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.

– – – – – – – – – –

* 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)


God is Suffering

Suffering (dukkha) is a core concept in Buddhism that I have blogged about many times, almost always using words from Buddhist teachers past and present to support or amplify my comments. Today, I’ll start out with some words about suffering from a non-Buddhist source.  The following was written by American aid worker Kayla Mueller to her father on his birthday in 2011, some two years before terrorists captured her after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Syria:

Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love . . . I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

This resonated deeply with me, as did her story.  Kayla Mueller’s life was stamped with service to others.  If you visit her Wikipedia page, I think you will be amazed to see all the different organizations she managed to work with as an activist and humanitarian during her short 26 years.

Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, once said, “God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought.” I do not share Mueller’s belief in God, and I don’t necessarily agree with Campbell because I feel the word ‘God’ carries with it too much baggage (superstition, associations, subjective feelings, etc.) to be very useful. However, going with the idea of metaphor here, I am inclined to interpret Mueller’s words as “God is suffering,” or certainly, “Life is suffering,” the Buddha’s famous words, which should not be taken as a negative or pessimistic statement.

In terms of Buddhist practice, suffering has three aspects: understanding and acceptance of suffering, endurance of suffering, relieving suffering.


Suffering is a universal truth of existence and there is relief from suffering but no real end to it. If there were an end of suffering, it would mean an end to life. Shantideva, in Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, says, “For the Buddha said that all fears and immeasurable sufferings arise from the mind only.” So, what we mean by an end to suffering is actually to transform the negative elements of the mind that produce suffering. These negative mental elements or afflictions have as their cause the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to change poison into medicine, sufferings into Nirvana.

Once we have acknowledged the truth of suffering and its inevitability (we will face suffering no matter what), we can then prepare for the endurance of suffering, and how we endure suffering determines much about the quality of our life condition.

In Healing Anger, the Dalai Lama writes,

[Shantideva observes] that pain and suffering are natural facts of existence and that denying this truth can cause additional misery. He then goes on to argue that if we could internalize this fundamental truth of our existence, we would derive enormous benefit in our day-to-day life. For one thing, we would see suffering as a catalyst for spiritual growth. Shantideva implies that a person who is capable of responding to suffering in this way can voluntarily accept the pain and hardship involved in seeking a higher purpose.”

This higher purpose is idealized in the form of the bodhisattva who works for the liberation of all beings. These altruistic heroes take on sufferings willingly, they even assume the sufferings of others, and they endure with great courage. The bodhisattva resolves:

I take upon myself the burden of all suffering. I am determined to do so, I will endure it. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble . . . I am not afraid . . . nor do I despair.”*

The courage of the bodhisattva may inspire us, but the idea of consenting to suffer is difficult to accept.  However, as the Dalai Lama mentions, suffering has a beneficial side.  When we realize that our existence is conditioned and characterized by suffering, then we see there is a possibility of not only personal but also universal liberation. Suffering stimulates our thoughts and motivates us toward liberation. The mind can change its poison into healing medicine, our negative thoughts can be transformed into wisdom, and what seems unbearable in the beginning, becomes easier to bear.

Even when the wise are suffering, their minds are serene; for when war is waged against mental afflictions, many injuries are inflicted in the battle.”

Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, Chapter Six “The Perfection of Patience,” Verse 19

– – – – – – – – – –

* From the Vajradhvaja Sutra and Aksayamati-nirdesa. Read an expanded excerpt here.


The Path of Fearlessness

Back in January, I wrote a post than included this quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm: “Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy.”

I was writing about a memorial concert for musician Lou Reed who died in October from liver cancer after receiving a transplant. I wrote, “As I face the same situation he [Reed] did, I think [the quote] should be my mantra.”

Some folks may have a natural sense of fearlessness. For others, like me, it is something that requires cultivation. I’ve had to get close to fear in order to let it go. I have learned that fearlessness is not necessarily synonymous with courage. It’s more a product of mindfulness, understanding how to live in the peace of the present moment.

abhaya-mudra2The Sanskrit word is abhaya. It means “not fearful,” “undaunted,” “security,” and “peace.” Fearlessness is represented by a hand gesture, the abhaya mudra that you see in paintings and statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (right). The abhaya mudra is the “gesture of fearlessness and granting protection.”

