Never will I seek nor receive private, individual salvation; never will I enter into final peace alone; but forever and everywhere will I live and strive for the redemption of every creature throughout the world from the bonds of conditioned existence.
Unconditional affirmation of the Kwan Yin pledge can only come from the unconditional core of the human being. Words are uttered in time, and usually delimit meaning. They express thought, but they also obscure thought. To be able to use words in a manner that reaches beyond limits is to recognize prior to the utterance and to realize after the utterance, that one is participating only on the plane of that which has a beginning and an end, though in emulation and celebration of that which is beginningless and endless. Every word and each day is like an incarnation. Silence and deep sleep convey an awareness of duration that cannot be inserted into ordinary time, but indicate the return to a primal sense of being where one is neither conditioned by nor identified with external events, memories, anticipations, likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, possibilities and limitations. Common speech and ordinary wakefulness, for most individuals, are but clouded mirrors dimly reflecting the resonance and radiance of spiritual wakefulness. Any sacred pledge may be uttered by a human being with a wavering mind and a fickle heart, but it can also be authentically affirmed in the name of the larger Self that is far beyond the utterance and the formulation, yet immanent in both.
This is the time-honoured basis of religious rites, as well as the original source of civil laws. Émile Durkheim explained how early in the evolution of societies human beings learnt to transfer the potency of religious oaths to secular restraints and thereby established a high degree of reliability in human relationships. Mohandas Gandhi spoke of the sun, the planets and the mighty Himalayas as expressing the ultimate reliability of the universe, and taught that when human beings bind themselves by the power of a vow, they seek to become wholly reliable. If reliability essentially connotes a consistent standard of unqualified and unconditional success, then in taking a vow one is necessarily seeing beyond one’s limitations. If one is wise one allows for the probability of failure and the possibility of forgetfulness, but somewhere deep in oneself one still wants to be measured and tested by that vow. Thereby a vow which is unconditional, which releases the spiritual will, calibrates one’s highest self-respect and is vitally relevant to the mystery of self-transformation.
The Kwan Yin pledge is a Bodhisattvic vow taken on behalf of all living beings. It is closely connected with the Bodhichitta, wisdom-seeking mind, the seed of enlightenment. The idea that an unenlightened human being can effectively generate a seed of enlightenment is the central assumption behind the compassionate teaching of Mahatmas and Bodhisattvas, of the Buddhas and Christs. A drop of water is suggestive of an ocean; a flashing spark or single flame is analogous to an ocean of light; the miniscule mirrors the large. Herein lies the hidden strength of the Kwan Yin pledge. What may seem small from the standpoint of the personal self, when it is genuinely offered on behalf of the limitless universe of living beings and of all humanity past, present and future, can truly negate the finality of finitude, the ultimacy of what seems urgent, the immensity of what appears immediate. The human mind ceaselessly creates false valuations, giving ephemera an excessive sense of reality, to uphold itself in a world of flux. To negate this tendency in advance and to assign reality only to the whole requires a profound mental courage. It requires, while one is alive, a recognition of the connection between the moment of birth and the moment of death, of the intimate relationship between the pain of one human being and the sorrow of all humanity. But it also involves a recognition that greater beings than oneself have taken precisely such a vow, have affirmed this pledge again and again. Therefore, one can invite oneself, however frail, however feeble, into the family of those who are the self-chosen, unacknowledged but unvanquished friends of the human race.
The prospect of such a vow is naturally perplexing to the lower mind which is almost totally ignorant of the priorities of the immortal soul, and knows very little about even this life, let alone about previous lives. On what basis could the personality assume a gnostic authority in regard to its own limitations? If one simply looks at the last ten years of one’s life, one will readily see that many things which looked irrelevant, remote, even impossible in the past, unexpectedly become part of one’s way of thinking, one’s depth of feeling. If a human being does not truly know himself, merely to be aware of himself at the personal level in terms of persisting limitations is frustrating. This does not take into account in oneself that which is ineffable and unexpressed, whatever cannot come through the confining parameters of thought, the truncating crudities of speech and the stultifying restrictions of action.
