Elaboration of Bodhisattva Vows 1 to 3

Introduction to the Root Bodhisattva Vows

When we take the bodhisattva vows, we are promising to refrain from two sets of acts. Although these are usually referred to as the root bodhisattva vows and the secondary bodhisattva vows in our Western languages, those are not the actual terms they are called in the original languages. There are 18 actions that if committed act as a “root downfall.” A “root downfall” means a loss of the bodhisattva vows, and it’s called a “downfall” because it leads us downwards in our spiritual development and it hinders our growth of good qualities. The word “root,” is called root because this is a root to be pulled out. eliminated. We want to pull out the root that would cause our downfall from being anchored in our vows. That’s why it’s called that, according to the commentaries. For short in the West, we call them the root bodhisattva vows, but actually, we’re vowing to avoid the 18 root downfalls.

Further, there are 46 types of “faulty behaviors” (the literal translation of the term), and these are usually called the “secondary bodhisattva vows.” If we transgress one of the root bodhisattva vows with all the factors that are needed in order to lose the vows, we lose the vows from our mental continuum. In other words, there are certain factors that have to be present, four attitudes, and if they are present in our minds when we transgress one of these root vows, we lose all the vows from our mental continuum; we no longer have bodhisattva vows, except in the case of the two exceptions. The exceptions are two vows where we don’t even need all four of them complete; if we merely transgress them, we lose the vows. With these 46 faulty actions, however, even if the four factors are complete, we don’t lose the bodhisattva vows. That’s the difference.

By the way, I should mention here, we were saying before that we take the bodhisattva vows for all our lifetimes, all the way up to enlightenment. Let’s say we took them in a past lifetime and, in this lifetime, we haven’t taken them yet. We have all these factors complete. If we had taken the vows in this lifetime and if these factors were complete, we would lose the vows from our mental continuum. For instance, if these factors are complete before we take the vows in this lifetime, in such a case, we don’t lose the bodhisattva vows. However, taking them now for the first time in this lifetime will strengthen what we’ve taken in previous lifetimes.

Let’s look at what these root downfalls would be: the so-called “root bodhisattva vows.” Although we can find many different commentaries and explanations of them which might be slightly different in their emphasis, we’ll follow Tsongkhapa’s commentary. By the way, there are several traditions of bodhisattva vows, deriving from different sutras of the Buddha, so what the Tibetans follow from one of the Indian traditions is from one sutra (I’m sorry I didn’t look it up to remind myself of the name of the sutra), but the Chinese traditions and the traditions that derive from the Chinese tradition have a different set of bodhisattva vows that derive from another sutra, just as the traditions of Vinaya monastic vows that are followed in the Tibetan and Chinese traditions are slightly different. Although in Theravada, and probably other Hinayana traditions as well, they do assert that there are bodhisattvas and they do assert that before becoming a Buddha we are a bodhisattva, it’s just not a path that most of us would follow; and I’ve never heard of a Theravada version of the bodhisattva vows that such bodhisattvas would take. Certainly, in Theravada as well, they have stories of Buddha in his past lifetimes.

Now, the 18 root bodhisattva vows are 18 negative actions that would bring upon a root downfall if we transgress them with all the factors complete. With each of these, we need to understand that there are several things that are stipulated and specified, in terms of what they actually mean.

(1) Praising Ourselves and/or Belittling Others

The first bodhisattva vow, which is a negative action that we want to avoid and that we promise to refrain from, is praising ourselves and/or belittling others. Now, the person to whom we speak such words needs to be somebody in an inferior position to us. Our motivation is, on the one hand, desire and greed for receiving material profit, praise, love, respect, and so on from that person; on the other hand, there is jealousy of the person we belittle. What we say, in terms of praising ourselves and belittling the other person, can either be true or false; it doesn’t matter.

