Four Infinite Vows: Notes on a New Translation

By Michael Kieran

Originally published in the Honolulu Diamond Sangha newsletter


All beings without limit I vow to carry over;

Kleshas without end I vow to cut off;

Dharma gates without measure I vow to master;

Buddha’s way without peer I vow to fulfill.

Several years ago Nelson Foster, Don Stoddard, and I began work on a new translation of our Great Vows. Our aim was a translation at once more faithful to the original and less prone to misunderstanding. This project has afforded us the chance to transform various misunderstandings of our vows into fertile questions, and hopefully a clearer understanding and appreciation of these vows as foundational to our practice and realization of the Buddha Way.

As a further step in this process, this article takes up key terms and phrases in the new translation and their rationale.

First, the title:







to enlarge, expand; liberal, great, magnanimous

to take an oath, to swear; an oath or vow

to be willing, to vow, to wish

writing, text, composition


in Buddhism: to vow, pledge


Four Infinite Vows

Gu, ,in the title is not so much great or large as it is dynamically expansive, thus “infinite.” Our vows are not static rules or obligations that we must try to conform to. Rather, they are expressions of an ever present and creative way of living in accord with our own wise and compassionate nature each astonishing moment of this life.

Sei Gan, 誓願, means the activity of vowing. Our vows are Gu , that is, expansive and infinite in and through the way our life opens up in the activity of living the vows. In the Mahayana teachings the activity of living by vow is often contrasted with living by karma. To live by karma is to act based on habitual modes of thought, feeling, and past action. Living by karma can be impulsive or more careful and calculating but either way it is bound and defined by past action and experience. To live by vow is to recognize the four infinite vows as clear expressions of who we really are and what our life is about. In this way rather than acting on emotional impulse or by calculation and speculation of results, we simply attend to the matter at hand and live our vows in accord with circumstances as they come forth.

In living by vow we do not escape our karma or somehow sidestep cause and effect, nor do we ignore what we have learned through past experience and study. Living by vow is a matter of our orientation to our life. Our actions and our experience of life are grounded in the vows rather than on a calculation of outcomes—outcome we desire or seek to avoid. With our sense of ourselves and our actions grounded in the vows, the actual changing karmic conditions of our lives become the ever changing context for freely and creatively actualizing the vows. In this way, living by vow is not just our intention, it is also what actually happens — the car screeching to a stop in front of us, the joy and sadness that wells up in us out of nowhere, the homeless woman and her child sitting in the park. It is not that we live by vow now so as to produce some beneficial result in the future. This living by vow is its own result; it is the whole thing. As Hakuin says, “The oneness of cause and effect is clear, not two, not three, the path is put right.” This Sei Gan 誓願 , this living by vow, appears in each of the four infinite vows.

The first vow:







all, the whole of, a multitude

birth, beings, that which is born

without, no, non

boundary, edge, side, margin

to vow, pledge

to cross over, carry across, ferry over

All beings without limit I vow to carry over.

Shu jō mu hen, 衆生無邉 is not so much a numberless quantity of beings as it is the whole inclusive family of beings altogether, without boundary or limit, no being excluded.

Mu hen 無邉, “without limit” could well be translated with a single word like “limitless” or “boundless.” However, in our sangha discussions on the new translation, most of us preferred the sound and cadence of the two-word Chinese form: “mu hen” in the first vow, and “mu jin,” “mu ryō,” and “mu jo” in the other vows, so we’ve retained that two-word form throughout the new translation.

Translating do literally as “carry over” invokes the Buddhist metaphor of reaching “the other shore” of nirvana. Our previous translation, “I vow to save them” is an example of a more familiar word which we think we understand, but which usually engenders misunderstandings. For many of us “saving” connotes preserving in some way and for some with a Christian background, this may include the implication of eternal life. There may also be a messianic element in our idea of saving others—a sense that it is me saving them. None of this is implied in our first vow.

Think rather of the royal ease of Guanyin—realizing and living the incomparable fact of our own awakened nature which is no other than the awakened nature of all beings. Rather than me saving them, “carry over” makes clear that we all go together. When Shakyamuni awakened upon seeing the morning star, he exclaimed: “I and all sentient beings of the great earth have, in the same moment, attained the Way.”

