In Praise of Bodhisattva Vows

Taigen Dan Leighton
This article is for a book on Bodhisattva Vows; published in Germany, and in German, 2002

The bodhisattva vows are guides to our expression of deepest reality. Vowing is the practice of sustaining our beneficial expressions. Such commitment is the fruit of recognizing the truth and the potentialities of our personal place in reality. Thus we enter a dynamic situation in which we meet the problems of our lives and the world with upright noble faith, confirmed in the aim toward the direction of universal awakening. The power of this bodhisattva commitment allows us gentle flexibility and subtlety in the conduct of our lives.

Many specific sets of vows are part of the bodhisattva tradition. Among the archetypal bodhisattvas, Kshitagarbha (Jizo in Japanese), the Earth Womb Bodhisattva who acts as a guide to travelers, children, and hell dwellers, has specific vows to remain present as an aid and witness to suffering beings in all realms. The bodhisattva of action in the world, Samantabhadra (Fugen in Japanese), propounds a set of ten vows expressing devotion to buddhas and their works. But the most commonly noted four bodhisattva vows are a complete road-map: to save all the innumerable beings; to cut through all of our inexhaustible delusions; to enter onto all the manifold paths of awakening teaching and awareness; and thereby to take on the path to complete universal awakening.

These vows are sometimes viewed as inconceivable, paradoxical, mind-confounding. But entering in to such fearless commitment, we actually engage the texture of our real experience, and our most pleasing and genuine self-expression. The direction toward going-beyond itself fully expresses the liberation of all beings right now. Yet the bodhisattva does not ignore the karmic world of particular causes and conditions.

The totally fulfilled realization of these vows in the manifest historical world, the salvation of the world of all beings, can only be seen in the context of the vast duration of incalculable lifetimes that is the temporal perspective of the bodhisattva vehicle. From such a wider perspective, the bodhisattva engages in the troubles of the world, without any specific expectation of some immediate, conventionally apparent results. Just working in the direction of universal awakening and kindness is the point. The results take care of themselves, according to a deeper, more organic dynamic. The relatively peaceful dismantling of the Berlin Wall, or of apartheid in South Africa, could not have been foreseen even a few months before. The fruit of ages of diligent effort often blossoms suddenly, beyond our limited expectations.

The bodhisattva vow certainly includes engaging in specific societal projects to alleviate the suffering of beings, and acting immediately to respond to the needs and suffering of the folks before us. The vastness of the bodhisattva vows is actually an aid, a wider perspective, which supports specific helpful actions. From a conventional, rationalistic perspective, is it any less daunting than saving ALL beings, just to aim to save, for example, just the beings on the block where you live? When we aim at universal awakening, we can just as well follow our aim by taking the time and effort to be helpful to one person or address one situation of misery.

The societal dimension of bodhisattva work joins with the personal and psychological. Saving all beings also includes saving oneself. The bodhisattva vow does not necessarily indulge in self-sacrifice or self-abnegation. The self is understood as not separate from the worlds of other beings. But bodhisattva vow does not neglect the myriad beings who we ourselves encompass. Saving others is not other than saving oneself. Saving oneself is not separate from saving others. Saving the others within oneself is not separate from saving oneself, or others.

We save self and others by studying the self. This is the vow of ending inexhaustible delusions. To study the self is to study the Way. Studying the self means studying our own delusions, our pettiness, craving, frustration, rage, confusion, envy, and our own woundedness. Thoroughly, courageously, unflinchingly, the bodhisattva studies his own delusions, becomes intimately familiar with his own delusions, and how they present themselves in this body and mind. Awakening is about awakening to one’s own delusions, not being obsessed by them, no longer needing to act them out. When we can fully face the wall of our own delusions, we can face the delusions of others and self. We can forgive ourselves, and others, and thoroughly be in delusion, right here throughout the inexhaustible delusions. By becoming deeply, yogically familiar with our delusions, including our delusions about enlightenment, we shed light on the dark shadows of our conditioned self, and our unwholesome tendencies lose their power to cause harm to others, or to ourselves. Whether or not we uproot all personal desires, if we remain attentive to the whole range of our own intentions, we can act in the light of helpfulness to all beings. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, "The price of liberation is eternal vigilance."

Enacting the bodhisattva vow is more of an aesthetic path than a mode of charity. This is the vow of entering the innumerable dharma gates. We enter the pathways to fully knowing ourselves, and fully engaging delusion and the awakening to delusion. The practices are endless; the opportunities for receiving teaching and support from the universe are endless. These gateways to Dharma include all of the helpful practices. From devotedly helping those in direst misery, to dedicatedly working to correct some societal injustice, to simply smiling at a flower, all are simply the most beautiful, pleasing modes of expression right now. This is the creative joy and art of the bodhisattva, expressed in the practice of vow. The diversity of gateways is the endless play of the bodhisattva.

The final vow, to realize the Buddha Way, is also the first refuge. We take refuge in Buddha. We return to our deepest, most beautiful, most buddha-full truth and home. This refuge is not a sanctuary, or a particular place. It does not exist in some lofty, altered space of higher consciousness, in some remote Himalayas of our fantasies. Rather, it is that location T.S. Eliot referred to, the place we start from, but only know when we return at the end of all of our long wanderings. This place of ultimate refuge has always been with us, but is only actualized when we are willing and glad to continue going beyond. The bodhisattva takes refuge again and again. The bodhisattva returns endlessly, and then continues on the journey, always seeing through new delusions, always finding more gateways to reality to enter.

Finally, this bodhisattva vow is something engaged always in communion with others. Even doing bodhisattva practice alone in your room, or up near a mountain top, our whole life is there. All beings are there. Our friends, teachers, loved ones, and acquaintances, going back to childhood, are always present with us in our practice, both supporting and benefiting from our bodhisattva practices. All beings dance together in the bodhisattva vow.