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The Root Commitments of the White Sangha

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Root Commitments of the White Sangha
dam-tshig bcu-bzhi; 14 Root Vows

Within the Nyingma and other Lineages, ngakpas and ngakmos all are committed to avoid 'The Fourteen Basic Violations of the Commitments, Which Are To Be Guarded Against' (bsrung-bya'i damtshig rtsa-ltung bcu-bzhi) from the Anuttaratantras.


As for any and all Vajrayana teachings, authentic lineage of transmission is essential. Teachings cannot be received from a 'generalised source' like a book or a website. Neither can one give teachings unless they come from a specific source and one has been given authority to teach from the lineage holder. View, meditation and action is always specific to the lineage of transmission and the circumstances and context of the teacher-disciple relationship at that moment. Teaching in Vajrayana is always realised (rather than merely interpreted) with the student as that which is appropriate and helpful to the student at the student's actual stage of experiential development and circumstances. In that way it is dynamic. But it is also impeccably passed unsullied or diluted from each teacher to each student. This can only happen if the teacher has fully realised that which is being taught. This is why the authority of the lineage holder is crucial because he or she thereby authenticates the realisation of the teacher and is the student's 'guarantee' that the teaching is itself a realisation of that teaching. This applies equally to these root commitments.

For these reasons there are many renderings of the dam-tshig bcu-bzhi according to different lineages of transmission and these are subject to countless interpretations depending on the teacher, the student and his/her stage of developoment and other circumstances.

Although the avoidance of the fourteen root downfalls are the 'defining' vows of all ngakmos and ngakpas, how they are received also varies between traditions, lineages and teachers. Some, like Karma Rejung Lama , or some students of HH Penor Rinpoche, clearly receive a specific ngakphang ordination within which the vows associated with the 14 Root Downfalls are the centrepiece. Others, though, receive their commitments through the damtsigs associated with the receiving and practice of sadhanas but without a formal rite of passage into the ngakphang.

They have interpretations according to body, speech and mind. Those of body and mind can only be given to a student directly by a teacher and hence cannot be attempted here. Although this is also true of interpretaions according to speech these are now so widely available that for illustration purposes one version will be attempted below.


The Fourteen Root Downfalls are:

        To disparage the Master

        To transgress the three levels of vows

        To be hostile to vajra brothers and sisters

        To foresake loving kindness on behalf of sentient beings

        To abandon the enlightened mind

        To disparage one's own doctirne and those related to it

        To divulge secrets to the immature

        To abuse the five components which are primordially pure

        To develop doubt in the inner doctrines of the tantras

        To have compassion for evil beings especially those who harm the doctrine

        To apply conceptualisation to wordless natures

        To belittle those who have faith

        To violate the commitments that have been undertaken

        To disparage women, the source of discriminative wisdom

Quoted from Asvaghosa Mulapattisamgraha


The first three concern the relationship between Student and Teacher with the Student taking the three kayas of the Teacher as the path. It is therefore a profound expression of Lama'i Naljor through the commitment to one's own intrinsic nature as reflected in the being of the Lama in whom ultimate refuge has been established.

The requirement in the vajrayana for commitment to a specific tantric teacher and the essential role of this vajra master/mistress cannot be understated. According to some traditions, and possibly among all prior to the 14th Century, one enters into the 14 root commitments and thereby vajra commitment to one's teacher on receipt of the first empowerment. Usually these days this is considered impractical. The Tsa-wa'i Lama is the prinipal or root teacher from whom one takes one's teachings and empowerments. Although one may take teachings and empowerments from many teachers it is one's root teacher who coordinates and authenticates one's practice and development. If your tsa-wa'i lama is not the most most important person in your don't have one. Before entering into this relationship it is essential to test the authenticity of the teacher's realisation and whether this is reflected in their lives.

1. To disparage the Master

The lama is not just a person. He or she manifests the blessing, compassion and wisdom of all realised beings. He or she reflects one's own enlightenment so that contact and communication with one's true nature is possible. Your true nature is identical to that of your master and his or hers to that of all other realised beings and in essence all are the same. The Master, or outer teacher, teaches you how to contact your own true nature, Buddha, which is your inner nature. Padmasambhava is recognised within the Nyingma Lineages as the embodiment of all past and future Buddhas. Your connection with him is through your teacher who shows you how to recognise him. How you perceive Padmasambhava or your teacher is dzogchen. The absolute state of Dzogpachenpo is the wisdom mind of your teacher. Your lama embodies the realisation he or she inspires in you and ultimately wisdom mind. He is not separate from the teaching he gives. He is the energy, truth and compassion of the Dharma. For this reason this is received not by intellect but through devotion to one's lama.