Basically, we’re trying to get something from this person who is in an inferior position to us, whether it’s respect or money or whatever, by saying we’re the best and everybody else is no good. An example would be a psychologist, eager for clients, advertising that: “I am a Buddhist psychologist only interested in helping others and all these non-Buddhist psychologists are just after money.” However, really the motivation is to get more clients. “I am the best teacher. I am the highest teacher. The others are not as good as I am.” 

Unfortunately, our whole system of democracy and elections is based on this principle of praising yourself and belittling the opponent in the election in order to gain votes and power. That’s why this whole aspect of democracy and elections is very difficult for Tibetans to really put into practice, because anybody who says, “I’m the best candidate and the other one is no good. Vote for me.” Tibetans would automatically not trust such a person because they are violating and going against the bodhisattva vows. Most Tibetans would be very humble: “Oh I’m not really qualified, I really don’t know how to do this,” and so in. They would be very humble and, of course, nobody would vote for them. This whole system of voting in democratic elections is very difficult for Tibetans to really understand.

Nevertheless, if we think in terms of the bodhisattva path, it’s very important with these vows to understand how if we do what we say we’re going to not do, how that would damage our ability to help others. This we have to understand. How would this damage our ability to help others? We need to analyze and think about it. If we were to meet somebody who said, “I’m the best and everybody else is no good,” would we really trust them? I don’t know. Maybe many Western people would. Our whole advertising system is based on that, isn’t it? “This is the best soap for washing your clothes; all the others are no good. Buy this!” If we were to analyze more deeply, we would know that they just want to get our money. We have to consider very well if we are going to advertise ourselves: “I’m the best bodhisattva. I’m the best one to help you. I will solve all your problems. Come to me. Nobody else is as good as I am.” Even if this might be true, this is indicating a very materialistic motivation. If it’s based on that, that we just want to get more students, then we have to watch out for this.

What about saying that Buddhism is the best, and all the others are not; the other spiritual paths are not good? If we act like that, is that breaking this vow? What do you think?

Depends on our motivation.

That’s very true, but what could be a proper motivation for doing that?

To benefit others.

Well, would that be naivety? Is the Buddhist path the best for everybody right now? If we look at what His Holiness the Dalai Lama says about other religions, he says – and this is in response to this whole theory of there being one truth, one true religion – is that Buddhism is the best for him, and he can’t say that it’s the best for you. Each tradition is talking about its own spiritual goal. Christianity is not asserting that if we follow the Christian path, we’re going to achieve the Buddhist enlightenment, but it’s saying that we will attain the Christian goal, and so there’s no reason to dispute that. To put it in simple language, if we pray to go to Buddhist heaven, we go to Buddhist heaven; if we pray to go to Christian heaven, we go to Christian heaven. We’re not going to pray to go to Buddhist heaven and land up in Christian heaven, to put it in a very simplistic way. Different spiritual paths may be more suited for others at this particular time. His Holiness is always very respectful of other spiritual traditions, and the only thing that he says about the Buddhist tradition is that obviously, it’s the best for achieving the Buddhist goal – liberation and enlightenment, the way that it is defined in Buddhism.

This is the first vow, to avoid praising ourselves and belittling others when our motivation is desire and greed on the one hand, and jealousy on the other. Of course, this is quite difficult to put into practice if we want to do business. How do we advertise? I think that if we use negative advertising to say how bad the other products are, that certainly is not in accordance with the vow. Furthermore, if we are praising ourselves – how wonderful our product is; it’s better than everything else – that also is probably not in accordance with this vow. Then, how do we advertise? Because when we’re advertising, what is our motivation? Is it to make a lot of profit, or is it to offer our product to others because it will be of benefit and help them? What one of you said, that everything really depends on the motivation, is quite important.

