Common Root Tantric Vows


As with bodhisattva vows, there are root and secondary tantric vows, which we promise to keep until reaching enlightenment and which continue on our mental continuums into future lives. The Gelug, Kagyu, and Sakya traditions confer these vows with any empowerment (dbang, initiation), subsequent permission (rjes-snang, permission), or mantra-gathering (sngags-btus) for any practice from one of the two higher classes of tantra – yoga or anuttarayoga – according to their fourfold classification scheme. The Nyingma tradition confers them with any of the above three rituals for any practice from one of the four higher tantra classes – yoga, mahayoga, anuyoga, or atiyoga (dzogchen) – according to its sixfold scheme.

[See: The Main Features of Tantra]

Most details from the discussion of bodhisattva vows pertain to the tantric vows as well.

[See: Root Bodhisattva Vows]

The root tantric vows are to refrain from fourteen actions which, if committed with the four binding factors (kun-dkris bzhi), constitute a root downfall (sngags-kyi rtsa-ltung) and precipitate a loss of the tantric vows. Without these vows shaping our lives, we cannot gain attainments or realizations from tantric practice. This is because our practice will lack the necessary supporting context. Except for one of the tantric root downfall actions, giving up bodhichitta – the same as with the root bodhisattva vows – a transgression of any of the other thirteen, without the four binding factors being complete, merely weakens the tantric vows. It does not eliminate them from our mental continuums.

There are two variations of the root tantric vows, one specific to Kalachakra and one common to all yoga and anuttarayoga tantras, including Kalachakra. Here, we shall follow the explanation of the common root tantric vows given in An Explanation of Secret Mantra Ethical Discipline: A Cluster of Fruit of Actual Attainments (gSang-sngags-kyi tshul-khrims-kyi rnam-bshad dngos-grub-kyi snye-ma) by the early 15th-century Gelug founder Tsongkhapa (Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa). We shall supplement it from A Lamp to Illuminate the Closely Bonding Practices (Dam-tshig gsal-ba'i sgron-me) by the late 15th-century Gelug master Kedrub Norzang Gyatso (mKhas-grub Nor-bzang rgya-mtsho).

The Fourteen Common Tantric Root Downfalls

(1) Scorning or deriding our vajra masters

The object is any teacher from whom we have received empowerment, subsequent permission, or mantra-gathering into any class of tantra, full or partial explanation of any of their texts, or oral guidelines for any of their practices. Scorning or deriding such masters means showing them contempt, faulting or ridiculing them, being disrespectful or impolite, or thinking or saying that their teachings or advice were useless. Having formerly held them in high regard, with honor and respect, we complete this root downfall when we forsake that attitude, reject them as our teachers, and regard them with haughty disdain. Such scornful action, then, is quite different from following the advice in The Kalachakra Tantra to keep a respectful distance and no longer study or associate with a tantric master whom we decide is inappropriate for us, not properly qualified, or who acts in an improper manner. Scorning or belittling our teachers of only topics that are not unique to tantra, such as compassion or voidness, or who confer upon us only safe direction (refuge), or either pratimoksha or bodhisattva vows, does not technically constitute this first tantric root downfall. Such actions, however, seriously hamper our spiritual progress.

(2) Transgressing the words of an enlightened one

The objects of this action are specifically the contents of an enlightened being's teachings concerning pratimoksha, bodhisattva, or tantric vows – whether that person be the Buddha himself or a later great master. Committing this downfall is not simply to transgress a particular vow from one of these sets, having taken it, but to do so with two additional factors present. These are fully acknowledging that the vow derives from someone who has removed all mental obscuration, and trivializing it by thinking or saying that violating it brings no negative consequences. Trivializing and transgressing either injunctions we know an enlightened being has imparted other than those in any of the three sets of vows we have taken, or advice we do not realize an enlightened being has offered, does not constitute a tantric root downfall. It creates obstacles, however, in our spiritual path.

(3) Because of anger, faulting our vajra brothers or sisters

Vajra brothers and sisters are those who hold tantric vows and have received an empowerment into any Buddha-figure system of any class of tantra from the same tantric master. The empowerments do not need to be received at the same time, nor do they need to be into the same system or class of tantra. This downfall occurs when, knowing full well that certain persons are our vajra brothers or sisters, we taunt or verbally abuse them to their face about faults, shortcomings, failings, mistakes, transgressions, and so on that they may or may not possess or have committed, and they understand what we say. The motivation must be hostility, anger, or hatred. Pointing out the weaknesses of such persons in a kind manner, with the wish to help them overcome them, is not a fault.

(4) Giving up love for sentient beings

Love is the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. The downfall is wishing the opposite for any being, even the worst serial murderer – namely, wishing someone to be divested of happiness and its causes. The causes for happiness are fully understanding reality and the karmic laws of behavioral cause and effect. We would at least wish a murderer to gain sufficient realization of these points so that he never repeats his atrocities in future lives, and so eventually experiences happiness. Although it is not a tantric root downfall to ignore someone whom we are capable of helping, it is a downfall to think how wonderful it would be if a particular being were never happy.

