Whether you’re reading about Zen on your own or studying with a teacher, sooner or later you’ll bump into the Bodhisattva Vows. Individuals recite them and monastic groups, ordained and lay alike, chant them at least once a day. They consist of four lines and the first goes like this: Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.
Because of translations from age-old Sanskrit texts, there are minor differences from one to another. The phrase “I vow to free them,” for instance, is sometimes expressed as “to save them.” But the intention is the same. In essence, we’re declaring our readiness to live as bodhisattvas, to use our wisdom to help free others from suffering and causes of suffering (see Noble Truth).
But what are we saying here? What’s this vow, this solemn undertaking? To free or save all beings from suffering? How could anyone succeed in freeing one being, never mind all of them? Where do we start? Free from what? How do we know we’re making progress? Should we even begin, considering how immense the task? Or is just one of those Zen-things people repeat but no-one can explain? Or . . . ?