On the Nature of Vow, and the Bodhisattva Vow

Vow is an interesting word, a rich word.  It has connotations of a depth of commitment; and of something solemn, and serious; a deep dedication that calls up our resources and aims them all in a single direction…


This word can also be a mirror – as in – What is your vow? People can ‘vow’ to do all sorts of things, as a reflection of who they are, what they believe, what they hold to be of ultimate importance, for example, young people vowing to become a millionaire before the age of 30, or vowing to lose weight, or to never again subject themselves to a destructive relationship.

Then there are those people who don’t feel any real commitment to anything other than their own happiness, and of course conflict with others has to come from that.  Some people don’t feel any dedication to something larger than themselves, but one way or another, this is something we all need.  We are all related, so even looking at it from the point of view of our own happiness, we do need some positive motivation regarding others, and the world we live in.

Vow galvanizes our aim

Taking a positive motivation one step further, we come to vow. Whereas being inclined to help is a great thing, vow has more focus, and more power.  Forming our intention then helps us to see clearly what is getting in the way of our aims, and helps us to clear away those obstacles.  It affirms that we know our place in the world, and it breathes fresh life into us. Vow calls up energy we never knew we had, and strengthens us.

Vow is not fanaticism

The only thing that can possibly keep vow from becoming fanaticism, is reason.  What we commit ourselves to should be the result of a great deal of reflection.  When instead there is a small amount of reason, and a whole lot of emotion, the results are something tyrannical, unbalanced and destructive – witness all the great evils in history and you’ll see, they all had a fanatic ideology at their base.

Ideally, the vows we make should be based on illumined reason, the kind that is the product of deep and careful thought, and reasoning that can stand up to investigation and questioning.

I’ve heard a traditional teaching about the place of reason that says, if something is true or worthwhile then the more you look into it, the more apparent that truth becomes; and if something is not true, then examining it will remove that wrong idea.  This is like seeing a rope at night in the dark and thinking it is a snake – if we take a closer look, the mistaken concept will disappear altogether.

If we are dedicated to something that is really worthwhile, on the other hand, then thinking about it will only increase the energy we have to carry out our aim.  This is how it should be.

Vow can only come from oneself

When we look within our own heart and hold the question: What should I do with my life in this world?, in time, an answer will come that will be our own.  Such a sense of direction and commitment can’t be given to us.  Although such things as outer ceremonies and readings can strengthen our sense of direction and can help our courage to grow, the initial impulse can’t come to us from the outside.  It has to be ‘self-born’.

We can say that vow is the flower of self knowledge.  The advantage to this is that a clear decision we make about our life is truly our own.  It can’t be given, and no one can take it from us.  Once we’ve had some experience of it, whatever clear sense of purpose we’ve had can be a reference point.  Then, when things get uncertain, as they are bound to sometimes, we can, once more, orient ourselves to that.

Not easy

In all of us there is something called habit energy.  By itself, habit is a neutral thing – it can work either for or against our wishes.  If we’re talking about actualizing an ideal however, almost certainly there are going to be things inside us and in the outside world that feel like they oppose our aims.  This is natural and nothing to be afraid of or shy away from.  In fact, we can say that the river of our intention flows by itself, but the path to actualizing this aim is made up of gradually removing the obstacles.

If we have clear aims, then naturally we will know what to do and what not to do.  There is a perception that opens up that leads us to knowing what is most necessary at any time.

Vow strengthens us, clearing the way, first in our own thinking, and then in its outward expression; based on reason, it holds up where trust alone can get lost.  Thinking on those things that are really worth committing to will prove to us their worth to us over and over.  The more we stay with it, the better it becomes – the clearer our vision and the more abundant our courage.  There is a kind of peace and strength to vows that is nourishing.  We all need something of this kind of foresight, knowing the value of our goals. This is what helps when, over the long periods of time, no apparent result can be seen.  We don’t give up.  We know what we have set ourselves to do is worth every effort we can give to it.


