Bodhisattva vow

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The Bodhisattva vow is a vow (Sanskrit: praṇidhāna, lit. aspiration or resolution) taken by some Mahāyāna Buddhists to achieve full buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. One who has taken the vow is nominally known as a bodhisattva (a being working towards buddhahood). This can be done by venerating all Buddhas and by cultivating supreme moral and spiritual perfection, to be placed in the service of others. In particular, bodhisattvas promise to practice the six perfections of giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom in order to fulfill their bodhicitta aim of attaining buddhahood for the sake of all beings.[1] Whereas the prātimokṣa vows cease at death, the bodhisattva vow extends into future lives.


Sumedha, a previous reincarnation of Buddha Gautama, taking the bodhisattva vow at the foot of the Buddha Dīpankara

Buddhist sources like the Buddhavaṃsa and the Mahāvastu, contain stories of how in a previous life, Sakyamuni (then known as Sumedha) encountered the previous Buddha, Dīpankara, and made the vow to one day become a Buddha. Dīpankara confirmed that he would become a Buddha in the future. All early Buddhist schools held that making a vow in front of a living Buddha (and receiving a prediction), just like Sakyamuni had done, was the only way to become a bodhisattva.[2] This view remains the orthodox understanding of bodhisattva vows in the Theravada tradition.[2]

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, one can become a bodhisattva by taking the vow and giving rise to bodhicitta in a ceremonial setting.[2] Indian Mahāyāna Buddhists often accomplished this through a ritual called the "seven part worship" (saptāṇgapūjā or saptavidhā anuttarapūjā), which comprises of: vandana (obeisance), worship, refuge, confession, rejoicing, prayers and requesting the buddhas to remain in the world.[3]

Vows from the Avataṃsaka SūtraEdit

The Avataṃsaka Sūtra, a large composite text, contains various passages discussing the practices and vows that bodhisattvas undertake. One example can be found in book 18 of the text, which contains the following ten vows:

Enlightening beings have ten pure vows: (1) they vow to develop living beings to maturity, without wearying; (2) they vow to fully practice all virtues and purify all worlds; (3) they vow to serve the Enlightened, always engendering honor and respect; (4) they vow to keep and protect the true teaching, not begrudging their lives; (5) they vow to observe with wisdom and enter the lands of the Buddhas; (6) they vow to be of the same essence as all enlightening beings; (7) they vow to enter the door of realization of thusness and comprehend all things; (8) they vow that those who sec them will develop faith and all be benefited; (9) they vow to stay in the world forever by spiritual power; (10) they vow to fulfill the practice of Universal Good, and master the knowledge of all particulars and all ways of liberation. These are the ten pure vows of enlightening beings.[4]

Statue of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, Mount Emei, China

In the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, Samantabhadra makes ten vows which are an important source for East Asian Buddhism. Samantabhadra's vows also appear in the Samantabhadra-caryā-praṇidhānam, which is often appended to the end of the Avataṃsaka but originally circulated as an independent text.[5] The ten vows of Samantabhadra are:[6][7]

  1. The vow to pay homage to all the buddhas
  2. To praise the virtues of the buddhas
  3. To serve and make offerings to the buddhas
  4. To confess past misdeeds and uphold the precepts
  5. To rejoice in the merit and virtues of buddhas, bodhisattvas and all sentient beings
  6. To ask the buddhas to preach the Dharma
  7. To ask the buddhas to refrain from entering nirvana
  8. To always follow the buddhas' teachings
  9. To serve/benefit all sentient beings
  10. To transfer the merit from all practices to the liberation of all beings

Shantideva's vows and Tibetan BuddhismEdit


The Tibetan Buddhist Tradition widely makes use of verses from chapter three of Shantideva's Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, which is entitled Embracing Bodhicitta. Various forms of these verses are used to generate bodhicitta and take the bodhisattva vow. The set of verses which are considered to be the actual taking of the bodhisattva vow are verses 23 and 24 of the third chapter.[8][9][10] These verses state:

Just as all the Buddhas of the past
Have brought forth the awakened mind,
And in the precepts of the Bodhisattvas
Step-by-step adobe and trained,
Likewise, for the benefit of beings,
I will bring to birth the awakened mind,
And in those precepts, step-by-step,
I will abide and train myself.[11]

