140 – Sustainable Buddhist Practice: Creating Form But Keeping It Flexible
142 - Direct Experience Is Liberation: When There Are No Stories, There Is No "You"

Vow is a central practice in Buddhism, as I’ve discussed before. Vows – alternatively aspirations, intentions, or commitments, formal or informal – are a conscious choice we make about the kind of life we want to live, and the kind of person we want to be. Clarifying the vows we are already living, and the vows we still want to take on, can help give direction and meaning to our lives. See also Episode 124 – The Buddhist Practice of Vow: Giving Shape to Our Lives.



Reason topic is coming up:

Jukai ceremony with Bright Way Zen last Sunday… Meaning of Jukai in our lineage… Optional but encouraged


Vow Is Central in Buddhism

  • Vows give shape to our lives
  • Vows are about optional things (we don’t “vow” to follow the law of gravity)

Vows are a conscious choice we make about how we want to live – go ahead and call it aspiration, intention, “I want to…” or even “may I…”

If we leave things up to how we feel each moment, this is changeable

  • Based on likes, dislikes, motivations change when the going gets tough

Are vows guarantees? Absolutely not, it’s still optional


What Is It About a Vow That Helps Us Follow Through?

  • Concreteness about a statement – not just a passing thought, give it words, write it down, record in some way that it can’t be denied
  • Often/usually, publicly witnessed – others can help remind us of our intentions
  • Some vows maybe not explicitly stated or formalized, but manifest as unalterable commitments

The deeper the conviction/desire to make our lives accord with the vow, the more powerful and transformative it can be

  • Vows about superficial things (weight loss, e.g.) often not very helpful
  • Motivation? For others, or caring for/appreciating our lives, living our lives to the fullest
  • Vows seeking power, money, fame, attractiveness, etc. might indeed shape our lives, but is that the shape we want to give them?


Life Vows

Life vows – vows that help shape our lives – arise out of a deep conviction or resonance: example of Maezumi Roshi’s vow (read from Chozen’s book, page xiii, [1])

  • Marriage vows – out of love, commitment to a person, or determination to form a stable family unit to raise and support children
  • Vow, perhaps unstated but strong nonetheless, to be there for our families – our children, aging parents, and perhaps also siblings or extended family members
  • Being there for certain friends to whom we feel a lasting connection/commitment
  • Exploring our existence through artistic expression
  • Speaking the truth as we see it, no matter the cost
  • Standing up for anyone we see being excluded or abused
  • Dedicating ourselves to sharing the power and joy of education or literacy
  • Commitment to sobriety, refraining from drugs and alcohol
  • Refraining from eating meat or animal products out of concern for animal welfare or ecological reasons
  • Exploring, practicing, honing, teaching a particular skill or art because of your love and appreciation for its beauty and what it has to teach

Chozen Bays in “The Vow-Powered Life” [1] suggests looking at your life, looking at the choices you have made that you are glad you made or are even proud of, and then thinking about the “underlying vow” behind them, so examine the vows you have already made.

Take minute, perhaps get a piece of paper, jot down some of the vows that you have explicitly made, or that have manifested in your life through your choices, commitments, or accomplishments.

My vows:

  • Priest vows – serve the three treasures
  • Marriage vows – sharing, humor, support
  • Establish and serve Bright Way Zen, set it up so it can be here 100 years from now
  • Speak the truth as I see it even when doing so is unpopular or has a cost.
  • Live each day as if it is my last.
  • Do everything I can to prevent the breakdown of our planet’s natural life-support systems, not stopping as long one being can be saved.


Buddhist Vows Are Often Impossible

Bodhisattva vows –

  • Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.
  • Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
  • Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
  • The buddha way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.

Precept vows –

  • Cease from harm – release all self­attachment.
  • Do only good – take selfless action.
  • Do good for others – embrace all things and conditions.
  • In the realm of the everlasting dharma, holding no thought of killing is the precept of not killing.
  • In the realm of the unattainable dharma, holding no thought of gain is the precept of not stealing.
  • In the realm of the inexplicable dharma, putting forth not one word is the precept of not speaking dishonestly.
  • In the realm of the intrinsically pure dharma, not harboring delusions is the precept of not becoming intoxicated.


Vow As Direction

What is the value of such impossible vows?

Okumura, Living by Vow:

Page 30: “A life led by vow is a life animated or inspired by vow, not one that is watched, scolded, or consoled by vow. These verbs create a separation between the person and the vow.The simple phrase ‘living by vow’ emphasizes that the person and the vow are one. Our life is itself a vow.”

Page 19 – Our vows are impossible, they are a direction, not a goal: “Compared to the eternal, the absolute, or the infinite, we are all equal to zero… Understanding ourselves in this way frees our practice from competition based on selfishness… We cannot be proud of our practice, and we don’t need to be too humble about our lack of practice or understanding. We are just as we are. Our practice is to take one more step toward the infinite, the absolute, moment by moment, one step at a time.”



[1] Bays, Jan Chozen. The Vow-Powered Life: A Simple Method for Living with Purpose. Boston, MA: Shambala Press, 2015.

[2] Okumura, Shohaku. Living by Vow: A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2012.


140 – Sustainable Buddhist Practice: Creating Form But Keeping It Flexible
142 - Direct Experience Is Liberation: When There Are No Stories, There Is No "You"