A vow is a promise to your future self. It is a contract with yourself. A vow is an aspiration to give life to a spiritual path, a project, a relationship or anything that comes from the core of your being. It is part of your life’s purpose. A vow serves as a channel for your life’s energy, so it is not scattered or frittered away.
To give expression to a vow is to make visible what is invisible in your heart. Formulating a vow requires that you reflect deeply about what is most important to you. It might be helpful to write out or talk about your aspirations for your life. Then distill the vow down to a few sentences or even a few words.
Next you make your vow visible. There are many creative ways to do this. You can write them, carve them, paint them, or sculpt them, using rocks, wood, paper or clay.
Placing your vow at the Shrine of Vows
The Shrine of Vows is a place to offer your vows, to make them a visible testament of your intentions. It is a place where you can join with others, where you can be inspired by others’ vows. People have made vows of marriage, to knowing God, to become enlightened, to support their children, to cultivate peace, etc.
You are welcome to come to the monastery and place the token of your vow, or you can mail it to us and we will place it for you.
History of the Shrine of Vows
Under a rainy January sky, Great Vow Zen Monastery dedicated an outdoor area of the monastery called the Shrine of Vows. This is a place where people can go to formally set a life intention, leaving a physical marker of their aspiration, such as a painted stone or ceramic tile.
Great Vow has always been “permeable,” meaning that it is open to visitors; long-term residents as well as short-term guests who come for retreats and workshops. Many come to visit its forested Jizo Garden where people come to memorialize those who have died, especially children.
Great Vow Zen Monastery gets its name from Jizo, also known as Chenrezig, and Dizang Bodhisattva’s “Great Vow” to be present with, and be of benefit to, all suffering beings in all realms, and to continuously benefit others until “the hells are empty.”
Every January, Great Vow holds a week-long silent retreat (sesshin) called Life Vows which follows a modified sesshin schedule. In this retreat, participants take a little time out of Noble Silence each day to discern and discover their own life vows with the support of a small group. What is important in our life? And are we moving in a direction that reflects our vows?
Hogen Bays, Roshi, the co-abbot of Great Vow, was inspired to create the Shrine of Vows after a Zen Community of Oregon pilgrimage to Buddhist temples in China. At many temples and other places you find hundreds of locks brought by people to “lock in” a vow or promise. The locks symbolize commitment to raise a child, end addictive behavior, or a private promise. Many locks have the names of couples who memorialize their commitment to one another.
Hogen wanted to create a similar place in the United States where anyone, Buddhist or not, could come and make a physical expressions of their aspirations.
Vows are written on paper, carved or painted on ceramic tiles or other media, and surround a central Japanese-style open air shrine constructed by Bill Dainen Kelley, a lay member of the Great Vow community. The Shrine of Vows is located across a meadow in an area hand-cleared of invasive blackberries and surrounded by old conifers. Already, scores of tiles and painted stones anonymously express the vows: “I vow to help others,” “I vow not to give up my spiritual quest,” “I vow to listen closely to the joys and sorrows of the world.”
Seeing all the many vows from others inspires us to discern and share our own vows.
What is a vow?
A vow is a deep commitment to see something through no matter the obstacles. A vow is different from a new year’s resolution. Resolutions have the air of self-improvement while vows speak to something larger. Vows ask us to continually return over and over again to our deepest intentions. They help us orient our life to what is most beneficial. And vows emerge from our own unique life and circumstances.
Great Vow Zen Monastery’s founder Taizan Maezumi Roshi was once asked about what happens when we die. He replied that while the physical body may die, it is our vows that live on after death.
Why make a vow?
We recognize that we can become easily distracted and go off course. Vows can bring us back to what is really most important and essential. Vows help us align our life with intention leading to action that benefits others and ourselves.
Some types of vows and examples
Short-term: to complete school; complete training or apprenticeship; embark on a journey or complete something.
Family or Community Vows: promising to care for a parent for as long as we are able; vowing to raise and care for a child; to help people in abusive situations, vowing to care for the Earth.
Ethical Vows: to uphold the Buddhist precepts or specific precepts; to speak kind words even to difficult people; to resolve unwholesome actions and live with integrity; to make amends to beings we may have harmed.
The Shrine of Vows is open to everyone in the wider Buddhist community and anyone else who wants to participate by leaving a token of their own deep intentions. For more details contact Great Vow Zen Monastery 503-728-0654.