Report: The Bodhisattva Vow

In February 2013 some 19 of us met up in the always wonderful Ariyasom Villa in Bangkok for discussion on the topic of the Bodhisattva Vow – the vow to keep on practising from lifetime to lifetime until you have the necessary qualities of character to become a full Buddha. That’s a long time.

Afterwards some people mentioned they were not familiar with some of the terms we were discussing, so here is a short run down.

Pali Canon – this is the body of texts that is the closest we can historically determine to be the words of the Buddha. The Suttas (teachings) and Vinaya (codes for the monastic order) are mostly very ancient in origin, though the third part of the Pali Canon called the Abhidhamma (a phsychological treatment of the teachings) is dated later at two to three hundred years after the Buddha.

Hinayana, Mahayana – early on in Buddhist history there was a split in the order into two camps that developed in different directions. It was a friendly split, with many of the various schools in these two main camps sharing facilities and debates in the large Buddhist Universities that grew up. Hinayana means ‘lesser vehicle’ and ‘Mahayana’ means ‘greater vehicle’. There are many differences between the two schools, although they both look to the Buddha for the core teaching and agree on the premise of Enlightenment and the path of ‘Avoid evil, practise good, purify the mind’.

Theravada – Since ‘greater vehicle’ implies a superiority (and there is a consistent superiority maintained in the Mahayana teachings) the word ‘Theravada’ was proposed, meaning ‘Way of the Elders’. While Theravada supposes to be the ‘original’ teachings, and in fact was the preserver of the original records of the Buddha’s words, it also incorporates a particular angle of interpretation and many many later teachings. Especially Theravada is heavily influence by ‘Commentaries’ which are later works attempting to clarify various statements in the original works.

Vajrayana – This a further development from Mahayana that is called the ‘Diamond Vehicle’ and seemed to offer various superior methods and teachings. As a rule of thumb, Vajrayana is pretty much synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism. Within this school there are various camps, schools and claims of further superiority.

As mentioned above – these various schools and splits are for the most part friendly and respectful. There is a common purpose and a common origin to Buddhism that brings us together in cooperation.

Also, as mentioned by Ram in our meeting, the Pali Canon is also accepted by the other schools as authentic, even if they tend to focus on their own, later teachings instead.

The Bodhisattva Vow – This is a vow to postpone your own enlightenment so that you can save/help other beings also attain to enlightenment. Georges pointed out that the proper Vow is to become a fully enlightened Buddha, rather than just getting enlightened asap.

Sammasambuddha – a fully enlightened Buddha – one who attains to Enlightenment (nibbana, or the ‘Unconditioned’ goal of the holy life), and due to his charisma, character, or lifetimes of selfless service to mankind and development of qualities, is able to reach out and bring many people to the same enlightenment he himself attained to. These followers become ‘Arahants’. There are three levels of Buddha – Faith based, Wisdom based, and the highest which is Heroic-struggle based (this is not a very common teaching though)


how did your other vows work out?

Arahant – is also enlightened, just the same as a Buddha. But they come to enlightenment through hearing the teachings of a Buddha, rather than stumbling on it by themselves. Where a Buddha has presumably spent many lifetimes practising, a regular person can become an Arahant at any point, if they are ready to receive the teaching.

Paccekabuddha – briefly mentioned was the ‘Solitary’ Buddha – one who attains enlightenment by themselves, but for whatever reason does not lead others to the same knowledge.

Bodhisattva – this term originally (in Theravada) meant a yogi on the path to becoming a fully enlightened Buddha. Traditionally you need to make the resolution to do so after meeting a living Buddha and making the vow. Then you are propelled life after life along the path of development until the time is right for you to become a Buddha. Being on this path means you are committed for many, many lifetimes, since there are only a maximum of 5 Buddhas in an Eon (which is billions of years). Later there were added many further Bodhisattva teachings – that they live in various levels of heavenly realm, and giving them a variety of mythological names and properties. Mahayana claims that the regular Arahants were not developed enough to receive this teaching from the Buddha, and so only the ‘greater’ yogis are able to understand these secret teachings. Historically we know these teachings arose at least 400 years after the Buddha himself. Further, the Buddha repeatedly claimed to have taught openly without holding back anything, which runs counter to the idea that he kept some teachings secret (secret, but now available on the internet!).

