The Four Universal Vows

Deep Roots

Photo: © iStockphoto / Piskunov.

The purpose of Buddhism is to enable each person to attain Buddhahood. In Mahayana Buddhism, the first step in practice aimed at developing this state of life is making a vow or pledge as a bodhisattva. Bodhisattva is the term for one who strives for enlightenment through altruistic practice.

There are “four universal vows” made by a bodhisattva upon first aspiring for enlightenment. They are called universal because they set forth the essential spirit of practice for all Buddhists. They are the vows to: 1) save innumerable living beings; 2) eradicate countless earthly desires; 3) master immeasurable Buddhist teachings; and 4) attain supreme enlightenment.

The first vow to save all people from suffering represents “practice for others.” The second vow, to not be swayed from Buddhist practice by negative influences, such as our desires, attachments and the suffering they cause, and the third vow, to study and apply Buddhist principles to our lives, represent “practice for oneself.” The fourth vow means demonstrating through our actions the highest form of awakening—Buddhahood, the ultimate purpose of our Buddhist practice.

Nichiren Daishonin clarifies that the first vow to save all living beings is most essential and that to fulfill this vow, one strives to fulfill the other three, stating: “All bodhisattvas take the four universal vows. And if they do not fulfill the first of those four vows, which says: ‘Living beings are numberless: I vow to save them,’ then they can hardly claim to have fulfilled the fourth vow, which says: ‘Enlightenment is supreme: I vow to attain it’ ” (“Persons of the Two Vehicles and Bodhisattvas,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 175).

Because of his own vow to spread the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren was never swayed, no matter what storms of obstacles assailed him. He declares: “I will be the pillar of Japan. I will be the eyes of Japan. I will be the great ship of Japan. This is my vow, and I will never forsake it” (“The Opening of the Eyes,” WND-1, 280–81).

SGI President Ikeda further explains: “Buddhahood manifests in the lives of people of strong faith . . . Our vow to work for kosen-rufu serves as a fundamental source of strength, giving us the courage to remain undaunted by even the greatest hardships and trials” (Lectures on “The Opening of the Eyes,” p. 129).

Our prayer and action infused with a great vow for kosen-rufu fully encompasses the four universal vows. Through our own powerful vow to share this Buddhism with others, we can bring forth the limitless power of Buddhahood and transform all our struggles into sources of absolute victory.


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