Kwan Seum Bosal

Yesterday Chris and I went down to the Cambridge Zen Center to see our friends Kathy and Andrzej get married. This was only the second Buddhist wedding I’ve attended: when Chris and I got married in Ohio a dozen years ago, we had a Catholic wedding.

Buddhist weddings range widely depending on the couple who plans them. When our friends Bill and Natasa got married, Natasa wore our friend Jane’s wedding dress with no meditation robe while Bill wore a shirt and tie. Yesterday, Andrzej wore full Dharma teacher robes and Kathy wore her short meditation robe over an intricately embroidered white smock and simple white skirt. Both couples were married in the Dharma room at the Cambridge Zen Center; both brides were barefoot. Our friends Jane and Piotrek, on the other hand, got married on a seaside cliff in Rhode Island, no Dharma room necessary; I missed that wedding because at the time I was sitting three weeks of retreat at the Providence Zen Center in landlocked Cumberland, RI.

Regardless of where the ceremony is held or what the happy couple wears, Buddhist weddings as practiced in our Zen school have a few core elements. Both the couple and the gathered sanga recite the Threefold Refuge in homage to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The couple bows to one another and offers incense at the altar, and both the couple and the gathered sangha chant. (During yesterday’s ceremony, there was a poignant moment when everyone lost their place in the middle of a chant dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Compassion, a swelling moment of silence suggesting that yes, we’re all in this together.) The couples exchange rings, and yesterday’s ceremony had another particularly human moment when the ring-bearer hesitated to give Kathy’s ring to Andrzej, who then nervously put the ring on Kathy’s right ring-finger. (Oops, dude: other hand!) There is a talk by the presiding officiant as well as various congratulatory talks by friends and family. And then there are The Vows.

Garden buddha

The recitation of vows, of course, is the central moment in any wedding, Buddhist or otherwise: in the West, at least, you aren’t really married until you say your “I do’s.” Buddhists, however, are even more vow-crazy than Christians, so although yesterday’s ceremony featured no “I do’s,” Kathy and Andrzej reciting in unision a series of vows based on the Buddhist concept of the Eightfold Path. Through their individual and shared practice, Kathy and Andrzej vowed to keep a correct view, correct thoughts, correct conduct, correct speech, correct livelihood, correct effort, correct mindfulness, and correct meditation. Instead of focusing on what each partner promised to the other, these vows focused on what they each promised to themselves and to all beings: Kathy and Andrzej vowed to see clearly, to let go of attachments, to be compassionate, to speak honestly, to support others in work, to create a loving home, to be mindful, and to walk the bodhisattva path.

These eight marriage vows are simply a variation on the Four Great Vows that Zen Center residents recite every morning:

Sentient beings are numberless
We vow to save them all.

Delusions are endless
We vow to cut through them all.

The teachings are infinite
We vow to learn them all.

The Buddha Way is inconceivable
We vow to attain it.

The eight vows that Kathy and Andrzej recited sound doable enough, but the Four Great Vows point to the utter impossibility of the task. In vowing to find their true selves and save all beings from suffering, Buddhists commit themselves to a daunting task: a real Mission Impossible. Keeping marriage vows is difficult enough: saving all sentient beings, cutting through endless delusions, learning infinite teachings, and attaining an inconceivable path is, well, inconceivable. And when you stumble out of bed at 5:00 a.m. to recite these vows in a bleary-eyed stupor before hitting the mat to do 108 bows, they seem absurdly unattainable.

The message of any wedding and of practice in general, though, is that you try anyway. The thought that you can stay committed to one person for the rest of your life, through sickness and in health, for better and for worse, and in the face of personal and universal vicissitudes is absurdly preposterous: only someone young, idealistic, or in love would dream it possible. But from time immemorial, people have tried it anyway. It isn’t possible to save all beings from suffering–heck, most days I can’t even save myself from suffering–but I try anyway. One of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s favored sayings rings particularly true in this context: “Try, try, try, 10,000 years nonstop.” Or in another Zen turn of phrase, “Fall down six times, get up seven.” The impossibility of the task doesn’t keep us from trying; in fact, the impossibility of the task is the very reason why we try and why we vow to keep trying.

As he and his lovely new bride cut their vegan wedding cake, Andrzej thanked people for coming and reminded us all of a bit of advice Zen Master Seung Sahn once gave a student. “If you want enlightenment, you should become a monk. If you can’t become a monk, get married. And if you can’t get married, go to prison!” The moral of this story, Andrzej pointed out later, is one of commitment: we vow to try, and so we try, and try, and try… “Being married is easy,” my grandfather used to say. “It’s only the first 50 years that are tough.” Zen Master Seung Sahn would agree, I bet. Finding your true self and saving all beings from suffering is easy: it’s only the first 10,000 years or so that’s tough. And so each morning, we renew our own individual vows to practice, to try and to try again, whether married or single, man or woman, monk or layperson. The world is a lovely partner, and each morning (and every moment) we vow to love her and her sentient creatures as best as we possibly can. We have, after all, 10,000 years to get it right.

Congratulations again, Kathy and Andrzej: may you “just do it” for many happy years to come!