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Broken Commitments: Breaking Buddhist Vows or Promises Carries Heavy Karma, But What Do We Do About It?

Broken Commitments: Breaking Buddhist Vows or Promises Carries Heavy Karma, But What Do We Do About It?

Damage from broken commitments sounds very heavy, ominous, depressing. Any vow or promise should be taken seriously, but it carries an even more rigorous standard in Buddhist practice. It’s tempting for people brought up in “the west” to wonder if breaking our practice commitments and our promises to our teacher is really all that big a deal. What about unintentionally betraying our Bodhisattva and Vajrayana vows? In “the west” don’t we all do it? The little white lies. Caring for one person more than another. Thinking negative things about people even if we don’t say them out loud.

Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche is spiritual head of Gaden for the West.
Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche is spiritual head of Gaden for the West.

“As human practitioners of Dharma, we make mistakes; from time to time we may break our vows and commitments,” wrote Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, in his Guidelines for Dharma Students. “When we do so, we feel that in some way we have let down our Gurus, and the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We may have faced many obstacles due to unfavourable conditions and lack of time and energy, but at the same we also know that we have made lifetime commitments.”

I’ll admit to having broken commitments out of a lack of mindfulness, a tendency to laziness or just sheer exhaustion. Those are my excuses, anyway. A lot of times, we don’t want to even think about it. We tend to think: “Oh, it’s not that big a deal, right?” or “I just thought it, I didn’t act on it, so it’s okay.”

But are we steadily accumulating negative karma, compounded daily? Will this lead to negative habits which make matters even worse? Isn’t it best to ignore it, and move on with better habits? What do you do if you feel hopeless behind on your commitments? These are all questions I’ve asked myself many times, and judging from conversations with some of my friends, I’m not alone.

Zasep Tulku Rinpoche: “Do not abandon your commitments… Just pick up where you left off.”

Tara in the Palm of Your Hand, a book by Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche
Tara in the Palm of Your Hand, a book by Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche is a commentary on one of the most popular deity practices. All practices carry commitments.

Guru Zasep Tulku Rinpoche advises: “Do not think your practice is no longer worth the effort just because you have broken your commitments; do not abandon your commitments and daily practice; just pick up where you left off. My kind teacher, the most holy Tara Tulku Rinpoche said, “If you forget to eat breakfast, you don’t give up there and then. The next day, you go ahead and eat breakfast. Simple.”

Simple, wonderful, precious advice, but I thought I’d compile some wise words from various teachers on this subject, more words from my teacher Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, and sage advice from the Dalai Lama, and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. The question I try to answer here, is not “can we ignore it?”—the answer is obviously no—but rather, what to do about it.

With Empowerment Come Commitments

Formal commitments are made with vows. To break a commitment you would have taken a vow. Obviously, even if you didn’t formally take a vow with a teacher, it is good merit to practice the commitments as if you’d made a vow. Some of my friends are confused as to whether they received initiation or not. For example, a good friend attended a Vajrakilaya event with His Holiness the Shakya Trizin, and remains confused to this day, as to whether he was empowered or has the commitment. He sat with a crowd, listened to the practice initiation—mostly in Tibetan—but there was no talk of commitments, no Sadhana was given out for practice, and it felt more like a blessing.

Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, in his Revised Guidelines for Dharma Students, pointed out: “There are different ways of receiving initiations. An initiation may be taken purely as a blessing, for protection or healing. Most of the thousands of people in Tibet, in India and the West who flock to Kalachakra initiations take the initiation as a blessing and to create auspicious conditions for the future. In order to receive a Tantric initiation as a actual empowerment, and not just a blessing, you are required to take Refuge and Bodhisattva vows before the initiation. When you take a higher Tantric initiation, you are additionally required to take Tantric vows.”


The Great Treatise On The Stages Of The Path To Enlightenment is an English translation, eagerly awaited by English-speaking devotees. The translation took years and was undertaken by the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee to their great merit.
The Great Treatise On The Stages Of The Path To Enlightenment is an English translation. Lama Tsongkhapa, a great Buddha, guides students in the Lamrim. Lamrim practices are one of the most effective ways to ensure we retain our commitments. The foundation practices, include death meditation and Guru devotion.


Breaking the Commitments Isn’t the Big Issue

Breaking the commitments, isn’t the overwhelming issue. The bigger issue, is that breaking the commitments means we’re not practicing. If we’re not practicing, nothing happens.

So, the bigger issue, in my mind, is “what do you do about it?” This is the question that prompted me to write his story. Most teachers ask students to rely on the foundation practices in the Lamrim. Meditation on Death is particularly important to motivating daily unbroken practice, for example.


