Four Vows

By Seiju

Sentient beings are innumerable I vow to liberate them all
Defilements are endless I vow to eliminate them all
Buddha’s teachings are unlimited I vow to learn them all
The ways of enlightenment are supreme I vow to achieve them all

The Four Great Vows are a cornerstone of Mahayana Buddhism and the heart of Zen practice. Every day they are chanted at Zen centers across the country. So, how do we understand them?

Sentient beings are innumerable -
   I vow to liberate them all.

What are “sentient beings”? What do we care?

We need to see any idea of “sentient beings” is a fabrication. We divide the world into “us” and “them” endlessly. Every day, someone is reporting the latest nuanced division of something into “this” and “that.” Does having a longer list help us?  Maybe we are hoping we’ll not have to save everyone, everything — maybe we won’t have to give up everything.

Our propensity to draw distinctions doesn’t bring us peace of mind. The affirming mind is always dividing itself; how could it possibly realize wholeness? Our enthusiasm for distinctions is ever more refined, ever more precise, yet ever more fractured.

Rather than wonder who we must save, just save everything – then there is no trouble. The vow is to liberate them all – no exceptions.  What part of “all” don’t we understand? Only when we embrace everything can there be peace.

But what does it mean to “save” someone or something?  There are many interpretations of saving, but the fundamental division into self and other draws first blood.

We are responsible for the fundamental cutting of wholeness whenever we affirm subject/object or self/other. We, and we alone, create the division in our world.

“Distinction” is synonymous with the arising of our world, but “division” is affirming that distinction. Seeing the flower and weed growing side by side need not give rise to “flower” and “weed,” good and bad.

The world of wholeness naturally manifests the world of distinction. This is the activity of wholeness, which gives rise to our everyday world. This fleeting activity is ceaselessly impermanent: as it arises from wholeness it simultaneously disappears into wholeness. Wholeness and its manifestation are utterly impermanent.

Standing within our fundamental division of self/other, we can see the world desperately needs saving; yet, it seems hopeless. We are so small and weak, while the world is so vast.

Yet, the world of wholeness is beyond division. It is utterly complete, utterly imperceptible, and utterly silent. We are all born together from this silence and return to this silence; all beings are spontaneously liberated in silence.

So if we wish to liberate all sentient beings, we manifest silence. When there is no assertion, there is no need of denial, no need to rationalize or justify, no need to deny or denigrate.  Liberation from dividing mind – silence – saves all sentient beings.

Self and world spontaneously arise together; not separate, yet distinct. This is our “world,” which is filled with people, places and events. In this world every thing arises from wholeness.  In the course of arising, spontaneous self dissolves together into spontaneous world. No abiding, no duration, no separation. We arise as the world, as the world dissolves into silence, and all sentient beings are liberated as we dissolve into each other.

Our vow is to manifest silence – “living silence” – not some image we drag out of a conceptual snare. Living silence cuts through everything.  All obstacles vanish and all vows are spontaneously realized.

Self and world arise from wholeness, disappearing into each other, and manifest a new wholeness. This is the spontaneous, dynamic activity of emptiness: dharma activity.

To practice living silence is to manifest dharma activity – self and world disappearing into each other.  With our whole body, whole mind – no reservation, no hesitation!

Spontaneously, subject and object disappear into each other.
And all beings are liberated,
And there are no defilements to eliminate,
And every moment is Dharma,
And the way of enlightenment spontaneously manifests.

Living silence is the heart activity of the four great vows.