The Great Bodhisattva Vows

· Dharma Discourses, Teachings

In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha said:  At all times, for all beings I teach the Dharma equally, never growing weary or disheartened.  To those in low positions, in high positions, to those of great wealth, to those in poverty, to those who have many blessings in their life, to those who live within great adversity, to those who follow the Precepts and live good lives, to those who don’t.  I cause the Dharma to rain on all of them equally.

This is the essence of the heart of the bodhisattva—to endeavor to be committed to bringing all that is good into this world, to alleviate all the harm—and in order to do that we have to study the mind. The Great Bodhisattva Vows describe  how one engages ‘mind study’. These Great Vows are one of the first things that a Dharma student encounters, perhaps hearing them for the first time.  Each of these Great Vows point to both samsara and nirvana, to delusion and enlightenment, to suffering and liberation from suffering.  They are great because they encompass the whole of reality, the whole of us, as one undivided, complete, all-encompassing body and mind. Dharmadhatu, one reality.  

The Great Bodhisattva Vows

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.

Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.

The Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them.

The Buddha Way is unattainable, I vow to attain it.

They are great because we are great—we are vast, boundless—and we hold all of that whether we know it or not. We can discover our capacity to hold it all without conflict. These vows ask us to turn and face this very place where we are right now, where we find ourselves, and all that we are.

The Buddha said “All conditioned existence is dukkha.”  The Samskaras, [mental impressions, memories], everything and all of everything is conditioned existence. This means that it [all] arises not independently, not by itself or on its own, but rather through an intricate web of karmic actions and conditions, internally and externally.  When that which arises comes from a false sense of self—from desires, grasping, from false or clouded views—then conflict, suffering, and delusion are bound to follow.  And yet at every step along the way in this process, there is something that is peaceful by its very nature: in every thought, in every word, in every action, within every subject, within every object, every perception, every intention, there is a peaceful nature.

These Great Vows of the bodhisattva are inviting us to see things in this way: inherently unobstructed, free, and peaceful. Scholars think that they originated in China around the 6th century, so they have been around for a while, and have had various different translations along the way.  

ZMM liturgy for Martin Luther King, Jr.

The first vow, Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them, literally translated means: “The many beings / No limit / Pledge or Vow / Carry across.”  Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them, to awaken with them, to enlighten them.  The word “save” within a Western context is tricky because it has that sense of a missionary vow, which it is not.  “Save” means to enlighten, to enable every being themselves to cross over to the shore of enlightenment, to that shore of peacefulness.  Hui-neng said: It is not that I will save you, but that sentient beings, each with their own natures, can save themselves, can liberate themselves.

What does this mean?  Despite craving and delusions, each of us have within ourselves the attributes of enlightenment.  If we are based in correct views—seeing things as they are—then if false views arise we can liberate those false views.  If delusion appears, then with wisdom we can enlighten that delusion.  If evil and harmful actions come forward, then with good we can correct that.  If craving comes, with these enlightened qualities we can free ourselves of that craving.  

In a way, it is the wonderful and challenging truth of Dharma that you do not need to be saved. Your own nature is already complete and full: Buddha Nature, Tathagatagarbha.  

If I just think in terms of others, that I am going to fix you, I am going to take away your delusion, that is an unrealistic expectation.  Khandro Rinpoche said of this: “Many who try to practice compassion and loving kindness take upon themselves the tremendous pressure of thinking everyone else’s happiness depends on you.  The bodhisattva has a much larger perspective.  They know that beings can truly find their happiness ultimately from within themselves.  Knowing that, really understanding that—then, and now—what can I do?”  

This vow, to alleviate suffering, means to do whatever we can to open up such a path for each person and every creature—to abide within their own dharma state, to examine their own mind, to work within their own Buddha field, their own causes and conditions—to liberate themselves.  You see someone going down a path, and there are all of these obstructions: trees, entanglements, boulders, mudslides. They have to go down the path, but it is such a hard journey, and so you want to help out a little bit. You clear the path, try and open it up.  Or you are in a room where there is no light, so you just draw back the curtain a little bit and let some light come through.  In a sense, that is what the teachings are doing, that is what teachers do. They just keep pointing to the fact that there is a little light here.  There are some obstructions here but there are skillful ways to clear those obstructions.

