This universal vow is the vow which the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara made, acting as representative of all Bodhisattvas. We are told of this in chapter 7 of the Lotus Sutra. The term Bodhisattva means “Enlightened Being”. Avalokiteshvara (Sanskrit) is better known to us as Kanzeon, Kannon, or Kwannon in Japanese, or also as Kuan Yin in Chinese. This being is known as the Bodhisattva of compassion. He hears the sound of the world, that is to say the sighs of the beings that are suffering, and he reacts to them. In the course of the Buddhist history this figure has changed it’s gender a few times; was temporarily depicted as woman and then again as man, or without explicit gender features. It is not a historical being that once really lived.
With this vow he made, Avalokiteshvara committed himself on not entering Nirvana, on renouncing the final liberation of reincarnations, as well as reaching Buddhahood until all sentient beings are led to liberation from suffering. This fundamental attitude is the great ideal in the Mahayana Buddhisme, to which also our Zen school belongs. By way of contrast the Hinayana Buddhisme, also called Theravada Buddhisme, emphasizes the individual liberation, the personal entering of Nirvana.
Each time when we start Zazen at our Dojo we recite the Heart Sutra, the Great Light Dharani, and at the end the Four Great Vows:
However innumerable all beings are, we vow to save them all
However inexhaustible delusions are, we vow to extinguish them all
However immeasurable Dharma teachings are, we vow to master them all
However endless the Buddha’s way is, we vow to follow it
These Four Great Vows are in their meaning identical with Avalokiteshvara’s vow. They are adapted to the feeling of us practicing humans to be still far away of Buddhahood. Out of this feeling, and being honest, it seems to us completely impossible to fulfill these vows. Nevertheless we repeat them over and over again. They are none other than the complete expression of our intrinsic Buddhanature. Whenever we recite these vows wholeheartedly, and decide to try to fulfill them as best as we can, at this moment we are none other than Buddha. To live this attitude, no matter what happens, without if, or when, means to be liberated from suffering, to be liberated from separation. This attitude lets us dissolve into the whole, lets us overcome the narrow and limited views of the individual and egoistic being. Exactly in this lies the immeasurable depth of these vows which we recite again and again. May our compassion extend over the whole universe and become deep as the ocean.