When we know from inside what truly matters to us, it makes for stability in our character.  Like a tree with deep roots, we’ll be much less at the mercy of outside forces, like income level, or what is current in our culture, changes in our relationships, or other people’s opinions.

Vow functions to make our own priorities appear clearly to our mind.  More and more, when we have a strong sense of our personal vows, we will find we have things in a perspective that makes sense to us.  Little things won’t bother us as much, and we will appreciate the big, important things, the significant people, and events, and opportunities, and at least aim to give them the care and attention they deserve.

The words are not the thing itself

Repeated words, as in a liturgy, all by themselves are not vow.  If they are gone through mindlessly, they won’t help us much, if at all.  The ideal with words is when writing and reading, and then reflecting on our truest aims can help us to touch that force in our lives that moves us forward.  This can certainly help to increase that power in our lives.  We should be clear though, that the words are not the thing itself  – that’s where idolatry comes from – regarding something that is essentially inside us as being separate from our own nature.

When we are able to increase the clarity, depth and power of feeling of dedication to our ideal, that can help to pacify and eventually transform the elements in our lives that obstruct what we aim for.

Will all the hypocrites in the room please raise their hand?

Vows are like a mirror.  We can, and should feel uncomfortable when we realize we have fallen short of our ideal.  This feeling of discomfort is actually a good thing. Until we have worked through all of our psychology, we will have inconsistencies between our best thought and our behavior,  Some people would use the harsh term ‘hypocrite’, but this only applies if we are not honest, with ourselves primarily, about where we diverge. We need a vast amount of compassion for ourselves, for our suffering and struggle, and we need awareness.  Then our vows can gradually help us to live whole, integrated lives.

The heart of the heart

The human heart was made to love.  That is its’ fulfillment, and that is the shining sun of its enduring nature that we can know in our lives each day.  However much we are able to help today, having the highest aim, to help one another as much as we can, this greatly simplifies our complex, worried lives, and makes them so much easier, a delight, really. This one great aim can give to us all, strength and spiritual health.  It is this that gives life to our life. 

Freedom and service

The more freedom we have from suffering, the more available we are to be aware of and to respond to the needs of others.  You can’t expect someone who is suffering to try to help anyone except himself.  But if even a little freedom is gained, with it comes some ability and naturally greater responsibility.

One analogy I have is, when a parent leaves the children at home, and the older sibling can see and reach the food on the shelf, when the younger ones cannot.  That older brother or sister, because they can see and reach the soup or cereal, has a responsibility to help feed his brothers and sisters. It is that way naturally. If the mother were to come home and the kids had not been fed, she’d rightly blame the older child if he didn’t do what he could have.

When I think of my family, friends, and myself, I know we each have difficulties to work though, and that sometimes we are not available for each other. Thankfully, at least most of the time I have some people who are available to offer their support.

The Bodhisattva Vow

There is a way of orienting ourselves to the world that many people over time have found to be greatly life-affirming.  Based on universal love and compassion, and understanding the source of problems and their resolution, it is the intention to help others as much as possible.  Included in that intention is freeing ourselves from whatever would keep us from offering such service.  In traditional Buddhist language, the dedication to help others with both wisdom and compassion is called ‘the Bodhisattva Vow’.  Bodhisattva means, literally ‘an awakening being’.

There are ceremonies for taking the Bodhisattva vow, but the true vow comes from our own heart.  When we have this motivation, it is a breakthrough, no matter how many times it happens.  It’s the dawning of a new awareness.

Finding the Bodhisattva vow in ourselves, re-affirming and strengthening that can give a person much courage and energy for their whole life.  It clarifies everything, and helps us to have a feeling for our place in this world.

When we hear the cries of the world, we must be engaged –

Mahayana Buddhism

The term ‘Maha-yana’ in Mahayana Buddhism means ‘Great Vehicle’, and this refers to the aim, to work for the benefit of all.  Being Buddhist in origin, the Bodhisattva vow includes the thought of enlightenment.  In this Tradition, the cause of our many problems is seen as ignorance, and the remedy is wisdom, or insight, which taken to its furthest point, is enlightenment. The vow is then taken to cultivate the highest wisdom, and to lead each and every one to that same state.  Quite the expression of love, compassion and understanding of what we all need!

