Normally we relate to our vows as things that restricts or constrains our freedom and happiness. But this is only because we are confused about what makes us unfree and what makes us unhappy. We normally think freedom is the ability to do whatever we want without constraint and we think happiness is worldly pleasure. As a result, we view any constraints as making us unfree and anything that deprives us of worldly pleasure as a cause of our unhappiness.
The reality is what makes us unfree is our delusions. Delusions function to render the mind uncontrolled. We have no choice but to do what our mind tells us to do. If our mind is uncontrolled due to delusions, then we are uncontrolled in all that we do, and as a result we are unfree. The ability to indulge all of our delusions unconstrained is not the peak of freedom it is the quick path to total slavery to the demons of our delusions. The more we pacify and abandon our delusions, the more we bring our mind under control, and as such the more true freedom we create for ourselves. We free ourselves from the iron chains of our delusions.
The reality is what makes us happy is a peaceful mind. If our mind is unpeaceful, even if we have the greatest worldly pleasures we will still be unhappy and unsatisfied. But if our mind is peaceful, even if we are deprived of any worldly pleasures, we will still be happy and fully contented. Having a peaceful mind does not mean we need to abandon our worldly pleasures, rather having a peaceful mind is what enables us to enjoy them! Wordly pleasures themselves are the natural karmic result of good karma, so it is actually clearly impossible to follow the path to enlightenment and not experience an increase in worldly pleasure. But what we abandon is our attachment to these worldly pleasures, mistakenly thinking that they are themselves the causes of our happiness. No. The question is not our encountering worldly enjoyments, the question is whether or not our mind is peaceful and so therefore capable of enjoying them.
Moral discipline is for all practical purposes choosing to turn away from wrong paths that lead to suffering and instead to apply effort to choose to follow correct paths that lead to happiness. Due to countless aeons of being under the influence of our delusions, virtually all of our natural tendencies are to follow our deluded ways of being. If left unthethered, we normally fall apart and become increasingly unhinged. With the practice of moral discipline, when deluded tendencies arise we us our wisdom to recognize how following that deluded tendency leads to suffering and how instead applying effort to follow the opposite virtuous tendency leads to happiness. On the basis of seeing the difference in costs and benefits, we then make the decision to follow the correct path. The strength of this decision depends upon the clarity of our wisdom and the strength of our spiritual will power.
Our spiritual will power itself depends upon the strength of our true self-confidence and the depth of our previous experience in exercising it. True self-confidence primarily arises from the ability to tell ourselves what we are going to do, and then following through with what we set out to do. If everytime we make a commitment to ourselves, we know we are not going to follow it, then our making the commitment has no power within our mind to change our behavior and we will lose all confidence in our ability to change ourselves. If instead, everytime we make a commitment to ourselves, we make a point of following through with our determination, we will grow in self-confidence and eventually reach the point where we know we can bring about any change in ourselves that we desire. This is true self-confidence. Spiritual will power is like a muscle. And like any muscle, the more we exercise it, the stronger it gets. In the beginning, we start with small things like brushing our teeth every day or apologizing when we get angry at others. But over time, we gradually build up the strength of our experience to be able to make harder and larger commitments.
Moral discipline is the cause of higher rebirth. Higher rebirth is the cause of having the outer, and indeed inner, conditions for happiness. There are many different levels of rebirth we can take, from the deepest hell to the highest enlightenment. Our ability to move from the lower to the higher states depends primarily upon our practice of moral disicpline. It is not enough to just attain a higher rebirth, we need to attain precious higher rebirths. What makes a particular rebirth precious is whether we can use it to follow spirtual paths which lead to the supreme happinesses of liberation and enlightenment, for both ourselves and for others. So basically, it is not enough to have any higher rebirth, we want one in which we are following a spiritual path.
The main cause of attaining precious higher rebirths is the practice of our spiritual moral discipline, or in particular our spiritual vows and commitments. There are literally hundreds of different vows and commitments within Kadampa Buddhism. I will later post a study guide to all of them, but complete explanations of these vows and commitments can be found in the various Kadampa books. But to simplify matters, we can say that there are five levels of Kadampa vows: the refuge vows, the pratimoksha vows, the bodhisattva vows, the trantric vows, and the uncommon vows of Mother Tantra.
The essential practice of each of these vows can be understood in terms of what wrong path the vows abandon and what correct path the vows follow. The refuge vows abandon turning to worldly objects for our happiness and protection from suffering and instead turn to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We make effort to receive Buddha’s blessings, make effort to put the Dharma into practice and make effort to turn to the Sangha for help. The pratimoksha vows abandon harming ourselves or others and instead start doing what our wisdom tells us is good for us. Our bodhisattva vows abandon selfishly working for the self that we normally see and instead start working (eventually solely) for the welfare of others. Our tantric vows abandon ordinary appearances and conceptions and instead choose to generate pure appearances and assent to pure conceptions. Our uncommon vows of Mother Tantra abandon the contaminated happinesses of samsara and instead choose to experience all things equally as manifestations of the union of bliss and clear light emptiness.
Engaging in normal virtuous actions creates the causes for a higher rebirth. Practicing our refuge vows creates the causes for higher rebirths in which we meet and wish to practice the Buddhist path. Practicing our pratimoksha vows creates the causes for higher rebirths in which we meet and wish to practice at least the path that leads to permanent liberation. Practicing our bodhisattva vows creates the causes for higher rebirths in which we meet and wish to practice the path that leads to full enlightenment. Practicing our tantric vows creates the causes for higher rebirths in which we meet and wish to practice the tantric quick path to enlightenment. Practicing our uncommon vows of Mother Tantra creates the causes for higher rebirths in which we meet and wish to practice the tantric quick paths of Heruka and Vajrayogini. In so doing, through our practice of the different levels of vows and commitments, we can create the causes to maintain the continuum of our practice in life after life without interrruption: for our higher rebirth, our Buddhist path, our path to liberation, our path to enlightenment, our tantric quick path to enlightenment, and out tantric quick path to enlightenment as Heruka or Vajrayogini.
Seen in this way, we can really understand how our vows and commitments are the keys to our future happiness and we can realize their central importance in our spiritual development. What we do with this understanding is up to us…
Your turn: Describe how your practice of moral discipline has set you free from some destructive habit or dysfunctional situation.