Vows, commitments and modern life: General advice on training in vows and commitments

Most of us know the teachings Geshe-la has given on the correct attitude to have towards our vows and commitments, but sadly we don’t ever seem to really believe him when he explains it.  We still tend to think of them in absolutist, black and white terms, when in reality each vows has many many different levels at which we can keep it.  We think in terms of our ability to “keep” our vows instead of viewing them as trainings we engage in.  When we go to the gym, there are all sorts of different exercise machines.  Each one works out a different muscle, and each person who uses the machine uses it at a different level (different amounts of weight, different number of repetitions, etc.).  But everyone in the gym uses the same equipment.  It is exactly the same with our vows.  Each vow is something we train in, not something we are already expected to be able to do perfectly at the maximum.  Each vow focus on strengthening different mental muscles, but doing all of them strengthens the whole of our mind.  We each train in the vow at different levels according to our capacity, but we know the more we train the more our capacity will grow.  Everyone in the spiritual gym trains with the same vows regardless of our level.  In almost every way, the correct attitude towards a physical exercise regimen is exactly the same attitude we should cultivate towards our spiritual exercise regimen of our vows and commitments.  I often find it helpful to read the sports training literature, especially that of long-distance tri-athletes.  Our journey is very long and will require almost unthinkable stamina, but we must recall every Iron Man Champion was once a baby who couldn’t even lift their head. 

Geshe-la explains there are four main causes of the degeneration of our vows and commitments.  These are known as the ‘four doors of receiving downfalls’.  He says to close these doors we should practice as follows:

  1. Closing the door of not knowing what the downfalls are.  We should learn what the downfalls are by committing them to memory.  We should learn how they are incurred.  We should make plans to avoid such situations.  In this series of posts, I will try explain all of these things for each vow.
  2. Closing the door of lack of respect for Buddha’s instructions.  We can protect ourselves from this primarily by training in the refuge vows.  Refuge is not a difficult concept.  When we have a toothache, what do we do?  We turn to the dentist.  When we have a legal problem, what do we do?  We turn to a lawyer.  When we have an internal problem with our mind, what do we do?  We turn to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.  Dentists can fix our teeth and lawyers can solve our legal problems, but only the three jewels can help us with our inner mental problems.  Geshe-la said we should contemplate as follows:

Since Buddha is omniscient, knowing all past, present, and future phenomena simultaneously and directly, and since he has great compassion for all living beings without exception, there is no valid reason for developing disrespect towards his teachings.  It is only due to ignorance that I sometimes disbelieve them.”

  1. Closing the third door of strong delusions. For our Pratimoksha, and Bodhisattva vows, we should principally try to overcome our delusions by practicing Lamrim.  If by practicing Lamrim we are always able to maintain a good intention, there will be no basis for incurring Pratimoksha or Bodhisattva downfalls.  At the end of the day, our Pratimoksha vows come down to one simple concept:  do no harm (to ourself or to others).  Likewise, our bodhisattva vows come down to cone simple concept:  put others first.  If we do these two – do no harm and put others first – then we will be directly or indirectly practicing all of our Pratimoksha and Bodhisattva vows.  For our tantric vows, if by practicing generation stage and completions stage we overcome ordinary appearance and ordinary conceptions, there will be no basis for incurring Tantric downfalls.  Again, to keep things simple, what does this mean:  It means we ask ourselves one simple question, “what would Heruka do?”  Heruka sees everyone and everything as pure, not because they objectively are pure but because maintaining this view functions to draw out the purity in everything until eventually it becomes our living reality.
  2. Closing the fourth door of non-conscientiousness.  We should repeatedly bring to mind the disadvantages of incurring downfalls, and the advantages of pure moral discipline.  These have been explained in the previous post, and the specific karmic benefits of each vow will be explained in the explanation of each vow.

In brief, Geshe-la explains, we prevent our vows from degenerating by practicing the Dharma of renunciation, bodhichitta, correct view, generation stage, and completion stage. 

It is important to be skilful in our approach to the vows.  We should not have unrealistic expectations or make promises we cannot keep.  It will happen to all of us in the early stages of our Dharma practice that when we are at some festival and feeling very inspired, we make these outlandish vows that we (at the time) intend to keep our whole life.  Then we get home, try at first, but eventually are forced to abandon the vow.  Venerable Tharchin says when making promises, we should ask ourselves, “what can I do on my absolute worst day?”  We promise only to do that.  On any given day we will most likely do better than our promise, but then we won’t actually break it.  It is a bad habit to make spiritual promises which we later break.  We will all make all sorts of what I call “beginner’s errors” with this one.  It doesn’t matter.  When you break the promise, realize your mistake, recalibrate your promise and try again.  Eventually you will get the right balance. 

We should adopt the vows gradually, as each can be kept on many levels.  In this way, we can gradually deepen the level we are able to keep the vows.  If we are a teacher, we should explain the vows well and not encourage our students to promise to keep them all perfectly from the start.  Getting the correct attitude towards our vows is well over half the battle.  But keeping the vows gradually does not mean that we can temporarily put to one side the vows that we do not like.  We have to work with all the vows, gradually improving the way we observe them.

Finally, Geshe-la says we should begin to practice all the vows as soon as we have taken them.  Then we practice them to the best of our ability.  Geshe-la says we should never lose the determination to keep the vows perfectly in the future.  He says by keeping the intention to keep them purely in the future we keep our commitments, even if along the way we repeatedly fall short.  I can’t remember who, but some wise person once said, “the day you can keep all of your vows and commitments perfectly is the day you will no longer need them.  It is because you can’t keep your vows and commitments perfectly that we do need them.”  This is useful to always keep in mind.

2 thoughts on “Vows, commitments and modern life: General advice on training in vows and commitments

  1. Thank you Kadampa Ryan, I am honoured to be able to contribute to this discussion, such opportunity. I too, however, have a great deal to learn in keeping a balanced view.

    ‘We think in terms of our ability to “keep” our vows instead of viewing them as trainings we engage in.’ Yes, it seems to be a performance related epidemic. Instead of viewing oneself with compassion and rejoicing in whatever practice a person has there is a critical view of the self – what does it mean if I cannot keep my vows? I am worthless, useless, incompetent etc this is where it leads to. This is subtle level.

    ‘It is important to be skilful in our approach to the vows. We should not have unrealistic expectations or make promises we cannot keep’
    Vows promote changes in thinking, feelings and behaviours. This means others too will also change in relation to the changes we make. Small changes lead to big effects. And by celebrating these small changes, big goals can be achieved with joyful effort. Likewise, with change comes loss; loss of the way things used to be, the way the self is or in relation to others, perhaps giving up views and so forth. There is perhaps some attachment that keeps someone from making change since it means losing the object of their attachment. Procrastination is the killer. Planning is key.

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