A lot of businesspeople have problems with these vows. They ask, How do I do business on the basis of Buddhist ethics? It’s not an easy question – if our only motive is the profit motive? Because I think a good example is the American medical system, that in recent decades has been oriented toward health facilities for profit. Hospitals are owned by groups that hold stock in the hospitals, and the whole idea is to give more and more profit to the stockholders. They want to make the most money off of the patients, and they will keep them a minimal amount of time in the hospital as possible, so that they get more patients in; they don’t want somebody just taking up a bed. The whole orientation seems to be away from giving real proper treatment to the patients, and so we find the quality of the medicine very often is going down. If our motive in helping others is only for profit, then it seems to always be the case that the quality of that help goes down. This is why it’s very important that when we follow the bodhisattva path, we’re not doing it in order to gain something for ourselves, especially if we want to gain it for ourselves at the expense of other practitioners – other teachers and so on. 

(2) Not Sharing Dharma Teachings or Wealth

The second bodhisattva vow of a negative action that we vow to avoid is not sharing the Dharma teachings or our wealth. Here the motivation is attachment and miserliness. For example, we could be possessive of our Dharma notes, our computer or our computer files, and not want to share that with others, making all sorts of excuses about that. “If I loan you my book, you’re going to spill coffee on it, so I don’t want to loan it to you.” We could certainly be possessive and not share money with others. Like telling people, “You can’t attend this Dharma course because you don’t have the money to pay for it.” We are, in a sense, keeping the Dharma teachings to ourselves; we’re not sharing the financial possibility to attend the course with others.

We could also be very attached to our time and not share it with others to help them. For instance, there are some people who are very attached to their weekends: “This is my day off. Don’t ask for my help.” This is something that we often find. I have this website project, and sometimes various things come up that need to be taken care of in terms of the volunteers and workers on the site. Sometimes people will say, “Well, don’t ask me to do anything on the weekend: this is my sacred time.” That’s not really bodhisattva behavior, is it? If somebody needs our help – and we’re not talking about somebody constantly abusing the other person’s time – but if somebody really needs our help, then whether it’s day, night, the weekend or whatever, we help the person. Like if our baby is crying or falls out of the bed, we don’t say, “Well, I’ll pick you up in the morning, sorry, because now it’s time for me to sleep.”

Furthermore, if we actually help the other person, we shouldn’t do so complaining all the time. From the point of view of bodhisattva behavior, we should be very happy when others want and ask for our help. This is what we are practicing being able to do, to help everybody all the time as a Buddha. If somebody actually would like our help, that’s wonderful. If somebody would like to learn something from us or share our Dharma notes, or whatever, then we’d be very happy to be able to share those with them, if they’re sincere, of course, and if these teachings would be appropriate for them. Sometimes people might be a bit strange in their motivation of what they are asking for.

Once when I was translating for Serkong Rinpoche, my teacher (this was in the hippy days), a very stoned hippy came in to see him and said, “Oh, I’d like to learn the six yogas of Naropa. Please teach me the six yogas.” Rinpoche took the guy very seriously and said, “Very good, that you want to study this. It’s a wonderful aspiration. However, in order to study it, first, you need to study and practice this and that, and go through a whole process and work yourself up to it.” He wasn’t being stingy with the Dharma, in terms of not teaching this guy the six yogas of Naropa. Of course, the guy was not ready for it. Nevertheless, he guided him in a way that would eventually lead him to this Dharma teaching, which was the appropriate way of dealing with him.

Remember the general principle that I referred to before: a bodhisattva of a lower level of attainment doesn’t try to do the practices of a more highly developed bodhisattva when they’re not capable of it. If somebody asks for our help and we are not capable of giving that, we do not pretend that we are able to do more than we are able to do. We have to say, “I wish I could do that but I’m really not qualified.” If we say that to a Tibetan, a Tibetan will feel that we are just being humble, and actually, we are qualified, and we’re just saying, “Oh, no, no, no, I’m not qualified. I can’t do that,” and so they will insist. Then, we really have to insist, “No I’m not just being humble; I really am not qualified to do this.”

