Vow to Benefit Mankind

Nicholas Weeks – USA

Before we can “live to benefit mankind” 1  we must first resolve or vow to do so. As W.Q. Judge wrote:

“The good man who at last becomes even a sage, had at one time in his many lives to arouse the desire for the company of holy men and to keep his desire for progress alive in order to continue on his way. Even a Buddha or a Jesus had first to make a vow, which is a desire, in some life, that he would save the world or some part of it, and to persevere with the desire alive in his heart through countless lives.” 2

The Buddha praised the supreme Power of Vows by saying that for realizing Bodhisattva qualities, vows are more powerful than wisdom, patience or good actions. The Avatamsaka Sutra chapter 39, states: “The lamp of bodhi mind requires great compassion as its oil, great vows as its wick, and great wisdom as its flame.”

Yet, the altruistic vow or purpose or intention of bodhisattvas is not confined to Buddhism. Spiritually helpful vows, like those of the Esoteric School may be limited to one or just a few lifetimes, and focused only on human beings, but such vows are still inspired by bodhicitta – a mind (citta) radiant (bodhi) with compassion, wisdom and power.

For example, HPB writes that Adi-Buddha or Maha-Vishnu is the seed of all Buddhas & Avatars. Further, she writes this bija or seed “is the culmination of the totality of spiritual wisdom in the Universe... and has as worshippers all philosophical minds. In this esoteric sense the Lord Buddha was an incarnation of Mahâ-Vishnu.” 3

Kapila, the founder of the ancient Sankhya tradition, said that the “supreme purpose of Life is the ending of all sorrow & pain.” 4

In the Platonic tradition Socrates says that “The task of Founders is to make sure those newly free of the cave's darkness, do not linger selfishly in the Light, but instead return to the cave and its prisoners and help them.” 5

Proclus wrote: “To perfect the inferior and provide for the lesser is the nature of souls, since their descent was caused by care for mortals.” 6

The Pythagorean tradition takes a vow or oath to always support & respect the divine Law, which is the guardian of the central, eternal flame. Hierocles, commenting on the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, says this vow is “the keeper of the divine law throughout the whole world-order.” 7

Our Theosophical movement has this to say about divine Law.

“Compassion is no attribute. It is the LAW of LAWS - eternal Harmony, … the light of everlasting Right and fitness of all things, the law of love eternal.”  8

Now some words from Mr. Judge on the vow or pledge:

“Oh, what a groan Nature gives to see the heavy Karma which man has piled upon himself and all the creatures of the three worlds! That deep sigh pierces through my heart. How can the load be lifted? Am I to stand for myself, while the few strong hands of Blessed Masters and Their friends hold back the awful cloud? Such a vow I registered ages ago to help them, and I must.” 9

“Changes may occur in the instrument during one life so as to make it appropriate for a new class of Karma, and this may take place through intensity of thought and the power of a vow.” 10

More from Mr. Judge on the vow:

“Like you, I merely want to work. I seek no powers; nothing. I have made in my heart the martyr’s vow. I am devoted as far as my lights in each life will permit, to service in the altruist army. Just now I only find the Theosophical Society to work in here. Next time, some other way - or the same. I am ready 'to step out of the sunshine into the shade so as to make room for others,' and I seek no Nirvana.” 11

“The power of these meditations [on Aum, the Self, Ātman, Masters, the Lodge, Unity,] is not always to be seen fully in one life. One life is too short for the entire work, but these thoughts, vows, and practices surely affect the whole nature and last through the centuries. They bring us further and further along the road to the final perfection of this cycle and draw us to the time when we will have the power.” 12

Hinayana Buddhism is thought to have no bodhisattva path, or at least be indifferent to it. That is not so. Here is an excerpt from Ledi Sayadaw's [1846-1923] book on the bodhisatta path; the Burmese Theravadin sage writes:

“What is meant by 'the Noblest Aspiration'? It is the verbal and mental undertaking that the bodhisatta had made at some point of time aeons before taking up the perfections. It was made in these terms:

'What use is there to get to “the yonder shore” of nibbāna alone? I will attain to Supreme Knowledge and then convey men and devas to the yonder shore.'

