Questions about What Is a Vow

Brief Review

We have been discussing the fundamental elements that we need before taking the bodhisattva vows. We spoke about the foundations in the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path, and we spoke about the process and meditation for building up a bodhichitta motivation. We discussed how the development of bodhichitta progresses through various stages: the aspiring stage of bodhichitta, the two sections, the merely wishing and pledged states of bodhichitta. Further, we discussed how taking this pledged state involves the five types of trainings to prevent our development of bodhichitta from weakening in this life or in future lives. We also spoke about how we need a foundation of some level of the pratimoksha vows, either as a layperson or as a monk or nun. It’s on the basis of all of this that we develop the engaged state of bodhichitta, and then we take the bodhisattva vows.


Before we get into a discussion of the vows, do you have any questions on what we’ve covered so far?

You said that when we take these first pratimoksha vows, we are not obliged to tell our teacher exactly which vows we’re taking. Shouldn’t we take this vow in front of the teacher?

Yes, we do take the vow in front of the teacher, but often it’s in a large group of people. In that situation, we don’t have an opportunity to say anything, and even if we receive these vows individually, one person with the teacher, it’s still not part of the ritual to say how many of the vows we’re taking. Obviously, if we want to tell the teacher, there’s no problem with that, but that is not obligatory. Also, we might in our own development at the beginning only be able to take three or four of these vows, and then, later on, we might feel ready to take the other ones or just one more. We can take the vows again because the ceremonies are often given, and the second time that we take it, we can add another vow. It could be the other way around, if we’ve taken all five and we find that we’re not really able to keep one of them, then a second time that we take the vows we could drop one. There’s no shame in doing that.

The more vows that we keep, of course, the stronger our discipline. Tsongkhapa did say that if we are a fully ordained monk or nun, that this is the best foundation for gaining realizations because we don’t have other responsibilities besides our spiritual practice (although there could be responsibilities in terms of the monastery). However, that doesn’t mean that if we have a lesser number of pratimoksha vows that it’s impossible for us to gain realizations. It’s just a matter of whether it’s easy or not. For our own sake, the stronger our ethical discipline, the easier it will be in terms of our spiritual progress. It’s for our own sake that we’re doing that, in order to benefit others more, not to please the teacher or please the Buddha, that we’re keeping more vows.

When we take a vow, one of the things that it frees us from is indecisive wavering. For instance, in terms of drinking alcohol, even if we fully decide we’re not going to drink, or we’re going to try to stop drinking, every time that we’re offered a drink, we still have to make the decision: should I take it or not? That is a disturbed state of mind. Indecisive wavering is a disturbing attitude. We’re not at peace because we really don’t know what to do. However, if we’ve taken a vow, then it’s clear. We’ve taken the decision once and for all and that’s it. Even on a very beginning level, it frees us from indecisive wavering. It’s very helpful for pratimoksha, individual liberation. The liberation here is referring to liberation from samsara. Nonetheless, even on a more superficial level, it liberates us from indecisive wavering, at least indecisive wavering about that particular type of behavior.

Is it effective to try to practice tantra if we meet with our tantric guru only for fifteen minutes every year? Is it effective if we just read some books on tantric practices and we don’t have a full-time connection with a teacher?

Yes, it can be still very effective. Most of us don’t have long-term continuing contact with our spiritual teacher or tantric master. The main function of the tantric master is, of course, to give us the empowerment, the vows, and to provide inspiration, which is the main function of all the spiritual masters. The tantric master also gives us the oral transmission of various teachings and explanations. Nevertheless, for actual daily practice and so on, we might need to consult others. There are many books on tantra that are available. That was the case in Tibetan as well, as any Tibetan can go and buy a book or get a book from the library that explains so many things about tantra practice.

As His Holiness jokes, even the teachings that are supposed to never be written down, sometimes we find them in Tibetan, not only written down and printed, but they are even so silly that they actually print at the beginning: “This is not to be printed; it’s not to be written down.” This is absolutely absurd. It’s not just Westerners who are making available teachings on tantra that are supposed to be kept secret, but the Tibetans have done that as well. As His Holiness has said, if the information is available anyway, it’s better to have correct information than incorrect information.