Let me give an example. At one Dharma institute in Italy, Lama Tzong Khapa Institute, they have what’s called the Master’s Program for studying the major topics of the monastic training. It’s for laypeople and monastics. This is a six-year program. They have a Geshe who taught the first topic of this course; however, when it came to the time to start the second topic, which was Madhyamaka, he said, “I’m not qualified to teach this.” Of course, everybody insisted that he do it anyway, that he was just being modest, but he said, “No, really I’m not qualified.” They checked with fellow classmates of his and his teachers and it was true, he wasn’t really qualified; this wasn’t his strong topic, even though he was a Geshe. He offered to stay and be of help to a qualified Geshe if a qualified Geshe could be found to come and teach. The institute found another Geshe who agreed to teach it. The first Geshe, who said “I’m not qualified,” stayed on to be of help. He was not transgressing his bodhisattva vow by not sharing the Dharma teachings; in fact, he was following this training from the pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta, not pretending to have qualities that he didn’t have.

If somebody asks us to explain some Dharma teaching or to share our notes, we can say, “Very well, you can see my notes, but they’re not very good,” or “They’re not clear,” or “My understanding is not so good.” Be honest about that. If we don’t understand it, we say, “I don’t understand it. I can’t explain it to you.” This whole thing of not sharing our time, etc., we also have to use our discriminating awareness. Part of the bodhisattva training is to know when we need to take a rest so that we have enough strength to be able to continue helping others. In such cases, we say, “I would like to help you but I’m really exhausted. I need to take a rest. I really can’t.”

What also is difficult is when many people ask for our help at the same time; we can’t multiply ourselves into a thousand different forms to help everybody simultaneously. We’re not already Buddhas. We can’t help everybody all at the same time. In such cases, unfortunately, we have to choose. Well, how do we choose; how do we prioritize? His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave some guidelines for this. “See what it is,” he said, “that if you are the most qualified to help and there aren’t so many others who are doing the same thing, put your main emphasis on that. For things where there are other people who are able to do it just as well as you can do, recommend them. Put your focus on what you are uniquely able to do.” I’ll take my own example. If somebody comes to me and says, “I would like to learn Tibetan. Please teach me Tibetan.” Well, there are many other people who teach Tibetan and there are many other things that I can teach that not so many people can teach. In that type of situation, I say, “Well, there are these other people…” and I recommend some other teacher for them to go and study Tibetan, especially the very beginning levels of Tibetan.

Another principle, in terms of how we prioritize, would be if we have a very special connection with this other person and they’re extremely receptive to us. Let me give you a very nice example of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his tutors. We have the reincarnation of the senior tutor, Ling Rinpoche, and the reincarnation of the so-called assistant tutor, my own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche. This title of Serkong Rinpoche was not actually “assistant tutor,” it was the “master debate partner,” but no need to go into all of these details. He was a teacher of His Holiness. They were born about a year apart from each other, so very close in age. As little children, I think they were three and four years old. His Holiness gave them their first lesson in reading the Tibetan alphabet. Obviously, His Holiness didn’t go on to be their alphabet teacher and teach them how to read. However, in terms of this very special close relationship that he had with his teachers, that when their reincarnation was found, he was the one that gave them their very first lesson.

My own friend, Alan Turner, had a very close connection with Serkong Rinpoche. Alan never actually learned Tibetan, but Serkong Rinpoche gave him the first lesson to sow the seeds of the Tibetan language. Of course, he didn’t do that with other people. His Holiness hasn’t given Tibetan language lessons to other people except to his own teacher that he had such a close relationship with. This is how we prioritize. What is the special need? How much benefit – if I teach this person – will they be able to give to others? In terms of how we would spend our time, do we have a really close connection? Is that person really receptive to me? Or, in general, what am I most qualified to do and are there not so many other people doing it? In terms of other requests for our time, we could try to do a little bit and give suggestions. We don’t just get angry and say, you know, “Leave me alone. Go away.” That’s against bodhisattva behavior.

I asked this question to Ringu Tulku – he’s a very great Kagyu master. He said that also one factor that we could also consider in terms of how we prioritize our time, considering the fact that we are still samsaric beings and we are not Buddhas, is what do we enjoy doing. A little bit of this selfish motivation is really okay because it helps to give us more strength and enthusiasm. This is fine as long as that’s not our main consideration.

