The conclusion of Sutra is I must become a Buddha for the benefit of all by realizing emptiness. Emptiness makes possible mentally reconstructing samsara into nirvana. Tantra, then, gives specificity to the type of Buddha we strive to become. Tantra is normally divided into generation stage and completion stage. In generation stage we construct within our mind the template of our enlightenment, and then in completion stage we fill in the template with our increasingly subtle bodies and minds. Our vows and commitments of highest yoga tantra are parts of generation stage and completion stage. But since the way we practice our vows and their function is the same in both generation and completion stage, I tend to think of Tantra as having three main practices: our vows and commitments, generation stage and completion stage. The three together produce enlightenment.
All vows arise from the same wisdom and all vows perform the same function. The wisdom vows arise from is the wisdom that realizes the union of karma and emptiness. If we understand emptiness, we understand everything is created by our mind. The laws by which mental creation occurs are the laws of karma. So if we understand emptiness, our behavior will naturally be in accordance with the vows and commitments. But we don’t yet understand emptiness, so we still think it is a good idea to act in ways which are contradictory to our vows. It is for this reason that we practice vows and commitments. With faith, we trust that they are arising from the wisdom of karma and emptiness, but we just don’t understand it yet. But we have faith that the vows are good for us at a very profound level. We then consider each vow, trying to understand its wisdom, and when we get some understanding of the wisdom of a vow and some faith in where they come from, we then make promises to train our behavior to be in alignment with what is called for in the vows and commitments. When our uncontrolled mind tries to go in a way that is in contradiction with our vows, we see this, recall the wisdom of following the vows, and choose to not follow our deluded impulse understanding it to be deceptive.
I like to think of vows like a pipeline which channels the current of our mental continuum. At present our mental continuum is flailing about in all sorts of directions, throwing us from one samsaric rebirth to another. But when we start training in the vows and commitments, we give definite parameters within which our mental continuum can flow. At one end of the pipeline is where we are now, but the other end of the pipeline is the city of enlightenment. At the beginning of the pipeline, the diameter is quite large, but then some way down a more narrow pipe is placed inside the large one. Then a little further down, a more narrow pipe still is placed inside the second pipe, and so on. The net effect is the closer one gets to the city of enlightenment, the more narrow the diameter of the pipeline the water of our mental continuum travels. Just like water, the more narrow the diameter, the faster the water moves. The narrowing of the pipeline correspond with the different levels of vows we take. At the widest point of the pipeline we have the refuge vows. By keeping our refuge vows we create the causes to find the Buddhist path again and again in all of our future lives until we attain the final goal. The general direction of the current of our mental continuum is established. Slightly more narrow than that are our pratimoksha vows, or our vows of individual liberation. More narrow that that are our bodhisattva vows. More narrow still are general commitments of Highest Yoga Tantra, and finally the most narrow we have the uncommon vows of Mother Tantra. Keeping our pratimoksha vows creates the causes to meet a qualified path to liberation again and again between now and our enlightenment. Keeping our bodhisattva vows creates the causes to meet a qualified path to enlightenment again and again between now and our enlightenment. Keeping our general commitments of Highest Yoga Tantra creates the causes to meet a qualified tantric path to enlightenment again and again between now and our enlightenment. Keeping our uncommon commitments of mother tantra creates the causes to meet a qualified path tantric path of Heruka or Vajrayogini again and again between now and our enlightenment. The advantage of having the concentric circles of pipes is if one of the more narrow one breaks, the others are still there to catch the water, like additional lines of defense.
Vows are like inner laws that we voluntarily strive to follow. Just as external society requires good laws to maintain order and prosperity, so too our empty inner society of the emptiness of all living beings requires laws that we strive to follow. The difference is the internal laws of our vows are laws only for ourself. We do not impose in any way these laws on others. Certainly we encourage others to lead a virtuous life, but we never impose vows from the outside. For them to work, people need to adopt them voluntarily seeing the wisdom of following them and the folly of doing their opposite. If they are imposed from the outside, internally the people rebel against the imposition. Thus, even if we appear to succeed in causing others to lead a more virtuous life, but internally they are actually rebelling against these internal laws and putting up a show to avoid our punishment. Karma arises from mental intention, and so two seemingly identical acts – externally appearing to lead a virtuous life – the motivations are completely different (following wisdom vs. rebelling against wisdom), thus the karma created is profoundly different. One takes the person down the path to enlightenment, the other creates the karma to reject pure paths when we encounter them in the future.
Another way vows are commonly thought of is refuge vows are the substantial cause of Pratimoksha vows, which in turn are the substantial cause of Bodhisattva vows, which are then the substantial cause of our Tantric vows. Our ability to maintain purely the higher levels of vows depends to a large extent on whether we are keeping purely the previous levels of vows. By this logic, breaking one of our Bodhisattva vows directly indirectly unravels all of our Tantric vows; and breaking our Pratimoksha vows directly indirectly unravels all of our Bodhisattva and Tantric vows. But it is important to not be heavy about vows. This does not mean we abandon the path if our delusions get the better of us and we break our vows, rather it means our vows are no longer in tact, and so therefore not functioning. But we still continue to follow the path, and create good karma from the practices we do do. They are like a GPS which always finds us the correct route to the city of enlightenment, even when we take wrong turns. If while driving we take wrong turns, our GPS recalculates and gives us a new route – there is no wrong turn we can take that the GPS can’t find the route back. Sometimes we may take wrong turns, but if we choose to follow our internal GPS of our vows and commitments, we replace our mental continuum on the good path to our final destination.