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Home > eBooks > Published Books > Taking the Kalachakra Initiation > 6 Refuge Commitments and Bodhisattva Vows

Taking the Kalachakra Initiation

Originally published as
Berzin, Alexander. Taking the Kalachakra Initiation.
Ithaca, Snow Lion, 1997

Reprint: Introduction to the Kalachakra Initiation.
Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010

Order this book directly from Snow Lion Publications

Part III: Vows and Closely Bonding Practices

6 Refuge Commitments and Bodhisattva Vows

Studying the Commitments and Vows

Most people who consider taking the Kalachakra initiation as active participants, rather than observers, are greatly concerned about the vows. They want to know what their commitments are so they can realistically assess their ability to keep them. Such honesty and conscientiousness are extremely praiseworthy. Traditionally, however, aspiring practitioners study only lay and bodhisattva vows before taking them, but do not learn the details of the monastic or tantric ones until they have actually promised to keep them. The idea is that renunciation is so strong to enter monastic life, and bodhichitta so compelling to engage in tantric practice, that genuine seekers are willing to do anything. Nowadays, however, people are particularly critical and cautious. Misinformation and confusion about tantra abound. For these reasons, the great Buddhist masters have sanctioned publication of clear explanations of all sets of vows for study and scrutiny by those sincerely interested in taking them.

Actions to Adopt after Formally Taking Refuge

As refuge is the basis for all Buddhist vows, the first commitment we make as a participant at a Kalachakra initiation is to take refuge. Taking refuge means formally putting the safe and positive direction in our life indicated by the Triple Gem – the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha – and pledging to maintain this steady direction unwaveringly, until it brings us enlightenment. Taking formal refuge at an empowerment is equivalent to doing so in a separate ceremony with a teacher. Cutting a lock of hair and receiving a Dharma name are not essential components of the procedure and are dispensed with when taking refuge at an initiation, even if it is for the first time.

When we formally orient our life with the safe and positive direction of refuge, we commit ourselves to three sets of actions helpful for maintaining this direction. The first set consists of eight actions that relate to general behavior. The eight are: parallel to taking safe direction from the Buddhas, (1) committing ourselves wholeheartedly to a spiritual teacher. If we do not have access to the master conferring the empowerment and have not yet found a personal teacher to direct our practice, this commitment is to find one.

Taking formal refuge with a teacher in a separate ceremony that is not part of a tantric initiation does not imply necessarily committing ourselves to following this teacher as our personal spiritual guide. It is important, of course, always to maintain respect and gratitude toward this person as the one who opened the door to our safe direction in life. Our refuge, however, is in the Triple Gem – represented by a Buddha statue or painting during the ceremony – and not in the specific person who conducts the ritual. Only within the context of a tantric initiation does the teacher embody the Three Jewels of Refuge and does taking safe direction create the formal bond of spiritual master and disciple. Furthermore, regardless of context, our safe direction is that of the Triple Gem in general, not that of a specific lineage or tradition of Buddhism. If the teacher conducting a refuge ceremony or initiation is of a particular lineage, receiving safe direction or empowerment from him or her does not necessarily render us a follower of the same lineage.

To maintain a Dharma direction in life, (2) studying the Buddhist teachings and (3) applying them to overcome our disturbing emotions and attitudes. Academic study is not enough. To take direction from the Sangha community of highly realized practitioners, (4) following their example. To do so does not mean necessarily becoming a monastic, but rather making sincere efforts to realize straightforwardly and nonconceptually the four true facts of life – the "four noble truths." These are that life is difficult; our difficulties come from a cause, namely confusion about reality; we can end our problems; and to do so we need the understanding of voidness as a pathway mind.

