Elaboration of Bodhisattva Vows 11 to 18 & Transgressions

(11) Teaching Voidness to Those Whose Minds Are Untrained

We’ve been going through the bodhisattva vows. We have covered ten of the 18 vows and we’re up to number 11. What we want to avoid with this vow is teaching voidness to those whose minds are untrained. This is talking about teaching the deepest level of voidness, specifically to somebody with a bodhichitta motivation who’s not ready to understand this teaching, who would become confused and frightened by it, and consequently, would abandon the bodhisattva path and pursue merely their own personal liberation. This is quite specific. In the explanation, it says such a person might think that voidness means that nobody exists. For instance, they would think: If nobody exists why bother to try to benefit anybody else? Then, they would just pursue their own liberation.

We can understand this explanation in terms of teaching not only Madhyamaka, but also Chittamatra. Because with Chittamatra – let’s say, somebody who’d get confused by this – some people might get confused about the Chittamatra teachings on voidness, and think that everything exists in our head, and that there’s no reality at all except in our head, in our mind. They might think that other people just exist in our mind, so they really don’t exist, so why should we bother trying to help them? Of course, with Madhyamaka, they might think that nothing exists at all.

This action, then, that we vow to avoid is teaching any level of voidness to anybody who would misunderstand it and, therefore, would forsake the Dharma completely. For example, they might think that because Buddhism teaches that nothing exists at all, it’s complete nonsense. It’s important to try to give certain background to the teachings, lead people gradually, and if we’re going to teach about voidness, teach it in very simple terms that would not cause people to get confused or get the wrong idea. This is really very difficult because, unless we have extrasensory perception, it’s very difficult to know whether or not somebody is going to understand what we explain or if they’re ready to understand.

Nonetheless, if we look at various texts that have been written, the great Indian masters (Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, etc.) wrote many various texts on voidness and they were certainly following the Mahayana path; His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches about voidness all the time to very large audiences. Are they violating this bodhisattva vow? Are they teaching voidness to somebody whose mind is untrained? That’s a difficult question, but one thing that is perhaps helpful here is to realize that the way that they are teaching it is so complicated and difficult to understand that those who are not ready to be able to understand it, won’t understand anything. It’s not that they will get a wrong idea, they will just get the idea that “I can’t understand this.” If we’re teaching somebody individually then, of course, we can always check and see what their understanding is. However, when we’re teaching in larger groups, it’s much more difficult. Nevertheless, we can see from the way that the major explanation of this is given, that the point of it is that we’re talking about somebody who already has a bodhichitta motivation, and that the teaching of voidness would cause them to give that up.

(12) Turning Others Away from Full Enlightenment

Number twelve is to avoid turning others away from full enlightenment. Again, the object for this action are people who have already developed a bodhichitta motivation and are working toward enlightenment. For instance, we tell them that they are incapable of acting all the time with generosity and patience and so on. We discourage them and say they can never become a Buddha, that it’s much too difficult, and it would be better for them to work merely for their own liberation. However, unless they actually turn away from working toward enlightenment, this action is not complete. As a bodhisattva we are trying to help everybody reach enlightenment, so we don’t want to cause others to turn away from that.

(13) Turning Others Away from Their Pratimoksha Vows

Number thirteen is to avoid turning others away from their pratimoksha vows. This is referring to any level of pratimoksha vows for individual liberation, whether they’re a layperson or monk or a nun. The object here is somebody who is keeping one of these sets of pratimoksha vows and we tell them there’s no use as a bodhisattva to do that, because for bodhisattvas all actions are pure, and anything is okay. For this downfall to be complete, they actually have to give up their vows. Obviously, the foundation for being able to reach either liberation or enlightenment is keeping some level of the pratimoksha vows. There’s a similar secondary vow which is called forsaking the shravaka or Hinayana Vehicle.” Here we think or we tell a bodhisattva that there is no need to listen to teachings from the Hinayana vehicle; this is referring specifically to the teachings on the pratimoksha vows from the Hinayana vehicle, or we tell them there’s no need to uphold or train in them. That’s enough for transgressing this secondary vow; there’s no need that they actually give up the vows. The root vow that is similar to this is transgressed only if they actually do give up their vows.

