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Baptism and Bodhisattvas

Interreligious dialogue is a little like learning to speak a foreign language. We will always be “native speakers” of our mother tongue, but learning another language can help us appreciate our native language more clearly. Furthermore, each language has ways of conceiving reality that are nuanced and unique. Having a dialogue with another language begins to open our own minds and hearts to this unique way of perceiving the world.


In this spirit of interreligious dialogue we compare the Zen Buddhist Bodhisattva Vow with the Christian sacrament of Baptism through a Lutheran lens. These two rites are not the same thing, of course, but they tap into similar strains in the spiritual life. Come and learn.



Joko Bech Roshi says this: “So as we do zazen [zen meditation]…we constantly turn back to the only certain reality: this present moment… So in zazen the bodhisattva’s renunciation is that practice [of] turning away from our fantasy and our personal dream into the reality of the present (Everyday Zen, pg. 103).


Now in comparison, notice what Martin Luther says about what baptism signifies:


Q: What does baptism signify?

A: “It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and again, a new person daily come forth and arise…” (Small Catechism).


For the bodhisattva and for the Lutheran Christian, the spiritual life is a daily practice, returning to the reality of the present moment, daily rising again to new life. The source of agency is articulated differently, but the movement is very similar.


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The Bodhisattva Vow has a line that reads as follows:

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them;

Delusions are inexhaustible, we vow to end them;

Similarly, Luther talks about “inexhaustible delusions” in the persistent nature of human sin, despite the grace of baptism:


“When a person comes forth out of baptism, he is pure and without sin, wholly guiltless. But there are many who do not rightly understand this, and think that sin is no more present, and so they become slothful and negligent in the killing of their sinful nature, even as some do when they have gone to Confession. For this reason...it should be known that our flesh, so long as it lives here, is by nature…sinful” (Luther’s Treatise on Baptism, loc. 11062).


Both the bodhisattva and the Lutheran Christian acknowledge the endless nature of spiritual work. Yet this endless work does not deter us from persistently showing up to our lives as they are, day by day, living the reality of baptism, the reality of the vow. And this persistent work leads us to the third point…


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The final stanza of the Bodhisattva Vow reads as follows:


Beings are numberless, this vow frees them all;

Delusions are inexhaustible, this vow ends them all;

Dharma gates are boundless, this vow enters them all;

Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, this vow embodies it.


Notice also what Martin Luther says about the role of faith in the spiritual journey:


“‘Believe, and you have it; doubt, and you are lost.’ So we find that through sin baptism is, indeed, hindered in its work;... yet only by unbelief in its operation is baptism brought to naught. Faith, in turn, removes the hindrance to the operation of baptism. So much depends on faith.” (Luther’s Treatise on Baptism, loc. 11148).


For both the bodhisattva and the Lutheran Christian, when the journey is faithfully embodied, the outcome is itself enacted. This embodiment of the journey is not dependent on the effectiveness or excellence of our action, but instead on the quality of our attention. This quality of attention is faith. Luther reminds us that by grace through faith we are saved; this faith is a bold confidence in—a full attention to—the reality of God’s presence and promise. Similarly, the bodhisattva enacts the vow through its recitation with full attention.


We rejoice to believe in God’s promise of new life every day. This promise is not empty, but real. It is realized when we die to the small self, and are thus born again today, this moment, to new life. Are you paying attention?

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