The Road to Hell Is Paved: The Paradox of the Bodhisattva Vow

I received this question through an email. It seemed like a reasonable question and points that there are teachings in Buddhism that are not terribly Buddhist at all. These distortions of what the Buddha taught are so common that we often take them for granted without question. This emailer question the standard distorted teaching.

How does a Bodhisattva save sentient beings when there are no beings to save. From a practical position this seems like quite a tricky paradox. I mean in your studies you at some point realise that you don’t actually exist from the perspective of being interdependent from other things, yet of course you do….paradoxes abound eh!

One question that might need to be answered is where do these vows come from. That may help us understand their meaning. Then I will discuss some of the more obvious problems with the vow as it is presented today and offer a solution to the apparent paradox.

Origins of the Vow

Current wisdom has it that the Bodhisattva Path is unique to Mahayana. This is untrue. Theravada developed the Path, Bodhisatta, 300 years earlier, mainly as a path for lay people, but also used as a practice in conjunction with the monk’s vows.

There is also the Mahayana bodhisattva teaching with its many versions of intricate to simple ‘Bodhisattva Vows’ found in several Mahayana traditions. In about 300 CE, or 700 years after the Buddha’s parinibbana, Asanga, one of the presumed founders of the Yogacara school of Buddhism, delineated the Bodhisattva Vows in a form we recognize today. Legend has it he received those from Nagarjuna. These are not the common four vows of today but took a form of precept vows, either 10 or 18 major precepts with either 46, 54, 56 or 58 minor precepts depending on the tradition. They come from the Brahma Net Sutra (≈400CE) is said to have been translated from the Sanskrit by Kumarajiva. Of course, there is no Sanskrit antecedent of this sutra and like many of his ‘translations’ some scholars feel that he probably wrote more of it than he translated. It is in the style of a pseudepigrapha or apocryphal work attributed to another or claimed to be ancient to give the work an aura of authenticity or authority. We know that this is the case with the Surangama Sutra that he ‘translated’ but was evidently written by the Empresses’ censor.

Another version is the Soto Zen abbreviation of these precepts consisting of sixteen precepts; only the first ten are from the ’original’ set. These first 10 look similar to the ten precepts of a Theravadin novice monk, leading to a claim that there may not be fully ordained Soto Zen monks anywhere, unless they take another ordination in a different sect.

Many, if not most, Mahayana students know that these precept vows exist. Something was needed for the layperson who held no interest in further ordination. Several versions of the lay Bodhisattva Vows now exist and only a handful vow to save all beings, a statement, which on the face of it, seems anti-Buddhist in sentiment. This claim is because, as Nagarjuna and his successors maintain, the Bodhisattva Precepts follow us after death whereas the ordination vows cease to be binding after death. So once a lay ordinate always a lay ordinate — sounds a little Catholic — so much for living in the moment. Interestingly, the Buddha maintained that the Vinaya vows, that is, ordination vows, were not even lifelong binding. That includes taking the five precepts. People often change their minds, then what good are the vows to them or anyone else?

Versions of the Vow

One version of the vow simply says, ‘I vow to become a Buddha for the benefit of all beings’ and goes no further. It seems like a legitimate aspiration. This is called the bodhicitta aspiration today. This feeling of aspiring to be Buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings is claimed to be a central feature unique to Mahayana. I hate to be there bearer of sad news but the aspiration is stated many times in the Pali Canon, Theravada commentaries, as well in the verses where the Buddha said all beings whether two-legged, four-legged or no-legged, whether form or formless, whether conscious or not conscious can become enlightened. This understanding is built into the Theravadin Ten Perfections found in the Pali Jataka Tales, also a pseudepigrapha, but sounds so cool it was added in parts to the Canon starting about 100BE (100 years after the Buddha’s death).

The verse the email writer referred to is uniquely Mahayanist and generally found in Chinese Pure Land, Soto Zen and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. It initially comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra Chapter 39, an anthology of many short sutras.  Taking the form of six aspirations it reads:

May I purify an ocean of realms,

May I liberate an ocean of sentient beings,

May I see an ocean of truths,

And may I realize an ocean of wisdom.

