Buddhist Vows remind me of New Years Resolutions sometimes.
When we take these vows we are, in effect, saying, “I know this is impossible, but I will vow to do it anyway.” Why? Because it’s important.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the ideal of practice is to become a bodhisattva who helps others discover their Buddha Nature. The Bodhisattva Vows are vows taken formally by a Buddhist to do exactly that. The vows also are an expression of bodhichitta, the desire to realize enlightenment for the sake of others.
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 Zen, Nichiren, 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.
These four vows encompass all of Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhism: The Root and Secondary Bodhisattva Vows
In Tibetan Buddhism, the term “Bodhisattva Vows” usually refers to two sets of vows, sometimes called the “root” or “secondary” vows, or the root or secondary downfalls. These are lists of behaviors that a bodhisattva should avoid, many of which are also found in the Precepts.
Shantideva was a monk and scholar who lived in India in the late 7th to early 8th centuries. His Bodhicaryavatara, or “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,” presented teachings on the bodhisattva path and the cultivation of bodhichitta that are remembered especially in Tibetan Buddhism, although they also belong to all of Mahayana.
Shantideva’s work includes a number of beautiful prayers that also are bodhisattva vows. Here is an excerpt from just one:
May I be a protector to those without protection,
A leader for those who journey,
And a boat, a bridge, a passage
For those desiring the further shore.
May the pain of every living creature
Be completely cleared away.
May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed.
Vows are not intended to be easy.