(5) Giving up bodhichitta

This is the same as the eighteenth bodhisattva root downfall, and amounts to giving up the aspiring state of bodhichitta by thinking we are incapable of attaining Buddhahood for the sake of all beings. Even without the four binding factors present, such a thought voids us of both bodhisattva and tantric vows.

(6) Deriding our own or others' tenets

This is the same as the sixth bodhisattva root downfall, forsaking the holy Dharma, and refers to proclaiming that any of the Buddhist textual teachings are not Buddha's words. "Others' tenets" refer to the sutras of the shravaka, pratyekabuddha, or bodhisattva (Mahayana) vehicles, while "our own" are the tantras, also within the Mahayana fold.

(7) Disclosing confidential teachings to those who are unripe

Confidential (secret) teachings concern actual specific generation (bskyed-rim) or complete stage (rdzogs-rim) practices for realizing voidness that are not shared in common with less advanced levels of practice. They include details of specific sadhanas and of techniques for actualizing a greatly blissful deep awareness of voidness with clear light mental activity. Those unripe for them are people who have not received the appropriate level of empowerment, whether or not they would have faith in these practices if they knew them. Explaining any of these unshared, confidential procedures in sufficient detail to someone whom we know fully well is unripe so that he or she has enough information to attempt the practice, and this person understands the instructions, constitutes the root downfall. The only exception is when there is a great need for explicit explanation, for example to help dispel misinformation and distorted, antagonistic views about tantra. Explaining general tantra theory in a scholarly manner, not sufficient for practice, is likewise not a root downfall. Nevertheless, it weakens the effectiveness of our tantric practice. There is no fault, however, in disclosing confidential teachings to interested observers during a tantric empowerment.

(8) Reviling or abusing our aggregates

Five aggregates (Skt. skandha), or aggregate factors, constitute each moment of our experience. These five are: (a) forms of physical phenomena such as sights or sounds, (b) feelings of happiness or unhappiness, (c) distinguishing one thing from another (recognition), (d) other mental factors such as love or hatred, and (e) types of consciousness such as visual or mental. In brief, our aggregates include our bodies, minds, and emotions.

[See: Basic Scheme of the Five Aggregates]

Normally, these aggregate factors are associated with confusion (zag-bcas) – usually translated as their being "contaminated." With anuttarayoga tantra practice, we remove that confusion about reality and thus totally transform our aggregates. Instead of each moment of experience comprising five factors associated with confusion, each moment eventually becomes a composite of five types of deep awareness that are dissociated from confusion (zag-med ye-shes), and which are the underlying natures of the five aggregates. These are the deep awareness that is like a mirror, of the equality of things, of individuality, of how to accomplish purposes, and of the sphere of reality (Skt. dharmadhatu). Each of the five is represented by a Buddha-figure (yi-dam): Vairochana, and so on, called in the West "the five Dhyani Buddhas."

An anuttarayoga empowerment plants the seeds to accomplish this transformation. During generation stage practice, we cultivate these seeds by imagining our aggregates already to be in their purified forms through visualizing them as their corresponding Buddha-figures. During complete stage practice, we bring these seeds to maturity by engaging our aggregates in special yoga methods to manifest clear light mental activity with which to realize the five types of deep awareness.

The eighth root downfall is either to despise our aggregates, thinking them unfit to undergo this transformation, or purposely to damage them because of hatred or contempt. Practicing tantra does not call for a denial or rejection of the sutra view that regarding the body as clean and in the nature of happiness is a form of incorrect consideration (tshul-min yid-byed). It is quite clear that our bodies naturally get dirty and bring us suffering such as sickness and physical pain. Nevertheless, we recognize in tantra that the human body also has a deeper nature, rendering it fit to be used on many levels along the spiritual path to benefit others more fully. When we are unaware of or do not acknowledge that deeper nature, we hate our bodies, think our minds are no good, and consider our emotions as evil. When we hold such attitudes of low self-esteem or, in addition, abuse our bodies or minds with masochistic behavior, unnecessarily dangerous or punishing life styles, or by polluting them with recreational or narcotic drugs, we commit this tantric root downfall.

(9) Rejecting voidness

Voidness (emptiness) here refers either to the general teaching of The Sutras on Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness (Skt. Prajnaparamita Sutras) that all phenomena, not only persons, are devoid of impossible modes of existence, or to the specifically Mahayana teachings of the Chittamatra or any of the Madhyamaka schools concerning phenomena being devoid of a particular impossible way of existing. To reject such teachings means to doubt, disbelieve, or spurn them. No matter which Mahayana tenet system we hold while practicing tantra, we need total confidence in its teachings on voidness. Otherwise, if we reject voidness during the course of our practice, or attempt any procedure outside of its context, we may believe, for example, that our visualizations are concretely real. Such misconceptions only perpetuate the sufferings of samsara and may even lead to a mental imbalance. It may be necessary, along the way, to upgrade our tenet systems from Chittamatra to Madhyamaka – or, within Madhyamaka, from Svatantrika to Prasangika – and, in the process, refute the voidness teachings of our former tenet systems. Discarding a less sophisticated explanation, however, does not mean leaving ourselves without a correct view of the voidness of all phenomena that is appropriate to our levels of understanding.