May I perform an ocean of perfect deeds,

May I perfect an ocean of prayers,

May I revere an ocean of Buddhas.

Around 800CE a second version of these aspirations appeared taking the form of Vows. It reads,

Beings are countless. I vow to liberate them all.

Merit & wisdom are boundless. I vow to accumulate them.

The Dharma of the Buddha is boundless. I vow to master it.

The Tathāgatas are infinite in number. I vow to serve them.

I vow to realize full Buddhahood.

The new Vow changes the hope of being able to achieve these tasks to a demand to accomplish them. If you liberate all beings, accumulate wisdom, master the Dharma — a term of varied meaning — serve the Tathāgatas, then you will become a Buddha. It proclaims a methodology of enlightenment. This is how it is to be done, so it says.

Notice there are five vows and not the usual four we usually find in the Mahayana liturgy. Vowing to serve the Tathāgatas became a little repugnant to many who were seeking to get out from under the yoke of oppressive masters. In China and Japan even the monks who had by this time sided with various War Lords, were seen as oppressive. There was also the fact that not everybody was convinced that the Tathāgatas are infinite in number.  Some believed there had only been one in this era. The idea of Cosmic Buddhas was viewed with some skepticism in Shan China where Theravada was a popular, though not dominant teaching. The Cosmic Buddha idea seemed to contradict the teaching of the historical Buddha. Besides, nobody really knew what ‘service’ meant in context of the Vow. Eventually the line was abandoned.

A few hundred years later a version removing reference to the Buddhas appeared:

However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them.

However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them.

However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them.

However incomparable enlightenment is, I vow to attain it.

Tenzin Gyatso, better known as His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama prefers the version he was taught as a child. It too is formed as an aspiration but adds an interesting clause at the end, the desire to remain in the world until all beings are enlightened.

With a wish to free all beings 

I shall always go for refuge

To the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha,

Until I reach full enlightenment.

Enthused by wisdom and compassion,

today in the Buddhas’ presence I generate

the Mind for Full Awakening

For the benefit of all sentient beings.

As long as space remains,

As long as sentient beings remain,

Until then, may I too remain

And dispel the miseries of the world.

Problems With the Vow

As we can see, there is not now nor ever has been agreement on what the Bodhisattva Vows are. The general thrust of the Vow is clear but the wording and nuances are varied.

If taken literally, the statement that, ‘sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all’ can be seen as quite narcissistic and ego oriented. Aside from that it, the Vow inadvertently makes the claim that there are ‘beings out there’ that require ‘my’ particular brand of salvation and there is a ‘me’ that can save them out there. This is anything but what Buddha taught. This will become increasingly clear — I hope — as we proceed.

Further, there is a secondary aspiration that the person who is taking the vow makes. ‘As long as there is suffering, as long as there are sentient beings in the six Samsaric realms (Heaven Human, Animal, Hungry Ghost, Hell and Titan), may I never attain Enlightenment and never cross over into Nirvana.‘  Perhaps the Bodhisattva ‘nirvana’ is something different from the Buddha’s ‘nibbana.’

A literal interpretation of this aspiration is also contrary to the teaching of the Buddha. It doesn’t even fall into the realm of a better delusion; it is simply a delusion. How can one expect to extinguish delusion by entertaining a delusion? Neither you nor I can liberate anyone else of delusion if we are not yet liberated. Of course you can always try to lead by bad example. I can guarantee you that if you make this vow and believe it literally, you certainly never will become enlightened or reach nirvana. So, you will get your wish. It’s a kind of ‘self’ fulfilling prophecy. (Pun intended)

There is a difference between how the Pali Canon describes a sentient being and how Mahayana has come to define it. In Mahayana a sentient being is every conscious being imaginable. In other words: people, gods, animals, elves, etc. In the Pali Canon the emphasis is on ‘being sentient’ opposed to ‘sentient being.’ Both aspects of existence are intertwined in our perception of our experiential reality.