In the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, the actual taking of the vow is preceded by various other preparatory practices and prayers, particularly what is called the Seven Branch Practice (Tib. yan lag bdun pa), often done through the recitation of a prayer. The seven branches are:[12]

  1. Prostration to the three jewels, supplicating Buddhas and bodhisattvas
  2. Making physical, verbal and mental offerings to the Buddhas
  3. Confessing one's negative deeds, "one admits to doing the negative deed, one feels true remorse and then one resolves not to do it again."
  4. Rejoicing in the goodness and virtues of others
  5. Requesting the Buddhas to turn the wheel of Dharma (to teach the way)
  6. Requesting the Buddhas not to pass way into final extinction, but to keep coming back to teach and help others
  7. Dedicating the merit of all good deeds for the benefit of all beings
The Refuge Tree of the Kagyu school, a would be bodhisattva may be instructed to visualize a field of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and past lineage masters while taking the vow.

The 14th Dalai Lama teaches the following way of taking the vow, which begins by reading "through the second and third chapters of the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra up until the second line of verse 23." The Dalai Lama then writes:[13]

In order to take this vow, we should imagine that in front of us are the Buddha and his eight close disciples; the six ornaments, and the two supreme teachers, including Shantideva; and all the realized masters of the Buddhist tradition, in particular the holders of the Sakya, Gelug, Kagyu, and Nyingma schools of Tibet—in fact, all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Consider also that we are surrounded by all the beings in the universe. With this visualization, we shall now read the Seven Branch Prayer ...

Consider that we are surrounded by all the beings in the universe and generate compassion for them. Think of the Buddha and feel great devotion to him. Now, with compassion and devotion, pray, "May I attain Buddhahood!" and recite:

"Teachers, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, listen! Just as you, who in the past have gone to bliss, Conceived the awakened attitude of mind, Likewise, for the benefit of beings, I will generate this self-same attitude."

When we recite these lines for the third time, at the words, "I will generate this self-same attitude," think that you have generated this bodhichitta in the depth of your hearts, in the very marrow of your bones, and that you will never go back on this promise. Traditionally we now recite the last nine verses of the chapter as a conclusion to taking the vow.

In Tibetan Buddhism there are two lineages of the bodhisattva vow, which are linked to two sets of Bodhisattva precepts or moral rules. The first is associated with the Cittamatra movement of Indian Buddhism, and is said to have originated with the bodhisattva Maitreya, and to have been propagated by the Indian master Asanga. The second is associated with the Madhyamaka tradition, is said to have originated with the bodhisattva Manjusri and to have been propagated by Nagarjuna, and later by Shantideva. The main difference between these two lineages of the bodhisattva vow is that in the Cittamatra lineage the vow cannot be received by one who has not previously received the pratimokṣa vows.[14] Both traditions share a set of 18 major precepts (or "downfalls"). There are also sets of minor precepts.

The Four Extensive VowsEdit

In East Asian Buddhism, the most common bodhisattva vows are a series of "four extensive vows" developed by the Tiantai Patriarch Zhiyi.[15] According to Robert F. Rhodes, Zhiyi presents two versions of the four vows. The first one is taken from the Lotus Sūtra and states:[16]

  • Those who have not yet been ferried over, I will ferry over.
  • Those who have not yet understood, I will cause them to understand.
  • Those who have not settled themselves, I will cause them to be settled.
  • Those who have not attained nirvana, I will cause them to attain nirvana.

The second set of vows is original to Zhiyi:[16]

  • Sentient beings, limitless in number, I vow to ferry over.
  • Passions (klesa) which are numberless, I vow to extinguish.
  • The Dharma-gates without end (in number), I vow to know.
  • The supreme Buddha Way, I vow to actualize.

Zhiyi explains that these vows correspond to the Four Noble Truths and that these vows arise with the four truths as their basis.[16]

The following table presents the fourfold bodhisattva vow in various languages:

Chinese (hanzi) Chinese (pinyin) Sino-Japanese Hangul Korean Vietnamese English
四弘誓願 Sì hóng shì yuàn Shi gu sei gan 사홍서원 sa hong seo won Tứ hoằng thệ nguyện The Four Encompassing Vows
眾生無邊誓願度 Zhòng shēng wúbiān shì yuàn dù Shu jō mu hen sei gan do 중생무변서원도 Jung saeng mu byeon seo won do Chúng sanh vô biên thệ nguyện độ Masses [of] creatures, without-bounds,
[I/we] vow to save [them all].
煩惱無盡誓願斷 Fánnǎo wújìn shì yuàn duàn Bon nō mu jin sei gan dan 번뇌무진서원단 Beon noe mu jin seo won dan Phiền não vô tận thệ nguyện đoạn Anxiety [and] hate, [delusive-desires] inexhaustible,
[I/we] vow to break [them all].
法門無量誓願學 Fǎ mén wúliàng shì yuàn xué Hō mon mu ryō sei gan gaku 법문무량서원학 Beob mun mu jin seo won hag Pháp môn vô lượng thệ nguyện học Dharma gates beyond-measure
[I/we] vow to learn [them all].
佛道無上誓願成 Fó dào wúshàng shì yuàn chéng Butsu dō mu jō sei gan jō 불도무상서원성 Bul do mu sang seo won seong Phật đạo vô thượng thệ nguyện thành Buddha Way, unsurpassable,
[I/we] vow to accomplish [it]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Gyatso, Kelsang (1995). Joyful Path of Good Fortune. Translated by Tenzin Phunrabpa (2nd ed.). London: Tharpa Publications. pp. 442–553. ISBN 978-0-948006-46-3. OCLC 35191121.
  2. ^ a b c Drewes, David, Mahāyāna Sūtras and Opening of the Bodhisattva Path, Paper presented at the XVIII the IABS Congress, Toronto 2017, Updated 2019.
  3. ^ Har Dayal, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1999, p. 54.
  4. ^ Cleary, Thomas (1993). The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra, p. 430. Shambhala Publications.
  5. ^ Osto, Douglas (2013). The Supreme Array Scripture, Chapter 55: The Vow to Follow the Course of Samantabhadra
  6. ^ Rhodes, Robert F. (2017). Genshin’s Ōjōyōshū and the Construction of Pure Land Discourse in Heian Japan, p. 326. University of Hawaii Press.
  7. ^ Leighton, Taigen Dan (2012). Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression, pp. 140-147. Simon and Schuster.
  8. ^ Śāntideva (2002). Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra [Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life]. Translated by Neil Elliott and Kelsang Gyatso. Ulverston: Tharpa Publications. p. 30. ISBN 9780948006883. OCLC 51621991.
  9. ^ Thrangu Rinpoche (author); Holmes, Ken; Doctor, Thomas (translators) (2002). A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life of Shantideva: A Commentary, p. 41. Sri Satguru Publications.
  10. ^ Dalai Lama XIV Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho, Dalai Lama XIV, Dalai Lama, Santideva (1994). A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, p. 31. Shambhala.
  11. ^ Shantideva, Padmakara Translation Group (2008). The Way of the Bodhisattva, pp. 83-84. Shambhala Publications.
  12. ^ Thrangu Rinpoche (author); Holmes, Ken; Doctor, Thomas (translators) (2002). A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life of Shantideva: A Commentary, p. 34. Sri Satguru Publications.
  13. ^ Dalai Lama XIV Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho, Dalai Lama XIV, Dalai Lama, Santideva (1994). A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, pp. 33-34. Shambhala.
  14. ^ Lama Jampa Thaye, Rain of Clarity: The Stages of the Path in the Sakya Tradition. London: Ganesha, 2006.
  15. ^ Chappell, David W. (1987), "Is Tendai Buddhism Relevant to the Modern World?" (PDF), Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 14 (2/3), doi:10.18874/jjrs.14.2-3.1987.247-266, archived from the original on March 4, 2009
  16. ^ a b c R hodes, Robert F. (1984) The four extensive vows and four noble truths in T’ien-t’ai Buddhism. Annual Memoirs of the Otani University Shin Buddhist Comprehensive Research Institute 2: 53-91.

Further readingEdit

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