The next two verses of Shantideva’s Guide are the actual ritual verses we use to take the bodhisattva vows. Before we discuss what are the vows and how to skillfully practice them, I thought it would be useful to review once again why we should want to take the bodhisattva vows.
We can say that the book Guide to the Bodhsiattva’s Way of Life is divided into three parts: preparation for taking the bodhisattva vows, taking the bodhisattva vows, and how we put into practice our Bodhisattva vow.
At the beginning of this series, we looked at length at the benefits of bodhichitta in general, and of taking the vows in particular. In my previous series on “Vows, commitments and modern life,” I went through each vow, outlining the benefits and how to practice them. But for me, there are a few benefits that stand out and really move my mind.
First, by taking the bodhisattva vows we continuously create non-contaminated karma. A vow is a special type of promise on our mental continuum. In this sense, it is a practice of moral discipline. Even when we are not thinking about this promise, as long as we are not going against it, it continues to accumulate merit of refraining from engaging in the proscribed negativities. The karma we create is non-contaminated because the moral discipline is aimed at a non-contaminated goal – enlightenment. Song Rinpoche said that for a lay person in these degenerate times to keep just one vow purely creates the same amount of virtuous karma as a fully ordained monk purely observing all 250+ vows at the time of Buddha. The best analogy is it is like redirecting the flow of water. When we place the vows on our mental continuum, we permanently redirect the flow of our mental continuum towards enlightenment. Once something that redirects water is put in place, it continues to accomplish its function as long as it is not removed.
Second, we maintain the continuum of our bodhisttva practice in all our future lives. Keeping our vows functions to create the karma which enables us to find the path again and again, in life after life without interruption until we attain enlightenment. If we lose the path, we lose everything. Then we have all of samsara to fear. To pick up once again the water analogy, every time the water gets redirected, we spew forth merit and causes for precious human rebirths on the bodhisattva path. If we can maintain the continuum of our practice, then it will just be a matter of time before we attain enlightenment.
Third, it continuously functions to purify all our negative karma. The intention of bodhichitta is the exact opposite of every negative action we have ever committed towards other living beings in all of our countless previous lives. Taking vows is like introducing a special organism into the mud of our mind that functions to clean up all of this negative karma, like what they do to clean up algea. It also helps protect against the ripening of negative karma that is on our mind. It functions like a shield or a protection circle which prevents negative karma from ripening.
Fourth, it puts ourselves in total alignment with the Spiritual Guide. By taking the bodhisattva vows, our motivation is put into total alignment with his, and as a result of this his blessings and inspiration naturally flow in and through us. It is like aligning our sails with his perfectly pure winds. Eventually we can get to the point where we receive perfect inner guidance every moment every step of the way and even be able to become an extension of his body, speech and mind.
The point is this: all of our problems come from the fact that we are in samsara. If we escape from samsara, we will know eternal, pure happiness. The same is true for everybody else. The bodhisattva’s path functions to transform ourselves into a fully enlightened Buddha, a being capable of leading each and every living being without exception to the same supreme state. The practice of the bodhisattva vows is the inner essence of the bodhisattva path. By practicing the vows directly, we are indirectly practicing the entire bodhisattva path. Our mental continuum is kept “on track” and within the bounds of the bodhisattva path, and we permanently redirect the final destination of our mental continuum to the supreme city of enlightenment. Practicing these vows, therefore, is the most important thing any of us will do with our life. They hold the keys to solve all the problems of all living beings for all of their lives. What could be more important than that?