Buddhist Vows remind me of New Year’s Resolutions sometimes.
When we take these vows we are, in effect, saying, “I know this is impossible, but I will vow to do it anyway.” Why?
Because it’s important.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the ideal of practice is to become a bodhisattva who helps others discover their Buddha Nature. The Bodhisattva Vows are vows taken formally by a Buddhist to do exactly that. The vows also are an expression of bodhichitta, the desire to realize enlightenment for the sake of others.
The exact wording of the Bodhisattva vows varies from school to school—the most basic form is:
May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.
An extreme version of the vow is associated with the figure Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva:
“Not until the hells are emptied will I become a Buddha; not until all beings are saved will I certify to Bodhi.”
~ The Four Great Vows
In Zen, Nichiren, Tendai, and some other Mahayana schools of Buddhism there are four Bodhisattva vows. Here is a common translation:
Beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.
Shantideva was a monk and scholar who lived in India in the late 7th to early 8th centuries. His “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,” presented teachings on the bodhisattva path.
Shantideva’s work includes a number of beautiful quotations that also are bodhisattva vows. Here is an excerpt from one:
May I be a protector to those without protection,
A leader for those who journey,
And a boat, a bridge, a passage
For those desiring the further shore.
May the pain of every living creature
Be completely cleared away.
May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed.
Vows are not intended to be easy. They serve to remind us that the way of the Buddha is a system of action. It’s at least as much a practice as it is a belief system.
When I vow to save all beings, even though I know it is essentially impossible, what I am doing is expressing resolve. The kind of resolve we are supposed to have on the path. Not normal compassion, but compassion that goes far beyond normal. Compassion that says: “I will save all beings!”
My New Year’s Resolution is the save all beings, to try to make the world a better place in every way that I can instead of turning a blind eye to suffering, to help others (or at least avoid harming them).
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