That was the pledge that sent the ten thousand universes reeling and echoing in applause. That was the bodhisatta’s earnest wish. For he intensely aspired to Supreme Self-Enlightenment thus:

'Knowing the Truth, I will let others know it. Freeing myself from the world, I will free others. Having crossed over, I will enable others to cross.' This fervent and most daring aspiration is called 'the Noblest Aspiration.' ” 13

The Mahayana tradition tells us which kind of motives will condition a successful treading of the Bodhi path to full Buddhahood - the Avatamsaka Sutra says:

“Bodhisattvas bring forth [bodhicitta] or the Resolve for Bodhi, for the very first time by [1] seeing the Buddha, or hearing him speak or [2] caring for all living beings who undergo intense suffering, or [3] hearing the Tathagata’s vast, sublime Dharma.”

They then produce the thought for Bodhi and seek all wisdom.

The Bodhisattva's next step is to prepare the foundation by developing ten attitudes toward all living beings: altruism; compassion; wish to give happiness; wish to give security; pity; acceptance; protecting; identification with them; acting as their teacher; and being their guiding master.” 14

Bodhisattva Nagarjuna agrees with the sutra that there are only three motivations that will guarantee the eventual reaching of full Buddhahood. There are four other possible, but not certain, major motivations, according to Nagarjuna.

“When beings initially generate the resolve to realize bodhi, it may find its origin in a total of seven conditions associated with generating the resolve to gain anuttarasamyak-sambodhi; [meaning the unsurpassed, right, and universal enlightenment]

What then are those seven?:

1 The Tathāgatas may influence one to generate the resolve to realize bodhi.
2 Observing that the Buddhadharma is on the verge of destruction, one generates the resolve in order to guard and protect it. [As number 3 of the sutra stated.]
3 When in the midst of beings, one feels compassion for them and therefore initiates the resolve. [As number 2 of the sutra stated.]

The next four resolutions may, or more likely may not, carry us to full Buddhahood:
4 One may have a bodhisattva instruct one in generation of the resolve to realize bodhi.
5 One may observe the conduct of a bodhisattva and, in emulating him, one may generate the resolve.
6 In the aftermath of an act of giving, one may generate the resolve to realize bodhi based on that.
7 On seeing the characteristic signs of a buddha’s body, one may feel delight and then proceed to generate the resolve.

Thus it may be on account of seven causes and conditions that one generates the resolve to realize bodhi.

Among the seven sorts of generation of resolve,
Where the Buddha has instructed one to generate resolve,
Where one generates resolve in order to protect the Dharma,
And where one generates resolve on account of pity,
Those possessed of the three motivations of this sort, will definitely be ones who find success in this. As for the other four types of motivation, it is not definite that they will be successful in every case.” 15

Vasubandhu Bodhisattva's approach to developing bodhicitta is outlined as

“First, the exhortation to delight in cultivating and accumulating [the supports for realization of] the unsurpassed bodhi. By resort to such encouragement, one is able to influence other beings:
2 To generate profound and vast resolve;
3 To establish vows to carry out the most definite form of adornment [with virtues and powers.]

[The next six focus on the paramitas.]

4 To relinquish lives and wealth in subduing greed;
5 To cultivate moral precepts, teaching and leading forth those transgressing against the prohibitions;
6 To practice ultimate patience, by which they control and subdue the hindrance of hatred;
7 To generate heroic vigor, through which they establish and stabilize beings on the Path;
8 To accumulate dhyāna samadhis, for the sake of knowing the minds of the many varieties of beings;
9 To cultivate wisdom, destroying and eliminating ignorance;
10 To enter the gateway of harmonizing with reality, thus abandoning all forms of attachment;
11 To propagate and explain the extremely profound practices of emptiness and signlessness;
12 And to proclaim praises of the associated merit, thus preventing the lineage of the Buddhas from being cut off.”

How does the bodhisattva generate number two on the list – the profound & vast bodhi resolve? By relying on ten causes and conditions one cultivates and accumulates the basis for realizing bodhi.

[Those causal supports are present] in a case where a bodhisattva:

1 Draws close to a good spiritual guide;
2 Makes offerings to the Buddhas;
3 Cultivates and accumulates roots of goodness;
4 Resolves to seek the supreme Dharma;
5 Maintains constant pliancy and harmoniousness of mind;
6 On encountering suffering, remains able to endure it;
7 Possesses pure and abundant kindness and compassion;
8 Maintains a profound mind dedicated to maintaining equal regard for all;
9 Possesses faith and happiness in the Great Vehicle; and
10 Seeks to gain the wisdom of the Buddha.

