Living By Vow: A practical introduction to eight essential Zen chants and texts

Author: Okumura, Shohaku

Publisher: Boston: Wisdom Publications

Publication date: 2012

Number of pages: 328

Reviewed by: Patrick Kundo

My first encounter with this author was through his wonderful book on Dogen’ teaching in “Realizing Genjokoan.”  This I found so helpful that I approached this new book with eager anticipation.  I was not disappointed.  It really took me intimately into the rich tradition of f the chants that are so familiar to those who sit in a Zendo.  The words of introduction ‘Okumura guides us like an old friend, with a sure and gentle hand’ are a most accurate description for it.  It soons become clear that our author is not only a renowned scholar of Buddhist literature but  he is a dedicated practitioner as well.  The title takes us right into the first chapter of the Four Bodhisattva Vows.  With each of chapter Okumura first looks at the title in their original language as a way of pointing to the underlying meaning. From this he develops a rich and insightful understanding which for me certainly brings the chant alive.  All together he does this with not only the Four Vows but also with what he calls the Verse of Repentance which I much prefer the word Atonement rather than ‘Repentance.’ He goes on with the Three Refuges, The Robe Chant, The meal chants, the heart Sutra, Merging of Difference and Unity and finally Opening the Sutra.  The content derives from a series of lectures given when the author was the interim head teacher at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Centre.  The title of living by vow was something that Katagiri Roshi who says that the wholehearted practice of zazen is itself living by vow and thus he wrote this verse shortly before his death:
Living in Vow, silently sitting Sixty-three years Plum blossoms begin to bloom The jewelled mirror reflects truth as it is.

Many readers will be interested to know that Okumura lived with his family in a Catholic Convent for a year in Japan.  His experience of giving a series of talks on Prayer to that community has given him great experience at translating something from one cultural tradition to another and this is admirably evidenced in the text here.

I would go further than recommending this book to suggesting that everyone who desires to really be intimate with the practice of Zazen should use it a regular source and enlightenment and encouragement.