A few weeks ago some of us in sangha were talking about vows. There were a lot of different ideas about their place and significance, from many angles – spiritual, psychological, physical, social – and one of the things we discussed was how a vow is different from, for example, a promise. We live in a society that involves a lot of promises, understandings, expectations, agreements and contracts – to pay the rent or mortgage, to drive (more or less) at the speed limit, to treat our friends a certain way, to reserve certain behavior for private spaces and adopt a whole range of other behaviors in public settings.
Of course none of that rises to the level of a vow. Even though there may be consequences, sometimes severe, for failing to act according to these promises, understandings, expectations, agreements, and contracts, there isn’t a sense of ‘sacred’ obligation. Even the Five Precepts, central to Buddhist ethical conduct, don’t start with the words “I vow to…” They start with “I undertake to…,” more of a very strong and solemn effort than a vow.
So what’s different about a vow? Of course we framed the question from the perspective of Buddhist practice, and we came up with something along these lines: a vow is something that you stake your sense of self and spiritual progress on, the “good” parts of ego that let us eventually get beyond ego; a vow is a promise you make to yourself and others that aims to push you further along the path of skillful practice. And the sangha is a great environment for the taking (and keeping) of vows.
Because a vow is a particularly serious commitment, it should not be made lightly. We shouldn’t make vows that we’re not fairly certain we’ll be able to keep, because the damage of breaking a vow can go far beyond paying a fine or making a sincere apology. It can set you back in your practice and progress. Within the context of a sangha, we can discuss our fears and level of readiness, and ask for honest and heartfelt feedback. Someone suggested that a vow should follow a “dry run,” a defined period of time when you make every effort to behave according to the vow you’ll take, before actually taking that vow. And of course the sangha can play a key role here, as well, whether it’s simply reporting in and sharing how we’re doing, or asking for help, advice, and encouragement. In this sense the sangha offers both a support system as well as some gentle accountability.
Triratna places great emphasis on the sangha jewel and the idea of spiritual friends, the community that a sangha is: a group of people who grow to know one another, to trust one another, to learn from and to teach one another, to be honest with one another, even if it’s uncomfortable. So a few of us have really taken to this idea of making vows – even simple ones – to one another at sangha night, and then checking in during the week to offer encouragement. The vows themselves are certainly helping us along with our individual spiritual practice, but something else is happening as well. The sangha is becoming closer, more creative and nurturing, more of what a sangha can be. It wasn’t the initial aim at the beginning, but it certainly is a happy benefit!