In the Tathagatagharba Sutra the Buddha said it is like pure honey that is in a cave or in a tree and it is surrounded and protected by a swarm of bees.  Someone may come along who knows how to encourage those bees to move away, so that they can take some of that honey.  Then they can eat it, they can give it away.  The Bodhisattva is not collecting the honey but they can point to where that honey is. They can offer some skillfulness around bees so that they don’t injure the bees, and they don’t get stung, so then that person can go along by themselves and collect that honey. 

Honeycombs from the Monastery beehives

The second part, I vow to save them, is based on the understanding that there is a great deal that we can do for each other.  Just as we are showing ourselves that there is a great deal that we can do for ourselves—more than we imagine—we should never give up on ourselves or on anyone else’s potential, even when people and situations seem so intractable. Or people can seem so wedded to their suffering, or to their habitual ways, or to their delusions.  That may be true, but everything is in a state of change.  Everything is moving.  That is why the bodhisattva  can work to shift some of those conditions, or have some effect on them.  That is what this practice is about: helping to create conditions in which it is easier to do something which is difficult to do. I vow to save them.

Sentient beings are numberless means one can only go a certain distance with a guide.  We are asking for directions, and our guide says “let me go with you, I will show you the way.”  And they travel with us, and we think “This is great!  Thank you so much!”  And then we get to a certain place and the guide says, “Now, I have to leave. You have to go on by yourself.”  And you say “No, no, no.  Won’t you come along?  Won’t you go with me the whole way?” And the teacher says “I can’t do that.  You don’t need me to do that.  This is where you have to go.”  And then we take a step and we realize, “Oh.  They were right.” We can teach someone to swim but we can’t swim for them.  When the student enters the water, they realize “Oh.  Not only can I swim, I am swimming.”

How many times has someone come into dokusan (face-to-face teaching), often during sesshin, saying “I can’t do this.”  And I say “But you are.  This is what doing it looks like.”  We each carry ourselves—and we get lots of support, and we must have that—in a way, no one does this alone.  

In the second vow, Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them, the literal translation is grief/distress / no exhausting / pledge or vow / conclude.  Desires are inexhaustible—this grief, this yearning, this has no end.  I vow, I pledge, to put an end to them.  And this term “desire” can be confusing, because we rely on desire to practice, but in this context desires are distress and grief: the kleshas.  These kleshas are the states of mind of the three poisons, the many states that we find ourselves in—greed, anger and delusion, jealousy and pride—that lead us to work against ourselves, and work against others.  To put an end to them means to release, conclude, to dismiss, to cut off, to abandon.

Hui-neng says “With your own mind, cast aside everything that is unreal, everything that is false”  — to free ourselves of the delusions in our minds and in the minds of others, which are the breeding ground of those kleshas, of those desires.  But we tend to think of desire as something that appears within us suddenly, out of nowhere.  We feel it.  It has an energy, it has a quality we can recognize.  This one is in a particular part of our body, for instance; this one is in a different part of our body.  But if we think of them as energy, then those desires, that energy, comes from a field that is already established, already developed. We’ve just suddenly noticed it arise. 

In a sense part of it is our humanity, our biology.  These desires don’t come from nowhere, they come from our being: our psychological, our emotional, our mental, our physical, our genetic being. But delusion reinforces, misunderstands, misinterprets those desires; it comes to all kinds of notions and conclusions about them that are not often true.  Then we respond, we set up patterns of responding, so that those desires create negative patterns. They divide, they separate, they intoxicate, they confuse us.  They lead to regret.  But if we think of those desires as energy that just appears, it is the mind that gives it direction.  It is our thoughts that give them meaning, that gives them conviction and strength.  

