He saw that the Lake of Blood was far, far away, and that he had climbed many miles. Even the Mountain of Needles was far below him. If he kept climbing, he would leave Hell. He felt a great happiness inside of him.
‘I’ve done it! I’ve done it!’ he shouted, and laughed.
But then he felt something below him on the thread. He looked down, and saw that lots of other bad people in Hell had seen the thread. They were now following him, climbing up and up and up.
Kandata saw this, and he was surprised, and sad. He hung there, looking down at the other evil people. The thread was not thick, so he was surprised that it could take so many people without breaking. But if too many people climbed onto the thread, it might break, and they would all fall back down into Hell. More and more people climbed out of the Lake of Blood, and started climbing up the thread.
Kandata shouted at the people below, ‘Hey, you terrible people! You awful people down there! This spider’s thread is mine. It belongs to me, and only me! Who told you you could all climb up? Get off, get off!’
Then, suddenly, the spider’s thread broke. It made a SNAP, and Kandata fell. He fell down and down and down. Finally, he landed in the Lake of Blood with a SPLASH, along with all the other bad people. The spider’s thread hung in the air, shining bright like the needles on the Mountain of Needles, while all the bad people sat below.
Buddha stood by the side of the pool in Heaven, and watched all of this happen. He had a sad expression on his face. He started to walk around the pool again. He had given Kandata a chance to get out of Hell, but Kandata showed that he was a truly bad person, and so Buddha could not prevent him from falling back to Hell. Buddha seemed very sad at this.
Meanwhile, the flowers in the pool continued to smell lovely. They continued to make their beautiful smell all throughout Heaven, and they did not think of Kandata. The green spider continued to make its golden thread, and it did not think of Kandata. It was a normal day in Heaven, and soon it would be noon.
Sadly, the author of this excellent story, Ryuunosuke Akutagawa, was the son of a woman who suffered from very serious mental illnesses. It had a profound effect on him. He constantly agonized over the fear that he might eventually inherit these problems from his mother. As it turns out, though he climbed the thin thread of his art to great heights, the accumulated weight of this affliction snapped the thread before he could pull himself up to Paradise. Overcome with years of visual hallucinations and fear that he could not escape inheriting his mother’s condition, and as a result always feeling a “vague insecurity about the future” (his words), he killed himself at age 35. Japan’s most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after him.
So, like the Kandata of the story, the author himself faced the strong force of karma, or “mind habits.” I wonder if he had the technology of meditation practice, what he could have done to free himself, at least somewhat, from this Hell. If we practice, with consistency and courage, we can melt through these strong “mind habits” to begin to taste freedom from the created force of our delusive mental tendencies (i.e., karma). Finding the Dharma is important. Having a clear practice-technology is important. Having a clear Teacher is also important, and it is also extremely important to connect with a Sangha which practices regularly (even if not often) together.
But having direction is key: As Dae Soen Sa Nim always emphasized, “Having clear direction is very important. Why do you eat every day? Only for you? Only for your mouth, for your body? Even animals only live like that — their eating is only for themselves. Why living in this world? Why practicing? Only for you? Or for all beings? Having a clear direction is very important for your life.”
And his words are not just some spiritual wishfulness or ethics: The effects of helping others — being “other-centered” — are also grounded in empirical research. This is common knowledge in psychotherapy and the medical sciences.
Stephen G. Post, PhD, is a highly-regarded professor of preventive medicine and the director and founder of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. He is widely known for his research and public speaking on the ways in which giving can enhance the health and happiness of the giver, how empathy and compassionate care contribute to patient outcomes, ethical issues in caring for people with dementia, medical professionalism and the virtues, and positive psychology in relation to health and well-being. (Wikipedia)
Post emphasizes that helping others — volunteering, aiding those in need, even simple acts of charity among friends — is just as important to maintaining health as avoiding alcohol, tobacco and obesity. In his bestselling book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving, he writes, “The startling findings from our many studies demonstrate that if you engage in helping activities as a teen, you will still be reaping health benefits 60 or 70 years later. Generous behavior is closely associated with reduced risk of illness and mortality and lower rates of depression.”
The benefits of altruism are even hyped on websites for health care plans, like this one: “In one 2006 study, neuroscientist Jorge Moll and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health found that when people give to charities, it activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure and trust, creating a ‘warm glow’ effect – that fuzzy feeling.”
“Further evidence of the positive effects of volunteerism was found in a study from Carnegie Mellon University, published in 2013 in Psychology and Aging. Researchers discovered that adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers.”
“But adults aren’t the only ones to benefit from volunteering. Researchers have found that adolescents who give their time to help others also benefit by developing a sense of purpose and a healthy connection to their community.”
Having the GPS of the Four Great Vows is essential for that. It is the golden Spider’s Thread that we can all use together to climb out of the Ocean of Suffering. Most folks we know wish one day to get out of this vast suffering condition. But what “The Spider’s Thread” shows is that it is important to bring others along with us, to share with others the effort, to give to others even as we climb our way to liberation. Dr. Post points directly to those remaining in the Pool of Blood when he says, “We can be anywhere, so long as we are helping others and caring for them. This is probably the one source of stability in our lives that we can truly depend on, and so in the end we are never really out of place.”
Correct direction, indeed. Too bad Kandata could not get that email.
(Here is an excellent short video treatment of the “The Spider’s Thread,” done by a young American artist.)