The Four Great Vows are basically a Mahayana reinterpretation of the four Holy Truths (see entry). In addition to ending one's own suffering (Dukkha), one vows to end the suffering (Dukkha) of all living beings. In addition to eliminating one's own afflictions, one vows to end the inexhaustible afflictions of all living beings. In addition to learning only the single Dharma Door necessary for one's own enlightenment, one vows to learn all the Dharma Doors, so that one can teach all living beings appropriately. Rather than being satisfied with reaching the stage of the Arhat, one vows to become a Buddha.
“It is not enough just to recite [the vows]. You have to return the light and think them over: The vow says that I will save a countless number of beings. Have I done so? If I have, it should still be the same as if I had not saved them. Why? It is said that the Thus Come One saves all living beings, and yet not a single living being has been saved.
”'Well,' you say, 'if my saving them is the same as not saving them, then is my not saving them the same as saving them?'
“No. You can say that you save them, and yet are not attached to them; not attached means that you are not attached to the mark of saving living beings. But you can't fail to save them and claim to have saved them. It doesn't work that way. You can say that you save them without saving them because you are not attached to them. But you can't say that you have saved them when you have not saved them.
“The Buddha leads all beings to Nirvana, and yet not a single being is led to Nirvana. We have not yet become Buddhas or saved living beings, and so it is not all right for us to say that we have done so.” (DFS IV 788-789)
“I vow to take across the limitless living beings of my own mind. I vow to cut off the inexhaustible afflictions of my own mind. I vow to study the immeAsurable Dharma Doors of my own mind. I vow to realize the supreme Buddha way of my own nature.
”good knowing Advisors, did all of you not just say, 'I vow to take across [to the other shore of Nirvana the limitless living beings'? What does it mean? You should remember that it is not Hui Neng [see *HWei-Neng (sixth Patriarch)*] who takes them across. good knowing Advisors, the 'living beings' within your minds are deviant and confused thoughts, deceitful and false thoughts, unwholesome thoughts, jealous thoughts, vicious thoughts: all these thoughts are 'living beings'. The self-nature of each one of them must take itself across. That is the true crossing over]]. . . .” (PS 178)