how to take our bodhisattva's vow

Tuesday Morning, April 29, 1969
San Francisco

This morning I want to explain how to take our bodhisattva's vow. We say “bodhisattva's vow,” but actually this is not only a Mahayana Buddhist vow but also all the Buddhists’ vow. When we say Mahayana, usually it means some superior teaching that is in contrast with Hinayana. But this may not be real understanding. According to Dogen Zenji, this is not right understanding, to say “Hinayana” or “Mahayana.”

The Agama Sutra1 is supposed to be the oldest Buddhist sutra, but even in the Agama Sutra this kind of thought is there. It says, Shujo muhen—“Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them.”2 Buddha came to this world to save sentient beings. Usually those who do not believe in Buddhism come to this world because of karma. But for Buddha, he did not come to this world because of karma.

In the Agama Sutra, they say Buddha passed away by his own choice. Because he finished his task, because he had nothing more to do in this world, he took nirvana, it says. When he finished his task, he took nirvana. It means that the purpose of his coming to this world was to save sentient beings or to help others. If that was the reason why he came to this world, when he finished his task, there was no reason why he should stay in this world. So he took nirvana.

So, the underlying thought is already to help others, to save sentient beings. Usually Mahayana Buddhists denounce Hinayana Buddhism. “Hinayana Buddhists just practice our way to help themselves, not to help others.” That is what they say, but actually when they say in the Agama Sutra that he took nirvana because he finished his task in this world, it means that already he came to this world to save others. And in various so-called Hinayana sutras, we find this kind of thought everywhere. Those vows are supposed to be Bodhisattva's vow or Mahayana vow, but those four vows actually are vows for all Buddhists. All Buddhists should have these vows.

To take a vow is very important. To believe in Buddhism means to take vows. If you don't take vows, life will be a life of karma. Only when we take vows is our life the life of a Buddhist. And how to take vows may be the most important point. How to take a vow.

Another reason Mahayana Buddhists denounce so-called Hinayana Buddhists is they are rigidly caught by precepts or teaching or what was told in scriptures. And they have no freedom from precepts or teaching. That is another reason why so-called Mahayana Buddhists denounce Hinayana Buddhists.

But when Buddhism was started by Buddha, there was not much difference—actually, Buddhism was Mahayana. So, if I dare to say, that was Mahayana. And, so-called Mahayana Buddhism arose mainly as the teaching of Buddhism became more and more concrete or caught by a concrete idea of some particular teaching or precepts. And they rigidly tried to stick to the teaching. At first they respected the teaching too much and tried to preserve the teaching, and that was the purpose of the priests especially. And this kind of effort resulted in a very rigid understanding of precepts or teaching. So, for instance, at first, Buddha did not have any idea of setting up precepts. And when someone did something wrong, Buddha just said, “That is not right. Why don't you do it this way?” That was the original precept. There were no precepts in terms of, “This is a precept all Buddhists should keep.”

But, when we count precepts like the Ten Prohibitory Precepts, we feel that if we fail to observe those Ten Precepts, if you violate even one of the ten, you will not be a good Buddhist. So the purpose of taking vows or taking precepts is just to observe those things literally. That is maybe the usual way of understanding precepts. But a true purpose of precepts is not just to observe precepts so that you can attain enlightenment.

Why we observe precepts or why we take vows is to actualize Buddha-spirit. So, to take a vow, this is the way: “Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them.” The sentient beings are numberless.  If they are numberless, how is it possible to save them? [Laughs.] The same thing will be true with keeping precepts. We should not kill: We should not take life without a reason. “Without a reason” is extra. We shouldn't say “without a reason.” We should just say, “You should not kill.” [Taps table four times.] That is enough.

When you fall into the idea of the more usual, secular understanding of precepts, you say, “without a reason” [laughs], if it means that if there is some reason, we can kill. By saying so, we are making some excuse to kill. But why we have to make this kind of excuse is because we think the purpose of keeping precepts or taking vows is to attain enlightenment. And, if you kill, or do not observe precepts, or do not take vows, you will not be a Buddhist, or you will not attain enlightenment.

But, if you understand the purpose of observing the precepts is to arise buddha-mind, then when you say “I will not kill,” at that moment you have buddha-mind. There is no need to think, “I have to keep or observe precepts or vows forever.” Even though actually we don't know what we will do in the next moment [laughs]. It is very difficult to know, to be sure about our future. But if it is so right now: “I will not kill!” That is enough to arise buddha-mind. Even though it is not possible to save all sentient beings, but moment after moment if you say, “I must save all sentient beings”—then you have buddha-mind.

So, to be a Buddhist, moment after moment, we take vows. It is not necessary to think about whether this is possible or not. When you take a vow or when you keep precepts in this way, your way is already not the Buddhist way. You are falling into the superficial practice of “you should do” or “you should not,” or “you should take a vow” or “you shouldn't take a vow.” To take vows is to observe our way. This is one of the many ways to practice our way, like zazen practice.

So “Sentient beings are numberless.” Maybe it means that sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them moment after moment, continuously. But “moment after moment, continuously” is not necessary. “I vow to save them” is strong enough and good enough. “I vow to save them.” If the sentient beings are numberless, we will take this vow numberless times, that's all [laughs]. In this way, we feel a feeling of quite different quality. We feel the eternal practice of our way, of our Buddhist way. “Sentient beings are numberless” means that our practice will continue forever.

