Bodhisattva Vows and
the Four
Noble Truths

A lecture given on October 14, 2000
at the
San Francisco
Zen Center


Gil Fronsdal
Resident teacher 
of the 
Insight Meditation Center of the Midpeninsula 
(Palo Alto, CA)

Good Morning everyone. On the way here today I was remembering that I was coming back to this particular room, the Buddha Hall, where many years ago I was ordained as a Zen priest. That ordination is sometimes known as a bodhisattva ordination and at its heart is what is known as the bodhisattva vows. This notion of bodhisattva vows–the dedication of a bodhisattva to be of service to the world–is at the heart of my involvement with Zen practice, Zen center and Buddhism nowadays. At the end of the talk we're going to chant the bodhisattva vows. There are various translations but the one we use is

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them
Buddha's way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.

On initial contact with these great wonderful vows that lie at the heart of Zen Buddhism, it might seem a bit daunting to take them on. The idea that you are going to take on vows to save all beings regardless of number might seem preposterous or presumptuous. There are innumerable beings and I vow to save them all. That's a lot of people to be concerned about. Why would anybody want to take that on as a burden?

There is a koan in the Blue Cliff Record of two monks talking. One asks the other what it is like for the great bodhisattva of compassion to have so many hands. The bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, or Quan Yin, or Kannon, sometimes is depicted with many, many hands–a thousand hands, 84,000 hands–and often each hand has a different implement in it. Most monks in East Asia would have known that the reason Avalokiteshvara has all these hands and all these implements is to be infinitely useful to all the beings in the world. No matter what situation different beings find themselves in, the bodhisattva will have the tool to go and fix that, to help that being. Having so many different hands means that they are infinitely capable of reaching out in all directions. 

"What is it like for the great bodhisattva of compassion to have so many hands?" The second monk responds: "It's like groping in the dark at night for your pillow." That's kind of an unusual answer. The idea of "groping at night for the pillow" is that you're kind of sleeping or half asleep or not comfortable and the pillow has gotten a little off base somehow, and, even without thinking, your hands will kind of puff up the pillow or fold it over or do whatever you do to make it more comfortable for your head. This idea is of not even thinking, of taking care of some situation that needs taking care of without even necessarily thinking about it but responding from some other place. When you are arranging the pillow when you're half asleep, perhaps you're almost not even aware that the pillow is different from you. Maybe you're hardly even aware that there's a problem that needs to be fixed–it's kind of automatic. It's just that this needs to happen. 

My wife and I have a two-year-old son at home and he sleeps right next to us; we're all on futons on the floor and he's right next to us on his futon. It has been wonderful to have a young child and feel how a certain kind of self-centeredness drops away for me. It is obvious that this child has needs that I can provide. Sometimes his blankets come off at night. There is no thought particularly in my mind that he is cold or anything, I just reach over and pull the blankets over him. I'm not operating on the notion that he needs help. I'm not operating on the notion that he's out there and I'm here. It doesn't come into my mind that my sleep is being disturbed and this is a drag. It's almost an impersonal affair in that this is what needs to happen in the moment. That young boy needs to be kept warm and I reach over and put on the blanket as if he is not really separate from me, or as if I'm not really separate from him, or as if there is not “self” and “other” in this equation. There is just the paternal instinct to take care of the child and his needs.

First we have this groping for the pillow where there's no real separation between you and the pillow, and then there's the taking care of someone else. The classic metaphor or example in Buddhism is of the mother taking care of her only child. The question is can this be universalized, can it be spread and generalized to include other beings, other people, other situations? Is there some way of being a bodhisattva, some way of taking on these vows to save all beings where it is not you doing the work? Where it is not you taking on this burden of "I'm going to try to help everyone; it is my responsibility. All beings out there are suffering"? Can the response to the suffering of the world be as simple as the response of your hand to fixing the pillow at night where there is no sense of an object, of a being, of a person out there who is separate from you taking care of it?

Often when we want to help, or when we want to protect ourselves from a threat, or whatever, there is a very strong sense of there being an object out there, a person out there, and us in here. We have an object out there and a subject in here and a barrier or wall of separation or ideas or concepts or feelings of separation that operate in between. When those feelings of separation operate, we can have great motivation to be helpful, but the motivations to be helpful come from this idea of it's me doing the work. Sometimes that works, and sometimes that's very exhausting, especially if you do a lot of it. You are carrying into the situation something that is extra: this idea, this effortful or activated idea, that I am here and that person is there, and I'm the one who's going to be helpful. If you take the vow to save all beings that way you'll be exhausted in a few days–there's no end to it. So, is there some other way of taking the bodhisattva vows that is not so exhausting?

