The importance of a vow

Well, I was bailed out last minute by the fantastical Andy Lambert of Bayou Buddhists. My original guest writer was burdened with work and personal issues and was unable to come up with an article. So, I am am grateful, and excited to be posting this guest article by Andy here on PM for you to read, contemplate and enjoy. Thank you Andy!!

Many religions have prayers or creeds or statements of faith. Buddhism lacks all of these. What Buddhism does have, is vows.

When Westerners think of vows, we usually think of Catholic monks or clergy. Rightly, so, as those people know what it is to take a vow. Monastics in various sects of Buddhism also take vows to follow the rules set forth in the Vinaya, the code of conduct created by the first Sangha.

However, the most common vows in Buddhism is taken by virtually everyone who falls under the umbrella of the Mahayana, which includes my own Zen practice. I am of course, talking about the Bodhisattva Vows, sometimes called the Universal Vows. The origin of such is debated. In Zen, they are called the Four Great Vows:

Beings are numberless – I vow to save them.
Greed, hatred and folly rise endlessly – I vow to uproot them.
Dharma gates are countless – I vow to enter them to them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable – I vow to embody it fully.

In Japan, even today, taking the Vows are the only real requirement for ordination as a Zen Priest. I don’t care much for the word monk because there haven’t been monks on Japan since the Meiji Restoration and the decree that monks and nuns could marry and have mundane lives apart from their duties as a Zen priest.
Why is it important?

A vow is, in Buddhism, a goal, an ideal. It’s obvious that we can never hope to actually fulfill them in any comprehensible span of time. It’s been written that Avalokiteśvara, aka Kwan Yin, aka Kanzeon, wept when she realized that she could not save all beings in her lifetime. Of course, since time is and being are really the same thing and all time is present in every moment, the vow is successful, right now and in every moment.

By following the vows as a guiding principle, as a moral compass, in all things that we do we are set free from Samsara.

On a more general level committing to a vow whether it be a Buddhist vow, or not, can provide our lives with meaning and purpose. We, as Buddhists, do not believe in some celestial reward to give us purpose. Instead, the vow can be its own reward as we reap the immediate and long-term karma of holding to it.

Hands Folded,

J. Andy Lambert


  1. Very nice article. I related to TMcG’s comment.
    After taking Refuge, my first vow other than samaya with empowerments was the Bodhisattva Vow. I remember thinking this was such a huge vow to take as I could at that time, barely imagine wanting to keep coming back to help others. I did think about it for 6 months before I took it.
    These days I am so glad I did take this vow because it changed so much about me. It made me stop & think, “Is this what an aspiring bodhisattva would do?” More often than not, the answer would be no, so I would act on that.
    Buddhist vows for me have been a tool to ‘not be a jerk’ as TMcG succinctly puts it. They also serve a purpose of bring both my thinking & behaviour into mindful purpose.

  2. Really great post!

    I remember being so freaked out about the idea of taking Buddhist vows and then suddenly it just made sense as much of what I was already practicing was already so much a part of my life and the vow was an extension of the aspiration to just be a cool person and not be a jerk.

    Thanks for stressing the importance of vows, but impressing that they are a guide or ‘moral compass’ for living. Much appreciated.

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