by Wayne Ren-Cheng
There is a tendency for people to misunderstand the purpose and value of the vows taken when one first accepts the Noble Path, and on through lay and monastic Buddhist practice. This fundamental misunderstanding likely arises as the word and concept of promise is given as a synonym for vow. The ideal of promise carries the heavy emotional weight of ‘a promise cannot be broken’, and ‘a promise is forever’, giving promise an aura of permanence. This view is one of clinging that will lead to unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish when some causal factor arises that necessitates the promise being broken. Such situations lead to anger or guilt depending on which side of the promise a person is on. Often, promises broken lead to an abandonment of the target of that promise. Vows are meant to renewed whenever the need arises.
In Japanese art there is a practice known as kin-tsugi, “golden joinery”. Ander Monson, in his book ‘Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found In Libraries’ is this note found in a returned library book – Kin-tsugi is the art . . . in which a broken bowl is fixed and seamed with glow, cracks to the forefront, filled in by gold, rendering the repaired thing more remarkable, honoring its shatter. The result is neither broken nor unbroken, but both at once, shadow, object, corona around an eclipsed sun. Rather than discard a broken item of beauty and usefulness the Japanese artisan sees the object with a different intent. There is an emptiness to viewed in the shattered pieces, neither broken nor unbroken. There is a form to be viewed in the shattered pieces, both at once. A vow is both emptiness and form. Emptiness of potential and the form of thought and action.
A vow taken in Buddhism should be viewed as a commitment; a commitment to being willing to return to the intent of the vow as many times as needed without recrimination or guilt. Each return to a vow strengthens it with the gold of intent, the silver of mindfulness, and the copper of compassion.
Like the kin-tsugi artisan honors shatter, so can the practitioner honor themselves and their vows. Rather than deny and hide the ‘cracks’ . . . view them clearly and seam them with better intentions, with stronger practice, make them more remarkable by honoring them.