Dharma Flower Sutra
Translated into English by Bhiksuni Heng Yin
Reviewed by Bhiksuni Heng Ch’ih
At that time, the Elder/the Buddha, seeing that all his, sons have gotten out safely and are seated on the ground at the crossroads/The Buddha saw the living beings had gotten out of the burning house and were sitting on the ground at the crossroads. The crossroads represents the method of contemplation of the Four Truths: the method of contemplation of suffering, the method of contemplation of origination, the method of contemplation of extinction, and the wisdom of the Way. "On the ground" means that, in cultivating the Four Truths to certify to the fruit, one severs entirely the delusions of views and thought in the three realms. "Seated" means they have certified to the fruit and do not seek further progress. Certifying to the first fruit, one does not seek the second; certifying to the second fruit one does not seek the third, and so on. One just sits there and stops.
People in the three realms are as if tied up by the revolving wheel of the six paths. Now, seated at the crossroads they have transcended the revolving wheel. What is meant by his mind at peace. The Buddha's heart was at peace, because he had seen all living beings safely get out of the burning house and certify to the fruit of Arhatship. He was filled with joy/because the disciples had avoided the disaster. What disaster? That of being burned by the eight sufferings, five skandhas, six senses, twelve places, and the eighteen realms--the various kinds of suffering—and so the Buddha was filled with joy.
A father may have sons or daughters who have to undergo some danger or trouble. When he hears that his sons and daughters have escaped danger, he is very happy. This is like now, everyone here is very vigorous in studying the Buddhadharma and comes to listen to the Dharma. During the day they work, and it's very tiring. When time comes for the Sutra lecture, no matter how far away they are, they come to listen. This causes your teacher's heart to be very happy. He thinks, "These students of the Dharma are so sincere." If none of you came to hear the Buddhadharma as I was lecturing here, it would be like when Dharma Master Yin-Kuang lectured in Nanking-only one person was in the audience, night after night. Finally, he spoke with him and said, "So you find my Sutra lectures interesting, do you?"
The man replied, "I don't have any idea what you are talking about. I don't understand any of it."
"Then what are you doing here?" said the Master Yin-Kuang.
"I'm waiting for you to finish so I can put the chairs away," he said.
Master Yin kuang's heart was pained. "I thought I had a real friend here when all the time there wasn't a single one!" Master Yin-Kuang had a lot of Way virtue. He went into seclusion on Mount Pu-T’ou for eighteen years and saw no guests in all that time. What was he doing those eighteen years? Reading the Tripitaka. Later he wrote many articles. They are extremely good, because he developed his wisdom by reading the Tripitaka. He was the Thirteenth Patriarch of the Pure Land School. He had a lot of virtuous practice, yet no one listened to him lecture on the Sutras. Why not? Because he didn't do a lot of advertising or pressure people into coming. He never put ads in the paper.
Now, when I am lecturing in Chinese and so many Westerners come to listen, my lectures are translated into English. Whose merit is this? The translators'. If no one translated, no one would know what I was saying. So I am very happy.
Speaking of children fighting to get out of the burning house, that reminds me of a story. There was once an old married couple who cultivated the Pure Land Dharma-door. They recited "Namo Amitabha Buddha" everyday. Someone told them, "When you recite, you should get the Buddha-recitation samadhi. After you obtain that samadhi, when the wind blows, it won't blow on you, and the rain won't fall on you. At that time you will certainly gain great advantage."
One day, the old couple's daughter-in-law had to go to work. She couldn't find a babysitter for her three and four year old children, so she gave them to the old couple to look after. The children were very mischievous and started playing with matches, lighting little fires. The old man told the old lady, "Go tell the kids not to light fires. They could burn the house down!"
The woman said, "You just keep minding trivial matters. How can you expect to attain the Buddha-recitation samadhi that way? The Buddha-recitation samadhi means you can't pay attention to any external matters at all. What are you doing watching over the kids?"
The old man thought, "All right. I'll just forget it," and continued his recitation. "If I keep reciting the Buddha's name, it will generate enough merit to keep the house from catching on fire."
