The Fundamental Koan and
the First Vow of the Bodhisattva

Ton Lathouwers

The FAS Society Journal 1996, pp.16-26
"Do you love the eternally damned?" (Baudelaire)

I would like to begin my talk by recalling my first encounter with living Zen. As you know, first encounters are very important because the person you meet is, to some extent, the embodiment of what Zen is all about. It happened twenty-five years ago this very month of July, and the man was Dr. Masao Abe, a successor of Prof. Hisamatsu and main representative of the FAS Society. Up to that moment, my knowledge of Zen was purely theoretical, limited to books and literature. The encounter took place in a most dramatic period of my life, when I felt completely at a loss. During a very strange odyssey that summer, I had arrived in Moscow. Then I suddenly felt the urge to go to Japan. Arriving in Tokyo, I went straight to the Russian Orthodox monastery in search of some lead to a Zen person who could speak English. Someone there mentioned Masao Abe and advised me to meet him if I went to Kyoto. I phoned him and he immediately invited me to his home. Meeting him was a great embarrassment for me: There he stood, properly dressed, every inch a Japanese gentleman, while I arrived not at all dressed for the occasion and with long, unkempt hair. He was so proper, and yet so kind and tender that he immediately changed clothes to put me at ease. So began my first encounter with a man of Zen, and with it started the kind of deep meeting that I later came to know as "mutual inquiry." He never once used that term during our first meeting, and yet he was the living embodiment of the sincerity that characterizes such a profound endeavor.

As I said, at that stage of my life I felt at a complete loss in every aspect of my existence: in my relations with other people, in my inner life, and in my religious life. I felt as if wading endlessly through a swamp with no firm ground anywhere to put my feet on. It felt like nothing at all, in the past or the present, could give me any support. I poured all of this out and I recall Masao Abe probing me time and again: "Who are you? Who says these things? Who asks these questions?" In so doing, he made me realize even more acutely that I had gotten beyond my depth. And yet, he sat there smiling and looking so kind that I felt that this despair wasn't the final stage, that despair wasn't the last and final word.

Most important was his kindness -- even more important than his persistent and piercing questioning. That kindness has been with me all the way, up to this very moment. I feel deep gratitude for this very busy man who always found time to talk and write. Gasshoto a great man of Zen.

I could quote so many things from our conversations, but I'll limit myself to three things that made a deep impression on me. First, he encouraged me to go on reading books. I remember Masao Abe, during a lecture in Antwerp, answering a question about whether it was good to read books on Zen or not. His kind answer: "A bird cannot fly on one wing." This fundamental attitude of giving the question back to the questioner, fresh, sparkling, and full of life, is the second thing I cherish most from our conversations. I continually confronted him with questions that I could not answer and yet had to answer. He would reply, ever so mildly, "I'm very sorry, but even the Buddha cannot tell. You decide." At first I didn't feel helped at all. It took me a long time before I realized that this was the best answer he could have given.

The admonition I most certainly will never forget, was his repeating over and over that the first vow of the bodhisattva was the single, most important thing in all of Zen. He mentioned that whenever people spoke about the four vows, the other three vows invariably popped up; personal enlightenment always seemed the central issue and main concern. Meanwhile, he persistently stressed the utmost importance and difficulty of the first vow, the vow to save all beings, innumerable though they may be. In doing so, Masao Abe aligns himself with D. T. Suzuki, who states in his Essays in Zen Buddhism that this saving of all beings, all humankind, is the deepest mystery of Mahayana Buddhism. Quoting the sutras, D. T. Suzuki adds that "even the Buddha cannot make clear and explore to the bottom what it means to be a bodhisattva." Talking about this first vow must be done with utmost humility. It must take the form of questioning, for every word proves to be a pitfall, entails the danger of slipping under one's feet.

In that same essay, D. T. Suzuki quotes the Avatamsaka Sutra, expressing the very deep yearning to save all, yet desperately realizing this is humanly impossible. Even the Buddha cannot fathom it. The Avatamsaka Sutra goes on to state that this is the place, here, this very meditation is the place where all beings are being saved. I remember being shocked when I first heard Masao Abe say this. Let me give you another example from our conversations to make it sound less theoretical, and more importantly, less cheap. For there is always the danger that such speaking ends up as a mere stereotype or commonplace without any power or commitment attached. I recall talking to Masao Abe -- it must have been our third or fourth encounter -- about my son, then in his twenties and completely lost, definitely not wanting to live any longer. And I told him of my being unable to do anything about his despair, a despair which I felt to be my own. Masao Abe said: "If you want to save him...." -- that was the very word he used -- to save him, "then sit in meditation, sit deeply and strongly in meditation."

