15 June 2010

The Bodhisattva Vows of Zen

I've been intrigued with Zen since high school. This particularly intricate tradition of Mahāyāna Buddhism started in China, but has always been Japanese to me - probably because almost all of the modern and famous Zen masters who have spread the word have been Japanese.

At first it was the delight of something new and foreign, with the added attractiveness of also being goddamn confusing. But what started out as an enjoyment of strange koan later became an interest in its theology and philosophy, keeping pace with my journey towards atheism.

It is with a new and appreciative heart that I can read the teachings of Zen once more.

The four vows of a bodhisattva (a person of compassion who seeks enlightenment for all) are a great example. They express four impossible obstacles and four vows to overcome them.

Chinese: 眾生無邊誓願度
Japanese: しゅじょうむへんせいがんど
Sentient beings are numberless: I vow to liberate them all.

Afflictions are inexhaustible: I vow to end them all.

The Dharma gates are infinite: I vow to study them all.

The Buddha way is unsurpassed: I vow to attain it.

This is much the same as an enlightened approach to ethical reciprocity; these goals are not sought because they are possible - or even because they are good goals - but because the seeking makes your life better and the lives of others better. Compassion and consideration turns us to these paths, in pursuit of a wiser understanding of our own self-interest


  1. When Logan was a baby, Dan used to call him Bodhisattva Logan. He would get really close to his little face and stare into his mercurial eyes and repeat it over and over, chanting it like a mantra.

  2. Could I make a correction to your post? You wrote: "because almost all of the modern and famous Zen masters who have spread the word have been Japanese." This isn't quite true. Certainly in the Western world from the experience of Caucasians, the influence of Japanese Zen master is more obvious. But that's only one slice of the society pie, if you will. Chinese Zen masters are influential in other segments of American society, usually not populated with white Americans, and they're also influential in Asia. So, your perspective that famous Zen masters who have spread the dharma have been Japanese comes largely from the perspective and contexts of white America.

  3. That is very true! It should probably read "spread the word to America," because it only reflects the American experience of Zen.