Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Promises, Promises

Yesterday was our 24th wedding anniversary. We know that because our parents emailed and called to congratulate us.

It isn't an anniversary that we've ever leaned on very hard. We had been together six years before we married. The marriage was not so much a promise as a confirmation. "If we were not already married, I would not now be here!" I might have murmured, when asked to make my vow --

This Troilus in armes gan hir streyne,
And seyde, `O swete, as ever mote I goon,
Now be ye caught, now is ther but we tweyne;
Now yeldeth yow, for other boot is noon.'
To that Criseyde answerde thus anoon,
`Ne hadde I er now, my swete herte dere,
Ben yolde, y-wis, I were now not here!'

Our thirtieth "anniversary," which we do observe, with appropriate rites, is coming in December.

So the summers and winters run by now like the light and shade of a single day.

What did the promises ever have to do with it? Hard to say. It was the willingness to make the promises, maybe, that had importance. Maybe that's the only importance promises ever have. They can't bind; they can only remind us that once we were willing to be bound.

Except. When I first encountered the way Tibetans regarded vows, it struck me as oddly concrete. They will talk of vows being "injured" and "repaired." Not broken, or kept, like a contract -- they seem to regard it more as a building in progress, or a plant being nurtured. You can, under some circumstances "return your vows" -- that's how they speak of it when a monk leaves ordained life. He gives his vows back to the person he took them from.

But having gotten used to this way of thinking, I now find my former conception of vows to be dangerously abstract and brittle. Eighteen-year-olds, maybe, would think of the promises of marriage this way, but nobody my age should. Our intentions are bruised and our faith is damaged, inevitably. The willingness to repair them is what matters.

Just now I wrote to a friend (speaking of bodhisattva vows) -- sometimes it's important to make vows even though we know we're going to break them.

Why is that? -- she asked

I answered -- because sometimes we understand that an intention is so important that we shouldn't treat it the same as our other intentions. We should honor it and nurture it with special care. We should notice if it's damaged, and take care to repair it.

After all, if the intention was in no danger of being lost or broken, what would be the point of making a vow of it?

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