Some people think that bodhisattva vows are enough, or they might even think that tantric vows are enough – that we don’t need bodhisattva vows or pratimoksha vows. Tsongkhapa is very strongly against that kind of thinking. Tsongkhapa always finds various sutras and so on to support the position that the pratimoksha vows, some level of them,  are essential for achieving liberation or enlightenment for any practitioner, and pointing out that Buddha emphasized this very much. In general, avoiding the various strongest types of destructive behavior, at a minimum, like lying and stealing, etc., is very important.

(14) Belittling the Shravaka Vehicle

The fourteenth is to avoid belittling the shravaka vehicle. The shravaka vehicle is another name for the Hinayana vehicle. With the sixth root downfall of the bodhisattva vow, we repudiated that the text of the Hinayana vehicles contains the authentic words of a Buddha. Here we accept that they are the words of a Buddha, but we deny the effectiveness of practicing the teachings that are in them. We maintain that it’s impossible to rid ourselves of disturbing emotions by means of their instructions. This is something that could easily happen. Nowadays, we have vipassana courses available in so many different places, which are basically coming from the Theravada tradition, and as a Mahayana practitioner, we might say that these are ineffective, and make fun of them, saying they are ridiculous to practice. They’re not going to help people overcome their disturbing emotions, and what use is it just sitting and watching your breath? However, I think the problem here is that we don’t usually go more deeply into these teachings. We just look at them very superficially and dismiss them, and we don’t look at the whole context in which they are practiced and the whole series of meditations that they lead to. One has to be really very careful about having these negative attitudes towards other practices, particularly about the practices taught in the Hinayana vehicle. The Mahayana vehicle builds on all the teachings of Hinayana. It just adds some more. There’s always a big emphasis on showing respect for the Hinayana teachings, and so on, although, among the secondary vows, we find that we are also not going to spend all our time on these Hinayana methods when we have Mahayana methods for the same thing. 

When we have injunctions like not to spend more than seven nights among Hinayana practitioners, again we have to understand that correctly. We’re talking about those who are working for their own enlightenment only, not caring about working for others, and who would make fun of our Mahayana or tantra practices and try to discourage us and tell us how stupid it is what we’re practicing: “This is not Buddhism.” If we spend a lot of time with them, they might cause us to give up our practice. Of course, there are many Theravada practitioners who certainly do not have that type of attitude toward Mahayana practices. This guideline is not referring to such Theravada practitioners.

We can see a general theme here that if we as a bodhisattva, or potential bodhisattva, are working toward our own enlightenment and the enlightenment of everybody else, we don’t want to get into a situation in which we might be influenced to turn away from that, and we don’t want to cause others to turn away from that goal – either by specifically telling them to turn away, or teaching them something that might cause them to turn away from working for enlightenment.

(15) Proclaiming a False Realization of Voidness

Number fifteen is to avoid proclaiming a false realization of voidness. This is referring to a situation in which we have not fully realized voidness; nevertheless, we teach it pretending as if we had, because of being jealous of the great masters. The great masters are teaching it and probably teaching it correctly and we’re jealous of that. Although we don’t understand it, we act like a great master and pretend that we understand it. The people to whom we give this false impression of understanding voidness, when we’re teaching them they have to understand what we explain, and whether they are fooled by our pretense or they realize that we’re bluffing makes no difference. They might think we’re really great, that we really understand it. Furthermore, they might think we’re an idiot just pretending to understand. It doesn’t make any difference here. However, if they don’t understand or they can’t hear our explanation, then our action is incomplete.

