So what is the vow anyway? There are various translations of the bodhisattva vow, sometimes called the four vows, the way we say it at our Southern Palm Zen Group sangha is below:
Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.
The Enlightened Way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.
As you can tell by the words above in many life times we would not be able to free every being on the planet, nor would we be able to transform all of our daily delusions about life. Plus knowing that reality is relative to the person, country, culture, and more makes it “unknowable” as well, and finally becoming enlightened is rare indeed. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has self-actualization at the top of the pyramid and it has probably only been attained by a few people ever on planet earth. And I am not one of them!
Shohaku Okumura writes about the four vows in his book Living by Vow A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts:
We are ordinary human beings and yet, if we take these four vows, we are bodhisattvas. In reality, we are ordinary human beings with inexhaustible desires. We have to study the teachings and practice endlessly, day by day, moment by moment, to attain the Buddha’s enlightenment. This is our vow. In making these four vows, we are bodhisattvas.
As we said, there is a contradiction inherent in these vows: we vow to do things that are impossible. . . .our practice and study are like trying to empty the ocean with a spoon, one spoonful at a time. (page 19).
And yet we do it. We take the vows, we practice as best we can and sometimes we compare our practice to others and get discouraged or get an overblown ego. Neither is correct. To be a bodhisattva is a journey with no end, but one that can bring great peace, compassion, and help to us, our families, friends, neighbors, community and ultimately the world.
Even if you are the winner of the National Spelling Bee there will be words to still discover, spell, and define, the number is limitless. And yet, the contestants still try and they keep on studying. Such is living life by the 4 vows. The journey is never ending, the path is never straight, the way is often up a rocky road and sometimes strolling on soft green grass. It can be filled with joys and sorrows, fun and laughter, pain and pleasure. Regardless of the path we may travel, when we take the vows we do our best in this moment ONLY to live those vows.
I start each day by freeing myself from my delusions about myself and the world that I live in, then I open myself to the idea of reality being boundless and not limited by my past experiences and knowledge, and that walking the path of the bodhisattva is a path that could lead me to enlightenment and that is simply fun to imagine!—Even if I don’t attain it today. I hope you’ll join me on this great adventure!
Things to focus on this week:
1. I will begin each day affirming the four vows.
2. I will remind myself that living by them is done by being mindful and taking baby steps along the path throughout the day regardless of the current circumstances.
3. I will remember that I am a bodhisattva even when I don’t feel like it or think I am acting like one.
4. Lastly, I will keep a journal of the opportunities that have been presented to me so I can keep track of my progress and my opportunities for growth.
 Okumura, S. (2012) Living by vow: a practical introduction to eight essential Zen chants and texts. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA