The First Bodhisattva Vow: Liberation in an Age of Criminalization

Guest writer


Daily news stories amping up fear about perceived threat, and

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calling for more money to go into policing, prisons, border security, surveillance,

constant vigilance.

The groups that are scapegoated shift and change over time

but the message is the same:

without law and order, without cops and jails

and airplane screening and immigration controls and ‘supportive’ housing ringed by security guards, without bylaw officers and bylaws that criminalize sheltering outside or sitting on a sidewalk while poor,

without doctors to medicate and social workers threatening to withhold housing or welfare money

if people who struggle with mental health do not comply,

we would degenerate into violent chaos.

How must we hate and fear ourselves and each other,

To hold such a punishing view.

Chanting the Four Bodhisattva Vows is part of my practice as a Zen Buddhist.  There are various translations of these vows into English; my sangha (practice community) translates the first of these vows as: “All beings without number, I vow to liberate”.  

What does it mean to make this commitment, and what does it mean to manifest it in everyday life?

This vow is not only about spiritual emancipation, being freed from the mental suffering that we create for ourselves and each other through our cravings, aversions, and challenges with strong emotions like greed, anger, and confusion. It is also about the external reality that we create, the physical world and our actions in how we relate to each other.

The first Bodhisattva vow is not to liberate some beings, it is to liberate ALL beings, even though there are so many that they are innumerable. All beings, everywhere. That means nobody is disposable, that every life is sacred and has value. This has far-reaching implications, especially in a society where some lives are valued more than others. It means that strategies based on violence, containment, coercion, and threats are not real solutions to community problems.

Vowing to liberate all beings is not an individualistic missionary-like approach to saving anyone. Rather it requires that I look at my own responsibility. It is not enough to read the morning news and shake my fist or hang my head in sorrow, blaming other people. What am I actively doing, in everyday life, to liberate all beings? What am I actively doing, in everyday life, that contributes to violence and oppression? How am I learning, unlearning, changing the ways that I think and act? How am I responding to my mistakes, failures, and the harms that I inadvertently cause? How am I contributing to collective accountability processes that support people who have been harmed and also help people who have caused harm to deeply transform?

The world we live in right now promotes putting certain people in cages. Trust that we can do better is the leap of faith I make each morning when I recommit to liberating all beings. I am reminded to awaken to the good and to the possibility, not only to see the harm or get mired in cynical despair.

At the same time, I cannot be naïve. Liberating all beings is not a simple thing, and neither is the prospect of having to work collaboratively to solve community problems instead of calling the police and then shutting the curtains. Disbanding police institutions and replacing them with forms of collective power and conflict resolution requires a deep transformation so we don’t end up with vigilante forces or other ‘might makes right’ replication of the punishment model of the criminal justice system. Disbanding the police ultimately means finding alternatives to use of force, coercion, and control to solve problems. That is not easy.

But policing and the prison industry are not natural or inevitable ways of dealing with problems, they are very recent systems that, like any human creation, can be dismantled. Already communities most harmed by police have developed alternatives that, while complex and imperfect, give me hope that people can come together to create grassroots solutions.

Indigenous communities in Guerrero developed their own security in 1995 to replace the corrupt police force, while Zapatista communities in Chiapas have resolved conflicts autonomously since driving out state authorities in 1994.Some of the most skillful mediations I have seen are within the old-school street community where there is a sophisticated set of values and relationships for resolving of beefs and preventing escalation of violence.

A black friend who lives in Ohlone Territory (the Bay Area) recently shared a story about a business in a predominantly black neighbourhood where, after years of police terror, people have committed to solving problems in ways that do not involve calling 911. Two teens ran into the café and each grabbed a customer’s laptop. One got outside and ran off, while the other was blocked by people in the restaurant who said while they couldn't take the laptop they also weren't under threat of police. The customers and staff asked the teenager to sit down and talk about why they needed the laptop. Everyone in the café checked their pockets and came up with cash for the teen to be able to meet their needs in a way other than taking the laptop. The people whose laptops had been grabbed explained they used those laptops for community organizing including work against police brutality and racism, and thanked the teen for being willing to consider another way to get their needs met. Everyone affirmed that the teens were a valuable part of the community. There was no beatdown, no shakedown, and no coercion at all. Everyone’s needs were upheld. Everyone’s life was treated as valuable.

Looking to alternatives helps me to take my vows seriously, to believe that liberation is possible. And so I ask every morning: what will I do today to build community capacity for alternatives to state power, to build strong and healthy relationships, to resist individualism and isolation, to practice everyday acts of consent and care, and to work within myself and within the communities that I’m part of to transform the conditions that lead to oppression?

Joshua Goldberg, a guest writer for Spiritually Speaking, is a member of Zenwest Buddhist Society ( He first became involved in prison abolition in the early 1990s after a loved one was incarcerated, and is committed to transformative justice and community-based alternatives to policing.

You can read more articles from our interfaith blog, The Spiritual View, HERE

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