Finding Freedom in the Heart of Vows

On this last session of 2018, Michael led the Sangha discussion on the topic of vows. Below are his notes.

At this time of year many are formulating resolutions for the next 12 months. Research has shown that while these intentions are admirable their average duration is short, and they falter and disappear as enduring motivations in between 4 to 12 days.

There are of course many ways of setting a direction for our lives: wish becomes inclination, aspiration, intention, promise, vow, oath.

Vows have a prominent place in most forms of buddhist practice, and form a kind of framework in which we view the nature and success of our commitments. Our happiness and sense of meaning in life is affected by living according to vows we have set – and they are often keys to our sense of identity.

A relevant example: recently a large hospital surveyed all its workers, asking them to relate their degree of job satisfaction. To the surprise of the HR department, menial workers in the hospital – those who swept the floors, changed the bedpans, freshened the sheets, and the like – had among the highest degrees of job satisfaction in the hospital. This merited further investigation, and when those conducting the survey met with these workers, among the questions they asked was “How do you define your work here?” A large percentage (and those among the most satisfied with their jobs) responded, “I am a healer.”
They went on to explain: “When I come in to clean, even if the patient is said to be in a coma, I talk to them just as if they could hear and react as anyone would. You never know what’s going on inside, and being treated like they are human is bound to help them at some level.” Or, “When I go into the room of someone who’s been there for a few days, I switch the pictures around in the room, so they have a change – or if they have a favorite picture, I make sure it’s the one in prime space to see.” And so on. These people had formulated their own vows to be Healers, participating deeply in the care the hospital gave.

In Buddhism, we might focus on two sets of vows, and bring these beyond ritual repetitions and into life-shaping commitments.
The Refuge Vows are
I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha

These vows constitute are, in fact, the commitments one makes to “become” a buddhist. A great deal could be said about each one, and much was said in our sangha session about these; here we can simply indicate some possibilities of the ways in which they can penetrate and shape our lives.

We can take refuge not only in appreciation of the spiritual genius of Shakyamuni Buddha, but in the profound fact that a human being in no way supernatural can achieve complete freedom and clarity. In Dogen’s famous description of enlightenment as “The Moon in the Dewdrop,” we see an image of full and complete enlightenment as embodied in each of us, each sentient being, even though our lives are as ephemeral as dew.

When we take refuge in the Dharma, we not only commit to study the teachings of buddhism, but to appreciate his distinct position in the philosophical culture of his time, which strongly resembles our own. Teachers then made their livings by going from village to village offering their perspectives and disciplines, and thus even ordinary people could be exposed to a variety of spiritual viewpoints. Today we have a similar situation with the internet, meditation centers, and the wide diffusion of spiritual teachings. But the Buddha distinguished himself from other teachers by an unswerving emphasis on causal and effect, both in his investigations, and in the disciplines he recommended people follow to lead them to realization of their own fullest being. In this he was distinct from the nihilists who said that no values were worth adhering to, to the fatalists who said our lives were predestined and we could have no effect on their course, the ritualists who felt their performance of sacrifices kept the world turning and assured their place in it, and the magical thinkers who thought they could change the course of the world by appealing to the gods in prayer. The Buddha asked his followers to see the facts of their lives, including their sufferings, as results of causes that could be discovered, and then worked upon, to eliminate the life poisoning effects of greed, anger, and delusion.

And finally, refuge in the Sangha means associating with people who will support your own integrity in walking the spiritual path — whether those people are identifiably buddhist, or whether they are simply others who are committed to clarifying their lives and expanding their compassion.

The second set of vows which loom large in the buddhist community are the Bodhisattva vows, which we see mainly in the various kinds of Mahayana buddhism, such as Zen and Pure Land. But many Vipassana practitioners, in the Theravada school find them meaningful as well.

Sentient Beings are numberless; I vow to liberate them all.
Delusions are endless; I vow to abandon them all.
Dharma gates are countless; I vow to enter them all.
The Buddha Way is inconceivable; I vow to embody it fully.

What distinguishes these vows is their almost incomprehensible sweep. In a sense, one could spend one’s whole life trying to fulfill them. I personally remember taking up the first vow with my Zen Master, and explaining that it was of course impossible for me to liberate all beings. Hmmm, he said, looking as if he was considering my special case, and hearing this reservation for the first time. “Well, perhaps you could liberate them from your opinion of them.” I need hardly say how deeply that struck me, and how much it changed my orientation toward life.

And even if we think these are impossible goals – we can in fact see them actually being fulfilled around us, by people in all faith disciplines.

Taking the Bodhisattva Vow implies that instead of holding onto our individual territory and defending it tooth and nail we become open to the world that we are living in. It means we are willing to take on greater responsibility, immense responsibility. In fact it means taking a big chance.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche –