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. (http://www.buddhism-dict.net/)

[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)

Shōshinge: Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Session 7)

This month we reflect upon the following verse as it relates to our journey to the Other Shore of enlightenment:

The Name embodying the Primal Vow is the act of true settlement, The Vow of entrusting with sincere mind is the cause of birth;
We realize the equal of enlightenment and supreme nirvana Through the fulfillment of the Vow of attaining nirvana without fail.

Continue reading “Shōshinge: Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Session 7)”

When we meet, we will smile

Each year during our Obon and Hatsubon Service, I am reminded of the power of the Buddhadharma to provide guidance and support for us as we navigate our feelings of grief.  As school for my sons usually begins a few days after our San Mateo Buddhist Temple Obon Observance, I have come to associate our Obon with the end of summer.  Opening the freezer at the temple to put away the Obon service manju for an occasion when we can all enjoy them together, I noticed three large bags of frozen hamburgers.  I was suddenly reminded of the delicious hamburgers grilled at the temple picnic and all the experiences that we did not get to have this summer: bazaar—which marks the start of summer in my mind, the annual BWA service at the Japanese Cemetery in Colma, followed by brunch with BWA members at Denny’s in South San Francisco, a family trip to Japan, our summer Terakoya day camp, spam musubi at Obon Odori practices, and chanting together with a Hondo full of attendees at our Obon and Hatsubon service. 

Continue reading “When we meet, we will smile”