Intention and Vow, New Years

For the past many years, Clouds in Water starts the New Years off with an Intention and Vow Workshop. It was my answer to the failure, year after year, of my New Year’s Resolutions. Does Zen allow future goals? i.e. if you live in the present moment, can you have a future goal? Concurrently, there is the problem of people interpreting “living in the present moment” as liberation from our responsibilities for cleaning up our misconduct in the past and planting seeds for a responsible future. So how does Zen take care of our karmic, storied life, which includes cause and effect as its primary principle.

I found a lot of understanding in the Tenzo Kyokun by Dogen. It is Dogen’s “Instructions to the Cook.” In this discourse, Dogen said, in the evening, prepare for the next day’s meals. Sometimes, preparing for the future is today’s present moment.


Both day and night, allow all things to come into and reside with your mind.

Allow your mind (self) and all things to function together as a whole. Before midnight direct your attention to organizing the following day’s work; after midnight begin preparations for the morning meal.

Each moment has to have a direction in which you are facing. That is our vow or our Right Intention for this very moment and those intentions can be clarified and refined into our future direction and our vow. I like to call it clarifying my North Star.

Just as in olden times, a sailor navigates his way by using the North Star. The North Star clarifies his direction or at least where the boat is heading. But in the waves and the weather of the ocean, it is never a straight, undeviated line to the North Star or the port for which they were sailing. The journey is a zigzag with constant adjustments to keep the boat coming back to the course towards its intended port. Over and over, in our practice life, we vow to come back to our intended course.

A person in the workshop this year added another metaphor using a compass. She was someone who actually uses compasses hiking in the woods. She said, when you first bring out the compass, its pointer in the dial moves wildly and erratically.  But if you hold very still, the pointer will actually settle down and point to the North Star.

So, what is our personal North Star this year? What, for us, is heading in a positive direction? This direction is different than having an objective goal in which we can fail or succeed. One of the principles in Zen is that you make an effort but let go of the results of your effort. To practice only for success, pleasure, gain, fame, is clearly attachment to ourselves and not the Buddha Way. But in our effort to practice, we let go of the idea of success and failure, we do the work of the moment facing the direction of our choice and find the aliveness in the energy of the task itself.

Uchiyama Roshi in unpacking the Tenzo Kyokun says:

Our present direction is clearly defined but without having a goal. When we stop projecting goals and hopes in the future, and refuse to be led around by them, yet work to clarify our lives, that is, the “direction” of the present, then we discover an alive and dynamic practice.”

It behooves us to produce conditions that will flourish our karma in a wholesome direction. We have to take care of the conditions of our life. This intentional living is not an abstract idea but can be a strong awareness of cause and effect in our life.

Uchiyama Roshi continues:

“No matter where we are or whatever circumstances we are in, we are always living out our own life. A fool views his own life as if it were someone else’s. Only a wise man realizes that even in his encounters with others, he is living out his own life within those very encounters.”

Although we don’t have control of what happens in our futures, we do have the responsibility to plant wholesome seeds and face in the direction we want to go in our present moments.

Our practice is to take care of each moment with care and understanding, and simultaneously to stay connected with the Big Mind of the universe. The universe is always supporting us even if we don’t consciously know it. This is the main work of a human life. We can find where our personal story or karma intersects with universal energy. That intersection happens in the current moment. We have to live each moment with the Whole.

Uchiyama Roshi adds:

“We have to exhaust all our effort to manifest and actualize eternity at this point where our Self encounters all matters here and now and to devote ourselves to move in that direction whereby the whole world becomes settled within itself.”

We could add an admonishment from Dogen:

“The practice of the buddhas is carried on together with the whole world and with all sentient beings. If it is not a practice together with all things, it is not the practice of the buddhas.”

In this regard, an image that corresponds to the above is:

We turn the dharma wheel
And the dharma wheel turns us.
The dharma wheel turns us

And we turn the dharma wheel.

This image allows us to see a rhythm between trying and receiving; effort and effortlessness. Each of us in our own unique personalities can find that balance. Some of us need to back off from our controlling effort and others need to come forth more and direct our lives more. We each find our own unbalance in effort, given our particular personalities and circumstances and try to correct it.

In order to become more clear about our direction and specific intentions for the year, in the workshop we write about these questions, which seem to bring forth some clarity. After that, they are discussed in small groups.

  1. What are concrete things you already know about the coming year’s schedule.
  2. What do you regret about last year? What don’t you regret? What was a learning experience?
  3. What’s the most important thing this year? What is it that you are called to do or meant to do? What don’t you want to do?
  4. Can you flesh out or condense what you have discovered into a few succinct intentions?
  5. What keeps you from your intention? What obstacles, sub-personalities, self-talk, inner critic, or inner voices, make it difficult to follow your North Star?

We end the retreat by making a mandala or drawing an image or poster that expresses our North Star.