The Bodhisattva Vow

Bodhisattva Giclee Print Hsu, Yenhuei

The Bodhisattva is a being who has taken the Bodhisattva Vow to help save all sentient beings, before going into full Nirvana or enlightenment. There are in Mahayana Buddhist metaphysics a whole cosmology full of heavenly Bodhisattvas. The term is also used for human beings who have taken the Bodhisattva Vow to heart to such an extent that they will keep it, even in their next lives.

The Bodhisattva Vow is essential to Mahayana Buddhism, and thus also to Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. Various forms are current. The essence is:

May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Or in the Pema Chodron formulation (The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (Shambhala Classics), p. 122):

Few of us are satisfied with retreating from the world and just working on ourselves. We want our training to manifest and be of benefit. The bodhisattva-warrior, therefore, makes a vow to wake up not just for himself but for the welfare of all beings. (p. 122)

Here follow a few other ways of saying the same thing with a few more words (mostly found on the internet).

  1. I vow to save innumerable sentient beings.
  2. I vow to eliminate endless afflictions/delusions.
  3. I vow to learn innumerable doctrines.
  4. I vow to accomplish the unsurpassed Buddha Way.

With a wish to free all beings 
I shall always go for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha,
Until I reach full enlightenment.
Enthused by wisdom and compassion,
today in the Buddhas' presence I generate
the Mind for Full Awakening
For the benefit of all sentient beings.
As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
And dispel the miseries of the world.

The version of the Bodhisattva Vow that the Dalai Lama often uses when giving it to people in ceremony.

The vow of the Bodhisattva is that she will not go into Nirvana until every single suffering being has entered Nirvana. One has to understand what this means. Our awakening is not a personal triumph. We do not have to win a spiritual sprint. We are one mind. Awakening is to penetrate more and more deeply into this truth. The world is alive. And as long as there is suffering then this living whole is shattered. Whether it is my suffering or the suffering of another, when seen from the perspective of the Bodhisattva makes no difference, because, seen from this perspective there is no ‘me’ or ‘another.’ In the Diamond Sutra, “Although the Bodhisattva saves all sentient beings, there are no sentient beings to save.”

Albert Low

However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them.

However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them.

However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them.

However incomparable enlightenment is, I vow to attain it.

All beings, without number, I vow to liberate
Endless blind passions I vow to uproot
Dharma gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate
The way of the Buddha I vow to attain

Beings are numberless; I vow to awaken with them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha's way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.

I take refuge in The Buddha The Dharma and The Sangha
I take refuge in The Guru The Yidam and the Dakini
I take refuge in The Bodhisattvas The Protectors and The Tantras
Homage to all of you

As long as there is suffering
As long as there are sentient beings in the 6 realms
May I never attain Enlightenment
And never cross over into Nirvana

Gold Painted Bodhisattva in Contemplation, China
Gold Painted Bodhisattva in Contemplation, China Photographic Print
Su, Keren

The passions of delusion are inexhaustible.
I vow to extinguish them all at once.

The number of beings is endless. I vow to help save them all.

The Truth cannot be told. I vow to tell it.

The Way which cannot be followed is unattainable. I vow to attain it.

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road;
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,
And a lamp for those who long for light;
For those who need a resting place, a bed,
For all who need a servant, may I be a slave.

May I be the wishing jewel, the vase of plenty,
A word of power, and the supreme remedy.
May I be the trees of miracles,
And for every being, the abundant cow.

Like the great earth and the other elements,
Enduring as the sky itself endures,
For the boundless multitude of living beings,
May I be the ground and vessel of their life.

Thus, for every single thing that lives,
In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,
May I be their sustenance and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering

Countless sentient beings, I vow to help to cross the ocean of existence.
Eternal Sufferings, I vow to end.
Innumerable spiritual methods, I vow to study and comprehend.
The buddha's unsurpassable supreme dharma, I vow to realize.

[adapted from Kim Dieu's translation from the Vietnamese]


To be able to help all beings in this way, the Bodhisattva practices the six perfection, or paramitas and the Bodhisattva Ideal.

Videos explaining the detailed vows taken in Tibetan Buddhism as part of the Bodhisattva vow

There are 18 primary vows and 46 secondary vows (there is some overlap between the two) in Tibetan Buddhism. In Chinese Buddhism there are two lists of vows: one for lay people, one for Buddhist monks and nuns.

Breaking a primary vow means breaking the whole Bodhisattva vow. Fully breaking a vow means:

  1. Not thinking of the action as faulty. 
    Aka - if you don't realize it's wrong, it contributes to breaking the vow
  2. Not intending to abstain from the action in future, or retaining the continuous desire to break the precept. 
    Aka - if you intend to repeat the mistake, you've broken the vow
  3. Rejoicing in the action, or enjoying having broken the vow. 
    Aka - don't rejoice in breaking your vows
  4. Not having any regret about the action.
    Aka - do regret the action

In other words: you break the 18 primary vows if you don't see it's a mistake, if you aren't sorry or even enjoy breaking the vow, AND don't regret it. 

Obviously that makes it doable. This is also the reason some of the primary vows are repeated in the secondary vow: to remind us that they're an issue, even if we haven't fully broken them.

On the history of the mahayana Buddhist vows and expanded versions thereof.