The danger of having all this information available – we can just go to a store and buy or download from the Internet – is that we could get the false impression that we can do tantra practice without a teacher, sort of what is known as “do-it-yourself” tantra. This is very dangerous, because not only could we make mistakes in our practice and have nobody to turn to if we have problems or questions, but we would also lack a living source of inspiration. The role of inspiration from the example of the teacher should never be underestimated. Every single text speaks about the importance of that.

Of course, the problem is even if we’re having difficulties with our practice and making mistakes, very often, we don’t have the opportunity to go to the teacher, and the teacher doesn’t have the opportunity to really observe what we’re doing or question us. Actually, it’s very rare that there is such a close relationship between the teacher and the student. We’re talking about now, in our present situation in the West, where teachers come and give initiations to huge audiences and then they travel on, and there’s nobody where we live that is qualified to guide us.

In Tibet, most of the practitioners, the serious practitioners, were in monasteries. If they were not in monasteries, they were laypeople who lived very close to monasteries. There were always plenty of people around that we could ask questions. For us, it’s much more difficult. What’s even more dangerous is that there are unqualified people around us that, if we ask questions, they might give us very misleading advice, pretending that they know what to do when they don’t. In this situation, we have to really evaluate: how serious am I in my practice? How much time and effort am I willing to put into it? Is it the most important thing in my life?

For most Westerners, unfortunately, it’s not the most important thing in their life. From a Tibetan point of view, it’s difficult to take such students seriously when their Dharma practice is something that is secondary or more like a hobby that they do in their spare time. However, if we are really serious and this is really the most important thing in our life, it is necessary for the student to put in the effort to try to make a connection with the teacher and go to where the teachers are. Look at the efforts that the Tibetans in the past have made to walk all the way to India to get teachings, and how much effort Milarepa had to put in to get teachings from Marpa.

There’s no reason to expect that we’re going to get teachings and personal instruction more easily. We have to demonstrate to the teacher that we are really willing to put in the effort. Even if we are able to go where the teachers are. Let’s say, we’ve received empowerments from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it doesn’t mean we’re ever going to have the opportunity to get individual personal teachings from His Holiness, especially now when His Holiness is so old. Nevertheless, there are other qualified teachers of lesser rank than His Holiness the Dalai Lama who are able to guide us.

If we are relying on books for our instructions and the teachings, please don’t see that as a substitute for having a relationship with a spiritual teacher. However, in Buddhist practice, we don’t need a teacher to hold our hand all the time and guide us through every tiny step. The teacher gives us the teachings and then we go off by ourselves, and it’s up to us as individuals to put those teachings into practice. It’s not up to the teacher to make us practice, to watch us. In the end, we have to depend on our own effort in order to achieve anything. 

Some people say that when we take pratimoksha vows, the five layman vows, the teacher is just like a witness in front of whom we’re taking these vows, and the main force that moves us is our own resolve to take these vows. When we take these pratimoksha vows, we need the teacher just as a witness. If there was no teacher, we would deceive ourselves; and if there is a teacher, then if we transgress our vows, we will deceive ourselves and the teacher. They emphasize that the teacher is just like a witness, it is not somebody who gives us something. Is that point of view correct?

Well, now we get a little bit technical. In terms of the pratimoksha vows, we actually take the vows in front of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. What we are promising and so on is to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and the teacher is the medium through which it is done. The teacher is a representative of the unbroken lineage. It’s very important that there be an unbroken lineage. Supposedly, it’s a pure lineage; it’s very difficult to actually guarantee that everybody in the lineage has kept all the vows absolutely purely. That’s hard to say, isn’t it? In any case, it’s a prerequisite that the lineage is intact and, in theory, pure and unbroken. This is the problem with reinstating full nun’s vows, the bhikshuni vows, in the Tibetan tradition, as the lineage has been broken.

Now with the tantric vows, we are seeing that the guru is the tantric figure, so in that sense, one is receiving the vow in the presence of the teacher as the Buddha-figure. The problem here is our understanding of what it means to take a vow. A vow is not something that a teacher has, like a football. It’s not that here I have this football, this vow, and now I’m going to give it to you, and now you have the football. It’s not as though it’s some “thing” that every teacher has, a truly solidly existent thing, and now, here, I’m giving it to you, and then you take it and somehow assimilate it – similar to throwing something at you, and you catch it. Rather, the vow arises on our mental continuum as something that has arisen dependently on many circumstances and causes and conditions. This leads us into what I wanted to discuss next, which is vows.

