On Bodhisattva Vows


IMG_5533In our zendo, we recite the Bodhisattva Vows as part of the closing ritual for the evening sitting, just before the timekeeper’s gatha and our final bows:

Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to put and end to them.

Dharmas are boundless, I vow to perceive them.

The enlightened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

Or, as it reads in Sino-Japanese:





Lofty sentiments, but what exactly is it that we are vowing to do?  I’ve often wondered about the precise meaning of these mysterious Sino-Japanese phrases.  Does the word shujo in the First Vow refer to ”creations,” ”sentient beings,” or ”living beings?”  Does the word bonno in the Second Vow ask us to put an end to ”delusions” (as in some translations) or ”desires” (as in others)?  Which of the myriad meanings of the word dharma is intended by the word homon in the Third Vow? Is it ”Dharma” with a big ”D” or ”dharma” with a little ”d?”

This kind of concern for linguistic precision may seem like just-so-much petty nitpicking to you, dear reader, but if I am going to recite a vow and take it seriously, I want to know just exactly what it is that I’m saying.  These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night.  So I’m eternally grateful to Shohaku Okumura for his marvelous new book on the Zen liturgy, Living By Vow [ref] Okumura, S. (2012). Living By Vow: A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Wisdom: Boston. [/ref] which helped illuminate some of these questions.  (Grateful thanks also go to the ever helpful Wikipedia.)

The First Vow’s ”shujo“ is a Japanese equivalent of the Sanskrit ”sattva,” meaning ”sentient being.”  Buddhist tradition uses this word to refer to beings in the six realms of rebirth, i.e., humans, brahmas, devas, asuras, animals, ghosts, and hell-dwellers.  Previous generations of Buddhists did not concern themselves overly much over differing levels of sentience in different animal species (except perhaps in the case of Joshu’s dog).  Distinctions between differing levels of sentience is a more modern concern, stemming in part from scientific research on consciousness and cognition, and, in part from contemporary ethicist’s concerns with the rights of animals.  Will the changing connotation of ”sentience” affect modern Buddhist practice?  Will we concern ourselves less with saving ghosts and devas, and more with our obligations to primates, cetaceans, parrots, livestock, and yes, Joshu’s dog?  Is this already happening?

The Second Vow’s ”bonno“ is the Japanese equivalent of the Sanskrit ”klesha,” or ”defilement.”  It refers to the three traditional defilements (or ”afflictions” or ”poisons”) of greed, hatred, and ignorance.  Buddhism sees these as the source of suffering in our lives, and in the lives of others.  So we are not just putting an end to ”delusions,” but to all the mental defilements which cloud our judgment and lead to negative consequences.

The Third Vow’s ”homon“ means not ”dharmas,” but ”Dharma gates,” referring to the totality of Buddhist teachings and practices, and also to those daily encounters with reality which can potentially open us up to and deepen our understanding of life.  There are allegedly 84,000 Dharma gates.  Eighty-four thousand is the traditional Buddhist way of saying there are an awful lot of them.  If we’re lucky, we stumble upon the gate (or ”gateless gate”) that best fits our own unique predilections and abilities.  Different strokes for different folks.  Each and every moment is a potential Dharma gate, if we’re really paying attention.

It helps to think of the ”vows” as aspirational statements rather than as solemn oaths.  They are expressions of our deepest intentions, welling up from the inner core of our being. The very idea of freeing all sentient beings–or of completely eliminating our greed, hatred, and ignorance–is of course, on the face of it, patently absurd.  We all fail miserably at it.  If the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, and Tolstoy couldn’t accomplish it, what are our odds?  Thankfully, the only consequences for our failure are our recognition of how far we’ve fallen short, and the renewal of our intention to continue striving. As Shohaku Okamura says:

 ”Our practice and study are like trying to empty the ocean with a spoon, one spoonful at a time. It is certainly a stupid way of life, not a clever one.”

