In July 2004, Venerable Thubten Chodron visited R. L. and gave him the bodhisattva vows in the chapel library of the prison. These vows focus on reducing and eventually eliminating our self-centeredness and increasing our compassion and ability to benefit others. Later she wrote and asked R. L. what the effects of taking the vows have been so far. This is his response.
I recognize what an incredible step forward taking the bodhisattva vows was for me. How do I feel now? More committed, more responsible, more in awe, and more afraid.
I am aware of the inherent, obligatory responsibility for the wellbeing of all sentient beings, ultimately helping them attain complete and perfect Buddhahood. I am now more committed to that purpose than ever, and more committed to my own practice as a means to that end. It is an awesome task. There are an infinite number of sentient beings! Of course, I am afraid—genuinely concerned—that I may screw up in some way. I will, of course, live according to the vows as best as I can, but I’m equally certain I’ll be doing a lot of confession, prostration, and purification.
Thank you for explaining how to purify a broken vow. Hopefully I won’t need to.
I am thankful that you came to give me the bodhisattva vows when you did. If you had waited just a couple of weeks, it would not have been possible for us to have the ceremony. I have since been transferred to another prison where we are not allowed face-to-face visits, but can talk only when separated by a piece of glass.
I was incredibly humbled by the experience, and I am so fortunate and thankful to have you as a spiritual friend. This is true especially because I’m in a prison environment, where it is so very easy and acceptable to be “bad” and so extraordinarily difficult to be “good.” But you seem capable of bringing out the best in me, showing me a better way, and I am learning to enjoy it. Being kind, compassionate, and caring are so much more fulfilling than anxiety, resentment, and fear.
Having the bodhisattva vows has impacted me in a number of ways. They have made me very self-conscious; more than ever before, I am now very careful about my actions, what I say, and what I think. I am not impulsive, so my actions and words are usually considered beforehand, but my thoughts are a good deal more challenging.
The vows have made me more aware, especially of the Noble Eightfold Path, the four immeasurables, the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation, and so forth. I am, I suppose, much more mindful, not merely so that I avoid breaking a vow, but because I believe it is necessary and desirable to live with very well defined behavior—behavior that is more tolerant, giving and loving—behavior that acknowledges the sanctity of all life.
It is not just the taking of the vow that has caused these changes. It is Buddhism and my practice in general that have cultivated a new psychology in me. The vows reinforce that and act as an ever-constant reminder. I aspire to always keep that high ideal as part of this human existence.