216 – El Cuádruple Voto del Bodhisattva Parte 1: Liberando a Todos los Seres
217 – El Cuádruple Voto del Bodhisattva parte 2: Poner Fin a Todas la Ilusiones

This is episode two in my series on the Fourfold Bodhisattva Vow (also called the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows). In the first episode of the series (216), I discussed the spirit of the bodhisattva vows in general, and then when into detail about the first vow about saving all beings. In this episode I will explore second vow about ending all delusions.

Read/listen to The Fourfold Bodhisattva Vow Part 1: Freeing All Beings or Part 3: Entering Dharma Gates & Attaining Buddhahood



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Delusion Is the Source of Suffering
Willful Behavior Change Versus Seeing through Delusion
Cleaning Up as Much Karma as We Can in this Lifetime
Self-Transcendence through Ending Delusions
Polishing the Mirror to Clear Away Delusions
Belief in Inherent Self-Nature as the Fundamental Delusion
We End Delusions Through Effort and Insight


In my Soto Zen lineage, the bodhisattva vows go like this:

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

The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it

To briefly review the spirit of the Fourfold Bodhisattva Vow, in Mahayana Buddhism we’re all encouraged to see ourselves as on the bodhisattva path. We’re discouraged from concluding we’re just ordinary practitioners who shouldn’t aspire too much, and that the bodhisattva path is only for spiritual athletes.

Because the bodhisattva path is so infinite (the vows are deliberately phrased to be impossible), we never say, “Good enough.” In a sense, deciding we’re “good enough” is essentially selfish – we figure we don’t have to make a strenuous effort in practice anymore – and it usually means we will fall short of our potential. It’s tempting to decide our lives are “good enough” as long we aren’t suffering all that badly. We may figure that as long as we’re not that bad a person – no worse than average anyway, and probably better than average – we can wash our hands of responsibility for everything else. But an aspiring bodhisattva does not do this. As I mentioned in the last episode, a bodhisattva never says, “Not my problem.”

But at the same time, Zen is not a self-improvement project. This isn’t about adopting an impossible ideal and constantly measuring ourselves as wanting. That would be taking the whole world on our shoulders. There’s an art to living the bodhisattva vow. It’s not easy or straightforward. It’s an important part of our practice to figure out what the bodhisattva vows actually mean to our lives.

Delusion Is the Source of Suffering

That brings us to the second vow, one that has the potential to inspire an endless self-improvement project: Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them. It’s understood that we mean to end all delusions.

It’s very significant that our second vow is about delusions, not flaws. As we understand it in Buddhism, we act in harmful and selfish ways because of delusion. Beings naturally want to avoid suffering and be happy. This is fundamental to being a living being. Even amoebas move away from something they perceive as threatening and move towards something they perceive as nourishing. Seeking well-being is fundamental to being a living thing. It’s natural and appropriate to want to stay away from things that we perceive as causing us pain, difficulty, or suffering and to move toward things we perceive as bringing security, happiness, status or some other kind of benefit. Fundamentally, that motivation isn’t a bad thing – it’s how our ancestors survived.

The problem comes in our perceptions. We often do not see situations clearly or make the connections between cause and effect. Our perceptions are often warped by self-concern, or by preoccupation with the short-term.

When you look around the world, no matter how terrible someone’s actions, when you get down to it, they are just trying to avoid suffering and be happy. Their idea of what happiness means, or how to achieve it, might be very, very twisted. The person’s perceptions of what brings happiness or causes suffering may be completely mistaken. Their reasoning about what actions to take to advance their well-being, conscious or not, may be so warped we can’t even fathom it, but nonetheless at a basic level they have the same motivation for self-preservation and promotion we do.

As we seek satisfaction and safety, I like to say, “We end up looking for love in all the wrong places.” It’s the delusions we labor under that lead us to cause harm for self and other.

What are a few of these delusions that cause us trouble?

  • We can gain permanent security, comfort, and pleasure from material things – that sensual pleasure can fulfill all of our longings.
  • We can advance our own self-interest at the expense of others without repercussions (even if those repercussions are only internal, there are always repercussions).
  • Short-term payoff from indulging harmful habits is worth the long-term costs.
  • Everyone cares what we do and think.
  • No one cares what we do and think.
  • Getting what we want by unleashing anger is justified and effective.
  • The respect and admiration of others will make our life worth living.
  • The world would be a wonderful place if it weren’t for those
  • Paying attention to the random thoughts in my head during zazen will ultimately be fulfilling.
  • I am inherently flawed and unlovable.
  • I can’t be happy unless the past is undone, or the person who has hurt me changes or apologizes.

The list goes on and on.

