The Main Gate

The Threshold between the Mundane and the Sacred:
The Gate of the Universal Vows

The so-called "Mountain Gate" (from the inside)

This is actually the Main Gate to the Temple. One would usually expect to find it down at the entrance to the driveway; however, for zoning reasons, it was placed here instead. This is in some ways regrettable, for many people visit the Temple without ever entering through the Gate!

The outside of the Gate displays four lines of Chinese. This is essentially a poem about the importance of the Temple's work. A rough translation is:

  • Hsi Lai compassionately liberates thousands of millions of people.
  • Hsi Lai's dharma water flows forever through the five great continents.
  • The Eastern Pure Land's Buddha Light shines over 3,000 realms.
  • The compassionate heart of Buddha's Light blesses the saha realm (=samsara).

After entering the Gate, turn left immediately to the First Pillar (at the far left end). Here is found the First Vow.

The translation of the Vows given in the Pilgrimage section below is a standard one. There are many others.

  • "Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them." The word "save" here is somewhat theological. Other translations use "liberate," "release," or "free." Of course, no one can "save" another; but we can work to create conditions in which all beings achieve their fullest potential. This is the great Vow of Compassion, a theme that will be returned to frequently on the pilgrimage.
  • "Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them." "Desires" here is sometimes translated "sins," "errors," "defilements," "impurities," "wrong-doings," etc. In essence, this is the Vow to behave ethically. Buddhism teaches that there are three essential trainings. These are: Morality, Concentration (or Meditation), and Wisdom. Wisdom is the goal, Concentration the means; but it is widely understood that one who is at odds with others, or is bearing a burden of guilt, will be unable to progress far in Concentration. Is it easy to solve a complex puzzle while you're angry? Or draft an important letter while grieving? Only if our relationships are "right" can we make progress in Concentration.
  • "The Buddha's teachings are boundless; I vow to master them." The characters for "Buddha's teachings" mean something like "gates of the law" or "Dharma gates." In some systems of Buddhism, the earliest stage is that of sravaka or "hearer," signifying that we must hear the teachings before we can learn them. We only approach Buddhahood, then, through the Gate of learning the Teachings of the Buddha.
  • "The Buddha Way is endless; I vow to follow it." "Buddha Way," "Buddha Path," "Buddha Road": However you call it, it goes on; you never reach the end. Those who think that they "have arrived" are mistaken. Thus the old Zen teaching, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!" That is, never "rest on your laurels."

Here are a few other translations and paraphrases of the Four Universal Vows:

From the Hsi Lai Temple website:

  • Show great compassion and help all living beings.
  • Eliminate all evil deeds.
  • Study Dharma.
  • Practice diligently to achieve Enlightenment.

From the Hsi Lai Temple brochure (even within one organization, there are different translations!):

  • Save all sentient beings.
  • Eradicate all worries.
  • Ceaselessly study the Dharma.
  • Continually ascend to Enlightenment.

The most poetic version I've found is by John Tarrant and Joan Sutherland:

  • I vow to wake the beings of the world.
  • I vow to set endless heartache to rest.
  • I vow to walk through every wisdom gate.
  • I vow to live the great Buddha way.

Finally, a translation from "the place that started it all": The Four Vows are found in Section 21 of The Platform Scripture of Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. As translated by Wing-tsit Chan, they read:

  • I vow to save an infinite number of beings.
  • I vow to cut off an infinite number of afflictions resulting from passions.
  • I vow to study an infinite number of gates to the law.
  • I vow to attain Supreme Buddhahood.

I hope these translations help you think more deeply about the meaning and importance of the Four Universal Vows.


Proceed through the Gate and turn left. Stop at the furthest pillar.


Stand in front of the FIRST Pillar and repeat:

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.

Consider what it means to be compassionate. Think of some specific ways that you can show more compassion in your life.


Stand in front of the SECOND Pillar and repeat:

Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.

Consider what desires are preventing your progress. Think of some specific steps you can take to eliminate negative influences in your life.


Stand in front of the THIRD Pillar and repeat:

The Buddha's teachings are boundless; I vow to master them.

Consider the importance of, and the means of attaining, Wisdom. Think of some specific practices you can build into your life to help you accomplish this, such as regular reading, discussion, meditation, etc.


Stand in front of the FOURTH Pillar and repeat:

The Buddha Way is endless; I vow to follow it.

Consider what is important to you. Think of what it would mean to truly dedicate yourself to the "Buddha Way," and consider whether you are ready to do so.

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