Meditation and other Rituals – Chapter 43: The Bodhisattva Vow

A bodhisattva is someone who vows to achieve buddhahood in order to free all beings in the universe from suffering. In the early tradition, the term was used to refer to the Buddha in his millions of lives from the time that he made such a vow himself (see Chapter 15) to his achievement of enlightenment. With the rise of the Mahayana, buddhahood, and hence the aspiration of the bodhisattva, became a more universal goal; some sutras would claim that all beings in the universe would eventually traverse the bodhisattva path and become buddhas. But buddhahood, according to most accounts, was far away; what could be developed now was the aspiration to achieve buddhahood for the sake of all beings. This aspiration was called bodhicitta; it was widely extolled in Mahayana texts, and techniques for its cultivation were set out. The development of bodhicitta was considered the essential starting point for the long path to buddhahood; the practice of the bodhisattva path and of the six perfections of giving, patience, ethics, effort, concentration and wisdom could take place only after the aspiration to buddhahood had been created.

But bodhicitta was an attitude, an aspiration, an interior state. It was manifested verbally in the form of a vow. The taking of vows has long been central to Buddhist practice (see Chapter 26), both for the identity of the individual and the identity of the community. In addition to taking refuge in the three jewels, laypeople might take up to five vows: not to kill, not to steal, not to engage in sexual misconduct, not to lie about spiritual attainments and not to use intoxicants. Some laypeople would take eight vows, which they would maintain for two days or four days each month. Fully ordained monks and nuns held many more vows; under one of the codes, monks held 253 vows, nuns 364. They were to gather each fortnight to confess any infractions.

Similar rituals developed in the Mahayana, and people took the bodhisattva vow, promising publicly to achieve buddhahood in order to liberate all beings from samsara. A more formal code of conduct was also developed, derived from a number of sources, with (like the monastic vows) categories of root infractions and secondary infractions. The bodhisattva vows, however, could be taken equally by laypeople and monastics, men and women, and formal ceremonies are set forth in a number of Mahayana treatises.

Instructions from one such ceremony appear below. It is taken from a text called Ornament for the Sage’s Mind (Munimatalamkara), perhaps the last great compendium of Indian Buddhist thought and practice, composed by Abhayakaragupta in the eleventh or twelfth century. The text covers a wide range of topics in setting forth the path to enlightenment. It is noteworthy that the text begins with the passage translated below, in which the author explains how to take the bodhisattva vow, whether in a public ceremony from a qualified guru or, if such a teacher is not available, then alone, seated before an image of the Buddha.

It is certain that sentient beings have not lost the good fortune to abandon the two obstructions. Yet, because they lack a virtuous guide, they are mistakenly attached to things that lack intrinsic existence, and as a result, they do not understand the three thoroughly afflicted things – afflictions such as ignorance, action and birth – before, later or in the middle. They naturally descend into the depths of the well of samsara, from the peak of existence to the final Avici. No matter how they rise through toil, they are saddened each day by the suffering of pain and the suffering of change. They are absorbed in actions and afflictions that are like reflections, and they fall, made destitute by momentary impermanence and by objects whose foundation is like the reflection of the moon in swiftly moving water.

Due to the power of compassion, bodhisattvas who have understood the emptiness of intrinsic nature feel destitute themselves [because sentient beings] are made destitute by impermanence. They wish to attain buddhahood, the cause of the arising of the perfect essence of the ambrosia of the excellent doctrine – antidote to all mistaken conceptions – whose nature is one of friendship to all beings. Inspired by that [wish] and not thinking of themselves, they seek only to benefit others. As a result, they undergo great hardship and become completely exhausted in amassing the collections [of merit and wisdom] over a long time.

It is said, ‘Through engaging in hardship, they completely amass the collections over a long time and are certain to attain the state of omniscience.’ Therefore, it is said, ‘Completely gripped by compassion and great compassion – the root of the qualities of a buddha – the blessed buddhas find omniscience and act for the welfare of all beings.’ Therefore it is great compassion alone that causes the blessed ones not to abide in nirvana. As [the Madhyamakavatara I.2] says: ‘Just mercy is seen as the seed, as water for growth, and as the ripening to a state of enjoyment for a long time.’ The Pramanavarttika [II. 199] says: ‘Those with great mercy act only on behalf of others.’

Furthermore, through becoming constantly familiar with all sentient beings who abide in three realms, it [i.e., compassion] will increase. Thus, through the power of cultivating great compassion, you will promise to rescue all sentient beings, thus creating the aspiration to enlightenment [bodhicitta]. ‘Because bodhisattvas, endowed with great compassion and possessing the lineage of complete, perfect enlightenment, suffer at the suffering of others, Ananda, I say that whoever goes for refuge to the Buddha, dharma and sangha and correctly maintains and fully protects the five bases of practice [not to kill, steal, lie, engage in sexual misconduct, or use intoxicants], the merit of that virtue is inconceivable and immeasurable. I say that sravakas and pratyekabuddhas, even to the point of nirvana, are unable to take its measure.’ By hearing of such benefits, great joy is created. ‘By saying, “I go for refuge until enlightenment to the Buddha, the dharma and the supreme community”, one is saying, “Relying on refuge in the form-body, the truth-body and community of irreversible bodhisattvas, I will become a complete and perfect buddha; having extricated everyone in this world from suffering, I will place them in complete and perfect buddhahood.” With this brief [statement], those of the sharpest faculties create the nature of the bodhisattva vow.

