Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.
It is not possible for human beings to live without killing other living things. In everyday life, people take this for granted and are not grateful for what they receive. However, human beings are different from other animals in that they can seek the Way of Buddha. For this reason, in making this vow to save all beings, we should feel grateful that by taking the life of living things to sustain our body and health, we are able to practise zazen.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.
In this regard, there is the expression, ‘The three poisons and the five desires’. The three poisons are greed, anger, and ignorance. The five desires are all the various things arising through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching, that torment you. Here, we vow to endeavour at zazen in order to cut off all of these things. Incidentally, these desires arise because of the delusive attachment to the ego that sees something which essentially is one as two things and thereby creates the separation between self and other things.
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
This is the vow to thoroughly study and have faith in the teachings expounded by Shakyamuni Buddha, and also to observe the precepts. In Buddhism, there is the teaching of ‘a transmission outside the teaching’, and in the Zen school this is zazen.
The Way of Buddha is unsurpassable, I vow to realise it.
As expressed in these words, we vow to awaken to the Way of Buddha. To receive the precepts means that by repeatedly making repentance, it is possible to awaken to the Dharma and this is why we chant these vows. Using these four vows as a common guide for all mankind, I keenly feel I have a duty to enhance the possibility of bringing about the transition from the ‘Age of the End of the Dharma’ to the ‘Age of the True Dharma’.
From the February 2005 Buddhism Now.