According to Longchenpa (Klong-chen rab-'byams-pa, 1308-1363) the characterisitics of a 'Mantra-guru' are as follows:

"He has and keeps pure the empowerments, obligations and commitments. He has reached the other shore of the ocean of instructions concerning the meaning of the Tantras, he has mastery over the charismatic activities that go with the ritual and its effectiveness. He has warmth of feeling at its height as it comes with the experience and the understanding through vision, through attending to and cultivating the vision, through its enactment, and through the culmination (of all these three) in the fullness of Being. He is very kind and wise in appropriate actions and he sets the aspirant on the path to maturation and freedom. He is a lingering cloud of continuous spiritual sustenance..."

He also describes the virtues of worthy students:

"The worthy students, trustful and highly discerning, diligent, concientious, circumspect and knowledgeable, not going beyond (the teacher's) word, observing their obligations and commitments, controled in body, speech and mind, compassionate and deeply concerned about other's well being, accommodating patient, generous and visionary, steady and deeply devoted will always be mindful of the teacher's qualities. They will not look for faults and, even if they see them, will consider them as (hidden) qualities. By thinking from the bottom of their heart that these faults are certainly their own (mistaken) views and not exisiting in (the teacher), they use admission (of their own shortcomings) and self-restraint as counteragents (to their error).

They reject everything that may displease the teacher and they make every effort to to please him. They never go against the teacher's word and treat those around the teacher, even if they are on good terms with them, as the teacher. They do not take the teacher's servants as their disciples, but will ask them for explanations and initiations.

In the presence of the teacher they restrain themselves in body speech and mind, they sit with their legs tucked under and do not turn their backs to him. They show a smiling face and do not cast angry glances nor frown upon him.

They will not speak rashly, neither will they tell other's faults nor will they use unpleasant harsh words, nor will they speak thoughtlessly nor at random.

They will not covet the teacher's utensils, and they will dismiss all kinds of harmful thoughts that are like claws. They will not judge as wrong and mistaken the teacher's various actions and devices because that which is openly done seems to belie the hidden intention. They renounce erroneous views that carry with them the evil and defect of finding fault with everything, be it ever so small, thinking that this is inappropriate, but he is certainly going to do it.

When they are cross with their teacher they will certainly examine their own faults, admit them, and restrain themselves, and bowing their head they will sincerely offer their appologies. Thereby they will please him and quickly achieve their aim.

When they see their teacher, they will get up and greet him, when he is about to sit down, they will offer him a comfortable seat and so on. They will praise him with a pleasant voice and keep their hands folded. When he walks about they will follow him inm attendance and show respect.

Always mindful and concientious and concerned, devotedly and meekly in awe they will stay with him. When near the teacher, they will be bashful in body speech and mind like a young bride, not strutting about or being indolent, not taking sides, not flattering, not deceitful, not hypocritical, neither publicly nor privately showing affection or aversion to his near and distant relatives.

If they are wealthy they will make gifts to the teacher, or by body and speech will serve him, honour him, respect him; or dismissing their preoccupations with this life from their minds they will please him by their individual achievements.

If others speak evil of him, they will refute their allegations. If they are unable to do so, they will again and again think of his qualities, close their ears and in compassion give him help. They will not use words that do not approve of him."
Kindly Bent to Ease Us, Part One: Mind by Longchenpa Translated by Herbert V Guenther, Dharma Publishing Chapter 5

The relationship between tantric teacher and student is not necessarily a comfortable one. The teacher is empty form. There is no security in the relationship with your lama. Presenting stability at the level of form neither is nor isn't necessary for the core commitment to provide the student with the opportunity to experience non duality. The student becomes empty to the personality display of the teacher. The teacher manifests as the form quality of emptiness and the student manifests the emptiness quality of form. That is how transmission is possible. No tsa-wa'i lama no transmission.

