The Strength of Vow


I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings to Dharma friends around the world! Welcome to another episode of English Dharma Services.

Ven. Zhi Tong: Hi Kathryn, you have indeed been a diligent bodhisattva! I’m happy that you have fulfilled your vow of participating in the Lunar July Dharma services in full.

Kathryn: Thank you! I can’t believe I could make it either! I’m always afraid that something might come up at the last minute, but I’m really grateful that I get to attend all the Dharma services. This is my first time that I participated in all the sessions. I’m very touched by the service and feels so motivated now!

Ven. Zhi Tong: Venerable Master says that a temple is like a gas station. Sometimes you just need some time for yourself to recharge spiritually again. During the Dharma service, you are connecting with the Buddhas and bodhisattvas through the Dharma teachings, and also reconnecting with yourself through repentance and making vows.

Kathryn: I do feel that I learned more about the Dharma this whole week, especially from listening to the Dharma teachings by the venerables after the service. Oh, this reminds me, I think I hear that there will be Dharma classes starting in September?

Ven. Zhi Tong: Yes indeed! Many classes are starting in September in the temple, not just Dharma and meditation classes, but also flower arrangement, Chinese instruments, and cooking too. Come to one of the classes. Or if you are too busy to commit to a semester of class, you can volunteer in the temple when you are free.

II. Giving Rise to Aspiration and Making Vows

Kathryn: Oh I’d love to volunteer! Venerable Zhi Tong, I can’t stop thinking about what you said to me the last time. You said that repentance is only the first part, the second part is to give rise to vows. What does it mean to give rise to vows? Does it mean we are making a promise to the Buddha?

Ven. Zhi Tong: Well Kathryn, do you make a new year resolution during the start of every year?

Kathryn: Yes, I do. Though I’m not very good at keeping it…

Ven. Zhi Tong: Well, when you were in school, did you make study plans?

Kathryn: I did, and I actually followed through my plans.

Ven. Zhi Tong: What about work? You are now having a successful career, you must have plans and targets that you are working towards?

Kathryn: Yes, I do plan out my monthly and yearly targets, and try to work them out.

Ven. Zhi Tong: Making new year resolutions, study plans, or work targets is similar to what giving rise to aspiration is about. But just as you said, it is easier making a resolution than keeping it.

III. Difficulty in Keeping A Vow

There was once a practitioner who had attained arhathood. One day, he went out with his disciple, who followed along, carrying his luggage. Suddenly, the disciple thought to himself,

“The world is full of disasters and calamities; sentient beings have so many sufferings and obstacles. I should aspire to have the great loving-kindness and compassion of a bodhisattva to liberate sentient beings.” 

The arhat teacher read his mind and knew that his disciple had given rise to the mind of a bodhisattva, so he stopped and turned to his disciple, “Give me the luggage. You should walk in front.” 

The disciple did not understand why, but he nevertheless obeyed his teacher’s words.

After walking a while, the disciple saw a puddle of water under his foot with thousands of ants trapped in it. He thought to himself, “Gosh! The world is so big and there are so many sentient beings. I cannot even save the ants in this puddle. How will I ever be able to save all sentient beings?”

Walking behind him, his teacher read his mind again and said, “Take the luggage back and walk behind me!” This story shows how difficult it is to sustain an aspiration that has arisen.

IV. Striving to Keep A Vow

Kathryn: So what can I do? How can I hold firm to my resolutions?

Ven. Zhi Tong: As Venerable Master Hsing Yun says in his book, Buddha-Dharma: Pure and Simple, “Making vows is like studying  as one needs to keep improving. Initially, a small vow is made but needs to be gradually expanded so that the power of one’s vow is continuously sublimated.” Instead of running before we can walk, we start from baby steps. 

As Venerable Master said, “The power of aspiration can do its wonders. For example, when I aspire to eat, the food will taste delicious. When I aspire to sleep, I will slumber peacefully. When I aspire to be a good person, I will be perfectly happy and willing to do a good deed. The mind is like a field, a beach, or a new shoreline. Developing it brings out its potentials. When the mind makes an aspiration, the quality of everything we do changes.”

Our aspirations usually concern ourselves, and that’s actually not a bad thing because we are striving for self-improvement. For example, we can make a vow to practice the Three Acts of Goodness: I vow to speak kind words. I vow to be a helpful and caring person. I vow to have positive intentions towards everybody. If these are the vows we make everyday, can you imagine the changes it will bring to us?

Kathryn: I see, if I could think this way, I think I would feel better about myself. I find that my thoughts often center on the things I don’t do well. Just last week, I had an argument with my work colleague and spoke rudely. I felt bad after that because I thought I could handle it better, but I kept thinking, “I’m so angry!” and “I hate that person! I wish I didn’t have to work with her!” It was a bad week. But this week during the Dharma service, I calmed down and thought I was also wrong in the way I spoke.

When you quoted the verse to me, the one about making vows, I thought, I couldn’t even talk to my colleague nicely, how can I make such a big vow?

V. The Four Universal Vows

Ven. Zhi Tong: The verse that you said can be found recited after the repentance verse, and it is called the Four Universal Vows. The Four Universal Vows are the universal vows common to all bodhisattvas. And they are:

Sentient beings are infinite, I vow to liberate them. 
Afflictions are endless, I vow to eradicate them. 
Teachings are immeasurable, I vow to learn them all. 
Buddhahood is supreme, I vow to attain it.