A Solution

In the Sabbe Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 35.22, the Buddha teaches

What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, ‘Repudiating this All, I will describe another,’ if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range.

Simply stated there is nothing experienced outside of the boundaries of the consciousness. All the ‘sentient beings’ we experience are found only within consciousness — our ‘sentient being’ being sentient — or cognizant of them. Yes, they are out there but that is not where we experience them.

The question then arises, how do we liberate that which we are only experiencing or perceiving in our mind? Well, the Buddha tells us that too in Samyutta Nikaya 35.101, the Sutta called Na Tumhaka: Not Yours. ‘Whatever is not yours: let go of it.’ The Buddha is talking about the five physical senses and the sixth sense, intellect. None of these are ours. Their not being me or mine is the strategy of the no-self teaching, i.e., emptiness of self. Relinquishment is a form of ‘letting go’ or liberation. When we let go of our preconceptions, biases and conditioned responses to other life forms, human or non-human, then we are liberating them from the world and therefore Samsara. What is the world? The six senses are the world (Samyutta Nikaya 35.82) ‘Insofar as it disintegrates, it is called the world.’ The Buddha is speaking of perception — our unique experiential reality; that is, our world. There is no speculation or implication made in this.

The truth is that no one can save another. If we think we can then we are again catering to a delusion that will lead us to spiritual and intellectual wasteland and inevitably on the road back to rebirth.

Whoever, on account of perverted views, scorns the Teaching of the Perfected Ones, the Noble and Righteous Ones — that fool, like the bamboo, produces fruits only for self destruction.

By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.

Let one not neglect one’s own welfare for the sake of another, however great. Clearly understanding one’s own welfare, let one be intent upon the good.

— Dhammapada §12 Attavaga: The Self (versus 164-166)

In the treasured, ‘self’-assured Mahayana teaching, at least as taught by many Westerners and a few Asian teachers, is an assumption that there are ‘no beings to save.’ Sure, I get that is the standard contemporary Mahayana teaching but it is simply untrue. There are things constantly coming into being all around us all the time. There an infinite number of beings both in our physical reality and in our uniquely individual world experience, as we perceive it. Beings exist all around us, just not permanently nor independently of our perception of them. The standard teaching would have us live on a quantum level where everything that we feel exists does so by virtue of everything else in the universe. Ultimately, this depends entirely on what we mean by ‘universe.’ It is true in some definitions of the ‘universe’ that all things are interdependent but not true for all definitions of ‘universe.’ The Buddha wisely did not go there, as he seems to have been asked that before and thought it was too speculative a proposition to warrant a response. The Buddha refused to answer whether the self exists or not. He classed it as an unworthy speculative question.

He never says the self does not exist. It is pretty obvious that there is a self and that it has to be healthy and saved from delusion. After all, who is writing this article? Who is reading it? Who feels hunger? We even call it ‘being hungry.’ There is a self present no matter how much we try to deny it. What he does say is that the self is changeable and temporary, but it is there, in fact, there are dozens there, none of them real but all are present, constantly blinking in and out of existence like stars on a clear summer’s night sky. Our work with the ‘self’ is restricted to only the moment we experience it, giving us the opportunity to abandon the ‘self’ that arises here and now and let it go so it might not haunt us later. We recognize this when see the not-self nature of the beings we experience as they blink into and out of existence. By ‘being’ it is meant any sensation that arises and passes away not just living breathing dhammas like people and kittens. An itch at the end of your nose is a being, it is being an itch. The self that wishes relief from the itch is another being, yet the two beings are intimately intertwined. Sentience is involved in that itch because we are cognizant of it and sense it as pleasant, unpleasant or neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

The Buddha points out that the six senses are not-self (anatta). We can only experience our life through the six senses, and even intellect is a sense and cognition is the sensation. In this view even our ‘desire to liberate others’ and the ‘others’ we perceive are also not-self. They are products of nama-rupa (materiality and mentality) and the six senses. This raises a fascinating question, is the Bodhisattva Vow trying to liberate not-self from not-selfness? Now, that’s interesting. A literal interpretation of the Bodhisattva Vow would have to be squarely placed in the camp of Mara-yana and utter fantasy.

