Four Truths, Four Vows

| August 22, 2011 | 8 Comments

This is another in my series of discussions of ideas Stephen Batchelor has been presenting in dharma talks since late 2010. You can hear them at dharmaseed.org.

One of the attractive ideas to come out of Stephen Batchelor’s recent teaching is a mapping of the Four Noble Truths onto the Four Bodhisattva Vows of the Zen tradition, a concept Batchelor got from former Zen priest and current Vipassana teacher Gil Fronsdal. In case you’ve never been to a zendo, here is one of many translations of the Four Vows:

Beings are numberless; I vow to save 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.

(http://www.sfzc.org/sp_download/liturgy/Full_Moon_Chants.pdf)

This four-verse version of the Bodhisattva Vows isn’t found anywhere in the Pali texts; scholars believe it developed in China. There’s certainly no obvious indication that the author of these verses had the Four Noble Truths in mind. But the two texts speak to each other in interesting ways.

As Batchelor renders the comparison, the connection between the First Vow and the First Truth is “beings”, sometimes translated as “sentient beings.” The nature of sentient beings is to be caught up in birth, aging, sickness and death, in the transitory and unsatisfactory conditions of existence. Suffering is what beings need to be saved from. Gotama analyzes sentience itself in terms of the five aggregates, which he includes in his definition of dukkha, the ground of the First Noble Truth.

It’s easy to recognize in the “delusion” of the Second Vow the delusive craving that is our habitual reaction to dukkha. (Another translation I’ve seen gets even closer to the point by rendering the word as “desires.”) We crave for things to always be the way we want them to be – an existential impossibility. Gotama equated craving with the Three Fires, one of which is delusion; the first step in the Eightfold Path is Right View because our delusion about the nature of dukkha is the basis for the grasping and aversive reactions that keep us from responding to life with wisdom and compassion.

The connection of the Third Vow with the Third Truth is more subtle. A gate is, in essence, an opening in a wall, a place where impediment ceases and one is free to move through. The basis of the Third Noble Truth is also a cessation, the cessation of craving, “the traceless fading away of that craving, the letting go and abandoning of it, freedom and independence from it.” (Mv I) And it is that freedom from craving that allows us to walk a new path – the Eightfold Path, recognizable in Vow Four as the “Buddha Way.”

There are other resonances between the Vows and the Truths. Each vow is a commitment to action; just as in Gotama’s formulation of the Four Truths in his first sermon in the Deer Park, the Bodhisattva Vows present not principles to be believed but actions to be taken: saving beings, ending delusions, entering dharma gates, becoming the Way.

Mapping the Truths onto the Vows especially speaks to Batchelor’s reinterpretation of the Four Truths. The Bodhisattva is not vowing to achieve some final release, but to walk a path that is apparently endless; there will be no last being to save, no exhaustion of delusion, no end of dharma gates to enter, no final mastery of the Buddha Way. Because the dukkha of sentient beings is unceasing (in this life, at least), our practice of fully knowing dukkha is unceasing as well. The Path itself is the goal. Yet to commit to these impossibilities is to acknowledge that every being can be, and deserves to be, released from suffering (ourselves included); every dharma gate can be entered, and will reward the effort – in short, that every moment, every encounter of our lives calls us to practice.

It’s interesting to note that Vow Four is a commitment to “become” the Way. This also fits with the idea that the Eightfold Path is not a series of disciplines to which we must subject ourselves, but the way we become free to behave when we are emancipated from craving by fully embracing and internalizing the nature of dukkha. As neuroscience is now confirming, the benefits of practice are not abstract principles we learn or moral rules we adhere to, but an actual reconfiguring of our central nervous system. Wisdom lies, not in words or thoughts, but in the experience of our lived existence. In this way, the Path is not something laid out for us to follow, but something that, through practice, we come to embody.

Another neat thing the Vows bring to the Truths is a reminder that practice is never a solitary pursuit. Bodhisattvas practice not for themselves alone, but to save all beings from suffering. When we fully confront and embrace the dukkha in our own lives, I feel, we must inevitably observe the way our words and deeds, even our thoughts, reverberate in the lives of others, as theirs do in ours. As Linda Blanchard points out in a recent post on her Just a Little Dust blog, the real significance of karma may lay the way our actions live on in the hearts and minds of other people.

To commit to dharma practice is, in a very real way, to take on a huge, impossible, and unending task. It helps to remember, however, that the point is not to hang up a “Mission Accomplished” banner: the point is to keep entering those innumerable gates, one after another.

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About the Author ()

Mark J. Knickelbine, MA, C-MI, is a writer, editor, political activist, and certified meditation instructor. "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "The End of Faith" led him to seek out a dharma practice without the supernatural beliefs of traditional Buddhism. He found it at a local health clinic, where he learned mindfulness in the manner of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has continued to study texts from the Pali, Chan and Zen traditions, and he is an active member of the mindfulness community at the UWHealth Department of Integrative Medicine. Mark is a member of the SBA board and serves as Practice Director.