This vow specifically refers to false realizations of voidness. It’s clear that we need to avoid the same thing regarding bodhichitta or other points of the Dharma. Don’t pretend that we actually have full realization of it and teach it as if we did when we don’t, because we’re trying to help everybody to enlightenment so we’re giving them incomplete or false information. Nevertheless, there’s no fault in teaching voidness when we haven’t fully realized it, as long as we admit that and say, “I don’t really understand it fully; however, from the level which I understand it now, this is what I think it means.” That is perfectly fine as long as we’re not pretending something that’s not true.

Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama will say, “Well, I don’t really fully understand this, and so on, but this is what I understand now.” It’s really very wonderful to witness His Holiness teaching some of the most difficult texts on voidness. Sometimes he will reach a certain verse and he’ll say, “I don’t really understand this.” He’ll say this commentary says this and that commentary says that, but it doesn’t really make sense, and then he will ask the most learned Geshes or Khenpos in the audience around him what they think it means (Khenpo is the title equivalent to Geshe in the non-Gelugpa systems). Those who are brave enough to speak up say something. Sometimes His Holiness will call upon them individually by name, and then they have to say something, even if there are twenty thousand people in the audience. Then, His Holiness will usually start debating with them and say, “Well, but that can’t really be what it means because of this, that, and that.” He’ll then ask somebody else, because often what happens is that the various textbooks that are used in the different divisions of the monasteries have different interpretations.

I remember that there was one discussion that occurred like that in the teaching His Holiness gave about Buddha-nature, about the things that are included in the different types of Buddha-nature and the way that certain terms are used; this was very unclear. After this big discussion with the most learned lamas there, they actually didn’t come to any conclusion. However, what was very clear from this example is that His Holiness never pretends to understand something when he doesn’t, and it gives us a great deal of confidence that everything else, he actually does understand. This is quite amazing when he gives an oral transmission of a text in which he reads it at super-fast speed, and then all of a sudden he’ll stop because he’s gotten to a point of something he didn’t understand and then he will ask these questions to the people around him. It’s unbelievable that they can even follow the place in the text where he is because His Holiness is reading it so quickly, but amazingly enough, they are able to answer. Even though His Holiness is reading at super-fast speed, he’s obviously also reading with understanding. This is very impressive, I must say.

(16) Accepting What Has Been Stolen from the Triple Gem

Number sixteen is to avoid accepting what has been stolen from the Triple Gem. Remember we had the root vow of not stealing or causing somebody else to steal anything that’s offered to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha? Here we’re accepting as a gift or an offering, or accepting as our salary or reward, and we have to do this either personally or through somebody else. This includes if it belongs not only to four or more members of the monastic community, as in the other root vow. Here it could belong to only one, two, or three monks or nuns, as well.

I haven’t seen an explanation for this, as to whether or not we need to know that it was stolen from the Triple Gem, but I would imagine that we would need to know that. Obviously if later on, we find out, we would certainly try to give it back. Again, we could ask why is there so much emphasis on this point of not stealing from the Triple Gem, but if we think about it, money, the things that are given to further the Dharma, say printing, translating texts, making monastery statues, or feeding the monks and nuns, all of this is intended to help provide the circumstances for others to attain enlightenment. We certainly don’t want – as an aspiring bodhisattva practicing the bodhisattva vows – to do anything that would take away the opportunity for others to reach enlightenment.

(17) Establishing Unfair Policies

Number seventeen is to avoid establishing unfair policies. This is referring to acting with a certain type of bias or prejudice. For instance, there are some very serious practitioners whom we don’t like or we’re angry with them, and we take something away from them, or we treat them unfairly in favor of those with lesser attainments because we are attached to them.

An example would be that we feel threatened by meditators at our Buddhist center, and we look at the Dharma center primarily as a place for social events; we go there to be with our friends who have similar interests. For example, somebody makes a donation to the center, and instead of using it to build a meditation retreat facility, we use it to make a tea and coffee lounge for people to meet socially and relax after the teachings. This is what this is referring to, establishing an unfair policy. In other words, we should certainly try to cater to and emphasize those who are really serious students and practitioners and put our efforts into helping them rather than helping those who are not serious at all (those that just come for social purposes). They just turn to Dharma because it’s nice, as opposed to really working hard to achieve liberation and enlightenment.