With this first vow we align our life with the power of our most fundamental aspiration, the aspiration to awaken. We make this vow not simply to liberate ourselves, but for the benefit of all beings—to see incisively that all beings truly possess the wisdom and virtue of the Buddha and to live with and serve them accordingly with reverence and respect.

With this awakening it becomes clear that the other shore is right under our feet, yet before we’ve realized it there seems to be a gap. It is a gap created by our self-centered ways of thinking and feeling and it is a gap we vow to cross over for the sake of all.

The second vow:







Skt. klesha — mental/ emotional states which incite unwholesome behavior; afflictions, vexations, delusions, defilements

without, no, non

exhaust, complete, deplete

to vow, pledge

to cut off, interrupt, sever; Skt. uccheda: to uproot, put an end to

Kleshas without end I vow to cut off.

Bōnnō is the Chinese translation of the Buddhist term “klesha.” There is no really close equivalent English term so, like other more familiar Buddhist and Chinese terms, e.g., Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, karma, and Dao, this term is left untranslated. Though somewhat awkward initially, the untranslated term invites investigation and discovery and maybe eventually the same familiarity Zen students have with terms like Dharma and Dao.

Kleshas are mental and emotional states that dull the mind and incite unwholesome and harmful behavior. We used to translate bōnnō 煩惱 as greed, hatred and ignorance and indeed these are known as the three root kleshas. But kleshas go beyond these three and include conditions like fear, heedlessness, sloth, arrogance, skeptical doubt, envy, trickery or guile, and so on. The list is long.

We vow to dan to cut kleshas off. The sense here is to nip them in the bud as soon as we become aware of them — to interrupt and sever involvement with them midstream. We practice this in our zazen every time we don’t chase after a distracting thought or sensation, and every time we bring our attention back to our practice when we notice that we have strayed. Cutting off doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes feel powerful emotions like fear, anger, and sadness or for that matter bliss, pride, gratitude, or awe. We just don’t indulge those feelings and feed them with stories of victimhood or justification.

Dan is the character used by the early Chinese Buddhist scholar monks to translate the Sanskrit term uccheda which means to uproot, put an end to. However, the vow also states that kleshas arise “mu jin” 無盡, without end. What does it mean to cut off and put an end to something that arises endlessly?

Fundamentally, cutting off means seeing clearly that there’s nothing substantial to cut off and nowhere for klesha to abide, now or ever. That is how we put an end to them. It is the razor sharp active edge of Manjushri’s sword of wisdom which cuts through delusions, the edge so sharp it has no thickness at all.

But life is not static. The conditions of our life are never the same moment to moment. Kleshas arise as part of these changing conditions. We vow to pay attention and engage with the actual matter at hand. But this attention is not some extra, added-on activity—our attention IS our life—coming forth along with the 10,000 things—all at once. As the master Yantou said, “A moment’s inattention, a dead person.”

This is not hypothetical. Our vow comes into play at the moment when kleshas have already arisen in our life, as indeed they do. At such a time it won’t do to just look the other way or try to pretend that the resentment, envy, or whatever the klesha, doesn’t exist. We vow to wield the sword of wisdom and cut them off on the spot. This doesn’t just happen by itself. We must take up the sword and use it. We have to practice. At the same time the incisive activity of this vow isn’t a long-suffering battle. Manjushri’s sword is not a blunt cudgel — it cuts through in a flash. As the master Dahui Zonggao said, “You must make yourself turn freely, like a gourd floating on the water, independent and free, not subject to restraints, entering purity and impurity without being obstructed or sinking down.”

The third vow:








dharma, law


without, no, non

to measure, to deliberate

to vow, pledge

study, learn, master, realize

Dharma gates without measure I vow to master.

The term dharma has many meanings within Buddhism and beyond. In the context of this third of our Infinite Vows, dharma means the recorded teachings of the Buddhas and ancestors as well as all the particular phenomena of our lives: stones and clouds, plants and animals, thoughts and sensations, just as they are—arising and passing away at the very same time. Each of these so-called phenomena—no less than the recorded teachings of the Buddhas and ancestors—is a gate, a potential point of awakening. What makes a gate a gate is that it opens and closes. An open field is not a gate; a solid wall is not a gate. Our life is not static. The vow is not about a permanent state of openness. It is dynamic practice and realization—at once opening to and being opened by the vastness of our own nature upon seeing a grain of rice on the floor.

