Special Topics

Vows: the Blueprint for Happiness

Making a vow—a commitment to life

Making a vow allows us to reposition our life; thus, to fulfill the vow is to fulfill the commitment to our life's goal. We may inevitably encounter setbacks in the process. However, as long as we return to our initial aspiration in making the vow with the intention of benefiting others, we will gain unparalleled confidence and strength. In doing so, we succeed in influencing others, changing the world for the better, and seeing the light of happiness.

In 2010, Chen Shuju, a vegetable vendor from Taitung in eastern Taiwan, was selected by Time Magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people of the year, and by Forbes as Charity Hero of the Year.

This grandmother is owner of a vegetable stall at the local traditional market. Her mother was sick while she was a child, and it was thanks to the launch of her school's fundraiser that her mother could afford a medical treatment in hospital. In the end, her mother died, so she had to drop out of school. Always being grateful to those who had helped her and sympathizing with people in similar situation as her, she vowed to donate her hard-earned money to help others. So far, she has donated over 10 million NT dollars in helping many orphanages and sponsoring her alma mater to build a library.

This small vow has certainly radiated infinite light and warmth, bringing hope and happiness to many people.

Making vows develops our potentials

Making a vow enables our life to be filled with hope and helps develop our potentials to their maximum. The life of Master Sheng Yen is a journey of making and fulfilling vows. When the Master was a young novice, he felt: "The Buddhist teaching is so wonderful, yet unfortunately so few people know about it and so many people misunderstand it." Master Sheng Yen observed the way most people regard Buddhism as some kind of mysterious theory or superstitious belief, thus downgrading it as a "lofty" talk or a folk religious faith without understanding its real value. He therefore vowed to introduce people to the Buddha's teaching in a most accessible way.

This initial small "vow" thus became the guiding direction for Master Sheng Yen's life. Realizing the importance of education, the Master, then 40 years old, went to Japan to study, and eventually obtained a doctoral degree. Later, he established the Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies, founded Dharma Drum Mountain, and launched social movements such as Protecting the Spiritual Environment and The Six Ethics of the Mind. He devoted his life to the ideal of "uplifting the character of humanity and building a pure land on earth." All this started and developed from his initial small vow.

Master Sheng Yen often encouraged his disciples: "Everyone should make a vow in their lifetime. A vow serves as an overall direction for our life." We should fill our life with ideals and aspirations, thus expecting ourselves to look at the big picture with a big perspective. Therefore, we should make great vows, to realize the value of our life.

Fulfilling vows, adhering to our original intention when making the vow

Making vows may seem easy, and everyone can make vows; but more important is how we practice to fulfill our vows. This requires determination and courage, as well as raising our self-awareness to gradually realize our commitment to life's purposes—that is, to be "responsible" for our own vows. In the process, we will inevitably encounter challenges, but they all serve as a trial to test our persistence and patience towards fulfilling our vows, as well as our sense of responsibility in this regard. Otherwise, the vow will end up being empty of meaning.

For Buddhists, making vows is not about becoming a buddha or bodhisattva, but about giving of oneself to help and benefit self and others according to the Buddhist teachings. Many patriarchs and masters in history also vowed to share the Dharma for the benefit of others, and they were not afraid of the challenges and obstacles on their way of fulfilling their vows. For example, Master Faxian and Master Xuanzang went to India to bring original Buddhist scriptures back to China. Master Jianzhen went eastward to Japan for Dharma propagation. In modern times, Master Taixu reformed Buddhist practices in China, while Master Xu Yun vowed to rebuild historical monasteries and temples of the Chan lineage. Their vows and actions were all meant for the good of sentient beings and for the future of Buddhism. They not only made a significant change in the history of Buddhism but also benefited countless people of later generations.

Making vows injects an uplifting force into our own lives. Therefore, there is no need to worry about our personal limitations. In fact, there is no distinction between great and small vows; any smaller vow can serve as the basis for a greater vow, as the foundation of the Bodhisattva practice. Therefore, we can start by making small vows, after which they can gradually expand to helping people leave suffering behind and attain happiness. Using the power of our aspirations and vows, we will be able to move forward little by little, thereby accumulating merit and expanding our abilities. More importantly, we must always "guide our actions with our vows and fulfill our vows with our actions".

Extended Reading:

Vows: the Blueprint for Happiness

Q1: In order to make vows, do we need to follow any sequential steps?

Q2: What are the differences between ordinary people making a wish and Buddhists making a vow?

Q3: What are the Ways to Make a Vow?

Q4: Is it necessary to fulfill a vow after making it?

Q5: Is making vows the same as taking oaths?

Q6: How to avoid making empty vows?

Resource: Issue 330 of Humanity  Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Anne Yeow (姚麗萍) 
Editing: Keith Brown, Chiacheng Chang (張家誠)