The Four Vows

Some context for Mahayana thinking: In Zen monasteries there is a long period of intensive practice called ango. At the end of ango the students leave the monastery to wander and visit other teachers. One time the Zen teacher instructed his departing students to go to the place where there are no grasses for ten thousand miles (grasses are a metaphor for our many entanglements in the world, in other words our problems). The teacher was telling them to find a place without entanglement. No one said a word as they left. 

What would you have said? 

Later when another teacher heard of this event he remarked, “I would have said, ‘There is no such place!’” There are weeds everywhere. 

So often we want to believe in a place where there are no problems. We might think if we just practice harder then we will find it. But Zen is about this present moment–no special place– sometimes we are entangled, sometimes we are not, either way we face and live the present moment. 

So now, onto the 4 Vows, often called the Bodhisattva Vows. When reciting the four vows we are adopting a Mahayana practice which developed a strong presence in the Buddhism of China, Tibet, Korea, Japan and later the rest of the world. 

Before going into each vow, I want to discuss the word vow, and how it’s actualized in Buddhism. Here, our vow is not intended as a promise we are making to something or someone. It’s not a commandment that we live in fear of breaking. Instead, we are aspiring to an attitude or state of mind that each vow addresses. The vows encourage us towards a mind that is benevolent, courageous, and most of all, persistent. 

In most Buddhist temples the vows are part of the service, and even first-time visitors with no understanding of Buddhism may say the vows. But I would like us to hold off on the rote recitation of the vows, and instead take some time to consider each one, ponder them, and perhaps develop the aspiration to fulfill them. Then, if we are inclined, we can include them as part of our practice. 

Here are the Four Vows according to Soto translation: 

Beings are numberless, I vow to free them

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them

The Buddha way is unsurpassable, I vow to realize it

As you’ll notice, each vow is impossible to fulfill! Yet we vow to fulfill it. What’s going on? Let’s look at the first vow: Beings are numberless, I vow to free them. A few observations, if beings are numberless, then freeing them will take us forever. What does it mean to free them? Free them from what? And is there really a “them?”

Maybe we shouldn’t take this literally, and instead step back and see what we are being called to: A wholehearted practice which includes compassion and action which we never complete. Our practice includes our self and others, and like the boundless grasses it goes on forever.