Four Vows For You

May. 26, 2010 - Posted by in: Blog - 9 Comments

During the recent Four Vows Workshop, we were all stunned by the many possibilities for translation, interpretation, creation of the vows for each one of us. We thought it would be interesting to use this blog as part of a reconsideration of the wording of our vows. You can find a character-by-character guide on our downloads page

Senitent Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.

What about this? What are sentient beings to you? who vows? what is it to save?

Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them

Is ‘desire’ the best word here? How to put an end to them?

The dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them.

What ‘dharmas’ are these? And what is ‘master’ them?

The Buddha Way is unattainable, I vow to attain it.

Is this about ‘attain’?

Let’s hear what you think and how you might express it.

  1. 9 Responses to “Four Vows For You”

  2. My vows (as of today)

    1. There are no sentient beings. But nevertheless they do exist. And I exist (aren’t I a sentient being). Because I have understanding in the fundamental non-duality of suffering and liberation I am in a position to understand how to help. Because I know there is no end to the suffering of sentient beings (myself included) I am in a position to toil at this endeavor forever, without tiring and without expectation of ultimate success.

    I will never harm a living being intentionally.

    2. I desire to end desire. All desires. Fear, Anger, Greed, Happiness, Ideals, Vanity, Good and Bad. To end desire is the desire I hope to extinguish. And it is inexhaustible. It blooms like a flower each time I wake.

    3. There are no dharmas or dharma. And yet there are infinite numbers of dharmas. Seeking to hold self in the “balance” is impossible, seeking to master anything is impossible. There is no balance point in infinity. There is no mastering a silent song.
    Nevertheless, knowledge of the relative futility of mastery allows me to abide in the practice forever, never tiring of learning, changing and growing.

    4. The Buddha way? What is the buddha way? Is it the complete merging of the “personal existence” and consciousness and the undifferentiated dharma. Aren’t these already merged. Wasn’t this Dogen’s unease…”if we are all buddha nature…why practice?” But I vow to practice anyway…and I don’t know why…maybe because it allows me to fulfill the other 3 vows as best as I am able.

    The futility of realizing the Buddha way allows me persist forever, without tiring, never tiring of learning, changing and growing.

    By nm on May 27, 2010

  3. Today I am thinking of ‘all being’ and of ‘to liberate’
    “All being is plentiful, I vow to liberate all.”
    This might include the water in the Gulf, the fishies and seaweed, as well as you and me.
    “Beingness is everywhere, I vow to free it all.”
    Perhaps a bit abstract…..
    But let’s keep at this!

    By enkyoroshi on May 28, 2010

  4. I appreciate the experience of saying the four vows aloud. The experience of air moving through my throat as I connect my voice to the voices of the sangha can be powerful. Holding my hands in gassho, I feel very deeply the sitting period that has just ended.

    As the sangha tries to find the “right” note at which to recite the four vows I listen carefully, modulating my voice to be in tune with the group. As we say the vows, the musical note we use to say them often shifts, sometimes to a lower register and sometimes to a higher one. It is always interesting to watch the sangha find one note, hold that note for a while and then for no apparent reason shift to a different note.

    There have been times when I’ve broken down reciting the four vows. The emotional release they can trigger is extraordinary and it is always a surprise, like a tsunami spawned by some distant earthquake. My emotional reaction to these vows is all the more surprising since, on an intellectual level, I find them highly problematic.

    On an intellectual level, I don’t believe in making vows. It is human nature to break vows as readily as to make, and re-make, them. Is there some sort of genetically based masochism that prompts humans to promise to do things they know inwardly they will not do? Vows often seem like the moral equivalent of the South Beach Diet. The word “diet” brings up 156 million links on Google, almost double the 80 million links that “Zen” conjures up. The word “vow” only rates 10 million links on Google…sex 619 million……..hmmmmmm….

    Still, when I first heard the words “the Buddha way is unattainable…I vow to attain it” I felt a keen sense of delight. The superficially contradictory words took me to a place where contradictions did not exist. That was a place I had never been, a distinctly un-intellectual place. How wonderfully absurd… how exotic! I almost laughed out loud.

