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Bodhisattva vows

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The Sanskrit term Bodhisattva is the name given to anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated bodhichitta, which is a spontaneous wish to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. What makes someone a Bodhisattva is her or his dedication to the ultimate welfare of other beings, as expressed in the prayer:

May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

This is bodhichitta. With this motivation, if the Bodhisattva or trainee Bodhisattva promises to engage in the practice of the six or ten perfections (Pāramitā), this is the Bodhisattva vow.[1]

Mahayana Buddhism

In the various Bodhisattva vows (sometimes called the Bodhisattva Precepts) of Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattvas take a vow stating that they will strive for as long as samsara endures to liberate all sentient beings from samsara and lead them to enlightenment. The Bodhisattva does not seek bodhi (Awakening) solely for him/herself, but chiefly for the sake of freeing all other beings and aiding them into the bliss of Nirvana.

This can be done by venerating all Buddhas and by cultivating supreme moral and spiritual perfection, to be placed in the service of others. In particular, Bodhisattvas promise to practice the "six perfections" of giving, moral discipine, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom in order to fulfill their bodhichitta aim of attaining enlightenment for the sake of all beings.[2]

Taking the Bodhisattva vow

An example of a Bodhisattva vow is found at the very end of the Avatamsaka Sutra by Samantabhadra. In Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, the Bodhisattva vow is taken with the following famous two verses from Sutra:

Just as all the previous Sugatas, the Buddhas/Generated the mind of enlightenment/And accomplished all the stages/Of the Bodhisattva training,/So will I too, for the sake of all beings,/Generate the mind of enlightenment/And accomplish all the stages/Of the Bodhisattva training.[3]

Berzin (1997: unpaginated) links the mindstream to the bodhisattva vows:

The promise to keep bodhisattva vows applies not only to this life, but to each subsequent lifetime until enlightenment. Thus these vows continue on our mind-stream into future lives.[4]

Zen Tradition

The following table of the fourfold vow is as practiced by the Chan and Zen tradition. Within Japan the bodhisattva precepts are recognised as being full ordination for all sects of Buddhism.

Sino-Japanese English Chinese (pinyin) Chinese (hanzi)
Shi gu sei gan The Four Great Vows Sì hóng shì yuàn 四弘誓願
Shu jo mu hen sei gan do I vow to liberate all beings, without number Zhòng shēng wúbiān shì yuàn dù 眾生無邊誓願度
Bon no mu jin sei gan dan I vow to uproot endless blind passions Fánnǎo wújìn shì yuàn duàn 煩惱無盡誓願斷
Ho mon mu ryo sei gan gaku I vow to penetrate dharma gates beyond measure Fǎ mén wúliàng shì yuàn xué 法門無量誓願學
Butsu do mu jo sei gan jo I vow to attain the way of the Buddha Fó dào wúshàng shì yuàn chéng 佛道無上誓願成

Brahma Net Sutra

The Brahma Net Sutra translated by Kumarajiva (circa 400 AD) has a list of ten major and forty-eight minor Bodhisattva vows. The ten major vows are as follows:

  1. Not to kill any living creature
  2. Not to steal anything
  3. Not to engage in any form of sexual misconduct
  4. Not to lie or use false speech
  5. Not to consume or distribute intoxicants
  6. Not to discuss the faults and misdeeds that occur by any Buddhist
  7. Not to praise oneself or disparage others
  8. Not to be stingy or abusive towards those in need
  9. Not to harbor anger or resentment or encourage others to be angry
  10. Not to criticise or slander the Three Jewels

Asanga's Bodhisattvabhumi

Asanga (circa 300 AD) delineated 18 major vows and forty-six minor vows.[5] These Bodhisattva vows are still used by the Gelukpa and Kagyu traditions of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. The eighteen major vows (as actions to be abandoned) are as follows:

  1. Praising oneself or belittling others due to attachment to receiving material offerings, praise and respect.
  2. Not giving material aid or (due to miserliness) not teaching the Dharma to those who are suffering and without a protector.
  3. Not listening to others' apologies or striking others
  4. Abandoning the Mahayana by saying that Mahayana texts are not the words of Buddha or teaching what appears to be the Dharma but is not.
  5. Taking things belonging to Buddha, Dharma or Sangha.
  6. Abandoning the holy Dharma by saying that texts which teach the three vehicles are not the Buddha's word.
  7. With anger depriving ordained ones of their robes, beating and imprisoning them or causing them to lose their ordination even if they have impure morality, for example, by saying that being ordained is useless.
  8. Committing any of the five extremely negative actions: (1) killing one's mother, (2) killing one's father, (3) killing an arhat, (4) intentionally drawing blood from a Buddha or (5) causing schism in the Sangha community by supporting and spreading sectarian views.
  9. Holding distorted views (which are contrary to the teaching of Buddha, such as denying the existence of the Three Jewels or the law of cause and effect etc.)
  10. Destroying towns, villages, cities or large areas by means such as fire, bombs, pollution or black magic.
  11. Teaching emptiness to those whose minds are unprepared.
  12. Causing those who have entered the Mahayana to turn away from working for the full enlightenment of Buddhahood and encouraging them to work merely for their own liberation from suffering.
  13. Causing others to abandon their Pratimoksha vows.
  14. Belittling the Śrāvaka or Pratyekabuddha vehicle (by holding and causing others to hold the view that these vehicles do not abandon attachment and other delusions).
  15. Falsely stating that oneself has realised profound emptiness and that if others meditate as one has, they will realize emptiness and become as great and as highly realized as oneself.
  16. Taking gifts from others who were encouraged to give you things originally intended as offerings to the Three Jewels. Not giving things to the Three Jewels that others have given you to give to them, or accepting property stolen from the Three Jewels.
  17. Causing those engaged in calm-abiding meditation to give it up by giving their belongings to those who are merely reciting texts or making bad disciplinary rules which cause a spiritual community not to be harmonious.
  18. Abandoning the either of the two types of Bodhicitta (aspiring and engaging).

According to Atisha the Pratimoksha vows are the basis for the Bodhisattva vows. Without keeping one of the different sets of Pratimoksha vows (in one of existing Vinaya schools), there is no Bodhisattva vow.[6]

See also

Classical Commentaries in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism


  1. The Bodhisattva Vow: A Practical Guide to Helping Others, page 1, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1995) ISBN 978-0-948006-50-0
  2. Joyful Path of Good Fortune pages 442-553, by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1995) ISBN 978-0-948006-46-3
  3. Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, page 30, a translation of Shantideva's Bodhisattvacharyavatara with Neil Elliott, (2002) ISBN 978-0-948006-88-3
  4. Berzin, Alexander (1997). Taking the Kalachakra Initiation: Part III: Vows and Closely Bonding Practices. Source: [1] (accessed: January 25, 2008). NB: Originally published as Berzin, Alexander. Taking the Kalachakra Initiation. Ithaca, Snow Lion, 1997
  5. The Bodhisattva Vow, pages 13-34, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1995) ISBN 978-0-948006-50-0
  6. Great Kagyu Masters: The Golden Lineage Treasury by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen, Snow Lion Publications, see pages 154-186

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