Two Traditional Verses

In the Zen Tradition, the Mahayana motivation takes the form of the Four Great Vows:

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them;
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them;
Dharma gates are limitless, I vow to enter them
The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it

If we are able to maintain compassion for others, then there will naturally be produced in our mind a certain kind of intention for our whole life.

What is called in the tradition bodhicitta, or bodhimind, or the awakening mind, is the whole-function, powerful intention to liberate our own mind from confusion and suffering, and to actualize or bring forth all beneficial, necessary qualities, so that we can best serve others.

In traditional terms, bodhicitta is made of love and compassion, and is the wish to become a Buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings.  That mind itself, that thought, is a holy mind, a holy, profound and sacred thought, bringing only good into the world.

A person who lives to serve others is called a bodhisattva.  Whatever other elements there are in such a person’s mind, they have this ardent wish to live in a certain way and so help others as much as they possibly can.

In the Tibetan Tradition, a verse for taking refuge and generating the highest motivation, bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment, is recited before many of their diverse practices:

I take refuge, until I attain enlightenment,
in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Supreme Assembly
By the merit I have accumulated by practicing Generosity and other Virtues,
may I attain Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings.

Here, the phrase, Generosity and other Virtues, refers to what are called the Six Perfections.  These are the path of the Bodhisattva, as described in Tradition.  They are Generosity, Ethics, Patience, Effort, Meditation, and Wisdom.


I have heard that the Dalai Lama, when asked what is the quickest way to enlightenment, was moved to tears by the question.  He answered, with characteristic humility, that he had been practicing most of his life, and had only been able to make a little progress on the spiritual path. Then he said that we shouldn’t think even in terms of lifetimes, but that instead we should think in terms of aeons.  This is the kind of resolve that we need.

In the following passage, from the film ‘Compassion and Wisdom: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’, writer and director James Zito beautifully and succinctly expresses the Traditional background and the aim of the Bodhisattva:

‘The Buddha taught that the enlightenment and spiritual liberation he achieved were by no means unique to him. Rather they are potentially available to every living being. The Bodhisattva is a follower of the Buddha, who in deep sympathy and compassion for the suffering of the world, vows to do the utmost to help all living beings reach their highest potential. The Bodhisattva works tirelessly to release beings from their temporal sufferings into the timeless peace and fulfillment of Buddhist enlightenment.

‘According to Buddhism, the state of enlightenment is the full expression of the innate potential for compassion and wisdom, which lies more or less dormant within every being. This innate potential is known as the Buddha Nature, and it is the Vow of the Bodhisattva to help each and every being bring their inherent Buddha Nature to its full awakening as the state of enlightenment.’ 

The Bodhisattva vow has as it’s goal for beings, freedom from suffering, and not just the result of suffering, but its causes as well; and the happiness of all, and not just in a temporary way, but lasting happiness. This all comes from the mind. A Buddhist, therefore, is dedicated to finding freedom himself or herself, and sharing that with all others. When it comes to passing along teachings, our own realization is the vital factor in any communication.

All Buddhist traditions express the utmost need for wisdom.  In the Way of the Bodhisattva, such understanding is viewed in relation to the needs of all. In fact, we can say that the Mahayana has as its starting point the inseparability of love and wisdom.

Arya Nagarjuna taught that:

If the rest of humanity and I wish to attain unsurpassed awakening
{so needed for all of our sake}
the basis for this is bodhicitta, as stable as the King of Mountains:
Compassion, which touches everything,
and pristine wisdom, which does not rely on duality.

Ultimate Nature, Relative Practice

The nature of mind, our ultimate nature, is described as originally pure, vast, and perfect, naturally awake, and ungraspable. It is beyond concepts, and non-dual; lacking nothing, it is complete in all qualities. In the relative, only apparently dualistic practices that we do, however, the path is described as expressions of compassion: generosity, prayer, patience, forgiveness, the cultivation of peace, and so on. These are all expressions of love.

