Truth to tell, I have never been very good at vows. When New Year's Eve comes around and it's a time for resolutions, I'm lazy: "Don't make 'em, don't break 'em" is my mantram.
Spiritual endeavor -- and more specifically for me, Zen Buddhism -- is not exempt from the effort to imprint good intentions. Don't lie, cheat, steal, etc. is part of the Zen tableau. I have spoken such vows, failed to live up to them, and tried again. It was a good idea, but I'm not sure that I executed those vows with much success. I signed on to the importance of them and did my best.
But one vow that cropped up before I ever really went to work in the realm of spiritual endeavor was straight from the heart. It was just my personality, perhaps, but that was all I had to work with ... and I was dead serious about it.
As much as I wanted to plumb the depths of spiritual endeavor (I didn't want to plumb them for anyone's satisfaction but my own ... was this stuff bullshit or not?) still I made a great vow within:
If spiritual endeavor could not honestly enter the marketplace, if I found it was pie in the sky without equal usefulness and footing in barroom or tabernacle ... then I would drop it like a hot potato. Plaster sainthood ... fuck that!
I did not see this vow as a vow at the time. It was just one of the utterly serious bars I placed before myself. And, looking back, I think it was a good bar to raise, a good criterion against which to measure the honesty of my own effort.
Over the years, that vow has held firm. It has been revised and reshaped in its subtleties, but the vow remains -- in my heart, no-screwing-around, I-don't-care-what-bars-others-may-praise-or-critique ... it remains a true vow for me. I don't recommend it ... I'm just saying it's there.
And after so many years of spiritual prodding and poking ... well, I haven't found anything to make me drop spiritual endeavor like a hot potato.
Not to elevate my own stock, but the topic makes me I remember Ta Hui, the old Zen teacher, who once commented approximately, "I have always taken a great vow that I would rather suffer the fires of hell for all eternity than to portray Zen as a human emotion."