Hearing this, you may ask a number of legitimate questions: Does this sitting live up to that unfathomable vow to save all? Isn't such sitting and repeating the vow a mere trick, a form of escapism? Will it do? Let us not forget that it is easy to mouth this vow. The Russian novelist Dostoevsky repeatedly stressed that it is very easy to love humankind and even to give one's life for the sake of all humankind, but it is far more difficult to love the people around us. Pondering over his own bitterness, Dostoevsky avows that he would rather the whole universe collapse than that he miss his first cup of tea in the morning. Sometimes he speaks bitterly about human failure, the profound inability to live up to one's mission. This brings us back to that first vow, and to the fundamental koan, of which our life itself is the inescapable expression. This fundamental koan -- right here and now, whatever you do will not do; what will you do? -- applies to this very situation. Life is an impossible question: every moment, this moment, me trying to express it and knowing it cannot be expressed, yet trying and feeling deeply ashamed. Masao Abe gave me the courage to pursue my quest, to try and find words to express the existential range of this impossible question.

Shin'ichi Hisamatsu, who coined the fundamental koan, made the endeavor even more impenetrable when he linked it with that very dangerous notion of faith. Within the context of Zen, it seems that faith, just as hope for instance, are to be fundamentally distrusted. And yet, Hisamatsu speaks of faith. And he does so in a way that comes very close to what two authors in our own culture, the philosopher Kierkegaard and the novelist Elie Wiesel, expressed without knowing about Zen.

First, Hisamatsu says most definitely what faith is not. It is not believing something you were told, or you read, or even something you held to be true just a minute ago. Quite the contrary: for Hisamatsu, faith arises from the very depth of doubt and despair. Faith arises out of the impossible question that life is, from the deep realization of being driven into a corner, being locked up and going on questioning to the very end, without ever hearing an answer. Hearing this "topography" of faith, our first reaction will be definite refusal, a prompt "No, this cannot be true." And yet there is an almost identical expression from a philosopher in our own tradition, Kierkegaard. He experienced life as an ongoing quest of absolute doubt, doubting and questioning everything to the very end. But he realized that out of the depths of that doubt arose.... faith. In his own words: being battered, being slain, being cornered to such a degree that you realize to your utmost astonishment that....everything is possible. For Kierkegaard, faith is the existential realization that everything is possible. Faith is nothing other than this desperate yearning for possibility. Kierkegaard even adds here the word....freedom. To him, freedom is not the possibility to choose between good and evil. Freedom isthis infinite possibility.

All is possible.... This topography of faith and freedom is such a deep paradox, such a fundamental koan if you like, that Kierkegaard goes on to say that no human being can cope with it. Realizing this impossible paradox of Kierkegaard, realizing the vastness of the first vow of the bodhisattva, and at the same time knowing that humanly speaking we are bound to fail; we must go on from here, keeping it open. All is possible, Kierkegaard keeps repeating. Right there where you are bound to conclude that nothing whatsoever is possible, that life has cornered you with no exit foreseeable, no salvation imaginable, there you realize that all is possible.

I'm very well aware, as was Kierkegaard himself, that this "all is possible" can very quickly degenerate into cheap consolation, into a commonplace cheerfully exchanged while sitting around after a nice dinner. But still he went on repeating it over and over again. And it was not for him an easy formula, coined once and forever. Nor was it an intellectual insight, a vista that can be rationalized. It just happened to him. And he emphasizes that it cannot be turned into a method. For him there is no method whatsoever, and he warns us against that greatest danger of all: turning things into a method that will do the trick once and for all. It happened, and it happens every moment anew and there is nothing in the world you can do, no method whatsoever, to make it happen.