The Seventh Dalai Lama wrote:

The expanded mind which thinks
only of that which benefits others
is a tree of endless fruit;
one touch of its divine sap
quenches even the word ‘suffering’

Everyone who has experienced a mother’s or a grandmother’s love knows how true it can be: being touched by a compassionate person when we are suffering can instantly reduce, or even totally remove our pain.  From a loving person, this profound true nature comes forward effortlessly, and heals.

All beings want happiness, but as long as we do not know the causes of happiness, instead, we blindly create the causes of suffering.

In response to this, what is called the Bodhisattva Vow is the dedication that we have in us to helping others, by realizing our own true nature as fully as possible, and drawing from this ocean of light.  This sense of dedication to others can be there with or without words, or it can be taken formally and re-affirmed.  It is the commitment of our whole life energy to helping others as much as we can, and in as many ways as we can, to alleviate their suffering and to support their health and happiness. This Vow is the vibrant central principle of the Mahayana Path.

Yes, but how much can one person really do for another?

It has been asked many times – how much can one person do for another?  What is this about someone vowing to do something so significant for another, such as ‘carrying a person to the other shore’, and freeing them from suffering?  While it is true that ultimately every person has to understand the causes of health and happiness for himself or herself, there is so much that can be done for another.  I only have to think of what others have given me for this thought to become real to me.

We all need support and encouragement; freedom from fear and hunger; we all need to have medicine available, and enough warm clothes.  Most of all, we need respect, love and clear teachings, in the form of good human examples, and in some language we can relate to.  These are very great things, and the Bodhisattva vow is the intention to give all these things, all needful things, to all beings, our family.

Here are two traditional verses from the Indian Saint, Shantideva, that express the compassionate motivation at the heart of the Bodhisattva vow:

As long as diseases afflict living beings,
May I be the doctor, the medicine,
and also the nurse who restores them to health

May I fall as rain to increase
the harvests that feed living beings
and in times of dire famine,
may I myself be food and drink

In one sense, to say that vow is the flower of our self knowledge is to say that vow shows how deep a persons’ knowledge is.  If there is no deep knowledge, then there is no deep vow either.  The vow of a Bodhisattva though, is based on something broad and deep.  It is based on universal love and compassion, and insight into our real nature.  It is possible to feel that, not only do we and our family and friends want and deserve happiness and freedom from suffering, but everyone, really wants these things.  In that we are equal.

When we aim to benefit even one other person, something in us wakes up.  When we extend that and aim to feed, comfort and care for our group, family and friends, then that much more in us wakes up.  And when we extend that even further, it’s possible to awaken the sense of something universal in ourself, working for the good of all.

Sometimes we are able to glimpse this universal nature, and then again we are taken up with the particulars of our life, but the shining basis, which is our compassionate nature, remains the same.  There is always something universal, beyond any one form or action or life span, that supports and sustains us, and is the source of all our vows.  Perhaps this is why Lama Yeshe said that when we have bodhi-citta, the thought to benefit all others in the best possible ways, we take on a more universal character.

‘When you have this kind of motivation,’ Lama Lodro says, ‘it makes whatever practice you do very powerful.’  We are saying very clearly and strongly with our life and practice, ‘May all beings be free of suffering!’ ‘May all beings be happy!’

How to increase compassion

All contemplation has one thing in common, as shown by its etymology, and that is that we are giving time and attention to a particular subject.  Usually the feeling of compassion is associated with a sense of sadness, heaviness or sorrow, or being overwhelmed, and that kind of feeling can’t be sustained for long.  There are associations of suffering, and the feeling perhaps that looking at these things too long will actually weaken us.  This is because we don’t how to go about thinking about suffering.  It’s important that we go about this in the right way if we want workable results.

When we are able to successfully contemplate a subject like suffering, and increase our compassion, it is because we do it slowly, and carefully.  To do it well, we should reflect and then stop and refresh ourselves and assimilate what we’ve been thinking about.  Then the effect is strengthening.  Our determination to help only increases; our clarity and sense of priorities is made sharper; and our delight in doing something useful also increases.

