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125 - Liberation Through Understanding the Five Wisdom Energies

The practice of vow is about giving shape to our lives. Our vows guide our decisions, help us prioritize how we spend our time, resources, and energy, and allow us to discern whether our actions are in harmony with our deeper aspirations. Vow is about living intentionally instead of just letting happen by chance, or – even more likely – letting our decisions be determined largely by habit energy, inertia, fear, selfishness, or a lack of imagination. I first discuss why it can be so hard to stay true to our intentions, and then I present five aspects of the Buddhist practice of vow that make it a powerful way to shape our lives.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
An Ambivalent Relationship with the Practice of Vow
Self-Control When There Is No Self
Conscious Intention as An Important Input into a Process
Five Important Aspects of the Buddhist Practice of Vow
1) Motivation: Vows Beyond Self-Concern
2) Social Support: Vows Taken with the Support of Others
3) Prior Discernment: Is This the Right Vow, and the Right Time?
4) Vows Based in Tradition
5) Commitment: Committing to a Vow, and Keeping It Around
Conclusion

 

An Ambivalent Relationship with the Practice of Vow

Personally, I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with vow throughout my Buddhist practice. Before practice I didn’t really think about it, but once I encountered the Buddhist penchant for making vows I was fascinated. You not only could make vows to keep the moral precepts, and take the grand Bodhisattva Vows to free all beings and embody the Buddha Way, you could make personal vows for whatever length of time you wanted. I made vows to get up earlier, be more compassionate in my speech, and stop flying into mini-rages when irritated by small daily frustrations. Basically, any shortcoming I felt I had, I made a bold vow to fix it.

This approach to vow rarely worked. As one of my teachers, Kyogen Carlson, would say, as soon as you make a vow, an equal-and-opposite force against the vow arises. It’s kind of like the law of physics manifesting in the sphere of human behavior. I would set my alarm for the new earlier time, intending to get up and do some extra meditation or exercise or something noble, but a different self than the one who made the vow would wake up, conclude this decision was ridiculous, and turn off the alarm. Instead of helping, my intention to manifest less irritability would mysteriously make things even worse. It’s like the part of me I was trying to change or get rid of was fighting back, if only because it refused to be told what to do.

I envied people who seemed to be able to make vows or resolutions or set intentions, and then just follow through on them as if it was no big deal. I still envy such people. But I think they’re pretty rare. Given the existence of millions of self-help books and programs out there, I suspect most of us have an ambivalent relationship with our intentions to act in ways that better fit our aspirations. Many of us either struggle with vows and intentions, or have given up the struggle because it’s exhausting and pointless. We learn to live with ourselves as we are. To some extent this can be the spiritual wisdom of acceptance, but it also may reflect a certain amount of self-denigrating resignation. We figure that greater wisdom, peace, compassion, joy, appreciation, wakefulness, patience, and skillfulness are forever beyond us. The things we would have loved to achieve in this lifetime are folded up and stored away in some box along with other objects of youthful folly.

Self-Control When There Is No Self

Fortunately, the Buddhist practice of vow isn’t just about changing yourself through sheer force of will. Instead, it’s a wise and subtle practice that has evolved over the millennia to help us give shape to our lives, despite the fact that we have no “Executive I” who’s in control of our behavior.

Of course, we think we have such thing. We seem to have a conscious self who evaluates our situation, decides what we should do, and then oversees the implementation of our decisions by our body, speech, and mind. Despite the fact that it’s very hit or miss whether our conscious self gets its way, we cling to our belief that it is – or should be – in control of our lives.

What’s going on in our human brains, anyway? Why is self-control so difficult? From the Buddhist point of view, it doesn’t really matter whether we have the answers to these questions. However, I find some understanding of why we are the way we are helps me trust the Buddhist path. That’s why I was so grateful for Robert Wright’s 2017 book Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.[i] Wright is an evolutionary psychologist, and he explores Buddhist teachings and corresponding modern research about the nature of self and our perceptions of it.

What I found most fascinating of all the things Wright presents was the theory – backed up by research – that our conscious sense of self is far from being in charge the way we think it is. For example, Wright describes “split-brain” experiments on people who have had the right and left hemispheres of their brain surgically separated (usually to control seizures).[ii] Experimenters exposed subjects to information but confined it one hemisphere of the brain by showing it to only half of the subject’s visual field. For example, an image or word shown only to the subject’s left eye would be received only by the right hemisphere of their brain. The left hemisphere, in control of language, would not register the information, and therefore subjects did not report consciousness of the information. However, the information received by the right hemisphere of their brain would nonetheless affect the subject’s behavior. A command, “walk,” would lead to subjects getting up and walking, although there had not been any conscious processes in the subject’s mind that led up to the action.