Willful Behavior Change Versus Seeing through Delusion

Here’s Buddhist practice in a nutshell: If we see reality clearly, our natural desire to avoid suffering will lead us to practice, and to moral and skillful behavior. Seeing reality clearly includes seeing for ourselves, through our own direct experience, that fallacy of the kinds of delusions I just listed. When, for example, we recognize the idea that “I am inherently flawed and unlovable” is a delusion – a thought manufactured by our mind, applied to a self that doesn’t even exist the way we think it does – then we are freed from that thought, and are no longer inclined to act in the ways that thought caused us to. This is why so much of Buddhism emphasizes insight.

Of course, there’s a time and a place in our practice for simply trying to change our behavior through sheer force of will. Sometimes, long before we have enough insight to inspire deep transformation, we need to make an effort to simply stop doing harmful behaviors. This is especially true when those behaviors are self-perpetuating, like addictions. We may also need to change our habit energy to reduce harm to self and other. An example of this, of course, is if you if you are addicted to alcohol, you do whatever you can to stop drinking. You avoid alcohol, even being near it, and seek social support for intention to stay sober. A self-disciplined approach to harmful behaviors can help us get our lives under some measure of control. This part of our practice is reflected in our first Pure Precept about ceasing harmful action.

Our willful efforts to change our behavior benefit self and other in a tangible way, but they also can bring us closer to insight into the delusions that motivate such behavior. As we manage to think, speak, or act in different ways, we may recognize, “Oh, I don’t have to do that behavior!” Or, “Oh, if I do this thing instead, I feel better.” So, willful efforts to change our behavior can operate in a positive feedback loop with insights into reality.

Ultimately, however, lasting, transformative change happens because of, or along with, insight. We see a delusion for what it is. For example, we go, “Oh! The respect and admiration of others doesn’t make my life worth living. In fact, constantly seeking after that respect and admiration is exhausting and leads me away from who I really want to be.” If we see something like this clearly enough, our compulsion to strive for the positive opinions of others will be forever decreased. Depending on how much of a delusion we’ve seen through, insight can be a very permanent and transformative thing.

It’s important to understand, however, that transformative insight can’t be merely intellectual. After all, somebody may have told you 100 times that you shouldn’t care so much what other people think, but it didn’t make much difference to you. It’s only when you have a direct and personal insight that you go, “Oh! I get it!” This is why it usually doesn’t sound all that impressive when we describe our transformative insights to people. Our most important insights are generally personal experiences of common wisdom, so describing them out loud makes it sound like we just discovered the most obvious thing in the world.

However, personal experience in insight makes all the difference. It’s like how you can intellectually forgive your parents for mistakes they made in raising you, telling yourself that they were doing the best that they could. This view may help you somewhat, but even more transformative is the experience of having children of your own and being the same age as your parents were when they made their mistakes – and seeing firsthand how hard it is to raise kids. As you inevitably make your own mistakes and fall short, your previous insight about forgiving your parents takes on a whole new, visceral meaning.

Cleaning Up as Much Karma as We Can in this Lifetime

Under all our harmful and selfish actions are delusions. We think we’re going to avoid suffering or gain some kind of happiness by acting this way.

But we’re wrong. In fact, acting based on our delusions tends to only deepen the delusions, reinforce the harmful habits, alienate us from others, obscure our true nature, and cause us stress and dissatisfaction. In Buddhism, the delusions and associated habits that we have accumulated are called our “karma.” You might think of this as your “karmic package” – a crazy collection of results from all kinds of past human choices – your choices, your parents’ choices, the choices of your ancestors and the other people in your society and culture. Traditionally, karma is considered the law of behavioral cause-and-effect as it applies only to your own choices and how you experience the repercussions, but I believe this is a fallacious way of viewing karma because of our interdependence with all life. Regardless of how you view the past – regardless of how you figure you ended up with your particular “karmic package,” from here on out the only way you can affect this package is through the choices you make.

Our work in this lifetime – whether we’re on the arhat or the bodhisattva path – is to clean up our negative karma as best we can – to establish new habits of practice, which lead to the end of delusion, and which lead to wiser, more beneficial and skillful actions. In original Buddhism, with its view of rebirth, it was understood that this process of cleaning up our karma takes lifetimes. The Buddha himself, according to Buddhist mythology, lived many, many lifetimes. He worked on himself and gained insight life after life, eventually awakening and becoming a Buddha.

The center of a Buddhist Wheel of Life painting, showing greed, hate, and delusion (cock, snake, and pig) driving the process of human rebirth.

