This is a forum for sangha and visitors to discuss various aspects of the dharma.

6 thoughts on “Dialogue

  1. Dear Sangha

    With the hope that this will begin use of this dialogue format, what you will read below this introductory remark is a back and forth email discussion regarding translation of the Four Great Vows. It is a discussion I initiated with another zen teacher who is native Chinese, with the hope that together we can come to a more accurate understanding and translation of the Four Vows than presently exists in the west. Please feel free to add your comments in postings below this. And, I hope you enjoy the discussion. Due to domestic demands, we have taken a slight break in the discussion after email 5. The translations beneath the Chinese are my correspondent’s.

    Email 1
    Dear R:

    good morning. I’ve been pondering the 4 Vows and have some language questions I hope you can give your opinion about when you have time to consider. it is a matter of interpretation and nuance in English.



    Since the last character can be defined as ferry, or cross over or pass through can we avoid “save” and even “liberate’ as you suggest, and have this translated as “awaken with them”? I ask because first, to cross over or ferry across can mean to liberate through awakening. And, also, rather that have the I do it FOR them, can’t we have the I vowing to awaken WITH others as the means of liberation?
    Sufferings are inexhaustible;
    I vow to overcome them all.

    I believe what is usually translated as delusions, and which you have a sufferings, which is closer, may be kleshas, or afflictions, vexations, worries, etc.  So, can it be translated as Afflictions, since we are afflicted by delusions, vexations, worries, physical and mental botherings?

    the last character “study” and “learn” could mean that we come to ‘know’ ‘understand’ and ‘comprehend’ which in its ultimate form can also mean to realize. Can we say “realize them’ since realization includes ‘know’ ‘understand’ and ‘comprehend’  AND it means to ‘make real’ which means to make dharma gates real, or actualize dharma gates for self and other. It seems to be in keeping with the bodhisattva vow to completely and intimately enter all dharmas and become one with them.

    Thank you. a little questioning but I’m very interested in this. Only when you have time.

    deep bows

    Email 2
    R reply to P email:

    Good morning to you too, Peter.

    眾生無邊誓願渡. Yes, now that I spend some time to think about it, awaken WITH others is almost implied. The imagery here is a ferryman carrying people across the river. The ferryman would be on the same boat that carries the passengers over, wouldn’t he? 

    煩惱無盡誓願斷. Your translation of 煩惱 as afflictions is spot on. 煩惱 really means worries and vexations in Chinese. 煩 is to worry because of small bothering and 惱 is to be irritated and vexed. 

    法門無量誓願學. 學  however, only means to learn and to study. This does not imply that one will never become accomplished or aspire to know the  Dharma gates. There Is this culture of modesty in China, so it is frowned upon to imply that one is accomplished or learned.  In fact, many well respected scholars referred to themselves as students for their life.

    I hope that you are well and happy.

    Email 3
    P reply to R:

    thank you so much for your reply. I appreciate you taking the time.

    Let me address only the third vow. I agree that we can’t ever say ” I know all dharma gates ” or ‘I have realized all dharma gates ” but the vow does not say we have accomplished this, only that we vow to do so, to “know” or “realize.” To vow to do so means we will continue to practice in such a way that it may come about in the future. Isn’t that what all the vows are saying? – “I will,” not “I have.”  

    But, given that it is important that these vows are far larger than any “I” can handle, we vow to do what we cannot do as separate beings from all others. Only when we truly become one with all beings is there any chance of the vows being “realized.” 

    I think this is in keeping with the proper modesty of Chinese culture, and also with the modesty the vows ensure by being virtually impossible to accomplish. After all, to vow to do something we can do is one thing; to vow to do what is likely impossible quite another, and yet, this is the nature of bodhisattva practice.

    Please let me know what you think about all of this. Great discussion and important, I hope.

    Email 4

    R reply to P:

    The discussion is indeed great and important. There’s always much to learn in the vows, and they are worth contemplating over and over. You are right that the vows are greater than any “I” can handle. While 學 only has the meaning of to learn and to study, I have seen a version of the vow as 法門無量誓願入, where 入 means to enter. 

    Now that I contemplate the vows more, it seems that the third and the fourth line can be read together: 


    (We) vow to become the unsurpassable Buddha Way by studying/entering the boundless Dharma gate(s). Therefore, we don’t realize the Dharma gates directly but, instead, realize/become the unsurpassable Buddha Way through them. This interpretation is in line with the Buddha’s teaching in the Diamon Sutra and the Nikayas that all teachings are means to the end of becoming enlightened. They are like rafts that we use to cross the river. Once at the other shore, we should abandon the rafts. Please let me know what you think about this take.

    Again, it is always rewarding to contemplate the vows. 

    Deep bow,

    Email 5

    P reply to R:

    I agree with your understanding regarding the relationship of the third and fourth vow. How else can we embody the buddha way except through 法門? And, anyway, what is not 法門 ? I do not recall hearing anyone talk about it in this way, so perhaps you can please see if there is a way for you to do this.

