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The Three Levels of Vows

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three levels of vows

The pratimoksha, bodhisattva and tantric vows.

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 ay 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.

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