So the two of them kept reciting until, finally, the house did catch on fire! The old couple didn't even know, because they weren't paying any attention. When a neighbor came over to put out the fire, he saw the house was half-burned already and the other half was going fast, but the old couple was just sitting there reciting the Buddha's name. "How can you ignore the children, let the house burn down, and not even get out yourselves?" he cried.
The old man glanced at his wife and said, "See? I told you the kids were playing with fire, and you said to pay no attention to it but to concentrate on getting the Buddha-recitation samadhi. The house has burned down; have you got the samadhi?"
The old woman said, "Well, why wasn't the recitation effective? We recited and the house burned down anyway. Probably there's nothing efficacious about recitation at all." Actually, she was just superstitious. Kids don't know what is going on. They have to be watched over. You can't just let them play with fire. Thus, a perfectly good home turned into a burning house. Although they didn't get out themselves, luckily a good knowing advisor was able to rescue them at the last minute.
Now, we are talking about getting out of the burning house; we shouldn't act as stupidly and superstitiously as that old couple. Don't think that just because you recite the Buddha's name there will be no fires. Recitation brings its own merit and virtue, but if you don't watch over the children, the danger of fire is still ever-present.
Someone asks, "The Sutra says that if one who recites the name of Kuan-yin Bodhisattva happens to enter into a great fire, the fire will not burn them. Why, when they were reciting Amitabha Buddha did the house catch on fire?"
The Sutra is referring to one who accidentally "happens" to enter a great fire. If someone is standing there while the house accidentally catches fire, that situation differs from the former. The first is a fire, which could not be prevented. The latter is one, which the old man already knew about, but ignored. They knew the kids might start a fire, but paid them no mind. Thus, the house caught fire.
Students of the Buddhadharma shouldn't be like that old couple. Don't think that you can rely on reciting the Buddha's name and nothing will happen. That's just being stupid. Reciting the Buddha's name is reciting the Buddha's name, but if something happens, you have to be prepared. It is said, "If you are prepared, there are no emergencies."
Then the children all spoke to their father saying, "Father, the fine playthings you promised us a while ago, the sheep carts, the deer carts, and the ox carts, please give them to us now."
This is the section of text in which the children all demand their carts. The three carts are an analogy for the positions of the Three Vehicles. Because they wish to obtain the Three Vehicles, they must transcend the three realms. Once one has transcended the three realms, the Three Vehicle fruits are ultimately unobtainable. The Three Vehicles are all the provisional teaching, ultimately unobtainable and non-existent, during the Vaipulya Teaching Period those of the Three Vehicles were scolded by the Buddha. During the Vaipulya Period, those who studied the Storehouse teaching, the pervasive teaching, and the Separate teaching were all reprimanded. He told them, "You are withered sprouts and sterile seeds! You are all just self-ending Arhats who only watch over themselves. You are corrupt elements. You have no guts at all. When I teach you, you pay no attention and you don't even follow the rules. You don't practice any of the Dharma methods I teach you. You are so lazy!"
Then he spoke in praise of the Perfect Teaching. He said, "You of the Perfect Teaching are not bad. You have a bit of spunk." He rewarded those of the Perfect Teaching, those beings with potential, which is perfectly penetrating without obstruction. "They really cultivate well. Their skill has about matured."
During the Vaipulya Period the Buddha scolded the partial and the small and praised the great and rewarded the Perfect.
During the Prajna Period of the Buddha's teaching a process of selection went on, to see who had the Great Vehicle dispositions and which had the Small Vehicle dispositions. All the disciples went through many selection processes. So the Buddha, in several decades, taught and transformed Sages who had certified to the fruit, obtained Arhatship and cultivated the Bodhisattva Vehicle. This gradual process of transformation took several decades.
The Dharma Flower Sutra itself says, "The expedients are not real." This means that the three types of provisional dharmas taught previously were nothing but expedients. They are not real, actual Dharma. You should not misunderstand. Before, you were not ready to receive the true Dharma, and so I did not teach it to you. Now, in the Dharma Flower Assembly the truth is coining out, the genuine Dharma is being spoken. Sariputra very respectfully requested the Buddha three times to speak the Sutra, until the Buddha finally agreed to speak it. The three requests are what is represented in the analogy by the words: "asking for the three carts," the deer carts, the sheep carts, and the ox carts. They want the Three Vehicles from the Buddha.
Sariputra and the entire assembly were extremely sincere and earnest in their request that the Buddha speak the true Dharma. The three requests refers to the Sound Hearers, the Conditioned-Enlightened Ones and the Bodhisattvas asking for the carts. The children want their toys.
Previously, the three types of provisional dharmas were taught; now the one real Dharma is being taught. That is the Great Vehicle, which is for living beings with the Great Vehicle potential. They have brought forth the resolve to cultivate the Great Vehicle, to go from the small towards the great. However, we must realize that during the Vaipulya Period those of the Three Vehicles received a lot of scoldings from the Buddha. He taught and transformed them for a long time. Sometimes the Buddha reasoned with them and other times he upbraided them. However, they didn't know what to do. There were living beings then who wanted to seek the Great Vehicle Buddhadharma, but didn't know how to go about asking for it. It was not until the Prajna Assembly, when Prajna was being taught, that "the teaching was passed on and the wealth was bequeathed." The teaching passed from the Small Vehicle to the Great Vehicle, just as a father will hand down his wealth to his children.
In the Prajna period, when the teaching was passed on, the living beings didn't know ultimately whether or not they could obtain the wonderful Great Vehicle Dharma. It was at this point that they got the idea to seek the Great Vehicle. Although the idea arose, they didn't understand until the Dharma Flower Assembly when Sariputra earnestly requested three times, by speaking up and asking for the carts. Thus this section is the children speaking up and demanding the carts. They said, Father, the fine playthings you promised us a while ago, the sheep carts, deer carts, and the ox carts, please give them to us now/Daddy, you promised to give us those neat toys. We want them right now!"
O Sariputra, at that time the Elder gives to all of his sons, equally, a great cart.
Sakyamuni Buddha calls out again, O Sariputra, at
that time, the Elder gives to all of his sons/The sons represent all living
beings. Because all beings are equal, it says, "all the sons." Equal
means that they are equal with the Buddha. Living beings and the Buddha are equal.
Living beings and the mind are also equal. This is an analogy showing that all living
beings have the Buddha nature and all can become Buddhas.
||Since the Buddha nature is the same in all of them, they are all the Buddha's children. The Buddha's heart is not fond of any one particular living being. They are all treated alike. He is extremely compassionate towards all living beings, and so he gives to all of his sons, equally, a great cart/The equal giving of the great cart represents the Buddhadharma as equal, without distinctions. So, it is said, "All dharmas are the Buddhadharma." The analogy is to the Great Vehicle Mahayana Teaching, the genuine Buddhadharma. It is different from the three provisional dharmas, which preceded it.|
However, the preceding provisional dharmas are also subtle, wonderful, and inconceivable. Although they are provisional dharmas, they were set forth for the sake of the real. They are essentially the same. Thus, he gives them all the Great Vehicle Dharma. All the sons get a big cart. Though he gives them the Great Vehicle Buddhadharma, each of them in the distant past had their habits and their particular emphasis in study and practice. For example, some had cultivated the Four Truths. Some studied the Twelve Conditioned Causes. Others practiced the Six Perfections. The Truths, Conditions, and Perfections, the Four Unlimited Thoughts of the Buddha—these were all practiced. There were also the form dharmas and the mind dharmas. There were opposing and according dharmas, dharmas of dependent and proper retribution, phenomenal and nominal dharmas. There were those who cultivated cause and those who cultivated effect, those who cultivated their own dharmas and those who cultivated dharmas of others. There were those who cultivated the dharmas of understanding and those who cultivated the dharmas of delusion, that is, dharmas of liberation and dharmas of confusion. There were those who cultivated many or great dharmas and those who cultivated small or few dharmas. There were those who cultivated dharmas of blessings and those who cultivated dharmas of wisdom. How did they cultivate blessings? In all situations, they took the short end of the deal and didn't try to get off cheaply. They benefited others and not themselves. They helped others and didn't ask others to help them. If you help others long enough, you will naturally obtain blessings. Suppose you see a person who has no blessings at all. If he has twenty cents in his hand he is likely to buy something that makes him sick or something that will cause him some other kind of trouble. Why doesn't he have any blessings? He has never cultivated blessings. Cultivating blessings isn't just helping people out. It means also not obstructing people and not causing them to be unhappy with you. If you obstruct others you are throwing away your blessings.
