ACTS Member Organization Spotlight
Vows of Eternal Compassion
There was a sublime contrast between the silence of meditation and the chanting that followed during Dharma Study at the Zen Center of Syracuse Hoen-Ji, a longtime member organization of ACTS. Zen Center participants sounded like the organ of a church as they recited their version of the Four Great Vows, pledged each day by Buddhists worldwide.
“However innumerable all beings are, I vow to save them all.
However inexhaustible delusions are, I vow to extinguish them all.
However immeasurable Dharma teachings are, I vow to master them all.
However endless the Buddha’s way is, I vow to follow it.”
Like betrotheds who clasp padlocks onto bridges in Europe, these vows should survive until the locks rust away or the bridges crumble. Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot of the Zen Center of Syracuse, began practicing Zen Buddhism during college in the 1960’s. Since coming to Syracuse in 1976, she has led the Zen Center’s quest to help Syracusans cultivate their own inner-awakening. After Dharma Study ended, I sat with Chayat as the sun fell on the damp evening of May 21st.
“As Buddhists, we are here not only to avoid doing harm, but also to help people liberate themselves from ignorance, from misunderstandings, and from ancient wounds,” she said.
The Zen Center leads meditation sessions at Syracuse University, at area agencies, and at the County Justice Center and the Auburn Correctional Facility. One Zen Center monastic serves as a hospital chaplain, one is the Buddhist Chaplain at SU’s Hendricks Chapel, and another works with inner-city youth, teaching meditation as an alternative to violence. Zen Center members are also active in social justice and interfaith leadership. Jikyo Bonnie Shoultz contributes to the ACTS Criminal Justice Task Force. Chayat has been a member of the Round Table of Faith Leaders at Interfaith Works of Central New York for more than two decades.
When asked why the Zen Center became a member of ACTS, Chayat said, “We want to make a difference with humility, not with some arrogant way of thinking we know better than the people we want to help. We all need to come from our original oneness, and stop seeing others as separate from ourselves. Only then can true compassion evolve.”
The Zen Center itself is a symbol of interconnectedness among people and ideas from many times and places in history. Chayat’s message of solidarity is, after all, the same conveyed by the Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama more than 2,500 years ago.
The story goes that Gautama’s father sheltered him within palace walls to preserve his innocence. Gautama soon escaped and saw disease, old age, and death, and vowed to awaken so that he could free others from suffering. The prince attained enlightenment, and was thereafter known as Shakyamuni “Buddha,” or, “awakened one.” He refused any status, however, and taught that everyone can attain Buddhahood.
“Fundamentally, we are all Buddhas—Jewish Buddhas, Christian Buddhas, Hindu Buddhas, Islamic Buddhas, secular Buddhas,” Chayat wrote in a Zen Center handout.
During the Medieval Era, Buddhism declined in India following persecution by waves of invaders. Buddhism became a Diasporic spiritual path, estranged from its homeland, and philosophically intertwined with the experience of the lost and forsaken. Today, 500 million people practice Buddhism, from the Tibetan followers of the exiled Dalai Lama, to millions in Asia and in Western countries.
“Zen” is part of Mahayama Buddhism. As taught at the Zen Center, it relies on the practice of meditation. Its purpose, according to Buddhist teachers, is to find the limitless compassion innately possessed by all people. Like a desert oasis, or the yet-unseen masterpiece on an artist’s empty canvas, this compassion must be found inwardly by those who suffer.
“Compassion isn’t something esoteric,” says Chayat, “it’s just like the ‘golden rule’ of all other religions. How we treat others is at the heart of everything.”
Chayat sees suffering in Syracuse just as Buddha had in ancient India. Syracuse has the worst concentrated poverty for minorities nationwide. Refugees are in turmoil because of the new administration’s harsh rhetoric against “foreigners.” A sense of futility and despair surrounds many of our neighbors.
“So how can ACTS help?” she asked. “We must start by seeing the interconnectedness of everyone. To come from a place of love, even for the oppressors, is the only way we can liberate people from injustice.”
As we finished our conversation on May 21st, I recalled the vows chanted during Dharma Study. I had never heard them before, but realized they answered a question I had asked during my meditation. How can I make a difference as a single person?
“ACTS is like this well-known story.” Chayat said, “There’s a man on the beach who throws stranded starfish back into the water every day. One day, someone comes along and says, ‘Look! The beach is littered with starfish, what difference can you possibly make?’ To that the man says, ‘I’m making a difference to this one starfish,’” she said, “Everyone deserves to be cared for and loved, even if it’s by one person at a time,”
It was dark outside the Zen Center, and I could hear the wind in the trees. I felt tired from the hot tea served before, but went to my car and started the engine. As I drove home that night, I realized the “Four Great Vows” always existed within me, as they do for everyone. I needed only be reminded that I too could someday become a Buddha.
For more information on the Zen Center of Syracuse Hoen-Ji and their Buddhist programming, please visit their website at: