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My Vows

Love all beings? Love even one? Either way, your heart breaks open. SUSAN PIVER ponders the choiceless choices.

So far, I’ve made two vows that have changed my life. One was related to my Buddhist practice—to become a bodhisattva. The other was to become a wife.

A bodhisattva is a person who vows to help all beings reach enlightenment, no matter how many lifetimes it might take. This vow is obviously not made lightly; it comes after many hours of meditation practice and a formal commitment to Buddhism. Serious contemplation and study are required to get even a glimmer of the deeper meaning of this vow and its complexities. (For example, you vow to love everyone, even people you don’t like.)

A wife’s vow is also not made lightly. It comes after having found someone you really, really like to talk to and also to touch. It’s made after serious contemplation of the likelihood you’ll find anyone better, could might otherwise grow old alone, and how cute you’d look in a bridal gown. A bodhisattva chooses to be of service. A bride picks out china patterns for dinner service.

It so happened that I prepared to take both these vows at around the same time. While bride-me was shopping for dresses, arguing with her parents, and falling prey to panic attacks, bodhisattva-me was studying the six transcendent actions and contemplating the suffering of all sentient beings.

Both are vows to love (all beings in one case and a single being in the other) and it may seem that the bodhisattva vow is the really hard one. But after ten years, I can tell you that the real test of bigheartedness started with the latter proposition.

Marriage is the perfection of what love aimed at, ignorant of what it sought.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

When my boyfriend asked me to marry him, I didn’t exactly gush yes. I sort of tried to break up with him. He wanted to deepen our relationship and I just wasn’t sure. Sure I loved Duncan, but my divorced girlfriends had loved their boyfriends too. Clearly love was no basis for marriage. Then what was? It had to be about more than wearing a silly dress, waving a wedding ring around, and being all, “Oh it’s my day.”

I told him I needed time to think it over and wanted to spend a month apart. I planned to search my soul, ponder the question deeply, and meditate a lot. I didn’t really know if I was cut out for marriage. I prized my solitude tremendously, maybe above everything. When I wanted to write, I wrote. When I wanted to meditate, I meditated. When I wanted to pretend to write and meditate, no one was around to bust me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to give all this up.

Plus, right now we could easily ignore what drove each of us crazy about the other and, perhaps as a consequence, after five years we were still completely hot for each other. Privacy. Being able to get away from each other on our bad days. These were good things, no? Maybe maintaining some separation was the key to keeping the whole thing going.

By month’s end I figured I’d either have come to some sort of brilliant conclusion about how it could all work out OR realized I simply wasn’t built for marriage and we should break up. If the latter, I’d already have accumulated separation days, and maybe they could be back-dated to shorten the grieving period.

Taking the bodhisattva vow implies that instead of holding o nto our individual territory and defending it tooth and nail, we become open to the world that we are living in.
—Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

During all this, I noticed that I was crying a lot. Everything was touching me and it was getting on my nerves: the hopeful look on a colleague’s face when he was about to make a presentation; how sorry I felt for the people on the news; how beautiful Marvin Gaye’s voice was when he sang “What’s Going On.” The insulation between me and the world around me was getting thinner and thinner. So I stepped up my meditation practice. I thought this would be the best way to maintain equilibrium during this emotional time. But the more I meditated, the more likely I was to be provoked to tears by the slightest display of fragility. This couldn’t be the intended result. Instead of making me peaceful, meditating was freaking me out. What was I doing wrong?

I made an appointment with my meditation instructor to explore this question, but instead of giving me a strategy for toughening up, he suggested I take the bodhisattva vow. He explained that bodhi meant “awake” and sattva meant “being,” so an awakened being is what you vow to become.

He told me that the vow was something a Buddhist might consider to deepen her practice after having been a meditator for some years. (Again with the deepening.) Sure, I thought, who wouldn’t want to try to become enlightened? But there was a catch. “The vow is to attain enlightenment for all beings, not just for yourself. You vow to keep taking birth through endless lifetimes and helping out until all beings are enlightened,” he said. No exceptions. You volunteer to take on the pain of all others. Wow, that’s some vow, I thought. But how, I asked him, would this help me stop crying all the time? It sounded like it would make everything worse. The tears are a good sign, he said. It’s good preparation for the path of the bodhisattva. Okay, if you say so, I thought to myself.

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