An individual turns to the dharma because it promises to remove the distress of life and bring about a deep reconciliation with this very impermanence. We undertake the practice of the Way because we have faith in the existence within ourselves of a potential for complete contentment, a contentment that is impossible to find in the pursuit of fame and profit. But it needs to be said over and over again, so as not to misconstrue the nature of Mahayana Buddhism, that this Way-seeking is not, in the end, simply another form of self-gratification. We hope, and expect, that following the Way will lead to a better understanding of ourselves and the rest of the world, and that we will achieve a degree of serenity and contentment. But is any kind of progress in self-betterment truly possible as long as practice is undertaken with the primarily selfish desire to improve one’s own lot? Is the goal of realization of one’s buddhanature compatible with a practice performed in the greedy expectation of one’s own future happiness while blithely ignoring the unhappiness of the rest of the world? The Mahayana Buddhist answer to this question has always been no.

The Mahayana emphasis on compassion and the exaltation of the bodhisattva as the ideal individual are based on this understanding, that any goodness one personally derives from following the dharma is a product of one’s primary aspiration to help all other beings to achieve happiness in their lives. In other words, practice is undertaken in order to help others, and the bodhisattva’s own slow progress toward final, complete enlightenment is the result of this other-directed activity. Thus to help others is to help oneself. It may also be said that to help oneself is to help others, since real, effective help is not possible as long as we ourselves are deluded and filled with greed and hatred. Therefore, the achievement of insight and understanding serves to make one capable of guiding and helping others. To wish to escape pain and trouble oneself and to ignore other creatures means that neither oneself nor others will find help. It is of the nature of things that we all progress together, and so we must seek the dharma with this in mind.

Knowing, then, that a mean, selfish aspiration is not a real Buddhist aspiration, the bodhisattva begins his compassionate career with vows to emancipate all others, even before he himself is completely emancipated. The four bodhisattva vows, which are chanted daily in Zen training centers, are a public reminder of what the individual’s training is all about:

Sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
The Dharma teachings are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.

The person who utters these vows in all sincerity is thus the Mahayana bodhisattva. It does not matter what color the robes of the monk are, what his ordination lineage is, or where he lives, for the Mahayana is a state of mind, and the bodhisattva is the person who makes these vows and means them. This vowing itself is the arousing of the thought of enlightenment. The 13th-century Japanese Buddhist priest and founder of the Soto Zen school Dogen makes this clear in Hotsu bodai shin, one of the chapters of his masterpiece Shobogenzo, when he says, “What is called arousing of the thought of enlightenment is the uttering of the vow to emancipate all living beings even while you yourself are not yet emancipated. When one arouses this thought, no matter how humble in appearance one is, one then becomes the guide of all beings.” If, as Dogen says elsewhere, a buddha is simply one whose main mission in the world is to guide all beings to the bliss of nirvana, then this vow must itself be the vow of the buddha that we already are. Buddha is boundless compassion; who else can make such a loving, selfless vow?


Bodhicitta's ripple effect
Illustration by Irene Rinaldi
All the bodhisattva-mahasattvas, who undertake the practice of meditation, should cherish one thought only: “When I attain perfect wisdom, I will liberate all sentient beings in every realm of the universe.”
The Diamond Sutra


The form of the vow indicates that the person who makes it will refuse the ultimate prize of complete enlightenment until and unless all other beings attain it first. Nor is this vow restricted only to human or even sentient beings; it includes trees, grass, shrubs, and stones as well. This is because Mahayana compassion and the bodhisattva’s vow are not directed solely toward the human realm, for if it excluded nonhuman beings, it would not be perfect compassion, it would not be unconditional. The cycle of birth and death and its suffering includes all living things, not just human life. Now obviously the number of beings to be saved is indeed vast, even innumerable, as the vow says, and because bodhisattvas are really only human beings, and limited in the way all conditioned beings are, it would seem that in reality there will never be a time when their work is finished. Thus, in making the vow, they destine themselves to be forever excluded from the ultimate goal. In life after life, in all the realms of suffering, bodhisattvas work ceaselessly to save all others while they themselves are never completely free of pain and delusion. One of the startling paradoxes of Mahayana Buddhism is that it is the bodhisattva alone—skillful, wise, and compassionate—who will never attain full, perfect buddhahood, always remaining behind while others go on.                                               

So what, after all, is a buddha? What, after all, is perfect enlightenment? Buddhists over two thousand years ago asked these same questions, and in answering them created the movement within Buddhism that we now know as Mahayana. True enlightenment, they said, is not the complete, final cutting-off of the round of rebirth and suffering and the entering of final nirvana (Skt., nirupa-dhishesha nirvana). Instead, one achieves the only real enlightenment precisely at that point when, out of compassion for the suffering of living beings, one deliberately refuses to attain the stage of final nirvana and enlightenment unless all other living beings attain it too. Thus, the paradox is that in refusing what is traditionally considered to be the ultimate goal of Buddhism and choosing to remain behind to serve as a guide, one really acquires the only true enlightenment and nirvana.

The mental activities of living beings might be counted,
And so might the number of atoms in a land;
The extent of space might be assessed,
But the virtues of the will for enlightenment cannot be measured:
It produces all the buddhas of all times,
And perfects happiness in all worlds,
Increases all excellent virtues,
Extirpates all confusion,
Reveals all wondrous realms,
Eliminates all obstacles,
Develops all pure lands,
Produces all enlightened knowledge.

From The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra, translated by Thomas Cleary © 1993. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications. Thomas Cleary is the translator of over fifty volumes of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and Islamic texts.

It cannot really be otherwise. If enlightenment is, among other things, complete selflessness, then only when we have rid ourselves of selfishness to the point where we are no longer greedy even for the fruits of training do we really reach the “goal” of the Way. In gladly giving up the goal, we acquire it. The arousing of the thought of enlightenment, then, which Dogen says is the compassionate vow to save all beings, is really a remarkable, wonderful occasion. It is remarkable and wonderful because the very ability to make such a vow and mean it most sincerely must be the appearance in one’s life of a selflessness and compassion that are truly buddha-like. It is, according to Dogen, the manifesting of buddhanature itself. Dogen says in the same chapter of the Shobogenzo,

In Buddhism, the ultimate attainment is Bodhi [Skt., Pali, “awakening”], which is also buddhahood. If the highest, perfect enlightenment is compared with the initial arousing of the thought of enlightenment, it is like comparing the great conflagration at the time of the world’s end with the light of a firefly. Still, if one arouses the thought of enlightenment, the thought of emancipating all other living beings even before one is emancipated oneself, there is no difference between the two. A buddha is simply a person who thinks, “How can I cause beings to enter the supreme dharma and rapidly become buddhas?” This is the life of a Tathagata.

However, even this exertion of one’s own inherent enlightenment nature in the perpetual act of helping all others to realize their enlightenment nature is not the final truth. After all, Shakyamuni did not dedicate his life simply to helping us to become completely enlightened and to escape the world of karma and rebirth. He taught us, rather, to teach others to teach others, until such time as the world is full of beings whose sole aim in life is to be of service to others. Thus, to arouse the thought of enlightenment is not just to make a determination to enlighten all beings; it is the determination to motivate all living beings to motivate all living beings, on and on. “Benefiting living beings,” says Dogen, “means causing living beings to arouse the thought of emancipating all others even before each is himself emancipated. We cannot become buddhas in any other way than through the power of causing this thought [of emancipating all others before oneself is emancipated] to arise in others.” Thus, Dogen universalizes the bodhisattva vow and the thought of enlightenment; his vision is that of a world in which all beings are motivated by this vow. It cannot be otherwise, according to him, for if any being enters the dharma for himself, and not for others, it is not the dharma and he has not entered. To practice the dharma is to “drop off mind and body,” and when mind and body have been forgotten to the extent that we are no longer selfishly motivated to acquire even the wonderful prize of enlightenment for ourselves, we have really entered the dharma, really aroused the thought of enlightenment.

From How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, by Francis Dojun Cook © 1999. Excerpted with permission of Wisdom Publications.