The Four Universal Bodhisattva Vows

Living beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them all.

Blind passions are limitless, I vow to sever them all.

Dharma gates are inexhaustible, I vow to know them all.

Unsurpassed is awakening, I vow to realize it.

Commentary from Genshin’s Ojoyoshu, Section on the Correct Practice of the Nembutsu

To begin with, the manifestation of practice is generally called the mind that vows to become a Buddha.  It is also referred to as the mind that seeks the highest awakening while transforming living beings below.  The manifestation of practice is also expressed as the Four Universal Vows.

These vows can be understood in two ways.  The first way is to understand the Four Universal Vows as they arise from life situations.  This is compassion conditioned by a feeling of sympathy for living beings[1], or compassion conditioned by an appreciation of the Dharma[2].  The second way is to understand the Four Universal Vows as they arise from true reality.  This is unconditioned compassion[3].

[The Four Universal Vows as they arise from life situations]

I will now explain the Four Universal Vows as they arise from life situations. 

The first vow is “Living beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them all.”  One should think, “All living beings have Buddha-nature, I will guide them all to enter the state of nirvana without remainder[4].” . . . This is the cause for awakening of the transformation body[5]

The second vow is “Base passions are limitless, I vow to sever them all.” . . .  This is the cause for awakening of the Dharma body[6]

The third vow is “Dharma gates are inexhaustible, I vow to know them all.” . . . This is the cause for awakening of the reward body[7]

The fourth vow is “Unsurpassed is awakening, I vow to realize it.”[8]  This is the vow to seek the awakening of Buddhahood.  It is said that because this vow contains the practice and vows of the previous three, it leads one to realize perfect awaking of the three bodies.  Moreover it enables one to broadly guide all beings to liberation.

[The Four Universal Vows as they arise from true reality]

With regard to the Four Universal Vows as they arise from true reality, all things are originally tranquil [as in the state of Nirvana].  They neither exist nor lack existence.  They neither continue nor cease.  They neither arise nor are extinguished.  They are neither defiled nor pure.  There is no form or fragrance that is not an expression of the Middle Way[9]. 

Samsara itself is Nirvana.  The base passion themselves are awakening.   One by one, the gates of defilement themselves become the 84,000 perfected virtues.  Darkness changes into light, like ice melts into water[10].  It is neither far away, nor something that comes from another place.  The mind is completely endowed with virtues in a single thought-moment, as if receiving the wish-fulfilling jewel.  There is neither treasure nor lack of treasure.  To say it does not exist would be a lie.  To say it exists would be a false view.  It cannot be known by the mind.  It cannot be explained with words.

In the midst of this of inconceivable unbounded Dharma, living beings tie themselves down with concepts.  In the midst of the Dharma where there is nothing to cast off, they strive for liberation.  For this reason, [the bodhisattva] awakens great compassion and establishes the Four Universal Vows for all beings in the Dharma-realm.  This is called following true reality to the mind of aspiration.  It is the very highest mind that aspires for awakening.

Relationship between the Four Universal Bodhisattva Vows and the Four Noble Truths

Each of these two ways of understanding the Four Universal Vows has two meanings. 

[The Four Noble Truths and the Four Universal Vows as they arise from life situations]

From the perspective of the Four Universal Vows as they arise from life situations, the first and second vows express the removal of suffering of living beings as described in the Truth of Suffering and Cause of Suffering, the First and Second Noble Truths.  The third and fourth vows express bestowing upon living beings the joy that is described in the Path to Liberation from Suffering and the End of Suffering, the Fourth and Third Noble Truths.

[The Four Noble Truths and the Four Universal Vows as they arise from true reality]

From the perspective of the Four Universal Vows as they arise from true reality, the first vow refers to other beings, and the remaining three vows refer to oneself.  This is to say that both the removal the suffering described the First and Second Noble Truths and the bestowing of joy described the Third and Fourth Noble Truths are all contained within the first vow.  In order to realize absolute and complete fulfillment of this vow, one gives rise to the remaining three vows that refer to oneself.