Fearlessness is a virtue of the Bodhisattva’s practice of giving, and as Lama Anagarika Govinda points out in Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, much more than that:

Fearlessness is the quality of all Bodhisattvas and of all those who tread the Bodhisattva-Path. For them life has lost its horrors and suffering its sting, for they imbue this earthly existence with new meaning, instead of despising and cursing it for its imperfections, as many do, who in the teachings of the Buddha try to find a pretext for their own negative conception of the world.”

Fear is one of the most basic of human emotions. Fear can be positive when it protects us from danger. Fear can also be negative, a danger in itself. Negative fear can produce unhealthy emotional and psychological states. Fear is often irrational, for instance fear of death is natural enough, but fear of survival?

Fear of samsara (this world of suffering) has led some Buddhists to think only of escape, imaging nirvana to mean extinction, an end to the cycle of birth and death. The Mahayana branch of Buddhism teaches that samsara is nirvana.

Our fears originate in thoughts about the future, the worry that something unfortunate might happen to us . . . at some future time. The present moment, however, seems peaceful because it provides a certain sense of safety. Within the present moment, there is freedom from fear. Something unfortunate is not happening to us now.

Actually, the future never arrives; it is not real. From the ultimate view, time doesn’t exist. For the past, present, and future to be real they would have to exist independently. Past, present, and future is a continuum of thought-moments. In this sense, the present moment is timeless. What we’re talking about here is a quality of timelessness.

In Foundations, Lama Govinda quotes Krishnamurti:

As long as the mind is tethered to the idea that action must be divided into past, present and future, there is identification through time and therefore a continuity from which arises the fear of death, the fear of the loss of love. To understand timeless reality, timeless life, action must be complete. But you cannot be aware of this timeless reality by searching for it.”

What Krishnamurti meant by timeless was “something that cannot be disturbed by circumstances, by thought or by human corruption.”  “Timeless reality” strikes me as an appropriate way to describe the present moment. If Krishnamurti had been Buddhist, he might have used the word emptiness.

In the Diamond Sutra, Subhuti asks the Buddha how to quiet his mind and fare on the bodhisattva path. He feels a need to search for the stillness in his mind and receive direction on how to proceed in the future, not realizing that what he seeks is already present. He poses this question in the second chapter, the remaining thirty chapters is just the Buddha answering this one question, and a single sentence in chapter 14 sums up his answer:

One should develop a mind that does not dwell anywhere.

In other words, cultivate a timeless mind. A mind that does not dwell anywhere is already quiet, and unafraid of the sufferings of the world. Because this timeless, quiet mind is undisturbed by thoughts of the future, it does not need to escape to some other place. Undaunted and peaceful, it becomes intimate with fear, and then recognizes that as the Heart Sutra tells us, within emptiness there is no fear.

This is the ultimate side of the problem. From the conventional side, it would be a mistake to dismiss the future and live unprepared. But the point is to be unattached to the idea of the future, and to control fear, not let it control us.

In a post last month, I quoted Shantideva, “Mind, be strong.” Fearlessness is another aspect of the patience Shantideva was discussing. The past is gone and the future does not arrive. The strength of fearlessness is the strength of the patience and equanimity that comes from quieting the mind. The path of fearlessness is the path of the Bodhisattva, and Bodhisattvas are joyful in the knowledge that suffering are nirvana.

– – – – – – – – – –

Sources: Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, HarperOne, 2012, 6; Lama Anagarika Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1969, 270-272; Jiddu Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known, HarperSanFrancisco, 2009, 9


Mind, be strong!

Shantideva in Chapter 6 of “A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life” (Bodhicaryavatara) wrote,

There is no evil like hatred, and no fortitude like patience. Therefore, one should earnestly cultivate patience in various ways.”

This work by Shantideva work is perhaps the definitive text on the path of the Bodhisattva, and many consider Chapter 6, Kshanti-paramita (“The Perfection of Patience”)  the most important chapter of the book.

