A steadfast visitor to my companion blog wrote that the word vow was “too high-flying” for him, as in high-faluting, I imagine, that American slang word for pompous or pretentious. Whether he meant it that way or not, I thank him for his comment as it causes me to reflect on what the word means to me.
The Free Dictionary gives the traditional meaning as an earnest promise to perform a specified act or behave in a certain manner, especially a solemn promise to live and act in accordance with the rules of a religious order: take the vows of a nun (people make vows everyday, during the marriage ceremony, for instance) and a lovely definition as A declaration or assertion. The Dictionary of Etymology traces the roots to the Latin “votum,” a vow, wish, promise, dedication.
In Zen parlance, a vow may be seen as intention: a daily resolve to follow a certain purpose and be guided by certain values. The Latin root “intendere” means to direct attention. That’s it, really — to bring my attention, again and again, to such core values as respect, kindness, compassion, and non-violence. Almost ten years ago, at the outset of (then monastic) Zen training, I vowed “to be of service.” Looking back, I can trace my spiritual and ethical unfolding in a straight line to that moment of vow-making. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t rely on that vow (and the precepts I took in 2002) in choosing among alternative ways of being.