This morning we recited the Eight Lay Precepts, as we do from time to time. This lead to a vigourous discussion about the repetitive use of the phrase “I vow..” What are vows? How responsible are we for them? What happens when we fail?
Precepts or vows refers to the shila components of Buddhist teaching. Shila is the third component of the three which also includes wisdom (prajna) and practice (samadhi). This term can mean morality, ethics or values. These represent behavioural standards, rather than some independent moral code, like the Ten Commandments. Traditionally, monks, priests and nuns take a more elaborated set of precepts, while laypeople or upasakas have a smaller and simpler set, such as the Eight referred to above.
There are forms of Buddhism which treat moral choices as “commandments” and, similar to Christian teaching ,depicts shila-violation as a punishable act, with the consequence being any number of terrible hell-realms. This view treats karma as a code-and-judgment phenomenon.
I prefer to view vows as personal statements of intention, motivated by the desire for Awakening (bodaishin). They are like flight plans we make, for ourselves and as proclamations before our peers. As with a pilot, we do not control the whole flight route and we may indeed fail or be required to alter our plans as circumstances arise. We are responsible for how we act on these intentions, but are never accountable for outcomes (because we do not control the wider context of our actions).
We make intentions to guide our efforts to serve the Dharma. We understand , as we make them, that we may fail. We further understand that vow-taking or intention-setting is a step taken on a path which leads beyond this immediate lifetime. Our actions have karmic value which will certainly impact beyond this present life, as well as impact on lives adjacent to ours in this context.
Finally, we also understand that the completion of any precept or vow is not the assignment of any act to ourselves alone. We make vows in awareness of the karmic momentum from other lives, other people and events. We recognize this life is interdependent on other lives, so we accept that we can only effect a small part of the momentum of any moment. We take a vow knowing our role is partial. Further, we incorporate in our vows and practice the resonance of our efforts with those of countless Buddhas and bodhisattvas who have made concurrent vows to contribute to our lives. The success of any vow is never ours alone, just as the failure cannot ever be ours alone.
Yours in the Dharma,
om namo amida butsu