(4.11) Those who repeatedly renew their Bodhisattva vow
Only to go on to incur further downfalls
Will remain for a long time enmeshed in samsara,
Obstructed from attaining higher spiritual grounds.
(4.12) Therefore, I must practise sincerely,
In accordance with the promise I have made.
If, from now on, I make no effort,
I shall be reborn in lower and lower states.
Here, we need to make a clear distinction between the correct and incorrect way of approaching our vows. The correct way is to “work gradually and skillfully with all the vows, while maintaining the intention to one day keep them all perfectly.” The incorrect way is to “allow ourself to incur downfalls thinking it doesn’t matter because we can simply retake our vows.” There is a world of difference between these two approaches.
Deluded tendencies arise in our mind all the time. The training in moral discipline takes this as a given. We would not need to train in moral discipline if deluded, negative tendencies did not arise. Some people, falling on one extreme, relate to their vows as if the arising of a deluded tendency itself is a downfall, and so when it occurs, they immediately repress the tendency. The result of this is as predictable as it is tragic: the strength of the deluded tendencies grows and grows until one day the person “cracks” and then binges on their delusions and negative habits. Spiritual bulimia is not the goal.
The other extreme is whenever a deluded tendency arises we simply give into it, knowing we will be defeated by it anyways. Usually we rationalize this in one of two ways, either we say, “we are not there yet where we are ready to take on this particular deluded tendency” or we tell ourselves, “this action is not so bad, lighten up.” If we take this approach, we never really get serious about our practice of moral discipline.
The worst, of course, is intentionally engaging in negativity thinking it doesn’t matter because we can just retake our vows and all will be good. I call this the Don Corleone method of purification, we go to Confession while our hit men are out killing our enemies. Purification practices and the restoration of our vows only works if we are sincere about it. They are not get out of jail free cards. When we practice like this, our underlying intention is to continue to enjoy samsara. Such a practice will bring no real change. We will not move forward. If we carry on like this, Shantideva says we’ll remain for a long time enmeshed in samsara. We need to sincerely reconstruct the pathways and behavior patterns within our mind. We need to cherish our vows as a way of doing that, and sincerely work with them all to retrain our mind. Conclusion: we mustn’t let things slip, as we have done. More importantly, we must never give up. Through considering the results of letting things slip or of giving up, conscientiousness will naturally arise. Because we don’t want those results, for ourselves or others.
Geshe-la advises us to “work gradually and skillfully with all our vows, while maintaining the intention to one day keep them all perfectly.” Our actual commitment – our actual vow – is to never abandon the intention to keep them all perfectly in the future. This protects us against the extreme of just letting loose and indulging in our negativity whenever it arises. Working gradually and skillfully with all our vows humbly accepts that the practice of moral discipline is a training, something that we work with over a long period of time gradually learning from our mistakes and doing a little bit better each day, each month, each year, each decade and indeed each lifetime. This protects us from the extreme of repression, thinking that we are supposed to act perfectly from day one. I usually do self-initiation three or four times a year. At such times, I try reflect back on how I am doing with all of my vows. I will mentally make new commitments where possible to do a little bit better with my vows than I did the last time I retook them.
The key to moral discipline is to move beyond “shouldn’t” to “I don’t want to.” When we think, “I shouldn’t engage in a certain action” implicit is within us a desire thinking, “but I still want to do so.” Shouldn’t-based moral discipline generally just leads to repression. Instead, we need to contemplate the faults of delusions, karma, the benefits of moral discipline, our spiritual goals and the practicalities of what works and what doesn’t, and get to the point where we can “see through the lie” of our delusion. Our delusion promises us that if we follow it, things will be better. We instead shine the light of wisdom on this, realize that no, if I follow my delusion it will just make things worse. Then, we refrain from engaging in the negative action because we simply don’t want to. We know we will suffer more if we do. Such moral discipline is sustainable. Once we have realized this wisdom once, then, every time a deluded tendency arises, we recollect our wisdom that lead us to the decision to commit to certain practices of moral discipline. We reaffirm that, “no, I don’t want to do that” and then we refrain. Practicing in this way, our moral discipline and wisdom will improve in tandem, with each reinforcing the other.