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August 26, 2010


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Lauren Crane

I'm curious to know if the original Japanese/Chinese/Pali reads "we" or "I". There seems to be a significant difference in the vow depending on which it is as it relates to personal responsibility.

Do you know, historically, when the vow entered the Budhist tradition? I assume it is just part of Soto given the vehicle size.


Great question!


When I practice with "strong back, soft front," I find myself with "crumbling back, collapsed front." We are indeed responsible for all beings. And we are mostly responsible for this "very being, Buddha."

Thank you for being Buddha!

Barry Briggs

Hi Lauren,
The Four Great Vows are common, with slight variations, throughout Mahayana Buddhism. The are components of the Bodhisattva Vows.

I've never seen anything definitive about their origins but versions of the vows (especially the first vow) appear in the Avatamsaka Sutra, which was composed around 1-3 century CE. For example:

"I too, for the sake of all beings,/Generate the mind of enlightenment/And accomplish all the stages/Of the Bodhisattva training."

(This sutra, among other things, emphasizes the interdependency of all phenomena.)

Similarly, the Brahma Net Sutra contains many lines similar to the Great Vows, such as:

"I further vow that all sentient beings will achieve Buddhahood."

The Brahma Net Sutra: http://www.ymba.org/bns/bnstext.htm

As far as the I/we pronoun. To my knowledge, this only appears in the Korean Zen tradition, not in the Japanese Zen traditions. I could speculate about this, but I think you can see the differences in implication.

In the Kwan Um School tradition, we say that daily recitation of the Four Great Vows helps us become clear about the "direction" of our practice and life. If our direction is clear then, even when we wander into the weeds, we'll find our way.

Thank goodness, 'cause I'm in the weeds more often than not.

Barry Briggs

Thank you, Genju, for reminding me of the value of a soft heart.



Chong Go Sunim

Hi Barry,
In the Korean and Chinese versions, there's no personal pronoun of I or we. Statements like this depend upon the context, and in this case, the most natural choice would be "I."

However, I can easily imagine Seung Sahn Sunim putting a spin on it with a "we," and no one here would complain at all. They would see that as a teaching in itself, one that compliment and enrich the usual emphasis on individual effort.

Barry Briggs

Back to you, Uku!

Thanks for the clarification, Sunim. I was pretty certain that the Chinese characters for the vows did not include a pronoun.

This brings to mind two Korean phrases that I've heard (in translation), sometimes said in greeting or parting:

- May you become Buddha!
- May we together become Buddha!

I can't quite remember how they go - something like: Song Bul Hashipsheo and something quite similar. Do you know these phrases?

Chong Go Sunim

^-^ Oh, yeah, I know those phrases!

Song Bul Ha-ship-shi-o is literally translated as "May you become a Buddha", but from the context, I feel "May we all become Buddhas" or "Let's all become Buddhas together" to be more accurate to the feeling of the situation.


My favorite part of yebul is the very end when we all bow and wish "Seong bul hashipshiyo" to the people to each side. The last time I I went to yebul, I was on the end, so only one man beside me. He turned to his right and greeted that person than started to turn my way, saw that I was a foreigner, and didn't bother...
I started feeling a little ripped off, but a few people further down must have seen the disappointment in my face and sent a few smiles my way.

I agree, the atmosphere of everyone saying it together does feel more like "May we together become Buddha!"

May we together become Buddha!

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