    At this time, our sangha says 入 when we say the third vow, but I am not aware that it is in the original vow. Do you have an original version of the vows that include 入? My assumption was that it was added here in the west In my training, we said Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them. I never liked ‘master’ because it made me feel like I was a dominator, but, after all, study, learn, comprehend, etc is said to lead to “mastery.” Still, I never settled with it and thought we could do better.

    thanks so much for this great opening discussion.

    with a bow

    Email 6

    R reply to P:

    Thank you for being so supportive! You are right: what is not 法門 anyway. [ NB from Peter: 法門 means “dharma gates” ] I’ve been studying the Surangama Sutra and enjoying the 25 Sages Chapter, where the sages present the practice that led to their enlightenment, and The Buddha specifically said that all six sense gates are entrance points for enlightenment. Since the entire world enters our consciousness through these sense gates, any objects or interactions can be the gates of dharma.

    For some reason, it reminds me of a story my teacher likes to tell.
    One day a man walked right in front of the Buddha hall, pulled down his pants, and started to pee. The monk in charge rushed in and grabbed him, “What are you doing?”
    “Can’t you see? I’m peeing.” The man replied when the monk started to pull him away.
    “You can’t pee here.” The monk said.
    “Why not?” The man said, “I need to pee. people need to pee.”
    “But this is the Buddha’s place.”
    “Well,” the man said, “show me a place where there is no Buddha, and I will pee there.”

    Crass as it is, this story points to the same idea. Everything can be 法門: it is even in the bathroom stalls.

    Happy harvest season _/\_,

    PS: regarding the version of vows with 入,[ NB from Peter: This ideograph means “to enter” ] I vaguely recall seeing it carved somewhere in a temple in China. It’s a long time ago, though, and there are so many temples, so I’m not 100% certain. Things tend to blend together in distant memories. You are right that the word “master” is likely a Western interpretation. It is just very non-characteristic of any East Asian culture to say that “I” can master the Dharmas. The culture of Ancient India could be different, but I wouldn’t know.

  2. Dear Peter,

    Thanks for sharing these conversations with your colleague. The nuances of translation are beyond my current understanding, but from the place where I am in my practice, I have a real curiosity about the second vow as it is discussed here.

    “afflictions are inexhaustible; I vow to overcome them all” expresses very well the attitude I’ve had towards the “hooks” that I deal with in my life, even since I was in my early teens I thought of it this way. In our circle, we chant “I vow to transform them,” rather than “overcome”, “cut off”, or “end”, and this seems to have a fundamentally different meaning.

    Maybe I’m naive, but I truly intend to end them completely, and always have, keeping this aspiration close over many years, even through times where it seemed to be extinguished. Is this a mistake.? Or is transformation of afflictions included in such a crazy vow? Is one nearer to the Buddha’s meaning?

    Okumura Roshi says that the vows are each related to one of the four noble truths, and it seems to me that the Buddha quite clearly stated in this teaching that the end of suffering means the end of desire (I.e. affliction). Maybe it’s not so simple.

    I’d be interested to know if you and your colleague discussed the second vow any further, or if anybody has thoughts on this?

    • Hello Ben,

      I was surprised to see that I had not addressed the vow in the second one to “transform’ afflictions/kleshas. I had meant to in my dialogue.

      I find “transform” a user friendly word and i don’t prefer it. The Chinese says, “end, sever, cut off” and that is how I was trained ie “i vow to put an end to them.” I believe that carries the vow much better than “transform,” which, as language, is easier for westerners to handle, but does not express the overwhelming challenge of the vows ie we vow to do what it seems we cannot do; still, that is our vow and the nature of a vow that requires our lives to be simultaneously in and “beyond” the relative world of our lives by also inhabiting the wisdom beyond wisdom of prajna, boundlessness/emptiness. To not forget this prajna while living according to the ordinary boundaries of the relative world is what Kaz Tanahashi has called ‘enlightenment’ or a person living and embodying realilzation.

      The personal “I” cannot accomplish these vows solely as a personal “I,” but the boundless no-I can, and so, as the Buddha taught, we can end the kleshas, the afflictions of delusion, desire, attachment, aversion, as the third Ennobling Truth says, by moving on to the fourth Ennobling truth and its way.

      I continue to work with the language of the vows and may very well change the second one. I am inclined to do so. But, I am Soto square, which means I will get there by following my motto: going nowhere slow.

      Thanks for your posting. I wonder if anyone else has ideas to explore. I hope so.

  3. Hi Peter,

    I appreciate your response. I know that these translations are not rendered without a lot of consideration, and I respect the long study which informs yours and other teachers’ interpretations of the vows.

    Being a student, I often wonder if I it’s okay to chant the version which expresses the meaning most closely, if it’s not the version I was taught. Truly, ‘put an end to them’ calls out the strength of the vow in my practice.

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