The power of vows

Dec 3, 2020

For the Buddha, vows play a huge role all the way from here to enlightenment. Because we have crazy ideas about religion we get nervous when we hear about a vow – we hear it as someone telling us what to do and if we don’t do it, we’ll get punished. Well, there’s no punisher in Buddhism. That’s not Buddha’s job; he’s not a punisher. Your doctor doesn’t tell you not to smoke and then punish you with cancer if you do; we’d laugh at that. The Buddha, like the doctor, is an advisor. His teachings – the Dharma – is the medicine you’re going to take.

A vow is a decision to refrain from something. If you had to write down all the things that you agreed not to do when you learned how to drive a car, there would be hundreds! “I will not put my foot on the accelerator at the same time as the brake.” “I will not turn the wheel left if I want to turn right.” They are details that you must learn when you first learn how to drive. You don’t think, “Oh, I’m taking a vow.” But you are! Do you know why you are taking a vow? You want to be a good driver – and you don’t want to kill yourself!

If you’ve never learned those things, you’d never know how to drive a car safely, would you? You don’t read the instruction book when you get into the car: “Now you put the key in, now you put the foot on the pedal.” No, you internalise it. You learn it; it becomes natural to you. Why? So you become a good driver. Same here. These are Buddha’s instructions that you’ve agreed to abide by, just like you’ve agreed to abide by the driving instructions. Why? So you can turn yourself into a marvellous person.

If you are committed and you’d like to become a Buddhist, you’ll first take refuge. You’ll commit to relying on the Three Jewels – the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. That means you’ve thought about the Buddha, you’ve read his teachings and you’re confident that you want to use these as the basis of your future practice. You’re confident in the Buddha and his methods.

Also, you’re relying on the spiritual community, the sangha. We certainly need our like-minded spiritual friends, don’t we? But the actual sangha is four fully ordained monks or nuns in any one place. That’s the criterion of the existence of the living Dharma in that place.

So, you would formalize your refuge in a short ceremony in front of somebody who’s embodying the Buddha for you, whom you see as one of your teachers. Then you would commit to a bit of practice every day: take refuge every day, make some offerings – half a dozen things, one step at a time, at your own pace.

Then you would take the five lay vows, the vows of individual liberation, or pratimoksha in Sanskrit. You’d do this straight after taking refuge or later in a separate ceremony; it’s up to you.

What are the five vows? The first is no killing. You break this in a major way if you kill a human being. You break it at the root and you have to take it again. You break it in a minor way if you kill any other sentient being; you don’t break it at the root, but you need to purify. That’s why we have to do the practice of the four opponent powers every night. “We’re insane not to do it every day,” Lama Zopa says. (See blog of 31 March, 2020.)

To break a needs various steps: You have to know you’ve got a vow, not care about it, have no consccience about it, and have no wish to fix it. Mostly, we’re just kind of lazy or our commitment is not that strong.

The second vow is no stealing or, as the Tibetans say, not taking the ungiven. You break this in a major way if you take something of value to someone else. You break it in a minor way if you take anything that hasn’t been given to you. I think we have to be very strict about that these days as it is so easy to do on a computer. We press a button and we steal a movie, just like that. Weve got to have a really good discipline. Half the reason we do it is because we don’t like to spend money on things; we’re just mean. So I think it’s a really good practice.

Third one: don’t lie. You break it in a major way if you lie about your spiritual attainments. I mean, we don’t have any attainments anyway but we might say: “Oh, I do my prostrations every day” and you actually don’t. Be careful. It’s best to keep your practice very private. Only discuss it with very close friends whom you trust; people who have a similar kind of practice.

The fourth one is no sexual misconduct. In the texts, there are all kinds of instructions relating to this, but the way I give it, based on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s instructions, is don’t cheat on your partner. Interestingly, when His Holiness gives it to big groups of non-Tibetans, he gives it as do not rape. Maybe cheating on partners is so normal in our world that he says forget about that, but try not to rape! I’m just joking about that.

And the fifth one is: no intoxicants – they always follow that in the texts with “from which many problems arise”! The whole point of this level of practice is to learn to control our body, speech and mind. The one about intoxicants is obvious. You lose all common sense, you go crazy, you have no control over your senses. You don’t even remember what you did the next morning!

The philosophy behind this set of vows – which relates to the first and second scopes of the lamrim or, as I like to call them, junior school and high school – is to help you control your body and speech so you don’t create more suffering for yourself, now and in future lives. You are the beneficiary. It’s like selfcompassion. Buddhists don’t call it that, but we can call it that. This compassion for yourself motivates your decision not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, not to jump on someone else’s partner and not to drink alcohol. These vows of individual liberation stop you from harming others which, in turn, protects you from future suffering. These are sometimes referred to as the vows of the ethics of restraint

When you take them, you don’t have to take all five.

Of course, when we keep these vows, others benefit as well. As Lama Zopa says, “The rats and cockroaches will have a party because we leave them in peace!”

Vows are really potent psychologically. They say in the teachings that vows are a subtle physical form that’s visible to clairvoyants. Lama Zopa Rinpoche said one time that you could have one person doing masses of practice every day but wh0 hasn’t taken any vows, and another person who doesn’t do much practice but merely has a vow not to kill and keeps it purely. Rinpoche said that the second person creates infinite more merit than the first. Because of the power of vows they continually drop powerful karmic seeds into their mental bank vault and put atomic bombs under the habits to kill, steal, lie, cheat on our partner and take intoxicants.

In other words, vows are so powerful psychologically that every second you’re keeping them – even if you’re not conscious of it, even when you’re asleep – you’re creating merit and purifying your mind twenty-four hours a day.

And thats the bottom line. Purification is pulling out the weeds and creating merit is growing the flowers. These have to be the function of every practice we do.

Why is it that without vows we don’t create much merit or purify our mind? Because it’s only when there’s the intention to not kill, for example, that we drop a karmic seed in our bank vault – and, by the way, just to get another human rebirth we need bucket-loads of non-killing karmic seeds in our mindstream.

Now, here you are reading this blog and I’m sure you’re not killing. We think, “Oh, aren’t I a nice person. I’m not killing anything.” But if there’s no intention to not kill, there is no karma created. It’s only when you meet the cockroach – or your ex-husband! – and you consciously decide “I must not kill” that the seed actually drops into the bank vault.

But if we’re living in the vow not to kill, twenty four hours a day we are creating merit and purifying our minds. Such is the power of vows.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche has said that the merit we created to get the human life that we have now, with the various fortunate conditions, has to have been created in the framework of keeping vows.


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