The Four Great Vows:
Though beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them all. Though afflictions are inexhaustible, I vow to cease them all. Though Dharma teachings are boundless, I vow to master them all. Though Buddhahood is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it.
Questions: It seems that many Bodhisattvas vow to guide all beings to liberation before attaining Buddhahood for themselves. The process includes practice of the six perfections (generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom) as the means to perfect their Bodhisattvahood, which will result in Buddhahood. If so, it would seem that the perfections and vows should be fully accomplished at the same time? That is, Bodhisattvas perfect the perfections the very moment they have fulfilled their vows?
But if all Bodhisattvas vow to be Buddhas only after helping all beings, how can there be any Buddhas in the first place – since not all beings are liberated yet? It seems that Buddhas’ vows (which are identical with their earlier Bodhisattva vows) are not yet fulfilled, while they have already perfected the six perfections? If not, how could they be Buddhas? How can this paradox be resolved? If it cannot be resolved, wouldn’t the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas be lying?
Answers: There is really no paradox or lie. The truth is, all truly advanced Bodhisattvas necessarily become Buddhas before finishing guiding all beings to liberation. This is because only the perfect compassion and wisdom of Buddhas can complete this huge mission. The rationale behind the vow of not ‘retiring’ to enjoy the bliss of Buddhahood exemplifies strong dedication to help all beings unceasingly. However, this dedication naturally translates into diligence in perfecting the six perfections. Buddhahood is thus inevitable with continual advancement on the Bodhisattva path.
Thus, for Bodhisattvas to help others perfectly, they themselves have to become perfect – by perfecting the perfections. It thus does not make sense to refrain from perfecting oneself (becoming a Buddha) if one aspires to help others perfectly. Bodhisattvas become perfect Bodhisattvas only when they become Buddhas. However, living up to their word (vows) of not resting on their laurels of Buddhahood, each Buddha will continually re-manifest in the myriad forms of Bodhisattvas to resume helping those in need. Isn’t this incredibly touching?
That is to say, all truly advanced and thus perfect Bodhisattvas are really the re-manifestations of ancient Buddhas. For example, Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) Bodhisattva had already attained Buddhahood a long time (many aeons) ago. Due to Buddhas being the embodiment of perfect compassion, they never retire from selflessly helping those in need. While this might sound immeasurably tedious or tiring, it is not – because they have realised the truth of non-self fully. There is simply no self who gets tired!
All the four key Bodhisattvas [who represent the perfect compassion (Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva), wisdom (Manjusri Bodhisattva), aspiration (Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva) and practice (Samanthabadra Bodhisattva) of all Buddhas] are manifested from ancient Buddhas. This is how they can personify their respective qualities perfectly – as only Buddhas have these qualities perfected. As the perfection of any one of the above qualities is interdependent on perfecting the other three qualities (based on the principle of ‘one in all and all in one’), every one of these Bodhisattvas are equally spiritually balanced and perfect.
Why do perfect Bodhisattvas (who are already Buddhas) not simply benefit beings in the form of Buddhas? Due to the different spiritual capacities and karmic affinities of unenlightened beings, it is more skilful to touch and transform some of them with the forms of Bodhisattvas. The model or image of untiring great Bodhisattvas also serves to inspire many, bridging them to Bodhisatttvahood, which links to Buddhahood. Bodhisattvas also manifest unlimited ‘non-Bodhisattva’ forms in a multi-tasking manner to skilfully assist beings. For example, they might even manifest as ordinary-looking ‘unenlightened’ lay people, who share a crucial piece of advice with you before walking away!
A common related question is whether it is even possible to finish the seemingly insurmountable task of guiding each and every being to liberation. This is really a wrongly asked question. When Bodhisattvas fully realise the reality of non-self, they also realise that there are no beings or other ‘selves’ out there to be saved. Hence, as somehow aligned to the Bodhisattva vow (to become a Buddha only when all are saved), ‘all beings’ are indeed somewhat ‘saved’ when one becomes a Buddha! (For beings seeking birth in Pure Land, the realisation of non-self can be attained there. Thereafter, they can readily function as selfless Bodhisattvas.) The realisation and functioning of non-self is the most complete when Bodhisattvas become Buddhas.
As taught by the Buddha in the Diamond Sutra – ‘Whenever someone announces, “I want to follow the Bodhisattva path because I want to save all sentient beings… for I vow to lead every individual being to Nirvana; and not until they are all safely there will I reap my reward and enter Nirvana!”… you should remind such a vow-taker that even if such uncountable numbers of beings were so liberated, in reality no beings would have been liberated. A Bodhisattva does not cling to the illusion of separate individuality or ego-entity or personal identification. In reality, there is no “I” who liberates and no “they” who are liberated.’
Of course, the moment one personally realises that all beings have no ‘selves’ is not the moment all other beings realise the same truth. For this reason, out of pure compassion to help the unenlightened realise non-self, the Buddhas will manifest as Bodhisattvas. While perfect Bodhisattvas (who are Buddhas) appear to still be practising the path towards the fruit of Buddhahood, the path and the fruit are already one for them.