(5) Working on ourselves as the primary task in our life. This means rather than constantly complaining or criticizing others, devoting our time and energies to overcoming our shortcomings and realizing our talents and potentials. (6) Adopting the ethical standards the Buddhas have set. This ethic is based on clearly discriminating between what is helpful and what is harmful to a positive direction in life. Therefore, following the Buddhist ethic means to refrain from certain modes of conduct because they are destructive and hamper our ability to benefit ourselves or others, and to embrace other modes because they are constructive and help us to grow. (7) Trying to be as sympathetic and compassionate to others as possible. Even if our spiritual goal is limited to gaining liberation from our personal problems, this is never at the expense of others. Finally, to maintain our connection with the Triple Gem, (8) making special offerings of fruit, flowers and so forth on Buddhist holy days, such as the anniversary of Buddha's enlightenment. Observing religious holidays with traditional ritual helps us feel part of a larger community.

Actions To Avoid and Ways To Show Respect

The second set of refuge commitments is to avoid certain actions and to maintain others, in connection with each of the Three Precious Gems. The actions avoided lead to a contrary direction in life, while those adopted foster mindfulness of the goal. The three actions to shun are: in spite of taking safe direction from the Buddhas, (1) taking paramount direction from elsewhere. The most important thing in life is no longer accumulating as many material objects and entertaining experiences as possible, but as many good qualities as we can – such as love, patience, concentration and wisdom – in order to be of more benefit to others. This is not a vow of poverty and abstinence, but rather an affirmation of having a deeper direction in life.

More specifically, this commitment means not taking ultimate refuge in gods or spirits. Buddhism, particularly in its Tibetan form, often contains ritual ceremonies, or pujas, directed toward various Buddha-figures or fierce protectors in order to help dispel obstacles and accomplish constructive purposes. Performing these ceremonies provides conducive circumstances for negative potentials to ripen in trivial rather than major obstacles, and positive potentials to ripen sooner rather than later. If we have built up overwhelmingly negative potentials, however, these ceremonies are ineffective in averting difficulties. Therefore, propitiating gods, spirits, protectors or even Buddhas is never a substitute for attending to our karma – avoiding destructive conduct and acting in a constructive manner. Buddhism is not a spiritual path of protector-worship, or even Buddha-worship. The safe direction of the Buddhist path is working to become a Buddha ourselves.

In spite of taking safe direction from the Dharma, (2) causing harm or mischief to humans or animals. One of the main guidelines Buddha taught is to help others as much as possible, and if we cannot be of help, at least not to cause any harm. And, in spite of taking direction from the Sangha, (3) associating closely with negative people. Shunning such contact helps us avoid being easily swayed from our positive goals when we are still weak in our direction in life. It does not mean having to live in a Buddhist community, but rather exercising care about the company we keep and taking whatever measures are appropriate and necessary to avoid detrimental influences.

The three actions to adopt as a sign of respect are honoring (4) all statues, paintings and other artistic depictions of Buddhas, (5) all books, especially concerning the Dharma, and (6) all persons with Buddhist monastic vows, and even their robes. Traditionally, signs of disrespect are stepping on

or over such objects, sitting or standing on them, and placing them directly on the floor or ground without at least providing a piece of cloth beneath them. Although these objects are not the actual sources of safe direction, they represent and help keep us mindful of enlightened beings, their supreme attainments and the highly realized practitioners well-advanced toward that goal.

General Refuge Commitments

The third set of commitments from refuge is to engage in six trainings that relate to the Three Precious Gems as a whole. The six are: (1) reaffirming our safe direction by continually reminding ourselves of the qualities of the Three Jewels of Refuge, and the difference between them and other possible directions in life. (2) In gratitude for their kindness and spiritual sustenance, offering the first portion of our hot drinks and meals each day to the Triple Gem. This is usually done in the imagination, although we may also place a small portion of our first hot drink of the day before a Buddha statue or painting, and then later drink it ourselves. It is not necessary, when making offerings of food or drink, to recite a verse in a foreign tongue we do not know, unless we find its mystery inspiring. Simply thinking, "Please, Buddhas, enjoy this," is sufficient. If the people with whom we are eating are not Buddhists, it is best to make this offering in a discreet manner so that no one knows what we are doing. Making a show of our practice only invites others' discomfort or ridicule.

