Bodhisattvas Never Outside the World of Suffering

Here is a post from 2012 that has recently gotten a bit of attention.  Perhaps it was re-blogged or posted in a forum – I don’t know but all the sudden I am getting inquires about it.  A few people want to know where I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the vows.  I wish I could remember.  I have no note about it, nor can I find the source among my files and books.  If anyone knows the source of this interpretation, please let me know.

A second inquiry I’v have received is about The Transcendental Bodhicitta Treatise by Nagarjuna.  The title and translation is D.T. Suzuki’s.  The Sanskrit title is Bodhicitta-vivarana, often rendered in English “A Commentary on the Awakening Mind” and “Exposition of Bodhicitta”, a work the Dalai Lama has been taught on many times.  Links to English translations at the bottom.

Many Buddhists are familiar with the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows.  Most of the Mahayana schools in China, Korea, Tibet and Japan, uphold and recite the Vows.  They are thought to have originated with the Chinese master Chih-i during the sixth century.  I don’t know whether this is true or not, but apparently there was some form of Bodhisattva Vows already in place during Chih-i’s time, and it is recorded that a prince of the Ch’en dynasty, Yang Kuang, received from Chih-i the “Bodhisattva Vows” for lay practitioners along with a Buddhist name, Tsung-ch’ih P’u-sa (“Bodhisattva of Absolute Control”) in 591.*

The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows (Shi gu sei gan) are as follows:

Shu jo mu hen sei gan do
Bon no mu jin sei gan dan
Ho mon mu ryo sei gan gaku
Butsu do mu jo sei gan jo

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to end them all.
The Dharma Gates are infinite; I vow to enter them all.
The Buddha Way is unexcelled; I vow to attain it completely.

In some versions, the last vow is given as a pledge to attain “complete, perfect enlightenment (Skt. anuttara samyak sambodhi).  It is said that if a bodhisattva does not accomplish the first vow of saving all sentient beings, he or she can never complete the fourth vow of enlightenment.  But, how is that possible?  How can one save all living beings?  In Taking the Path of Zen, Robert Aitken wrote, “Nobody fulfills these ‘Great Vows for All,’ but we vow to fulfill them as best we can. They are our path.”  In the long run, it doesn’t matter if we are unable to fulfill the Vows, what is important is that we engrave the spirit of the vows upon our hearts and minds.

We should also be aware that from the standpoint of the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness, a bodhisattva does not cling to the idea that there are beings at all, nor that there is anything such as “complete, perfect enlightenment.”  This is the doctrine found in the Mahayana Diamond Sutra.

While there are not quite as many English versions of the Vows as there are sentient beings or grains of sand in the Ganges River, there are quite a few.  Perhaps the most interesting one is by Thich Nhat Hanh:

tnh-bodhisattvaHowever innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.

However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.

However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.

However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.

The hidden teaching within Mahayana Buddhism that it is more important to practice the Way of the Bodhisattva than it is to become a Buddha.  In actuality, the Way of the Bodhisattva is the Way of the Buddha.  However, people often miss this point and think that enlightenment is the ultimate goal.  There is no goal, there is only the path, and it is a path of compassion, and everything in Buddhism leads up to this one truth.

A work by Nagarjuna, The Transcendental Bodhicitta Treatise, reads:

The essential nature of all Bodhisattvas is a great loving heart, and all living beings constitute the object of their love . . . They are like the beautiful lotus-flower, which rises up from the swamp, its blossoms unsullied by the mud.  Their great hearts of compassion, which constitute the essence of their being, never leave suffering creatures behind in their journey.  Their spiritual knowledge is in the emptiness of all things, but their work of salvation is never outside the world of suffering.”

2016 note:   Some people approach Buddha-dharma in what I would term a casual manner, that is, they practice mindfulness to relieve stress, or use it a therapy, a psychology.  Others may engage in a more formal practice, chasing after the rapture of meditative states called jhanas.  From the Mahayana perspective, the focal point of Buddhism is suffering (harking back to the Four Noble Truths) and the purpose of dharma is to transcend suffering, which is accomplished by concentrating of the suffering of others before thinking of one’s own suffering.

The bodhisattva is like the captain of a ship that ferries beings across the great sea of suffering.  To captain such a ship requires courage, commitment and strong determination.  The four vows are like the charts used to set the course, but without preparation a captain cannot command a ship, let alone follow a course, and this necessary preparation requires the generation of altruistic intention or bodhicitta.  Those who tread the path of the bodhisattva do not seek enlightenment outside of themselves, and they realize there is no nirvana or bliss apart from this mundane world.

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* Denis C. Twitchett, The Cambridge History of China: Volume 3, Sui and T’ang China, 589-906 AD, Part One, Cambridge University Press, 1979]

Links to translations of Nagarjuna’s treatise:

Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki (Google books)

Commentary on Awakening Mind (opens PDF)

Translation by Chr. Lindtner

Exposition of Bodhicitta (opens PDF)


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