Elaboration of Bodhisattva Vows 1 to 3

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 with which they are called in the original languages. There are eighteen 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. And the word “root,” it’s called root because this is a root to be eliminated. We want to pull out the root that would cause us to fall down. That’s why it’s called that, according to the commentaries. So for short in the West we call them the root bodhisattva vows, but actually we’re vowing to avoid the eighteen root downfalls.

Then there are forty-six 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 would lose the vows from our mental continuum. That didn’t come out very nicely in English, I’m sorry; but maybe you get the idea. In other words, there are certain things that have to be present, four things, and if they are present in our attitude when we transgress one of these root vows, you lose all the vows from your mental continuum; you no longer have bodhisattva vows, except in the case of the two exceptions. The exceptions are two vows where you don’t even need all four of them complete; if you transgress them you lose the vows. These faulty actions, even if the four factors are complete, you 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. So let’s say I took them in a past lifetime, and in this lifetime I haven’t taken them yet. I have all these factors complete. If I had taken the vows in this lifetime and if these factors were complete, I would lose the vows from my mental continuum. So let’s say these factors are complete before I take it in this lifetime; in such a case, you don’t lose the bodhisattva vows. But taking them now for the first time in this lifetime will strengthen what we’ve taken in previous lifetimes.

Okay, so let’s look at what these root downfalls would be: the so-called “root bodhisattva vows.” And 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, and so what the Tibetans follow from one of the Indian traditions is from one sutra (I’m sorry I didn’t look up and 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 traditions and in the Chinese traditions are slightly different. And 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 you 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.

So now the eighteen root bodhisattva vows. These are the eighteen 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’s several things that are stipulated, that are specified, in terms of what it actually means.

(1) Praising Ourselves and/or Belittling Others

The first, which is a negative action that we want to avoid and we’re promising 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. And our motivation is on the one hand, desire and greed for receiving material profit, praise, love, respect, and so on from that person; and on the other hand, jealousy of the person we belittle. And what we say, in terms of praising ourselves and belittling the other person, can either be true or false, it doesn’t matter.

So, basically, we’re trying to get something from this person in an inferior position to us, and we’re trying to get it from that person, 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.” But really the motivation is to get more clients himself or herself. “I am the best teacher. I am the highest teacher. The others are not as good as I am,” and all I want is to get more students. 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!” automatically Tibetans would not trust such a person, because they are violating, they’re 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. So this whole system of voting in a democracy in elections is very difficult for Tibetans to really understand.

But if we think in terms of the bodhisattva path, it’s very important with these vows to understand how – if we do what we’re saying we’re going to not do – how that would damage our ability to help others. This you have to understand. So how would this damage my ability to help others? So we analyze, we 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!” But really if we analyze more deeply, they just want to get our money. So we have to consider very well, are we going to try 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. And nobody else is as good as I am.” Even if that might be true, that is indicating a very materialistic motivation. I mean if it’s based on that; if it’s based on that – that I just want to get more students. And so 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, what he says is that all you can say – and this is in response to this whole theory of there being one truth, one true religion – all he can say is that Buddhism is the best for me; can’t say that it’s the best for you. Each tradition is talking about its own spiritual goal. And Christianity is not asserting that if you follow the Christian path you’re going to achieve the Buddhist enlightenment, but it’s saying that you will attain the Christian goal, and so there’s no reason to dispute that. And so to put it in simple language, if you pray to go to Buddhist heaven, you go to Buddhist heaven; if you pray to go to Christian heaven, you go to Christian heaven. You’re not going to pray to go to Buddhist heaven and land up in Christian heaven, to put it in a very simplistic way. And so different spiritual paths may be more suited for others at this particular time. So His Holiness is always very, 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 – of liberation and enlightenment, the way that it is defined in Buddhism.

So this is the first. 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? And 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. And 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. So 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 to them? So what one of you said, that everything really depends on the motivation, is quite important. Okay?

A lot of business people have problems with these vows. 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 the recent decades the whole American health system 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. And so they want to make the most money off of the patients, and they will keep them as 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. And 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 going down. And so if our motive in helping others is just profit, then it seems to always be the case that the quality of that help goes down. And 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 – you know, other teachers and so on.

(2) Not Sharing Dharma Teachings or Wealth

The second bodhisattva vow, this negative action that we vow to avoid, is not sharing the Dharma teachings or our wealth. And here the motivation is attachment and miserliness. So we could be possessive of our Dharma notes, or of our computer, our computer files, and not want to share that with others, and make 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.” And so 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 me for my help.” And this is something that we often find. I have this website, 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. And 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 or night or weekend or whatever, we help the person. Like if our baby is crying or the baby 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.” And 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 our help and ask for our help. This is what we are practicing to be able to do, is to help everybody all the time as a Buddha. So if somebody actually would like our help, that’s wonderful. So 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 that with them, if they’re sincere, of course, and if these teachings would be appropriate for them. Sometimes people might be a little 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 Serkong Rinpoche and said, “Oh, I’d like to learn the six yogas of Naropa. Please teach me the six yogas.” And Rinpoche took the guy very seriously and said, “Very good, that you want to study this. It’s a wonderful aspiration. But 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.” So 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. But 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. So if somebody asks for our help and we just are not capable of giving that, we have to 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 you say that to a Tibetan, a Tibetan will feel that you are just being humble, and actually you are qualified and you’re just saying, “Oh, no, no, no, I’m not qualified. I can’t do that,” and so they will insist. But then you really, really have to insist, “No I’m not just being humble, but 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 Masters Program for studying the major topics of the monastic training. That’s for laypeople and monastics. This is a six-year program. And they have a Geshe who taught the first topic of this course; but then when it came to the time to start the second topic, which was Madhyamaka, he said, “I’m not qualified to teach this.” And of course everybody insisted that he do it anyway, that he was just being modest, but he said, “No, really I’m not qualified.” And they checked with fellow classmates of his and his teachers and, true, he wasn’t really qualified; this wasn’t his strong topic, even though he was a Geshe. But he offered to stay and be of help to a qualified Geshe if a qualified Geshe could be found to come and teach. So the institute found another Geshe who came, who is coming now and agreed to teach it. And the first one, who said “I’m not qualified,” is staying on to be of help. So this first Geshe is 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 to pretend to have qualities that he didn’t have.

