All those who study and cultivate the Mahayana Buddhism, practice and uphold the bodhisattva way will certainly know the four great vows that a bodhisattva would make. These 4 great vows are:
I vow to take across numberless living beings;
I vow to cut off endless affliction;
I vow to study the countless dharma doors;
I vow to realize the supreme Buddha Way.
1) I vow to take across numberless living beings
The 84,000 dharma doors mentioned in the Buddha Dharma are made available for the purpose of saving and taking across the 84,000 kinds of living beings. In reality, in the mind of any common person there exist these 84,000 kinds of living beings. Why is it so? This is because these 84,000 kinds of living beings dwell within one’s consciousness, constantly revolving around the 6 paths of rebirth. Mindfully contemplate inside, you would discover this. It follows the principle of everything is due to the mind. Take for example, relaxation and enjoying life makes you conscious of the state of joy, it is the heaven. You are in the heaven. At the time you are fighting with another person, your consciousness dwell in the realm of asura. You are an asura yourself. When your mind is debating good and evil, happiness and suffering, you dwell within the human realm. In another moment, your stupid action brings your consciousness into animal realm. Endless greed brings one’s consciousness into the realm of the hungry ghost. Worry, sadness, suffering, affliction, sickness, and pain takes one into the state of hell. The bottom line is that your consciousness constantly revolves within the 6 paths of rebirth. Thus the 84,000 kinds of living beings are hidden within one’s mind. To vow to take across numberless living being in reality is to take your self across. Thus, when one cultivates the dharma door of the Guan Yin Bodhisattva, one contemplates within, not searching outside.
To speak the truth, to practice the bodhisattva way, one has to start with the self in taking across the living beings within, in order to take across living beings outside. Think about this, how did we inspire to study and cultivate the Buddha Dharma? Isn’t it because the high sanghas and the great virtuous ones, who were continuing the wisdom life of the Buddha, set themselves as our teachers, that inspire us to cultivate diligently the precepts, samadi and wisdom, in order to extinguish greed, anger and delusion? When we actually are doing it, we also inspire our relatives, friends and those with affinity to bring forth their mind to study and cultivate. This is the course of both taking yourself and others across.
During our daily evening Meng Shan ceremony and during the ceremony to liberate life, we would recite these four great vows. We have to understand that we are not just reciting it for the living beings outside; it is for ours ears to listen as well. It is for the purpose that we are constantly making these vows. This is called as doing by example. If one does not have the thought of taking the living beings across from within, and by instructing the living beings outside to take across, the living beings outside will not understand our recitation. This is because we are confused ourselves; the living beings listening to us will be confused also.
Practicing and holding the 5 precepts and 10 categories of good deeds is a good start in practicing the 4 great vows. I believe if one could do well according to the 6 principles taught by Venerable Master, one will be able to gradually take across the 6 rebirth paths living beings within, one by one. Step by step, one would move away from sufferings and in the direction to attain bliss, on the way to end birth and death.
What does it mean to say that you are not taking across the living beings within yourself? Take several situations for examples, a teacher gets mad when the students were not listening to his/her instruction. A parent gets mad seeing his/her child didn’t do his/her homework and failed the test. You started to cry when you lost 100 dollars. When you had a bad dream about demons and ghosts, you were afraid to go to sleep again. When your child plays a bad joke on you, you chase after him to beat him up. When a lay person has different opinion from a sangha member, they start to argue and fight about it. From the little things happening in daily life, it is easy to see a person’s cultivation and skills in taking across all living beings from within.
2) I vow to cut off endless affliction
With the 84,000 living beings dwelling in the mind, there arise 84,000 afflictions. One affliction gives rise to a mark of a living being. One kind of living being generates one kind of affliction. Thus, to cut off afflictions is no different from to take the living beings across. To take a living being across is just to cut off an affliction.
Affliction has no form. It is hidden in the mind. You are not aware of it and others cannot see it. When an affliction disturbs your mind, your mind becomes impatient, and it will then transform into action. When the afflicted mind turns into action, it expresses into all kinds of temper. It is translated into the various forms of greed, anger and stupidity such as going after desire, or seeking sensual pleasure, or being jealous and obstructs others, or setting a plot to conspire, or doing the most evil deeds to hurt people. All the actions related to love and hate, good and evil, suffering and joy, have direct connection with affliction.