“With your own mind, cast aside everything that is unreal, everything that is false”

That is such an essential part of what is happening in zazen.  In the instruction to acknowledge what is arising, that word “acknowledge” is so powerful, so pregnant with significance in terms of what we are actually trying to do in that moment  — to not suppress, to not deny, to not avoid.  To not get mired in, to not give meaning to, to not establish it as something in distinction to something else.  To not compare it; to not judge.  To not get caught in all of these different machinations of the mind.  To actually interrupt all of those patterns, and to just experience it as it is. Then we can begin to experience it as just a force, an energy, that in and of itself is not good or bad.  In and of itself is not a thing.  And now it becomes much, much more workable, because it has been in a sense freed, divested, of all that investment.  That person.  This self.  

We study the Dharma, we study the precepts, we practice the paramitas, we live a bodhisattva life, we bring that into our intentions.  We raise bodhicitta, we establish Right Intention.  All of this is about, in a sense, working within these fields of energy that manifest in all of these various ways.  We are learning how to hold those energies in ways that are in accord not just with the Dharma, but with ourselves. That is why vow is so important, that when we establish a vow, when we establish an intention, we are talking about how we want to align this field that we are living in, that every single person is living in, in a way that is now conscious. 

Think about it.  if we don’t establish clear intentions for ourselves, there are lots of other people and forces and companies and corporations and governments that will do that for you.  That will tell you what to think, what to feel, and will tell you what this means.  Will tell you who you are and at the same time tell you who you are not, and what you are capable of, what you are not.  There is just a whole world that is busy at this all the time.  

As practitioners who examine, reflect, and educate ourselves, we might think that we are above it.  I would suggest you pause, look again.  Those forces, those fields of energy, are very, very powerful, and very sophisticated.  Why, after all, do we follow desires over and over again that we know are going to cause disappointment and regret?  The Buddha said it is because we still believe in them.  We still think on some level that they work, they are true. That is why our meditation practice is so important, so essential, why ‘mind training’ is so necessary, because it is really the training ground to reclaim our natural mind.  To discern through all the weeds what is actually important in this life.

The dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them.” This vow literally states:  Dharma gates / no measure / vow / learn.  Learning of course is a little tricky, because we have a lot of meaning around the word.  We acquire knowledge, we learn things in school.  Dharma study is a different kind of learning, a different kind of study.  About this, Dogen says “When the Dharma does not fill our body and mind, then we think that we have enough.” We think we know something, that we have knowledge, when we might not understand the Dharma very well at all. Lack of humility, arrogance, just being stubborn, thickheaded, often comes from not actually understanding that we are keeping ourselves separate, we are distant from the truth.  

That is the importance of Buddhadharma being a path of inquiry.  Coming face to face with a teacher is always bringing to the surface that sense of question, of inquiry, of examination.  What is it?  Very often students ask “What am I supposed to say?  What should I be asking?”  There is not a “should”.  It is really being in this burning house, being such a person, of Buddha Nature.  Wanting to not waste this life.  Now—what do you want to know?  What do you need to know?  Where does that examination need to take place?

When the Dharma does fill our body and mind, Dogen says, then we realize something is missing.  

The Dharmas are boundless.  In the beginning of practice, facing all that I did not understand about this Dharma just seemed exhausting. I felt mired in my own confusion and lack of understanding, and it seemed to highlight my own ignorance and strengthen my insecurity.  

To really cultivate a love for study is hard when we’re actually suffering, when the suffering is strong, when we are caught in it.  It was hard for me to find the joy in it early on.  But it had everything to do with all that I was bringing to it, the meaning that I was ascribing to it, my sense of self that I was laying all over it. My identity, my ideas and projections.  

“This traceless enlightenment continues endlessly.”

Dogen says “There are many aspects of worldly life, of spiritual life, that we only recognize and understand as a result of the power of our penetrating vision to show us.” We can only see, we can only go as far as we can go—right now—with this mind, this awareness, this understanding, this capacity.  But whatever that capacity is, it is temporary. Practice is constantly opening that up, constantly extending that, constantly increasing that sense of our capacity, or of what the world is.