    To me, the wording of the vows is perfectly fine as it stands now. I know this because, whatever their wording, the experience of saying the vows cannot be understood or communicated, and it cannot be improved upon. We can say these vows, together, with utter sincerity… and that is all that matters. As the glorious failure Saigo Takamori aptly put it: “What is achieved by depending on one’s ability is so uncertain that we cannot regard it with any satisfaction. Only sincerity can accomplish an enterprise.”

    By Bokushu on May 29, 2010

  5. After asking who the I is who is vowing and considering the clever translations that avoided the first person pronoun, i have decided that “I vow” is inescapable. Whoever I am, I am personally, consciously, and formally making a committment; the making of the vow by me is different from not making it or making it in the name of all sentient beings.

    My translation:

    The phenomenal world is all there is, I vow consciously to be part of it.
    Grasping is inescapable, I vow to let go.
    The gates of reality are everywhere, I vow to enter.
    The Buddha Way is perfection, I vow to attain perfection (perfect myself?)

    I wanted to use ‘Klesha” in the second vow, but if i am going to eliminate “dharmas” in the third, consistency in using English terms overrules.


    By rinsho on Jun 1, 2010

  6. I think vows exist for a good reason. Because on days like today, when I can’t stand anyone, I have to look to the precept against anger and just do it.

    Vows exist because I will never know what is truly best. Even when I think I’m special and especially when I think I’m not. But at least, if my understanding can be subtle enough, I might understand the relative value of peace or compassion and how it might be expressed to myself and others.

    Right now I’m thinking about learning, about accept every transition, about never being satisfied with explanation. About not ABANDONING a practice, an idea, plan or dream because I’m depressed or tired or bored. Not to abandon vows because they don’t make sense. Realizing that any and all discrimination during practice is a sign that there is space to improve. Any benumbed lack of disrimination is space to improve too?

    By nm on Jun 1, 2010

  7. In the workshop I wrote the 4 vows using some of the new information that I learned that resonated with me. It was nice that some people thought about how to write the 4 vows closer to the original language and in a way that can be chanted. It may be a good idea to post on the yahoo group that this is happening here on the blog, because there were quite a few beautiful versions that were read there that day, and it would be great to see more of them written here.

    I agree with Bokoshu, that the vows work for me as they are, and I like how he reflected on how chanting them with sincerity, is what truly matters. At the same time, I also like the idea that Roshi may make some changes and bring in her and the sangha’s vision to the chant. Our liturgy does not have to be static but something that can transform, and reflect the teachings and insights as they unfold throughout space and time.

    This was my version, with some adjustments since the weekend:

    there are countless people in the world
    i will carry them all to safety

    the three poisons seep through the universe
    I will find the antidote

    there are endless things to learn
    I will get to it

    the truth is out there (or is it?- chant to the theme of the x-files)
    i vow to find it.

    By Navah on Jun 3, 2010

  8. in my ever-expanding gratefulness, I will do my best to untie the knots in myself and in others

    I will use my desires as rafts to cross rivers

    I will seek to practice the dharmas of joy, love, compassion, non-judgment and to stand witness to their opposites in myself and in others

    I will do all I can, when I can, if I can and if I can’t…I will ask for help

    By nm on Jun 23, 2010

  9. A musical four vows, enjoy!

    “real love” by the Beatles

    “all i have to do is dream” by the Everly Brothers

    “ninth symphony” by beethoven

    “oh sweet nuthin’” by the velvet underground

    By nm on Jun 25, 2010

  10. Hi all,

    It’s been a while since the workshop but it has satyed with me through the past month. Most interesting for me has been thinking about the Sixth Ancestor Hui Neng’s phrase “in my own mind” as in “The beings in my own mind are infinite, I vow to liberate them.” On the surface it seems so ultra-individualistic, so personal and also so abstract and psychological. But what I take from our discussion at the workshop is that Hui Neng is pointing to the fact that ultimately both the suffering and the transformation that resolves the suffering come out of our own lives. They aren’t external.

    In terms of the fisrt vow I think he means that really there is just energy circulating endlessly (right now in Ohio there is a big storm rolling through and the trees are blowing all over the place — woosh) but we carve this circulation up and make beings out of it with our minds. Really, existentially, the only beings that exist are the fictions we create with our minds. In that case, “liberating” or “saving” them might just mean saving them from our own minds by letting go of our fixed coneptions and letting all those beings blur a bit back into the great flow of energy they truly are. woosh.

    By seiryu on Jun 27, 2010

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