You may argue, "But isn't that practicing giving?"
Right. It's giving. But if you give away your blessings like that, no one actually receives your gift, and no one gets any benefit out of the transaction.
For example, you give away your blessings by slamming the door when entering the hall where others are meditating, studying, or doing other types of work. If you cause those meditating to jump, keeping them from entering samadhi, then you've just given away your blessings. Or if the sound scatters the students' concentration as they translate Sutras, then you have just given away your blessings, thrown them away. In general, anything, which gets in other people's way and makes them unhappy, is all "giving away" your blessings.
As another example: You have all taken refuge with the Triple Jewel, and bowed to me, such a stupid person, as your teacher. Why do I say that I am stupid? Because I often give rise to afflictions and that is a manifestation of stupidity. How do I give rise to afflictions? Perhaps one of you disobeys. When you took refuge with me you said that you would offer up your conduct in accord with the teaching. But after you took refuge you just turn your back on the teaching and refuse to practice it. You reject my teachings and don't obey them. Why did you take a teacher? If you want to study the Buddhadharma, you must do so in a straightforward manner, not just haphazardly. In China, when Dharma Master Hsuan-tsang went to India to get the Sutras, he was tormented by demons and suffered considerably to obtain the Dharma. Now, it's very simple to listen to the Sutras and study the Dharma. If you don't study properly now, you are really lacking virtuous practice. In previous lives you did not plant good roots, and so now you can't study the Dharma properly. Because you don't study properly, you make your stupid teacher very upset. Last year I remember there were two disciples to whom I said, "You do a good job. Study the Buddhadharma and don't give me a lot of trouble. If you continue to give me trouble, and fail to study properly, then not only are you failing to support your teacher's Dharma, but you are destroying it."
The causes and effects involved with destroying the Dharma bear consequences, which are so dangerous they can't even be spoken of. If you make trouble in a Bodhimanda, make trouble for your teacher, or make trouble for the Triple Jewel, you are "giving away" your blessings, and soon you will have none. If you have no blessings, then you will most certainly not succeed in your cultivation of the Way.
As to cultivating wisdom, one must respect the Sutras. You can't just read them and expect to develop wisdom. You must treat them with great respect. The T'ien-t'ai Master Chih-che, for example, after hearing only the title of The Surangama Sutra bowed towards India, where the Sutra was, every day for eighteen years, but he never saw the Sutra. In China, Great Master Chih-che was enlightened while reading The Dharma Flower Sutra. There were also many other Dharma Masters who bowed to The Dharma Flower Sutra, The Surangama Sutra, and to The Avatamsaka Sutra, to every word in them. They bowed once for every word in the Sutra, using an ancient coin, the kind with a hole in it, to mark their place. They bowed to them in that way for their entire lifetimes. You can open your wisdom either by bowing to Sutras or by reading them. I will tell you something that is extremely important, and do not let it go in one ear and out the other: You must practice what you know. You can't just read the Sutra and think, "I understand the principle," and let it go at that. You must actually do what the Sutras instruct you to do. The Sutras tell you to get rid of all your faults and you must do that. If you don't get rid of your faults, you might as well not study the Buddhadharma. The Buddhadharma is just that inconvenient. If you think you can study it and hold on to your imperfections, it can't be done. This is one point to which everyone should pay special attention. I'm not joking with you. If you don't get rid of your faults and deliberately violate the Dharma's regulations, then you'd be better off not studying the Dharma at all. If you do, you'll certainly wind up in the hells.
Another thing, in cultivating the Way, everyone has to watch over themselves and do everything they can to get rid of their bad habits and faults. I look upon all of you equally. I'm not insisting that you improve instantly, but I hope that you will gradually improve and get rid of your faults. I am deeply concerned for all of you and I watch after you. I worry about your faults more than I do my own, in fact, because I hope that all of you can be better than I. I hope that you will blaze the trail for Buddhism in the West, and be pioneers, as it were. Don't look upon yourselves lightly.
If you were to speak about dharmas in detail, there are limitless and boundless dharmas, and so it is said,
All dharmas are the Buddhadharma.
