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:
SHUJO MUHEN SEI GAN DO
BONNO MUJIN SEI GAN DAN
HOMON MURYO SEI GAN GAKU
BUTSU DO MUJO SEI GAN JO
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  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.
-  Okumura, S. (2012). Living By Vow: A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Wisdom: Boston. ↩