The Four Bodhisattva Vows

The Four Bodhisattva Vows November 18, 2021




An old friend asked why I consider the Four Bodhsattva Vows so important, and why I feel it a good thing to recite them daily.

To me the four vows are important because they remind me that the intimate way involves all of us. I love the inside joke that we cannot actually achieve liberation without everyone coming along, and at the same time that victory was won before the creation of the stars and planets. For me repeating it daily is a constant reminder of the play of this sometimes horrific and sometimes painfully beautiful life. And that we’re all together in this lovely mess…

In the Zen schools that vow is usually framed with four parts.

In the standard translation of the Sotoshu, the official Japanese Soto Zen church, the four vows are:

Living beings are limitless; I vow to deliver them.
Mental afflictions are inexhaustible: I vow to cut them off.
Dharma gates are incalculable; I vow to practice them.
The buddha way is unsurpassed; I vow to attain it.

In the Boundless Way and Empty Moon Zen communities we say:

Beings are numberless, I vow to free them;
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them;
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them;
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

The Pacific Zen Institute offer another version, that I really love.

I vow to wake the beings of the world.
I vow to set endless heartache to rest
I vow to walk through every wisdom gate
I vow to live the great Buddha way.

While I have reservations about how the second line in this version, which is specifically about the source of our hurt as an endless grasping, but here jumps to the inevitable experience that rises from grasping, I still find this version enormously compelling.

For one more, the poets Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen offered another version, connecting us to the natural world as the most intimate of intimate.

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Consuming desires are endless; I vow to stop them.
Bio-relations are intricate; I vow to honor them.
Nature’s way is beautiful; I vow to become it.

Each of these versions, I believe, capture the essential elements of that primordial, primary vow. To notice there is hurt. To notice how that hurt is found within an incorrect appreciation of our place within the world. To desire to bring healing to the matter. And to begin and end knowing this is in fact a family matter.

With this noticing, and this promise made to ourselves, and on behalf of the whole hurting world, that is when we discover we’ve entered the intimate way.

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