Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Bodhisattva Ideal...


In Mahayana Buddhism, the ideal of practice is to become a bodhisattva who strives to liberate all beings from the cycle of birth and death. The Bodhisattva Vows are vows taken formally by a Buddhist to do exactly that. The vows are also an expression of bodhicitta, the desire to realize enlightenment for the sake of others. Often known as The Greater Vehicle, Mahayana is quite different than the Lesser Vehicle, Hinayana/Theravada, in which the emphasis is on the individual liberation and the path of the arhat. 

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.

A passionate variation of the vow is associated with the iconic 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 ZenNichiren, Tendai, and 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.

In his book "Taking the Path of Zen," Robert Aitken Roshi wrote,

"I have heard people say, 'I cannot recite these vows because I cannot hope to fulfill them.' Actually, Kanzeon, the incarnation of mercy and compassion, weeps because she cannot save all beings. Nobody fulfills these 'Great Vows for All,' but we vow to fulfill them as best we can. They are our practice."

Zen teacher Taitaku Pat Phelan said,

"When we take these vows, an intention is created, the seed of an effort to follow through. Because these vows are so vast, they are, in a sense, undefinable. We continually define and redefine them as we renew our intention to fulfill them. If you have a well-defined task with a beginning, middle, and end, you can estimate or measure the effort needed. But the Bodhisattva Vows are immeasurable. The intention we arouse, the effort we cultivate when we call forth these vows, extends us beyond the limits of our personal identities."

Tibetan Buddhism: The Root and Secondary Bodhisattva Vows

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