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Bodhisattva Vows in a Troubled World

Avalokiteshvara

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
The Buddha way is unattainable, I vow to attain it

We are living in a time of great peril and possibility. There seems to be no bottom to the horror that each news cycle offers up, and it’s hard to know if we will ever be able to pull ourselves out of the downward spiral that our planet is undergoing: authoritarian regimes reducing people to numbers; income inequality growing vaster; greed and hatred moving through the land like a dark unctuous mist. How can we possibly save all beings under such dire conditions? And yet, we are committed to our bodhisattva vow, beings are numberless, I vow to save them.

And how about delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them? Anyone who has taken a good look inside their own mind—an honest look, not a simple scan—cannot help but be humbled by the useless junk flying around in there. Sometimes the junk is just a collection of benign time wasters, like lists and echoes of past conversations, and sometimes the junk is mean-spirited jealousy or feelings of envy for what we don’t have. We have learned, as social beings, to only speak a small portion of the delusions that we permit to roam freely through our mind. We can hardly even see our delusions, how are we supposed to end them?

There is no limit the wisdom of the Universe. But Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them. Thousands of teachers, past and present, have left their words and stories in the form of books for us to learn from. All the sutras and practices, all the things the Universe teaches us moment by moment about being human and living on this wondrous planet. The amount of information is endless and can be overwhelming. It seems we can only assimilate a small drop of the vast Dharma found everywhere in the Universe. 

And yet, the Buddha way is unattainable and we vow to attain it. We commit to do what any sane person would agree is the impossible. These bodhisattva vows speak to a bottomless level of commitment rather than the accomplishment of an attainable goal. They encourage a state of the heart rather than pointing to a concrete outcome. When we make our bodhisattva vows we put no limits on ourselves, offer no escape clauses or final destinations. We go all in; our compassion knows no bounds. This is the same commitment that an artist makes when she looks at a blank canvas, or that a musician faces in a soundless room. There is nothing and soon there will be something. The blank canvas, the impossible, is met with a not knowing mind. We keep walking without knowing where we will land, or if we will ever land. This is our bodhisattva vow, to walk into the unknown each day with an open heart and confidence in what we cannot know.

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