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)

Right Conduct: The Powerful Act of Bowing

April 18

The fourth aspect of the Eightfold Path, Right Conduct is to act in a way that is peaceful, kind and compassionate. Joining one’s hands in gassho, bowing, and placing offerings before the Buddha are part of our daily practice of Right Conduct. This week’s Dharma talk will consider how these simple acts have the power to bring peace to the world.

Schedule
8:30 a.m. Shoshinge Sofu Chanting
9:00 a.m. Taiso Morning Exercise
9:30 a.m. Dharma Service
10:30 a.m. Dharma Discussion

To join us for this online Dharma Service, CLICK HERE to sign up for “Live Broadcast of Services”.

Right Speech: The Words of Lady Takeko Kujo

April 4

The third aspect of the Eightfold Path, Right Speech is to speak honestly and compassionately.  This week we will reflect upon the words of Lady Takeko Kujo who practiced right speech to advocate for the poor and oppressed people of her time.

Schedule
8:30 a.m. Shoshinge Sofu Chanting
9:00 a.m. Taiso Morning Exercise
9:30 a.m. Dharma Service
10:30 a.m. Shotsuki Hoyo Monthly Memorial Service

To join us for this online Dharma Service, CLICK HERE to sign up for “Live Broadcast of Services”.

Right Thought and Zero-Sum Thinking

March 28

The second aspect of the Eightfold Path, Right Thought is to consider the matters of one’s life free from prejudice and misconception. In this week’s Dharma talk, we will explore how the wisdom of the Buddha guides us to let go of our zero-sum thinking, which creates the misconception that sharing benefits with others requires losing benefits for ourselves.

Schedule
8:30 a.m. Shoshinge Sofu Chanting
9:00 a.m. Taiso Morning Exercise
9:30 a.m. Dharma Service
10:30 a.m. 日本語法要 Japanese Service

To join us for this online Dharma Service, CLICK HERE to sign up for “Live Broadcast of Services”.

Superstition and Magical Thinking

March 14

This week we will consider the role that superstition and magical thinking play in our lives in light of the Buddha’s teachings on Right View. The first aspect of the Eightfold Path to Awakening, Right View is to see ourselves and our lives as they they truly are, illuminated by the light of wisdom.

Schedule
8:30 a.m. Shoshinge Sofu Chanting
9:00 a.m. Taiso Morning Exercise
9:30 a.m. Dharma Service
10:30 a.m. Dharma Discussion

To join us for this online Dharma Service, CLICK HERE to sign up for “Live Broadcast of Services”.

Featured image by Yoshimasa Niwa

Hinamatsuri (Girl’s Day): Sujata’s Gift and the Middle Way

March 7, 2021

As we welcome the traditional Japanese celebration of Hinamatsuri (Girl’s Day), we will revisit the story of Sujata, and how her gift to Siddhartha enabled him to awaken to the Middle Way as the path to liberation from suffering.

Schedule
8:30 a.m. Shoshinge Sofu Chanting
9:00 a.m. Taiso Morning Exercise
9:30 a.m. Dharma Service
10:30 a.m. Shotsuki Hoyo Monthly Memorial Service

To join us for online Dharma Services, CLICK HERE to sign up for “Live Broadcast of Services”.

Blowing Out the Flame of Selfish Desire

February 21

The word “nirvana” means “to blow out,” as in “when a flame is blown out by the wind.”  This week’s Dharma talk will focus on the Third Noble Truth taught by the Buddha, that the peace of nirvana is attained by extinguishing the blind passions of selfish desire, hatred and delusion.

Schedule
8:30 a.m. Shoshinge Sofu Chanting
9:00 a.m. Taiso Morning Exercise
9:30 a.m. Dharma Service
10:30 a.m. 日本語法要 Japanese Language Service

To join us for this online Dharma Service, CLICK HERE to sign up for “Live Broadcast of Services”.

Brightness Beneath the Clouds and Mists

February 7

Shinran Shonin likens greed and anger to clouds and mists that blanket our minds with the fog of ignorance, causing suffering for ourselves and others (The Second Noble Truth).  As we seek a path through the fog, the brightness of the Buddha’s wisdom shows us the way to clarity and peace of mind.

Schedule
8:30 a.m. Shoshinge Sofu Chanting
9:00 a.m. Taiso Morning Exercise
9:30 a.m. Dharma Service
10:30 a.m. Shotsuki Hoyo Monthly Memorial Service

Recorded audio and video of the Dharma Talk available upon request.

To join us for this online Dharma Service, CLICK HERE to sign up for “Live Broadcast of Services”.

Anger and the Two-headed Bird

January 31

This week we will revisit the traditional story of the two-headed bird Garuda/Upagaruda, which illuminates the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth that anger and vengefulness arising from self-centered thinking cause suffering for ourselves and others.

Schedule
8:30 a.m. Shoshinge Sofu Chanting
9:00 a.m. Taiso Morning Exercise
9:30 a.m. Dharma Service
10:30 a.m. Dharma Discussion

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Video and audio recordings of past Dharma talks available upon request.

Calming the Busy Mind

January 3

The Buddha taught that peace of mind comes from understanding how our minds work. This week we’ll look into the Buddha’s teachings about what makes our minds so busy, and how we can awaken to a settled mind.


Schedule
8:30 a.m. Shoshinge Sofu Chanting
9:00 a.m. Taiso Morning Exercise with instructor Juliet Bost
9:30 a.m. Dharma Service
10:30 a.m. Shotsuki Hoyo Monthly Memorial Service

To join us for this online Dharma Service, CLICK HERE to sign up for “Live Broadcast of Services”.