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Pratimoksha: A Month of Practicing the Vows

Sometimes you have to do something a little extreme in order to get a better understanding of yourself. For many people, the urge towards self knowledge takes the form of a challenge. Skydiving, mountain climbing, long meditation retreats. Here, my friend Kestrel, an amazing photographer, talks about her personal experience with the challenge of following Buddhist pratimoksha vows for a month. Often at Buddhist meditation retreats, a ceremony of taking such vows is offered for those who would like to intensify their practice. ~ Michael

by Kestrel Lancaster

Now, understand that I share my generation’s resistance to association with any form of religion or ideology, but have noticed my life to have problems, like everyone else’s, and I’m going to do something about it. In an attempt to figure out what that something is, for one month I committed to a form of Buddhism’s Pratimoksha Vow, the vow of personal liberation. My interpretation of the initial pledge in what is referred to as The Three Commitments came from the teachings of the American-born Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön (particularly her latest book, Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change), in combination with my own personal values.

The basic idea is simple: you work with your thoughts, feelings, and habitual actions to not cause harm to yourself or others, liberate from the suffering that comes with resisting the reality of our human situation: the uncertainty and ambiguity that is part of existence. Since that doesn’t sound so simple overall, it’s broken down into specific precepts to free you from distractions and get you to start noticing what you’re doing, so that you can make a conscious decision to stop or keep it up.

  • protecting life: I vow not to kill any living being, do my best to cultivate nonaggression and compassion, to learn to protect all life.
  • respecting what belongs to others: I vow not to take what is not offered, and do my best to respect the property of others.
  • not harming others with sexual energy: I vow to be faithful to my partners in our arrangements, be aware of what harms myself and others, to nurture true love and respect free from attachment.
  • mindful speech: I vow to cultivate right speech, do my best not to lie, not to gossip or slander, not use harsh or idle speech, and not say things that bring about division or hatred.
  •  protecting body and mind: I vow not to use drugs or alcohol, to do my best to live my life in a way that will increase my inner strength and flexibility, my openness to all beings and life itself.

These things might not sound so unfamiliar, of course; they’re just common sense practices to being a good person. However, we all make mistakes and get into habitual and harmful patterns. Neuroscience tells us that the most effective way to accomplish any kind of goal is to begin with a straightforward commitment. So I did it, pledged the vows to myself for 30 days, and even made it alive all the way through.

As easy as that list sounds, because we all would like to imagine ourselves that way, this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The number of ways I hadn’t expected it to affect my life were astonishing, and it was on my mind all the time – noticing some way I wanted to break a vow in some small way. Suddenly, I felt like a horrible person for this huge pile of little things – the desire to illegally acquire a tv show’s latest episode, wanting to take a nice pen that a waitress left, an embellishment or omission in conversation to simplify communication – and noticing the habitual actions I was taking that created or prolonged suffering in myself and others. One night right in the exact middle of the project, I realized while at a concert all the excuses I’d been making for other people to get away with treating me poorly, this streak most of my life of straightforward, habitual, unnecessary suffering, and just had to put away a few ounces of bourbon and then sob on the fella I was seeing. If Pratimoksha is supposed to teach you to notice, it did that without question, but I hated myself.

By the end of the month, I’d broken all but one of the precepts in some little way or other. I didn’t kill anyone or cheat on my relationships, but there was that other, smaller nonsense that life could do better without. The month ended eventually, and though I must admit that some of my distractions from the fundamental ambiguity of being alive have resumed their presence in my life (I missed you, whiskey), there have also been some pretty huge shifts and life changes. It was a very deeply personal journey in a way I’ve never really experienced, and did manage to put me more in touch with myself. This connection to myself, being aware of my choice in action, feels fantastic, but is currently attached to a great amount of self criticism. Now the next steps are a) how to accept myself without judgment, and b) find and successfully express how my needs can be fulfilled rationally. I’ve got a plan for each.

So… I’m going to stay right here for a little while and work on this, before considering the further vows in Buddhism’s Three Commitments, which are even more terrifying, impossible, ambiguous and noble: dedicating our lives to keeping our hearts and minds open to all beings at all times, and to embrace the world just as it is.


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photo by Michael Taft


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