The Four Great Vows

One of the sanghas to which I belong recently became a California non-profit. As part of that process, we wrote our bylaws. And, like our parent organization, the Five Mountain Zen Order, we decided to include the Four Great Vows in those bylaws.

Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all.

Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all.

The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all.

The Buddha way is inconceivable; we vow to realize it.

Most of us, when reading or reciting these vows for the first time, are struck my the impossibility of actually keeping them. And that’s okay; some vows aren’t meant to be “kept” so much as “attempted.”

One of the most important things I’ve learned is that intention is the key to the spiritual life. I remember Khenpo Ugyen Wangchuk giving a teaching on this in 2013. It can be tricky, because it requires tremendous self-knowledge and honesty. “Oh, I meant well…” isn’t good enough. Mistakes are fine, provided they come from a sincere heart.  But we must be clear about the sincerity and strength of our intentions. If we enter the spiritual life half-heartedly, we’re deluding ourselves that anything will change.

We also need effort, but that flows naturally from powerful intention. Let’s use meditation as an example. I intend to meditate every day. But I still have to follow up my intention with the effort of sitting my butt on the cushion. If I can’t seem to make that happen, then my intention wasn’t strong or heart-felt enough. If my intention is deep enough, if it’s felt in my bones, if I can’t imagine a world where I’m not meditating every day, then I’ll exert the effort and get it done.

All of which means: we’re not off the hook on these vows! We have to try. We help sentient beings whenever we can, from catching and releasing a bug that came into the home, to giving a stranger directions. We look fearlessly at our own spiritual ignorance and attempt to illuminate the dark places through meditation. We read, study, attend Dharma talks, and question everything until learning takes place. And we watch how we keep our minds, moment to moment.

What’s the point, if the vows can’t be kept? First of all, it makes a difference to that stranger who was lost! But even more basically, it’s training in how to keep going, even in the face of impossibility. If we can look at the enormity the Four Great Vows and commit to undertaking them, how much easier is that daily meditation practice by comparison!

May all beings benefit.

Jabo Prajna Chop Small

Teaching in the Oral Tradition

My Buddhist Traditions professor assigned us to answer the following questions in up to 150 words: If you wanted to carefully pass on the content of a long talk without being able to tape it or write anything down, how might you go about doing so by purely oral methods? What difficulties might you face?


The central difficulty of exclusively oral transmission is that human beings only retain about 15% of what they hear!  As a college professor, I have found three ways to improve that percentage.  First, I have students repeat aloud short, key definitions and lists.  I do this periodically over a long lecture, and throughout the course.  Second, I use mnemonics.  A common mnemonic technique is to arrange a list so that the first letter of each item spells out a word.  For example, the terms of a contract must contain Q-TIPS: Quantity, Time of performance, Identity of the parties, Price, and Subject matter.  Third, I use examples, as I just demonstrated.

All this notwithstanding, my lectures will vary based on my audience.  The core concepts remain the same, but the amount of repetition and the examples used vary widely depending on my students’ educational and cultural backgrounds.

Do Buddhists Relate to Their Scriptures as Christians do to the Bible?

Most Christians in my experience view the Bible as the “inerrant word of God.”  The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, written at an international conference of evangelical Christian leaders in 1978, states, “Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches…”  (Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics.)

In contrast, “…Buddhism, as a whole, does not possess a ‘canon’ of scriptures in the manner of…the Old and New Testaments of Christianity.”  (Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, p. 41.)  Buddhists are very comfortable with the fact that theirs was an exclusively oral tradition for centuries.  Writing in the context of early Buddhist literature, L.S. Cousins observes, “Above all, there is no permanent and unchanging soul or ground of being in man or the universe.” (L.S. Cousins, “Buddhism” from The New Penguin Handbook of Living Religions, p. 381.)  This core Buddhist doctrine of impermanence applies to any “scripture” as well.  “Indeed, according to Buddhists themselves, the Buddha’s ‘True Dharma’ was subject to the same laws of impermanence and change as anything else.”  (John S. Strong, The Experience of Buddhism, p. 89.)

Since there is no creator god in Buddhism, there is no supreme deity to insure the accuracy of the dharma.  Buddhists more readily accept their scriptures as guidelines.  The Buddha’s teachings are simply the Buddha’s teachings.  They are not sacred as the “word of God” is in Christianity.

Where do I Fit?

My closest affiliation is with Zen.  There’s a simplicity and lack of distraction that I find useful.  I used to think of Tibetan – vajrayana – Buddhism as too complicated.  I’m the sort of person who wants to know everything about a given subject, and I realized that would be impossible with Tibetan Buddhism.  While there’s a lot one can study “about” Zen, there doesn’t seem to be as much to “understand.”  Once I began to study Tibetan Buddhism, however, I realized it’s the same way!  Many paths to the same point – or many rafts to the other shore.

The Relationship of Buddhism to Belief

I think of Buddhism as existing, and being able to be followed, without beliefs.  The Eightfold Path can be followed even if one believes in a creator god who will save him after death.  Buddhism can help one now, and it certainly can’t hurt after death. Even if a person didn’t believe in an afterlife at all, being a better person by practicing the Eightfold Path won’t cause any additional suffering, and at best, can lead to a happier life now.  Perhaps the only belief necessary is that the Eightfold Path can lead to the end of suffering.  But even that isn’t absolutely necessary, because the Buddha himself taught to try the Dharma for oneself.  Don’t accept what anyone else taught or wrote – even him.  Try reproducing the Buddha’s path and see if you can replicate his results.  Viewing Buddhism as a grand experiment, then, no belief is required.

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism is the study and practice of the teachings of the Buddha.  One could just as easily be said to be studying the Dharma as to be studying Buddhism.  It is practicing what the Buddha taught, hoping it will accomplish in one’s own life what it did in his.  I see it as a process rather than a belief system.  It certainly doesn’t fit the Judeo-Islamic-Christian definition of a religion!  It’s more akin to a medical diagnosis: here is the problem, here is the cause, there is a cure, here is how to heal yourself.