(3) Mindful of the compassion of the Triple Gem, indirectly encouraging others to go in their direction. The intent of this commitment is not that we become missionaries and try to convert anyone. However, people receptive to us who are lost in life, with either no direction or a negative one, often find it helpful if we explain to them the importance and benefit we ourselves derive from having a safe and positive direction. Whether or not others become Buddhists is not the point. Our own example may encourage them to do something constructive with their lives by working on themselves to grow and improve.

(4) Remembering the benefits of having a safe direction, formally reaffirming it three times each day and three times each night – usually in the morning shortly after waking up and in the evening just before going to sleep. This affirmation is normally made by repeating, "I take safe direction from the teachers, the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha." The spiritual teachers do not constitute a fourth precious gem, but provide access to the three. In the context of tantra, the spiritual masters embody them all.

(5) Whatever happens, relying on our safe direction. In times of crisis, safe direction is the best refuge because it deals with adversity by seeking to eliminate its cause. Friends may give us sympathy, but unless they are enlightened beings, they inevitably let us down. They have problems of their own and are limited in what they can do. Always working to overcome shortcomings and difficulties in a sober and realistic manner, however, never fails in our hour of need. This leads to the final commitment, (6) never giving up this direction in life, no matter what happens.

Taking Refuge and Following Other Religions or Spiritual Paths

Some people ask if taking refuge vows means converting to Buddhism and leaving forever their native religion. This is not the case, unless we wish to do so. There is no term in Tibetan literally equivalent to a "Buddhist." The word used for a practitioner means "someone who lives within," namely within the boundaries of taking a safe and positive direction in life. To live that type of life does not require wearing a red protection string around our neck and never setting foot inside a church, synagogue, Hindu temple or Confucian shrine. Rather, it means working on ourselves to overcome our shortcomings and realize our potentials – in other words, to actualize the Dharma – as the Buddhas have done and highly realized practitioners, the Sangha, are doing. We put our primary efforts in this direction. As many Buddhist masters have said, including my own late teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, if we look at the teachings of charity and love in other religions such as Christianity, we must conclude that following them is not counter to the direction taught in Buddhism. The humanitarian message in all religions is the same.

Our safe and positive direction of refuge is primarily to refrain from the ten most destructive actions – taking the life of any living creature, taking what is not given, indulging in inappropriate sexual behavior, lying, speaking divisively, using harsh and cruel language, chattering meaninglessly, and thinking in either a covetous, malicious or distorted, antagonistic manner. Taking the Buddhist direction in life entails turning from only those teachings in other religious, philosophical or political systems that encourage action, speech or thought involving these destructive actions, and which is harmful to ourselves and others. Furthermore, although there is no prohibition against going to church, maintaining a steady direction means not to focus all our energies on that aspect of our life and neglect our Buddhist study and practice.

Some people wonder if taking refuge as part of a tantric ceremony will require them to stop practicing zen or systems of physical training such as hatha yoga or martial arts. The answer is no, because these are also methods to realize our positive potentials and do not compromise our safe direction in life. All great masters advise, however, not to mix and adulterate meditation practices. If we wish to have soup and a cup of coffee for lunch, we do not pour the coffee into the soup and drink both together. Engaging in several different trainings each day is fine. However, it is best to do them in separate sessions, carrying out each practice by honoring its individual customs. Just as it would be preposterous to offer three prostrations to the altar on entering a church, likewise it is inappropriate to recite mantras during a zen or vipassana meditation session.

Actions for Never Losing Bodhichitta Resolve

The first set of vows we take as a participant at a Kalachakra initiation, and at empowerments into any class of tantra, is the bodhisattva vows. Bodhisattvas are those with bodhichitta – a heart totally dedicated to others and to achieving enlightenment in order to benefit them fully. There are two levels of bodhichitta: aspiring and involved. Aspiring bodhichitta is the strong wish to overcome our shortcomings and realize our potentials to benefit everyone. Involved bodhichitta means engaging in the practices that bring about this goal and taking bodhisattva vows to restrain from actions detrimental to it. The difference between the two levels is similar to that between wishing to become a doctor and actually entering medical school. Aspiring bodhichitta has the stages of merely wishing to become a Buddha for the benefit of others and pledging never to abandon this aim until it is achieved. Before taking bodhisattva vows at a Kalachakra empowerment, we formally generate these two stages of aspiration.

