This may be a point of discussion (i.e. not everyone would agree), but if one were to be asked to describe the primary difference between the two major root branches of Buddhism, the Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) and Theravada (the Way of the Elders), the majority of responses would at some point involve a description of the Bodhisattva Vows as they appear the Mahayana tradition.
However, some, like my own teacher Ven. Ji Ru back at MABA, say the primary difference between the two traditions are only the color of the robes……! (In other words, don’t make too big of a distinction between what are, in reality, two well-travelled paths to Buddhahood.)
Nevertheless, the Bodhisattva Vows are a fundamental feature of all Mahayana schools of Buddhism. These are the seemingly impossible vows, or aspirations, practitioners take that very clearly direct our practice for the benefit of both self and other, as the Mahayana teaches there is no difference between the two.
Even though we may refer to the “Bodhisattva Vows” as something quite specific, there are actually many varied expressions that capture the essence of the Bodhisattva path in words. Most such expressions can be condensed into aspirations like,”I vow to attain Enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.” Or, another very powerful expression, “Only when all sentient beings have entered Nirvana, only then will I allow myself to enter Nirvana.”
The Bodhisattva Vows are the hallmark of the Bodhisattva Path, which is the great and broad road a practitioner travels in order to bring everyone to full awakening. And, in this discussion, we should remember full-well that the words “awakening,” “enlightenment,” and even “Buddhahood” are mere designations, and not the actual truth itself; Buddhism does not have a monopoly on the Truth. The Truth is the Truth.
In one way of looking at it, the Bodhisattva Path entails four primary features. The first is the actual will or desire (yes, desire) for Buddhahood, called “Bodhicitta.” The second is the practice of the Paramitas (the six or the 10, which are practices that “ferry sentient beings to the other shore” of Nirvana; one of the meanings of “paramita.”) The third are the Bodhisattva Precepts, which are descriptions of ways of living that benefit others. And finally, the fourth are the Vows a Bodhisattva takes as direction, inspiration, motivation, and purpose along the path.
By far the most common expression of these vows are the Four Bodhisattva Vows. And, in true form, the Chinese tradition uses these vows extensively. In most liturgical services, we chant one form or another of the Four Vows. In every other Morning Service, and in each Evening Service, this is what they sound like here at Dharma Drum Mountain:
The Four Bodhisattva Vows (.mp3 file)
Here are the Chinese characters, and one example of an English translation:
眾 生 無 邊 誓 願 度
zhòng shēng wú biān shì yuàn dù
Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them.
煩 惱 無 盡 誓 願 斷
fán nǎo wú jìn shì yuàn duàn
Afflictions are limitless, I vow to end them.
法 門 無 量 誓 願 學
fǎ mén wú liàng shì yuàn xué
Dharma gates are measureless, I vow to learn them.
佛 道 無 上 誓 願 成
fó dào wú shàng shì yuàn chéng
Unsurpassed is the Buddha-way, I vow to attain it.
As those who may be new to these vows can see, they are immense.
And, as usual, it is difficult to properly capture the full meaning of the Chinese characters in English. For example, a proper and nearly complete rendering of the first vow would most like be something like, “Though sentient beings are numberless, I vow to help bring them all to the other shore of Nirvana,” which is what is meant by that character 度 dù: helping to bring beings to awakening.
But, this obviously does not have the simplicity in meter that is an important feature of chant-able texts. So, many English translations use words like “save,” deliver,” or even the vague but safe word, “help” in place of the character 度. For some reason, I like the word “liberate,” but it is problematic as well. The point to bear in mind is that only we ourselves to do the work necessary for awakening. As bodhisattva practitioners, we can only help others do their own work; most often by not giving them more work to do…!
Similarly, the last character of the second vow, 斷 duàn, means to uproot something, sever something at its root, or cause something to cease. So, some translations use terms like “cutting off,” or “uproot.” MABA uses the term “eradicate,” while Shasta Abbey uses the term “transform,” highlighting an aspect of Mahayana teaching where that which hinders spiritual progress is converted (or transformed) into that which helps. And, while I appreciate the image and poetic quality of this term “transform,” for my own practice, I think of this vow as the necessity of “ceasing” from that which causes suffering. Hence the phrasing “vow to end them” above.
I could go through all 28 characters like this, as I find it fascinating and helpful; but I do not want to assume you do as well. Plus, there’s one final aspect of the Bodhisattva Vows I want to share before more cobwebs and dust gather around your computer.
Most times at Evening Service here at Dharma Drum, we actually recite the Bodhisattva Vows three different times: twice with the wording above, and once using this wording:
自 性 眾 生 誓 願 度
zì xìng zhòng shēng shì yuàn dù
自 性 煩 惱 誓 願 斷
zì xìng fán nǎo shì yuàn duàn
自 性 法 門 誓 願 學
zì xìng fǎ mén shì yuàn xué
自 性 佛 道 誓 願 成
zì xìng fó dào shì yuàn chéng
Now, I am not going to attempt to offer a translation here, as I actually do not know what this version means. If you notice here, all the “numberless”-like adjectives used in the first pattern are gone, and instead the two characters 自性 (zì xìng) are placed at the beginning of each vow. These two characters literally mean one’s one “self-nature” (self – 自, nature – 性). So, for example, the first line literally reads, “My self nature sentient beings vow to liberate.”
So what does this mean? —–> It is my “self-nature” to liberate all sentient beings? ———> Or is it sentient beings who liberate me? ——> Or…no matter how hard we try, it is our nature to be of benefit to others —-> Or…. “at all times, evil is vanquished and good prevails.” —–> Maybe…. it’s never too late for someone to turn their heart around. —–> How about….each one of us, in our deepest heart of hearts, long for the freedom of everylivingthing, as we are all not separate? “My” 自性 is “your” 自性?
Or, maybe when we vow to liberate/deliver/help others, we must include ourselves in the vow as well.
I’m not sure how to think about this with accuracy, but I have been finding this part of the evening liturgy very intriguing and helpful fuel for contemplation. I’ve asked one monk here about this, and his answer pointed to the second of the two ways to think about the verses (that of including ourselves in the vow as well). I haven’t had much of a chance to ask other monks, but I hope to.
If anyone who happens to read this would like to share their thoughts, knowledge, or experience related to these vows, I would be grateful.
And, in case anyone has had this thought: yes, these vows are impossible to keep. Which is exactly way we take them so often. We don’t let such a minor fact stop us, of course.
Finally, what I hope is obvious here, is that much more could be, has been, and will be said about the Four Vows and the way of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva Path is a very profound expression of one’s commitment to seeking, discovery, and benefiting; there is no end to the Path, as there is always, at all times, and in all places, something we can do to help ourselves and help others.
Speaking of Bodhisattvas, I’ll end this post with a very moving (literally) presentation of the Thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva pictured at the beginning of this post:
One of the amazing things about this video is that these young women are all deaf and mute, as is shown in this explanatory video.
As always, thanks for reading.
I hope this finds you well.