Vajrayana however, claims to allow for enlightenment in one lifetime, which seems to run counter to the Bodhisattva ideal.

Is the Bodhisattva Vow important? Some people on the day felt that it is – in so far as it is a grand ideal to aspire to. And making an aspiration is like a spotlight that shows you your shortcomings and gives direction. But before we start thinking about being ‘greater’ or ‘diamond’ it is important to note that you start from where you are, and the real work is done here and now. Deciding to save countless beings from delusion is fine, but you have to sort your own being out first.

So on one level this renders discussion on the topic a little irrelevant – a bit like a 5 year old discussing what he will do when he is President.

The actual important thing is to change, to grow to practise. Metta (loving kindness) and Karuna (compassion) practises are a staple of Theravada already, as is the practise of Dana or giving, the highest form of which is the gift of dhamma, be it by example, by facilitation or other means. Is there need to make vows that include saving countless beings from delusion, when you yourself are still feeble on the path? One version of the Vow states that you will forgo enlightenment until every being, even down to the smallest blade of grass has attained to enlightenment before you – though in our meeting Georges pointed out that this is not part of the actual Vow, and more like a prayer for inspiration.

For myself, I have seen that most monks choose to stay in their monasteries and avoid the public eye. It is all well and good to imagine yourself as some kind of teacher saving multitudes, but just looking after your own behaviour and mind is hard enough. So most bhikkhus keep quiet, and do their thing in the temple quietly, be it working in the admin, school, building, retreats, offices, study or meditation. Are they selfishly only caring about their own enlightenment the way that Mahayana and Vajrayana likes to paint them? Some of the monks who are willing to put themselves in the public eye, work incredibly hard. My own abbot at 86, simply never stops. I myself go to much expense and thousands of hours sitting in taxis in order to encourage people to meet and take up some kind of practise. I had to learn how to use photoshop, write websites, write to newspapers and do PR. It is all part of Metta (loving kindness) development; all part of the Dana (giving) development.

Let’s also look at this from another angle. Suppose it is literally true. That you can make such a vow and that you then will be unable to attain to final Enlightenment, which is the goal of Buddhism. You are committing to countless lifetimes of struggle. Samsara is a difficult place, full of problems, illness, suffering. Right now we live in a particularly prosperous and safe age. Most of history is not like this, and probably most of the future is not either. If the Vow is actually real, you are dedicating to staying in Samsara not just for the rest of your life, but effectively for ever. There are stories of monks in Thailand and Burma who have practices hard, and made real progress, but who have been prevented from reaching their goal due to Vows made in previous lifetimes. Is this real? It is only hearsay and story, but lets take it to be true for a moment – that the Vow does in fact keep you here relentlessly. These monks, reportedly, have had to undertake special resolutions in order to free themselves of the vow to remain unenlightened. 

My own feeling is that if the Bodhisattva Vow is literally real, and making this resolution does in fact keep you revolving around Samsara for millions of lifetimes, then that is something I will decide on much later when I really have the power to recall many lifetimes, or see with the deva eye the vastness of the Cosmos and all the beings in it.

If the Vow is not literally real, but is just a dedication that helps to train you in metta, compassion or giving, then why not just get on with those actual practises, either within the sphere of dhamma (working for a dhamma group) or in the realm of worldly charity. Actual action is a much more powerful way to resolve upon and develop these qualities. This is taking real refuge in ‘Sangha’ – the love and support of others on the path.

All beings, without number, I vow to liberate
Endless blind passions I vow to uproot
Dharma gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate
The way of the Buddha I vow to attain

Beings are numberless; I vow to awaken with them.
Delusions 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.

Some different versions of the Bodhisattva Vow here.

click here for the photos from Feb 2013

2 replies on “Report: The Bodhisattva Vow”

  1. Thank you for the excellent synopsis of our discussion – the effort you put into this is most appreciated.
    Is the cappuccino club confirmed for March 16 and if so where will it be held?
    I am in Hua Hin escaping the smoke pollution in CNX and will drive up to BKK for the weekend if it’s a go.
    please advise,

  2. No – there’s no set date yet for the next meeting. I will be in Penang trying to get a visa. If it goes according to plan, I will be back in mid-April so we’ll meet sometime after that – unless one of you can take the bull by the horns and front up the meeting without me.
    Any event that is firmly booked is always on this website. Check the calendar.


Comments are closed.