The pledge never to forsake the bodhisattva aim involves a promise to train in five types of actions that help us never to lose our resolve. (1) Each day and night recalling the advantages of the bodhichitta motivation. Just as we readily overcome our tiredness and tap our energies when we need to attend to our children, we easily surmount all difficulties and use all our potentials when our primary motivation in life is bodhichitta. (2) Reaffirming and strengthening this motivation by rededicating our heart to enlightenment and others three times each day and three times each night. (3) Striving to build up bountiful stores of positive potential and deep awareness, usually translated as "collections of merit and insight." In other words, helping others as effectively as we can, and doing so with as much deep awareness of reality as possible. (4) Never giving up trying to help anyone, or at least wishing to be able to do so, no matter how difficult he or she may be. (5) Ridding ourselves of four murky types of behavior and adopting four glowing ones instead.

The four pairs of behavior in this fifth pledge are as follows: (1) Stopping ever deceiving our spiritual teachers, parents and the Triple Gem. Instead, always being honest with them, especially about our motivation and efforts to help others. (2) Stopping ever faulting or being contemptuous of bodhisattvas. Instead, since only Buddhas can be certain who actually are bodhisattvas, regarding everyone in a pure way as our teacher. Even if people act in a crude and distasteful manner, they teach us not to behave in this way. (3) Stopping ever causing others to regret anything positive they have done. If someone makes numerous mistakes when typing a letter for us and we yell with outrage, the person may never offer to help again. Instead, encouraging others to be constructive and, if receptive, to work on overcoming their shortcomings and realizing their potentials to be of more benefit to everyone. Lastly, (4) stopping ever being hypocritical or pretentious in our dealings with others, in other words hiding our faults and pretending to have qualities we lack. Instead, taking responsibility to help others, always being honest and frank about our limitations and abilities. It is very cruel to promise more than we can deliver, raising others' false hopes.

Root Bodhisattva Vows

Taking bodhisattva vows entails promising to restrain from two sets of negative acts – eighteen actions that, if committed, constitute a root downfall; and forty-six types of faulty behavior. A root downfall means a loss of the entire set of bodhisattva vows. It is a "downfall" in the sense that it leads to a decline in spiritual development and hinders the growth of positive qualities. The word "root" signifies it is a root to be eliminated. For ease of expression, these two sets are sometimes called "root and secondary bodhisattva vows." They offer excellent guidelines for the types of behavior to avoid if we wish to benefit others in as pure and full a way as possible.

The promise to keep bodhisattva vows applies not only to this life, but to each subsequent lifetime until enlightenment. Thus these vows continue on our mind-stream into future lives. If we have taken the vows in a previous lifetime, we do not lose them by committing an infraction now unless we have taken them freshly during our current life. Retaking the vows for the first time in this life strengthens the momentum of our efforts toward enlightenment that has been growing ever since our first taking of them. Therefore, mahayana masters emphasize the importance of dying with the bodhisattva vows intact and strong. Their abiding presence on our mind-stream continues building up positive potential in future lives even before we revitalize them by taking them again.

Following the Gelug founder, Tsongkhapa's fifteenth-century commentary on the bodhisattva vows, let us look first at the eighteen negative actions that constitute a root downfall. Each has several stipulations we need to know.

(1) Praising ourselves and/or belittling others. This downfall refers to speaking such words to someone in an inferior position. The motivation must contain either desire for profit, praise, love, respect and so on from the person addressed, or jealousy of the person belittled. It makes no difference whether what we say is true or false. Professionals who advertize that they are Buddhists need to take care about committing this downfall.

(2) Not sharing Dharma teachings or wealth. Here the motivation must be specifically attachment and miserliness. This negative action includes not only being possessive of our notes or tape recorder, but also being stingy with our time and refusing to help if needed.