So why, if what I like to call our “Executive I” isn’t always in charge or practically necessary for executing decisions and actions, do we perceive it as being absolutely central to our functioning? Here’s one theory, presented by Wright, I find entirely plausible and strangely redeeming: The conscious self evolved to create a coherent, narrative explanation of what’s happening in our body and mind. This explanation may, at times, be only nominally based in reality or even patently untrue, but in it we generally figure as rational, capable, people in control of our own behavior.

We evolved this personal-narrative function, the theory goes, as a way to present ourselves to other people as rational and capable so they would trust us. And also, presumably, as a way to perceive ourselves that way as well. For example, remember the experiment mentioned earlier, where subjects in split-brain experiments would get up a walk because of a command sent to the right hemispheres of their brains? When asked why they were walking, the subjects would readily offer an explanation using the left hemisphere of their brain – which didn’t even receive the “walk” command – that made their action seem rational, and which they themselves believed. One man, for example, said he was going to get a soda. Wright offers numerous other examples of experiments where people’s choices were clearly influenced by factors of which they were unaware, but when asked why they acted the way they did, they didn’t skip a beat when offered perfectly reasonable explanations.

As Wright explains,

“Remember the guy whose right hemisphere was told to walk, and whose left hemisphere, when asked where he was going, said he was going to get a soda? His answer wasn’t really true, but it does inspire a kind of confidence in him. He seems like a guy who is in charge of himself, who doesn’t go around doing things for no good reason. Compare him with a guy who offers a more truthful account: “I don’t really know why I got up or where I’m going. I just do stuff for reasons that make no sense to me.” If those two guys were your neighbors in a hunter-gatherer village, which one would you want to go hunting with? Which one would you want to become friends with? During human evolution, the answers to such questions mattered: if you were though unworthy of collaboration and friendship, your genes were in trouble.”[iii]

Conscious Intention as An Important Input into a Process

Returning to the subject of the Buddhist practice of vow, how does it work if our conscious sense of self – the one that conceives of the vow – isn’t really in charge the way we think it is? Before we get lost down the bottomless rabbit hole of discussing whether we actually have free will or not, let me say that both Buddhism and modern psychology see our human experience as a complicated unfolding of causes and conditions over which we don’t – and can’t – have absolute control, but into which we can make critical input in certain ways and at certain times. Wright puts it this way:

“The conscious mind – the conscious ‘self’ – isn’t special in the way we commonly assume it’s special. It’s not calling as many of the shots as we think it is. It’s less like a president than like the speaker of the US House of Representatives, who presides over the votes and announces an outcome but doesn’t control the votes. Of course, the speaker of the House may do some behind-the-scenes nudging and so exert some influence over the votes.”[iv]

Wright goes on to suggest that meditation might be a way to learn to use our minds so the conscious part exerts more influence.

As a Buddhist I would say that the true nature of our being is not at all how we typically conceive of it, but the amazing and liberating thing is that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that our conscious self spends much of its time making up stories about what’s going on in order to make sense of them. As long as we recognize that’s what’s happening, we can relate more skillfully to our conscious self and take it with a grain – or more – of salt. There’s no need to speculate on who or what is actually in charge, because we know from experience our choices matter. Our sense of “Executive I” may not be an effective dictator over our body, speech, and mind, but change still happens in messy systems like imperfect democracies.

Five Important Aspects of the Buddhist Practice of Vow

The key to the Buddhist practice of vow is that it can work on us at many different levels, not just the level of the conscious self with an agenda. I see five critical aspects of Buddhist vows that make them effective in giving shape to our lives even though our self-nature is a causal flow we can never totally control:

  1. Buddhist vows are about relieving suffering, and cultivating wisdom and compassion. This kind of vow involves a motivation beyond self-interest and inspires us in a profoundly different way than agendas for self-improvement.
  2. Buddhist vows are generally taken publicly, or at least with a few people bearing witness, and therefore with the support of others.
  3. In Buddhism, vows are not taken lightly. There should first be careful discernment about the vow – whether this is the right vow for us, or this is the right time to make it.
  4. The most transformative Buddhist vows are ones that have evolved within the tradition and have stood the test of time.
  5. Committing to a vow and trying to keep it despite our preferences creates a direction for our life energy. Once set, the vow belongs to something greater than our conscious self.

