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Formal vows in Buddhism

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  • Formal vows in Buddhism

    Dear Ajahn,

    I recently stumbled across the ocean of Buddhism, and I was struck by its empirical approach and its usage of logic and reason to arrive at solid conclusions.
    My question is : Why does Buddhism require people(monks,nun,laity) to take vows ? I find a little incompatibility between the doctrines of Buddhism and the phenomenon of taking vows, and here is why.

    In Buddhism, there is a concept of kusala and akusala ( skillful and non skillful). So if one understands that a particular thing is unskillful, he/she will not do it. So why take a vow for it? And if one dosen't understand that a particular thing is unskillful, but rather derives enjoyment out of it, a vow(of not doing that thing) may not really help. Such a forced vow will cause distress to the practitioner or perhaps the practitioner may become proud that he/she can keep the vow.

    Here is an analogy.

    In sports, athletes have a goal to achieve and who understand the skillful and unskillful practices, naturally avoid unskillful things. They never take vows. Say the athlete is addicted to unwholesome activities( in terms of obtaining a medal). When the coach explains the problem with those activities and how they will prevent him/her from obtaining an Olympics gold medal. If the athlete really wants the medal, he/she will stop those activities. He/She may personally take a vow, but there are no institutionalized vows or confessions on transgressions.

    In Buddhism, the goal is absolute cessation from suffering. If a person wants that, he/she will look at the suggestions from the Buddha/any other teacher and follow them. Why take formal vows ?


    - Bhushan

  • #2
    Dear Bushan,

    I think the crux of the matter is the division of Vinaya (discipline) and Dhamma (the teaching). The Vinaya is a legalistic structure that serves to provide structure to monastic life. This structure manages many aspects of our day-to-day life to avoid destroying the confidence of the lay Buddhists and also to keep things simple. Thus we eat one meal a day, we don't have sexual relationships and so forth. Such is the Vinaya.

    Far more important is the Buddha's teaching, the Dhamma. This covers a wide range of topics in the Suttas and provides the flesh and spirit that Vinaya and lay precepts support. It is not so much a matter of vows as adherence to a standard of conduct laid down by the Buddha.

    Does this answer your question?

    With metta,

    Bhante Jhanarato


    • #3
      Originally posted by Bhushan Kotnis View Post
      Dear Ajahn,

      I recently stumbled across the ocean of Buddhism, and I was struck by its empirical approach and its usage of logic and reason to arrive at solid conclusions.
      My question is : Why does Buddhism require people(monks,nun,laity) to take vows ? I find a little incompatibility between the doctrines of Buddhism and the phenomenon of taking vows, and here is why.
      Hrmmm, in Theravada Buddhism you don't really take vows. It might sometimes be used as a manner of speaking that people understand, for example as a monk I could say that "I've taken a vow of poverty" because people might understand what that means, but actually I've undertaken a training to refrain from receiving money.

      The training is actually extremely parallel to what athletes do. If you want to succeed as an athlete then you need to have discipline in your life style, but it is undertaking a training, it's not taking a vow. It's the same with the precepts, if you undertake to refrain from lying, then you try to not tell lies. But it's not the same as vowing to not lie. I think the big difference is that psychologically it's not really such a big thing to break a precept, I mean yeah you try not to do it, but it's not a cause for guilt and anxiety. It's just like if you were an athlete and didn't get up to exercise before breakfast. Your performance is going to suffer as a result especially if you do it a lot, but that's all, and it's enough.

      Sometimes individuals will make resolutions to refrain from some thing. For instance after I was ordained I made a resolution to not go to Sydney for a year. Also one year I made a resolution to go barefoot everyday for a year (well, four seasons anyway). That kind of thing though, is usually just to demonstrate that one can and as an exercise in restraint/austerity, and isn't taken as strongly as a vow. Again the natural language to use is, it's an "exercise", it's a form of practise, but it's not the actual performance. As Bhante Jhanarato says, the precepts and such are just to live wholesomely and to provide a strong foundation, but the Dhamma is where the real substance is at.