(3) Not listening to others' apologies or striking others. The motivation for either of these must be anger. The first refers to an actual occasion when yelling at or beating someone and either that person pleads for forgiveness or someone else begs us to stop and we refuse. The latter is simply hitting someone. Sometimes, it may be necessary to give rambunctious children or pets a smack to stop them from running into the road if they will not listen, but it is never appropriate or helpful to discipline out of anger.

(4) Discarding the mahayana teachings and propounding made-up ones. This means to reject the correct teachings about some topic concerning bodhisattvas, such as their ethical behavior, and to make up in their stead a plausible yet misleading instruction on the same subject, claim it to be authentic and then teach it to others in order to gain their following. An example of this downfall is when teachers who are eager not to scare away prospective students condone liberal moral behavior and explain that any type of action is acceptable so long as it does not harm others. We need not be a teacher to commit this downfall. We can commit it even in casual conversation with others.

(5) Taking offerings intended for the Triple Gem. This downfall is to steal or embezzle, either personally or through deputing someone else, anything offered or belonging to the Buddhas, Dharma or Sangha, and then to consider it as ours. The Sangha, in this context, refers to any group of four or more monastics. Examples include embezzling funds donated for building a Buddhist monument, for printing Dharma books or for feeding a group of monks or nuns.

(6) Forsaking the holy Dharma. Here the downfall is to repudiate or, by voicing our opinion, cause others to repudiate that the scriptural teachings of either the shravaka, pratyekabuddha or mahayana vehicles are the Buddha's words. Shravakas are those who listen to a Buddha's teachings while they are still extant, while pratyekabuddhas are self-evolving practitioners who live primarily during dark ages when the Dharma is no longer directly available. To make spiritual progress, they rely on intuitive understanding gained from study and practice conducted during previous lives. The teachings for both of them collectively constitute the hinayana, or "modest vehicle" for gaining personal liberation from samsara. The mahayana vehicle emphasizes methods for attaining full enlightenment. Denying that all or just certain scriptures of either vehicle derive from the Buddha is a root downfall.

Maintaining this vow does not mean forsaking a historical perspective. Buddha's teachings were transmitted orally for centuries before being committed to writing, and thus corruptions and forgeries undoubtedly occurred. The great masters who compiled the Tibetan Buddhist canon certainly rejected texts they considered unauthentic. However, instead of basing their decisions on prejudice, they used Dharmakirti's criterion for assessing the validity of any material – the ability of its practice to bring about the Buddhist goals of better rebirth, liberation or enlightenment. Stylistic differences among Buddhist scriptures, and even within a specific text, often indicate differences in time when various portions of the teachings were written down or translated into different languages. Therefore, studying the scriptures through methods of modern textual analysis can often be fruitful and does not conflict with this vow.

(7) Disrobing monastics or committing such acts as stealing their robes. This downfall refers specifically to doing something damaging to one, two or three Buddhist monks or nuns, regardless of their moral status or level of study or practice. Such actions need to be motivated by ill-will or malice, and include beating or verbally abusing them, confiscating their goods or expelling them from their monastery. Expelling monastics, however, is not a downfall if they have broken one of their four major vows: not to kill, especially another human being; not to steal, particularly something belonging to the monastic community; not to lie, specifically about spiritual attainments; and to maintain complete celibacy.

(8) Committing any of the five heinous crimes. These are killing our father, mother or an arhat (a liberated being), with bad intentions drawing blood from a Buddha, or causing a split in the monastic community.

(9) Holding a distorted, antagonistic outlook. This means to deny what is true and of value – such as the laws of behavioral cause and effect, a safe and positive direction in life, rebirth and liberation from it – and to be antagonistic toward such ideas and those who hold them.

(10) Destroying places such as towns. This downfall includes intentionally demolishing, bombing or degrading the environment of a town, city, district or countryside area, and rendering it unfit, harmful or difficult for humans or animals to live in.

