There are various levels of vows, various levels of engagements and commitments within Tibetan Buddhism, and they all participate in what we call the control of the mind and the ethics of life.
Most of the time, when we talk about control, we have a negative attitude. We believe that control is a way to enclose our mind. But in fact, when we understand well, it is completely the opposite. A vow or a commitment is something that will enforce our practice and develop some specific characteristic of our mind.
In our daily life, our mind is running uncontrolled, jumping from one idea to another idea, without a facility to operate any control on that. Therefore, it is difficult to concentrate on a topic or to concentrate on a practice, and it is difficult to remember what is good to do and what is not good to do.
So we understand easily and clearly that if we could operate any control over this mind, and if we could learn how to focus more easily on a subject, or to focus more easily on our practice, we could go deeper into the understanding of that topic, and we could reach a higher goal in our practice.
When we hear what is rather good to do and what is better to avoid, we can meditate on that. We can think about that, we can reflect about that. But without taking any clear decision to avoid some things and promote some other things, it is rather difficult, first of all, to remember about those things in different situations in the daily life, and secondly, it is difficult to apply them.
If I take a quick example: if you decide that from tomorrow on you will stop to eat chocolate cookies, then you can take the decision within yourself and say: 'Okay, tomorrow, I will stop to take such cookies!' But if the decision is not firm, if it is not formalized, then the next time you will pass in front of a bakery, or the next time you will open the door of your kitchen, there will be this kind of attraction towards the chocolate cookies.
But if you formalize your decision not to take anymore any chocolate cookies by making a kind of vow, not just in front of yourself, but if you involve, e.g., Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and you say in front of all Holy Beings, 'I take the decision that, from now on, I will not take any more chocolate cookies!', then it will surely leave a strong imprint on yourself, and the next time you will feel irresistibly attracted by the chocolate cookies, you will remember that you have taken this clear engagement in front of Holy Beings, thus it will be more difficult for you to break this commitment.
Obviously, this is only an example, which gives the essence of what is a commitment and how we can proceed into making a different step in this engagement, between just to tell in front for ourselves, 'okay, I will stop this', and to take a firm commitment.
We formalize a vow not just by invoking Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but by going in front of a member of the Sangha, a Lama, and taking the vows verbally, which makes it a more concrete step in the direction of respecting an engagement.
In any case, commitments are taken by ourselves, thus, the decision is ultimately taken by ourselves, which has the opposite meaning of what people usually think about control.
Usually, when we think about control, it is a control of somebody or of something outside of ourselves who or which forces ourselves to do something. But when we talk about an engagement, or even a vow, this is not the case, it is a choice that we take, and we go into the process of taking the vows by ourselves, because we follow a purpose.
Therefore, basically, the meaning of formalizing a commitment or an engagement is to remember it quicker in the situation where this engagement can be broken, and in order to ensure more deeply that we will keep such an engagement, and, at the longer term, with a clear mind about what we have to do.
Thus, we see that in all cases, this control is not something that blocks us, or that refrains us, against our will, to do something, but, on the contrary, it is something that will strengthen our mind, and by making our mind stronger, it will give our mind some more possibilities to achieve something, to achieve a goal, to achieve a specific commitment.
Entering the Buddhist path involves taking Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and taking vows to help us guard ourselves from non-virtuous actions.
The Five Root Vows - “Ge-nyen Vows” - Upasa(i)ka Vows or ‘Lay’ Vows
The five root vows are the foundation for the monastic vows. The five root vows are:
Not killing human beings
Not committing sexual misconduct (adultery)
Not becoming intoxicated (drugs, alcohol)
The lay vows involve taking these five root vows.
“Killing” refers to any sentient being. Killing as a root downfall means that when committed one loses one’s vow. Here, it refers to killing human beings.
“Stealing” is specific to culture as different societies value different things. Transgressing the root vow would be to steal an object that is valued by society so that you end up in trouble with the law.
