If we have stronger resolutions for the worldly,
we have stronger aspirations for the samsaric.
Come spring, we often do spring-cleaning of our houses. But what about spring-cleaning our immediate homes too? Our minds, which shape our lives! There is a Chinese saying, that ‘a year’s plan starts in spring, while a day’s plan starts each morning.’ (一年之计在于春, 一日之计在于晨) This resonates with the Western custom of making resolutions for the new year, but in a daily sense too. (In many Eastern countries, New Year’s Day is the first day of spring.) What is the point, we might wonder, of coming up with resolutions, since, upon annual hindsight, we tend to live up to few of them. Of course, in some cases, this is so because there were too many resolutions that demanded too much time and effort to be realistically fulfillable within a year. However, there might be achievable ones too, that we nevertheless failed to accomplish. We know that there is nothing wrong with these kind of resolutions. What missing was power (力) in our sense of resolution, which led to less diligence in actualising them.
Especially in Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, we speak much of the practice of ‘giving rise to aspirations’ (发愿). It is the spiritual way of making resolutions. ‘Aspirations’ (愿) here have another translation though – as ‘vows’ – which is technically more accurate. ‘Vows’ gives quite a whole new feel! In use, the sutras speak of great Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, who have made great vows to attain supreme enlightenment (Buddhahood), and to guide other beings to the same goal. When we use the word ‘aspirations’, we might subtly relate to our less mature days, when we daydream of outlandish ambitions, which we soon forget when we grow up and out of them. When we use the word ‘vows’ (誓愿) instead, it becomes very serious – true promises we swear by (发誓)! Such is the power of words, in a broad spectrum of gravitas – even though they might mean the same thing in essence. From the least to the most ‘intense’, ‘resolutions’ sounds weaker than ‘aspirations’, which sounds weaker than ‘vows’.
Perhaps, we keep failing ourselves year after year because we only made shaky resolutions, vaguely aspiring to be better, when we should have made firmer or even unshakeable vows. If we are sincere about bettering ourselves, and to better benefit others, why now make solemn vows instead? (The Bodhisattva Vows is an ideal model.) Remember, there is no one insisting that we do this. It’s all voluntary. There is no need to make big vows too, lest it’s too daunting to ourselves. How about taking baby steps? Small they might be, but firm should they be too, before we attempt larger strides. What if our vows turn out to be too minor, easily achieved in a short while. This is where the second part of the Chinese saying comes in. We can renew or update your vows on a daily basis. Doing so is crucial for being constantly mindful of our goals. Just as we might commit to our spiritual practices of chanting and meditation daily, it is a good idea to write a concise prayer that sums up your vows for daily recital too!
It is exactly because we have been been less than resolute, that we are still unenlightened. We can also express greater commitment by arranging to, among spiritual friends, announce our vows ‘publicly’ and request to keep one another in check – not just annually, but periodically during gatherings before the next year. Having witnesses helps to fortify our sense of determination to live up to our promises – especially when they will affect some of those present! The tradition of declaration of vows is prominent in the sutras, where budding Bodhisattvas proclaim them before Buddhas and/or many other beings for them to bear testimony and rejoice. There are instances when the Buddha preach on the great vows of other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for inspiring his audiences too. While we recite enlightened vows to familiarise how the enlightened can aid us, mindfulness of our own vows reminds us of how we can help ourselves and others. With spring coming, it is as good a time as any to review our goals!
If we have stronger resolutions for the spiritual,
we have stronger aspirations for the nirvanic.