We make different vows at different stages of our lives. For example, when we are still students, we work hard to get good grades. When we have a career, we vow to contribute to society with our professional skills. When we have family, we vow to  provide for them and give them the best comfort. The Four Universal Vows are the goal that we as Buddhist practitioners should aspire to. Just as I’ve said, let’s start from baby steps. As Venerable Master explains,

  1. Sentient beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them.

“Liberating sentient beings” is not just a saying, it is cultivation that should be done in daily life. This can be done by cherishing and not wasting time; by appreciating wealth instead of squandering it, and be thrifty and frugal instead of being extravagant; or by protecting nature and preventing pollution and damage. All these actions can help liberate all beings. In the past, some practitioners would not take a single step forward unless they were paying homage to the Buddha; they would not light a candle unless they were reading the sutras. Protecting the ecosystem and valuing resources are the foundation of the vow, “Sentient beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them.”

2. Afflictions are endless, I vow to eradicate them.

The second vow is, “Afflictions are endless, I vow to eradicate them.” The sutras describe afflictions as a burning fire, poisonous arrows, tigers and wolves, and dangerous pits that not only harm but also hinder one from peace. Afflictions obstruct one’s true Buddha nature from being uncovered. For example, the Three Poisons—greed, anger, and ignorance—disturb one’s body and mind, cloud one’s wisdom, obstructing one from progressing on the right path. Therefore, continuous self-reflection and repentance are the best ways to eradicate afflictions, purify one’s mind, and be liberated and at ease.

3. Teachings are infinite, I vow to learn them.

As for the third vow, people must acquire different skills and knowledge to make a living. For practitioners, they must have Buddha-Dharma atop these skills and knowledge to liberate sentient beings. Therefore, it is necessary to learn the infinite teachings of Buddhism. A person who truly wants to learn the Dharma and walk the path to buddhahood should be as accepting and boundless as the ocean.

4. Buddhahood is supreme, I vow to attain it.

And lastly, Buddhahood is supreme, I vow to attain it. It takes a hundred kalpas to perfect the marks of excellence and notable attributes of a Buddha, and three asamkhya kalpas to perfect one’s virtues and wisdom to attain buddhahood. Success in cultivation does not come easy; however, if we can continue despite all hardships, aspire to make vows that motivate us to strive for the liberation for all sentient beings so all can attain buddhahood together, then this is truly, “Buddhahood is supreme, I vow to attain it.”

The scope of the Four Universal Vows is infinite, but we start small. We start with helping the people around us, to benefiting those we don’t know. We start with improving our habits one at a time. We can also start with reading one book and acquiring one skill, to reading many books and learning many skills. As long as we can clearly see the path of Buddhahood in front of us, all of our practices are the nutrients that help us to grow and improve.

VI. Ksitigarbha, Bodhisattva of Great Vow

Kathryn: I see! We start from a small vow, and slowly expand it into a big vow. We start from ourselves, and then to others.

Ven. Zhi Tong: Yes indeed, and before you leave, I’d like to share one last story. Do you know which bodhisattva is famous for their great vow?

 Kathryn: I know! It’s Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva! He made the great vow, “I shall not attain buddhahood until all hells are emptied; I shall not realize the bodhi vow until all sentient beings are liberated.”

Z: You’re right! As recorded in the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Sutra,

In the distant past eons, Kṣitigarbha was a maiden of the Brahmin caste. This maiden was deeply troubled upon the death of her mother – who had often been slanderous towards the Triple Gem. To save her mother from the great tortures of hell, the girl sold whatever she had and used the money to buy offerings that she offered daily to the Buddha of her time. She prayed fervently that her mother be spared the pains of hell and appealed to the Buddha for help. While she was pleading for help at the temple, she heard the Buddha telling her to go home, sit down, and recite his name if she wanted to know where her mother was. She did as she was told and her consciousness was transported to a Hell realm, where she met a guardian who informed her that through her fervent prayers and pious offerings, her mother had accumulated much merit and had already ascended to heaven. The maiden was greatly relieved and would have been extremely happy, but the sight of the suffering she had seen in Hell touched her heart. She vowed to do her best to relieve beings of their suffering in her future lives for kalpas.

The maiden never gave up on her vow and kept on practicing until she became a bodhisattva. And this is how Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva came to be known as the Bodhisattva of Great Vow.

VI. Conclusion

Kathryn: I guess our personal experiences do shape the way we think and act. Being in the temple helps me to grow as a person, and I do notice that I would like to do more for the people around me. I feel that it makes me a kinder and gentler person.

Ven. Zhi Tong: Having good Dharma friends is very important on our path of Buddhist practice. And the temple is your home to pause, reflect, and start anew. Oh, someone’s playing “I Vow.” This is a good song for you, written by Venerable Master. It is a beautiful song on making vows, and the lyrics goes like this:

I vow to be a candle 
Giving light to a world enshrouded 
I vow to be a brush painting 
Beauty everywhere around, 
and I vow to be a streetlight 
Shining on my way 
I vow to be a book of wisdom 
Let the truth be all I say

I vow to be more than I am

May you give rise to wonderful vows, Kathryn!

Kathryn: Thank you, Venerable Zhi Tong! I think I will start with the vow of being a volunteer in the temple! I am sure I will learn a lot by helping out and connecting with other diligent practitioners!

Ven. Zhi Tong: Great! We have a few events coming up and it would be wonderful to have you with us. And it has also been wonderful too to have YOU joining this episode of English Dharma Service.