(11) Teaching voidness to those whose minds are untrained. The primary objects of this downfall are persons with the bodhichitta motivation who are not yet ready to understand voidness. Such persons would become confused or frightened by this teaching and consequently abandon the bodhisattva path for the path of personal liberation. This can happen as a result of thinking that if all phenomena are devoid of inherent, findable existence, then no one exists, so why bother working to benefit anyone else? This action also includes teaching voidness to anyone who would misunderstand it and therefore forsake the Dharma completely, for example by thinking that Buddhism teaches that nothing exists and is therefore sheer nonsense. Without extrasensory perception, it is difficult to know whether others' minds are sufficiently trained so that they will not misconstrue the teachings on the voidness of all phenomena. Therefore it is important to lead others to these teachings through explanations of graduated levels of complexity, and periodically to check their understanding.

(12) Turning others away from full enlightenment. The objects for this action are people who have already developed a bodhichitta motivation and are striving toward enlightenment. The downfall is to tell them they are incapable of acting all the time with generosity, patience and so on – to say that they cannot possibly become a Buddha and so it would be far better for them to strive merely for their own liberation. Unless they actually turn their aim away from enlightenment, however, this root downfall is incomplete.

(13) Turning others away from their pratimoksha vows. Pratimoksha, or individual liberation vows, include those for laypersons, novices and full monks and nuns. The objects here are persons who are keeping one of these sets of pratimoksha vows. The downfall is to tell them as a bodhisattva there is no use in keeping pratimoksha because for bodhisattvas all actions are pure. For this downfall to be complete, they must actually give up their vows.

(14) Belittling the shravaka vehicle. The sixth root downfall is to repudiate that the texts of the shravaka or pratyekabuddha vehicles are the authentic words of the Buddha. Here we accept that they are, but deny the effectiveness of their teachings and maintain that it is impossible to become rid of disturbing emotions and attitudes by means of their instructions, for example those concerning vipassana – insight meditation.

(15) Proclaiming a false realization of voidness. We commit this downfall if we have not fully realized voidness, yet teach or write about it pretending that we have, because of jealousy of the great masters. It makes no difference whether any students or readers are fooled by our pretense. Nonetheless, they must understand what we explain. If they do not comprehend our discussion, the downfall is incomplete. Although this vow refers to proclaiming false realizations specifically of voidness, it is clear that we need to avoid the same also when teaching bodhichitta or other points of Dharma. There is no fault in teaching voidness before fully realizing it, however, so long as we openly acknowledge this fact and that we are explaining merely from our present level of provisional understanding.

(16) Accepting what has been stolen from the Triple Gem. This downfall is to accept as a gift, offering, salary, reward, fine or bribe anything someone else has stolen or embezzled, either personally or through deputing someone else, from the Buddhas, Dharma or Sangha, including if it belonged only to one, two or three monks or nuns.

(17) Establishing unfair policies. This means to be biased against serious practitioners, because of anger or hostility toward them, and to favor those with lesser attainments, or none at all, because of attachment to them. An example of this downfall is to give most of our time as a teacher to casual private students who can pay high fees and to neglect serious students who can pay us nothing.

(18) Giving up bodhichitta. This is abandoning the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all. Of the two levels of bodhichitta, aspiring and involved, this refers specifically to discarding the former. In doing so, we give up the latter as well.

Maintaining Vows

When people learn of vows such as these, they sometimes feel they are difficult to keep and are afraid to take them. We avoid this kind of intimidation, however, by knowing clearly what vows are. There are two ways to explain them. The first is that vows are an attitude we adopt toward life to restrain ourselves from certain modes of negative conduct. The other is that they are a subtle shape or form we give to our life. In either case, maintaining vows involves mindfulness, alertness and self-control. With mindfulness, we keep our vows in mind throughout each day. With alertness, we maintain watch on our behavior to check if it accords with the vows. If we discover we are transgressing, or about to transgress them, we exercise self-control. In this way, we define and maintain an ethical shape to our life.

Keeping vows and maintaining mindfulness of them are not so alien or difficult to do. If we drive a car, we agree to follow certain rules in order to minimize accidents and maximize safety. These rules shape our driving – we avoid speeding and keep to our side of the road – and outline the most practical and realistic way to reach a destination. After some experience, following the rules becomes so natural that being mindful of them is effortless and never a burden. The same thing happens when maintaining bodhisattva or any other ethical vows.

