The Three Levels of Vows II

What’s most important is to have the proper motivation. Gampopa said what is more important than practice is the manner of practice. When you practice various doubts can arise, so it is important to understand the manner of practice. There’s a lot to say, but, in short, it’s important to engage in the four mind changings. Especially in the morning before you practice it’s important to do them.

Today we will discuss the Tantric vows. Anyone who has received an empowerment has all three vows. No matter how short or elaborate the empowerment is, all contain the refuge and bodhisattva vows. During the empowerment the master will ask if you are able to maintain the vows of the five buddha families. If you say yes, that is taking the vow. This is part of the vase empowerment, which is included in all Tantric empowerments. When you can see the aggregates as the five buddha families, this is receiving the vase empowerment. It’s not enough to receive an empowerment, you must keep the commitments. If you do so, there is great blessing. If you keep the commitments of the phowa practice, you can be liberated into the pure lands just by this. So it is important to maintain the vows.

Within the commitments there are general and particular ones. Within the general commitments are those of aspiration and action bodhicitta. Within action bodhicitta there is the threefold discipline of avoiding the ten negative actions, gathering the virtues of the six paramitas, and practicing the four means of attracting: giving gifts, having kind speech, speaking appropriately, and acting according to one’s speech. Aspiration and action bodhicitta are the foundation of Tantric practice. The main point of the vase empowerment is pointing out that the five aggregates are the five buddha families.

There are also specific commitments for the five families. For Vairochana the vow is to trust and take refuge in the three jewels, in particular the buddha jewel of Vairochana. For Akshobhya the vow is to maintain vajra, bell, and mudra. Vajra represents the exalted body, the bell represents speech and mudra represents mind. The vajra also represents method, the bell wisdom, and the mudra represents the unity of method and wisdom as stabilized bliss and wisdom. When I was in Nepal I saw some Westerners carrying big crystal vajras. You should have the implements of practice, but you should keep them secret.

The commitments of Ratnasambhava are to continuously perform the three acts of generosity: giving material things, giving dharma, and giving protection from fear. If you don’t have material things to give, you can have the aspiration to give. Continuously means three times a day and three times at night. The vows for Amitabha are to uphold the meaning of the three baskets of Sutra and the outer, inner, and secret tantras. The vow associated with Amoghasiddhi is to make the fourfold offerings: the outer, inner, secret, and suchness offerings.

Now I will discuss the downfalls. There are fourteen root downfalls. The first is to disrespect the lama. The lama bestows siddhis on the student and to disparage the lama is a downfall. The word “lama” is used in different ways at the three levels of vows. For pratimoksha, the lama is the preceptor who gives you the vows as well as the master who teaches you what is right and wrong. The titles khenpo and loppon come from the Vinaya system. The Khenpo gives the vows, and the loppon gives the training. In the Mahayana they use the term spiritual friend. In Vajrayana they use the term root lama or vajra master. If you receive an empowerment from someone, that can be considered your root lama. If you receive explanations that is higher. The lama you receive pith instructions from is even higher. All these can be considered your root lama. You can receive these from one person or several people. If you receive it from several, the one you get the pith instructions from and who points out the nature of mind so that you realize it is your root lama. For example, Marpa recognized the nature of mind in front of Naropa. A lesser vajra master gives an empowerment. The middling explains a tantra. A great master gives you quintessential instructions. If someone give you all three, that is your root lama.

To be a downfall seven factor must be present. It must be inspired from an afflictive emotion. You have to be aware that you are acting from an afflicted emotion. The third factor is to be careless in your actions and speech. The fourth factor is to actually cause hurt or harm. The fifth is to have no remorse, The sixth is to rejoice in the action. The seventh is to not be drunk or crazy when you do the action and to be in full possession of your faculties. If you have all seven of these factors for any of the fourteen commitments, it is a root downfall. If you do not amend the downfall within a fixed period of time, the Tantric vow is completely broken. If you let it go for one year without confessing it to the lama who has given you the empowerment, teaching, and instruction. If the lama has only done two of these three, you have two years to confess. If they have only done one of these three, you have three years to confess. If you feel your root lama is engaging in negative activities, you should correct them. But you cannot break your samaya with them. If what you do makes the lama angry, that is what makes it a hurtful action. But if the lama gets angry for no reason, he is committing the twelfth downfall, to create regret in those who have faith.

The second downfall is to transgress the Buddha’s word. This refers to someone who says I have no use for karma, I am beyond it. Also one transgresses the Buddha’s word by disregarding the teaching. Jigten Sumgon said the Buddha’s word is more important than the lama’s teaching, so you should not disregard it. It’s important to know something about the Buddha’s word to know if the lama’s teaching authentic. The third downfall is to be angry at your vajra brothers and sisters. According to Tsongkapa this refers to those that you have received secret empowerment with. But another teacher taught that all beings have Buddha nature, so they are all your vajra brothers and sisters. This is called the natural family. The beautiful family refers to those who have received the Buddha’s teaching. The distant family is all those who practice Secret Mantra. The close family are those who are within the same mandala but receive the vows at a different time. Those who receive the same empowerment from the same teacher at the same time are the very close family. If you become angry with these last, you have committed a root downfall.

