The Four Bodhisattva Vows

Recently, I posted an example of Buddhist liturgy as found in the Japanese Tendai tradition, but I wanted to call out one aspect of that liturgy called the Four Bodhisattva Vows or shiguseigan (四弘誓願) among other names. As this article shows, the Four Bodhisattva Vows probably originated China, based on an earlier gatha verse, and have promulgated to other Buddhist cultures in the process. The liturgy text will vary slightly from Buddhist tradition to tradition, but like the dedication of merit, is remarkably consistent overall.

In the aforementioned Tendai tradition, one version of the vows is as follows:

Sino-Japanese1PronunciationTranslation by me
(other, better translations exist 😉)
衆生無辺誓願度Shu jo mu hen sei gan doSentient beings are innumerable, and yet I vow to save them all.
煩悩無尽誓願断Bon no mu hen sei gan danMy mental defilements (lit. bonnō) are innumerable, I vow to extinguish them all.
法門無量誓願学2Ho mon mu ryo sei gan gakuThe gates of the dharma are without measure, I vow to master them all.
仏道無上誓願成Mu jo bo dai sei gan shoThe path to Buddhahood is peerless, I vow to fulfill it.
1 Chinese liturgy with Japanese phonetic pronunciation
2 I’ve also seen the last character as 知 (chi), but more or less means the same thing

These vows cover something that we saw in previous articles about the Mahayana-Buddhist notion of the Bodhisattva: that we’re all in this together, and so the Buddhist path is not truly fulfilled until one completes their vows to aid all beings no matter how long it takes. The Mahayana path of the Bodhisattva is lofty, heroic even, but as the last verse says, nothing less is enough.

On the other hand, the path of the bodhisattva begins with a single good act, or a good thought towards others. It’s about piling up grains of sand or pebbles time and time again. With enough time and dedication, one can move mountains. Don’t be afraid to think big, even if you come up short in this life. Even if you acted like a dickhead today, that doesn’t mean tomorrow you will be one. Every day is a rehearsal. The very notion of “buddha nature” means that each one of you has the capability for great things, even if you don’t think you can. That’s why in the 20th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the Bodhisattva Never Disparaging bows to each person, even when they’re a total jerk: given the right conditions, any sentient being can become a bodhisattva or a fully-awakened buddha. Given enough time all of them will.

My best wishes to you all, dear readers. May all you be well, free from harm, and find what you are looking for.

P.S. Featured image from the story of Chujo-hime in the Taima Mandala Engi (当麻曼荼羅縁起)

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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