Vows in Buddhist Practice

National Headquarters  |  January 24, 2020
Photo by Peter Lin

The practice of making vows exists in Buddhism, as in other world religions. The vows of prātimokṣa (Sanskrit), which lead to “individual liberation,” are the principal vows that can be made, and outline rules for disciplining one’s physical behavior as well as not harming others. 

For monastics, prātimokṣa vows can number in the hundreds, depending on the tradition and level; as fully ordained monk or nun (Sanskrit: bhikṣu, bhikṣuṇī), or novice monk or nun (Sanskrit: śrāmanera, śrāmanerikā). For male and female lay practitioners (Sanskrit: upāsaka, upāsikā), prātimokṣa vows pertain to a code of moral and ethical conduct that is contained in the Five Precepts (Sanskrit: pañcaśīla), which are to abstain from killing, theft, sexual misconduct, falsehood, and intoxication.  

Undertaking to uphold precepts can be part of formally becoming a Buddhist. The ceremony consists of “taking refuge” in the Three Treasures – the Buddha as example, the Dharma as path, and Sangha as Buddhist monastics and community. Depending on the tradition, a lay practitioner may vow to uphold all five, a few, or none of the precepts at that time, thus adding vows as they progress along the path. 

Lay followers may also vow to uphold the eight precepts during special holy days, retreats, or other times suggested by their teacher. These include the original five precepts (although abstaining from all sexual activity during the designated period), as well as abstaining from eating at certain times, participating in various forms of entertainment, self-adornment, and sleeping on high or luxurious beds.

Buddhists in the Mahāyāna (Sanskrit, “Great Vehicle”) tradition, to which the Jing Si Dharma lineage established by Dharma Master Cheng Yen belongs, can also take bodhisattva vows, whose essence is to express one’s intent to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings, while foregoing one’s own full enlightenment until all beings are liberated from suffering. There are 18 bodhisattva root vows and 46 branch vows, however today, they are often summarized in some version of the following four vows:

  • However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them.
  • However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them.
  • However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them.
  • However incomparable enlightenment is, I vow to attain it.

The bodhisattva ideal is eloquently captured in a prayer by Śāntideva, an 8th century Indian Buddhist monk

May I become at all times, both now and forever, a protector of those without protection; a guide for those who have lost their way, a ship for those with oceans to cross; a bridge for those with rivers to cross; a sanctuary for those in danger; a lamp for those without light; a place of refuge for those who lack shelter; and a servant to all in need. For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, until then may I, too, abide to dispel the misery of the world.

While the initial making of a vow is a profound spiritual experience, Master Cheng Yen counsels us to also view vows as an ongoing practice, especially when combined with repentance for unwholesome thoughts and afflictions.

Repentance isn’t only about recognizing our errors and being sorry for them. It is also about beginning anew and doing things differently. This change begins with our heart, starting with our five spiritual illnesses.

These five spiritual illnesses, referred to as the five poisons, are ignorance, attachment or desire, aversion or anger, pride or arrogance, and jealousy. A powerful way to counter their insidious influence, is to make new vows and aspirations following self-reflection and repentance. And, we can make a vow to address each of the five poisons, as outlined below by Master Cheng Yen:

Vowing to dispel ignorance

Ignorance is like a thick cloud that darkens the sky, blocking the bright light of our inner wisdom. We vow to clear away our ignorance and delusion to recover our Buddha nature, by learning the Buddha’s teachings and carrying them out in our daily lives. Listening often to the teachings  and immersing ourselves in the Dharma, we are reminded to watch out for wrongs and become more aware of ourselves. We vow to furthermore apply the teachings by helping people in suffering, so we can learn about suffering personally and connect the Dharma to our experience. Realizing how blessed we are, and with deep compassion for people in suffering, we vow not only to listen to the Dharma, but to live it out in all our actions.

Vowing to overcome desire

Desire is like a sea that can drown us. We vow to tame our desire and greed, being mindful when they arise in our heart and mind and taking care not to let them grow. We vow to overcome our stinginess by nurturing a heart of love for others and helping people in need.

Vowing to dissolve anger

The anger and hatred in us fill our hearts with tinder. With the slightest spark, a fire will burn wildly in our hearts. When something displeases us, we unleash our anger on people. Blinded by our anger, we are full of ignorance and wrong thinking, and we burn down all our merits and all the good that we have done. We vow to work on our temper so there is no tinder left in our hearts.

Vowing to eliminate arrogance

We have so much pride and arrogance in us. When we know more than others, we feel better and above them. With our inflated egos, we become so big and cumbersome that we are an eyesore. We vow to cultivate humility by practicing the precepts of right conduct, being tolerant towards others, and respecting others. We vow to be humble and “shrink” ourselves. Then, we can become so small that we can even enter others’ hearts and reside there. This is the way of a bodhisattva.

Vowing to transcend jealousy

Jealousy makes our hearts small. Seeing others’ success or talent, we are envious and can’t feel happy for people. Learning the bodhisattva way, we vow to open our hearts wide to embrace others with a pure heart, praising their success and good qualities. Instead of being envious, we vow to learn from them and emulate their good so we may become better people ourselves.

Master Cheng Yen also encourages us to make vows that pertain to our spiritual practice and way of life in general, for instance:

Vowing to eradicate doubt

In our hearts, there is doubt and it is deeply rooted. Because of this, we can’t believe in true principles and can’t awaken. We vow to believe in the correct Dharma, understand the law of karma, and develop a true, non-misguided faith so we can learn the Buddha’s teachings and awaken to truths of life.

Vowing to eschew wrong views

Wrong views are like a net that traps us, making it difficult for us to pull away from  unwholesome patterns of behavior. Having given rise to a correct thought, we vow to hold onto it firmly and keep our mind from  falling once again into wrong views. We vow to practice by putting our good thoughts in action, keeping ourselves on the path of doing good, and developing a heart of  loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity so that misguided notions will have no opportunity to enter our mind and influence us.

Vowing to do good

Realizing how impermanent life is, we vow not to get caught up in petty things such as jealousy and unhappiness with others. We vow to focus our precious time and energy on doing good for others and cultivating our heart and mind, seizing the opportunities before us to create something good for others.

Vowing to cultivate compassion and the Bodhi Mind

Knowing that many people in this world are living in suffering, we vow to bring forth our compassion to help relieve people’s suffering, be their suffering from disasters, war, poverty, or illness, or from inner pain and unhappiness. We vow to cultivate wisdom and develop the bodhi mind (the awakened mind) so that we may be better able to help all living beings. Every day, we will hold these vows in our hearts.

Given the “degenerate age” we’re in today, one in which the influence of Dharma is declining, making and upholding such vows is extremely important.

The sections in italics consist of material compiled into English by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team, based on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s talks.

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