Mu ryō 無量, too is dynamic—meaning, not so much a great countless quantity, but rather: without measuring, without calculating, without keeping score, and without self-consciousness. After all, what measure could be applied to the song of the thrush?

Gaku , the character we’re translating as mastery means to study, learn, and master or realize. In the activity of gaku, study, learning, and mastery are not so much discrete steps in a linear progression, but rather different aspects of a single way, a single continuous practice. They form a circle rather than a straight line. In this sense, study without learning and mastery isn’t really study. Mastery without study and learning isn’t really mastery. There’s nothing particularly liberating about the concept of mastery, or for that matter, concepts of enlightenment, emptiness, and no-self. Awakening is a lived experience — it is only real to the degree it functions, and this functioning, living way, this way of attending, opening, and being opened by is what is meant by mastery. It certainly has nothing to do with dominion or dominance over the creatures and things of the world.

The fourth vow:






dao, way

without, no, non

above, summit, top

to vow, pledge to accomplish, to complete, succeed

Skt. anuttara — supreme, peerless, unsurpassed

Buddha’s way without peer I vow to fulfill.

The Buddha Way is the Noble Eightfold Path—the lifetime practice of right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right attention, and right samādhi. In Chinese, the “right” of the eightfold path is zheng , which means upright and true. Upright thoughts, words, and actions can bear weight and be relied upon, unlike that which is slanted or crooked. Thus, as mentioned earlier, the Buddha Way is not simply having good intentions—it is about what we actually do and includes what happens as a consequence of our thoughts and actions. Our fourth vow is to follow through, to complete and fulfill the Buddha Way in every dimension of our lives.

At the same time the Buddha Way is radically immediate. As great ancestor Ma [Mazu] put it: “This very mind is Buddha!” The Chinese says literally: “Immediately mind is Buddha.” Shakyamuni meticulously mapped out the path for us and Mazu kicks some dust from the path in our face so we don’t mistake the map for the territory. As Aitken Rōshi says early on in Taking the Path of Zen, “… the path is personal and intimate. It is no good to examine it from a distance as if it were someone else’s. You must walk it for yourself.”

Mu jō, 無上 is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term “anuttara” which means supreme, unsurpassed, and without peer or equal. The term is inclusive and experiential, not dualistic or comparative. It does not mean “better than” or “superior to” other paths or ways. Far from any arrogance of superiority, “without peer” expresses the sober recognition that I am born alone and will die alone, and that the Buddha Way must be walked with my own footsteps and actions. A vital sangha and good teacher are indispensable for most of us, but ultimately we must trust ourselves, trust the practice, and step forth uprightly, again and again. In this sense mu jō 無上 means quite literally “without summit.” Like walking in the mountains—each time you crest a ridge or peak, you can see further peaks and ridges. As Xuedou says in one of his verses in the Blue Cliff Record, “Distant mountains without end, layer upon layer of blue.”

Our fourth vow is to jō , to fulfill, this peerless, endless path. Jō means literally to accomplish, to complete, to succeed. Our practice is this way of completion—not a practice to become complete but the enactment of completion, the realization of completion. Complete one breath; complete one footstep. Complete your sentence when you speak; complete each word of the sentence. When we practice this way, there is no next thing to get to, and yet we are not complacent. We do not consider our practice completed or sufficient. The Buddha Way is not all laid out for us ahead of time. It appears as we walk it —”mountains without end, layer upon layer of blue” — the work of many lifetimes, practiced and fulfilled in each step.

All beings without limit
I vow to carry over;

Kleshas without end
I vow to cut off;

Dharma gates without measure
I vow to master;

Buddha’s way without peer
I vow to fulfill.

1 comment

  1. Thank you for this translation and the discussion of it. My sangha is about to start re-reading No Time to Lose, Pema Chodron’s commentary on The Way of the Bodhisattva. While searching on line for the version of the Bodhisattva vows familiar to me, I came upon your translation, which solves some of the problems I’ve had with the more traditional ones (such as “saving” all beings). I think the word “kleshas” is perfect, especially given its sound, and hope it becomes a standard term in our vocabulary.


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