So if somebody asks us to explain some Dharma teaching or to share our notes, you can say, “Very well, you can share my notes, but they’re not very good,” or “They’re not clear,” or “My understanding is not so good.” Be honest about that. And 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., in this, also, we 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, really exhausted. I need to take a rest. I just really can’t.”

What also is difficult is when many people ask for our help at the same time, and we can’t multiply ourselves into a thousand different forms to help everybody simultaneously. So we’re not Buddhas already. I can’t help everybody all at once, all at the same time. So in such cases, we have to, unfortunately, choose. Well how do we choose, how do we prioritize? Well, His Holiness gave some guidelines for this – His Holiness the Dalai Lama. “See what it is,” he said, “that you are the most qualified to do to help and there aren’t so many others who are doing the same thing, and put your main emphasis on that. And for things that there are other people who are able to do it just as well as you can do it, recommend them. Put your focus on what you are more 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 teach. And so in that type of situation I say, “Well, there’s these other people…” and I recommend some other teacher for them to go to 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, very special connection with this other person and they’re extremely receptive to us. So let me give you a very nice example. His Holiness the Dalai Lama had tutors. And so 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. And they were born about a year apart from each other, so very close in age. And as little children, I think they were three and four years old, His Holiness gave them their first lesson in reading the Tibetan alphabet. Now obviously His Holiness didn’t go on to be their alphabet teacher and teach them how to read. But 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 a 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 relation with. So we prioritize like this. What is the special need? How much – if I teach this person – how much benefit 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, more in general, what am I most qualified to do and there aren’t so many other people doing it? And 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 the bodhisattva behavior.

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

Then we have to consider: Am I able to keep this, am I able to do this? If we’re going to take the bodhisattva vows, am I able to do that? Consider, can I keep this or not? Okay, so we want to avoid praising ourselves and belittling others because of attachment and greed for gain and jealousy of others. And we have to avoid not sharing the Dharma teachings, or our wealth, or possessions, or 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, 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 it for myself. So when we have attachment and being miserly, which means I don’t want to share, that really is against the whole bodhisattva aim. That I’m merely too lazy, well, that’s 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

The third bodhisattva vow, what we want to avoid is not listening to others’ apologies, or striking, hitting others. There’s two things that are involved here. So, the first, not listening to others’ apologies, or striking others, the motivation for both of these is primarily anger. So the first refers to the actual occasion when we’re yelling at or beating somebody, for instance our naughty child, and either that person pleads for forgiveness or someone else, like our wife, begs us to stop and we refuse. And the other is simply hitting or beating somebody. It’s a secondary bodhisattva vow to refuse others’ apologies after the occasion, when we’re holding a grudge. So there’s two situations here. Someone begs forgiveness, you know, “Please stop yelling at me,” when we’re actually yelling at them or hitting them or being very mean toward them out of anger. So, obviously at that time we are a bodhisattva, even if we get angry. The other person says, “Please stop. I’m sorry.” Obviously we would need to stop, we forgive them, accept their apology. Although forgiving is a very strange concept, isn’t it? I don’t think that’s really quite – in fact I can’t even think of the Tibetan word for “forgiving.” Basically, stop being angry and stop hitting them. “Forgive” acts as if it’s in our power to part the other person from the karmic consequences; that’s not Buddhist. So it’s simply a matter of stop being angry with me, and stop yelling at me, and hitting me, or rejecting me – on the occasion when we’re actually yelling, etc.

The secondary vow is in terms of later. We’re still angry with them, or holding a grudge; and then, later on, they say, “I’m sorry.” At that time, not accepting the apology or letting go of our grudge and anger. I think the difference here is between having a strong anger which is motivating us to actually commit a destructive action, like yelling at the person, or 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. Okay?

So obviously if we want to help others, even if temporarily we get angry, we need to drop it, drop that anger or grudge. And the other aspect of this vow is to avoid hitting others, and this is hitting others out of anger. So there can be situations in which hitting somebody might be needed, might be beneficial, but not done out of anger. So we could of course use an Indian example: to get your water buffalo to walk and to go somewhere, you might have to slap it on the back. If you just say to your water buffalo, “Please go over there,” the water buffalo probably will not understand. So that is not hitting the water buffalo out of anger. A water buffalo is a type of animal that you find everywhere in India and Nepal. It’s very, very large, much bigger than a cow. It’s black, has horns, and gives very rich milk. So perhaps you don’t have a water buffalo, you don’t even know what a water buffalo is, and most of us don’t have water buffalos or even a horse or a camel that you might have to hit in order to get it to go. But sometimes even with a very naughty child, if the child is about to run into the street into the road, and there’s danger that the child would get killed or hit, sometimes we have to use quite violent means to sort of grab them, or hit them not to go in the road. This is not done out of anger. So, again, the effect of various actions is very much affected by the motivation; and here the motivation is anger or ill will. We want to hurt the other person. And if at such a time the person says, “Please don’t do that, please stop,” and we refuse, then that is transgressing this vow. So that’s the third bodhisattva vow.