The four Bodhisattva vows:
- Beings are numberless; I vow to free 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 embody it.
In another sense, the vows are aspirational. You can't free all the beings, but try to free as many as you can. Continuously work on ending delusions, even though you'll never end them all. Always be watchful for dharma gates, and enter as many as you can. Try to embody parts of the Buddha way.
In a third sense, the vows cannot be kept, even partly. You can never free any beings, can never end a single delusion, or enter a dharma gate or embody any aspect of the Buddha way. Taking the vows is an exercise in humility, a liberating exercise in loosening the grip of the impulse to control.
In a fourth sense, the vows cannot be broken. No matter what you do, your every action in fact frees all the beings, ends all delusions, enters the infinite dharma gates (all of them at once), and embodies the Buddha way.
Raven's final remark in this segment echoes a haiku by Basho (1644-1694):
With awe I beheldCase
All the new green leaves of spring
Glittering in the sunshine
Gray Wolf seemed to attend meetings against her better judgment. One evening she came by anyway and said, "In every service I renew my vow to save the many beings, but, really, how can I do that?"Verse
Raven said, "It's your precious keepsake."
Mallard asked, "How can a vow be a keepsake?"
Raven said, "It reminds you of a loved one."
Gray Wolf sat back and said nothing further.
Owl spoke up and said, "We also vow to waken to the countless gates of the Great Law. I always thought that vow meant I should study all the teachings, but now I'm not so sure."
Raven said, "See all the new green leaves glittering in the sunshine!"
The morning sun behind the branches of black leaves
Long since broken, long since fulfilled.
Nothing is more beautiful,
Case by Robert Aitken, adapted; introduction and verse by Meredith GarmonRaven 74