Dogen says “In order to appreciate the ten thousand dharmas, we should know that they may look round or square, the other qualities of oceans and mountains and world and self are infinite in variety.  It is so not only about ourselves but also here, even in a drop of water.”  The dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them, to raise Bodhi Mind, to practice, to gain confidence in that, to gain understanding, and then to raise Bodhi Mind.  It is an ongoing, beautiful, self-fulfilling path.  “No trace of enlightenment remains, and this traceless enlightenment continues endlessly.”  

So, think of your zazen as being a boundless field.  We take refuge in the Dharma, over and over again.  We practice, we move out into the world, we have experiences, we get disrupted, things happen, they press in upon us.  We act badly, we forget, we misstep.  We become inspired again, we recommit.  All of this is part of the web.  To delight in the never-ending path of study; to let what is not clear, what is not embodied, bring us in.  We might just experience all those things as messages, calling us back.  

The Buddha way is unattainable, I vow to attain it.  The literal translation is Buddha Way/no top/pledge/vow/become.  To become the Buddha Way, to embody it.  We’ve spoken of the Lotus Sutra in a sense of the sutra as your mind, as the whole body-and-mind, which ultimately it is not to be found in a text, even a sacred text. As important as that is, it is not there.  No top—there is nothing higher, outside, apart, before or after—doesn’t mean that it is superior to other things, it just means that there is nothing else.  

That is why the Buddha Way is present, from a Buddhist perspective, in every religion.  It is the real truth. If there is real truth in any tradition, in any teaching, in any field, in any understanding, it is the Buddha Way.  Because in that Way, it is not about Buddhism, it is not defined by Buddhism.  The Buddha Way is beyond Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. It is not ultimately a religion or a spirituality.  We use all of that language in those ways because it is helpful.  It is a way of examining, a way of gaining understanding. But we should understand, as the Buddha said, these are just convenient designations.   

The Buddha Way is unattainable—I vow to attain it.

A vow is to commit to a Way, to commit to something that is that important.  That is why we shouldn’t make those vows right away.  We need to actually examine what we are contemplating before we make that commitment.  Because in making that commitment we are pledging ourselves to that, and we should know what we are doing, to the best of our ability, always making the vow within some lack of understanding.  That is the faith; the madness, if you will, of leaving certainty.  

To actually encounter intimately and realize that which we seek, we have to let go of ideas and expectations, goals, sense of completion. Trust the Dharma of this mind.  And along the way, take notice of how when we attach to something it creates more misery. With a sense of vow, of purpose, of some underlying sense of what this life is, can be, ought to be, there is a unifying force, a commitment, a basis upon which we are making all of those many decisions. It is the commitment that holds us, so that when things get turbulent, then we are doubting and wavering from within that commitment.  That is an incredibly powerful thing.  And it is awake, and it is alive.  

Hui-neng said, with regard to these vows, “Always practice with humility.  Respect every being.  Avoid attachments.  And give rise to the wisdom of your own mind, to liberate all delusions.  It is through liberating your mind that Buddhahood is attained.”  This is the power of those great Vows.  

There is nothing that is not alive.  Then how is it that so much, within us or outside of us, can seem at times to be inert, dull, dead?  Wendell Berry said “There is nothing that is not sacred.  There is only that which we have desecrated.”  That is how powerful we are.  But that very same mind, because there is only this one bright Buddha mind, is the mind that makes intimate contact, that touches that sacredness, and you know it.  You can’t keep it, but you know something has been encountered, something alive is here, now, calling you in.

I will end with a poem:

Without concern for how large, how long, how trying,

Without anxiety for how capable, how skillful, how virtuous,

I send all the heroes and the slackers home.

I only know this:  This dawn, never before, has arrived.

An invitation to one day, one intention, one generosity:

This is sufficient.  

This is never arising.  

This is my offering.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi, is the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and head of the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism. You can listen to the original dharma discourse here, and find out more at

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