Notice that the motivation indicated here is that we don’t like, we feel threatened, or we’re angry with these more serious students because maybe we feel uncomfortable that they’re trying and doing so much and we’re not doing very much at all in our study and practice. We’re more attached to the casual students, as they’re more our friends; they are nice to be with and we enjoy drinking coffee and tea together with them, so we put all our efforts into them at the expense of the more serious students. If we think about this, we can find many examples like that in the monasteries as well: putting more emphasis on using the money to build a guest house for visitors in the monastery rather than using it to improve the education, for example.

(18) Giving Up Bodhichitta

The last vow, number eighteen, is to avoid giving up bodhichitta. This means giving up the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all. Remember, we had two levels of bodhichitta: aspiring and engaged bodhichitta. The wishing or aspiring state is to wish to achieve enlightenment for benefiting others; the engaged state is taking the bodhisattva vows and actually engaging in the practices. This vow is referring to giving up the first of these, the aspiring or wishing state of bodhichitta, because if we give up the wish to achieve enlightenment to benefit others then, of course, we would also be giving up the latter, keeping the bodhisattva vows, etc.

Okay, that’s the list of the bodhisattva vows of the various things that we’re going to avoid. Some people might complain and say, “Oh, there are so many rules, so many things to follow, it’s too much.” However, a clear example that we are capable of keeping a whole set of regulations in our mind is driving a car. There’s a whole set of laws that we need to follow when driving a car; how to actually drive the car is actually extremely complicated. In most countries, we have to study the rules of the road and pass an exam in that before we can get a license to drive; although obviously, in some countries, we can just pay a bribe and get the license. We won’t mention names. Once we’ve learned them, we do keep them in mind while we’re driving, hopefully; we are capable of watching our behavior and stopping at a red light or a stop sign, and we know how to turn into the correct lane and all these sorts of things. Obviously, there are some people that don’t do that.

I notice something here in Moscow with the tremendous traffic jams that made me laugh. It was very similar to what we see in India when there are traffic jams, which is when one lane that we are in is completely full and it’s stopped and not moving at all. I noticed one or two cars going over into the wrong lane (that’s going in the other direction) and driving in that lane because there was less traffic. However, most people in most countries follow the rules of the road. I go quite often to Mexico and there they have a very funny saying. They say a red light is only a suggestion.

The point of all this is that there’s no reason to complain that there are all these various vows and so on. They’re extremely helpful. In the Gelug tradition, at least, there is something called the Six-Session Yoga, which if we receive an empowerment, an initiation in the highest class of tantra, one of the practice commitments is to recite this each day six times, and as part of it, we recite these vows, so it helps us to remember them – unless of course, we do it so quickly that it just becomes “blah-blah.” In any case, if we have not actually memorized these, which is what a Tibetan would do, we need to remind ourselves over and over again what they are, so that we remember them. Okay?


Before we go onto our discussion of how we might weaken or lose these vows, do you have any questions about any of the vows?

If someone has stolen money from the Triple Gem and then this person gives an offering, how is it possible to know that the money that he’s offering is the same money that he’s stolen, especially if it is not cash and the payment is made through a bank account? It is impossible to say that it is exactly the same money that he has stolen because this person also has his own money in addition to the stolen money.

It’s not specified in the texts that I’ve seen whether or not we have to know that it was stolen. Obviously, from our side, it would be very difficult to know. When it’s a physical object, it’s quite clear. For instance, in the case of a stolen statue or a thangka. This is a good example. Many people during the Cultural Revolution stole paintings and statues and so on from the monasteries in Tibet and then sold them to Westerners in Hong Kong and so on. If we know that it was one of these things which were stolen from the monasteries, then it’s very clear that if we buy them, we are breaking this vow. Any of these old thangkas and so on that might be on the market, we might not know exactly that they were confiscated during the Cultural Revolution, but probably they were undoubtedly taken from a monastery. A monastery wouldn’t sell these.