See also The Decisive Declarations of Five Dakinis on Vajrayana

2. To transgress the three levels of vows

This relates to the speech of the Lama. It is elsewhere variously expressed as "Not to disobey the instructions of the Buddha in general and your guru specifically" and "never contradicting and denegrating one's lama's teachings". Why pretend to be the disciple of a teacher for whom you have incomplete respect? One learns by asking questions in the expectation that the Lama will clarify the situation. If you merely pit your own views against those of the Lama and you win, you lose because you actually don't have a Lama. It has been said that if you see your teacher as Buddha you receive the blessings of Buddha. If you regard her as a great teacher you receive the blessings of a great teacher and if you see your teacher as an ordinary person.....

3. To be hostile to vajra brothers and sisters

Sangha (gendundge ’dun) has more than one meaning depending on the context. According to one fairly conventional interpretation, particularly from Gelugpa perspective, sangha is the ordained monastic community. Ordained ngakpas are not a feature of that tradition – as it is entirely celibate. In the context of the Nyingma School, sangha can be either the students of a particular teacher or all those who have ever taken teachings or empowerments from a teacher or all Buddhist practitioners. Tantric practitioners whether ordained ngak'phang, ordained monastic or non ordained swear to cultivate positive feelings toward other Tantric practitioners and to develop mutually beneficial and harmonious relationships. It is of primary importance in relation to one's tsa-wa'i lama, but it extends to all with whom you have taken empowerment. Ultimately it applies to all tantric practitioners.

4. To foresake loving kindness on behalf of sentient beings

Compassion is fundamental to Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen and working toward the eventual liberation of all sentient beings is definitive of the Mahayana (as opposed to Hinayana). We are encouraged to remember that every living creature, however loathsome or cruel to us, has also in previous lives certainly been our mother and has made great sacrifices to feed and protect us. We are reminded that ultimately there can be no liberation until all sentient beings are liberated. The inability to bear the suffering of living beings is the indication of compassion and if non-referential compassion is cultivated as the unity of openness of being and compassion, the result is a mind without malice and vindictiveness in all its fitness and primal purity (ibid).

5. To abandon the enlightened mind

This is not to become separated from Enlightenment {byang chub kyi sems}or the from the aspiration to Enlightenment (smon pa'i byang chub kyi sems) or Bodhichitta. In the context of Dzogchen it is the innate wakefulness of awakened mind which is synonymous with non-dual. It is also spoken of in terms of the primary creative spatial essences known as the red and white boddhichittas (thig-les) and is an injunction against the objectification of one's sexual partner.

6. To disparage one's own doctirne and those related to it

This is also rendered as "Not to malign spiritual traditions other than the Tantras, in particular the Mahayana Sutras". This is the avoidance of 'spiritual materialism'. The resolution of the apparently contradictory renditions is that to denigrate the teachings and paths of other systems ignores the possibility of seeing the priniple and function of a path for an individual: A tantrika needs to be open to seeing the princpal and function of everything. If one understands there is no fundamental contradiction in accepting the value of other approaches, tolerance can be extended to all systems of religion promoting kindness and awareness.

7. To divulge secrets to the immature

This is also a question of spiritual materialism. Practices and teachings requiring preparation are to be reserved for those who are ready to work with them. Some may actually be harmful if undertaken at the wrong time or in the otherwise inauspicious circumstances. It is bemeaning in the same way that one wouldn't share the intimate details of your sexual relationship with your partner to a stranger. The teaching of view, meditation and action is always specific to the lineage of transmission and the circumstances of the relationship between teacher and disciple at that moment. Teaching in Vajrayana is always that which is appropriate to the student’s stage of experiential development. Outside that at best it is information, at worst it is misleading or generally degrading of the personal treasure you have been given.

8. To abuse the five components which are primordially pure

This requiresthe Practitioner not to afflict her or his own body or that of another with suffering or in any other way to treat it disrespectfully. Regarding the five elements of the psychophysical body as ‘impure' or ‘defiled’ misunderstands Vajrayana. Any meditation or contemplation which generates disgust for the body is a breakage of this vow. Any meditation or contemplation which views physicality as something to be transcended, is a breakage of this vow. One’s view of women, and of the birth process is particularly important in this respect. To regard birth in the womb as impure, or to view female re-birth as inferior, is a breakage of this vow as well as the 14th Vow. According to Vajrayana nothing is intrinsically impure. According to Dzogchen everything, and everyone, everywhere is intrinsically pure. According to the view of Maha yoga, the human body is the mandala of the 108 peaceful and wrathful awareness beings. According to Anu yoga, the human body is the dimension of rTsa, rLung, and thig-lé. According to Ati yoga, the human body is the compassionate dimension of existence in which association and interaction are self-fulfilled in their own arising. The Ngakphang practitioner would take position that if his or her view of the body is not in accord with these views this is merely her or his dualistic distortion of intrinsic purity. The practitioner avoids taking subjective dualism as a reflection of reality.