In actual practice

Forming the idea of a dedication before practice, setting ones motivation is like saying, ‘I will cultivate this crop for this purpose, for this person or these people’.  Then we cultivate – plant the seed, let the sun shine, water, pull the weeds, and finally, harvest.  Then, in our thoughts, when we dedicate at the end of a practice, again we are saying, ‘This belongs to this person, or these people’.  ‘May it accomplish this benefit’.

Now, I know this can’t be proven to you unless you are a person with some amount of extra sensory perception, but I do believe that, when we have a clear idea of communicating some benefit, that positive energy is transmitted in that same moment.  This is the basis for the concept of absent healing.  Most of us live ordinary lives, I know, but I thought I should at least mention it.  It really does feel this way sometimes, and it changes the way I think of the practice itself.

When we have others in mind, a universal aim, even eventually, as a long term goal, then we don’t feel like the harvest of benefit is ours alone.  We also gain, naturally, but it feels like the result is bigger, much bigger than just our own gain.  We can live in a state of Magnanimous Mind, or big generosity. Then, when we actually do meet the person or people we have been practicing for, it’s easy, natural, to ‘give over’, or extend to them what we have produced, whatever peace or clarity, or light, health or strength.  We share these things in whatever way they can receive them.  We can feel, ‘Here, this belongs to you…’  aah…

Now, about this ‘all beings’ business…

As soon as we try to practice like this, it’s immediately clear that some people or situations are easier to practice for, and some more difficult, or impossible for now.  We should take special note of who we have a problem with, and make special efforts to dedicate our practice to them until we wear away that resistance.

Gradually, in every Buddhist approach to developing the good heart we all have, the aim is to become more and more inclusive, and completely impartial in our kindness and compassion.

I think of teachers and sages who seem to have accomplished this impartiality of love.  It looks like they treat everyone they meet with the same kindness and compassion.  This is a high and wonderful aim, more than worth whatever effort we make in that direction.  It’s the basis for great things.

Dharma centers’ red flashing lights and whooping si-reens

If we go to a center where they chant, ‘Sa-ving all be-ings’, but the people there won’t give you the time of day, or even look you in the eye, you should know something is seriously wrong.  The people there, and especially the teachers, have completely missed the point.  A practice center should be a place of mutual support.  Warm and alive, it should be a place where people can feel safe, and where inner disciplines can flourish.

Speaking realistically for a change

The Bodhisattva vow is something we will naturally need to bring to mind again and again.  At times, almost all of us will only be able to focus on our own struggle.  Sometimes this is only right and appropriate, but as long as we live in a world with others, this intention, to help others as much as we can, is a most useful one to have.  It connects us to others, or re-connects us to others, and it is the most fulfilling way to live.  We may be able to actualize only a small part of that aim, but the motivation itself is something noble, generative, healing, strengthening, illuminating and enlivening.

We never give up

One Tibetan Lama here in San Francisco, Lama Lodro described the depth of dedication of the Bodhisattva, saying:

‘A Bodhisattva would go to be born one million times in hell to help one sentient being.  One million times he would go, and not complain- he would enjoy that, actually.  Beings need help, and he enjoys helping.  That’s the Bodhisattva motivation.’

Another verse by Shantideva says:

For as long as space endures,
and for as long as living beings remain,
until then may I too abide
to dispel the misery of the world

All my lives

I know that many Westerners, like myself, don’t see past and future lives – literally being born back then, in that place, and in the future in some other place. What then to do with the idea of past and future when it comes to vow?  For me, it continues to be helpful to think beyond this one life span – however we conceive of ourselves.  This works well in terms of the Bodhisattva vow. We can aim to dedicate ourselves to things that we feel can help now, and will be helpful in the long term.