(Jodo Shinshu Seiten Shichisohen Chushakuban, p. 903-906; Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo No. 2682, Vol. 84, p. 48-49, translated by H. Adams)

[1] Also referred to as “small compassion.” Cf. Shinran’s Hymns of the Latter Dharma Age:“Lacking even small love and small compassion, / I cannot hope to benefit sentient beings. / Were it not for the ship of Amida’s Vow, / How could I cross the ocean of painful existence?” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 422)

[2] Also referred to as “medium compassion.”

[3] Also referred to as “Great Compassion.”  This is the compassion of the Buddhas.

[4] 無餘涅槃the state of total liberation from all physical and mental conditions. This is in contrast to nirvāṇa with remainder 有餘涅槃, where the body still exists. (

[5] The transformation body nirmanakaya: a body manifested to correspond to the different needs and capacities of living beings. (Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Terms, H. Inagaki, p. 237)

[6] The Dharma body Dharmakaya: the body of the ultimate reality (Ibid., p. 113)

[7] The reward body sambhogakaya: the body of a buddha received as the result of his meritorious practices (Ibid., p. 102)

[8] Genshin’s version of the Fourth Universal Vow (無上菩提誓願證), differs slightly from the more common Chinese version 佛道無上誓願成 “The way of the Buddha is unsurpassed, I vow to perfect it.”

[9] The Middle Way that rejects the two positions of “is” and “is not.”  This is characteristic of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy.

[10] Cf. Shinran’s Hymn’s of the Pure Land Masters: “Obstructions of karmic evil turn into virtues; / It is like the relation of ice and water: / The more the ice, the more the water; / The more the obstructions, the more the virtues.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 371)

A Passage on Right Views from Shinran’s True Teaching, Practice, and Realization

Chapter on Transformed Buddha-Bodies and Lands, Section 88

Chapter Eight, “Evil Spirits” Attainment of Reverent Trust,” part one, of the Great Collection “Moon-Matrix” Sutra, fascicle five, states:

[The Buddha said,] “All beings! If you keep your distance from wrong views, you will gain ten kinds of virtue. What are these ten? First, with your mind pliant and good, you will have companions who are wise and virtuous. Second, believing in the recompense of actions, leading even to death, you will not commit any evil acts. Third, venerating the three treasures, you will not trust in gods. Fourth, adopting right views, you will not decide propitious or unpropitious times according to the season, day or month. Fifth, always being born in realms of human beings or devas, you will never fall into the evil courses. Sixth, attaining a mind of clarity in wisdom and goodness, you will be praised by others. Seventh, abandoning secular involvements, you will always pursue the holy path. Eighth, parting from views of annihilation and eternality, you will believe in the law of causation. Ninth, you will always meet and be with people of right faith, right practice, and right aspiration. Tenth, you will be born into the good courses of existence.

“You will direct the roots of good acquired from casting off wrong views toward attainment of supreme, perfect enlightenment. People who do so quickly fulfill the six paramitas and will attain perfect enlightenment in a Buddha-land of goodness and purity. Having achieved enlightenment, they will adorn sentient beings with their virtues, wisdom, and all their roots of good in their own Buddha-land. Being born in those lands, people do not put trust in gods; leaving behind their fear of the evil course, they will be born into good courses on ending their lives there.”

Commentary on the Buddha’s Parinirvana

Cited in Shinran’s True Teaching, Practice, and Realization (Kyogyoshinsho), “Chapter on Transform Buddha-bodies and Lands”

Section 71

The Commentary on the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra states, explaining the four reliances:

When Sakyamuni was about to enter nirvana, he said to the bhiksus, “From this day on, rely on dharma, not on people who teach it. Rely on the meaning, not on the words. Rely on wisdom, not on the working of the mind. Rely on the sutras that fully express the meaning, not on those that do not.

