There’s a saying in the Prajnaparamita tradition of Mahayana Buddhism that expresses a beautiful paradox. It says: “there are no sentient beings, and I vow to save them.” This is a beautiful expression of the absolute in the relative and the relative in the absolute. There are no sentient beings in the sense that there are no separate beings; because all beings are interdependent and nothing exists in and of itself, there are no separate entities to be found in the universe. This is the meaning of “there are no sentient beings.”
And yet, distinctness and diversity of appearance are the fabric of our lives. We live and breathe them every day. And even though suffering is itself an interdependently arising phenomenon, we all know how deeply and acutely it hurts. We all have experienced sadness, despair, anxiety, worry, grief. Because we have experienced them and know how unpleasant they are in our own experience, it is wise for us to care for others and see deeply just how unpleasant their own suffering is for them. Moreover, because there are no separate beings, the suffering of other people is not separate from us. Your suffering is my suffering; my suffering is your suffering.
As we learn more about the way the mind works and how craving, clinging, aversion, self-delusion, and the assumption of separateness cause suffering, we learn to witness these conditions arising in the mind. As we witness them with detachment, they begin to lose their pull on us. We learn to recognize them and witness them until they relax their hold. In this way, we gradually learn for ourselves the Noble Truth of suffering, the Noble Truth of its cause, and the Noble Truth that suffering is not inevitable; it can come to an end. Once we learn how to lessen our own suffering, we can begin to help other distinct beings to lessen their suffering. This is sharing what we practice. Practice and insight are not ultimately for the individual; they help the individual first, but they are not to be hoarded. Personal practice benefits society, just as right society benefits the individual by allowing them to practice freely.
As we deepen our practice and insight, we realize our responsibility to humbly share what we have learned. Because we see that suffering is a real, distinct phenomenon, that sufering is unpleasant for the distinct beings that experience it, that distinct beings are not separate from one another but interdependently one in their being, and that suffering can come to an end, the wish to help naturally arises. And as we deepen these insights, this wish goes stronger. The Bodhisattva vow to save all suffering beings, which means, to help them to save themselves from suffering, is an expression of this wish. This is the meaning of “and I vow to save them.”
So once we see deeply into the truth that “there are no separate sentient beings,” but that there are distinct beings (distinguishable beings that exist unseparately in relations of interdependence) who suffer just like we do, and that this suffering can come to an end, we also learn to see deeply into the vow to save them all. This single line, “there are no sentient beings, and I vow to save them,” therefore, expresses both nondual insight of the bodhisattva and the bodhisattva’s compassionate wish to help all beings to save themselves from suffering. It is a powerful teaching that is well worth remembering, meditating on, and using as a tool to look directly into experience and reality.