The Three Levels of Vows I
Today’s topic is the three vows. The common understanding of Tibetan Buddhism is that it is all Vajrayana. This is not the case. Guru Rinpoche said one’s outer conduct should accord with the shravaka vehicle, inwardly one’s motivation should accord with the bodhisattva vehicle and in secret one’s mind should accord with the Vajrayana. One person can hold all three vows by avoiding the ten unvirtuous actions, by benefiting others one practices the bodhisattva vow, and by perceiving the world as a Buddha field and all beings as deities, which accords with the Vajrayana vow. But without bodhicitta you cannot be liberated by Vajrayana. Even Hindu sadhakas practice Tantra. But liberation only comes from absolute and relative bodhicitta. Without bodhicitta Tantric practice leads to rebirth as a demon. So it is important to practice all three levels of vows. There is a Tibetan joke. It goes, “When I held my vows, I didn’t know the Vinaya. When I learned the Vinaya, I no longer held my vows.” So it is important to protect one’s vows. But without knowing them you cannot protect them. In a monastery the discussion would focus on the vows of the ordained. But since most people here are lay practitioners, we will focus on the lay vows and the one day vow. Shariputra asked Buddha why many monks are reborn in hell, but many lay persons are reborn in the deva realms. Buddha replied, “Monks take their vow for their whole life, but don’t keep them. Lay persons take their vows for a day and keep them.”
Many stories are told of the value of keeping the vows. One story says they one day a park ranger found a delicious apple beside a spring. He gave the apple to the palace guard, who gave it to the minister, who then gave it to the queen, who gave it to the king. The king thought it was the most delicious thing he had ever ate. He found out the park ranger had found it and told the ranger he had to bring him an apple every day. The ranger went back to the spring and cried. The naga of the lake appeared and told the ranger to tell the king that he would destroy the town unless he was offered a text with the eight one day precepts. This was at a time after Kasyapa Buddha’s teaching had disappeared. The king asked his minister, who told him of a pillar that displayed miraculous activity. They looked inside and found the text. The king presented the text to the naga and the naga said that during the life of Kasyapa both of them had taken the one day vows. The naga had broken the vow about eating after noon, and so was reborn as the naga. The king had kept the vows and so was reborn as a king.
The first of the eight vows is not killing. All the vows have four aspects: basis, intention, endeavor, and completion. In the case of the first vow, the basis is the sentient being who is killed. The intention is the intention to kill. Even though the karma is lighter, it is still there if you kill unintentionally. For example, Nagarjuna killed a grasshopper when cutting grass in a previous life. And as a result he was able to be killed by a blade of grass when he was Nagarjuna. You don’t have to worry so much about keeping the vow of not killing. The next vow is sexual misconduct and you have to worry about that a little. But the vow you really have to watch is lying. Lying about your spiritual attainments is a very serious fault and causes a monk or nun to lose their vows. You shouldn’t even joke about it. The fourth vow is stealing. If taking something is illegal, it becomes stealing. The fifth vow is drinking alcohol. Drinking creates all sorts of problem, as it relaxes your vigilance about your behavior. We can see that alcohol causes many problems in society.
In Buddhism it’s said that if you ask someone to kill somebody, you get the same negative karma as if you kill them yourself. Some people say tantrikas can drink alcohol. But the Tantric texts say if you become drunk, you will be reborn in hell. Tantric practitioners have greater mental power, so they can indulge in activities and be unaffected. For example, Padmasambhava drank a thousand liters of beer and was unaffected. When you see a deity in union with a consort, they remain mindful and undisturbed by passion. But we are talking about Vinaya. In Vinaya the outer conduct is the most important. That is because your conduct is visible to all, but your mental attitude is not. So outer behavior is controlled.
The sixth vow is to avoid dancing and singing. The main problem is that they cause us to lose our mindfulness. Without keeping the vows you cannot be mindful.
It’s not that something is right or wrong because Buddha said so. If it is a cause of happiness, it is virtue. If it is cause of suffering, it is nonvirtue. Even though it may bring temporary suffering the end result of virtue is always joy. If you cultivate virtue you won’t have to ask for the lama’s help for problems. The lama’s help can only be a supporting cause for our happiness, not the principal cause. When the Buddha first taught there was no Vinaya. He merely taught one should practice virtue, avoid non-virtue, and tame the mind. By being mindful of body, speech, and mind, one upheld morality before the Vinaya was taught. JIgten Sumgon taught there was no distinction between actions that are naturally unvirtuous and those that break a vow. An action is nonvirtuous whether you hold a vow or not.
The seventh vow is not to use a high or expensive bed or throne. Using these is a cause of pride. Water will not remain on a hill, but will flow into the valley. So it is better to be humble. If you desire expensive things, you will work more to attain them and not have time to practice. Animals are smarter. When they’ve eaten enough, they go to sleep. Monks wear patchwork robes because the poor people of the time could only offer a scrap of cloth. The last vow is not to eat after noon. Anything that cannot pass through a cloth strainer cannot be consumed. The reason is that you wake refreshed and are able to meditate in the morning. So these are the eight one day vows.
Buddha bound Mara with a meditation belt. He freed Mara after he promised to take the refuge vows. When he did so, Buddha predicted Mara would attain enlightenment. Mara said, you are lying, because I didn’t take the vow with a sincere motive. Buddha said, even so, you will still be enlightened.