I’ll briefly discuss each of these five aspects of Buddhist vows, but in general these aspects reflect the fact that Buddhist vows are a holistic practice we do in a larger context, including our past and future, our habits of body and mind, and other people. The more of these five aspects a given vow has – beyond self-concern, the support of others, prior discernment, tradition, and commitment – the more likely we’ll be able to keep the vow, and the more transformative it can be.

1) Motivation: Vows Beyond Self-Concern

Buddhist vows are about relieving suffering, and cultivating wisdom and compassion. This kind of vow involves a motivation beyond self-interest and inspires us in a profoundly different way than agendas for self-improvement.

A lot of the vows or resolutions we make in our lives, especially the ones we have difficulty following through on, are inherently shallow or selfish, or formed without a clear sense of our motivation. For example, the classic resolution to lose weight is notoriously difficult to keep, unless it is clearly necessary for our health, and inspired by a desire to better serve others or to extend the lifespan we can spend with our loved ones. If our resolution is just about vanity or meeting the expectations of others, it’s unlikely to be very strong.

Sometimes intentions that look noble on the outside are really just self-interest masquerading as generosity or aspiration. Our intention to be more attentive to others may sound selfless, but underneath we may just want people to like us more. Making a vow to meditate every day may seem like a great way to strengthen our practice, but if we’re really just doing it so other people will think we’re a good Buddhist, we’ll probably end up slacking off in our effort. Even a desire to awaken can be fundamentally self-centered, if we’re primarily focused on our status within a spiritual community, or on the rarified spiritual experiences we might be able to enjoy.

Given how self-interested human beings tend to be, why isn’t a selfish motivation enough to make a strong vow? Of course, for some people it is – the ones with strong will power I still can’t help but envy. For most of us a selfish motivation isn’t enough, though, because only a part of us is actually in favor of the vow. As long as it’s all about us, our best intentions will be at least occasionally waylaid by the part of us that doesn’t enjoy listening to others, or would rather watch TV than meditate, or thinks awakening just takes too dang much effort.

Of course, forming a vow for noble and selfless reasons isn’t a guarantee we’ll be able to keep it or that it will be transformational. Still, if we’re the kind of person who is going around making vows in the first place, chances are good that a motivation beyond self-interest is going to serve as a much more enduring inspiration than an agenda for self-improvement. Fortunately, many of the personal changes we’d like to make in our lives can be tied to a greater purpose and thereby be transformed. For example, perhaps we can clarify for ourselves, through experiment and observation, how daily meditation helps us be less reactive and more compassionate, and therefore a vow to meditate daily can be something we fulfill, at least in part, for the sake of others.

2) Social Support: Vows Taken with the Support of Others

Buddhist vows are generally taken publicly, or at least with a few people bearing witness, and therefore with the support of others.

As Buddhists, we take the moral precepts in a public ceremony. Marriage vows have to be made with at least one witness present, and our common understanding of what they mean allows other people to support us in keeping them. In my Zen community, we also find it very helpful to form small peer groups for 3 months at time, during which we each make personal vows and share them with the group. The support of others is no guarantee we’ll keep our vows, of course, but most of us find it really helps.

Social support is an invaluable part of making and keeping vows and resolutions, which is why many people find the most successful method of weight loss is something like Weight Watchers, where you make yourself accountable to someone through regular check-ins on your progress. However, one of the ideals of our culture is having a strong will, which would allow us to make whatever changes we want to, without any need for help. Sadly, this keeps some of us from seeking support; instead we keep struggling with ourselves or finally give up. Myself, I just don’t exercise unless I’m signed up for an exercise class – one I pay for, and I’ll get changed extra if I don’t show up! For some mysterious reason, it’s no problem at all for me to go exercise when I know other people will be expecting me and notice if I’m not there.

3) Prior Discernment: Is This the Right Vow, and the Right Time?

In Buddhism, vows are not taken lightly. There should first be careful discernment about the vow – whether this is the right vow for us, or this is the right time to make it.

What is the ultimate purpose of our vow? Generally speaking, we want a vow to give shape to our life – we want it to guide our decisions, help us prioritize how we spend our time, resources, and energy, and allow us to discern whether our actions are in harmony with our deeper aspirations. Vow is essentially about living intentionally instead of just letting happen by chance, or – even more likely – letting our decisions be determined largely by habit energy, inertia, fear, selfishness, or a lack of imagination. This isn’t to say people who don’t live by vow are bad people or lead meaningless lives! Not at all. Buddhist practice is not about judging others for their decisions. Each one of us has our own path. Those of us who want to live by vow just hope that vow will give our lives a shape that would be unlikely to occur without it.

