The Pledge of Kwan-Yin

by Raghavan Iyer @ Theosophy Trust


THE PLEDGE OF KWAN-YIN


 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.

KWAN-YIN

 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. Emile 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 minuscule 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 that in oneself 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 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 offence, 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 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 light of daring is essential to the timely taking of the Kwan-Yin pledge. In the Kwan-Yin Sutra there is a reference to the flames of agony that consume personal consciousness. Kwan-Yin in its metaphysical meaning is bound up with fire and water. Kwan-Yin is connected with the primordial Light of the Logos, which is the paradigm and the pristine source of all creativity in the cosmos, of the hidden power in every human being to produce a result that is beneficent. If Kwan-Yin is ontologically connected with light, but is also compared to the ocean, what then is the meaning of the textual reference to extinguishing the flames of agony? This is a metaphysical paradox. What is light on the most abstract level of undifferentiated primordial matter is the darkness of non-being, such as that which is around the pavilion of God in the Old Testament, or that which is sometimes simply referred to as "In the beginning", the Archaeus, the dark abysm of Space. Kwan-Yin is rooted in Boundless Space and therefore involves noumenal existence at so high a level of attributeless compassion in Eternal Duration that it is the paradigm of all the vows and pledges taken by vast numbers of pilgrims throughout unrecorded history. It is also called Bath- Kol, the Daughter of the Voice, in the Hebrew tradition, that which when sought within the inmost sanctuary bestows a merciful response within the human heart. There is a latent Kwan-Yin in every human being. It is the voice of conscience at the commonest level. It is the chitkala of the developed disciple. At the highest level it is Nada, the Voice of the Silence, the Soundless Sound, that which is comprehended in initiation, and ceaselessly reverberates in the anahata, the deathless centre of the human body, transformed into a divine temple.

 The deeper meaning of the Kwan-Yin pledge is enshrined in profound metaphysics, but at the same time, it reaches down to the level of human ignorance and pain, at all levels extinguishing the intensity of craving, the fires of nescience. This is the teaching of the Kwan-Yin Sutra. When that which is light at the highest level descends, it becomes like unto cool water, although intrinsically it is so radiant that it would be blinding. But when it is diffused it converts its state into a fluid which is extremely soothing, sometimes compared to the cool rays of the moon. And then it is capable of giving comfort and sustenance. When a person is soothed and cooled, it is possible to let go, to relinquish the intensity of self-concern. Personal heat is intensely painful when it is experienced without any awareness of alternatives. But when one finds that it may be displaced by soothing wisdom, the cooling waters of compassion, then it is possible to ease the pain and to convert one"s mind from a falsely fiery state, which is destructive, into a cooling and regenerative condition. These are all alchemical expressions of processes that are involved in making deliberate changes in states of consciousness connected with different levels of matter.

 Theosophically, every level of thought corresponds to and is consubstantial with a level of differentiation of substance. Therefore, one can even discover in ordinary language certain words that tend to heat up the psycho-mental atmosphere. The very way in which one characterizes one"s own condition may do a lot of violence through language. One can burn oneself or become totally suffocated by the flames, though the Hasidic mystics remind us that even if the castle is burning, there is a lord. Even while one is burning there can be some recognition of that incorruptible, inconsumable essence in oneself. This possibility is the root of all faith in one"s power of spiritual survival, as well as the basis of all notions of physical survival, which are only shadowy representations of this deeper urge to persist and prevail. If one has everyday experience of how certain words and shibboleths can engender a lower heat, one can also employ gentler words, healing metaphors and analogies, broader categories, that soothe and cool one"s atmosphere. Even learning to do this is an art, one that can only be practised in a human being"s sincere efforts at apprenticeship to the great masters of the art. Kwan-Yin is the cosmic archetype of the art. She who expresses compassion in every conceivable context shows how inexhaustible are the ways of compassion of wise beings, how Initiates use every opportunity to release help. This is part of the universal inheritance of humanity. It is also mirrored in every mother or father who, despite all the lower levels of concern, somewhere knows that what he or she does cannot really be put into the language of calculation, cannot really be weighed or measured.

 Gratitude cannot be compelled, but without it life would not go on. It is as if human beings impose upon what they innately know a false structure of expectations, which entangles them in mental cobwebs that are entirely self-created. If emotion becomes sufficiently intense, bitter and sour, there can be a tremendous burden, but even that burden is an act of compassion of the spirit because its weight eventually burns out the tanha, the persisting thirst for material sensation, for false personal life. It will dissolve at the moment of death, but this does not happen all at once. It will receive certain shocks in life, and thereby human beings come to throw off the enormous excesses of their own compulsive cerebration, a great deal of the wastage and the futility of their own emotions, the wear and tear upon the subtle vestures through their own anxieties.

 What Nature does as a matter of course can be aided by conscious thought. But where it is aided by conscious thought in the name of the highest cosmic principle and in the company of a long lineage, a golden company of great exemplars of the vow and the pledge for universal enlightenment, one can truly consecrate one"s life and thereby refrain from becoming too tensely involved in the process of everyday psychological alchemy. This is implicit in what Buddha taught. If one truly enjoys the very thought of what Kwan-Yin is, and of what is in the Kwan-Yin pledge, this enjoyment should itself help to reduce much of the agony and the anxiety, the tension and strain, of daily striving. The real problem is to be wholehearted, with as undivided a mind as can be brought to the pledge. This must be done without qualifications, without contradictions, but with that holy simplicity of which the mystics speak, a childlike innocence, candour and trust. It is an act of acceptance of the universe and a letting go of whatever comes in the way. When anything does interfere, it must be consumed in the fires of sacrificial change that alone will lead to true spiritual growth. Many a monk on the Bodhisattva Path has found immense benefit through the talismanic use of these three verses:

If you are unable to exchange your happiness
For the suffering of other beings,
You have no hope of attaining Buddhahood
Or even of happiness in this lifetime.

If one whom I have helped my best
And from whom I expect much
Harms me in an inconceivable way,
May I regard that person as my best teacher.

I consider all living beings
More precious than "wish-fulfilling gems",
A motivation to achieve the greatest goal:
So may I at all times care for them.

Hermes, November 1979
by Raghavan Iyer