The benefit of vows

Aug 10, 2023


We don’t like the sound of vows: we feel as if someone is forcing us into a corner, or that vows squash us down, or that we’ll get punished when we’re naughty and break them.


But if we think about it, when we learn to do anything, something as simple as drive a car, we would have a long list of vows, of things we’d decide not to do: don’t put your foot on the accelerator at the same time as the brake, don’t turn the wheel left if you want to go right. It’s logical. They’re a way of framing how to be a good driver. 


We know very well that to be effective as a driver we have to not just learn the theory but we have to totally internalize the instructions. They have to become part of you. You can’t be in the car and then as you drive along consult your instruction book! You’d be dead in a minute.


So what are Buddhist vows? There are three levels of vows, each relating to a level of practice. The first are the vows of individual liberation, the second the bodhisattva vows and the third the tantric vows. Here we’ll look at the first lot, which are in the category of vows to refrain from harming, in particular the five vows for the lay person. 


They’re things you decide not to do with your body and speech. From Buddha’s perspective we suffer because we’re driven by our negative states of mind, the delusions, so the first thing we need to do is control the servants of the delusions, the body and speech. 


So the vows are related to behavior: how to behave ethically – or, how to refrain from behaving unethically: don’t kill, steal, lie, jump on someone else’s partner, and take intoxicants.


Jesus also says don’t kill, don’t lie, too. But there’s a crucial difference. As my Jesuit priest friend said when I asked him what defines a sin, a negative action, he said that it’s an action that goes against the will of God, doing something that he said not to do, something that breaks God’s law.


And typically that’s how we think of vows; and that they’re things that someone says we shouldn’t do and that when we break them we’ll get punished. Actually, we live our lives like that: watching over our shoulder all the time, afraid to do something wrong because we’ll get punished. We love our guilt!


But that’s not the Buddhist view at all. In Buddhism there is no such thing as a creator, therefore no punisher or rewarder. So what defines killing as negative? It’s simple: it harms others. For Buddha, it’s natural law, not Buddha’s law; they’re called natural negativities. (For sure, there are precepts pronounced by Buddha: ways for his sangha to behave when they live together, for example.)


But what’s interesting – and this is a crucial point to understand– at the level of the individual liberation vows, the main reason Buddha exhorts us not to kill is not because it harms others; it’s because it’ll harm oneself.


At this first level of practice the approach is to want to refrain from the actions of harming others because we ourselves do not want the suffering that doing these actions will cause us in the future. Given the law of karma, everything we think and do and say just naturally leaves seeds in the mind that will ripen in the future as our own experiences, tendencies etc. etc.


It’s like not wanting to eat sugar because you don’t want the future diabetes. You would never say that you’re not eating sugar because your doctor told you not to and that she’ll punish you if you do. You would not go home and think, good, I can eat sugar because my doctor can’t see me do it so I won’t get diabetes!


So to want to live in vows, we need to really think about the concept of karma; that basically we create ourselves. If we can’t fully engage in this – we’d call it self-compassion in the West – we can’t move into the bodhisattva path properly. How can we understand the suffering of others and the causes of it and want to help them be rid of it if we can’t understand it for ourselves?


The other crucial thing is that we can’t really make much progress in our spiritual practice unless we live in vows. 


We’re sitting here right now being nice people, not killing anyone, but there is zero karma of non-killing created; there are no seeds left on the mindstream.


Just to get another decent human rebirth we need bucketloads of rich, delicious, intentional non-killing karmic seeds in our mindstream in order for one of them to be triggered at the time of our death in order for our mind to go to another human mother’s fallopian tube.


And, unless we live in vows of non-killing, the only time we put one of those seeds in our mindstream is when we intentionally refrain from killing. And that’ll only happen when there is a living sentient being right there in front of us. The thought has to arise in the mind: intention: I must not kill the mosquito about to eat my blood, I must be careful not to kill the mouse right there in my kitchen. And when those circumstances are in place, usually the seeds we plant aren’t that strong because our motivation is not that strong.


So how do we accumulate lots of delicious non-killing karmic seeds? By living in vows. Lama Zopa Rinpoche makes it very clear: actions of non-killing, let’s say, done in the framework of keeping a vow of non-killing are hugely more powerful than one done without vows.


Rinpoche says that the power of vows is such – and this is the Buddha’s teaching; he loves his vows! – that when we have, let’s say, a non-killing vow in our mindstream, we are dropping non-killing karmic seeds into our mind twenty-four hours a day – even with no intention and no motivation.


And, again, why is that advantageous to me? Because I know very well that 1. I want another decent human body after this one; 2. I do not want to wake up in the next life with a tendency to kill; 3. I do not want to get killed or die young; and 4. I do not want to have a weak body and get sick easily. These are the four ways that karma ripens.


When we understand this, then living in vows is a no-brainer. 

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