The Kwan Yin pledge can be taken by anyone at any time, but the level of thought and intensity with which it is taken will determine the degree and reliability of response of the whole of one’s being. Shantideva puts this in the form of an ordination:
When the Sugatas of former times committed themselves to the Bodhichitta, they gradually established themselves in the practice of a Bodhisattva. So, I too commit myself to the Bodhichitta for the welfare of all beings and will gradually establish myself in the practice of a Bodhisattva.
Today my birth has become fruitful; my birth as a human being is justified.
Today I am born in the Buddha Family; I am now a son of the Buddha.
Now I am determined to perform those acts appropriate to my Family; I will not violate the purity of this faultless, noble Family.
To be able to take one’s place in the glorious company of Bodhisattvas is not to assume that one can, purely on one’s own, fulfil this exalted aim. But once one has truly affirmed it, no other aim has any comparable significance. This recognition would be critical to a timely taking of the mighty vow of the Buddha, the sacred pledge of Kwan Yin, the Bodhisattva ordination of Shantideva. Timeliness in this sense would mean that one simply cannot imagine an alternative. If a person were to take the pledge prematurely, lacking this sense of necessity, it would precipitate difficulties, making that person guilty, tortured with anxiety, involved even more in futile comparisons and contrasts with other human beings, more depressed, more desolate. But out of all these failures there may come some sense of timeliness at a later moment of ripeness. Timeliness does not occur all at once. Timeliness, like all wisdom, must be the ripe fruit of time-bound experiments and time-bound errors. Because these are time-bound, they are evanescent; they are not enduring. In the same way in which one stumbled and learnt to walk, or mumbled the multiplication tables, one may rediscover something about grace in movement or the deep logic of elementary numbers. So also one may rediscover the higher stage, the fuller meaning, the larger significance for the whole of one’s life, of the pledge one took. Suppose a person truly resolves to injure no human being and wishes to release love in every direction. If one is deeply attracted by this affirmation, what does it matter if there is something imperfect and inconclusive in one’s repeated efforts to embody it? Mature individuals, who have done this again and again, know that soon after one has made such an affirmation one is going to be tested. One has invited the Light of the Logos to shine upon the dark corners of one’s being. Through heightened awareness one sees unconscious elements in one’s nature which one did not even imagine were apt to give offense, but are now discerned as obscurations of one’s deepest feelings, one’s finest nature, one’s truest, profoundest sense of brotherhood. These discoveries are significant, but the hardest lesson at all times is the paramount necessity of patience and persistence. This is a pledge in favour of selfless service, and it cannot ever be premature. It will always be timely, though compelling timeliness can only come when there is serene insight, supported by the strength of personal invulnerability.
It is the immemorial teaching that the pristine seed of enlightenment, however small, may germinate far in the future into a flowering tree of wisdom, a mighty trunk of enlightenment. Inherent to the pure seed is a potency that represents the complete disavowal of considerations of success and failure for oneself, separate from the whole world. There is a fundamental abnegation of all the earthly criteria of happiness, power and achievement. For the immortal soul, the pledge could never be premature. Nevertheless, every sacred utterance should be the result of deep thought and true feeling, and should be renewed in silence, enriched by contemplation, and carried over from waking through dreamless sleep into the day of daily manifestation. If a person knows this much, then that person knows what is the essential nature of the task of self-transformation. As the task also involves self-forgetfulness and reaching out to all human beings, a point must surely come when the very thought of one’s own progress or lack of it in relation to the pledge will shrink into insignificance simply because one’s consciousness becomes so occupied with the greater growth, the larger welfare of the human race. If a person thought this out carefully, he or she could safeguard against the greatest danger, ignoring which is the mark of immaturity: the cold forgetfulness that arises from the initial unwisdom or psychic heat in taking a vow. A vow is sacred; it must germinate in silence. It invokes sacred speech, but it must ripen through suffering. Where the vow involves a recognition of the ubiquity of human suffering and where one chooses to make one’s own suffering meaningful and creative for a larger purpose, the vow has self-correction built into it. Those who have received this great teaching and have been inspired by the very highest ideal, will be wise to take the Kwan Yin pledge at some level. In the words of Buddha, “Anyone who even hears about Kwan Yin begins the search then and there for enlightenment.”
The Gupta Vidya II