Midwest Sangha Weekend: Talk on the Four Vows 4

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

One thing no one has mentioned is the grammatical structure. All the vows begin with some kind of noun phrase: (1) many beings, (2) kleshas, (3) teachings, and (4) Buddha Way. And then mu something. Mu means “no.” In the fourth vow, it’s mu sang, which means “no above” or “nothing higher.” And then all the vows have so won which means “vow vow.” The repetition is emphatic—we’re really vowing this! Actually, we’re not sure who’s vowing it, because there’s no pronoun. In English, you need a pronoun. But in Chinese, apparently you don’t. In most Buddhist groups, they say “I vow.” But we say “we vow.” This is very interesting. “We” is this Mahayana vision where you are not alone. I am not separate. You are not separate. Everything we do is together with all beings. This giant “we” permeates our chants.

            And the last word in this fourth vow is do—“tao,” or way.

            The word-for-word translation of the fourth vow is “Buddha way nothing higher vow vow way.” 

            So mu song means “nothing higher.” Generally ”nothing higher” is translated as “unsurpassable.” “Way” is a little strange—in English it’s a noun, not a verb. But here it’s a verb, usually translated as we do, “attain.” 

            But we don’t say unsurpassable or none higher or nothing higher. We say “inconceivable,” and that is a total mistranslation. It’s not there in the Chinese. But it’s a wonderful mistranslation because, just as Thom was talking about and just as Ken was talking about, if you have an idea, then you can’t touch reality. If you have an idea, that’s cutting you off from reality. So the Buddha Way is inconceivable. That means we can’t conceive it. That means thinking about it won’t help. And that’s why we can attain it! If we could think about it, we couldn’t attain it. We’d be thinking about it. We’d have an idea about it. And we’d be relating to that idea, or our idea of that idea would be relating to that idea. And there we’d be, with all these ideas. So we couldn’t attain it. Instead, just [hits the floor].

            You can only attain things when you’re not thinking about them. “The Buddha way is inconceivable; we vow to attain it.” That’s why we can attain it. 

It’s not like an asymptote, like in mathematics. It’s not like there’s nothing higher and you’re going to approach it and approach it and approach it. It’s not even like there’s nothing higher, and you’re going to somehow hit it. Thinking is not going to help you; that’s why you can attain it. I just love that. 

            That’s the serendipitous mistranslation in the fourth of the four great vows.

            I want to end with something about the first vow. When I first started practicing a millennium or so ago, all the dharma talks would end in “and save all beings from suffering.” And I said to Dyan Eagles, who’s a very tiny woman, “I don’t get it. How can you save all beings? You know you can’t.” And she just stood on her tip toe and patted me on the head and said, “You’ll get it.” I hope we all do.


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

Talk by Zen Master Jok Um

Talk by Zen Master Hae Kwang

Talk by Zen Master Ji Haeng