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The Ethics of the Bodhisattva Vow

We’ve been having discussions in the Order about what defines Buddhist ethics. Unlike many other religions Buddhism doesn’t have a set of commandments - a set of “thou shalt not’s”. While there are the Precepts - 5, 8 or 10 depending on your lineage and level of commitment - they are things that we as Buddhists strive to do; but they do not define “sins” that we must avoid or fall out of favor with a god. There is, of course, also the Eightfold Path as a way to cease life’s suffering; but again the steps on the Path are not really moral imperatives. So is there a statement of morals that can guide us on the Buddha Way? I’d like to propose - at least for those in the Mahayana lineage - the Bodhisattva vow.

Even though we say the vow in most of our communal practices do we ever take the time to think about what it’s really telling us? For those of you not familiar with the vow we translate it like this in Pragmatic Buddhism:

However innumerable all beings are, I vow to strive for their liberation.

However inexhaustible my delusions are, I vow to strive for their extinguishment.

However immeasurable the Dharma teachings are, I vow to strive for their mastery.

However endless the Buddha's Way is, I vow to strive to follow it always.

Why do I say this is a moral guide? Isn’t it just another statement like the Precepts? First we have to look at what we mean by morals and ethics.

Both words refer to standards of behavior by which humans guide their lives. Ethics is used more in reference to the standards or theories behind the behaviors while morals refer to the actual sets of behaviors themselves. In both words there is an unspoken additional phrase - “toward other people”. So ethics should really be said to be the standards and principles that govern people’s relationship with other people; and morals would be the habits of behavior that people apply to their dealing with other people. This is where the Eightfold Path and even the Precepts fail as ethical principles for Buddhists - they’re mainly about what do I do myself to bring dukkha to an end for myself. The Bodhisattva ideal and the vow that defines it in the Mahayana lineage is the application of the Buddha’s teaching toward other beings. It is the ethic of the practicing Buddhist.

However innumerable all beings are, I vow to strive for their liberation.” Their liberation from what? From dukkha. This first line removes us from our own head, from our concern for our own enlightenment, and reminds us that our first duty is to strive for the liberation of all beings from dukkha. Our first consideration in dealing with others is whether our actions will assist their liberation or hinder it. This isn’t just passive philosophizing either, this is active striving. We are vowing to actively work toward the liberation of all being from dukkha. We are vowing to direct our habits of behavior toward the cessation of dukkha for all beings. This first line of the vow directs that all of Mahayana ethics is directed toward this goal.

However inexhaustible my delusions are, I vow to strive for their extinguishment.” In the second line we’re pointed toward our method for working toward the cessation of dukkha for all beings; we must first extinguish our own delusions. What delusions? The delusion that we stand as an eternal and unconnected “self”. The delusion that we came into being through some process other than the causal actions that preceded who we currently are; that we will remain unchanged and inviolate. The delusion that there is anything we can possess without the passing away of anicca. The delusion that we are not connected to other beings and that our actions don’t themselves give rise to effects through dependent origination; and the delusion that these effects are not themselves conditioned by our actions and intentions giving rise to karmic effects on ourselves. These delusions affect not only our own affliction by dukkha but the ways in which we relate to others and to our environment. As we move toward their extinguishment we will open ourselves to acting with compassion and altruism toward others - not because it is commanded by an external force but because these will be the natural reactions of connected beings toward each other.

However immeasurable the Dharma teachings are, I vow to strive for their mastery.” This is not an academic exercise, this is a living mastery. The Dharma teachings we strive to master do not refer to passages of scripture but to the true teachings behind the written words - the cessation of dukkha. This is the full and complete Dharma teaching - that there is dukkha being experienced by all people, that this dukkha is caused by our delusional grasping, that this dukkha can be brought to an end and that the ending of dukkha is brought about by following the Eightfold Path. This third line not only brings us back to the original turning of the Dharma Wheel by the Buddha’s proclamation of the Four Ennobling Realities, but brings us back to the active practice of the Dharma in our lives and in our interactions with all other beings.

However endless the Buddha’s Way is, I vow to strive to follow it always.” What is the Buddha’s way? It is not the search for personal liberation. Siddhartha was not motivated to seek Awakening to relieve his personal dukkha but out of compassion for his family, his wife, his young son. He left them behind so that he could find a way to free them from the suffering he saw in the world, and when he achieved his Awakening he stayed to teach the Way to others - including the son he had left behind. This is how we finish our vow, by saying that we are not focused on ourselves but that like the Buddha we will teach, we will be examples, we will live the Dharma in every action of our lives. We will take up the ethic of compassion and altruism and make them our morals.

Thinking on the Bodhisattva Vow we see our ethic. Saying it we make our commitment to our moral guide. Compassion; interconnection; interdependence; dependent arising; Dukkha, Anicca and Anatta; Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; all find their expression in the Vow. The Four Ennobling Realities and the Eightfold Path are both brought to life by its active expression. Without the Vow the Precepts have no meaning. Without the Vow the Great Vows we take as monks have no goal. Without the Vow karma is a bitch, not a natural response to our actions. Without the Vow our ethics become entirely situational without any guiding principle behind them and we drift afloat on the flood without the raft of the Dharma to carry us to the other side.

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