The fourth downfall is to give up loving sentient beings. Also if you can help someone but do not, that is a downfall. This vow is broken if it is unconfessed for a single day. Next we come to the fifth downfall: to abandon bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is of two types: relative and absolute. Relative bodhicitta is both aspiration and action. Absolute bodhicitta is realizing the view of emptiness. The main cause of bodhicitta is the development of loving kindness and compassion. In secret mantra bodhicitta is represented as the inner drop. This is the cause of the realization of great bliss and when the drops degenerate, then so does the bliss. The sixth downfall is to disrespect spiritual teachings, whether Buddhist or not. It’s said that to criticize non-Buddhist teachings makes you far from Vairochana. But there is no fault in criticizing lower teaching for the sake of bringing people to the higher.

The seventh fault is to disclose the secret teachings to those not ready. This means disclosing to those who have not had the empowerment or to those who are spiritually immature and are not suitable vessels of tantra, because they have no understanding of karma or they are afraid of the profound. This applies to those who are afraid of the practices of union and liberation. It also applies to those with broken samaya. If you receive an empowerment for a lower tantra, you do not have permission to practice the higher Tantras. It’s said that you shouldn’t show texts or images of Tantric deities to those that are unprepared. The eight downfall is to revile or abuse the five aggregates, which have the nature of the five buddha families. We think of our bodies as ours but many other beings live in it. This vow not only includes suicide, but also practicing unhealthy habits, such as using drugs. By harming yourself, you are harming the deity. But you should not be attached to the body. It is not considered a downfall if you harm yourself by working for the lama or for sentient beings.

The ninth downfall is to doubt that phenomena are naturally pure. In tantra it’s taught that this world is a pure land and its inhabitants deities. There is the threefold practice of clarity, purity and divine pride. If you hold these, you can be liberated in the bardo as a sambhogakaya. To doubt emptiness is to take appearances as real. In tantra doubting phenomena are pure is doubting the world is a pure land, that its inhabitants are deities, or disbelieving the deities of the mandala.

The tenth downfall is to have love for malicious ones. Some beings cannot be trained by peaceful means and must be disciplined by wrathful means. But to do this requires being able to do so. You must be able to perform the three satisfactions. You satisfy the herukas and dakinis with flesh and blood, you satisfy yourself by freeing yourself from the enemy and you satisfy the enemy by liberating them into a pure realm. If you can perform the three satisfactions, you can practice wrathful actions. The eleventh downfall is to conceptualize the dharma which is beyond words. Since the nature of things is emptiness, they are beyond names and concepts. Nagarjuna demonstrated emptiness extensively in his writings. If we hold that phenomena are real, we are committing the eleventh downfall.

The twelfth downfall is is to deter or cause regret for those who have faith. Some activities are permitted in tantra, but if performed publicly, they would create doubts in the minds of newer students. So practicing these things publicly is a violation of this vow. The thirteenth downfall is to not rely on the samaya substances. This means the five meats and five nectars. Not to take part in these is not to rely on the samaya substances. There are pills which contain these substances that one should take regularly. If these are not available, there are medicine pills. You are also not allowed to refuse tsok because it is after noon. Every day you should do a ganachakra, or if you can’t, once a month, or at the very least, twice a year. There is great benefit to practice the deities you have been empowered for in a retreat. The fourteenth downfall is to disrespect women who are the nature of wisdom. Women are necessary to bestow two of the four empowerments. Women’s bodies contain more of the red element which has the nature of wisdom. It is not allowed to look down on women.

There are also eight branch downfalls. The first is to rely on an unqualified consort. This means the consort cannot retain their joy during the practice. Consorts will have various signs that show they are qualified. The next is to accept dutsi from a consort with improper characteristics. The next branch downfall is to argue or fight during a tsok offering. To debate the dharma through arrogance is included in this. The next is to not teach the tantra to a suitable person. The next is to not teach the dharma to those with faith in it. The next is to dwell more than seven days in a community of students who have abandoned the tantra. The next is to boast of being a yogi without being able to properly practice the generation and completion stages. Someone who just has memorized a few rituals and doesn’t know the meaning of great bliss and who boasts of being tantrika commits this fault. The last is to teach the tantra to those who do not have faith in it. This description of the subsidiary vows comes from one tradition of tantra. Other traditions describe them differently. Someone who is able to uphold the samayas can become enlightened in seven lifetimes even if they do not practice. But if the vows are broken you will be reborn in the lower realms.

Next is the method of confessing transgressions of samaya. After the time for confession has passed the vow has been lost and cannot be mended in this lifetime. If the time has not yet expired there is a general and a particular confession. The general is to confess with remorse that you have broken the samaya and receive the empowerment again. You should also do a fire puja of the deity and 100,000 recitations of the mantra of that deity. If you have received the wisdom knowledge empowerment you should perform 700,000 recitations of the deity. You should confess and make offerings to the lama you have received the empowerment from. If you have only received the vase empowerment, there is no extra expiation needed. But if you have received a higher empowerment, you cannot attend a tsok until the fault is amended. So this is the general procedure for amending a downfall. If you recite the Vajrasattva mantra twenty one times a day in keeps the violations of samaya from accumulating. If you recite it 100,000 times it purifies the violation. Anyone who has taken empowerment has these samayas and must keep the commitments. So it is good to recite the Vajrasattva mantra twenty one times each night. When you fall from the Tantric commitments the pratimoksha vows and bodhisattva vows are also broken.

Khenpo Tsultrim Tendzin
Tibetan Meditation Center
December 27, 2007

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