According to traditional Buddhist cosmology, which you can take metaphorically if you don’t believe in rebirth literally, it’s karma which causes you to be reborn. Once we achieve full insight and complete liberation, after our death we sort of dissolve into the universe (not a traditional Buddhist way to put it, but it’s tricky to describe). As long as we have unresolved karma, we end up being reborn. This means that anyone alive has unresolved karma to work on. It’s not a matter of shame or insufficiency, it’s just the way life works. We understand that the process of cleaning up our karma (also described as “exhausting” our karma) will take a long time, so we don’t worry too much about evaluating how much progress we’re making. We just continue our work of this lifetime diligently.

Even if you don’t literally believe in rebirth if you die, it’s clear to anyone that we leave karma behind when we die if we’ve been a real pain in the ass to everybody in our life. If we’ve lied, cheated, abused, stolen, or a whole host of other harmful activities. If we’ve done these kinds of things, we leave behind a karmic mess. Whether or not there’s some kind of person that goes through the ether and gets reborn into another life in order to inherit that mess, something is left. If we’re not ultimately separate from anything in the universe, if our self is actually boundaryless, then it doesn’t even make sense to differentiate who ends up experiencing misery from the karmic messes we make from some being who gets to escape to something better and gleefully leave the mess behind.

Contrast leaving a karmic mess with dying after having done our very best to clean up whatever karma we can. If we’ve tried to be generous, kind, and humble. If we tried to have a positive effect on people instead of using them for our own ends. When people like this die, it feels like a relatively “clean” death. The person hasn’t left behind a residue, or at least not much of one. They may not have been perfect, but their intention to do their best makes them easy to forgive.

Self-Transcendence through Ending Delusions

There one delusion that causes more problems than any others, and that’s the delusion that we have an inherently-existing, independent, enduring self-nature. Many of our other delusions, and all of our harmful behaviors, depend on this self-delusion.

Buddhism points the way to self-transcendence through seeing our delusion of enduring self-nature for what it is: A delusion! Almost all religions point to self-transcendence one way or another. They point out how we are mired in self-concern and say, “Yeah, it looks like that’s how you should look out for yourself. But actually, if you manage to transcend that limited sense of self and that compulsion to be driven by limited self-interest, life is much better. It’s much more rewarding to live a life of self-transcendence.”

In Buddhism the way to this self-transcendence is through moral behavior, but also through meditation and Dharma study. The Buddha taught the practice of mindfulness, which was methodically reflecting in meditation on our experience of body and mind. Gradually, we learn to discern the arising and passing of different states. We learn to disidentify with them, to recognize their impermanence. We notice a feeling or thought and know, “This is not self. This is not me.” We’re able to pay attention to our experience long enough to see the connections between causes and effects. When we realize a thought or behavior leads to suffering, we’re not as compelled to act it out. Mindfulness is a very systematic, methodical way of working to end all delusions. (See Episode 80 – Four Foundations of Mindfulness Practice and Similarities in Zen for how mindfulness practice relates to Zen.)

Polishing the Mirror to Clear Away Delusions

Our Buddhist practice, therefore, has two aspects to it. One involves hard work to improve our behavior and see through our many delusions. The other involves awakening to the emptiness of self, and thereby removing the fundamental basis for most of our delusions and harmful behaviors. We need to include both aspects in our practice.

The gradual effort versus transformative insight aspects of our practice are conveyed in a Chan text, the “Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra.” It tells the story of Huineng, our sixth Chan ancestor in China. According to the story, Huineng was an illiterate woodcutter. He happened to overhear somebody reciting a passage from the Diamond Sutra, and experienced an awakening (this would involve, at least in part, awakening to the emptiness of self).

Huineng then set off to a Chan monastery because he was curious about learning more. When he arrived, he was sent off to work in the rice pounding shed. He didn’t even get ordained, he was just working at the monastery. At one point it came time for the abbot of the monastery to designate a Dharma heir (someone to take over the monastery and lineage when he retired or passed away). The abbot asked the monks in the monastery to write poems reflecting their insight.

The senior monk at the monastery was Shenxiu [shen-shio]. He knew he didn’t really have that great an understanding, but he was the senior monk and everyone, including the abbot, was expecting him to submit a poem. So, he did so, posting it on a wall in the monastery. It said (this translation by Red Pine):

Our body is a bodhi tree
the mind is like a propped-up mirror
always keep it polished
don’t let it gather dust.[i]

The bodhi tree is the tree of enlightenment under which Shakyamuni Buddha awakened. The mind is like a propped-up mirror; the translator, Red Pine, says this refers to a round mirror that would have been made of bronze. It would tarnish quickly if you didn’t keep it polished. This poem, then, describes our effort to clean up our karma and gradually work on our many delusions. It takes diligence, constant effort, and a long time to do this work. If we neglect our practice, our clarity will become clouded over with delusion again.

