We Zen folks regularly recite the Four Bodhisattva Vows. At Treeleaf, our wording is:

To save all sentient beings, though beings are numberless
To transform all delusions, though delusions are inexhaustible
To perceive Reality, though Reality is boundless
To attain the Enlightened Way, a Way nonattainable

Each is a vow to rescue others, to free ourselves of delusions, to understand, to walk this path even though, alas, such tasks seem never-ending, infinite, impossible, ballooning, the goal always beyond reach. It seems like, so long as we live this complex human life, there will always be countless human beings suffering, countless human losses and disappointments, sometimes grief, unbridled longings, terrible fears, physical hungers, and other frustrated needs in this world. In this life, there are constant opportunities to fall into delusions of excess desire, anger, jealousy, and the like. Reality is beyond our capability to grasp, and its constituent elements infinite, so what chance to ever know it all? Enlightenment seems a dream, its promised perfection lifetimes upon lifetimes away.

Nonetheless, we vow to keep on going.

But that is not the whole story, for there is a trick to these Four Bodhisattva Vows, a way to thread the eyeless needle:

Namely, one can know the realization that, in the flowing wholeness that some call emptiness (whereby all is empty of separate self-existence), there are no separate beings to suffer, are not and never were, no separate things to be suffered, no possible friction, for there are no “two” to clash, no “loss,” for all is always all, nothing apart to fear, no going or absence, thus no death to mourn, no separate piece to lack, thus no desire unfulfilled. Getting the separate sentient beings to realize this fact (of no separation, thus no separate beings to suffer) is how one saves the separate sentient beings… including oneself. 

All of this is true at once! There are tasks to do, damage to be undone or to be prevented, yet also nothing to do, no damage even possible to wholeness from the start. It is all one truth from different angles.

We are like Sisyphus, vowing to continue to roll a heavy stone, yet also knowing stillness, completion, no need for effort.

This week, I asked our sangha members to suggest further Bodhisattva Vows to express the day-to-day tasks of their own lives and the problems and complexities of this world, often so hard or impossible, though we keep on trying. Like the original “Fab Four,” most of these vows focus on helping fellow beings who are suffering, or on improving ourselves as better Buddhists and gentler human beings. They are truly wonderful, for they represent the struggles seen both in the news and in our own personal lives. I won’t quote them all, only a sample, with more here, and I have tweaked a couple too.)

To keep our relatives sober, though relatives just keep drinking

To heal all broken marriages, though marriages are sometimes breaking

To restore lovingkindness, though family rifts are deepening

To deeply love others, though they do not love themselves

To keep all workers on, though some must be let go

To unreservedly show kindness, though kindness is not returned

To console the grieving, though grief is inconsolable

To bring peace in conflicts, though conflicts are endless

To keep our children safe, though we cannot always keep them safe

To end loneliness, though being alone is often inescapable

To end others’ pain, though pain is inevitable

To calm all crying babies, though tantrums are boundless

To relieve all the doggies’ illnesses, though illness is inevitable

To keep an open heart, though differing opinions are inescapable

To work for kindness, though anger is always burning

To make the world laugh, though misery is always arising

To feed all who hunger, though hunger is unrelenting

To see an end to all violence, though violence is ever-present

To keep hope alive, though our future appears hopeless

To live in peace, though conflict is unavoidable

To save all addicts, though addictions are countless

To cure all sick children, though some sicknesses are incurable

To offer encouragement, though one’s own doubting is endless

To patch old relationships, though wounds will remain

To heal all trauma, though the scars will never fade

To end the war, though war rages on

To save the injured, although the earthquakes keep shaking

To love unconditionally, though some are so hard to love

To always be grateful, though complaints never stop

To prevent all deaths, though death is inevitable

To face death without fear, though loss of life is terrifying

To be content with what is, though much is unacceptable

To seek health, though health is failing

…and more…

Try this yourself, making up your own vows to express the hardships in your life or your concerns for this fragile planet. Oh, and we are not changing the “official” version, so fear not. This is just a little artful exercise. But there is one common point to all the vows, new and old:

We vow to do the seemingly impossible, and the vow is an expression of determination to do something, though the odds are not in our favor.

However, that is far from the end of it. For in the peace and wholeness of emptiness, the sickness, the addictions, the hunger, the struggling children and adults, the wars, somehow are all made whole. There is nothing to fear, nothing to complain about and no complaints, a stillness and calm beyond earthquakes, no bellies in need of filling, no crying, and no struggle. The sentient beings are already safe from the start even though, sadly, they may not realize it, may not act on it, and thus struggle on.

And though all are safe from the start, nonetheless, the sickness, addictions, hunger, struggles, and war remain, so we must keep working on. In our continuous practice, every wise and compassionate act, word, and thought is Buddha realized, and is its own arrival in the Pure Land. This lesson is present in all the Bodhisattva Vows, new and old.

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