The Four Binding Factors for Losing Vows

We lose our vows when we totally drop their shape from our life, or stop trying to maintain it. This is called a root downfall. When it occurs, the only way to regain this ethical shape is to reform our attitude, undertake a purification procedure such as meditation on love and compassion, and retake the vows. From among the eighteen root bodhisattva downfalls, as soon as we develop the state of mind of the ninth or eighteenth – holding a distorted, antagonistic attitude or giving up bodhichitta – we lose, by the very fact of our change of mind, the ethical shape to our life fashioned by bodhisattva vows, and thus we stop all efforts to maintain it. Consequently, we immediately lose all our bodhisattva vows, not just the one we have specifically discarded.

Transgressing the other sixteen bodhisattva vows does not constitute a root downfall unless the attitude accompanying our act contains four binding factors. These factors must be held and maintained from the moment immediately after developing the motivation to break the vow, up until the moment right after completing the act of transgression. The four binding factors are: (1) Not regarding the negative action as detrimental, seeing only advantages to it and undertaking the action with no regrets. (2) Having been in the habit of committing the transgression before, having no wish or intention to refrain now or in the future from repeating it. (3) Delighting in the negative action and undertaking it with joy. And (4) having no sense of honor or face – which means being shameless and not caring what others might think about our teachers or about Buddhism – and thus having no intention of repairing the damage we are doing to ourselves. If all four attitudes do not accompany a transgression of any of the sixteen vows, the bodhisattva shape to our life is still there, as is the effort to maintain it, but they have both become weak. With the sixteen vows, there is a great difference between merely breaking and losing them.

For example, suppose we do not lend somebody one of our books because of attachment to it and miserliness. We see nothing wrong with this – after all, this person might spill coffee on it or not give it back. We have never lent it before and have no intention to change this policy now or in the future. Moreover, when we refuse, we are happy in our decision. We are shameless about saying no, despite the fact that as someone supposedly wishing to bring everyone to enlightenment, how could we not be willing to share any source of knowledge we have? Not embarrassed in the slightest, we do not care what others will think about our teachers or about Buddhists based on our action. And we have no intention of doing anything to counterbalance our selfish act. If we have all these attitudes when refusing to lend our book, we have definitely lost the bodhisattva shape to our life. We have totally fallen down in our mahayana training and lost all our bodhisattva vows. On the other hand, if we lack some of these attitudes and do not loan our book, we have merely slackened our efforts to maintain a bodhisattva shape to our life. We still have the vows, but in a weakened form.

Weakening Vows

Transgressing one of the sixteen vows with none of the four binding factors present does not actually weaken our bodhisattva vows. For example, we do not lend our book to someone who asks, but we know it is basically wrong. We do not intend to do this as a policy, we are unhappy about saying no and we are concerned about honor and saving face. We have a valid reason to refuse lending it, such as a pressing need for the book ourselves or we have already promised it to someone else. Our motivation is not attachment to the book or miserliness. We apologize for not being able to lend it now and explain why, assuring the person we shall lend it as soon as possible. To make up the loss, we offer to share our notes. In this way, we fully maintain the bodhisattva form of our life.

We progressively begin to weaken that form and loosen our hold on our vows as we come increasingly under the influence of attachment and miserliness. When all four binding factors are present, we are fully under the sway of these two disturbing emotions, which means we are not engaged any more in overcoming them or realizing our potentials so that we can benefit others. In forsaking the involved level of bodhichitta, we lose our bodhisattva vows which structure that level.

Maintaining the vow to refrain from not sharing Dharma teachings or any other sources of knowledge does not rid us of attachment or miserliness with our books. It merely keeps us from acting under their influence. We may lend our book or, because of an urgent need, not lend it now, but still be attached to it and basically a miser. Vows, however, help in the struggle to exterminate these disturbing emotions and gain liberation from the problems and suffering they bring.

