On September 22, I and five others from the Baltimore sangha traveled to Washington, D.C. I was there to take my Bodhisattva vow, while Frank, Jeff, Sue, Emily and Melanie were there to take their Refuge vows. The funny thing is, the way Frank conducts himself, I thought he'd already taken his Bodhisattva vow. Emily is Sue and Jeff's daughter, whom I first met when I coordinated her Level V in June. Melanie is my buddy, and a beautfiul soul.
Acharya Richard John was again the preceptor this year, as I took my own Refuge vows with him last fall. The Bodhisattva vow ceremony is at once both more formal and more relaxed than that of the Refuge vow ceremony, at least as performed by the Acharya. Taking the Bodhisattva vow is a very serious step on the Buddhist path, as the vow is basically making a commitment to put the good of others ahead of one's own wants and desires, a commitment to do no harm through action or inaction, and a commitment to work for the rest of this lifetime and in all future lifetimes for the benefit of others. It is not about making yourself feel good because you are helping others, it is about helping others because it is the right thing to do.
Part of the vow ceremony, which in our tradition is a closed ceremony (only open to those who are taking their vows and those who have already taken the vow), is an offering to the teacher. The offering should be something of value, but most importantly it should be an act of letting go of "attachment", in that what is offered should be something that is perhaps painful or not very easy to let go. From the Buddhist point of view, it is this attachment to material things, to the belief that we have a "self" that is somehow separate from everyone else, to the neuroses that we have created for ourselves, that causes us to suffer. I had a bit of difficulty with this, because so much of what I believed I am hooked by is not material, but then I realized that there are material things that symbolize my attachment to how I view myself, how I value myself.
So after 20 years, I parted with something that symbolizes my attachment to a concept of who I am or want to be, that symbolizes my habitual pattern of behavior that involves buying things to somehow make myself appear better or feel better. It caused rather a bit of a stir, and they had to bring in a sturdier offering table for it (and then Acharya John told me to go ahead and put it down next to the table): my Rickenbacker 4000 bass guitar. I bought it while in college, because I had this fantasy of becoming a bass guitarist, with all the trappings that came with it. Did I ever really make the effort to learn how to play it? No. Did I distract myself with fantasy, delude myself into thinking that "one day..."? Yes. Was it painful to part with it? Yes. Was it the right thing to do? Yes.
The reason maitri, or "loving kindess towards oneself" is stressed very early on in our tradition is that the Buddhist path of meditation is not a path where you try to "transcend" all the shitty stuff in your life, to obtain joy by somehow no longer feeling those things that have caused you pain. Quite the contrary - you come face to face with your own neuroses, your own embarassing habitual behaviors, your own dirty laundry, so that you can see what you are really doing, and then break the cycle of self deception, self distraction and sometimes self destruction. If you do not learn to love yourself - which is, from my own experience, the hardest thing I have to work with - then you will discover these things about yourself, and then beat yourself up for being a "bad person". Which totally misses the point.
So, when you take refuge, you receive a refuge name. And when you take the Bodhisattva vow, you receive your bodhisattva name. The names are usually given by the preceptor based on their experience with you, and are usually intended to point out qualities within you that may need to be developed (wait for the irony, it's coming), and can be used as part of one's practice to help uncover one's own buddha nature. My refuge name is Jigme Chodzin, which means "Fearless Dharma-holder", and Acharya John made it clear to me that he'd served me up a pretty tall order there. My bodhisattva name is "Champa Riwo", which means "Maitri Mountain" - see the irony here? Something I need to work with? Needless to say, I'll be contemplating that name for years to come.