A lay person can just hold the vow not to kill. Or they can just take the two vows of not killing or stealing, or the three vows of not killing, stealing, sexual misconduct. Or they can hold all five vows. Some lay person take the additional vow of celibacy. Or a lay person can take the eight one day vows for their entire life. Anyone who has gone for refuge holds the lay person vows. It’s good to hold as many of the vows as you can. It’s said it’s more difficult to hold the vows during this degenerate time and as a result there is more merit. If you take the fully ordained vows, you cannot take the eight one day vows, as the fully ordained vows already contain them. The Moon Lamp Sutra says the the merit of holding the one day vows during a degenerate age is greater than making offerings to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for as many aeons as grains of sand in the Ganges. And its said that holding the four root vows in a degenerate age is greater than upholding all the vows during the Buddha’s lifetime. It’s better to take a vow and break it than not take it at all. If you take a vow, you will feel remorse when you commit nonvirtue and you will purify it as a result. If not, you will commit the action without paying attention to it until it becomes a habit. Buddha said nonvirtue only has one good quality, it can be purified through confession. Sometimes being careful is a kind of laziness. So taking vows is better than not taking them.
There are two traditions of bodhisattva vows: the profound view lineage which comes from Nagarjuna to Shantideva and the vast conduct lineage which comes from Asanga to Serlingpa. Our main tradition comes through Serlingpa. We uphold both traditions, so I will speak about both. In addition to these two lineages there is also the blessing lineage which comes from Milarepa. Gampopa unified these three into a single lineage. In the vast conduct lineage there are five root downfalls of a king, five of a minister, and eight of a common person. The first five mostly apply to a king, Stealing the wealth of the triple gem is the first downfall. This means stealing the wealth of a monastery. The second downfall is forbidding the practice of the dharma. This also includes rejecting the dharma. For example, Mao forbade the practice of religion saying it was poison. The third downfall is seizing the robes, beating, or imprisoning a monk or nun or forcing them to give up their vows. Mao also did this. The fourth downfall is to command someone commit the five heinous faults of immediate consequence. These are killing your parents, killing an arhat, injuring a buddha or dividing the sangha. The fifth downfall is destroying a city or town. The five downfalls of a minister are the same as a king. The first two of the eight downfalls of a subject are: holding a wrong views and explaining the view of emptiness to beings who have not been trained. This means training in the four thoughts that turn the mind from samsara. If one does not have a certainty about these, one can fall into a nihilistic view. The next downfall is to cause people who have entered the path of Buddhahood to abandon it. This means to persuade them to seek individual liberation. The next is to say that practicing the Mahayana means you don’t need to keep the pratimoksha vows. The next is holding that the Hinayana path does not dispel the afflicting emotions or teach that to others. The next is proclaiming one’s good qualities and disparaging the qualities of others. But this does not mean losing your self confidence. The next is wrongly proclaiming you have realized the patience that is the fruit of enlightenment. The path of juncture is like feeling the warmth of a fire or smelling food. and there is a kind of patience there. There is a greater patience on the path of seeing and when one reaches the eighth bhumi. The next downfall is to cause a practitioner to be falsely punished, to receive an offering intended for the three jewels, or accepting a bribe. The last downfall is disrupting someone’s calm abiding meditation or taking offerings from a retreat practitioner and giving them to a person saying prayers. These all cause rebirth in hell.
In the tradition of Serlingpa there are four root downfalls and forty six subsidiary downfalls. The first is to praise yourself and disparage others for the sake of gain. But if you do so to correct others, that is not a downfall. The second is to withhold wealth from stinginess. from those in poverty The third is not to accept someone’s apology, but to hold a grudge against them. The fourth root downfall is to pretend to be a practitioner after having abandoned the Mahayana.
Depending on the seriousness of the downfall one must expiate it in different ways. If you commit these downfalls again and again and if you feel no shame in them, and see them as positive, you must retake the bodhisattva vow. If you have regret and embarrassment, and someone corrects your action, you can confess them in front of three vow holders. If you feel embarrassment and remorse and no one needs to point it out for you, then you can confess it in front of one vow holder. If the violation one of the forty six subsidiary vows is motivated by an afflictive emotion, it must be confessed in front of one vow holder. Otherwise you can confess it mentally.
If you can help a person through nonvirtue, it is a fault not to do so. An example would be a parent yelling at their child. It wrong to accept an offering that was obtained fraudulently. It’s wrong to take pleasure in frivolous activities. It’s wrong to seek to remain in samsara. Instead we should achieve enlightenment so that one can help others. It’s wrong to not correct faults that others have pointed out to us. One should not retaliate when others hurt you verbally or physically. Atisha said the best teacher is the person who points out your hidden faults. But that doesn’t mean you should respond in kind. You should not neglect those who are angry with you. You should accept the apologies of others. You should not hold onto anger. You should not be lazy and oversleep. You should not scatter your attention in idle talk. You should make an effort to stabilize your mind and abandon the obstacles to stability. You should not be attached to the experiences that arise from meditation. These include bliss. If you attach to experiences, that will obstruct realization. You should not disparage the Hinayana, but you should not neglect the Mahayana. You should not criticize your teacher’s teaching or be attached to the letters rather than the meaning. We should help others and repay their kindness. You should alleviate poverty according to your ability. But you should not neglect the needs of your family. You should praise the good qualities of others. But you should prevent the harmful actions of others.
Khenpo Tsultrim Tendzin
Tibetan Meditation Center
December 26, 2007