Let me look at the fundamental koan from another angle in order to make this koan, this impossible question, more alive. My second guide is Elie Wiesel, the Jewish author and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. As a boy, Elie Wiesel was in Auschwitz where he saw his mother and sister disappear in the gas chambers and where he, a young lad then fifteen, had to watch his father beaten to death before his eyes. He was there where those elderly rabbis, who had devoted their entire lives to God, came together and sentenced their own God, finding him guilty for forsaking His chosen people in this darkest of ordeals. Such a life has, of course, a most dramatic ring to it. But let us not forget that the same ordeal is now going on around us, in former Yugoslavia, for example. You name it, and it is happening. And there Elie Wiesel stands, facing the impossible question that will forever bear the name "Auschwitz." As a modern theologian expressed it: Can there be a God after Auschwitz? And indeed Wiesel says: "I don't know whether I believe or not and I will never know." But most peculiar, with every image of Auschwitz etched into his brain, he comes to realize the truth of what Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav had uttered some two hundred years earlier: "No heart is as whole as a broken heart." Wiesel continues:

I would like to rephrase his words and say, "No faith is as pure as the broken faith." He who says today that he is at peace with himself and with God is estranged from both.... One has to be mad, totally mad, to believe in such concepts that we can redeem people, that we can save mankind, that we can help one another today. But I am for that madness. I am for mystical madness, a madness that has only one obsession: redemption....not for himself but for everyone.
Wiesel explicitly chooses this madness, this raving insanity. In so doing, Elie Wiesel adds an important historical depth to the "A" (All humankind) of the acronym FAS. For indeed, we can imagine our life to change from this moment on and in times to come. But what about the past? What about those millions of innocent men, women, and children who died in Auschwitz? Everything about us seems to confirm it: the past is past, nothing about it can be changed, there is no salvation for yesterday's deeds and yesterday's dead. But Elie Wiesel turns the tables and puts the responsibility back on us. There is no way of escaping this responsibility, whether we believe or not in a God who will set all things right at the completion of time. Wiesel affirms over and again that he does not know whether he believes or not in the God handed down to him. The responsibility remains ours, though we clearly see that this seems to be madness. Still, we must choose this madness.

What can we do now? Again, quoting Elie Wiesel:

Having reached the ultimate sphere of despair, what are we to do? Stay there? Forever? And show solidarity with the victims by joining them? In our tradition that is not an answer. That is a question. In our tradition despair is never the answer. Despair is a question.
Wiesel calls it, "the great question, the question of all questions." He writes that here heaven itself is questioning us in the same way that we are questioning heaven, challenging God and heaven. This question goes on from both ends and there comes no answer from either end. All the more, says Wiesel, since there cannot even be an answer. So what will you do? Here we are, straight at the heart of Hisamatsu's koan!

The above quotations come from Wiesel's book, Against Silence. As the title indicates, it is a total, permeating protest against abandoning the question, against forgetting the memories, against making the best of a bad job. In another work, Wiesel tells the story of an old man who is losing his memory bit by bit. In the Zen context, which emphasizes the "suchness" of the present moment and the "here and now," memories and history -- the whole dimension of the past -- are suspect. And yet, Wiesel comes very close to the fundamental koan, and thus to the core of Zen itself, when that old man in prayer addresses God, a God whom he explicitly calls the God of history: "Help me never to forget," he prays:

Let me always remember and stay with the memories, because forgetting would be killing, forgetting is giving up, is capitulation, forgetting is betrayal. Help me keep in mind, help me remember all the sufferings of the past. All those killings, all despair, all hopes, all people. Help me to keep alive the memory of myself as a child, of all of us as the children we were. Help me never to forget, help me to pronounce their names again and again and bring back to my memory the past, in my words, in my books. God of time and history, let me always remain with all that has been, although my memory is faltering, is deforming, is making it all sound wrong.
We cannot do anything but remember. At the closing of a day in sesshin, this is expressed in the formal dedication: we are giving through, we pass on, we transmit the lamp's flame from generation to generation. Just as Elie Wiesel transmits the hope, transmits the names without ever knowing what to do with them, we are transmitting, presenting here and now, keeping alive the impossible nostalgia for what we can never express. At the end of the prayer, that old man adds something wonderful: "God help me to keep in mind all the past, all despair of the past, all hope of the past, all longing of the past. And, God, even if You were to forget it all, I will not." We cannot fathom the depth out of which this conviction resounded.

Even if God were to forget.... This is a most strange and even awful expression in the Jewish tradition: Kaf Hekalah in Hebrew. Not only in the Jewish tradition either. The Russian tradition as well has kept alive the very profound intuition that even God can forget his creatures. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky talks of God forgetting "the eternally damned." He depicts the bottomless pit of God's forgetting in which the souls of the sinners eternally dwell, forgotten by all and everything. But, says Dostoevsky through the mouth of the protagonist, there is one who refuses to forget, there is one who refuses to capitulate: the mother of God, the Holy Virgin. Dostoevsky is retelling a popular Russian tale. It tells of the Virgin Mary who, like a bodhisattva, is incapable of seeing this suffering any longer, refuses to stay in heaven with its eternal bliss and decides to descend into hell. She takes her child Jesus with her. She refuses to accept the obvious, the self-evident, the inevitable that was so decided from the beginning. Finally she gains the release of the eternally damned. But....not totally. This responsibility for their total redemption remains ours, as Elie Wiesel writes.

The worst thing that could happen to us is that we forget, that we let the past slip away into oblivion, with its suffering and despair, and its dead. Humanly speaking, there is nothing we can do -- and yet we must do something. Time and again we repeat the vow to save all. And this includes all living creatures of all realms and all times.

Maybe there are more effective ways to deal with suffering. But then again, we can never be sure. What's more: we cannot even know our own deepest motivation, not here, not elsewhere. Psychologically speaking, we cannot know whether we are trying to escape the very things we want to confront. We cannot check and say, "Yes, this is true indeed; this stems from the deepest ground." We cannot know for sure about our final motivation. Just like Luther at a very decisive moment in his life, all we can do is say, "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise." This is jumping into the abyss, as Kierkegaard put it. We repeat the vow to save all beings, and by this jump into its abyss. "Save all living beings": How can this be? Don't know!

I would like to end with a beautiful story. The author, a rabbi, theologian and psychiatrist, recalls the visit of a very strange patient, a visit that proved a true revelation. The man sits in front of him and remains in what I would call an archetypal silence. Not once does he utter a word. It is immediately clear to the psychiatrist that this man carries a burden larger than life. Who is this man? It doesn't matter. The silence in the room keeps growing and comes to unstabilize everything that the doctor knows and trusts. Gradually everything slips away: all the tricks in the book, all his psychological tools, all his knowledge, religious imagery -- everything considered reliable and beyond suspicion or doubt. Resounding in this larger-than-life silence, the doctor comes to realize to his utmost despair that he knows nothing, that all his knowledge is of no avail. In the strange figure in front of him, reminding him of Isaiah's "suffering Servant" taking the burden of all humankind on his shoulders, the psychiatrist to his terror realizes absolute human loneliness beyond any visible hope of salvation. And he realizes at the same time that this man's loneliness is his own. Here he is the one to go through his personal koan, his own ordeal of being left without any visible hope, just as Kierkegaard had to, and Elie Wiesel, and Shin'ichi Hisamatsu. And he must carry on, coming even to the shocking discovery that it is impossible to draw a straight line dividing the good ones from the bad ones, in complete recognition of all that is bad, dark and awful inside himself. Only this being "totally cornered," as Hisamatsu called it, finally opens up for him a "breaking through" to the other before him. And only through this to a totally new perspective. In Hisamatsu's words, mentioned earlier, this is a faith rising up from the very bottom of despair.

And so do we live as well, challenged by the impossible words of a vow that, humanly speaking, is impossible. Not knowing what to do -- and yet doing it. Maybe by writing and testifying like Kierkegaard and Elie Wiesel did, maybe just by feeling the pain, feeling the despair. Confronted with the absolute silence of all the eternally damned, and penetrating to the core of their loneliness. Let the words of the first vow continue to go through me, through you, keeping them always alive, these impossible words of an impossible vow. Thank you.

[The author wishes to thank Geert Mortier for putting this talk into written form.] can be rendered in English as: All beings without limit I vow to save; The passions inexhaustible I vow to destroy; The numberless Dharma gates I vow to enter; The supreme Buddha Way I vow to complete.

August 7, 1996