Bodhisattva Vow

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What makes someone a Mahayana Buddhist is her or his dedication to the ultimate welfare of other beings.

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

This is the root Mahayana aspiration. No one has to take this vow, but the decision to adopt it is a turning point in anyone's practice.  It is usually based on the conclusions that we reach after extensive analysis and profound insight into the nature of existence and of our own origins.

Khenpo Karthar, who is the abbot of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, has said that it is important that we recognize the distinction between feeling loving-kindness to others, acting out of general compassion for others, and this special bodhisattva aspiration.  For in taking this vow, we voluntarily give up the pursuit of individual enlightenment except that it may benefit all sentient beings in their quest for enlightenment.

The Bodhisattva Vow


May I assist all sentient beings to attain Buddhahood, and may I be the last one to attain Buddhahood when all sentient beings have attained Buddhahood, as did Avalokiteshvara (Tib. Chenresi) pictured here.

It is not possible to succeed on the Mahayana path without keeping in mind the 64 bodhisattva vows.  They are found in Highway for Bodhisattvas (Tib.: Jangchub Shunglam) by Je Tsongkapa (1357-1419) which contains Asanga's root text along with a commentary.  

In it are the definition and types of bodhichitta, the types of morality, the types of vows and how bodhisattva vows are taken, an explanation of the eighteen root bodhisattva vows and the forty-six secondary ones; the four factors that cause one to break bodhisattva root vows, how the vows are broken, how they may be lost; how to keep them, how to restore them, and all the benefits of keeping the bodhisattva vows.

May I be a guard for all those who are protector-less,
A guide for those who journey on the road,
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

For all those ailing in the world,
Until their every sickness has been healed,
May I myself become for them
The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.

 ~ Shantideva (more of his famous aspiration poem below)

On Bodhicitta, The Compassionate Heart of the Enlightened Mind

It is the supreme elixir
That overcomes the sovereignty of death.
It is the inexhaustible treasure
That eliminates poverty in the world.
It is the supreme medicine
That quells the world's disease.
It is the tree that shelters all beings
Wandering and tired on the path of conditioned existence.
It is the universal bridge
That leads to freedom from unhappy states of birth.
It is the dawning moon of the mind
That dispels the torment of disturbing conceptions.
It is the great sun that finally removes the misty ignorance of the world.
   ~ from Bodhisattvacharya Avatara by Shantideva (700 CE)

The Difference Among Caring (Skt. maitri, Pali metta,) Compassion, and Bodhicitta

Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche explains:

"Loving-kindness and compassion alone are not bodhicitta. They constitute the critical foundation for bodhicitta, but should not be mistaken for the mind of enlightenment itself. Some places say that compassion is the same as bodhicitta, but this is not always so. There are many beings, even animals, who have love and compassion, but they do not have bodhicitta. On the other hand, if you have bodhicitta, then compassion and loving-kindness are definitely also present as they are its predecessors. So, in order to cultivate bodhicitta properly, it is important to study and practice these two first. 

Plant the seed of bodhicitta in the well-ploughed ground of your mind that has been fertilized with compassion and moistened with loving-kindness."

~ courtesy Ani Trinlay

What does a bodhisattva look like? 

"When the 16th Karmapa came to America, at one time he was asked, "Are there other emanations of bodhisattvas in the world? For example, do they exist in our society, in countries like America and Europe, and so on?" 

In answer, His Holiness said, "There are a lot of them. They are all over the place. But they are difficult to recognize. They are not necessarily going to look like me. They are not necessarily going to have a shaven head, wear the robes of a Buddhist monk, and so on."  

~  Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche. Densal, Spring/Summer 2000 [v.15, n.1] 9. 

Corollaries or Vows that Follow from the Bodhisattva Vow:

We pledge to AVOID:

1. Praising yourself and belittling others because of your attachment to receiving offerings, being respected and venerated as a teacher, and gaining profit in general.

2. Not giving material aid or teaching the Dharma to those who are pained with suffering and without a protector because of your being under the influence of miserliness and wanting to amass knowledge for yourself alone.

3. Not listening to someone who has previously offended you but who declares his offense and begs forgiveness, and holding a grudge against him.

4. Condemning the teachings of the Buddha and teaching distorted views.

5. Taking offerings to the Three Jewels of Refuge for yourself by such means as stealth, robbery or devious schemes.

6. Despising the Tripitaka and saying these texts are not the teaching of the Buddha.

7. Evicting monks from a monastery or casting them out of the Sangha even if they have broken their vows, because of not forgiving them.

8. Committing any of the five heinous crimes of killing your mother, your father, an Arhat, drawing blood intentionally from a Buddha or causing a division in the Sangha by supporting and spreading sectarian views.

9. Holding views contrary to the teachings of the Buddha such as sectarianism, disbelief in the Three Jewels of Refuge, the law of cause and effect, and so forth.

10. Completely destroying any place by means of fire, bombs, pollution and black magic.

11. Teaching Sunyata to those who are not ready to understand it.

12. Turning people away from working for the full enlightenment of Buddhahood and encouraging them to work merely for their own liberation from suffering.

13. Encouraging people to abandon their vowed rules of moral conduct.

14. Causing others to hold the distorted views you might hold about the Hinayana teachings, as well as belittling the Hinayana teachings and saying that their practice does not lead to Nirvana.

15. Practising, supporting or teaching the Dharma for financial profit and fame while saying your motives are pure and that others are pursuing Dharma for such base aims.

16. Telling others, even though you may have very little or no understanding of Sunyata, that if they obtain as profound an understanding as you have, that then they will become as great and as highly realized as you are.

17. Taking gifts from others and encouraging others to give you things originally intended as offerings to the Three Jewels of Refuge.

18. Taking anything away from those monks who are practicing meditation and giving it to those who are merely reciting texts.

     ~ from The Complete Six-Session Guru-Yoga Primer,
      courtesy K. McD.

Some related links:


bodhichitta: An attitude of compassion towards other beings that can be aroused through contemplation and and meditation.

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