It's interesting to me that these four vows are said to have had their genesis in the four noble truths. The four noble truths are probably the core teaching of the Buddha. When I was a new student of Buddhism, I knew what the four noble truths were, and I thought this was elementary Buddhism, this was what you taught kids in Sunday school. I wanted the great philosophies of emptiness and the like. I hardly paid attention to the four noble truths because that's where it all started, and I didn't want kindergarten Buddhism; I wanted graduate school Buddhism. The longer I practice, the greater amazement I have at the four noble truths and appreciation that they really are the core of Buddhism, and everything else is more like adornments around the four noble truths. This seems to be the case with the great four vows–they are a different way of expressing or talking about the four noble truths. 

The first noble truth is the truth of suffering. It's not that life is suffering, but that there is suffering in this world. We're not going to argue with that, particularly. To save all beings is the same things as to save them from their suffering–not save them from some kind of worldly concern, but from really deep down existential suffering, or craving, or clinging to self, holding to self, that lies at the roots of human suffering.

The second noble truth is the description of the cause of suffering. The cause of suffering the Buddha called tanha in Pali. Sometimes in English it's called “desire” and that maybe seems to problematize all desire. The word tanha means “thirst,” so it has a stronger feeling than desire. I like to translate it as “compulsion” or “drivenness.” The source of our suffering is our compulsivity or drivenness. When we are driven there is no freedom; you don't have a choice of what to do. Addiction is a kind of drivenness. When we have desires or aversions, they can take over. We're acting in the world reactively, habitually out of those things. Then the second noble truth has come into play. The second of the four vows is "Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them." So it's kind of the same, right?

The third noble truth is that there's an end to your suffering, there a cessation of that suffering, there's a possibility of no longer living a life that's based on compulsion, but a life that is free. Now, a lot of Americans want freedom; America has sometimes been referred to as the great land of freedom. A very simplistic way of looking at the American notion of freedom is as a freedom to do, a freedom to be not limited in our actions. What that means is that if we have compulsions, freedom is just to act on those compulsions freely. The ultimate consumer dream is the freedom to buy whatever you want. The freedom of Buddhism is not that; rather it is freedom from compulsion. Freedom from acting habitually, or reactively, or tightening up or constricting around a situation. If you are acting freely on your compulsion you're not really free. Something else is acting through you, your compulsions.

That is the third noble truth, and depending on how you want to analyze it, it corresponds either with the third vow, "Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them," or the fourth. The fourth noble truth is the path leading to the end of suffering. It is very easy to state the first three noble truths: there is suffering, there is a cause, and there is an end to it. Great! But because it is not so easy to do that, the Buddha laid down the Buddhist eight-fold path for us to follow. That could correspond to "Buddha's Way is unsurpassable, I vow to enter it." It could also correspond to the third vow, "Dharma Gates are boundless, I vow to enter them."

One of the things I find very interesting about the four noble truths is that the way they are stated there is no pronoun involved. It doesn't refer to my suffering or your suffering; it simply says neutrally, suffering exists and that it has a source. In taking that on, it means that Buddhists are interested in suffering, however it's experienced; it's not just simply a personal matter. Wherever it arises we are interested in noticing suffering and the causes of it. This also points to the idea that much of our suffering arises when we enter into objectification. We objectify the world. Our desire, our thirst, our compulsion usually has an object: we want something or we want to get rid of something. There is a thing that we are relating to as an object outside of ourselves.

I'll give you an example. Once I had a cold for five or six days. It wasn't so bad, but it kept me at home, partly in bed. I kept getting a little bit out of sorts, not so much because I was sick, but just from restlessness and boredom or whatever. The doorbell rang and it was UPS. The UPS fellow was bringing this big box I wasn't expecting, a gift from some distant aunt for my son. It was a big play structure that you put in the yard. It said you could assemble this in ten minutes. I was kind of bored and restless and my first reaction was: "Great! Something exciting to do, a project." I ignored the fact that it was drizzling outside. I went to work, and it took a lot more than ten minutes. Finally I finished and only then did I pay attention to what was going on with me. I was so involved with the object, the thing that had to be done, that I wasn't paying attention to this half of the equation, the feelings inside of me. I was surprised to discover that now I was really exhausted. I thought: "Oh I shouldn't have done this. I need to heal, not tire myself out." I did the logical thing for many of us: I immediately blamed UPS! How could he have brought it on a rainy day?! Luckily I saw this momentary thought and let it go. I knew better than to grab onto that thought, so the thought went through, and I smiled.

How quick we are, sometimes, to latch onto objects outside of us, either as something to desire as a solution to our discomfort, or to blame for our discomfort. Both situations were uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable first because I was bored, so I latched onto a desire. I wasn't really acting freely, I was acting out of compulsion to go out there and make a structure. When I finally did pay attention to what was going on with me, again I found myself uncomfortable, even more uncomfortable. Rather than just sitting with the discomfort myself, I lashed out at something external, UPS, the most convenient thing to blame.

Often our suffering arises when we are involved in a relationship with the world where we have objects out there. An alternative to doing that in my situation would have been for me to sit back and feel what was going on inside of me. I could just feel what was going on inside of me without that giving birth to some external object of blame, or desire, or whatever. I could have just stayed here and hung out with these situations. If I had done that, I think I would have eventually found some kind of ease there, some willingness or wisdom to just stay there and not look externally for some solution, or solace, or blame.

The object/subject relationship causes a lot of suffering when we treat ourselves as objects, and a lot of us treat ourselves as objects. For example, when I was thirteen, in the spring of 1967, I went to live in Italy. I showed up in this little town in Italy, and I had the longest hair of anyone there, and I was the only one wearing bluejeans, which was very nice because that meant I was cool: I was the coolest kid in town. I was vitalized or energized by this, and happy about my important role in the city, and it was a great summer! Then I came back to Los Angeles at the end of the summer, and a lot had happened in California in the summer of 1967, and, lo and behold, I did not have the longest hair in town anymore. I did have blue jeans, which was cool, but everyone else's bluejeans had been through the washing machine ten thousand times that summer. Besides that, a lot of people had torn their bluejeans and patched them up again. I didn't know you were supposed to do that, so I just had bluejeans and I was no longer so cool. I was out of fashion, almost. My energy level and sense of vitality and sense of well being dropped as a result. The only thing that had changed in flying across the Atlantic from Italy to the United States was who I was comparing myself to. I was treating myself as an object that could be compared to other people, and in that comparison I was feeling either some vitality or some depression, both unhealthy, I would say.

Is it possible to have an experience of oneself in which we don't treat ourself as an object to be compared to others? How much of your suffering arises because you are comparing yourself to someone else or some ideal or some standard you have? If that's the case, you're treating yourself as an object. What would happen if you were to take all the ideas of who you are that are based on what you've done in the past and throw them away; and if you took all the ideas of what you hope you might be in the future and threw them away? What will happen if you take all the ideas that other people have about who you are right now and throw them away, and if you take all the tendencies you have to compare yourself to anyone else, or thing, or value in the present, and throw that away? What are you left with? Who are you then? Who are you? I think that if you do that exercise very carefully, you might find that it is not so easy to do. You may see how quickly, as you go through your day, one of those categories of self-reflective ideas or thoughts comes into play.

Is there an alternative to treating oneself as an object? I would say that there is. I don't know if this is good philosophy we're talking, but maybe you'll allow me to go this route: you can, in a sense, treat yourself as a subject. But not as a subject separate from anything else. Maybe everything is subjective. Everything is the Great Subject–there is no object at all. There is not you here and the world out there as an object. There is not you here looking at you here as an object. Rather everything is experienced subjectively. What that means is that you sit there, and UPS comes with the play structure, and you feel uncomfortable and bored. To treat everything subjectively in that situation would be, not to latch on to an object externally as a savior or solution, but, rather, to stay actually in what is subjective experience, which is discomfort and boredom. Not the hope in the future of what this play structure will do for you, but to stay present in what is the actual subjective experience here. When you realize that you've gone too far and you've exhausted yourself, again stay in a subjective experience of that.

When you meet someone else who is suffering, or you meet someone else who is feeling joy, can we avoid treating that as an object out there and avoid treating ourselves as an object here. Rather, in some way, treat it all as part of the subject. It's all subject, it's all the subjective experience of life. No inside and outside.

I meet with people a lot for interviews, practice discussion . It's one of the stronger forms of meditation practice that I have these days. What I find very interesting about this is how being pure subject works in a conversation with someone else. The experience I have, or try to practice is, if I'm really present for someone else, it's kind of like I'm not there. It's not that I disappear entirely, but a boundary between me and them disappears. But that's not right either. I'm very mindful of the person I'm talking to and I'm very mindful of the reactions and responses going on inside of me: the thoughts I have, the feelings I have, and all those things. In a sense I'm tracking both, if my mindfulness or my awareness is big enough, wide enough, or expansive enough to hold it all. 

If I only hold the person out there in my mind, then I've created a kind of separation and then I can't track that person very well. That person might feel very happy that someone is listening well to them, but you're not really listening well if all you're doing is listening, because then, when I speak or react, I'm not aware of my motivations, I'm not aware of my emotions behind it. Then I might say or do something that I regret. But if I only pay attention to what it's like primarily for me, then I can get defensive, I can lose touch with that person. 

