The Function of Vows

Hippocrates refusing a gift from Alexander the Great

Hippocrates refusing a gift from Alexander the Great

After Alexander’s warring days were done he took a solemn vow to bring only happiness to the people of the world. Hippocrates was not impressed.

Unlike most spiritual systems, the Dzogchen approach does not require nor is supported by the taking of vows. For a proper understanding of the Dzogchen method however it is important to know that the taking of vows does not, in any way, contradict the Dzogchen teachings. If Dzogchen practitioners want to take a vow, they are free to do so. And in a somewhat inverse context, becoming a Dzogchen practitioner does not constitute an automatic dissolution of previously taken vows. To be clear about this, we must understand what a vow actually is and how it functions.

A vow is a promise of commitment to something important, formally proclaimed, with understanding of the consequences that result from its breach. In Western culture, a distinction is made among three similar ideas: vow, oath and sacrifice. Each of these three ideas contain elements of the other two but have individually distinct emphases. Since our context here is about spiritual practice for total realization, this discussion is primarily concerning spiritual/religious vows. In our present time many people, literally millions, in all parts of the world have participated in the Buddhist rite called, Refuge and Bodhisattva Vows.  The traditions of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Shinto and many others, also have rites which include the taking of vows. So this is obviously an important idea in most spiritual systems.

There are basically two parts to a vow and this can be understood as a kind of contract where there is a party of the first part and a party of the second part. The person taking the vow generally wants some kind of protection or favor, and the other party (to whom the vow is offered) is presumed or believed to be able to grant such protection or favor. We say, presumed, here because in the case of a spiritual rite where the recipient of the vow is a transcendent being or deity, etc., we have no concrete way of determining either their participation or their agreement. Nevertheless, even if the grantor of the protection or favor is only known through faith, there is always a definite consequence associated with breaking one’s vow. In Buddhism, this is part of the understanding of karma. Any contract that lacks definite consequences of breach is really not much of a contract. The principle that is operative in a vow is actually all about the severity of the consequences of a breach. If the one who takes a vow is convinced that there will be severe consequences if the vow is broken, he will be much less likely to break the vow. But more importantly, there is the conviction that the value of the benefit of keeping the vow intact is worth the risk of those consequences.

The details of spiritual vow/contracts vary widely of course, as do the various breach consequences. Some people wonder why certain vows are still popular. For example, a Buddhist might take a vow to never partake of intoxicants. What’s the real meaning and purpose of this? The party of the first part must believe that there is a specific benefit to taking this vow — a benefit that is over and above the benefits inherent in the mere abstinence itself. Such greater benefit might simply be the additional support in abstaining that is produced by the knowledge of the looming severe consequences of a breach. If someone has a problem with self-control pertaining to intoxicants, taking such a vow is then self-imposing a potential penalty in hopes that the power of the fear of the penalty will be greater than the power of the addiction. Sometimes that works, but you need to really believe in karma for that protection to be sustained. Being completely convinced about the inexorable functioning of karma is the key to this. Traditional people were normally convinced of this through cultural indoctrination and therefore there are innumerable instances in which people even sacrificed their lives in order to maintain a vow. Sometimes a vow can be a means of greatly increasing positive karmic merit. This is particularly the case if the vow is offered to an enlightened being or presided by an enlightened master. Take the example of the vow of Ahimsa. If someone is convinced of the righteousness of non-violence and is already naturally inclined to live that way, they don’t really need to take a vow of ahimsa. Tremendously positive karma naturally accrues to those who are non-violent. If, however, such a person takes a vow of ahimsa, the power of the vow raises the amplitude of the karma multifold. Maintaining a vow of ahimsa results in positive karma that greatly exceeds the already positive karma of the non-violence itself. But what is not generally understood is that the increased potential of karmic benefit is due to the increase in liability that is part-and-parcel of vows. Vows carry the potential of severe karmic consequences if breached. In this example of ahimsa, harming other beings already carries a negative karmic consequence inherently. However, if someone who has taken a vow of ahimsa causes harm to other beings, the negative karmic consequence would be significantly heavier. An old Lama once told me that shortly after entering his monastery as a very young child, he and the other baby monks took limited ahimsa vows. The vow was limited in that it specifically stipulated the inclusion of only certain living beings; namely, tigers, whales and yetis. In this way the young monks could get the great benefit of taking (and maintaining) a vow of ahimsa without too much concern about the likelihood of any of them breaching their vow by causing any harm to tigers, whales or yetis. All of these same principles equally apply to the Buddhist refuge and bodhisattva vows.

In the case of many Vajrayana practices, there are vows concerning the regularity of performing certain rites. Many practitioners may not know that the majority of tantric initiations given by Tibetan lamas usually include such vows. Of course, one can not be bound to a vow without knowingly taking it. However, it is also not reasonable to assume that the tantric practice will work if an integral element of the initiation is missing. There can also be vows of allegiance to a specific lineage or to certain guardian deities. Such is the case with many devotees of the Tibetan guardian deity Shugden. In this latter example, the vow involves another principle not yet referenced. This is the principle of reciprocation which is closer to the more common understanding of a contract. With vows of reciprocation both parties involved have something to gain. This is something like the covenant between Yahweh and the Hebrews wherein the Hebrews would get protection, grace and mercy, and Yahweh would get the obedience necessary for the implementation of his will on Earth. An objective reading of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament seems to chronicle the many things that can go wrong with this kind of arrangement.

So, depending on how one plans to manage the vicissitudes of dualistic existence, vows may be very useful in some cases. But Dzogchen works directly with the primordial truth that preempts not only the subject-object delusion but also the fundamentally erroneous notion of cause and effect. From this Dzogchen perspective, vows can neither help nor harm. They simply add contour to the illusion of karma. But as long as we remain under the excellent magical spell of believing phenomena to be real, we will continue to be dogged by this illusory karma.

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