Four Truths, Four Vows

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

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.


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.