“Desires are inexhaustible. I vow to put an end to them.”3 If the purpose of keeping precepts is to annihilate our desires, this vow is not possible, a contradiction. But if the purpose of a vow is to arise our buddha-mind, then it makes sense. The “inexhaustible” gives us some encouragement, and we can continue our practice forever. And we will have firm confidence in our practice which continues forever. So, we will be encouraged by this vow forever.

“The dharma is boundless. I vow to master it.”4 Here it says also “boundless,” the boundless dharma. I vow to master it. So our vow will continue forever, and we can believe in our boundless dhamma.5

“The Buddha's way is unsurpassable. I vow to attain it.”6 The same thing will be true with this vow.

In this way, we should take vows and we should keep our precepts. When you receive precepts, you say, “I will keep them.” When I give you precepts, you say, “I will keep them.” It is not even a promise. When you say, “I will do it,” by words that is how you keep precepts. “I will do it.” That's enough.

But, you [laughs] may think, when you don't know if you can keep the precepts, to say “I will keep it” is not so conscientious. When you take the precepts in that way, or when you receive precepts in that way, you are not receiving precepts in their true sense as Buddha expected. Why don't you say, “Yes, I will do it!” [Hits table several times.] That is what Buddha wanted you to say. That's all. And, whether you can keep it in the next moment or next day is not the point. Do you understand? It is not difficult at all to receive precepts. We say, to receive precepts is to arise buddha-mind. To receive or to give precepts is to arise buddha-mind at that moment. It is not a matter of keeping precepts literally or not. To arise buddha-nature, buddha-mind, we say, “I will do it!” That's enough.

When you say, “I will not say so because I don't know whether I can do it or not,” that is maybe a kind of arrogance, which is the enemy of a Buddhist. People may say, “People who are not so conscientious may say, ‘I will do it.’ But a person like me who is very conscientious will not say [laughs], ‘I will keep it.’” You see? Big arrogance is there [laughs]. Anyway, when you say, “I will keep it!” there is no arrogance. There is soft mind, which we Buddhists expect is there when you say, “I will do it. At least I will try to do it.” And “try to do it” will not be so good. “I will DO it!” [laughs], you should say. “I will try to do it” is you are hesitating. “I will do it” is like to jump into the ocean. “I will do it!” Then there is no trouble.

The other day I told you about climbing up to the top of the pole and jumping off the top of the pole.7 Usually we say to climb up to the top of the pole is easy, but it is difficult to jump off from it. I don't think this is true [laughs]. To climb up to the top of the pole is difficult, but to jump off it is not difficult. The way is just to say, “I will do it!” [Laughs.] When you think which is easier, to climb up to the top of the pole or to jump off the top of the pole, which is easier? [Laughs, laughter.] Because you are thinking that way, it is difficult. When you don't think, when you trust Buddha, and when you say, “I will do it!” that is the easy way.

We are liable to be caught by something we see or something we experience, and we are liable to compare one experience to another and say which is difficult. So, you say to climb up to the top of the pole is too easy in comparison to jumping off from the pole which is not so difficult, but to jump off is very difficult. But you shouldn't say so [laughs]—or because you say so, because you think so, because you compare the experience of jumping off the pole to the experience of climbing up, you hesitate to do so. So, how you keep precepts or how you take the four vows, is to do it, without being involved in some idea of vows or practice or precepts.

In Japan, Buddhists receive precepts—we say jukai—and everyone says, “I will keep it.” [Laughs.] And, when I was young, I thought this is nonsense. [Laughs.] How will they keep the precepts? When they go home they have to eat eggs, meat; even when they eat rice, that is living beings. They are killing everything as long as they live. How is it possible to say, “I will keep it. I will not kill?” But, later I was struck by them when they said, “I will keep it.” I thought, “Oh, that is the way to keep precepts.”

In this way, we should take Mahayana vows. This is the way Buddha's direct disciples took vows. Later, Buddhism became more and more idealistic or more rigid, and we lost an important point. Those things are not something which we should be told. Actually we are leading our life in this way. If you observe carefully our everyday life, we are actually living this way. When we understand our life in some sophisticated way [laughs], we get into trouble.

So, if you want to study our way, you must not forget this point. It is necessary to study, of course, but in your study if you lose this point, your knowledge or your study will not work. You cannot own your knowledge in its true sense.

Thank you very much.
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1 Āgama-sūtras (Jap. Agon-gyō): A collection of four Sanskrit sūtras roughly corresponding to the Pali Nikāya. The Āgamas form the basis of Hīnayāna teachings.

2 Shujō muhen seigandō: "Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them"—the first line of the four-line vow traditionally chanted after lectures.

3 The second line of the four-line vow traditionally chanted after lectures.

4 The third line of the four-line vow traditionally chanted after lectures.

5 Suzuki-rōshi used the Pali pronunciation.

6 The fourth line of the four-line vow traditionally chanted after lectures.

7 From Ts'ung-jung lu (J. Shoyoroku, E. Book of Serenity), Case 79: "Changsha Advancing a Step": "Climb one step beyond the top of the hundred-foot pole. The whole world in the ten directions is revealed." See also SR-69-04-20 and SR-69-06-17.


Source: City Center original tape. Verbatim transcript by Sara Hunsaker. Checked by Bill Redican (2/23/01). Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (12/2020).