“As to relying on dharma, dharma refers to the twelve divisions of scripture. Follow this dharma, not people who teach it.

“With regard to relying on the meaning, meaning itself is beyond debate of such matters as, like against dislike, evil against virtue, falsity against truth. Hence, words may indeed have meaning, but the meaning is not the words. Consider, for example, a person instructing us by pointing to the moon with his finger. [To take words to be the meaning] is like looking at the finger and not at the moon. The person would say, ‘I am pointing to the moon with my finger in order to show it to you. Why do you look at my finger and not the moon?’ Similarly, words are the finger pointing to the meaning; they are not the meaning itself. Hence, do not rely upon words.

“As to relying on wisdom, wisdom is able to distinguish and measure good and evil. The working of mind always seeks pleasure, and does not reach the essential. Hence it is said, ‘Do not rely on mind.’

“As to relying on the sutras that fully express the meaning, among all the sages, the Buddha is foremost. Among all the various scriptures, the Buddha-dharma is foremost. Among all human beings, the assemblage of bhiksus is foremost.”

The Buddha regarded the sentient beings of an age in which there is no Buddha as possessed of deep karmic evil. They are people who have not cultivated the roots of good that would enable them to see a Buddha.

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The Meaning of 108

The number 108 has great significance in Buddhism. There are multiple commentaries the meaning of 108. The following are two common explanations.

Nagarjuna’s explanation of the significance of the number 108 from his Commentary on the Perfection of Great Wisdom:

Human beings have 6 senses 六受:

1) sight 眼→色

2) sound 耳→声

3) smell 鼻→香

4) taste 舌→味

5) touch 身→触

6) thought 意→法

Continue reading “The Meaning of 108”

From The Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, Part II, Section, 31

31 The Buddha said to Bodhisattva Maitreya, the devas, humans, and others, “The virtue and wisdom of sravakas and bodhisattvas in the Land of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life are beyond verbal expression. Thus, that land is exquisite, blissful, and pure. Why do you not strive to practice the good, be mindful of the spontaneous working of the Way, and realize that all beings in that land attain without discrimination the boundless virtue of enlightenment? Each of you should be diligent and make every effort to seek it for yourself.

Continue reading “From The Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, Part II, Section, 31”

Ōjō Raisan (Shoya Raisan) Chanting

The chanting of Ōjō Raisan (Shoya Raisan) is a Pure Land Buddhist tradition established in China by Master Shandao, which was widely embraced among the followers of Hōnen Shōnin.  This beautiful liturgy continues to be chanted in the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji School today. Join us to experience the settling of the mind through focused breathing and meditative listening.

Shoya Raisan Chanting Text

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Coming soon!

Letter on White Ashes

By Rennyo Shonin

 When I deeply contemplate the transient nature of human existence, I realize that, from beginning to end, life is impermanent like an illusion. We have not yet heard of anyone who lived ten thousand years. How fleeting is a lifetime!

 Who in this world today can maintain a human form for even a hundred years? There is no knowing whether I will die first or others, whether death will occur today or tomorrow. We depart one after another more quickly than the dewdrops on the roots or the tips of the blades of grasses. So it is said. Hence, we may have radiant faces in the morning, but by evening we may turn into white ashes.

 Once the winds of impermanence have blown, our eyes are instantly closed and our breath stops forever. Then, our radiant face changes its color, and the attractive countenance like peach and plum blossoms is lost. Family and relatives will gather and grieve, but all to no avail.

 Since there is nothing else that can be done, they carry the deceased out to the fields, and then what is left after the body has been cremated and turned into midnight smoke is just white ashes. Words fail to describe the sadness of it all.

 Thus the ephemeral nature of human existence is such that death comes to young and old alike without discrimination. So we should all quickly take to heart the matter of the greatest importance of the afterlife, entrust ourselves deeply to Amida Buddha, and recite the nembutsu.

 Humbly and respectfully.