      • #4
        Dear Bhushan,

        I hope you don't mind me jumping in here but I thought I would give my take on the vows/training from a lay person's perspective. I have taken the 5 precepts online here and every morning before I meditate I retake them as a reminder and a reaffirmation to myself.

        I'll give you 2 recent examples of how they are extremely beneficial to my practice, and ultimately my peace of mind (which is a necessary precursor for concentration in meditation and then insight/wisdom). The other evening I was at a dinner party and everyone was drinking wine/spirits and as usual trying to get me to have a drink with them. For some reason on this occasion I was a bit tempted and thought maybe I'll just have half a glass of wine so that I might have a bit more fun (it's rather boring when everyone else is tipsy to drunk around you - the conversation is not very interesting!). But as I debated this in my mind it was because I had taken the 5 precepts online that helped me to stay committed to not having anything to drink. Now there's probably not a lot of harm in having half a glass of wine but it's a slippery slope to having a full glass and the consequences would then be that I'm unable to meditate when I come home or perhaps feeling bad the next morning and hindering my morning meditation - thereby not giving me the peace of mind needed to meditate deeply.

        My 2nd example is using the precepts as a reflection. A couple of weeks ago I had an amicable debate with someone that started in politics and morphed into religion. And although the conversation was kept on a very friendly tone I continued to dwell on it well after we had finished our discussion and the more I relived the conversation the more angry and uncomfortable I became. It was causing me harm and I also realized some of the things I was saying about Christianity had probably caused him some harm as well. The next morning following this debate 8 sat to meditate and I recited the 5 precepts - as I reflected on the first one to do no harm I saw clearly how these types of conversation only cause harm to myself and others and therefore if I wish to find peace and happiness I simply cannot have them - there is no upside for me or the other person. I had a deeper reflection on this in my meditation (as clearly there was a lot going on) but it was the precepts that brought my attention to something that probably should have been so obvious but for some reason had not been. And now each morning as I recite the 5 precepts, I include some verbage about avoiding political and religious conversations if I wish to do no harm!

        I have hundreds more examples where the 5 precepts have helped me with my practice and by taking the precepts online with the Sangha there is a profound commitment making it easier to adhere to them. So personally I find them very helpful to my practice and peace of mind. Hopefully this is helpful as I'd really like to stick to the first precept of doing no harm today!

        With Metta,


        • #5
          Dear Bhikku Jhanarato,

          Thank you so much for your reply. Is Sila same as Vinaya ? It seems, that since some portion of Vinaya is a legal code ( like eating once), not following this code(due of some genuine reason) should not become an obstacle in the path. Is this correct ? In Hinduism( the Bhagvad Gita) there is this idea of "nishkama karma". Actions done without expecting results and renouncing the doer ship do not implicate one in samsara. i.e. it is the state of the mind which matters, the actions do not matter. Jainism I guess is the opposing end of the spectrum, actions only matter. What is the Buddha's view on this ? Is it possible for a monk who dosen't follow the Vinaya, but is still an arahant?


          with metta,



          • #6
            Dear Bhante Nandiya,

            Thanks for clarifying this concept of taking precepts. What you say makes complete sense to me.





            • #7
              Is Sila same as Vinaya ?
              I guess I could answer by saying that if you keep the Vinaya both in letter and in spirit, then you are keeping good sila. Sila is about doing "the right thing" whereas Vinaya is doing it "by the book". There are many ways to get around the rules in the Vinaya - loopholes if you like. That is where the spirit of the rule comes in. In addition to keeping the rules we apply the principles of Dhamma. An act may not violate the Vinaya, but indeed go against the broader flow of the Dhamma.

              Sorry if I'm not being completely clear here. I do my best.



              • #8
                Is it possible for a monk who dosen't follow the Vinaya, but is still an arahant?
                Hmm, this is a tricky question. I don't really know. I suspect it would be possible where Dhamma trumps Vinaya.


                • #9

                  Thank you for the comment. Your approach is very good, reminding oneself of the precepts can help direct our daily actions along the noble path without producing guilt or ego.




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