The first of the four bodhisattva vows that we chant after sitting is usually rendered as ‘beings are numberless I vow to save them’. We sometimes abbreviate this to ‘save all beings’.
What does this mean?
With Buddhism in India, the original emphasis was on personal salvation. When Buddhism fruitfully collided with Chinese culture, the emphasis changed to universal salvation. The pivotal person became the bodhisattva, the person who would save all beings. Hence the vow.
It fits in with a broader idea in Chinese culture of heroic, beneficent figures.
But I wonder if, in our age of rampant individualism, and consequent spiritual materialism, if the usual translation is helpful for us? Perhaps it would be better for us to say – although the grammar is problematic – Being numberless I vow to save (it).
Being rather than beings.
And Being ‘being’ numberless in two senses. Numberless because this full dynamic functioning (Zenki/ dependent origination) is infinitely faceted: me, you, the walls and the doors, the trees and the birds and the stars and so on. And numberless also because there’s only this wholeness: there isn’t one or two or three or four.
How do we save all Being? By not burying (it) underneath the self.
So not an infinite number of beings to save over an infinite length of time, but an infinite number of moments, and always this moment, this moment of practice, in each of which everything can fully live.