I don’t know why it is, but when people think about vows and commitments, misunderstandings about their meaning usually prevail.
One of my favorite analogies for understanding our vows is they are like road signs, or a more modern analogy, they are like our own internal GPS. If we decide that we want to go to a given destination, such as the airport, we highly appreciate the road signs which point us in the right direction. The street signs are helpful reminders that appear when we need them most to make sure we stay on course to reach our desired destination. When we make a wrong turn, the signs do not judge us, we are simply going the wrong way and they point the way back. We do not need to beat ourselves up about taking a wrong turn, we just need to accept the situation as it is and get back on the right road. Yes, we may lose some time in the process as we double back, but if we remain committed to reaching our destination and we diligently follow the signs we are given, we will definitely eventually reach our destination – the only question is when.
In exactly the same way, our vows and commitments are like internal spiritual road signs or GPS system, which direct us how to get to our desired spiritual destinations. They are helpful reminders of which internal roads we should take and which ones we should not. When we take a wrong turn, they don’t judge us, rather they just continue to point us in the right direction. If we listen to our GPS and follow its instructions, we will definitely eventually reach our final spiritual destination, the only question is how long it will take us. Instead of cursing our vows or viewing them as some inner critic constantly judging us, we can welcome them as helpful reminders of where we should be going with our mind.
It is important that we understand the vows not as results we are supposed to artificially impose, but rather directions we are supposed to train in. Vows function to direct the flow of our mind towards enlightenment, like water rides at an amusement park. If you train to keep your behavior within the context of your vows, your mind will naturally be directed towards your desired destination.
The different levels of vows are more like a zeroing in on the spiritual target of our choice for the destination of the flow of our mental continuum. When we take refuge vows, it directs our mind towards Dharma goals in general, but it is not very precise. When we take pratimoksha vows, it directs our mind towards liberation, and the power becomes more intense like water being directed through a narrower tube. When we take bodhisattva vows, it directs our mind towards enlightenment, and the power becomes even more intense. When we take tantric vows in general, it directs you towards enlightenment as a tantric deity, and the water becomes even more intense. When you take mother tantric vows, it directs you towards enlightenment as either Heruka or Vajrayogini, and the water becomes the most intense directed at a very specific target.
Of course there will be some water that spills over, and sometimes we will fly out of the chute yourself. That’s OK, we just train. Every time we fall out of the guidelines and we train to put ourself back in, we strengthen and reinforce that part of the course. Eventually it becomes like concrete, and the water is directed surely. If a little water spills over, we can restore it by doing 35 confession Buddhas or Vajrasattva. When we fall out completely, we can renew it by retaking the vows. The only way we fall out completely is if we intentionally decide to go back on our aspirational promise to one day keep all the vows purely, which is something we rarely do.
It is generally a good idea to retake the vows every day. In most of our tantric sadhanas, we do precisely that. Geshe-la said that fresh vows are the perfect mental environment to die with. Since we don’t know when we are going to die, it is a good idea to always have fresh vows on our mental continuum.
We need to build these pathways in our mind through training in the vows consistently over a long period of time. We need to construct these pathways within our mind.