Regarding this vow, beginners and those who follow the customs of laypeople should take the vow from a guru who knows the rite for taking the vow properly. In his absence, one should imagine oneself to be in the presence of the buddhas and bodhisattvas and take [the vow]. If it is done in full form, place an image of the Tathagata in front, ‘Ananda, whosoever, with a mind most clear, makes a mandala for the Tathagata in the shape of a square or a half-moon, in the shape of a circle or a chariot, will, in accordance with the number [of offerings] become the lord of Kuru in the north, Videha in the east, Godaniya in the west, and Jambudvipa in the south. At death, in accordance with the number, one will be born in the heavens of Thirty-Three, Free from Combat, Joyous and Liking Emanation.’ By following such statements in the Kutagara Sutra, anoint the mantala and properly offer the five offerings, ‘O Ananda, I will protect completely any sentient beings whosoever who join their palms and make obeisance, saying, “I bow down to the blessed Tathagata.”’ Such benefits are set forth.

Properly create great clarity towards the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions and bow down. Then make a mantala and so forth in front of the guru and then humble yourself by sitting or kneeling and joining your palms and then request three times, ‘Son of good lineage before me, I wish to receive the bodhisattva vow. Therefore, if I am worthy to receive it, because of your mercy for me, please bestow the vow of the bodhisattva’s ethics.’ To this, the guru says three times, ‘Do you aspire to enlightenment?’ ‘In my presence, will you receive the foundation of training in the ethics of the bodhisattvas?’ Promise saying, ‘I will maintain them.’ Repeat after the guru: ‘I beseech the blessed buddhas and bodhisattvas gathered from the realms of the ten directions to consider me. I beseech the master to consider me. I, so and so, confess all of the sins, no matter how small, that I have performed, ordered others to perform, or admired, with my body, speech and mind, against the buddhas and bodhisattvas, my parents, and other sentient beings, in this lifetime or in another existence. I am aware of them, remember them, and do not conceal them.’ Say this three times.

Then say three times: ‘I, so-and-so, from this day until the essence of enlightenment, go for refuge to the best of bipeds, the blessed Buddha, endowed with great compassion, the all-knowing, the all-teaching, who has transcended all enemies and all fear, the great being, endowed with an immutable body, endowed with an unsurpassed body. I go for refuge to the dharma, the supreme peace of those who are freed from desire. I go for refuge to the supreme of assemblies, the community of irreversible bodhisattvas‘Just as bodhisattvas in the past, present, and future create the aspiration to enlightenment and have gone, go, and will go to buddhahood in order to liberate, rescue, and completely protect limitless realms of sentient beings from the sufferings of samsdra and in order to establish them in the unsurpassed knowledge of omniscience, and just as all the buddhas know and see with the knowledge of a buddha and the eye of a buddha, which is unobstructed, and just as they have understood and continue to understand the reality of phenomena, so I, so-and-so, through this rite, in the presence of the master so-and-so and in the presence of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas create the aspiration to unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment.’ Say that three times.

‘I dedicate the roots of virtue produced from my confession of sins, going for refuge to the three, and creating the aspiration to enlightenment to unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment. In a world without protection, without refuge, without a home, without friends and without a haven, I will be a protector, a refuge, a home, a friend and a haven. I will free all those sentient beings who have not crossed the ocean of existence. I will take completely beyond sorrow those who have not passed completely beyond sorrow by leading them beyond sorrow to the unobstructed dharmadhdtu. I will quell the suffering of those whose suffering has not been quelled.’ Say that three times. ‘I, so-and-so, by creating the aspiration to enlightenment in that way, will hold each in the realm of limitless sentient beings to be my mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, relative, or half-brother or sister. Holding them in that way, I will begin to multiply roots of virtue to the limit of my ability, my power and my capacity. From this day forward, no matter how small, I will give gifts, guard ethics, enhance patience, work with effort, enter into concentration, analyse with wisdom and study skilful methods, all for the sake of the welfare, benefit and happiness of all sentient beings. I will follow, in accordance with the Mahayana, those endowed with great compassion who, beginning with [the aspiration to] unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment, entered into the great [bodhisattva] levels. Therefore, I will train to be a bodhisattva. From this day forward, I, called “bodhisattva”, ask to be cared for by the master.’ Say that three times. Thus, in the presence of the image of the Tathagata, bow down and ask all the buddhas and bodhisattvas to be aware of your earlier dedication of merit, of your holding beings [to be family members], of your amassing of the collections in order to protect them, and of your following of the Mahayana. [The guru] says, ‘In my presence, this person has correctly received and holds the vow of the ethics of the bodhisattva.’

If you take it yourself without such a guru, leave out, ‘I beseech the master to consider me’ and ‘in the presence of the master
named so-and-so’ and [instead of saying, ‘From this day forward I, the bodhisattva so and so beseech the master to care for me]’ say, ‘From this day forward I, the bodhisattva so-and-so, beseech the blessed buddhas and bodhisattvas to care for me.’ Immediately upon beseeching them, one is praised by the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Think about this constantly in order to increase virtue.

Translated by Donald Lopez from the Munimataiamkara by Abhayakaragupta, Derge edition of the Tibetan canon (Toh. 3908), Dbu ma, vol. a, 73b6-76b1. Tibetan Tripitaka, Taipei Edition, vol. 36 (Taipei: SMC Publishing, 1991), pp. 377/147(6)-378/152(1).

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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