All you need to do is understand and it's the Buddhadharma. When you don't understand, it is still the Buddhadharma. The only difference is that you don't understand it.
So you have now understood a bit of the meaning of the Buddhadharma. You should go forward and actually practice it. Don't be sloppy about it. The Sound Hearers, the children, all of them had their dharmas, which they had practiced in former days, but they were all provisional teachings. They were not the real teaching. Now the real begins. That is why, today, I have told you all some real Dharma. No one should be afraid of making a mistake. Just be afraid you won't correct it. If you don't correct your mistakes, not only do I have no way to help you, but even Sakyamuni Buddha himself couldn't save you!
The dharmas they studied before were all different, and so the text says, all/Although they were different then, now they are equal/You all get the Mahayana Teaching. In the Great Vehicle Dharma:
One includes all.
It is universally perfect,
The Great Vehicle Dharma includes all dharmas. It is complete with all dharmas. All living beings can obtain it. That's why it's called the Great Cart! It is just the Great Vehicle, real wisdom. So the Buddha says, "Sariputra! At that time the Elder gave to all of his sons equally a great, cart." Every living being gets a cart. There is no partiality and no one is excluded. Everyone gets one. That's why The Dharma Flower Sutra is said to open the provisional to reveal the actual. This is the wonderful doctrine of the Great Vehicle.
The cart is high and wide, adorned with a multitude of intertwining jewels, surrounded by railings, and hung with bells on its four sides. Further, it is covered with canopies, adorned with various rare and precious jewels, strung with jeweled cords and hung with flowered tassels. The cart is heaped with beautiful mats and set about with rosy cushions. It is yoked to an ox, plump and white and of fine appearance, of great muscular strength, who walks with even tread, as fleet as the wind, having also many servants who follow and guard it.
The cart is high and wide/Ultimately, how high and how wide is it? High and wide describes the appearance of the cart, but the cart itself is an analogy, so no one can tell exactly how high or wide it is. The cart is an analogy for the Great Vehicle Dharma.
Someone once said to me, "This person cultivates the Great Vehicle and that person cultivates the Small Vehicle."
I replied, "How big is the Great Vehicle? How small is the Small Vehicle? How big does it have to be before it qualifies as 'Great?' How small does it have to be before it is considered 'Small?' Where do you draw the line?"
The Great Vehicle is so high you cannot see its top, and so broad you cannot see its borders. This, again, is an analogy. High and wide represent the knowledge and vision of the Thus Come One. The knowledge of the Thus Come One is all-wisdom, and the vision of the Thus Come One is the Buddha-eye. With his vision, there is nothing the Buddha fails to see; with his knowledge, there is nothing he does not know. Horizontally, its boundaries encompass the entire Dharma Realm. And how far do the boundaries of the Dharma Realm extend? There is nothing beyond them. No one can discover the borders of the Dharma Realm. No one can determine the boundaries of the Dharma Realm. Why not? Because the Dharma Realm includes the Three Thousand Great Thousand World systems within it.
Can we measure the Three Thousand Great Thousand Worlds in terms of numbers?
Therefore, horizontally the Thus Come One's knowledge and vision encompasses the borders of the Dharma Realm.
Vertically, it plumbs the depths of the Three Truths. The Three Truths are: the empty, the false, and the middle. These Three Truths include all the Buddhadharmas. Therefore, the knowledge and vision of the Thus Come One is complete with all the Buddhadharmas.
Thus, the cart is high and wide.
Adorned with a multitude of intertwining jewels/The jewels are hooked together and strung as adornments. There are many different kinds of them strung together to adorn the cart and make it beautiful.
This, too, is an analogy. It represents the ten thousand practices adorning our Dharma Body. "Adorned and intertwining" means that we must cultivate in order to perfect the ten thousand practices. If you don't cultivate, you can't perfect them. So the cart is adorned with a multitude of intertwining jewels, and this means that we must very reliably practice the methods of the ten thousand conducts.
||The ‘jewels’ represent the 10,000 practices. ‘Intertwining’ means cultivating them.|
Surrounded by railings/According to the words of the text, we would say that the cart was surrounded by railings on all four sides. Hang with bells on its four sides/ These bells make beautiful sounds. These phrases are also analogies, as is the entire chapter. You can't explain them according to the literal meaning.