Rationalizing Broken Commitments

It’s easy to rationalize the misdemeanors: I don’t kill, not even insects; I practice generosity; I keep my practice commitments (but sometimes I rush); and so on. Thinking this way makes it seem like a “white lie” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings isn’t a breach of our vows. Or, when you’re sick in bed with the flu, it’s easy to assume “I’m too sick to practice today,” is not a breach of commitments. I think rationalizing is the biggest challenge I personally face. I endure extremely painful arthritis, for example, and sitting during practice is painful, sometimes excruciating. Am I excused from practicing on those terrible days when I can’t even think through the pain? The answer, in my mind, is no. But the reality is, I sometimes do just that.

I’m generally good on my commitments, I certainly feel my broken commitments are more the “misdemeanor” type—but thinking this way is a trap in itself. It trains some of us (speaking for myself, anyway) to overlook those small, relatively harmless issues.

So, I miss a practice because I’m in pain, I’ll make it up tomorrow. I’ll do a mini-one day retreat this Sunday to make up for my week of missed practice sessions. The rationalizing mind can be very dangerous this way, at least for me.

Zasep Tulku Rinpoche: “Focus on the Commitments You Already Have”

Zasep Rinpoche advises, “Instead of taking additional initiations (commitments), I suggest you focus on the deity practice you have already received.”

It’s difficult to resist empowerments, especially if they really move you spiritually. Some of my friends seem to make it a hobby to collect initiations. I almost fell victim to this thinking early on, attending several very moving empowerments within a 3 year period. Although I have a particular devotion to one deity practice, I am committed to many. I don’t regret it, but I certainly am satisfied with my current commitments.

“When you decide to take an initiation, you should find out what are the daily commitments and vows,” advised Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche.

Practice Every Day. Just Do It.

“We try to practise every day, but sometimes we feel that the practices have become routine recitations, an obligation and no more,” Rinpoche continued. “This can happen especially when our lives are too busy and we are very tired. When this happens, we need to make time for a retreat to renew our commitments and refresh our practice. When we break our vows and commitments, we should do purification such as Vajrasattva mantras, prostrations, and reciting the Sutra of the Three Heaps by chanting the names of the thirty-five Buddhas.”

The great Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
The great Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche: How to Overcome the Obstacle of Laziness

The great Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche wrote extensively on the breaking of commitments. I was particularly interested in his answer to students on how to recharge practice when faced with laziness, fatigue or even pain—all of them, more or less my obstacles. “When you don’t think of impermanence and death, that death can happen even today, at this moment, then attachment to this life arises.” He consistently advised the Lamrim practice of meditation on death and the precious human rebirth. He advised one student to think, each morning, that today he could die. He wrote this in his very popular Online Advice Book.

Pabongka Rinpoche: Even if You Don’t Understand, Follow the Commitments

To one student who wrote that he felt he could not keep his commitments because it involved too much reciting, Lama Zopa replied, “even if you don’t understand the subjects, Dharma texts, and prayers, it is still extremely worthwhile to read or recite them because it leaves positive imprints. When you read mindfully, sooner or later you will be able to understand the meaning, not only intellectually. Each realization of the path is contained in the sadhanas and ceases delusions and karma, liberates us from all the sufferings of samsara and their causes, and ceases defilements, even subtle defilements.” He wisely pointed out that many of us spend hours watching movies or reading novels each day, which have no Dharma value, so setting aside a little time for practice is always possible for most people.

Monks chanting at a temple. Prayers such as the Seven Limb Prayer or countless others are recited daily by countless millions of Buddhists.
Daily commitments are for all practitioners who have taken empowerments, commitments or a teachers, both monks and lay people.

What to do if you feel like you’ve taken on many commitments, almost “too many sadhanas” as one of Lama Zopa’s students put it. His straight-forward answer was that he still had to do them but “If you have many sadhanas, the general advice is you make your main meditation whichever is your main deity. You can do the other sadhanas fast. The most important thing is to meditate on the dharmakaya, then a little on the sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya. If you have many sadhanas to do, the rest of the sadhana you can do quickly.”

He added “The great enlightened being Pabongka Rinpoche said, ‘Even if you don’t meditate on the meaning of the sadhanas, you are still reciting. But if you stop doing the sadhanas it is so very unfortunate. You don’t even get the good fortune from just reading or thinking of the words, which leads to positive imprints.’”

Deliberately Abandoning the Commitments

When asked outright what it meant if someone deliberately abandoned the commitments, his very direct answer was: “If you are busy and want to abandon your commitments mentally, this is the most disrespectful.”

However, to this same student, he gave, what I thought, was very powerful advice: “Try to do whatever you can. To abandon them could create the cause to be unable to practice in the future. But if you are busy working for others and you miss your commitments due to that, there is no need to regret much. If you miss doing them because of laziness, then there is a loss; this is more your fault. This is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama used to say when I consulted him on this matter. Don’t worry, and try again. The most important thing is to live life with bodhicitta, which becomes work for others.”


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