There are many levels at which you can take the bodhisattva vows.
We can take them as a special blessing. This is the level usually given when we receive lower tantric empowerments. Usually people aren’t even aware that they were given. This is because it is just a special blessing which creates a favorable environment for receiving the empowerment. We should never worry that somehow vows were put in our mind against our will or without our knowledge. Vows only become our vows when we take them from our own side. If we are not ready to take the vows, we can receive them as a special blessing or even just rejoice in those around us taking them at higher levels. Of course it is possible to take at a higher level at such times if we wish. Taking vows is something that shouldn’t be rushed. The choice of what we are going to do with our life is a big decision, but the choice of what we are going to do with the rest of eternity is an even bigger decision, so we need to take our time and not feel any pressure whatsoever. By receiving the bodhisattva vows as a special blessing, it will help inspire us to one day take up the Bodhisattva’s path.
Second, we can take them at a provisional level. This can be done in one of two ways. First, we can think, given all the information I have available, I promise that I will eventually become a Buddha and liberate all beings. If new information comes along, that justifies changing this decision, I leave the door open. Or second, we can ‘try on’ the vows for a limited period of time to see how they fit. For example, when people are considering ordination, they are advised to take the ordination vows provisionally for one year to see how it works for them. In a similar way, in the Lamrim texts we are given the example of the butcher who vowed to not kill animals at night time. While not the “full” bodhisttva vows, it is nonetheless immensely beneficial to take the vows for only a limited amount of time to get a feel for what it is like. When we do this with the bodhisattva vows, we provisionally take on the aspiration.
Third, we can take them at the aspirational level – we promise to maintain the intention to one day keep all your vows perfectly. Essentially you are making one vow: to eventually take all the vows later. When we take highest yoga Tantra empowerments, for example, this is usually the level at which we are encouraged to take the vows. Oftentimes people ask the question, “how do I know if I am ready to take the tantric empowerments? Different people have different answers to this question, but my answer is if we feel like we are ready to make this sort of aspirational promise, then we are ready; if we are not ready to make this sort of aspirational promise, then we are not.
Finally, we can take them at an engaging level – we actually promise to do these things. Only very advanced practitioners are able to do this and keep the vows. However, we might find that some vows we can promise to keep perfectly for the rest of our life, while others we aren’t ready yet. There is no reason why we can’t mentally specify all of these variants when we take the vows. Those who have been around the Dharma for many years wind up receiving quite a few empowerments, sometimes two or three a year. Each time we do is another occasion to revisit how we are doing with our vows. We should take the time before each empowerment to review our progress, make plans for which vows we will take at which level, each time trying to do slightly better than we did last time. In this way, we gradually and skillfully work with all of the vows until one day we can keep them all perfectly. It is important to make a clear distinction between “picking and choosing which vows to take” and “picking and choosing at which level we take all of the vows.” We can take individual bodhisattva vows, but doing so is not taking “the” bodhisattva vows, rather it is an example of a specific moral discipline. When we take the bodhisattva vows, we take all of them and promise to work with all of them, but we are skillful in understanding the level at which we take each one, and we commit to work gradually with all of the vows until we are able to keep them all perfectly.
We need to consciously choose the promise and level that we can keep and that want to keep. We should not feel forced in any level.
This has to be a personal decision. Regardless of what level we take the vows at, what matters most is that we make the promise our own, and in this way it becomes sincere. This qualified mental intention is what brings about the benefits, not just reciting the words. To return to our redirecting water analogy, if the redirection is to actually work, the promise must actually be real and strong, otherwise the deluded currents in our mind overpower or erode our attempts at redirection. The more real and personal we make the promise, the more power it will have to actually redirect the flow of our mental continuum. It is more important to have whatever promise we make be ‘real’ than it is that you take the promise at a high level. So I generally encourage people to take their vows at a lower level, but to make it a meaningful, genuine and personal promise we intend to keep.