The Bodhisattva Ideal

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The inconceivable vow

A key aspect of bodhisattva practice is the commitment or dedication to the way of awakening and to carrying out this commitment for the benefit of all. The aspiration to care for and to awaken all beings (in Sanskrit bodhicitta, literally "enlightening mind") is considered mysterious and auspicious. This heartfelt care for suffering beings and fundamental questioning into the meaning of life seems to arise unaccountably, amid the pettiness and self-centeredness of our lives. This initial aspiration of beginners seeking the Way is said to be identical in nature and value to that of an advanced bodhisattva.

The commitment to awakening is expressed by the practitioner taking bodhisattva vows. Many of the bodhisattva figures we will discuss have their own particular vows. But there are also general bodhisattva vows common to all Mahayana practitioners. The best known are the four inconceivable vows. They are:

Living beings are infinite, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to cut through them.
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to realize it.

These vows seem impossible in terms of the conventional human perspective on the world. But the bodhisattva viewpoint demands and is activated by this thorough, universal level of commitment, while simultaneously encompassing the ordinary kindness and helpfulness that we all may perform in our everyday lives.

  • We free beings by helping others to express their own distinct awakened nature. The commitment of the bodhisattva is to join the fellowship that will eventually carry this serene and dynamic awareness to all dissatisfied beings. The job of bodhisattvas is to nurture and finally bring out the kindness and clarity of all humanity.

  • In our attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.

    Dogen Zenji

    We cut through our delusions about self and others by becoming aware of the attachment and grasping that grow out of our desires. Living simply, needing less, increases the richness of our lives as surely as, if not more than, accumulating wealth. We are caught by delusion when we become attached to objects of attraction or aversion, when we seek to hold in our grasp the things we have imagined will guarantee our happiness, or to repel what we fear will harm or displease us. We can acknowledge our feelings of likes and dislikes without trying to escape from ourselves, yet without having to reflexively act them out in the world. We can also experience that these objects of desire and aversion are not ultimately separate from ourselves and do not have independent reality or power over us.

  • We enter the boundless dharma gates by engaging in beneficial practices and teachings of how to live most fully. "Dharma gates"—teachings or entryways into reality—are boundless because the opportunities for finding teaching are as numerous as the people or events we encounter. Each person and every situation has something to teach about how to be more fully ourselves. When we see every encounter as a potential teaching and source of awakening, regardless of the apparent status or position of those encountered, we are fulfilling this vow.

  • We accomplish the unsurpassable Way of awakening by embodying and personally fulfilling concrete expressions of bodhisattva intention in our own situation. We may humbly recognize our present shortcomings and lack of awareness, but we can also forgive ourselves and dedicate ourselves to actualizing universal awakening.