Many Buddhists are familiar with the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows. Some people seem to have the impression this is an almost exclusively Zen thing, but most of the Japanese traditions recite the Vows, as well as Korean and Chinese schools. In fact, the Vows 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 in place during Chih-i’s time, although perhaps not as we know them today. 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. [1. Denis C. Twitchett, The Cambridge History of China: Volume 3, Sui and T’ang China, 589-906 AD, Part One, Cambridge University Press, 1979]
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.
The last one is actually a vow 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, the American Zen Buddhist 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 other words, it’s doesn’t matter if we are unable to fulfill the Vows, what is important is that we capture the spirit behind them.
We should also keep in mind 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.”
Subhuti, someone who gives rise to the supreme, perfect thought of awakening [annuttara-samyak-sambodhicitta] will resolve thusly: ‘I shall liberate all sentient beings,’ and then having liberated all sentient beings, he understands that in truth, not a single being has been liberated. Why is this? Subhuti, if a bodhisattva has the view of a self, a person, of sentient beings, a soul, then that is not a bodhisattva. And why not? Subhuti, there is no independently existing thing such as the supreme, prefect thought of awakening. Subhuti, what do you think? When the Buddha was with Dipankara Buddha, he had attained supreme, perfect enlightenment [annuttara-samyak-sambodhi]? No.”
– The Buddha in the Diamond Sutra
While there are not as many English variations of the Vows as there are sentient beings, there are quite a few. Perhaps the most interesting one is by Thich Nhat Hanh:
However 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. 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 simple truth.
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.”