Here is an analogy: If we see that there is a river close to where some houses are, and that each year the river comes a little closer, it would be right to solve the problem now, while we can.  If we don’t, then it may not be this generation, but eventually the houses of our children or our children’s children could be washed away.  This kind of thinking ahead puts our own lives in a far truer context than we usually think in.  More meaning is evident in our own lives now, also, when we think this way, the present is viewed in relation to the next generations.

Good seeds

We can also think of our lives as a chance to plant good seeds.  Of course a tree takes years or decades to grow and become shelter, and bear fruit, but the work of planting and nourishing has great worth.  If we think of the wonderful things we have inherited from past generations, such as art, institutions, teachings, and Traditions, we can feel gratitude, and this can also help us to live in a way that is dedicated to those we share this life with, and to future generations.  May they have great trees and clean water, and everything they need for happy lives!

Thinking far ahead also makes the problems of this one life easier.  We are related to the past and future generations, and we all have our part to do. Our part is not the work of the past – they had their own work; and our part is not the task of the next generation – they will have their own work.  We’ve inherited riches, but also a world of suffering, greed and confusion, so doing our part is a very great thing – really, it is the most important thing individually for any of us.

What’s in a name?

When we have insight into conditions, and knowledge of what will bring resolution to problems, then, whatever our place in the world, we can be doing the most needed kind of work.  We can be fulfilling what is here being called ‘the Bodhisattva vow’.  Of course, this goes beyond any one name or Tradition. Whatever group we belong to, when we know something of our human capacities for freedom, health and clarity, and when we know the extent of confusion and unnecessary suffering, then quite naturally we will find ways to work effectively.

We may work with a group, or alone. It may be with a few close friends, or in association with Traditions and lineages that hold the same vows.  However it works out, knowing our potential, and how much need there still is- these two make up our response to the world. The response to life of a person awake to this much is the Bodhisattva vow, whatever name we give it.  It is the vow to serve.  Here is joy, strength, freedom, fire to warm, the fragrant wind, earth, and delicious water too; food, music, gifts to give, and peace.

When it comes to birth, death and rebirth, they say an ordinary person is controlled by karma, habit energy, and delusion, whereas a person who is awake and free of these is controlled by compassion.  He or she has no choice but to work for others.

Bodhicitta, the thought to benefit, equalizes the eight worldly dharmas

There is nothing more practical than working in our daily life with our emotions, and our mind.  Whether we want to meet them or not, our responses to life are always there, and they can be changed in a positive direction. Having a strong clear intention in our life meets these factors head on.  They say that the energy of the Bodhisattva vow ‘equalizes’, or levels flat, and frees us from the eight worldly dharmas.  These are the four pairs that people spend so much time and energy chasing or avoiding: material gain and loss, physical pleasure and pain, praise and criticism, and good reputation or bad reputation, or recognition.

What this means is that, when the factor of living our lives to benefit all others as much as we can is strong in us, then we don’t get caught by these things.  They don’t limit us or obstruct us or disturb our mind in any way.  Even just having this aim with our life, there are already real freedoms that come with it.

This is the only thing that tips the balance

In the 8th century, Shantideva wrote:

Just as a flash of lightning on a dark, cloudy night
for an instant brightly illuminates all,
likewise in this world, through the might of Buddha,
a wholesome thought rarely and briefly appears.

Hence virtue is perpetually feeble,
and the great strength of evil is extremely intense.
Except for a Fully Awakening Mind
(the dedication to help all others)
by what other virtue will it be overcome?


This intention to benefit all beings,
which does not arise in others even for their own sake,
is an extraordinary jewel of the mind,
and its birth, an unprecedented wonder…

To which I say, all these centuries later, a hearty ‘a-men brother!’

In these verses, the ‘Fully Awakening Mind’ is the thought of universal benefit.

When I think of loneliness, death, suffering, and all that is unpredictable and tragic in this world; the inevitable separation from friends and loved ones, the cruelty and madness, all the absurdity and waste – all of it – this one factor is the only thing I can think of that makes life livable.  This one great vow reveals the capacity we have to help each other.  It reminds me that there have been in the past, and that there are now, people who are working to help others, and aiming to do so, and that we can also take up this aim and this work.  That, for me, is the glory of being alive.  Now and forever, we can actually do something of real value with our lives.