Given our vows are for shaping our life, then, we should think carefully about what vows we make. This is a part of the practice of vow that’s easily overlooked. Sometimes, if we find ourselves unable to keep our vows or resolutions, it’s because we making the wrong ones, or because we’re not making them in a skillful way. In our discernment about vow, we need to take into consideration both where we want to go, and where we’re starting out. Or, alternatively, who do we want to become, and who are we now? Are we, in a sense, rejecting who we are, and striving to fulfill some ideal that is not only impossible for us, it’s not even the best use of our life energy?

To illustrate, I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve always held an ideal of a spiritual mature person who meets each and every person they encounter with gracious attention, affection, appreciation, and patience. I imagine drifting through the world like the Dalai Lama, leaving ever person with a sense of warmth and love. Consistent with this ideal I have made vows about meeting each person fully… but in reality, I’m much more interested in my projects than I am in spending extended periods of time in conversations with everyone I meet. However, most of the projects I undertake are all about benefitting others, so is this a bad way to be? Given who I am in this lifetime, a more achievable vow – and one that makes use of my life energy instead of fighting it – is to repeatedly remind myself that my projects are done for the love of other people. The projects are fine, and I’m unlikely to spend a lot of my time standing still, beaming loving acceptance back at people. But, on the other hand, if I end up neglecting people face-to-face in the interest of what I’m going to get done for them, that’s just sad. A more reasonable and appropriate vow helps me balance my strengths and weaknesses, and also prevents me from carrying around a sense of inadequacy.

At other times, our vows are way too ambitious. We’re living beings, not machines that can be taken apart and reassembled. If we push ourselves too hard, we break. I like to envision our efforts at positive self change as being like raising a child. If we make extreme demands and react to our limitations or resistance with anger or harshness, chances are good our efforts will simply backfire. Instead, we need to be reasonable and skillful with ourselves. For example, if you don’t meditate at all, a vow to sit every day is probably too much. Why not start with a vow to sit once a week? My rule of thumb is, if the vow requires some change, but sounds like no problem, it’s probably perfect in terms of ambition. Many times, we’re a little too proud to make vows or resolutions small enough that we could actually achieve them, but once we achieve a vow and make a strong habit, we can always add to it. This is why, in some Buddhist traditions, so I’ve heard, you can take just the moral precepts you know you can keep.

4) Vows Based in Tradition

The most transformative Buddhist vows are ones that have evolved within the tradition and have stood the test of time.

There’s plenty of space in our lives for making personal vows, but vows that are part of a tradition – Buddhist or otherwise – tend to be the most reliable in terms of their power to shape your life. Traditional vows have the support of others built in (at least, the support of others within a particular tradition). Traditional vows also tend to be surrounded by a rich tradition of literature, ritual, celebration, and ways for people to come together to renew and remember their intentions.

Another important aspect of traditional vows is that, when you first take them, you rarely understand everything they entail. You may think you do – that you’ll know what it means to be married, or to formally become a Buddhist by taking the precepts, or to take a formal Buddhist teacher, or to live according to monk’s vows – but you don’t. You can’t. These traditional vows have evolved out of the experience of countless people over the millennia, and they’re not a simple matter. Although a particular vow may be simple – like I vow not to kill – the vow has more implications than you can possibly brainstorm in one sitting. We learn what a vow means as we live it out.

Then there’s impossible, aspirational vows like the four Bodhisattva vows. “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them [all], Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them [all], Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them [all], the Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.” These vows give shape to your life even though you can’t literally fulfill them. They provide an orientation, so we know which way is up. We may flail about as self-centered, imperfect beings, even as we maintain a connection with what we know is most important. At the very least, it helps us remain humble.

5) Commitment: Committing to a Vow, and Keeping It Around

Committing to a vow and trying to keep it despite our preferences creates a direction for our life energy. Once set, the vow belongs to something greater than our conscious self.