The entire thrust of the Buddha’s teaching, if not always Mahayana Buddhism’s teaching, is to liberate the self. One of the ways we do that is to benefit all others in tangible ways, but we cannot enlighten others. The goal of the Buddha’s teaching is to gain liberation, that is, total enlightenment and nibbana, so there are no more rebirths. To try to avoid enlightenment even in such a noble effort as to save others, while valiant, is a quest worthy of Don Quixote as well as a blatant contradiction of the Buddha’s teaching. It is only when we view the process of saving ‘self’ and ‘others’ in the context of the Buddha’s words found in the Samyutta Nikaya does the Vow make sense and possible in context of the Buddha’s teaching. It is a mental process not a material one. Then the Bodhisattva Vow makes perfect sense in this context and there is no paradox. The paradox is — just like anything else we experience — within us.

The Buddha’s Early Warning

The Buddha warns of a time when distorted Buddhist teaching will be more popular than the original Buddhist teaching. Today this is called the ‘Dharma Ending Age.’ It is interesting that this warning is found an earlier teaching of his. The teaching informs us that there will be a time when the teachings that began so eloquently simple, sophisticated and uncomplicated will someday become coarse, fantastic and still called the Buddha’s teaching. Sometimes these teachings can verge on the ludircrous. The Buddha called these teachings counterfeit Dhamma. They only appear to be his teaching but they are works of fiction that take on definite characteristics. This happens mainly in the presentation of the teaching, changing the content to mean something else. It’s not just about false teachings arising in the Buddha’s name.

[In] the course of the future there will be monks who won’t listen when discourses that are words of the Tathāgata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. They won’t lend ear, won’t set their hearts on knowing them, won’t regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering. But they will listen when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.

“In this way the disappearance of the discourses that are words of the Tathāgata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — will come about.

“Thus you should train yourselves: ‘We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathāgata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.”

— Samyutta Nikaya 20.7 Ani Sutta: The Peg

There is ample evidence in both the Canon of the time and the Commentaries that the distortions and fictions by ‘Buddhist’ teachers had already began in his lifetime. Such is the nature of disciples who have not yet entered the stream of awakening, they think they know better than those who have been mastered by the teaching. They feel they need to put words in the Buddha’s mouth.

Saving Self Others Others

The more we try to save others the more we separate ourselves from them. People do not need to be saved from anything so much as they need to be saved from us: our opinions, preconceptions and prejudices. Before we can save others we have to save ourselves from our own opinions, preconceptions and prejudices. That is why the Buddha said, ‘Do not sacrifice your welfare for the sake of another’ (Dhammapada 166). When the self that seeks enlightenment gives way to the self that clings to sensuality it is said we have sacrificed ourselves for the sake of another. When we break a precept to make someone happy we have again sacrificed ourselves for the sake of another. Before we can give

when our preconceptions and most cherished ideas get in the way of our humanity and practice. The further we get on the Path the more we are able to tangibly benefit others and ourselves. When we are ourselves bathing in delusion it is hopelessly naïve and narcissistic for us to try to help someone else’s spiritual growth if we are  not growing ourselves.

To experience no-self, we have to first fully know what ‘self‘ is — really know it for ourselves and not just parrot the words of some teacher. Unless we know what this self is, this self-called ‘me,’ it is impossible to know what ‘there is no self there’ means. Like any other term it can mean different things to different people depending on where they are on their journey. We might use the same words but apply different nuances of definition, and these nuances change as we mature. Until we mature to the point of genuine understanding we do not fully grasp these meanings.  Before we can give something away, we have to have it completely in our hands, grasp it. Before we can liberate others we must ourselves be first liberated. If we are not then we have nothing to give away.

