The Bodhisattva Vow

Sometimes the Victoria Bodhichitta Buddhist Centre provides an opportunity for  individuals to take the Bodhisattva Vow  during the blue lotusBodhisattva Vow Ceremony. For some of us (myself included) this raises some questions: What is the Bodhisattva vow? What does it mean to take the vow? Why would I want to take the vow? Is it something that I should do?

I’m afraid I can only help you answer the first three questions… and the fourth is something you will have to decide for yourself.

What is the Bodhisattva Vow?

For a Bodhisattva, the main object to be abandoned is the intention to work solely for  one’s own sake. (The Bodhisattva Vow p. 85)

The vow is fairly straightforward. It is a commitment to practice the six perfections and to avoid the downfalls (discussed below). Taking the vow helps to develop your spiritual potential: to move from solely seeking your own personal liberation to also wishing for the enlightenment of all living beings.

2. What does it mean to take the Bodhisattva Vow?

There are two parts to the practice of the Bodhisattva Vow: maintaining vows (hmm maybe a bit tricky) and purifying downfalls (thank goodness I’m allowed to make mistakes as long as I’m sincerely trying).

Maintaining the vow consists of practicing the six perfections and avoiding the downfalls. The six perfections are giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, mental stabilization, and wisdom;  they are called perfections because they are motivated by bodhichitta when we practice them.

The downfalls are a little more tricky as there are more of them to remember. There are forty-six secondary downfalls and eighteen root downfalls. Instructions on the downfalls provide advice for us on how we should live our life. I won’t list all the downfalls here, but sufficed to say some will probably be a little easier for us to follow than others. Some of the downfalls sound like they would be pretty easy to avoid: the fifth root downfall is “stealing the property of the three jewels” (no problem!); the sixth secondary downfall is “not accepting gifts” (check! I can easily do that); the tenth root downfall is “destroying places such as towns” (piece of cake, I don’t have any ability or inclination to destroy a place of habitation or an environment). However, some of them sound much more difficult to me. We all have different things that we struggle with, but I think there are some that many of us would find a little tricky: the fifth secondary downfall is “not accepting invitations” (this could be difficult on those days I just don’t feel like it or when the invitation comes from someone I don’t enjoy spending time with); the twenty-third secondary downfall is “indulging in senseless conversation out of attachment” (I really don’t like small talk, but I’m sure I have my fair share of senseless conversations with friends).

The downfalls are clearly laid out, which is very convenient. I think the first step for me would be to memorize them so I don’t accidentally do something contrary to the vow. The eighteen root downfalls seem as if they would be fairly easy to avoid, but the secondary downfalls contain some of those ‘cozy’ habits which can be a little difficult to get rid of, like indulging in frivolity or indulging in worldly pleasures out of attachment. (What about eating chocolate in front of the TV!? I guess that’ll have to be given up.)

Fortunately, when you slip up, all is not lost! You can purify your downfalls (*huge sigh of relief*). There are two parts to purifying downfalls: purifying downfalls in this life and purifying the downfalls of past lives. That said, it’s not just a question of taking the vow and then not worrying about it because there is a method for purifying downfalls. It is important to remember that when we break our vows it creates problems for us.

The Bodhisattva VowIt is important to keep whatever promises we have made to the Buddhas and to our  Spiritual Guide because broken promises are serious obstacles to our spiritual  progress.” (The Bodhisattva Vow p. 69)

If you would like to know what each of the downfalls are and how to purify them, you should take a look in the book “The Bodhisattva Vow” by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso which lays everything out very neatly.

3. Why would I want to take the vow?

If we are to fulfil our wish to attain enlightenment quickly for the sake of others, we need  to overcome our faults as soon as we can. (The Bodhisattva Vow p. 85)

Sometimes Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says things so clearly that nothing else needs to be said (okay, that’s actually pretty much all the time). All I have to say here, about why you might want to consider taking the vow, is that if it will help you and others to achieve enlightenment more quickly then I think that’s pretty much all the reason anyone needs. The world could certainly do with a little more enlightenment. (Alright, I think I can give up eating chocolate in front of the TV for something as good as that.)

4. Is this something I should do?

I know I said this was something I couldn’t answer for you, but I decided I would give you a few things that you could think about.

The first thing to think about is a quote from Geshe Kelsang Gyatso: “It is important to be skillful in our approach to the vows. We should not have unrealistic expectations or make promises that we cannot keep. Instead we should adopt the Bodhisattva’s way of life gradually.”

The second thing you might want to think about is that you can take the vow and, for lack of a better term, put a time limit on it. If keeping the vow from now until you achieve enlightenment seems too difficult then you can take the vow with the sincere intention to practice for one day or for one week. At the end of the specified period of time you can review how you did and reflect on how you could improve. Gradually you can lengthen the period of time for which you take the vow until you are ready to take it and practice it continually until you achieve enlightenment.

If you do decide to take the Bodhisatttva Vow, there are no special preparations that you need to make before coming to take the vow; however, it is advisable that you have some understanding of Dharma and a strong refuge practice.

If you are still undecided or you would like more information, I started my education on the subject by reading Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s book “The Bodhisattva Vow.” The book was extremely helpful and I would definitely recommend it for anyone who is interested in learning more or is considering taking the vow.

Whether you’re ready to take the vow or not, I would like to leave you with this quote from the book that I think we can all benefit from – regardless of how far we are down the road to enlightenment – whether we are new to practicing Dharma or if we have been practicing for many years:

“It is said that when we practice Dharma we should be like a child at play. When children  are engrossed in their games, they feel completely contented and nothing can distract  them.” (The Bodhisattva Vow p. 99)
by Allison Lenz, a member of our community

This post was written by Allison