What is a Vow?

I always felt called to a sense of purpose. It felt like life had meaning, like I was here for a reason. But I was confused. What was my purpose? How would I find it? Was it outside of me, or within me?

Hearing my teacher, Soryu Forall, speak about a vow1Forall’s use of the word translates the Mahāyāna Buddhist concept praṇidhāna (Sanskrit) or the Japanese 誓願 (seigan). resolved this confusion. He describes a vow as “our most authentic and kind life… Our purpose in life isn’t just what we want to do; our purpose in life isn’t just what others want us to do. Our purpose in life is the place where what we want and what others want meet.(Maple Seeds)

You could easily use another word for what the word vow points to. Vocation. Purpose. Gift. Duty. A promise, an oath. Your dream, your vision. A calling. A quest. Finding your life’s purpose. Discovering your life’s work. Following your bliss. Living your best life. Aristotle’s final cause. God’s plan. Destiny or fate. Each of these words or phrases has a different connotation—different resonances, different possible misunderstandings.

A vow is not externally imposed, nor is it internally generated. We do not simply obey what is asked of us by God, or the world—ignoring ourselves. We do not simply do what we want, following our own inclinations irrespective of the needs of the world.

A vow is not a static entity. It is not a fixed concept. It is dynamic. Vows are complex, emergent, iterative. We look, we actively search, for the meeting of ourselves and the world. What do I enjoy doing? What do I feel called to do? What is being asked of me?

I found guidance in the Three Pure Precepts: avoid evil, do good, purify the mind—this is the Path of the Buddhas. And I found guidance in Peace Pilgrim’s teachings about living one’s highest light:

I got busy on a very interesting project. This was to live all the good things I believed in. I did not confuse myself by trying to take them all at once, but rather if I was doing something that I knew I shouldn’t be doing I stopped doing it and I always made a quick relinquishment. That’s the easy way. Tapering off is long and hard. And if I was not doing something that I knew I should be doing, I got busy on that. It took the living quite a while to catch up with the believing, but of course it can, and now if I believe something, I live it. Otherwise it would be perfectly meaningless. As I lived according to the highest light I had, I discovered that other light was given; that I opened myself to receiving more light as I lived the light I had.

Although I have felt called to many religious traditions and spiritual practices, I have made this basic teaching—believing I have a vow, observing the Three Pure Precepts, doing all the good things I believe in, living according to my highest light—the fundamental spiritual teaching I have based my life on.

I took this teaching to heart, and went in search.

I saw plenty of examples of the kind of things I wanted to do, the kind of life I wanted to lead, the ways I wanted to explore and play in the world. But no one had ever done it the way I yearned to. I didn’t even dare to imagine it until I woke up one day and found myself living it.

It was like seeing puzzle pieces on the floor but the colors and shapes seemed so different and I wasn’t sure it was even the same puzzle until I blinked, and there it was finished in front of me.

No one could have explained to me the beauty and poetry of the intimate connection between your own happiness and that of others, between your own joy and what is good for the world.

It can be stated or pointed to or even demonstrated – but it can’t be truly explained, no one will ask you to do it, because no one else can see it, no one has ever done what you need to do before, no one has ever given your gift before, your joy and service are unique.

I have found it helpful to frame it in terms of simultaneously maximizing joy and benefit. At every scale of my life, from moment to moment, day to day, month to month (place to place), year to year—lifetime to lifetime?—I optimize for what will be maximally enjoyable for me and beneficial for the world.

If push comes to shove, I will choose fun, interestingness, curiosity—even if I don’t fully understand why yet.

But if one repeatedly optimizes for these two variables, one can see that they are not in conflict, as might initially appear. Instead, they are mutually supportive.

Service without a felt sense of joy often leads to burnout. Fun without a larger benefit can lead to ennui and a sense of disconnected meaninglessness.

Giving your gift is not a burden—it is a tremendous joy.

This way of seeing2I borrow the term way of seeing from Rob Burbea: “a way of seeing things forms a lens, one among many, that we can pick up, use, and put down, rather than a final statement about reality” (Seeing That Frees). Ways of seeing can diminish or liberate us from suffering (along the lines of the traditional Buddhist dharmic practices), or increase a sense of meaning, purpose, connection, and beauty (as in Burbea’s Soulmaking Dharma). has become central to all of the work I do in the world. The way I see it, you and I were born into this life for a reason. We came to this Earth with a purpose. Our lives are gifts we are given, and gifts we have the opportunity to give. We have lessons to learn, and gifts to give.

Totally being yourself is the greatest possible gift you could give the world. Living your best life and serving the world are one and the same.

May all beings live their vows, give their gifts, for the highest benefit of all.

Thank you to Soryu Forall for his teaching about vows. Thank you to the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition and Peace Pilgrim for their influence on me. Thank you to Gordon Brander for our conversations about this topic, and the nudge to write about it.

If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing to my newsletter, my YouTube channel, or following me on Twitter to get updates on my new blog posts and current projects. You can also support my work and writing on Patreon.