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  1. Secular Buddhist Association | November 8, 2011
  1. Ratanadhammo says:

    Very interesting post!

    A couple of thoughts:

    Suffering is what beings need to be saved from.

    This assertion makes sense from a Mahayana point of view. The Four Bodhisattva Vows of the Zen tradition that you present include this idea that beings can be and/or need to be saved. It’s not the teaching of the Pali Canon, which I think presents something far closer to what secular Buddhists think about one’s ability to gain insight. I suppose it boils down to the passive construction of your assertion, which I think reduces Buddhism to something closer to a type of salvation theology (devotion to Bodhisattvas, who can save me) than anything Gotama taught.

    Gotama equated craving with the Three Fires, one of which is delusion; the first step in the Eightfold Path is Right View because our delusion about the nature of dukkha is the basis for the grasping and aversive reactions that keep us from responding to life with wisdom and compassion.

    There are three characteristics! You’re focusing too much on only one: dukkha. There are also anicca and anatta. You mention Gotama’s formulation of the Four Truths in his first sermon in the Deer Park, but what about his second teaching in the Anattalakkhana Sutta
    , which was the one that directly led to the first successful transmission of the Dhamma?

    Gotama’s second teaching makes clear the important relationship between dukkha, anicca and anatta.

    Frankly, I think that Mahayana schools often end up with odd views on dukkha – indeed, on all of samsara – as a result of their not getting the connection between dukkha, anicca and anatta. To argue that beings are numberless, for example, seems to miss Gotama’s point about what we typically perceive as beings.

  2. mknick says:

    Dana —

    Thanks for your comments. Part of the point of the Four Vows is that they are manifestly impossible — to take them, you have to let go of the “result” completely. The Zen tradition has lots of teachings that declare there are no sentient beings and no one to save. I’ve always thought the vows are more a statement of aspiration than of doctrine, which Zen is alergic to, especially compared to other traditional schools. To see the Four Truths echoed in the Four Vows gives us a sense of how the dharma changed and evolved as it moved through time and across cultures.

    • Ratanadhammo says:

      The Zen tradition has lots of teachings that declare there are no sentient beings and no one to save.

      Excellent point! The Diamond Sutra presents this beautifully:

      “And when this unfathomable, infinite number of living beings have all been liberated, in truth not even a single being has actually been liberated” (chpt 3).

      Of course, this is a teaching. Even if it’s not presented as dry formula, it’s still a doctrine. The only difference is the style of presentation. Even statements of aspiration have to be based on some premise, i.e. a teaching. Besides, wandering around without direction isn’t necessarily a virtue.

  3. Dana Nourie says:

    Excellent blog, Mark! Thank you for writing this.

    I have had, and still do have, issue with: “Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.” The I vow to save them seems unrealistic, egotistical, and smacks of controlling others. I am aware that a part of my reaction stems from resentment of Christian family and friends vowing to save my soul. It’s really annoying.

    I’ve changed “Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.” to “Beings are numberless, I vow not to harm them.” Because in reality I can only control my action in the world. How could I possibly “save” anyone, and what does that really mean? But I can vow not to harm others, and at the least I’m not worsening situations for either of us.

    But I really found Batchelor’s comparison of vows to the four noble truths. This was well written and fascinating to read.

  4. Dana Nourie says:

    Thank you, Mark. That makes a lot of sense!

  5. Ratanadhammo says:

    A comparison between these Four Bodhisattva Vows and the Four Immeasurables (the Bramhaviharas) as they are presented in Mahayana and Vajrayana schools makes more sense. For a discussion of the Four Immeasurables from a Vajrayana point of view, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gqitu9Bb8DA (this is a youtube fo Khenpo Dudjom Dorjee’s teaching).

    The first Bodhisattva Vow, to save beings, corresponds to the first Immeasurable, loving kindness.

    The second Bodhisattva Vow, to end delusion, corresponds to the second Immeasurable, compassion.

    The third Bodhisattva Vow, to enter Dharma gates, corresponds to the third Immeasurable, joy.

    The fourth Bodhisattva Vow, to become something unsurpassable, corresponds to the fourth Immeasurable, equanimity.

  6. shibyman says:

    Mark- I noticed in your “about the author” that you listed Political Activist. I was wondering if you belong to a paticular party or group? I am interested in being politically active, beyond just voting. I was wondering if you could give advice on how to get involved? I tend to vote democrate but am not currently registered as such. I am very unknowledgable in the ways of local politcs so any advice would likely help. Feel free to email me at shibyman@gmail.com or reply here.

    Thank you

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