We are constantly engaged in reaffirming and shoring up whatever ‘self’ arises in any given moment. It constantly seeks validation like some insecure child demanding attention from its parents. This demonstrates that this ‘self’ is a very fragile and rather wimpy sort of thing. If it were solid and substantial why would we constantly have to reaffirm and revalidate it? There is this lurking fear that the ‘self’ is at risk. Why are we constantly afraid of the ‘self’ being threatened by its own insecurity, of its fear of not getting what it needs to survive? If it were a solid entity, as we seem to believe, we would not feel so threatened so often by the sense that it not being adequately affirmed and supported.

We repeatedly affirm ‘self’ through ‘self’-identification. These identifications come when we use as certain names and certain titles. For example, I have many, one is my birth name and nine others are Buddhist names the titles that go with them — I used to be an over achiever. My name and title used to change with my many moods. We all do that. We also ‘self’-identify by our age, our sex — lack of it, an ability we are particularly proud of, our occupation and more. ‘I am a teacher.’ ‘I am a doctor.’ ‘I am a monk.’ We can’t seem to stop there, we also identify with the people we are attached to and those we are adverse to. ‘I am someone’s spouse.’ ‘I am a mother’ ‘I am a daughter.’ ‘I am a son.’ ‘I am not this or the other thing because I am this.’  There are seemingly endless things and people we can find to identity with.

We have to use ‘self’ because of the way we communicate with others socially, but the use of ‘self’ isn’t limited to our speech. We really think, or at least act as if we really belief, that this ‘self’ is who we are — even when we rant and make the claim there is no self. We really believe it is there or maybe here. We behave as if there is no doubt in our mind that that this or that ‘self’ is who we are — even when we intellectually ‘know’ there is no self to be found, still we have found one and cling to it for dear life. When any of these ‘selves’ are threatened; if being a ‘someone’ is threatened, if being a ‘something’ is threatened, if being a ‘special person’ is threatened, if being a ‘knower of important stuff’ is threatened, if being ‘brilliant, lovable and sexy’ are threatened — or if we are threatened with the loss the people who enable us to retain that ‘self’ — we sense a tragedy in the making. In a real experiential sense it is a tragedy because it shakes up our entire world. We lose emotional and intellectual stability.

Oddly enough, people get flummoxed about the idea that we ought to consider the self in our equation of the Buddha’s teaching precisely because that very ‘self,’ which they deny has existence, has been challenged and threatened. Why would this be? They ‘self’-identify with an idea, in this case the idea of ‘no self,’ or their ‘self’ is playing the role of being ‘very Zen,’ or the condition of just ‘being right’ about something they believe — all of which are just sensations facilitated by sense organ of mind. They too are empty of autonomous, independent existence and they are not-self, as the Buddha pointed out.

The Road to Hell Is Paved

Is there self or is there no self? The answer lies in the middle between these two extremes. In our world of assuming that things are either black or white it may be difficult to understand that ‘self’ both exists and does not exist simultaneously but also neither exists nor does not exist at the same time, at least not in the way we think about it. Those who strictly maintain the idea that there is no self or that beings do not exist, and that ends the matter, are in conflict with the Buddha just as much as those who maintain the absolute existence of the ‘self.’ They each hold on to one of the six wrong views, false beliefs leading to suffering and a painful rebirth.

In a person who thus considers improperly there arises one of the six

views. The view ‘I have self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, the view ‘I have no self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, the view ‘I perceive self through self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, the view ‘I perceive non-self through self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, the view ‘I perceive self through non-self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, he has the view thus: ‘That self of mine speaks, knows and experiences the results of wholesome and unwholesome actions. That self of mine is permanent, stable, durable, incorruptible and will be eternal like all things permanent.’

Bhikkhus! This wrong view is called a false belief, a jungle of false beliefs, a desert of false beliefs, a thorny spike of false beliefs, an agitation of false beliefs and a fetter of false beliefs. Bhikkhus! The ignorant worldling who is bound up with the fetter of false beliefs cannot escape rebirth, aging, death, grief, lamentation, pain, distress and despair. I declare that he cannot escape dukkha.

— Majjhima Nikaya 2 Sabbasava Sutta: Discourse on All Āsavas

That about covers it.

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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