What I try to do is to treat the situation equally, self and other as equal. It isn't that the other is more important than me or that I am more important or less important or whatever. Rather I'm sitting here in this big mind, subjective mind, where it's all important, and there's no separation, no wall between here and that person there. Because I'm tracking my reactions inside, I feel like it's safe to do that. If I weren't tracking what's going on inside of me, it might not be safe to sit there without the boundaries. Does that make sense?

Sit there as pure subject. I think a lot of zazen is doing that, i.e., dropping all the ways in which we treat ourselves as objects, all the ways we treat zazen as an object, all the ways we treat Buddhism as an object, all the ways in which we treat others as objects, and learning what it's like to just sit there as pure subject. Pure subject means you have to be here in the present. Pure subject is always a present moment event. First you have to learn to be in the present, then to rest or relax or sit in this pure subject. No concern about the future and what you can attain and get. As soon as you're involved in attainment, you've objectified the situation. Then come back to this pure subject.

What happens to me, and I think will probably happen to everyone who sits zazen and begins having a taste of this pure subject, is that compassion arises in our contact with suffering in the world, which you are sure to encounter. There is no way of not encountering suffering because it, like joy, is everywhere. What happens inside of us if we're pure subject and we encounter suffering? The heart quivers, the heart shakes; it doesn't feel good, it feels a little bit off. Compassion is a beautiful virtue in Buddhism and people hold it up as really important.

The flip side of compassion is that it always arises in contact with suffering. It's a wonderful thing, but are you sure you want it? You can't make yourself feel compassion in the abstract; it doesn't make any sense. If you feel the suffering of the world, and you treat it as an object, or yourself as an object, then there can be horror, anxiety, or pity for the other person. I'm here and that person's there and I'm the one who's going to help or whatever. I'm the one who's going to protect myself, and I don't believe that really works. But to sit there in the context of suffering and to learn what it's like not to treat the suffering as an object, not to treat the other person as an object, rather to sit there and experience it all in a total subjective state, big mind, I think that arises from zazen experience. The compassion arises naturally from zazen experience.

If, from that point of view, we encounter some suffering in the world, some being is suffering, then the motivation that arises out of compassion is to try to do something about it, to help. There are many ways of helping, but help not as yourself as a subject in relationship to an object, but, rather, as you would fix the pillow early in the morning, or at night, or as you would pull the blanket over a young child without particularly thinking about it. This is just what the situation calls for. I don't congratulate myself for having pulled the blanket over my son. I just do it, it arises out of the situation. This kind of response to the world that arises out of pure subject is a lot of what the dedication of the four vows is about.

Maybe, in a kind of mythic way, taking the four vows means I'm really going to save all beings. What it means more practically is that it's my vow that, whenever I encounter suffering in the world, a suffering being, it's my vow to try to save that situation, to try to save that person, to save ourselves in that situation. I remember, again, not the person “out there.” It's responding more deeply, by coming back to this place of pure subject and knowing how to act wisely in the world. The first step of saving all beings is to come back into pure subject. Perhaps this is why the sixth patriarch of Zen said the four vows are fulfilled in your own mind.

There's something very personal about fulfilling the four vows. It's not so exhausting because it's really about how you are going to meet the next moment, not some abstract ideas about saving the whole world. Wherever someone takes the four vows, she is inspired by the possibility of meeting the world from this pure subject point of view, and allowing herself to be open enough to experience the world from that point of view, not shutting down when there's suffering, but staying open there, and staying in the pure subject and responding from there. 

In that sense Avalokitesvara, the great bodhisattva of compassion, who has 84,000 arms to do all this work, does it effortlessly, acting in the world as if she is just puffing up her pillow in the middle of the night. It might not seem so satisfying, this kind of approach to compassion and saving the world, because it's not so obvious that you're doing some big project, but I believe that in Zen Buddhism we start always right here where we are. We are concerned about this moment and how we experience the world around us. We are concerned with letting our whole response to the world arise out of being rooted and centered here, without there being an objective me in the middle of the centered world. The whole world, my inner feelings and reactions and the world around me, is centered around here. It's pure subject.

Often, I'm not in that kind of space, and it's partly when I'm not in that space that the four vows have greatest meaning. They are an inspiration, a reminder, for me to try to relax, and come back to that place, and let that be the operating mode I primarily work from, rather than the operating mode being all these objects that I'm going to manipulate. In pure subject, you're still going to manipulate the world, but you do it form a very different point of view. Thank you all.

© Copyright Gil Fronsdal, 2001

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