3 of 13

Samantabhadra's vows

Samantabhadra is particularly known for his ten vows.

1. Venerate buddha
2. Praise buddhas
3. Make offerings to buddhas

Samantabhadra's first three vows show devotion to awakening and to those who have realized awakening. Samantabhadra's devotion arises out of the bodhisattva's humility and heartfelt gratitude. When Westerners first observe Buddhist devotees making prostrations to buddha or bodhisattva images, they are often disconcerted. But images of buddhas and bodhisattvas are understood in Buddhism as representations of awakened qualities within our own selves and within all beings. That is what is bowed down to. This is true not only for statues but also for living teachers. Teachers are venerated for expressing the awakened quality possible for all of us, and for representing the tradition that has maintained this teaching. This vow of Samantabhadra does not suggest that guides be venerated for their personal power or charisma.

In his devotion, Samantabhadra not only venerates buddhas, he also vows to praise them and the virtue of their awakening activity. Samantabhadra spreads the news about the presence of buddhas and the possibility of enlightenment. He makes offerings to buddhas, providing them with useful gifts and with the practical offering of his own life activity and dedication.

Buddhist legend stresses the importance of the spirit of offering, rather than the quality or quantity of richness of the offering. Any sincere offering to a buddha results in great benefits.

With Samantabhadra's devotional attitude toward all of creation, we can offer buddha a beautiful sunset, the drifting clouds, a field of wildflowers, a baby's smile, or our efforts to act with kindness. We can offer the nourishment to buddha as we eat an orange.

4. Confess one's own past misdeeds

Throughout numerous past lives, even such a great bodhisattva has caused suffering in various ways. Samantabhadra has the humility to realize and acknowledge that. We can only awaken to our clear, radiant nature by examining and acknowledging the obstructions and self-grasping that inhibit this deeper reality. As we openly acknowledge our failings, they may lose their power, and we can see how to not be caught by them.

5. Rejoice in the happiness of others

Seeing people enjoy their lives and develop their capacity for bringing joy to others is what gives Samantabhadra his greatest pleasure. When a bodhisattva realizes that she is ultimately not separate from others, her sincerest wish is simply that all beings may be happy.

Of course, it is not always so easy to be happy with others' good fortune. Often we feel rather envious: Why couldn't that happen to me, instead of to that mean, stupid person? Such feelings are to be expected when we view others as outside, estranged from ourselves and our interests. Samantabhadra vows to genuinely be happy for others who are happy, regardless of superficial judgments about whether they "deserve" their good fortune or not. This vow also includes seeing and enjoying the virtuous acts and good qualities of others, and not only their limitations, on which we might all too easily dwell. When we adopt this vow to truly appreciate the happiness and goodness of others, we are doing Samantabhadra's practice.

6. Request buddhas to teach
7. Request buddhas not to enter nirvana

When Shakyamuni Buddha was first awakened, it is said that he thought nobody would be able to understand what he had realized, and that he might as well pass away into nirvana right then. A buddha realizes that this world, as it is, is a beautiful buddha land that completely expresses perfection. Many beings existing in the world may be unable to share this view, due to their own ignorance, craving, and aggression.

Nevertheless, some beings are capable of understanding and developing spiritually upon hearing a buddha's teaching. This is what the Indian deity Brahma said to Shakyamuni Buddha after his great awakening, convincing him to remain in the world and find ways to teach others. Samantabhadra repeats this entreaty to all buddhas.

8. Study the Dharma in order to teach it

All Buddhist students must request the teaching, demonstrating a sincere desire to follow spiritual practice, in order to fully receive it from a teacher.
Samantabhadra's eighth vow is to study the Buddhist Dharma in order to teach it himself. He finds ways to share his study with others, either by teaching directly or by expressing it in his daily activity and bearing. The Dharma that Samantabhadra studies includes sutras but also teachings from meditation, from moonlight reflected on the ocean, from fear and anxiety, and from old age, sickness, and death. Samantabhadra vows to share the depths and the wonder of all of life's teaching.

9. Benefit all beings
10. Transfer one's merit to others

Samantabhadra's vows benefiting all beings and transferring merit to others are the natural consequences of the fifth vow of rejoicing in the happiness of all beings. Carrying out the ninth vow, Samantabhadra does whatever is necessary to help beings, taking on social roles for the sake of those who are suffering. It implies helping in personal situations and also recognizing the systemic problems of society that may produce suffering and finding means of facilitating change.

The tenth vow, to transfer merit, has a meaning that is common to all bodhisattva practice. Developed bodhisattvas have the power to extend the merit accrued from their own insight and compassionate activities to other beings.

The transferring of merit indicates that Samantabhadra vows not to practice for personal well-being. Meditation, chanting, and other spiritual practices may have positive side effects, such as stress reduction, increased energy, greater patience or endurance, or a general sense of health. Samantabhadra's tenth vow means that he does not practice hoping to achieve such results. If they occur that's fine, but Samantabhadra always “transfers” these advantages by using them to help others. Transferring the merit of bodhisattva practice helps dissolve the barriers between ourselves and others and between the buddhas and all beings.

In the middle of our everyday activity in the world, amid difficulties in our workplace or family, mindfully recalling these ten vows can be a great help. Reciting or remembering these vows allows us to engage in our ordinary life in a way that activates our awakened, beneficial nature.