Kshanti is one of the Six Paramitas (Perfections), the crucial steps on the path.  Kshanti is derived from khamati, a Pali word that according to the A.P. Buddhadatta Mahathera’s Concise Pali-English and English-Pali Dictionary means “to be patient, to endure, to forgive; to forgive a fault.”

Our basic nature tends to view difficult people in our lives as “the enemy.”  However, Shantideva tells us that anger and hatred are the true enemies, and he urges us to understand their destructive effects.  He states that the perfection or practice of patience is the most effective antidote to anger and hatred.  Anger has no real purpose.  Often the person we are angry with is also a victim, driven to their actions by the same poison of ignorance that inflicts us.  All the more reason, to practice patience.

Throughout the Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva points out that patience, and indeed the path itself, requires great strength and endurance.  Later in Chapter 6 he says,

Happiness is obtained with great difficulty, whereas suffering occurs easily.  Only through suffering is there release . . . Therefore, mind, be strong!”

In Buddhism, when we talk about “happiness,” we are not talking about happiness sans suffering, but rather happiness in the midst of suffering.  This kind of happiness leads to wisdom or prajna.  The 9th chapter of the A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life is “The Perfection of Wisdom,” which begins with these words:

Wisdom is the only true final antidote to all suffering (the whole path aims at this).”

The perfection of wisdom (prajna-paramita) is said to be the vessel capable of ferrying all beings across the sea of suffering to the shore of Nirvana.  The Heart Sutra tells us that “Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Transcendent Wisdom  . . . crossed over all suffering.”  One cannot really leap from one shore to the other in a single bound.  The journey of the raft known as Transcendent Wisdom over the sea of suffering is a long, hard voyage.  Without weighing anchor and navigating the rough sea, without the experience of being tossed by great waves or being buffeted by strong winds, ravaged by storms – there is no meaningful happiness, let alone useful wisdom.

If, as Buddhism teaches, the mind determines everything, then achieving happiness, perfecting patience and wisdom, requires a single-minded determination to grind through the hard parts of life.

Therefore, as Shantideva says, mind, be strong!

– – – – – – – – – –

Quotes from A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life by Santideva, Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion Publications, 1997.



One morning many years ago I came across a Zen saying in a book (I believe it was by Alan Watts) that went something like this: “As soon as you posses something, you lose it.” It stayed in my mind all day. I worked in the reservations department of a hotel at the time, and although we used computers, there was still much we had to write out by hand. I had purchased a rather expensive Mont Blanc pen that produced nice, thick lines just the way I like, and I really coveted this pen. I misplaced the pen later the very same day and never saw it again.

Of course, this saying was not meant to be taken literally, and losing the pen was just an unfortunate coincidence. The saying is telling us that possession is an artificial concept, something that exists only as a thought construction, and one cannot truly posses anything.

Non-attachment is one of the core teachings of Buddhism: not clinging to material possessions, not seizing on the idea of “me” or “mine.” The Buddha taught that attachment is a dead-end and a principle cause of suffering. The bhikkhus (“sharesmen”), the Buddha’s ascetic followers, kept only the minimal material requisites, eight in total: three robes, a begging bowl, a water-strainer, a razor, needle and thread, and medicine. At the same time, the Buddha did not disparage his lay followers for owning things, but he did advise them not to form unwholesome attachments to what they held.

Possession in the ultimate sense implies domination and control, and since everything is subject to change, it is not possible to exert control over anything indefinitely. Ownership is always a temporary condition. Furthermore, while we may have possessions that provide us with comfort, care, aesthetic beauty and so on, if our happiness is based upon ownership of these things, what happens should we literally lose them as I did the pen? Do we lose our happiness as well? If so, that sort of happiness has a weak foundation.

Wherever conflicts arise amongst living beings, the sense of possession is the root cause.”


One has no need to guard what is given, but what is in one’s house must always be guarded. What is given is for the extinguishing of desire, while what is at home increases desire. What is given does not rouse greed or fear, not so for what is guarded. One assists the path of awakening, the other the path of corruption. One is lasting, the other transient.”


Giving is the wisdom of the bodhisattva.”

Ratnamegha Sutra