A person may get sick because of the imbalance of the 4 elements of the body; solidity, fluidity, energy, and air. Keeping affliction in the mind can also poison the body and causes all kinds of weird sicknesses. That is why greed, anger and delusion are named as the three poisons that can harm the body and mind. Releasing them will poison others.
Greed, anger and delusion are the roots of ignorance and affliction. They have a very complex connection with cause and effect in giving rise to affliction. There is no beginning and no end to it. The maneuver of an afflicted mind can confuse a cultivator, making a cultivator unable to see through delusion, unable to put away attachment, and might even causes a cultivator to commit more bad karma.
If a person has all kind hobbies, many things to seek after, wealth, forms, fame, food, sleep, and all kinds of attachments, it would be impossible to cut off affliction. To cut off affliction one has to cut off the endless karma. To face and endure suffering could end suffering. It is a way to cut off affliction. To be contented and have few desire, to stop evil and to prevent mistake, to do no evil but do only good deeds, all these will keep affliction away at a distance. When one opens his/her wisdom, and is able to see through delusion and cut off all attachments, one would be able to cut off affliction. This is an inspiration for everyone.
3) I vow to study the countless dharma doors
The traditional Chinese Medicine apply the principle of mutual support or mutual conflict of 5 elements, metal, wood, water, fire, and earth, and the principle of harmony of yin and yang to treat each patient accordingly. From the perspective of Buddha Dharma, 84,000 dharma doors are set to take across 84,000 kinds of living beings. Each kind of living being has its relative dharma door. The purpose of studying the countless dharma doors is to be resourceful in providing the treatment for the countless living beings.
In the practice of medicine, it is possible to use a single remedy to treat many different diseases. It is also possible to use multiple remedies to treat a single disease. There is similarity in the Buddha Dharma as well. A talented doctor understands thoroughly the working of all the medicine, the history of all diseases, the symptoms, and the diagnosis. Thus the talented doctor is able to help every patient to return to good health. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are like the talented doctors. They may use the method of a single remedy or multiple remedies as the dharma doors to save and take across 84,000 living beings, so that living beings would leave suffering; attain bliss, and end birth and death. As a student of the Buddha, bodhisattva, and virtuous sanghas, one has to be sincere and humble to learn if one sincerely wishes to take across the myriad living beings dwelling within his mind.
But the virtuous ones also taught us that to study countless dharma doors; one does not have to be greedy for more. One does not have to apply the limited life span in order to proceed to the countless extent. It is more important to deeply enter into a single door. Since all the dharma doors are inter-connected, mastering a single dharma door will connect to all the other doors. When the intrinsic boundless wisdom within the self is enlightened, affliction will be cut off one by one, and the myriad living beings will be taken across.
4) I vow to realize the supreme Buddha Way
Venerable Master taught that if your purpose of study and cultivates Buddha Dharma, your intention of reciting Sutras and Mantras are for the greed of accumulation of wealth and blessing, it wouldn’t bring you any ultimate goodness. When your wealth and blessing are exhausted, and if you then fall into the hell, it would be too late to feel regret. The meaningful aim should be ending birth and death, leave suffering and attain bliss, and then come back in a compassion journey to save and take across living beings. Venerable Master set us the example by making 18 great vows; including practicing and upholding the bodhisattva way and the 4 great vows. He vowed to take across all living beings with affinity. Even if there is one who has not become a Buddha, he would not become a Buddha himself.
The Buddha Way is supreme among all the 4 liberated ways. It is attained when the three enlightenments are perfected and the myriad virtues accomplished. The Buddhas of the ten directions and three periods of time attain their Buddhahood by practice and accomplish the 4 great vows of bodhisattva's ideal.
In conclusion, Venerable Master, together with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas taught us that in holding and practicing the 4 great vows, one has to start with himself or herself tirelessly. Do not avoid doing good deed because it is small. Do not commit any evil even it is tiny. Lay person or sangha member, when only you apply yourself and set good example, you will then able to take yourself and the myriad living beings across. You wouldn’t know how many living beings having affinity with you are waiting and will follow your good example. Would you inspire yourself?