Tag Archives: bodhisattva vows

The second vow: how can I free others from delusion?

Photo copyright©David S. Thompson

I have a question about the one of the bodhisattva vows.  As a bodhisattva, how can I free all people if I have only access to my delusions? I have access to my own delusions and I can work with them. But I don’t have access to your delusions. I can stay with people in the suffering and I can have empathy with them. But how can I free them?

This question – how is it possible to free others from their delusion? – concerns the second of the four bodhisattva vows:

Bonnō mujin sei gan dan
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.

In an older version, this vow reads, “I vow to enable people to understand the truth of the origin of suffering.”

The first word, bonnō, can be translated as klesha, illusion, or delusion. However, bonno is more than illusion or delusion. Bonnō is more like desire based on illusion or delusion, which is a kind of energy. You might translate this bonnō (煩惱) from Chinese as “something bothers you” or “annoyances.” So, this is not simply illusion or delusion but something that annoys or bothers us and prevents us from being normal, natural, or sober. Bonnō is the origin of our suffering.

In Yogacara, which is considered as a kind of Buddhist psychology, everything is categorized, analyzed, and defined. According to Yogcara teachings, there are four very basic and fundamental bonnō, or four aspects to bonnō. Those four are gachi 我癡, gaken 我見, gaman 我慢, and gaai 我愛. Ga means self; chi is ignorance; ken is view; man is arrogance; and ai is love or attachment. All delusions or bonnō come from this ga or atman which means self.

Gachi is ignorance about the self, which means we don’t understand that there is no fixed thing called a self. We don’t understand anatman. Atman is self, anatman is no-self. In this bonnō, we don’t know the reality that there’s no such fixed permanent self that can exist without relation to others.

Based on that self, we view things and we create a picture of the world and the center of that world is me. That is gaken, the second delusion, our self-centered view. The “I am most important” is this part, ga. And this part – ken – is to make a picture of the world in which I am the center. It is like in a world atlas made in Japan, Japan is always the center of the world and in an atlas made in the United States, the United States is the center of the world. In my world, I am the center; no one can be center of the world beside me. That is gaken.

The third delusion is this self or ga or ego which compares self with others and always thinks “I’m better than them”— or at least I want to be. If I think I’m not better than others we have another problem called “inferiority complex.” Both are considered gaman. The English word arrogance doesn’t quite work because this man includes inferiority complex. “I’m no good” is part of this problem. So, this is like self-importance.

Gaai is negative love or self-attachment.

These four are the basis of all other bonnō. It is said there are 108 bonnō; that is why on New Year’s Eve in Japan we visit a Buddhist temple and ring the huge bell 108 times, to be free from those 108 bonnō.  The number 108 means immeasurable because the Chinese character for 8 is 八 which means open ended or no limitation. It is not a particular number but means immeasurable or numberless bonnō. However, the basis of those numberless bonnō are these four fundamental bonnō about the self.

Of course, we cannot access other peoples’ delusions; however, Buddha accessed the source or foundation of our delusions – which is clinging to the self (ga). Each one of us has different kinds of delusions and different kinds of hindrances or problems, but the basis of all those problems is the same. The basis is self-clinging or ignorance about the self and ignorance about interconnectedness. That is the way Buddha has access to our delusions, and he teaches how to become free from them. So Buddha didn’t know what kind of delusions I have but he gave me the way to practice to become free from these problems. That is what I’m trying to share with people. You have to work for yourself to become free from your personal delusions. We cannot release other people from their delusions, but we can share how Buddha practiced and how practitioners or teachers practice and become released from their own delusions. I received the teaching from my teacher and that is what I’m trying to share with people. I cannot release you from your own delusion, but to me this practice was helpful to be free from my personal delusion. Still, I’m deluded.

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute hopes to offer an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi  about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

— • —

For further study:

    • The bodhisattva vows are discussed in this book: Living by Vow: A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts, by Shohaku Okumura, Wisdom Publications, 2012. Paperback, 220 pages, $19.95.

      This immensely useful book explores Zen’s rich tradition of chanted liturgy and the powerful ways that such chants support meditation, expressing and helping us truly uphold our heartfelt vows to live a life of freedom and compassion. Also in Italy from Ubaldini Editore — Introduzione in Italiano qui.

> Other Questions and responses


Copyright 2018 Sanshin Zen Community

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No Other Shore Than This

Poem on an Endless Vow
No such boundary

おろかなる   吾れは仏に   ならずとも   衆生を渡す   僧の身ならん
Oroka naru / ware wa hotoke ni / narazu tomo / shujo o watasu / so no mi naran

Even though I am dull-witted,
I will not become a buddha,
I wish only to be a monk,
helping all living beings
crossing over.

This waka is about the first of the four bodhisattva vows, “Shujo muhen seigan do. (Beings are numberless, I vow to free them).”

“To free” or “to save” is a translation of “do” which means to “cross over.” According to Buddhist teachings, between this shore of samsara and the other shore of nirvana, there is a big river. A bodhisattva is like a ferryman who helps people cross over the river. This vow actually means “I will not cross over and enter nirvana until I finish helping all living beings cross over.” This is an endless vow without any goal we can reach.

In Shobogenzo Hotsubodaishin (Arousing Bodhi-mind), Dogen Zenji said, “To arouse the bodhi-mind means to take a vow that, “Before I myself cross over, [I will] help all living beings cross over [the river between this shore of samsara and the other shore of nirvana]” and strive to [fulfill this vow]. Even if their outside appearance is humble, those who have aroused this mind are already the guiding teachers of all living beings.” [1]

Actually, there is no such boundary like a river between samsara and nirvana.
—Shohaku Okumura

In Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Dogen said, “All the buddhas and ancestors were originally ordinary people. While they were ordinary people, they certainly did bad deeds and had evil minds. Some of them might have been dull-witted or even idiots. However, since they transformed themselves, followed their teachers, and relied on [the Buddha’s] teaching and practice, they all became buddhas and ancestors.

People of today should do the same. We should not disparage ourselves, thinking we are foolish or dull-witted. If we do not arouse bodhi-mind in this present lifetime, when can we expect [to be able to practice the Way]? If we care for [the Way], we will surely attain it.” (Choenji version of Zuimonki, 1-13) [2]

Even though we have aroused bodhi-citta, received bodhisattva Precepts, and taken bodhisattva vows, we cannot be like great bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Samanthabadra, Ksitigarbha, etc. We are still ordinary deluded beings. We may make many mistakes but need to help ourselves and others to find nirvana within samsara.

Actually, there is no such boundary like a river between samsara and nirvana. Each time we do even small things to help others, being free from self-centeredness, we experience nirvana here and now.

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Translation and commentary by Shohaku Okumura Roshi
[1] Unpublished translation
[2] Unpublished translation

> Other Waka by Dōgen


Copyright 2016 Sanshin Zen Community