Midwest Sangha Weekend: Talk on the Four Vows 2

Dharma talk given in Kansas, at the Kwan Um Midwest Sangha Weekend, April 12–14, 2019

Zen Master Jok Um just brought up Hui-Neng’s “own nature” teaching—the sentient beings that are my own nature, we vow to save. We actually have that phrase in one of our chants, the Thousand Eyes and Hands Sutra. Toward the end of sutra there are the four great vows: Jung-saeng mu-byon so-won-do. Bon-ne mu-jin so-won-dan. Bom-mun mu-ryang so-won-hak. Bul-to mu-sang so-won-song. Then the vows are repeated with the addition of ja song: Ja-song jung-saeng so-won-do. Ja-song bon-ne so-won-dan. Ja-song bom-mun so-won-hak. Ja-song bul-to so-won-song. The phrase ja song means “own nature.” So Hui-Neng’s teaching became incorporated into our practice: everything in the four great vows—sentient beings, delusions, teachings, Buddha nature itself—all this is our own nature; it is our own nature that we’re dealing with in the vows. 

The second vow as we recite it now is not how we always recited it in our school. We now recite the second vow as “Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all.” Up until 1992, in the Kwan Um School of Zen, it went differently. Until then the first word of the second vow—bon-nae—wasn’t translated as “delusions” but rather “passions.” So the vow began, “Passions are endless.” And then it continued: “We vow to extinguish them all.” Now we say, “Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all.” I don’t know where that original translation came from, but in 1992 we reexamined it. Actually, I brought up the issue that “passions” is not the best translation of kleshas, the Sanskrit word that the Chinese translated as bon-nae, the first word in the second vow.

            Klesha is a Sanskrit word that is often translated as “afflictions,” in the sense of emotional and mental obstacles to our practice and our lives, to functioning clearly, to realizing our own nature, to helping all beings. The early Chinese Buddhists’ translation of kleshas as bon-nae is formed of two characters meaning “fire” and “head,” so “passions” is not a bad translation of bon-nae, but it highlights the emotional side of the kleshsas and leaves out the mental side.

            So I pointed this out at a teachers’ meeting in 1992, and Zen Master Barbara Rhodes said she too had a problem with the word “passions” in our translation. I remember her saying something like, “Yeah, extinguishing passions, that’s not so good because people might think that we’re vowing not to be passionate about our practice. And we are passionate about our practice, we care a lot about it.” Language is a tricky thing.

We considered many possible alternate translations of bon-nae and finally settled on “delusions.” “Ignorance” was a close second. In early Buddhist teaching ignorance is one of the three poisons—desire, anger and ignorance—that are the source of suffering. The Sanskrit original for ignorance is avidya, literally “not seeing,” and is in Buddhism (and classical Yoga) the number one klesha. But we didn’t want to use “ignorance” in the second vow because we thought it might sound like, “Well, you’re just stupid.” Not that you’re not seeing clearly but that you’re just uneducated, stupid and ignorant. So we went with “delusions” to replace “passions.”

            And so delusions are endless, and we vow to cut through them all. We changed “extinguish” to “cut.” You extinguish passions, but you cut through delusions. And that’s just what the Chinese word dan means: “cut, cut off, cut through.” A deluded mind is like a house of horrors, full of cobwebs and imaginary, spooky things entangling you every which way. You’d never get out of this mess that is your mind but for your sword of wisdom, your prajna sword, and with that you can cut through all the delusions and find your way out into the world of freedom and light.

You could go on retranslating this vow, and all the other vows, forever. It doesn’t matter really quite what the language is, as long as you understand the direction. There are many lists of kleshas in the sutras. I did a count once and I came up with thirty seven, many admittedly synonyms. Some were emotional, and some were cognitive, or mental. I made my own personal list once and came up with nine emotional and mental afflictions I am particularly subject to.  You might want to make your own list.

            The kleshas arise and cause us problems not only when we’re trying to meditate—they are always arising in our lives, and they cause our minds to become clouded. Avidya, this not-seeing-clearly our own nature, produces all of our anxiety, negative emotions, distractions, delusions and whatnot. And all of this anxiety and whatnot clouds our minds even further and deepens our avidya, blinding us further to this world and all the beings in it. So it’s a feedback loop, a vicious cycle. And that’s what we really have to cut through.


Read the other talks on the Four Vows given with this one:

Talk by Zen Master Jok Um

Talk by Zen Master Ji Haeng

Talk by Zen Master Bon Hae