(10) Being loving toward malevolent people

Malevolent people are those who despise our personal teachers, spiritual masters in general, or the Buddhas, Dharma, or the Sangha, or who, in addition, cause harm or damage to any of them. Although it is inappropriate to forsake the wish for such persons to be happy and have the causes for happiness, we commit a root downfall by acting or speaking lovingly toward them. Such action includes being friendly with them, supporting them by buying goods they produce, books that they write, and so on. If we are motivated purely by love and compassion, and possess the means to stop their destructive behavior and transfer them to a more positive state, we would certainly try to do so, even if it means resorting to forceful methods. If we lack these qualifications, however, we incur no fault in simply boycotting such persons.

(11) Not meditating on voidness continually

As with the ninth tantric root downfall, voidness can be understood according to either the Chittamatra or Madhyamaka systems. Once we gain an understanding of such a view, it is a root downfall to let more than a day and night pass without meditating on it. The usual custom is to meditate on voidness at least three times during the course of each day and three times each night. We need to continue such practice until we have rid ourselves of all obstacles preventing omniscience (shes-sgrib) – at which point we remain directly mindful of voidness at all times. If we place a limit and think we have meditated enough on voidness before reaching this goal, we can never attain it.

(12) Deterring those with faith

This refers to purposely discouraging people from a particular tantric practice in which they have faith and for which they are fit vessels, with proper empowerment and so forth. If we cause their wish to engage in this practice to end, this root downfall is complete. If they are not yet ready for such practice, however, there is no fault in outlining in a realistic manner what they must master first, even if it might seem daunting. Engaging others like this, taking them and their interests seriously rather than belittling them as incapable, actually boosts their self-confidence to forge ahead.

(13) Not relying properly on the substances that bond us closely to tantric practice (dam-rdzas)

The practice of anuttarayoga tantra includes participating in periodic offering ceremonies known as tsog pujas. They involve tasting specially consecrated alcohol and meat. These substances symbolize the aggregates, bodily elements and, in Kalachakra, the energy-winds – ordinarily disturbing factors that have a nature of being able to confer deep awareness when dissociated from confusion and used for the path. The root downfall is to consider such substances nauseating, to refuse them on the grounds of being a teetotaler or a vegetarian, or alternatively, to take them in large quantities with gusto and attachment.

If we are ex-alcoholics and if there is the danger that tasting even a drop of alcohol might bring about a return to alcoholism, we may imagine merely tasting the alcohol when at a tsog with others. When doing so, we would merely go through the gestures of tasting the alcohol, but without actually tasting it. When offering tsog at home, we may substitute tea or juice for the alcohol.

(14) Deriding women

The aim of anuttarayoga tantra is to access and harness clear light mental activity to apprehend voidness so as to overcome as quickly as possible confusion and its instincts – the principal factors preventing liberation, omniscience, and the full ability to benefit others. A blissful state of awareness is extremely conducive for reaching clear light mental activity since it draws us into ever deeper, more intense and refined levels of consciousness and energy. Moreover, when blissful awareness reaches the clear light level and focuses on voidness with full understanding, it becomes the most powerful tool for clearing away the instincts of confusion.

During the process of gaining absorbed concentration, we experience increasingly blissful awareness as a result of ridding our minds of dullness and agitation. The same thing happens as we gain ever deeper understanding and realization of voidness, as a result of ridding our minds of disturbing emotions and attitudes. Combining the two, we experience increasingly intense and refined levels of bliss as we gain ever stronger concentration on ever deeper understandings of voidness.

In anuttarayoga tantra, men enhance the bliss of their concentrated awareness of voidness even further by relying on women. This practice involves relying on either actual women as a seal of behavior (las-kyi phyag-rgya, Skt. karmamudra) visualized as female Buddha-figures so as to avoid confusion, or, for those of more refined faculties, merely visualized ones alone as a seal of deep awareness (ye-shes phyag-rgya, Skt. jnanamudra). Women enhance their bliss through men in a similar fashion by relying on the fact of their being a woman. Therefore, it is a tantric root downfall to belittle, deride, ridicule, or consider as inferior a specific woman, women in general, or a female Buddha-figure. When we voice low opinion and contempt directly to a woman, with the intention to deride womanhood, and she understands what we say, we complete this root downfall. Although it is improper to deride men, doing so is not a tantric root downfall.