Okumura concludes by saying:

“A clever person cannot be a bodhisattva.”

The vows serve as cardinal points on our spiritual compass, helping to guide our practice and as such, molding our character and shaping the future.  Uchiyama Roshi used to say that ordinary people live by karma, but that bodhisattvas live by vow.  In contemporary Western psychology we speak about living out our values rather than being driven by our impulses. In either case, it’s a fine idea.  The Bodhisattva vows are the rock we stand on.



6 Replies to “On Bodhisattva Vows”

  1. Thanks for another fine essay, Seth. Apropos of animals’ levels of sentience, this new article might be of interest to you:


    Like recent studies of the emotional intelligence of animals, this latest suggests that we human beings may have vastly underestimated our fellow creatures.
    With respect to the Third Vow, the Zen Studies Society version reads “However immeasurable Dharma teachings are, we vow to master them all.” In contrast to the version you use, the ZSS version interprets the term dharma more narrowly than yours does, while also setting mastery rather than perception as the goal. What a difference a few words make.

    1. Thanks, Ben! I’ve come across so many different translations of “gaku” including “perceive,” “master,” “learn,” “attain,” “enter,” and “waken to.” Here is a passage from Robert Aitken Roshi describing his translation of that pesky third vow:

      ho mon mu ryo sei gan gaku
      dharma gates no measure pledge vow learn
      Dharma gates are countless; I vow to wake to them.

      When our sangha first wrestled with the wording of the vows sixteen years ago, Stephen Mitchell, who was translating The Book of Job at the time, suggested that we use the expression “vast and fathomless,” which appears in Job’s first response to Bildad the Shuhite. We omitted the troublesome “gates,” and rendered the line, “Though the dharma is vast and fathomless.” But in our new version we have reinstated the “gates” because they really are dharma openings – our chances for realization of the myriad things that advance us—when we are open to them. Another problem with this line lies in the word gaku, “learn” or “study,” the graph found in compounds that means “school,” “institute,” and “student.” It is usually translated “understand” or “master,” neither of which conveys the idea of “being receptive to,” which gaku seems to suggest here. After all, how does one master or understand an opportunity!

  2. Hi There Seth Segall,
    Very interesting, The Bodhisattva Vow in Chinese Mahayana is:
    “Sentient Beings are Infinite, I Vow to Liberate Them All.”

    But how can there be hope for the liberation of [I]all[/I] beings, if this process is eternally?
    Considering It is impossible that all beings will be liberated considering that they are infinite. Infinity minus 5,000,000 still is infinity.

    How should I interpret this?

    i) All beings will stay in the cycle of birth, but all will be liberated as bodhisattava someday

    ii) Infinite is a metaphore for “Almost infinite” or “A very large number”.
    Logically, there must be a finite number of beings, since we live in a dualistic world (all 4 dimensions we know are dualistic) and that somehow there will be a point we will run out of either space or time, and the number of beings must be finite.

    iii) The universe will reach another point of singularity (inverse big-bang)

    iv) something else

    What do you think?
    Great Job!

    1. The translation of “muhen” as “infinite” is only approximate. The Japanese characters mean something more like “all without boundary.” It’s best to not worry about mathematical concepts of infinity, and instead, just intend “however many beings there are, I vow to liberate them.” There’s an old Jewish joke about a man given the job of waiting outside the gates of a city for the Messiah: “The pay isn’t all that great, but it’s steady work.” We will never be done with our work of ferrying beings to the other side, but the good news is, we will never be unemployed.

  3. Thanks much for the comments — great topic!
    Here’s an interpretation I heard that has really helped me:
    If I have vowed to save ALL beings, then if I come across a PARTICULAR being that I can save, I should save it. I don’t have to debate whether I should save this being — I’ve already made a vow.
    The same logic can be applied to the other vows.
    It seems related to one of my favorite Zen fragments: in the Hsin Hsin Ming:
    “The Great Way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose …”
    in gassho

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