If a person is able to embody ten dharmas such as these, he will then become able to generate the mind resolved on realizing anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.

There are 4 additional conditions which may be involved in generating the resolve to cultivate and accumulate the bases for realization of the supreme bodhi.

1st, it may be based on contemplation of all buddhas that one generates the bodhi resolve.
2nd, it may be based on contemplation of the faults and perilous aspects of the
physical body.
3rd, it may be that it is based on seeking the most supreme abilities [of Buddhahood].
4th, it may be that it is based on kindness and pity for beings that one generates the bodhi resolve.

How does the bodhisattva go about setting out towards bodhi? Through which karmic practices does one bring about the complete realization of bodhi? The bodhisattva who has generated the resolve [to gain bodhi] and who abides on 'the ground of dry intellectual wisdom' should first solidly set forth right vows, through which he will attract all of the countless beings. [He first proclaims the basic vow], 'I seek to realize the unsurpassed bodhi and to rescue and liberate everyone without exception so that every one of them is caused to reach all the way to the nirvāna.' ”

Vasubandhu then gives examples of great personal vows that each bodhisattva should make. These great vows extend everywhere to all realms of beings and subsume all vows as numerous as the Ganges’ sands. Following these personal vows is this pledge:

“If beings were to come to an end, then and only then would my vows come to an end. However, beings are truly endless in number. Therefore these great vows of mine shall also never come to an end.”

The six pāramitās are causes of Bodhi because:
Giving serves as a cause of bodhi, since it draws in all beings.
Upholding the moral precepts is a cause of bodhi, for it leads to the perfection of the many sorts of goodness and brings about the fulfillment of one’s original vows.
Patience serves as a cause of bodhi, inasmuch as it brings about perfection of the major marks and minor characteristics of Buddhas & Bodhisattvas.
Vigor is a cause of bodhi, since it brings about growth of the practice of goodness and brings about the diligent teaching and transforming of all beings.
Dhyāna absorption is a cause of bodhi, seeing that by resorting to it, the bodhisattva skillfully trains and disciplines himself, while also becoming able to perceive all the mental actions of beings. Wisdom is a cause of bodhi because, by resorting to it, one becomes able to perfectly know the nature and characteristics of all dharmas.

To sum up the essentials, the six pāramitās constitute the correct causes for the realization of bodhi. The four immeasurable minds, the thirty-seven wings of enlightenment, and all of the myriad good practices, work cooperatively in assisting its perfect realization.

If the bodhisattva cultivates and accumulates [skill in the practice of] the six pāramitās, as befits the practices he has taken up, he gradually succeeds in drawing near to anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.

Vasubandhu also suggests establishing six vows or resolutions supporting each of the perfections:

“In what manner does one go about establishing vows? [One invokes one’s resolve as follows – thinking]:

If some person comes making all sorts of demands, I shall then give to him whatever I possess, even to the point that I will refrain from generating a single thought influenced by miserliness. Were I to generate a selfish thought in reaction to this circumstance even for a moment, and yet still seek a pure karmic reward from such giving, I would then be cheating all of the many buddhas throughout the worlds and would thereby be ensuring that I shall definitely not be able to realize anuttarasamyak- sambodhi in the future.

In upholding the moral precepts, I make pure-minded vows to remain free of deviation or regret, even where adherence to the precepts might cause my death.

In instances where I may be cultivating patience, even where I might be attacked, injured, or even sliced apart, I shall constantly generate lovingly-kind vows free of any sort of interference by hatefulness.

In instances where I cultivate vigor, even where I might encounter circumstances involving cold, heat, government officials, bandits, floods, fires, lions, tigers, wolves, drought, or famine, I must nonetheless solidify and strengthen my resolve so that there is no retreat or sinking away of vows.

In instances where I cultivate dhyāna absorption, even where I am disturbed by external circumstances threatening to make it impossible to focus the mind, it is essential to bind the mind to the objective, vowing to refrain from bringing forth, even briefly, any sort of distracted thought which is contrary to Dharma.

In instances where I cultivate the accumulation of wisdom, I contemplate all dharmas in accordance with their true nature, continuing to uphold and maintain this contemplation even in the midst of that which is good, or not good; that which is conditioned, or unconditioned; that which is in samsara, or that which is identical to nirvāna. I will never bring forth any dualistic views in any of those circumstances.