This intention makes it possible to live with an awareness of all the amazing good and all the terrible things, and to live with resolve, commitment and joy.  This is the only thing, really, that gives me the courage to face whatever life may bring.  If trembling fear is the feeling of not being capable, then right here is where resourcefulness, and therefore blazing true confidence, and solidity is found.  This one aim, this one intention, tips the balance, in favor of life.

Skillful Means

Once we arrive at the Great Way – the Mahayana , with its strong central motivation to serve all beings, and to liberate all living beings, we will utilize every resource, we will do anything to communicate the Dharma, take any form to meet people’s needs, to benefit them, to speak in a way they can understand, and lead them step by step to freedom.

Because of the great sufferings and needs that are here, we must search until we find the methods that work for us, and that are effective in helping others.  A diversity of forms in Buddhism arose out of this motivation to benefit self and others.  What is referred to as creative ‘Skillful Means’ develops out of compassionate need, and it is the overriding reason for not to be attached to any one way of doing things, or saying things.  As long as we keep to essential principles of wisdom and compassion, then it is Buddhist Dharma.   Skillful means, or Upaya, are just what is necessary to help and to reach people.

The Sakya Trinzin, in ‘Mo – The Tibetan Divination System’ says the following:

“In Buddhism, especially in the Mahayana Tradition, it has been taught that the highest good is to benefit other living beings… Numerous scriptures tell us that a bodhisattva should not hesitate to use any method that would bring relative and ultimate happiness to others.  The bodhisattva has been enjoined to assist others by giving them spiritual teachings, material objects such as medicine and food, fearlessness, loving kindness and advice on how to deal with the travails of worldly existence.”

There is a figure in Mahayana Buddhism (The Chinese Mahayana, and the Tibetan Tradition) called Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is sometimes shown with one thousand arms reaching out to help people.  Of course ‘a thousand’ means ‘limitless’ in Eastern Traditions.  Sometimes ‘myriad’ and sometimes ‘Ten-thousand’ are used – all these terms have the same meaning.

In the more visible hands in the iconography one can see various implements, a vase, a rosary, The Wheel of Teaching the Dharma, and so on. The meaning is that Avalokiteshvara, which is our own compassionate nature, has the ability to take infinite forms to benefit others.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from Lama Yeshe, on the motivation to benefit all, the enlightened attitude of a bodhisattva, called bodhicitta:

‘Bodhicitta is not partial.  Wherever you go with bodhicitta if you meet people, rich people or poor people, black or white, you are comfortable and you can communicate.’

‘Bodhicitta is the intoxicant that numbs us to pain and fills us with bliss.’

‘Bodhicitta is the cloud that carries the rain of positive energy to nourish growing things.’

‘We need the pure innermost thought of bodhicitta; wherever we go that will take care of us.’

*     *     *


From this point forward,
I dedicate myself to removing the suffering of all living beings,
and to bringing them happiness

I dedicate myself fully to their healing and awakening;
to their all having comfort,
strength of body, mind, and spirit,
most excellent nourishment, health, longevity
every level of protection,
a good home, delicious food, beautiful clothing,
the best of all medicines, education,
leisure, joy, and wisdom

In order to accomplish the needs of living beings
in the most effective way,
I will develop my wisdom and compassion
just as my teachers have done
I aim to become free of all faults, and complete in all qualities
and, day by day, hour by hour
always offer as much help as I can

In this way, I will make a gift of my life
In this way, my own life will be fulfilled

I dedicate myself fully, leaving nothing out,
to the complete healing, fulfillment and enlightenment
of all living beings

No matter how long it takes
no matter how difficult it may be
no matter what it costs

With all my heart and with all my strength,
I vow to always serve all living beings
in every way that is necessary for them
and in every way that will bring each and every one of them
true and lasting health and happiness

*     *     *

See also: Mahayana Prayers and Poetry,.pdf, Audio


Metta and Readings on the Mahayana