In the Zen tradition (which is the Mahayana tradition I’m most familiar with), the 4 Bodhisattva Vows are:
Countless are sentient beings, I vow to liberate them all.
Endless are afflictions, I vow to discontinue them all.
Measureless are the Dharmas, I vow to learn them all.
Supreme is the Buddha Way, I vow to attain it in full.
For me, the last 3 vows are relatively easy. I mean, learning all the Dharmas, for example, that sounds like getting 2 or 3 PhDs, that’s doable in my lifetime. But the first vow was very tough. The first vow implies the aspiration to be the last one out of Samsara. It means choosing to purposely stay in the realm of endless suffering until the last sentient being is liberated. It’s like is being the first person to know how to get out of a large burning building, but choosing to be the last person to get out so you can help everybody else out first. For a long time, I didn’t feel I was remotely up to the task.
What annoyed me even more was that other Buddhists seem to have no difficulty taking the Bodhisattva Vows at all. I know of weekly ceremonies at temples where large numbers of people recite the vows once a week without batting an eyelid. Why is it so easy for them and so hard for me? I can think of 2 possible explanations. The first explanation is that I’m a useless coward and lousy Buddhist. The second explanation is, unlike those who recite them as a ceremonial ritual, I was actually serious about fulfilling those vows, in my lifetime if possible. My best guess is that both explanations are correct.
The event that helped me get over that hump occurred in May 2006. My friend, Larry Brilliant, had just recently joined Google as the Executive Director of Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm. One of Larry’s first tasks was to figure out the strategic directions for Google.org. As part of that effort, he hosted an “offsite meeting” with some leaders of the philanthropic world he knew well, and perhaps because I was so good-looking, Larry invited me to come along too.
That offsite meeting was a fascinating experience for me. I spent 2 days in the presence of highly inspiring people like Larry Brilliant and Jane Wales, people who gave their adult lives to saving the world, listening to them explain and strategize about solving some of the biggest problems in the world like global poverty and climate change. Whoa.
That experience was deeply inspiring for me in 2 ways. First, it was the experiential realization that these people are around us. That, yes, there are people who dedicate their lives to humanity, people of greatness who are also ordinary at the same time. They are not just folks you read about occasionally on Time Magazine, they are real people with real lives, and they are here, just doing their best like everybody else, trying to save the world in their own quiet ways. Second, I realized how happy they are. Saving the world is a career choice fraught with stress, frustration and failure, but it’s also full of meaning, purpose and positive engagement. It’s a life full of love. It turns out that saving the world is not necessarily miserable, saving the world can be fun (which is the topic of another blog post, stay tuned).
At the end of the 2 days, my mind was in a different state. My mind was now full of inspiration and possibility.
To end the 2-day meeting, Larry invited all of us to sit in a circle and talk about how we felt. When it was my turn to speak, I said,
“Last person out of Samsara, please turn off the lights. And, let that be me”.
And then, it occurred to me, I finally took the first Bodhisattva Vow. Effortlessly, in light humor, and in full readiness to fulfill it.