The Four Universal Vows: Four Pledges Fundamental to Buddhist Practice

Putting one's entire heart and soul into fulfilling one's vow.

The purpose of Buddhism is to enable each person to attain Buddhahood—to become a Buddha. Perhaps I should note here that this doesn't mean a Buddha in his classic artistic image—after all, many of us are trying to lose weight, and though some may value a good tan, few want to have their bodies emit a golden light. Rather, the real meaning of Buddha is an awakened person. Buddhahood describes a condition of life in which we can best give full play to our individuality, contribute positively to society and lead a happy life, one that is fulfilling and deeply worthwhile.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the first step in practice aimed at developing this state of life called Buddhahood 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 awakening an aspiration for enlightenment. They are universal because all Buddhists learn of and adopt their spirit upon beginning their practice.

Nichiren Daishonin says, "At the stage of bodhisattva practice, one upholds the precepts by making four universal vows" (Gosho Zenshu, p. 434). Thus, the purpose and benefit of all of the Buddhist precepts, that is, the rules of discipline of the Buddhist Order, are contained in these four vows.

A "vow" in Buddhism is something one pledges to accomplish, being willing to exert oneself heart and soul to do so. The way or path of bodhisattva practice involves challenging oneself to fulfill these vows no matter what obstacle or difficulty may present itself. In his writing "The Opening of the Eyes," Nichiren Daishonin speaks of his own determination to continue to spread his teachings even in the face of severe opposition: "Here I will make a great vow...whatever obstacles I might encounter, so long as persons of wisdom do not prove my teachings to be false, I will never yield! All other troubles are no more to me than dust before the wind" (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 280).

This represents his solemn pledge to the people as the true Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law who embodies the three virtues of Sovereign, Teacher and Parent.

Regarding this passage, SGI President Ikeda recently said, "Here we see the Daishonin's 'fighting spirit' of selfless dedication to spreading the Law without begrudging his life. He also confirms that it is his 'great vow' that sustains the spirit. The concepts of 'fighting spirit' and 'great vow' are the essence of the Lotus Sutra and the foundation of Nichiren Buddhism."

While the Daishonin expressed his personal vow in many ways throughout his writings, the four universal vows describe those made by all practitioners, all bodhisattvas, upon embarking on Buddhist practice. They are the vows (1) to save innumerable living beings, (2) to eradicate countless earthly desires, (3) to master immeasurable Buddhist teachings and (4) to attain supreme enlightenment.

The first vow is a pledge to save people from suffering, without favoring or discriminating among them in any way. The second is to overcome the negative influences of desire, suffering and illusion, or "earthly desires." The third is to study and gain a thorough understanding of the teachings and principles of Buddhism. The fourth is to arrive at and demonstrate in one's actions the highest form of awakening—Buddhahood.

If we were to categorize the four, the first, the vow to save living beings, constitutes "practice for others"; the second and third aim at self-improvement and represent "practice for oneself"; and the third is the ultimate purpose of Buddhist practice.

The vow to save others is most essential

The starting point or essence or essence of Buddhist practice exists in the first vow, the vow to save others. Regarding this, Nichiren Daishonin says, "Among the four universal vows, the vow to save innumerable living beings ultimately should be regarded as most essential" (GZ, 846).

The Daishonin also describes the spirit of a bodhisattva to place highest importance on fulfilling the vow to save all living beings as "desiring to attain enlightenment for oneself only after saving all living beings" (GZ, 433). He states that bodhisattvas who make these vows should practice "among ordinary mortals of the six paths, being mindful to place little importance upon oneself while highly valuing others and to take evil upon oneself while providing goodness to others..."(GZ, 433).

The Daishonin calls for us to highly value others by striving to relieve them of suffering and bringing them joy and happiness. To "place little importance upon oneself" doesn't mean to devalue our own existence. Putting aside concerns for immediate personal gain, it actually accords with the highest form of self-respect. This is because working to benefit others causes our own true potential to shine fully, bringing out the very best in us. When people have a strong and genuine desire to help others, the can truly work hard to fulfill their goals and ideals. When we put all of our energy and ability into working for people's happiness, we polish and develop our own potential, tapping undiscovered ability and giving full play to our individuality.

Everyone around us can contribute to our growth

Nichiren Daishonin also wrote, "The first of the four debts is that owed to all living beings. Were it not for them, one would find it impossible to make the vow to save innumerable living beings" (WND, 43).

Everyone we encounter, live with and work with can assist us in our Buddhist practice. If we regard the sufferings of others as our own, and walk with them along the path to a solution to those sufferings, then we are living the core and essence of Buddhist practice.

The first step—the most important practical effort we can take toward such practice—is to consistently and repeatedly engage in and broaden our discussions with others, developing mutual understanding and awareness. Nichiren Daishonin and Shakyamuni valued dialogue highly, and many of the Daishonin's writings and various sutras as well explain how to engage in it most effectively.

In this regard, our discussion meetings are excellent forums for fulfilling these four vows. Our efforts to pray for, reach out to, talk with, and encourage others, particularly those who cannot attend SGI activities, are ideal expressions of our "vow to save innumerable living beings."

Living Buddhism, March 2002, p. 6