9. To develop doubt in the inner doctrines of the tantras

Doubt is perfectly appropriate when considering the step of entering the path of Vajrayana but, like a snake entering a bamboo tube which can only go forwards, once the commitment to the practice of Vajrayana has been made, the Practitioner should not indulge the development of doubt.

Doubt will still arise – but that the sensation of doubt is regarded as a practice. The spirit of questioning is important in Buddhism, particularly in Sutra, but involvement with Tantra is like marriage used to be in the West. To entertain doubt about one’s bride or bridegroom on one’s wedding night does not bode well for the marriage. One’s wedding night is not the time for doubt. The time for doubt and questioning lies in the phase which leads up to engagement. The engagement phase can be compared with the ngöndro which leads into the actual practice. A point of interest here is that unlike the traditional marriage system where sexual intimacy is deferred until the wedding has taken place, ngöndro contains the actual practice. The parallel to sexual intimacy within ngöndro is the Lama’i naljor in which a practitioner unifies with the Mind of the Lama. Lama’i naljor is therefore very important if the marriage with Vajrayana is not to end in divorce. It is imperative that the Practitioner already has complete confidence in the Lama. If the practitioner is not certain of this the fourteen root vows should not be taken. It would be far better never to take the vows than to break them and feel justified in breaking them. Once a Practitioner has broken these vows all further attempts at practice come to nothing. Vow breakage does not necessarily mean each and every slip. In order to break one’s vows one has to do so consistently and without any form of regret. In other words to feel justified in doing so. It is said that one can repair one’s vows up to three years after breakage has occurred – but that the ability to repair one’s vows becomes increasingly unlikely as time goes on. For these reasons doubt is regarded as a cancer to be surgically removed. If cancer can be removed by chemotherapy, then we do not object too much to the pain or damage that chemotherapy might cause. Cancer is life threatening, and doubt is also regarded as life threatening. With life threatening diseases the most serious steps must be taken, and one acknowledges that fact on becoming a tantrika. If a Practitioner is not prepared to treat doubt as a life threatening disease, the fourteen root vows should not be taken.

Nevertheless a Practitioner can always clarify doubts with his or her Lama. One’s Lama will always deal with one’s doubts as part of the teaching – so it is important that one never hides the doubts which arise. Such doubts can be a necessary aspect of one’s spiritual evolution, so if they are explored in discussion with the Lama, they become the basis for valuable insights. When dealing with doubt, the commited student would regard it as an obvious consequence of dualistic conditioning, and seek methods of practice with which doubt can be overcome. To avoid ‘expression’ means that one only voices one’s doubt to one’s own Lama – it does not mean that one never expresses any doubt. To avoid repression means that one is open and honest with one’s Lama – it does not mean that one presents one’s doubts as recrimination against the Lama, but that one is open to having one’s doubt resolved by the Lama. One has confidence that the Lama will resolve one’s doubts. To avoid dissipation means that one does not avoid one’s doubts through burying one’s doubts in ‘organisational activity’ in order to be part of the Lama’s mandala without actually participating in the teaching.

10. To have compassion for evil beings especially those who harm the doctrine

This refers to failing to act in a potentially disastrous situation and spilling the heart blood of self-justification whenever it violates one vows. It is a failure of one who holds the bodhisattva vow not to kill, if it saves other beings from harm. A bodhisattva must act towards the liberation of violently malicious beings even if this entails destroying their physical form. This vow must be considered in the context of the fourth vow not to foresake loving kindness on behalf of sentient beings – even those with negative motivation and harmful intentions. Shakyamuni Buddha told a sea captain that an act of murder he committed was not negative as, having overheard the victim plotting to kill all the others on the boat the captain’s motivation was compassionate in wishing to save the lives of his five hundred other voyagers. Pacifism should not detract from one’s kindness. If the avoidance of killing is merely cowardice and lack of deep concern for others, then failure to act is a breakage of one’s vows.