What Is a Vow?

A vow is not a truly existent thing, existing by its own power, by itself, purely on the side of the teacher, and then it goes to the side of us. This idea, we need to refute. That’s an impossible way of existing of a vow, like this attitude: “I’ve kept this so clean and pure and now I give it to you, and you have to keep it clean and pure so that you can pass it on to your disciples.” It’s not like that, although that might be our childish view of it. Rather, as I said, it’s something that arises as a dependent phenomenon. What does it depend on? It depends on an unbroken lineage, a representative of the unbroken lineage whose presence will generate this vow.

Bodhisattva vows are different from pratimoksha and tantric vows. There are two ways of taking bodhisattva vows. One is with a teacher, and one is without a teacher: just visualizing Buddha and bodhisattvas. Even here, in the case of bodhisattva vows, we don’t actually need a teacher. For some reason, lineage and unbroken lineage is very central to pratimoksha and tantric vows, in terms of the role of the teacher and the teacher being present. With the bodhisattva vows, they need to be taken from someone who has unbroken, pure bodhisattva vows. We can renew our bodhisattva vows at any time. Actually, we can renew them every day, by ourselves, with visualization and a small ceremony recitation. However, with the bodhisattva vows, we’re taking it in the presence of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas – they have unbroken bodhisattva vows, and so this is different. I can’t really explain because I don’t know why that is the case, that with the bodhisattva vows there is a possibility of taking it without the teacher. I’ve never heard a clear explanation – any explanation, for that matter, why that is the case.

In any case, if we speak more in general terms, we need as a circumstance somebody with an unbroken vow, whether it’s a personal teacher or in this case, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. For pratimoksha vows, we certainly need some level of renunciation, determination to be free. We certainly need development of bodhichitta for the bodhisattva vow, sincere and specifically, the engaged state of bodhichitta. With tantra, there are even more prerequisites that we need to have – in addition to renunciation and bodhichitta, we also need some basic understanding of voidness, of the preliminary practices; there are many things we would need. We have to have a very conscious intention to generate these vows in our mental continuum, and the intention to keep them as best we can. There are more things that are necessary in terms of people present in the ritual for monk and nun vows. However, that’s not our topic, how we take monk and nun vows.

What actually is a vow then? A vow is a vowed restraint. There are three views on what type of phenomenon this vowed restraint is. According to the Sautrantika tenet system, a vow is a mental factor that restrains us from committing a certain type of detrimental behavior, which during a specific ceremony, we formally promise to refrain from. In a sense, it’s like a stronger form of ethical self-discipline that is based on a strong promise made in a ceremony.

According to the Vaibhashika, Chittamatra, Sautrantika-Svatantrika and the Prasangika Madhyamaka systems, a vow is a nonrevealing form. Vaibhashika, Sautrantika-Svatantrika and Prasangika Madhyamaka assert that a nonrevealing form is a type of karmic impulse of the body or speech. Chittamatra does not assert it to be a form of karmic impulse.

What is a nonrevealing form (rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs)? It’s a form of physical phenomenon that is invisible and does not impede the existence or motion of other forms of physical phenomenon. It’s not made of particles. It’s called “nonrevealing” because it doesn’t reveal the ethical status of the mind with which it arose. It is in contrast with a revealing form, such as the shape or movement of the body when kneeling to receive a vow and the sound of the voice when repeating the words for taking a vow, which reveal that the mind with which they arose was under the influence of a constructive emotion.

The non-revealing form arises when we begin an action, such as taking a vow, and it continues after we have finished that action – continuing further with our mental continuum. It will continue so long as we have the intention to keep the vow. If we decide that we’re not going to keep the vow anymore and we formally relinquish it, we lose that non-revealing form.