The Parable Chapter is the hardest chapter in the entire Sutra to explain and the hardest to understand. However, if you deeply enter the principles of the Sutra, then this chapter is the most valuable and the most important to explain. If you can understand the Parable Chapter of The Lotus Sutra, you will be able to understand the other chapters very easily.
You could also say that this was the easiest chapter to explain. How's that? If you understand it, it's easy! If you don't understand it, then it's very difficult. In fact, everything works this way.
The railings represent Dharani. Dharani is a Sanskrit word which means "uniting and holding." The phrase above "adorned with a multitude of intertwining jewels" referred to cultivation on the causal ground of the ten thousand conducts and the resulting fruit of the ten thousand virtues. Surrounded by railings/represents the Dharani.
What are the uses of the Dharani? They are limitless and boundless. "Uniting" means that it unites all dharmas; it collects all dharmas together. "Upholding" means that it upholds limitless meanings. Dharani also means that you "unite and uphold" the three karmic vehicles, body, mouth, and mind, and commit no violations. You uphold all the Buddhadharmas. Why do we say that they surround the cart? This means that the Dharani can uphold the ten thousand good deeds. It also suppresses the mass of evils. It suppresses the mass of evils so that, without any outward manifestation, they are all eradicated. It supports all good deeds, so they can be done. This is what is meant by the saying:
Do no evil;
Practice all good deeds.
The bells make a sound when they are struck or when they move. This represents the Four Types of Unobstructed Eloquence:
1. Unlimited eloquence in speech.
2. Unlimited eloquence in dharma.
3. Unlimited eloquence in meaning.
Unlimited eloquence in delight in speech.
The bells sound represents the 4 types of unobstructed eloquence."
As to the first, unlimited eloquence in speech, the poem I lectured earlier, "The Return" is a good example of a work by one who possessed this eloquence. Although a recluse, T'ao Yuan-ming still wrote this poem. He could not hide away. In fact, even today people still read his work. The things he said were phrased very well, and his words were moving. People who did not believe in the Buddhadharma were influenced to believe through his writing.
The second, unlimited eloquence in dharma means that, although it may be the same dharma, one can express it in terms of the ten thousand dharmas. Then, one can bring it back to one dharma.
It is said,
The single root divides into ten thousand branches;
The ten thousand branches return to a single root.
This means that one principle expands into limitless doctrines, and those limitless doctrines again return to the one principle. Thus,
One is all and all is one.
"All come into being through the accumulation of many "ones." And where does the "one" come from? It appears out of the many. Therefore, one is many and many are one. There are no fixed dharmas. Whether you speak horizontally or vertically--no matter how you speak—it's still dharma.
The third is unobstructed eloquence in meaning. Meaning refers to the principles and what they mean. There are a great many of them. Yet the great number of meanings are just "no meanings." So there is unobstructed eloquence in meaning.
The fourth is unobstructed eloquence in delight in speech. The speaker of Dharma does not speak for those who are not interested. For those who are interested, he speaks the Dharma like flowing water. The doctrines he explains are limitless and endless, and he enjoys speaking the Dharma.
Further, it is covered with canopies/Beautiful silks and satins covered the cart. This is an analogy for the Four Unlimited Minds of the Buddha, kindness, compassion, joy, and giving.
Kindness means to make living beings happy. Compassion means to relieve them of their sufferings. Joy means to rejoice in teaching and transforming living beings. Giving means that he gives to all poor living beings. The Buddha has great virtuous conduct because he has unlimited kindness, compassion, joy, and giving.
Of all the virtuous practices, kindness and compassion are the highest. They are the greatest, and so the Buddha protects all beings. The Sutra says, "With compassion you can perfect the Ten Powers and Four Fearlessnesses." This is the Thus Come One's compassion. The Buddha's kindness, compassion, joy and giving are boundless. The canopies represent these Four Unlimited Minds. He cultivates the practices of the Four Unlimited Minds and therefore accomplishes his pure Brahma conduct.