In instances where my mind might fall prey to the hindrances of regret or anger, were I to retreat and sink into such distracted thought that, even for the duration of a finger snap, I brought forth duality-based views through which I might [instead] seek pure karmic rewards arising from the paramitas, I would thereby cheat all of the numberless buddhas throughout the surrounding realms and would thereby definitely fail to realize anuttara-samyak-sambodhi in the future.” 16

Finally, let us ponder on what a Tang dynasty sage, Peixiu, says about vows, the most important of the Three Great Minds of Compassion, Wisdom and Vows.

“Since one aspires to engage in liberating beings on a vast scale, one consequently lets expansively great compassion and wisdom flourish. However, even though the mind is fundamentally pure, it has nonetheless long been obscured by one’s toiling on amid the filth of the sense objects. One’s habitual propensities, by their very nature, are difficult to suddenly melt away. A vessel [for the retention] of Dharma is such that one must refine the mind through polishing and tempering.

One knows there is the prospect of many rebirths in cyclic existence while not encountering the Buddha’s teachings about the Bodhisattva Path. Consequently, he generates great vows that keep his noble purpose fresh in mind during such lifetimes. He also sets about perfecting the cultivation of the myriad practices. These practices [such as the paramitas] and the vows mutually aid each other in just the same way as do [the two] wings [of a bird]. Thus it is that one progresses along, does not retreat, and proceeds directly on through to the realization of bodhi. This is precisely what is intended by the mind established in great vows.

Now, among these three types of mind, it is the one committed to great vows which is primary. This is because it constantly supports the compassion and wisdom through which one liberates the many beings. Therefore, along with the initial generation of the [bodhi] resolve, one must necessarily bring forth Bodhisattva vows.

In the Avatamsaka Sutra’s Conduct and Vows of Samantabhadra chapter [40], it states, 'When a person approaches the end of life, in that very last instant, all of one’s faculties scatter into ruination. All of one’s power completely recedes and is lost....'

It is only your bodhicitta vows which do not forsake one and depart. They always continue to lead one straight on through, until one reaches bodhi. Therefore you must not generate doubts about making such vows like the ten of Samantabhadra or these five traditional ones.

First, beings are boundlessly many. I vow to liberate them all.
Second, merit and wisdom are limitless. I vow to marshal them.
Third, the Dharma of the Buddha is infinite. I vow to master it.
Fourth, the Tathāgatas are countless. I vow to serve them.
Fifth, I vow to realize the unsurpassed, right enlightenment.

One maintains these five vows, implementing them in one’s mind in thought after thought such that there is no interval in which they are not active. This constitutes complete implementation of the great mind of bodhi. This is what constitutes the upholding of the precepts of the bodhi mind. These Three Vast Minds and the Five Vows are layered one upon the other in a way whereby they support each other.

From one buddha to the next, the path is the same. It does not go beyond this. It is precisely this which constitutes perfect generation of the anuttara samyaksambodhi mind.” 17

Many other sutras & shastras go into much more detail on the vowed actions of the Mahayana path. Yet this glimpse of the bodhicitta realm will give one the basis for further contemplation of the bodhisattva life.

Voice of the Silence - Two Paths
Ocean of Theosophy, 46, Theosophy Company
Collected Writings 14:371
Samkhya Sutra v. 1
Republic 519d; Cf. Plato: Complete Works, 1136-37, ed. John M. Cooper
Commentary on the First Alcibiades, 82, Prometheus Trust
Hierocles of Alexandria, 189, Oxford U. Press.
Voice of the Silence
Letters That Have Helped Me, 2, Theosophy Company
10 Echoes of the Orient 1:335 - “Aphorisms on Karma”
11 Letters That Have Helped Me, 164-65, Theosophy Company
12 Echoes of the Orient 3:455
13 A Manual of the Excellent Man, 14
14 Avatamsaka ch. 15:14-17, Buddhist Text Translation Society
15 Avatamsaka ch. 15:14-17, Buddhist Text Translation Society
16 Vasubandhu’s Treatise on The Bodhisattva Vow, 17-49, Kalavinka Press
17 On Generating the Resolve to Become a Buddha, 97-99, Kalavinka Press



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