There’s a story told by 13th-century Zen master Dogen, in his essay called “The Virtue of Homeleaving:”

“Without having faith, [a] courtesan put on a nun’s robe for a joke. She was perhaps at minor fault for this action, but with the power of wearing this robe she encountered the buddha dharma in her next life-time. A nun’s robe means a kashaya. As a result of wearing a kashaya for a joke, she left the household, received the precepts, and became a nun called Utpalavarna at the time of Kashyapa Buddha.”[v]

Elsewhere in Dogen’s essay, he quotes the nun Utpalavarna herself, who is also a nun in Shakyamuni Buddha’s time. Utpalavarna is trying to convince a bunch of lay women to become nuns, but they object, saying they are young and beautiful, and it would be hard for them to keep the monastic precepts. The nun tells them “It’s all right to break the precepts. Leave the household first.” The lay women respond with horror, exclaiming that breaking precepts will land them in hell. Utpalavarna is again unswayed, saying that it’s still worth it for the women to enter the ordained path. She explains that in one of her past lifetimes she was a nun with impeccable conduct, but she became very arrogant about this and ended up breaking a precept and falling into hell. Nonetheless, she was eventually reborn at this time and had the fortune of meeting Shakyamuni Buddha and attaining arhatship. In other words, even if you make a vow you’re likely to struggle with or even break, it will give shape to your life.

What is it within us that forms an aspiration and thinks to make a life-transforming vow? Often, it’s more like something within us awakens and resonates with a particular life manifestation. At first we’re intrigued and strangely attracted, and at some point we realize, “I want to do that.” This is what happened to Shakyamuni Buddha when he was still Siddhartha. He was having grave doubts about the path of sensual indulgence he was on, and then he saw a monk sitting peacefully. I similarly found myself fascinated by monastic practice when I first started practicing Buddhism, and after five years of lay practice I put aside everything in order to get ordained. You may have made a commitment to the medical profession, or to raising children, or to dedicating your life to a vocation that you believe in but makes little money. You made a heart-based choice and since then that choice has shaped your life.

The key to the transformational power of vow lies in commitment. You may have invested time and energy into an area of study, or a pastime, hobby, or relationship… but then when you’re no longer interested, you move on. That’s fine, and maybe your temporary experience has enriched and informed your life. However, it’s unlikely to have given much shape to it, because when you felt like growing in a different direction, you did. Inevitably, we come up against our vows. That’s what they’re for – keeping us in line with our long-term aspirations exactly when we’d rather do something else.

When I was getting married for the second time, I worried – rather like the women Utpalavarna was trying to talk into ordaining as nuns – that I would fail at my vows. After all, I had abandoned one set of marriage vows already; how could I trust myself not to do so again, no matter how sincerely I felt about my new vows at the moment? My now-husband pointed out that we only make vows about things that we could potentially fail to do, at least at times; we don’t, after all, vow to follow the law of gravity. It helped me a lot to think of vow as something that we know will be challenging at some point by its very nature. Despite the challenge, we make a vow because of how we want our life to grow and develop.

Some parts of us may rebel or lose interest, and we may even end up breaking or bending our vow. What then? I tell people to “keep their vow around” – at least for a while. Especially if your vow was carefully discerned, it’s worth keeping around even if you break it. This isn’t meant in any way to water down the seriousness of a vow, as if it doesn’t matter if you try to fulfill it or not. Obviously, if you hold a vow that lightly it’s not going to give much shape to your life, and you’ll probably start to doubt your own word. On the other hand, there are extremely meaningful and transformational vows we will inevitably break in some way. For example, one of my current marriage vows says my spouse and I will be gentle with each other, and maintain our sense of humor. I’ve certainly broken that vow many times, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying to keep it. Another example is the Buddhist precepts; even a relatively simple precept like not speaking dishonestly will prove to be impossible to keep perfectly. Even small omissions or overzealous statements will compromise this precept, but a commitment to it will always shape our speech, even if it’s only to remind us when we fall short of our intention.

The Practice of Vow: Conclusion

In conclusion, the Buddhist practice of vow isn’t about embarking on a self-improvement project through sheer force of will. Rather, it’s subtle and holistic practice with five aspects: Being motivated by an aspiration beyond mere self-interest; enlisting the support of others in keeping our vows; discerning carefully before making a vow about whether it’s the right vow or the right time; taking advantage of the transformational power of traditional vows, and staying committed to vow even when it becomes difficult to keep it, or even when we break a vow. We’re adults, and each of is us responsible for our own path. We don’t have to make vows, and we shouldn’t judge others about what vows they make or don’t make. However, the practice of vow has a great potential to help us give shape to our lives, allowing us to become more liberated, wiser, and most compassionate people.

 


Endnotes

[i] Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2017.
[ii] Ibid, page 78
[iii] Ibid, page 82
[iv] Ibid, page 90
[v] Dogen, Zen Master. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.  Location 15671.

 

Photo Credit

Image by Katniss12 from Pixabay

 

123 – Engaging Our Climate Emergency as a Koan and Opportunity
125 - Liberation Through Understanding the Five Wisdom Energies
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