There are certainly monasteries and great teachers who give as gifts a thangka or a statue, but in the monasteries, it’s very strict what belongs to the monastery in general and what is a private possession. When we give a donation to a household, let’s say a household of a Rinpoche in a Tibetan monastery – or they might not be living in the monastery, but are now in exile – we have to be very specific when we give that donation. Is it for the household in general – it’s called a “labrang” in Tibetan – or are we giving it specifically to someone in the household for their own personal use? “Household” means the whole house. Let’s say the Rinpoche’s house with the various attendants and students who live in the house, all of that is the labrang in Tibetan. I’m trying to translate that with some words, so we call it a “household.” A householder is somebody else; that’s a layperson. If we were giving that money for the labrang, for the household itself, it can only be used for the general kitchen to feed everybody, or for improving the house and the building; it would not be used for any particular member of the household, including the Rinpoche, to buy new robes or to do something simply for themselves or their private use. They would use it for the household to sponsor certain rituals, pujas to make offerings on the altar, etc. It’s practiced very strictly in these labrangs.

Your question is much more difficult. When somebody steals money from the Triple Gem, let’s say somebody gives money to a Buddhist center – although, literally, Buddhist centers are not specifically included here; we’re talking about monasteries, in terms of the Sangha. I’m saying that the situation that arises most commonly in the West is we talk about Dharma centers; we don’t have so many monasteries in the West. In the West, we use the word “Sangha” extremely loosely in a way that no traditional Tibetan or Buddhist person would ever use it – to just refer to a Dharma center in a lay community, but that’s certainly not the Sangha. We’re asking does this vow apply to stealing money that’s given to the Dharma center for our own purposes? Well, technically, according to the commentaries, when we talk about stealing from the Sangha, we’re referring to four monks or nuns or more. There’s a separate vow for stealing from one, two, or three monks or nuns. Strictly speaking, when these vows were formulated there certainly were no lay Dharma centers. Whether stealing offerings given to a Dharma center constitutes a transgression of this bodhisattva vow or not, it’s certainly something that we would want to avoid.

What would be more common in the West is that somebody makes an offering of money to the Dharma center, and the director or the treasurer or somebody like that just puts that money into their own private bank account. We’re not talking, as I’ve said before, about somebody who is actually working being paid from this money. Okay, so now this money is in a bank account together with a lot of other money, and this person makes a gift to us, gives us something, some money. That’s very hard to say, whether or not this person is even consciously saying, “I’m using the money that I stole to give to you” or just includes it in their money and doesn’t make any differentiation. Basically, it would be better to avoid taking anything from someone that we know is stealing or embezzling funds from a Dharma center or a monastery or any sort of Dharma project.

Would it be the same if someone stole some statue or thangkas, then sold them and gave the money to somebody, or bought something with this money to give to somebody? Is it the same?

By extension, yes.

What if one has stolen for instance a statue but then he confessed or regretted it. Now since he doesn’t want the statue anymore, should he take it to someone or to some center?

In theory, such a person should give it back to where it was stolen. Remember, in terms of stealing from the Triple Gem, it said that it needs to be complete with the feeling that “now this belongs to me.” If one regrets stealing it and no longer considers it “mine,” then certainly one tries to give it back. However, we wouldn’t sell it to somebody else.

We don’t, though, always have this opportunity. For instance, if we go to some other country and we stole there, and then we come back home and many years pass. My point is the two different types of motivation. In the first case, we stole something especially for offering it to someone else; the other case is when we change our mind, change ourselves, and then do it. The motivation is different.

Yes, the motivation is different. I would think that in the case that you state, let’s say we have a thangka or a statue in our house and many years later we find out that it was stolen during the Cultural Revolution from a monastery. We have no opportunity to give it back to that monastery where it was stolen; perhaps that monastery doesn’t even exist anymore. Nevertheless, I think if we are then in a dilemma about what to do with this statue or thangka, I would think, this is just my own personal guess, that probably we would go to some sort of Dharma center and offer it as a gift, certainly not to sell it, but explain the circumstances. Or give it to a monastery but explain the situation, so we are in a sense giving it back to the Triple Gem. That’s the only possibility that I can think of.

Now there are situations in which monasteries are very poor and they sell their treasures to art dealers who then make a profit and sell them. Now is that ethical or not? I don’t really know. They’re not stealing, but they are using it to make a profit. If they are making an unreasonable profit from it then, in general, whether it’s a Dharma material that they’re selling or not, it’s acting out of greed. That’s not so good.

Obviously, one could approach the study of Vinaya and all these things like a lawyer and try to find all sorts of tiny little details and exceptions and stuff like that, and there certainly are scholars who have done that and will continue to do that. However, as I explained at the beginning of our discussions about Buddhist ethics, what we want to do is to develop our discriminating awareness and try to understand what the situation actually is and what would be the best way of handling it – like in our case of realizing that something we had in our house was stolen from a monastery. We would try to minimize the heaviness of transgressing the vow.

Weakening or Losing the Vows

The point is that these vows are these very subtle forms, remember we spoke of non-revealing forms on our mental continuum, and they function to shape our behavior. The strength of that subtle form can be completely intact and strong or it could be weak. I think that depends, initially on taking these vows, and on the strength of our motivation. If we take vows simply because our friends are doing it and we don’t want to be left out, then obviously, the strength of that vow would be much weaker than if we really have renunciation or bodhichitta. That’s why in our daily practice in terms of the bodhisattva vows, we renew and strengthen them every day to try to make them stronger by reaffirming our motivation. If we transgress these vows, which inevitably we all do, in most cases, we just weaken the strength of the vow. There’s quite a specific number of things that have to be complete in order to actually lose the vows from our mental continuum – besides just saying, “I give them up. I don’t want them anymore;” obviously, we lose them that way.

First of all, there are in various texts listed the factors that can cause us to transgress our vows. One would be not knowing the vow. We just don’t know it. The second would be not caring; in other words, being careless. “I don’t care about my behavior. I don’t care about the vows. They’re unimportant.” Another reason could be being overwhelmed by some disturbing emotion so that we are so angry or so lustful that we forget the vow and transgress it. Another reason would be because of a lack of respect. We don’t respect the vows or respect those who keep them. Another reason would be forgetting them, forgetfulness. Finally, another would be weak mindfulness. We have a weak memory and we’re weak in paying attention to our behavior.

Now among these 18 vows, all of them except “holding a distorted antagonistic outlook” and “giving up bodhichitta,” require four binding factors to be complete in order to lose the vows completely. We have this distorted antagonistic thinking, “This is all stupid!” and so on, “I’m going to argue with anybody who thinks that bodhisattva behavior is of any value.” As soon as we think that, or as soon as we give up this aspiring bodhichitta, we lose the vows.

For the other 16 vows, these four binding factors have to be held and maintained from the moment immediately after developing the motivation to transgress the vow – from that moment, all the way up to the moment right after completing the act of the transgression. However, if in the middle of transgressing the vow, we regret what we’re doing, then it’s not complete. We have to hold all four of them throughout the actual act of transgressing.

The first of these is not regarding what we’re doing as detrimental. In other words, we see nothing wrong with what we’re doing, only advantages, and we undertake the action with no regrets. The second is having committed the transgression before, we have no wish or intention to stop ourselves now or in the future from repeating it. The third is we delight in what we’re doing, and we undertake it with joy. We’re happy about what we’re doing; that’s transgressing the vow. The fourth is we have no sense of moral self-dignity and no concern for how our behavior reflects on others. For instance, we don’t care about our reputation. We don’t care about the consequences for ourselves – that’s having no sense of moral self-dignity. The other part is, we don’t care how our actions reflect on our teachers or on Buddhism or on anyone else. If all four attitudes are present, then we lose the vow, all the bodhisattva vows. If all four attitudes are not complete, then the vow just becomes weaker.