Strengthening Weakened Vows

The first step to repairing our bodhisattva vows if we have weakened or lost them is to openly admit that our transgression was a mistake. If we already felt it was wrong when we actually broke a specific vow, we re-acknowledge our mistake. We then generate four factors that act as opponent forces. These four factors are:

(1) Feeling regret about our action. Regret, whether at the time of transgressing a vow or afterwards, is not the same as guilt. Regret is the wish that we did not have to commit the act we are doing or one we have done. It is the opposite of taking pleasure or later rejoicing in our action. Guilt, on the other hand, is a strong feeling that our action is or was really bad and that we are therefore a truly bad person. Regarding these identities as inherent and eternal, we dwell morbidly on them and do not let go. Guilt, however, is never an appropriate or helpful response to our errors. For instance, if we eat some food that makes us sick, we regret our action – it was a mistake. The fact that we ate that food, however, does not make us inherently bad. We are responsible for our actions and their consequences, but not guilty for them in a condemning sense that deprives us of any feeling of self-worth or dignity.

(2) Promising to try our best not to repeat the mistake. Even if we had such an intention when transgressing the vow, we consciously reaffirm our resolve.

(3) Going back to our basis. This means to reaffirm the safe and positive direction in our life and rededicate our heart to achieving enlightenment for the benefit of all – in other words, revitalizing and fortifying our refuge and aspiring level of bodhichitta.

(4) Undertaking remedial measures to counterbalance our transgression. Such measures include meditating on love and generosity, apologizing for our unkind behavior and engaging in other positive deeds. Since acting constructively requires a sense of honor and face, it counters the lack of these that might have accompanied our negative act. Even if we felt ashamed and embarrassed at the time of the transgression, these positive steps strengthen our self-respect and regard for what others might think about our teachers and Buddhism.

We can see, then, that the bodhisattva vows are in fact quite difficult to lose completely. So long as we sincerely respect and try to keep them as guidelines, we never actually lose them. This is because the four binding factors are never complete even if our disturbing emotions cause us to break a vow. And even in the case of holding a distorted, antagonistic attitude or giving up bodhichitta, if we admit our mistake, muster the opponent forces of regret and so on, and retake the vows, we can recover and resume our path. Therefore, when trying to decide whether or not to take the vows, it is more reasonable to base the decision on an assessment of our ability to sustain continuing effort in trying to keep them as guidelines, rather than our ability to keep them perfectly. It is best, however, never to weaken or lose our vows. Although we are able to walk again after breaking a leg, we may be left with a limp.

Secondary Bodhisattva Vows

The secondary bodhisattva vows are to restrain from forty-six faulty actions. These faulty actions are divided into seven groups which are detrimental, respectively, to the practice of each of the six far-reaching attitudes and to the ability to benefit others. The six far-reaching attitudes, or "perfections," are generosity, ethical self-discipline, patient tolerance, positive enthusiasm, mental stability and discriminating awareness. An example of one of these faulty actions is not showing respect to our elders. Although such actions hamper progress toward enlightenment, committing them, even with the four binding factors complete, does not constitute a loss of the bodhisattva vows. The fewer number of factors that accompany them, however, and the weaker they are, the less damage we do to our spiritual development along the bodhisattva path. Therefore, if we happen to commit any of these faulty actions, it is best to acknowledge the mistake as soon as possible and apply the opponent powers, as in the case of the root bodhisattva vows.

There are many details to learn about these forty-six, with many exceptions when there is no fault in committing them. These can be studied later while actually engaged in the bodhisattva path. In general, however, the damage to our development of the far-reaching attitudes, and to the benefit we can give to others, depends on the motivation behind our faulty acts. If that motivation is a disturbed state of mind, such as attachment, anger, spite or pride, the damage is much greater than if it is an undisturbed, though detrimental one, such as indifference, laziness or forgetfulness. With indifference, we lack adequate faith or respect in the training to be bothered engaging in it. With laziness, we ignore our practice because we find it more pleasant and easier to do nothing. And lacking mindfulness, we completely forget about our commitment to help others. For many of the forty-six, we are not at fault if we have the intention eventually to eliminate them from our behavior, but our disturbing emotions and attitudes are still too strong to exercise sufficient self-control.