This “polishing the mirror” part of our practice is essential and remains so forever. We practice the precepts. We aspire to the bodhisattva vow. We remain alert to our delusions. When we find ourselves acting or thinking selfishly, or experiencing fear or stress or anger, we know there’s delusion somewhere. We don’t beat ourselves up for that, delusions are inexhaustible. We just set about turning the light of mindfulness toward our experience – identifying, examining, seeing through our delusions so we can free ourselves and other beings. As we build faith in practice, we learn not to be too upset by recognizing we’ve gotten caught in delusion. We know that as long as we keep at it, learning and greater freedom are just a matter of time.

Belief in Inherent Self-Nature as the Fundamental Delusion

As aspiring bodhisattvas, however, we don’t limit our practice to polishing the mirror. We may strive to change our behavior and end our myriad delusions for lifetimes, but if the fundamental delusion of inherently-existing, independent, enduring self-nature persists, there is a serious limit to what we can do.

Let’s get back to our story of the sixth ancestor, Huineng, then. Back at the monastery, the abbot read Shenxiu’s poem and told all the monks it was wonderful and that they should memorize and recite it. A monk was doing just this when Huineng overhead him (remember, Huineng couldn’t read). Huineng recognizes that Shenxiu’s poem contained wisdom but was only partway there, so he asks the monk to post a poem on his behalf. Huineng writes:

Bodhi isn’t some kind of tree
this mirror doesn’t have a stand
our buddha nature is forever clear
where do you get this dust?

The mind is the bodhi tree
the body is the mirror’s stand
the mirror itself is so clear
dust has no place to land.

Inadvertently, we may reinforce our sense of self through our spiritual practice. This is liable to happen as long as we may remain stuck in a sense of the small “I.” This sneaky delusion can creep in anywhere: The “I” who polishes. The “I” who is defiled. The “I” who has a mirror that needs to be cleaned. The “I” who can evaluate our progress on the spiritual path. The “I” who succeeds and feels free, or who remains stuck or inadequate. The “I” who longs for freedom.

We may have worked very hard on ourselves, polishing away our delusions, but at some point, we recognize these are all secondary delusions and the fundamental one has remained.

Why is it so important to see through the fundamental delusion of inherent self-nature? Because it changes our perspective on everything. Our vigilant polishing of the mirror appears to us as if a dream. We see how the polishing is fine – it’s our practice, our choice, our way of life, and an act of generosity. But the effort of polishing takes place within a much larger reality. That larger reality is undefiled and utterly, utterly independent of whether we ever get our mirror completely clean. This larger reality is the same no matter the state of our mirror as we sit there polishing it. We are fundamentally okay. Awakening to the emptiness of self helps complete our liberation. It allows us to remove self-centeredness even from our spiritual practice.

The “mind” in Huineng’s poem is not our everyday, discriminating mind. It is awareness itself, which is the basis of awakening. The body is the mirror’s stand because embodiment is what allows us to be aware, to awaken, to become bodhisattvas and Buddhas. This awareness Mind-with-a-capital-M, aliveness itself, can never be defiled. Realizing this for ourselves is the ultimate redemption and relieves us of a lot of self-concern, material and spiritual.

We End Delusions Through Effort and Insight

Before I wrap up, though, I should point out that it’s a mistake to think Huineng’s poem supersedes Shenxiu’s poem. It can be tempting, depending on your character, to say that polishing the mirror is a waste of time. That it’s a delusion because the self, or the mirror, is empty. Or that polishing is a practice for beginners and instead we should focus on profound spiritual insights. That certainly sounds like more fun than working on the delusions built up over many lifetimes!

Thinking practice is only about polishing the mirror isn’t correct, but at least you won’t hurt anyone by holding that view. It may get discouraging at times, and your progress may be impeded by your view of self-nature, but you’ll keep gradually cleaning up your karma and be a better and happier person for it. On the other hand, thinking practice is only about awakening to emptiness and that at some point you can abandon polishing the mirror – this is a dangerous attitude, not at all compatible with the bodhisattva path.

Our practice has two aspects. We continue the hard and gradual work of seeing through our delusions and cleaning up our karma because this is essential for living a wise and generous life. At the same time, we seek to awaken to emptiness of self and all things, because our delusion about inherent self-nature is the fundamental delusion.


Read/listen to The Fourfold Bodhisattva Vow Part 1: Freeing All Beings or Part 3: Entering Dharma Gates & Attaining Buddhahood


[i] Pine, Red. Zen Roots: The First Thousand Years. Anacortes, Washington: Empty Bowl Press, 2020.


Photo Credit

Hiroki Ogawa, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons, Sera Monastery Lhasa Tibet China


216 – El Cuádruple Voto del Bodhisattva Parte 1: Liberando a Todos los Seres
217 – El Cuádruple Voto del Bodhisattva parte 2: Poner Fin a Todas la Ilusiones