So there’s a group of factors that we can take into consideration in terms of how we spend our time helping and doing things for the benefit of others.

Then, we have to consider if we’re going to take the bodhisattva vows: Are we able to keep these vows? Are we able to do this? Consider, can we keep them or not. Okay, we want to avoid praising ourselves and belittling others because of attachment and greed for gain and jealousy of others. We have to avoid not sharing the Dharma teachings, our wealth, our possessions, our time, or whatever, because of attachment and miserliness.

If we don’t share Dharma teachings for other motivations, like laziness or anger, “I don’t like you so I’m not going to help you or share something with you,” that is one of the secondary bodhisattva vows, and we need to avoid that. It’s not a root vow. So the question is why? Why is one a root vow and the other a secondary vow? Well, because as a bodhisattva we need to be willing to give to everyone, not to just keep things for ourselves. When we have attachment and are miserly, which means we don’t want to share, that really is against the whole bodhisattva aim. That we’re merely too lazy, which is just a whole different mind frame, isn’t it? “I’d like to help you but I’m too lazy to do it.”

(3) Not Listening to Others’ Apologies or Striking Others

For the third bodhisattva vow, what we want to avoid is not listening to others’ apologies, or striking, hitting others. There are two things that are involved here. The first is not listening to others’ apologies, or striking others, and the motivation for both of these is primarily anger. The first refers to the actual occasion when we’re yelling at or beating somebody, for instance, our naughty child. Either that person pleads for forgiveness or someone else, like our wife, begs us to stop and we refuse. The other is simply hitting or beating somebody. It’s a secondary bodhisattva vow to refuse others’ apologies after the occasion, as when we’re holding a grudge.

There are two situations here. Someone begs forgiveness, “Please stop yelling at me,” when we’re actually yelling at or hitting them or being very mean toward them out of anger. \ The other person says, “Please stop. I’m sorry.” Obviously, we would need to stop; we forgive them and accept their apology. Although forgiving is a very strange concept, isn’t it? In fact, I can’t even think of the Tibetan word for “forgiving.” Basically, we need to stop being angry and hitting them. “Forgive” acts as if it’s in our power to part the other person from the karmic consequences; however, that’s not Buddhist. It’s simply a matter of stopping being angry with someone and yelling at or rejecting them when we’re actually yelling at them and so on.,

The secondary vow is in terms of later on. We’re still angry with them, or holding a grudge; and then, later on, they say, “I’m sorry.” At that time, we do not accept the apology or let go of our grudge and anger. I think the difference here is between having strong anger that is motivating us to actually commit a destructive action, like yelling at the person, hitting the person, or doing something negative toward them, and the other situation is having a grudge – keeping the anger inside, but not actually acting on it.

Obviously, if we want to help others, even if temporarily we get angry, we need to drop it, drop that anger or grudge. The other aspect of this vow is to avoid hitting others, and this is hitting others out of anger. There can be situations in which hitting somebody might be needed and beneficial, but not done out of anger. We could, of course, use an Indian example: to get your water buffalo to walk and go somewhere, we might have to slap it on the back. If we just say to our water buffalo, “Please go over there,” the water buffalo probably will not understand. That is not hitting the water buffalo out of anger. A water buffalo is a type of animal that we find everywhere in India and Nepal. It’s very large, much bigger than a cow. It’s black, has horns, and gives very rich milk. Perhaps, we don’t have a water buffalo, or we don’t even know what a water buffalo is; most of us don’t have water buffalos or even a horse or a camel that we might have to hit in order to get it to go.

Sometimes even with a very naughty child, if the child is about to run into the road, and there’s a danger that the child would get hit or killed, sometimes we have to use quite violent means to grab or hit them, so they don’t go into the road. This is not done out of anger. Again, the effect of various actions is very much affected by the motivation; here in this third vow, the motivation is anger or ill will. We want to hurt the other person. If at such a time, the person says, “Please don’t do that, please stop,” and we refuse, then that is transgressing this vow. That’s the third bodhisattva vow.