What is the function of this non-revealing form? The vow will act as a cause for us to refrain from committing the types of behavior we have vowed to refrain from. For example, if we take a vow to not eat after noon, the vow functions to cause us each day not to eat after noon. If we decide that acting like this is completely stupid and that we’re never going to follow that discipline again, that we’re always going to eat in the evening, then we no longer have that vow. This is what a vow is, it is this very subtle form that shapes our subsequent behavior when we take a vow. However, this subtle form is not something that goes like a football from the mental continuum of the teacher, or of Buddhas or bodhisattvas, to our mental continuum. It’s not that they give us something, as in “giving” a vow; and it’s not that we literally take it from them.

The word that is used in Tibetan is to “obtain” a vow on our mental continuum. That doesn’t mean necessarily that we get it from somebody else, like we receive a letter. It arises on the basis of many factors that have to be present, as I explained. Then, it arises on our mental continuum, we generate it, and then what we try to do is to keep it as strong as possible.

This whole terminology that we often use of “breaking” a vow is quite misleading, because if we don’t follow the type of behavior that the vow says to follow, then what happens is that we weaken the vow. That is called “transgressing” the vow; I think that is the best terminology to use. We’ve transgressed it. We’ve gone beyond the boundary of the vow. There are various factors that will affect how much we’ve weakened the vow, and when we’ve weakened the vow, it has less power, less strength to generate a certain type of behavior that we would repeat all the time, like not eating after noon.

Let’s say, we’re keeping very strictly the vow of not eating after noon, and one day, we ate after noon, and another day we ate after noon, then the strength of the vow is weaker because we’ve seen that sometimes we don’t do that. We need to understand what it means to weaken the strength of the vow. It is going to have less energy behind it to generate a similar type of behavior over and over again. There have to be many factors all combined in order to actually lose that vow from our mental continuum, but we will get to that later on.

Okay, is that a little bit clearer? The subject, what is a vow, is a bit sophisticated and subtle, but I think it’s quite important to understand it. It’s a subtle form that we generate on our mental continuum that is going to shape our behavior in the future, and it’s quite strong because we have generated it on the basis of a very strong promise.

Avowed Nonrestraints and Intermediate Ones

In abhidharma, there is the discussion of vowed restraints, avowed nonrestraints and those that are intermediate, meaning those restraints and nonrestraints that are not in either of those two categories. Basically, a vowed restraint is a restraint from either naturally destructive actions, such as taking a life, and from types of behavior that Buddha proscribed as detrimental to spiritual practice, such as eating after noon, which is detrimental to having a clear mind for meditating at night and in the early morning. We’re not talking about a Christian marriage vow or something like that.

An avowed non-restraint is a vow not to refrain from avoid doing something destructive like, for instance, when we join the army and take a vow to kill the enemy. It’s basically to vow to do something that is the exact opposite of what in the Buddhist vows we vow not to do. Then, an intermediate one that is neither of the two would be a promise, a strong promise, to refrain from doing something not included in the vowed restraints or avowed non-restraints, or from just part of what is included in them, or from some type of behavior only some of the time, not all of the time. 

I’ll give an example of this intermediate one from the vow about sexual ethics. The vow to refrain from inappropriate sexual behavior consists of a whole long list of what is inappropriate. Let’s say, we feel that we are ready to refrain from some of the things in this list like, for instance, rape, raping somebody. Of course, we’re not going to do that, but there are some other things in it that list that we’re not quite ready to refrain from. For instance, we would say, “Okay, I want to just take part of the vow.”

In terms of the vow, we can’t really do that. Either we take the vow, which means the whole vow, or we don’t take the vow. Nobody’s saying we have to take the vow. What we could do instead is take this intermediate one, which would be a very strong promise that we’re going to avoid part of what is in the entire vow. This is not as strong as taking a Buddhist vow, but it’s still much stronger than just sometimes not doing it. To make this strong promise is very positive to do, to vow that we’re not going to rape anyone, for example. This is going to build up much more positive force than just avoiding raping. We actually make this promise, but it’s not as strong as vowing not to rape as part of the larger package of the full Buddhist vow of avoiding inappropriate sexual behavior.

Is my understanding correct? If I think that some vow is incorrect or stupid, so I’m not going to hold this vow anymore, then I lose my vow? However, if it’s just that I’m not able to follow this vow in some cases, because of some conditions, but I’m going to follow it maybe next time, then I just weaken my vow but don’t lose it?

That’s correct. There’s more detail, and we’ll cover that later so that we get a more precise understanding.