Three Translations of the Bodhisattva Vow
The awakened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
However innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.
However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.
However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.
However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.
~Thich Nhat Hanh, trans.
Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.
The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.
~Upaya Zen Center version
The many beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly; I vow to abandon them.
dharma gates are countless; I vow to wake to them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassed; I vow to embody it fully.
~Robert Aiken, trans.
What a beautiful day here in CT. The sun is out, daffodils are blooming, bees are busy and we are alive to witness the patient rewards of spring. It is Earth Day and I am truly glad to be an inhabitant of this generous earth today. The story of human life is one of connection and interdependence. We can easily see this in the food we eat that needs sun, soil, earth, and rain to thrive. Unless we are in denial, we know that our planet and all life that depends upon its wellbeing is in danger. In Mahayana Buddhism, there is a practice of taking a vow to protect all life, including our own. This great vow involves compassion, wisdom, non-judgment, action and begins with Bodhicitta, the mind of love. It is called The Bodhisattva Vow.
In Mahayana tradition, a Bodhisattva is a being who has cultivated the six perfections or paramitas, generosity, morality, and patience, energy or zeal, meditation, and wisdom, over many lifetimes. Instead of choosing Nirvana, a Bodhisattva remains earthbound and vows to help all beings to enlightenment, freedom from oppression, and suffering. Bodhicitta, the awakened heart, is the foundation of all compassionate action for one who walks the path of a Bodhisattva.
Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron describes the awakened heart as a measure of our capacity to feel with others. The awakened heart resonates with the suffering of the other and the deep desire to relieve it. She writes, “An analogy for bodhicitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic; sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. But under the hardness of that armor, there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.” When we truly know the pain of another, we can offer the great gift of empathy and compassion and the desire to save them from pain.
In the three translations of the Bodhisattva Vow, we see that living beings are innumerable, they keep being born, and the bodhisattva vows to save all, or as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, to meet them with kindness and interest. This is not an unrealistic assignment we are condemned to fail. Saving all, is the active component of Bodhicitta, the wide open heart. All includes just that, no exceptions. It is this awakened heart that can lead us to act. If someone asks me to be brave, I find that a frightening invitation. I’m a shy activist, not at home with charging into conflict. If someone asks me to show that I care, that is a totally different intention. Caring for others, opening to their pain, is the ground that cultivates the seed of action. When my actions come from caring, I do not need to armor myself or brace for a battle. They are organic extensions of the woken heart.
So on this weekend when we turn our attention to the world we steward, to the animals on the cusp of extinction and the violence, hatred, and delusion we see in the world, I invite you to stand beside the pain, to witness and know how the heart of the frightened trembles. And… to act with the heart of a Bodhisattva made unafraid through caring. Compassionate action doesn’t mean we need to be heroes in a big way and rescue people from burning buildings. Maybe we take a lonely person to lunch or bring some spring flowers to someone who is ill. Perhaps we call our representatives when environmental regulations are threatened, or have a car-free day. I hope you rejoice in the intention of goodness and care and take delight in your determination to be a Bodhisattva, easing the pain of ourselves and all beings.
May we all trust our light,