by Sensei Wendy Egyoku Nakao
The Four Great Vows of a bodhisattva point out the direction of practice for Buddhists in all schools of Buddhism. The vows are chanted three times every day in our zendo. Our rendering of the vows is:
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 unsurpassable,
I vow to attain it.
Historically, the bodhisattva ideal arose a few centuries after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha. It arose in response to the ideal of the arhat, which emphasized practice aimed exclusively at one’s own enlightenment. It is said that the monks of the time gradually lost interest in spreading the teachings and helping others. So the ideal of the bodhisattva, which puts the liberation of others on equal footing with one’s own, arose as part of the Mahayana movement to counter this indifference.
What is the nature of indifference? In his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden Lane explores various aspects of indifference in his eloquent writing on attentiveness, indifference, and love. In examining the practices of the desert monks, he reveals how the indifference of the desert landscape forces one to pay attention, to become indifferent to self-absorption, and hence allow the arising of love.
The Four Vows as we chant them can be traced to the Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra. But where do these vows really come from? They arise from our very own life, and they counter indifference in our life. In a recent newcomer’s class, a few people mentioned that the isolation and indifference of Los Angeles caused them to turn towards spiritual practice and forced them to reach out to others. This turning is the arising of the vows.
According to the dictionary, the word indifference itself points to a kind of neutrality that is marked by a lack of interest or self-interest. We can readily see that indifference has a negative or false aspect, as in being indifferent and uncaring about others. We can also know the indifference of nature, as seen in the recent cold spell in India which resulted in over 1,000 deaths. Or the indifference of the shuttle Columbia as it disintegrated with seven exceptional human beings aboard who had loved ones eagerly awaiting their return. And we ourselves know the indifference of illness, old age, and death.
As we experience the so-called indifference of life, we learn to pay attention, to deeply pay attention, as the desert monks discovered, to what is truly important in life. The Four Great Vows are an expression of what is truly important for us: saving others, ending delusion, mastering all teachings, and attaining the Buddha Way. We are not, the vows tell us, to be consumed with our petty self-absorptions, rather, we are to become indifferent to these. We forget the self. So the practice of true indifference, or turning away from self-absorption, can become profoundly liberating and a masterful teacher.
The first vow, Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them, points us in the direction of this liberation. People often ask, “How can I save everyone?” and immediately feel overwhelmed by the question. Wonderful! A powerful koan has emerged from the ground of your being! In the midst of a life which seems overrun by other concerns, the question “How can I save everyone?” arises, and we begin to consider the direction we will go in discovering how such a vow can be fulfilled. Even though the vow is impossible, our practice is to try to fulfill it, moment by moment.
Our desire for liberation is the first step in a beginingless and endless journey. The desire for liberation, the vow to save others, and the question of how to do it, all spontaneously arise together. Simultaneously, the heart opens and love, or compassion, arises. We can no longer be preoccupied with our self-concerns (at least, not all of the time!) and wish liberation for ourselves alone; a deep wish to share it with others arises as well.
This caring for others is a very natural human instinct. To pull contrary to it creates suffering. We can see this instinct at work in our everyday acts. One day a friend and I were leaving a restaurant. She was carrying a small bag with leftovers, intending to have it for lunch the next day. We passed a man who was searching so intently in a garbage can that he did not notice us. As we passed by him, I noticed how my friend’s energy was pulled toward him as she turned back and gave him her bag. Surprised at her presence, he didn’t realize for a few minutes what he was being offered. Later, I remarked that she had done a kindness. She laughed and said, “You know, I kept thinking how I was giving up my lunch!” And yet, I had witnessed an almost invisible thread of energy pulling her toward the man despite her own self-interest.
This vow to save all sentient beings is a direct cause in the unfolding of our practice. It is sometimes said that when this vow is fully taken, then we are ready to begin practice. What I wish to emphasize here is that from the very beginning of practice, whether you are aware of it or not, this vow permeates everything we do. Even if you are barely able to sit calmly, this vow is already manifesting and turning you. The three remaining vows, to put an end to desires, to master all the teachings, and to complete the unsurpassable path of the Buddha Way, are in support of fulfilling the first vow of saving all sentient beings.
The universality of the Four Great Vows is revealed in the word “great.” We are not entering a relationship between us and something small enough for us to handle, but rather between us and all beings, the entire universe itself. Should you begin to feel overwhelmed, turn the vow over: Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to be saved by all of them! And, in fact, we are. Just as encountering a hungry, homeless man caused my friend to expand her boundaries and encompass him, so, too, do we drop the self and, moment by moment, reveal the whole universe.