Our family recently adopted a hamster, Greta. I thought this would be a low-effort pet—I had hamsters as a kid, and the way I remember it, it was easy. A big part of that, no doubt, is that while I thought I was the one taking care of Sunny (and later Snowball, then Hammy), it was probably my mom doing the real work. But in other ways, it really was simple: you bought a little plastic cage at the same time you bought the hamster, you threw in some pellets, and you were done.
Thanks to my kids and the internet, I now see how wrong I was. If you want to know about hamster nutrition, then there’s a lot to know—and it’s better to know. If you know about their psychological health and what makes them feel comfortable (which, for hamsters, means simulating aspects of what life would be like in the wild), then you’re going to find yourself trying to build a huge habitat with places to climb and burrow. I had no idea. Caring for this little creature the size of a tennis ball is an act of total commitment.
I have Greta the hamster on my mind because I have vow on my mind—or maybe it’s the reverse. In the Buddhist world, “vow” can be a heavy word. As an illustration, here’s what they look like in Zen:
Beings are countless; I vow to free them all.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
Dharma gates are infinite; I vow to enter them.
The awakened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
Other traditions offer something similar. They can seem kind of over-the-top.
Because the vows themselves are huge—literally immeasurably huge—when you take them on, that decision tends to take one of two forms. One is to say the vow while secretly saying to yourself that you don’t mean it. You mean it in the sense that you find the vows beautiful and aspirational, but you’re not kidding yourself about your ability to actually stick to them. The other approach is to accept the vows as they are and then feel completely overwhelmed by them and by your sense of failure in fulfilling them.
If the intention behind these vows is to be of benefit, then neither approach seems very beneficial; either way, you’re kind of stuck. To vow to free all beings, the first step isn’t to understand “all beings,” nor is it to grasp what “free” means, though it’s natural to think that’s our starting point. The actual starting point is to understand vow.
We can do that. The most obvious example is probably marriage, since we even use the word. If we take either of the above approaches to marriage, we know something is off—if we enter half-heartedly or with an escape route, it won’t go well, and if we receive it as a burden, we’ll get crushed by it and miss out on the possibility of it all. We understand this intuitively, so most of us, whether we’d say it in quite this way or not, find a middle way. In that version of a wedding vow, the vow itself is completely genuine, completely sincere. And, at the same time, we know (either in that moment or soon after) that fulfilling the vow is less about getting it right than about not giving up entirely. We know we’re going to get it wrong and we do it anyway. That’s vow.
Other vows don’t come with a ceremony and people making toasts (though it might be nice if more of them did—that’s where ritual can be so powerful). When your child is born, you look at them in your arms and you make a vow to take care of them, to protect them, to love them unconditionally—even when you can’t. When a cat shows up at your back door for two weeks and you realize, Oh, now I have a cat, in that moment, in that sigh, you make a vow. No fanfare, no celebration. Just an understanding, deep in your heart, that now, this is what you’re doing.
For all the ceremony and tradition around it, I think that most vows, even the unthinkably big Buddhist ones, arrive in just this same way—not handed down by someone in robes, but as a meow on the porch, or as a little wiggly box from PetSmart. We hear the vows, and we know they’re true, and we know there’s no going back. It’s that simple. We may light up in that moment, or we may sigh. Either way, we see what we have to do, and we just start moving toward it. Feeding it. Letting it burrow.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.