“Lying” is defined as pretending to have realized emptiness, omniscience etc. In general, lying refers to any verbal or non-verbal expression one with the intention of deceiving others. So, it also refers to making factual statements with the intention to deceive others.
The “Supreme Ge-nyen Vow” is the same as the five root vows with the exception being that instead of refraining from sexual misconduct, one takes the vow of celibacy. Having taken the “Supreme Ge-nyen vow”, one can also wears robes.
The five root vows are taken in the presence of a spiritual elder.
The Renunciate Vows - “Rab-jung Vows”
Rab-jung is an abbreviation of the Tibetan རབ་ཏུ་འབྱུང་བ་ - RABTU JUNGWA. It means literally: "one who goes forth."
It is a preliminary to ordination, when someone takes the five root vows of not killing, not lying, not stealing, not committing sexual misconduct and not becoming intoxicated, and the three renunciate vows of committing to leave behind lay clothes and signs, wear the robes of an ordained person and shave the head, and follow the teachings of the Buddha.
It refers to the རབ་ཏུ་ - rab tu, the very highest way of going forth into life.
This is not just the fact to have མངོན་པར་འབྱུང་བ་ - NGÖN-PAR JUNG-WA, come out of a householder's
life and entered the life of a spiritual renunciant, but it implicitly means to go to the next and highest possible step and to become a monk or nun, to become ordained.
One takes an important step here, in the sense to come forth from the life of a householder in a household", leaving it behind to take up the life of a full-time spiritual practitioner.
By taking the “Rab-jung Vows”, a person commits to:
1. Leave behind lay clothes and signs
2. Wear the robes of an ordained person and shave one’s head 3. Follow the Buddha’s teachings.
The combination of the five root vows and “Rab-jung Vows” is the first step to ordination. it can be taken only when you reach the age of 7.
The novice ordination (tib. 'Getsül', dge tshul)
The next step is called the novice ordination, and it is called the getsül ordination, and it contains 36 vows. You cannot choose which one you would like and which you would not. You take all of them, and for your life. It can be taken only when you reach the age of 14.
The full ordination (tib. 'gelong', /dge long/, skt. bikshu)
The last and complete ordination is called the 'gelong' ordination and contains 253 vows; it can be taken only when you reach the age of 21.
Giving back vows
When the Buddha has established this set of vows for monks and nuns, it has been allowed by Him to give them back again. Therefore, basically, when we take them, we take them for our life- time, we repeat the prayer "I take these vows in front of the Buddha for my life-time", but due to his Compassion and his understanding of the human mind, the Buddha has also established that if somebody cannot keep them, it is possible to give them back. And not only is it possible to give them back once, but it is possible to give them back three times in one's life.
Thus, the emphasis is put on the fact that while we have vows, it is extremely important to keep them, and to keep them clean, pure, unbroken. If we cannot keep them, however, it is better, far better, to give back the ordination than to commit any breach of the vows.
From the rabjung ordination upwards, if we break one of the major vows, the full ordination is broken and cannot be taken again any more in one's life.
On the other hand, if we give back the vows, it will be possible later on to take the ordination again. This is just a system wisely established in order to maintain a certain purity in the ordination, and at the same time not to create frustration in the minds of people who cannot keep their vows anymore, giving them the possibility to give them back.
About taking vows in general, one needs stronger meditation on renunciation, along with some basic “Lam-Rim” learning and then decide.
You must realize that the works of this life are meaningless. Our attachment is from beginningless rebirths, but still we are not free from the oceans of sufferings of the six realms. You have to realize that future samsara is in the nature of suffering, like being in prison. It’s like being caught in prison—you don’t want to be there for even a second, you want to be out. It is like your naked body sitting on a thorn bush. You can’t stand it even for a second. Like that, the nature of suffering is unbearable.
This doesn’t mean you have to wait until you have these realizations, but you should have a strong understanding that this is what you need, then you can engage in taking vows. That way you can enjoy being a pure holder of the lay or monastic vows.