As an example, we don’t loan somebody one of our Buddhist books because we are attached to it and miserly. We see nothing wrong with that because the other person might spill coffee on it or not give it back. We’ve never loaned our Dharma books before, and we have no intention to change this policy now or in the future. When we refuse, we’re happy with our decision. We are shameless about saying no, in spite of the fact that we’re supposed to be helping everybody toward enlightenment. How could we not want to share a Dharma book? We’re not embarrassed in the slightest about this and we don’t care how this reflects on our Buddhist teachers. Furthermore, we have no intention of doing anything to counterbalance our selfish act. That was part of this fourth factor, I failed to mention it, that we have no intention to counterbalance what we’ve done. If all of these attitudes are complete when we refuse to loan somebody our book, then we’ve lost the bodhisattva vows. However, if we lack some of these attitudes then we’ve only weakened the vow, depending on how many of these attitudes are present.

Suppose that we transgress one of the vows, but without these four binding factors present? In this situation, we don’t actually weaken the vow. For instance, we don’t loan somebody a book when they ask us to borrow our Dharma book or our notes. This is not sharing the Dharma. We know that it’s basically wrong, and we don’t intend to do this as a policy. We’re unhappy about saying no, and we are concerned about our own honor and how this reflects on our teachers, but we have a valid reason for refusing the loan. For instance, we have a strong need to use the book ourselves, let’s say we’re doing a Dharma translation and somebody asks to borrow our dictionary for a few days. Well, we need the dictionary to translate, so we have a pressing need for it, or maybe we’ve already promised to loan it somebody else. Our motivation here is not attachment to the book or miserliness, and we try to counterbalance this, so we apologize for not being able to loan it now and we explain why, and we assure the person that we’ll loan it to them as soon as possible. To make up for the loss, we can offer to share our notes on the book or to explain something from the book, or let them use it in our house when we’re not using it, etc. In that way, we fully maintain our bodhisattva vows, even though technically it looks as though we are transgressing it because we’re not loaning the Dharma book.
There’s a whole list of how the strength is going to vary, how strong the vow still is, how much we weaken it, depending on which of these four are present, what combinations, and so on. There’s no need to go into all that detail. As in the case of all vows, or even destructive behavior that we haven’t vowed to avoid, it’s important to try to weaken as much as possible the strength of the negative karma, the negative force. We try to make it not so bad, to put it in simple language. Because the strength of a karmic consequence is going to depend on many factors, not just these four. How strong is the disturbing emotion that’s involved? How often we do this?

Also, it depends on the spiritual status of the person that is involved. For example, if we refuse to loan the Dharma book to a Dharma teacher who needs to look up something in order to explain it to their students, that’s much heavier than not loaning it to just somebody that is curious to take a look at it for no particularly good reason. Also, the heaviness will depend on our own spiritual status. Have we taken a vow not to do this, or not taken a vow? That’s why if we are not able to keep the vows, don’t take them. That's why it’s very helpful in the five lay vows that we have the option to take as many as we are able to keep. If it’s not possible to avoid alcohol or to avoid certain forms of inappropriate sexual behavior, don’t take the vow. All of these things that are involved in making the effect of a karmic action strong, we can find in the detailed teachings about karma; there’s a whole long list. We try to weaken as much as possible the negative force of transgressing a vow.

We try to do the opposite of these binding factors. Rather than thinking that there’s nothing wrong with it, we openly acknowledge that this was incorrect, a mistake; we regret our action, rather than rejoicing in it and feeling happy about it. Regret doesn’t mean to feel guilty; it just means we wish we didn’t do this or didn’t have to do this – like we regret that we can’t loan someone our book. We decide not to repeat this transgression. We’re going to try our best not to repeat it – rather than having no intention of stopping.

We also reaffirm our spiritual basis, which is safe direction or refuge and bodhichitta, as opposed to having no sense of moral self-dignity or concern for how our actions reflect on others, our teachers. In other words, we care about our future and what we will experience; we care about our teachers and so on, and we’re going to put this safe direction and bodhichitta back as the central thing in our life. We take some opponent or remedial action to counterbalance this transgression, as opposed to having no intention to repair the damage we have done to ourselves. It’s like this that we apply the standard four opponent forces as the opposite of the four binding factors.

Okay, these are the basic teachings about the bodhisattva vows. We see that in order to take them, we need to have the proper motivation and preparation, and we can strengthen them by taking them again and again, either by ourselves or with a spiritual teacher. It’s very important to remember what they are. If we don’t remind ourselves every day, at least sometimes read through the list and remind ourselves of both the root vows and the secondary vows, and if we find that we need to transgress them for some reason or another, try not to have these four binding factors be complete. Try to make the transgression as weak as possible and then try to strengthen again our vows.

Final Questions

I have a question about copyrights. There are copyrights on Dharma books, and so you cannot actually copy it in a publication. Does it also mean that if you copy it for some personal usage, you’re stealing from the Triple Gem? Also, what about websites, or whatever pages you have on the Internet – when you sell those?

In a sense, we have to consult a lawyer on this because, in terms of the Internet, as far as I understand, it’s in the public domain and so anybody can cut and paste. If somebody on the Internet doesn’t want us to access material, they will make us pay, and if we don’t pay, we can’t access that material. Obviously, there are Internet pirates that are able to get around that, and that is stealing the Dharma if the intention is that we have to pay.

However, with copyrighted books, that’s a legal issue. There’s a big legal argument going on at present with Google. They want to put up all books for availability. I’m not quite sure if they want it to be free or if they’re going to charge, but to put things on the Internet. They’re usually things that are out of print, but either the publisher or the author still has the copyright. There’s a lot of legal argument about that, and Google is willing to pay a little bit to the authors, but it’s not at all clear what will happen with that.

Now the whole issue of making money and profit off of the Dharma, that’s a whole different ethical issue that we really don’t have time to go into. However, Shantideva does say that if a servant does good work, then it is important to pay the servant what the servant needs. If the servant doesn’t work well or doesn’t work at all, then it’s not proper to pay that servant. Obviously, we can use the same example for somebody who works for us, our employee. What this is analogous to is if we are a bodhisattva and offer ourselves as a servant to serve all sentient beings. For example, we are dedicating our life to making translations of Dharma books or making them available and so on, and if we are actually doing that work, it’s okay to pay ourselves, to “pay the servant.” However, if we’re not doing the work, then we do not pay. It’s about not becoming rich off of it, but to just maintain ourselves. This seems to fit with Shantideva’s advice. If people are charging for Dharma books in order to pay themselves, to pay the other people who are working on them, pay the author, etc., well, not to pay them – to just copy the book – obviously, that is a problem.

This becomes very difficult. Are we scanning or photocopying the book from the library? Well, universities have copy machines right there in the library for students to make copies. They tell us we’re not supposed to copy the whole thing. Well, how much can we copy? The whole thing starts to become a legalistic argument. I think a lot depends on our motivation. If we have the money to be able to buy it ourselves and we don’t, just because we think how clever we are to be able to cheat the publishing company, or we’re cheap or miserly, this is very different from being a very sincere Dharma practitioner who needs the material in this book for their practice, and they just don’t have the money to buy it. I think that’s very different. Everything, I think, is dependent on the motivation. Whether there is actually a transgression of the vow or not, the point is to make whatever negative karma might come from it as weak as possible.

Again, the practice of ethical self-discipline in Buddhism is very much connected with discriminating awareness and motivation and all these other factors. It’s not just “Follow the law. Be obedient.”