What makes a journey a pilgrimage? Many things, of course, but a journey without vows could hardly qualify as a pilgrimage. Vows, not as an end in themselves, or as dogmas to obsess with, but as sincere intention, proper protection, necessary boundaries, and wise choices.
Below is the first draft of the vows that I am taking for the upcoming pilgrimage. A work in progress, and feedback are always appreciated.
The purpose of my vows are as follow.
1. To protect the pilgrim. First and foremost, the vows helps the pilgrim to generate and attract wholesome energy, and avoid unnecessary troubles. It is a moral protective shield.
2. To protect other beings encountered by the pilgrimage. The vows also helps to reduce the violence-footprint, and increase the compassion-footprint of the journey.
3. To purify the mind and body of the pilgrim. The vows serve as inner workouts, as daily tests, and as self-imposed “creative constraints” to purify the mind and body.
4. To engage and inspire others. When embodied with authenticity, the vows will raise curiosity, open up conversation into the deeper values behind the vows, and perhaps, inspire others to consider applying the values to their own lives.
There are three overall principles that guides my vows.
Nonviolence: avoid unnecessary harm toward -- and generate compassion for -- all beings.
Simplicity: as simple as possible, but not simpler.
Moderation: anchor in intention, use common sense, walk the middle way.
Here is the list of my vows, for the duration of the pilgrimage.1. No killing
2. No stealing
3. No sexual activities
4. No intoxicants
5. No meat-eating
6. No commercialization
I will reflect on the each vow in more depth.
1. No killing: Abstain from knowingly harming any beings.
Of course, in each breath, I am taking countless lives of invisible creatures. Having a physical human existence, I will always harm other beings and externalize the cost of my survival. I will strive to minimize harm, and avoid any knowing acts of killing.
2. No stealing: Abstain from taking what is not given, or taking more than my fair share.
In a narrow sense, stealing is what is deemed illegal theft. In a broader sense, taking more than what I need is stealing from those who need it more than I do. Thus, gluttony (eating more than my body needs) is stealing, because I am stealing food from nature to feed the insatiable craving. And, sloth (sleeping more than my body needs) is also stealing, because I am stealing time from service to indulge in comfort and wallow in drowsiness. I would be depriving the world of the offer of my full self. The opportunity cost is high, when one considers that every moment could be used for cultivation and service. I will avoid the narrowly-defined stealing, and strive to stay away from the broadly-defined stealing.
3. No sexual activity: Abstain from all sexual activity (including any lustful bodily contacts, and masturbation); strive to dissolve lustful thoughts as quickly as they arise.
Confucius said, “Food and sex, human nature. (食色性也)” Saints across the ages have warned of the danger of sexual desire. They have taught that the lustful craving is the leading cause of endless rebirths into suffering. This is not to say that there could be no healthy intimate partnership. But for all practical purposes of the upcoming pilgrimage, I will observe full celibacy, to avoid extra trouble (physical, emotional, and spiritual) and to cultivate renunciation.
4. No intoxicants: No intoxicating agents (drugs, alcohol, tobacco, etc) of any sort that could cloud the mind or harm the body.
I have indeed observed this precept, quite naturally and without intentional effort, for my entire life so far. It has brought much benefit and peace. I intend to maintain it for the rest of my life.
5. No meat-eating: Maintain a strictly vegetarian diet; strive toward a vegan diet.
This vow follows naturally from the first vow -- no killing. And from the second vow -- no stealing, because taking the milk or eggs from other animals against their will is certainly stealing, if not robbery or slavery. A Zen master from ancient time wrote, “If you want to know why there are calamities and wars in the world; Just listen to the sounds from a slaughterhouse at midnight (欲知世上刀兵劫，試聽屠門夜半聲).” However, even vegetable farming (especially industrial agriculture) will harm many lives in its wake. As long as I need to eat, I am taking lives.
So, I will anchor in the intention of reducing the violence content in my diet, instead of mire myself in intellectual debate of whether an eggplant can feel pain. However, one has to draw the line somewhere, if nothing else, just for the practical purpose of not having to re-evaluate every single bite. I choose to draw the line on meat-eating, with the goal of being vegan, for many reasons that don’t need to be elaborated here.
6. No commercialization: Abstain from monetizing the pilgrimage in any way, or creating monetary barriers for any of my offerings.
I will not take corporate sponsorship, or advertising, or erect paywall to any offerings from the pilgrimage, be it in digital media, or as in-person engagement. I will trust in the abundance of the universe and the kindness of ordinary people, and will experiment with living fully in gift ecology throughout the pilgrimage duration.
It is obvious that my list of vows takes its inspiration from the Five Precepts for lay Buddhists. The Seven Deadly Sins and the Ten Commandments are also my reference. Other inspiration includes:
- Nipun and Guri Mehta’s walking pilgrimage in India: six months into their marriage, as their “honeymoon”, Nipun and Guri undertook an open-ended walking pilgrimage in India, eventually covering 1,000km. They vowed to live on less than US$1 between the two of them per day -- no roll-over or overdrafting, and take whatever meal and lodging was offered to them.
- Satish Kumar’s walking pilgrimage around the world: Satish Kumar walked without money around the globe to bring message of peace to the capitals of nuclear nations. He also took a vow to remain vegetarian.
- Peace Pilgrim: a remarkable saint who walked -- without money or possessions -- more than 25,000 miles on a pilgrimage for peace. She vowed to "remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until given shelter and fasting until given food."
With these inspirations -- and countless more -- shining the light on the path ahead, no pilgrim shall ever be lost or lonely.
Compared to the Five Precepts or the Ten Commandments, conspicuously missing from my vows, is the vow of “right speech”, of not telling lies. I went back and forth in my heart for some time over this vow, and eventually decided that I am not ready for it :) Not that I don’t want to be truthful, but because I am aware of how unconscious I often am with my speech, and how easily I bend truth for convenience, even with good intention.
Among all the vows, Vow #5 -- no meat-eating -- is perhaps the most likely to be broken, because we are so desensitized to our meat-eating habit that depends on -- and calls forth -- the meat industry. The rest of the vows, I feel assured by the inner strength in fully observing them.
The poet David Whyte wrote, “All the true vows are secret vows. The ones we speak out loud are the ones we break.” Given that my spoken-out-loud vows have the risk of being broken, I will add a determination: if I am aware that I have broken one of my six vows, I will write about it, share the reflections, as long as doing so will not endanger anyone.
Lastly, I hold the intention to maintain these six vows even after the pilgrimage. (Some vows might require modification to suit new circumstances. For example, if I were to have children at some point, I would need to adapt “no sexual activity” into “no sexual misconduct”.) But for the most part, I have been moving toward living by these vows over the past two years, and intend to follow them for the rest of my life.