Adorned with various rare and precious jewels/This represents the cultivation of the ten thousand conducts in order to adorn the Four Unlimited Minds. The beauty of the cart means that in the Great Vehicle Dharma one must perfect the Six Perfections and the ten thousand conducts, that is, all the Dharma-doors to adorn the Great Vehicle Dharma.
"Canopies are an analogy for the 4 unlimited minds of the Buddha."
"Rare jewels represent the cultivation of the 10,000 conducts to adorn the 4 unlimited minds."
"Jeweled cords represent 4 vast vows."
1. I vow to save the infinite number of beings.
2. I vow to sever the endless afflictions.
3. I vow to study the limitless Dharma-doors.
4. I vow to realize the Supreme Buddha Way.
But the Four Vast Vows are not something simply to be recited. You must actually put them into practice. You, personally, must do all you can to fulfill these Four Vows. If you just recite them, that's useless. You must return the light and reverse the illumination and ask yourself: "I have vowed to save the infinite number of beings. Have I saved any? If I have, well, that's the Bodhisattva Way. If I have not, I better start saving them." However, when you save living beings, you must not become attached to the mark of saving living beings. Don't say, "I saved that one, and that one..." Separate from all marks, for that is the essence of the Dharma.
I vow to sever the endless afflictions. Ask yourself every day. "Have I severed them or not? If not, I'd better." Unless you sever your afflictions, you will never be free of them.
How does one sever afflictions? It's not hard at all. It's not a matter of taking a knife and slicing them off. You should know that affliction is Bodhi. Affliction itself is Bodhi, just like ice is water and water is ice. All you need to do is melt the ice of your affliction into the wisdom water of Bodhi, and you will have severed those afflictions. Do not search for afflictions apart from Bodhi. Do not look for Bodhi apart from afflictions. They are one thing. If you know how to use it, it's Bodhi. If you don't know how to use it, it's affliction. Why do we say that living beings are the Buddha and the Buddha is living beings? When you have saved all living beings you are a Buddha. If you haven't saved all living beings, you are still a living being. There is no difference between living beings and the Buddha. All you need to do is wake up and then you are a Buddha. When you are confused, you are a living being. Don't search outside of yourself for living beings to save. That's just seeking outwardly. When you have saved all the living beings in your own self-nature, then you have saved all living beings.
The Sixth Patriarch Sutra says, I vow to save the infinite number of beings in the self nature." Why doesn't it refer to the infinite number of living beings in someone else's self-nature? It says "self nature because all living beings are one. There is no "you" or "me" or "them." All are included within the self-nature.
"I vow to sever the afflictions in the self nature? Note that is says "self" nature. You can't say. Hey, you've studied the Buddha-dharma for so long, how come you haven't severed your afflictions?" If you had severed your own afflictions, you would not see the afflictions of others. When you have severed afflictions, then even when living beings have afflictions, you do not see them as such. You just think, "Well, that's the way living beings are. If they weren't like that, they wouldn't be living beings. They can't change their basic make-up. Living beings are just living beings."
What about the Buddha? He's just the Buddha! The Buddha is not different from living beings.
Enlightened, you are a Buddha.
Confused, you are a living being.
There is no difference between enlightenment and confusion, either. If you are not confused, you are enlightened. If you are not enlightened, you are confused. There's no real difference. It's just like ice and water.
"I vow to study the limitless Dharma-doors." "Have I studied them? Ah...All I did today was sleep. I didn't do anything." You didn't do anything? You've got to study!
"I vow to realize the Supreme Buddha Path." Have you realized it? No? Would you like to realize it?
"Well, let me think it over..." If you think it over, you'll have to wait another three great kalpas. If you don't think it over, you don't have to wait. You can become a Buddha tomorrow, because you don't have to think it over! If you are determined to become a Buddha, you will. Those who are determined are successful The Buddha is just waiting for you to realize Buddhahood. If you do not want to, the Buddha won't force you to. You must want to cultivate the Dharma and accomplish the Buddha Path. If you haven't realized Buddhahood, you've got to cultivate. If you don't cultivate, you can't arrive at the position of Buddhahood.
Hung with flowered tassels/These represent the Four Methods of Conversion:
2. Kind words,
3. Beneficial conduct, and
It is said,
If you want to lead them to the Buddha's wisdom,
First bait the hook with something they like!