Commitment is not a particularly Buddhist concept, but it is certainly a concept which bears on Buddhist practice. When I hear the word commitment I think first of the context of intimate relationships, marriage being the most obvious example. But of course we can speak also of commitment to work, or to a spiritual practice, among other things. We’re familiar with Freud’s definition of mental health as the ability to love and to work, and I would add to that a third sphere of human endeavor, and that would be the ability to have some kind of life of the spirit. In all three of these areas, I believe that the concept of commitment has relevance.
What do we actually mean by commitment? I like the word wholeheartedness, which is perhaps a more Buddhist way to think about the same thing. The word commitment implies engagement with an activity over a long period of time. Wholeheartedness implies a depth of engagement at a given moment in time. Maybe we could say that commitment is a horizontal kind of engagement, and wholeheartedness is a vertical kind of engagement.
Am I committed to Buddhist practice? I started sitting at the Berkeley Zen Center thirteen years ago. I have often been uncertain, wondered whether it was right for me, been beset by doubts. Somewhat unaccountably, after eight years of practice, I felt ready to have what we call lay ordination—that is, to take refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha, take the ten precepts, the four vows, and receive a Buddhist name. It was a subtle and unconscious transition for me, like finding oneself hungry and sitting down to a bowl of cold cereal. No big deal. No big decision. It didn’t mean that I would do anything any differently from before. I was not becoming a priest. I would look just the same. But it was a way for me to make a statement to myself and to my community that I am committed. It was a way to let go of doubt, to make some room for wholeheartedness and faith. I felt different afterwards. I now say, to myself and to anybody who asks me, that I’m a Buddhist. Looking back, I have to conclude, as a historian, that, yes, I must be committed to Buddhist practice, just because I am still doing it. But can one be retroactively committed? This sounds like an easy way out. Can one even be committed to something without knowing it consciously?
I know from painful experience that in personal relationships you can’t make yourself be wholehearted. I’ve tried: “What a terrific guy! He’s single, straight and considerate—I should fall in love with him.” It doesn’t work. You can’t make yourself feel certain things, no matter how much you want to feel them. But if you can’t just decide to be wholehearted, can you just decide to be committed? Perhaps if you make a commitment, the wholeheartedness will come after, in the space you’ve safeguarded with the commitment, like a plant in a fenced garden. Like an arranged marriage. Or must both commitment and wholeheartedness grow without being pushed, unnoticed, organically, like mushrooms in the dark?
My strongest experience of wholeheartedness and commitment in personal relations is as a parent. My children are almost grown up now, and the unhesitating commitment their presence has called forth from me, from the very bottom of my heart, has surely been one of the liberating experiences of my life. It’s easier for me to be wholehearted when there’s no choice, no exit.
As for Buddhist practice, I think you can’t just decide to be wholehearted about that, either. But what you can do is put yourself into certain situations which foster wholeheartedness, which force you to burn yourself up, leaving nothing behind.
Beating the drum for service, for example. Sitting zazen, it’s so easy for me to lose my concentration, to sleep, to daydream, to plan. But when I’m hitting the mokugyo, I can’t think about what I’ll cook for dinner. I am completely wholehearted, beating the drum and chanting the heart sutra, and the drum itself seems to be my heart. I am no more beating the drum than I am beating my heart.
I used to do rock climbing and the wonderful thing about it, too, was the wholeheartedness which it required. Definitely no daydreaming as I clung by my fingernails to a pimple of granite in the sky, but rather a quite enthusiastic feeling of commitment to staying alive. The challenge, of course, is to be wholehearted about our humdrum everyday lives lived at sea level. And every moment that my whole heart is beating within me is another opportunity to be wholehearted. Or to recognize that I already am wholehearted.
I have studied hand bookbinding, and in bookbinding the word commit is used when you are pasting two surfaces together. Let’s say you are making the book cover. You have your book cloth, all measured and cut. You have your cardboard all measured and cut. You brush the paste on the cloth. You brush the paste on the cardboard. Then you pick up the limp cloth and hold it exactly over the cardboard which will become your book cover, and when you’re ready, you commit it—that is, you lay it down in one smooth unhesitating movement. If you stop in the middle and wonder what you’re doing, it will stretch or wrinkle or buckle or warp. So you just jump in and go for it, with your whole heart. The worst that can happen is that you may have to do it over, but if you waiver and are tentative, you will surely have to do it over.
So the important thing is to be wholehearted at the moment that you are doing something. The idea that you are committing yourself to something that stretches way ahead of you into the future is perhaps not so helpful. Or maybe we focus too much on that aspect of commitment—the part that goes on over time. Two people can commit themselves to each other very sincerely, with the idea that it is for a long time, even forever. Or a person can commit herself wholeheartedly to a new job. And in the moment these commitments are made, they are made wholeheartedly. Then things change, unforeseen circumstances arise, the people change, the couple separates, the person leaves the job. Does that mean the commitments were in any way false? What counts is making the commitment now, without covering over the wholeheartedness with too many layers of ideas.
Commitment has been an issue for me in terms of my work, as well. I have worked at a number of things in my life, in the fields of publishing, education and political activism. I have suffered a great deal from my own uncertainty and changing focus. I’ve always wanted to write; I’ve always dibbed and dabbed at it, but I never, at the deepest level, committed myself to it, because I was afraid. Nobody was asking me to write, the world wasn’t crying out for my material, it wasn’t going to save anybody from starvation, I would have to do it all alone and then persuade people to read it. My self-doubt kept getting worse and worse. And then one day a couple of years ago, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I just knew I had to commit myself to writing anyway—to put myself on a schedule, to do my work no matter what, to be completely and utterly wholehearted about it. Three hours a day, every day, just do it, like beating the drum. Don’t do the other things first, the things that people want from me, the folding of laundry, the shopping, the cooking, the driving, the meetings, the political work. Do them after. But every day, first the writing.
I feel like a new person. And the funny thing is, I’m not doing anything dramatically different from what I was doing before, but my attitude has completely changed. I’ve surrendered to wholeheartedness.
Now the task is to focus on one project at a time, and do that with full attention, until it’s completed. Then it’s time to do the next thing. One thing has a way of leading to another. If you keep walking along a path, you get somewhere. You can always change your course as you go along, depending on the weather conditions, an unexpected rock slide, a beautiful lake that wasn’t on the map. I have made a leap of faith—that if I follow my heart, the other things will fall into place. So faith is connected to commitment and wholeheartedness. Faith tides you over when wholeheartedness flags. The days when I sit at my desk and I can’t think of anything to say, or I don’t like what I can think of, I have faith that it’s going to be all right, that I’m doing what I need to be doing.
Buddhist practice has helped me to make this commitment. It has helped me with what looks like self-discipline, but which, oddly, is really the kind of faith I was just talking about—it’s what keeps you from getting up and leaving the zendo in the middle of the sesshin even though your knees hurt or you’re bored or sleepy or claustrophobic. It’s what keeps you from leaving your desk to do the laundry even though you can’t think of anything to say. I suppose it’s what keeps you from leaving your husband even though you just had a fight about whose turn it is to drive the carpool. And Buddhist practice has helped me to be wholehearted about being me, from one moment to the next.