11. To apply conceptualisation to wordless natures

This relates to the commitment to living the view through unity of openness of being and compassion. Any of the 4 philosophical extremes (monism, dualism, nihilism and eternalism) which are denied in Buddhism are conventional ways in which we characterise through concepts and distance ourselves from "that which transcends concepts". It is commitment to experience the naked nature and texture of reality.

12. To belittle those who have faith

This may be taken not to malign Dharma practitioners, and drive beings away from the Dharma and the Tantra in particular. An authentic practitioner will always be happy to give as much as possible in order to help others. The principle of the imminent liberation in oneself and other acts, in an authentic tantrika, to generate great enthusiasm around requests for teaching. The wish of others to practise should actually inspire gratitude. One should feel great joy when others wish to follow the path of Vajrayana with devotion and dedication – so to refuse teaching is to completely fail to connect with practice. Only political-priests and political-priestesses act in such a way – so a true tantrika or true practitioner of any spiritual path is always generous in making the teachings available.

13. To violate the commitments that have been undertaken

The tantrika vows not to follow purely Shravaka conduct, thus giving up the Tantric activities of the ganachakra, etc.

Refusal to partake in practices involving the consumption of meat & alcohol (substances commonly held to be impure according to Sutra and the outer tantras) fails to appreciate the view of Tantra which transcends the pure-impure dichotomy. As a tantrika one cannot be strictly vegetarian. Nor can a tantrika abstain from alcohol as a rule. Tantric practitioners can be vegetarian for most of the time ( to practise compassionate activity at a relative level). Nor does a tantrika have to drink at any other times apart from receiving the Tantric offerings. Nevertheless, one should regard all foods and drinks offered by the Lama (any Lama) in the same way one would regard the Tantric offerings. One cannot strictly maintain any rule with regard to food without breaking this vow, as any type of food may appear in a Tantric tsog-khorlo offerings (gana-chakra). Any kind of food with which you are served by the khandro at a Tantric tsog-khorlo must be eaten - whether it is found to be palatable or not. One's personal food preferences or dislikes must be overridden in the Tantric tsog-khorlo, or this vow is broken. Taken in a wider and more subtle sense, this vow applies to anything within the mandala of one’s Lama. One must be open to consuming, through the senses, what ever is orchestrated by one’s Lama. The Lama may introduce the disciples to a variety of experiences and one should never withdraw from what is offered. One will natural evolve a sense in which the sense fields become one’s practice and that the Lama give continual indications as to how one can expand ones sensory vision. In terms of taking the three kayas of the Lama as the path, we are concerned with ‘our observation of the Lama’; but with the thirteenth vow we are looking at participation. One cannot merely observe the Lama’s personality display and be open to it as an ‘incomprehensible dharma’ which has the potential to cause our awakening – we have to enter into the spirit of the activity which is being suggested. We have to enter fully into what is being created for our benefit. If we retract into the cosy limitations of our own preferences, the we break this vow. This does not mean that we cannot physical limitations which the Lama can take into account, but it does mean that we have to be enthusiastically open to whatever offers itself next in the company of the Lama.


14. To disparage women, the source of discriminative wisdom

The verbal, mental, or physical denigration of women by men, or men by women, is seriously deprecated within Tantra. Fundamentally women are the source of wisdom, and men are the source of method. Within the inner tantras of all schools women and men must be regarded with pure-vision – as beings who have the innate ability to reflect one's enlightened nature. Within the specific vows of the gö-kar-chang-lo, this vow extends to refraining from cutting the scalp hair. Every hair is regarded as embodying the energy of the pawos (for women) and khandros (for men). For men or women to mentally or verbally denigrate each other, is to denigrate their own enlightened natures.

These are interpreted with eight branch commitments (yan lag brgyad). The seven branches plus the arousing of bodhichitta, which are principally concerned with the practice of having a consort, and with teaching the Tantras.

All of these vows are subject to interpretation by the Teacher for the needs of the student at the time. I know of interpretations by the most accomplished masters which would appear to be entirely contradictory from the outside, for example in respect of the cutting of hair.

Ngakpa Ga'wang 1st June 1999