The Great Vows, known as the Bodhisattva Vows, probably originated in China around the sixth century and may have been derived from an earlier Sanskrit gatha (a four-line verse that sums up an aspect of the dharma, and is often a vow). At the turn of the eighth century we find Chinese Zen master Hui-neng teaching their implications. Today they are recited at the end of services in most Mahayana centers.
Composed with seven Chinese graphs per line, the Great Vows are poetically arranged in parallels, rhymes, and repetitions. The contemporary English translations of the Great Vows rely heavily on D.T. Suzuki’s version, first published in 1935. He used the title “The Four Great Vows,” an abbreviation of the title used by Hui-neng: “The Four Broad Great Vows.” The graph for “broad” implies “for broad dissemination.” Nakagawa Soen Roshi (1908-83) in turn established the title “Great Vows for All” for his own translation in 1957, and two years later, at the Diamond Sangha—then a fledgling community in Honolulu—we used this title in our first sutra book. Today, as we continue to refine our translation, it is almost the only part of the wording of the Vows that has stayed the same.
The four Great Vows express aspirations relating to the Three Treasures of Buddhism: to redeem the sangha, to stop debasing the Three Treasures, to perceive the dharma clearly, and to attain buddhahood. As such, the Vows are a recasting in the Mahayana of the Ti-sarana-gamana, the ceremony of taking refuge in the Three Treasures, that is found in all Buddhist traditions.
Shu jo mu hen sei gan do
The many beings no limit pledge vow carry across
The many beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
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