Questions about What Is a Vow

We have been speaking about the fundamental things 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. And we spoke about how the development of bodhichitta itself progresses through various stages, the aspiring stage of bodhichitta, the two sections, merely wishing and pledged states; and how taking this stage involves the five types of trainings to prevent our development of bodhichitta from weakening in this life or in future lives; and how also we need a foundation of some level of pratimoksha vows, either as a layperson or as a monk or nun. And on the basis of all of this, then when we develop the engaged state of bodhichitta, then we take the bodhisattva vows.

So before we get into a discussion of 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 taking the vow. So in that situation we don’t have an opportunity to say anything, and even if we receive these vows just individually, one person with the teacher, still it’s not part of the ritual to say how many of the vows you’re taking. Now obviously if you 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 let’s say three or four of these vows, and then later on we might feel ready to take the other ones or just one more; and we can take the vows again because the ceremonies are often given, and in the second time that we take it we add another vow. Or, 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, then the stronger our discipline. And 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). But that doesn’t mean that if we have a lesser number of pratimoksha vows that it’s impossible for us to gain realization. It’s just a matter of whether it’s easy or not. So, for our own sake, the stronger our ethical discipline, the easier it will be in terms of our spiritual progress. But it’s for our own sake that we’re doing that, in order to be able 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 I fully decide I’m not going to drink, or I’m going to try stopping to drink; every time that we’re offered a drink we still have to make the decision: should I take it or not? And 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. But if we’ve taken a vow, then it’s clear. Then we’ve taken the decision once and for all and that’s it. So even on a very beginning level it frees us from indecisive wavering. It’s very helpful, for an individual liberation: pratimoksha, individual liberation. The liberation here is referring to liberation from samsara. But 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, to give us the vows, and to provide inspiration, which is what the main function of all the spiritual masters is. And the tantric master also gives us oral transmission of various teachings and explanations. But for actual daily practice and so on we might need to consult others about that. There are many books which are available on tantra. That was the case in Tibetan as well, so any Tibetan can go and buy a book or get a book in a 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 you find them in Tibetan, not only written down and printed, but they even are 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. And so 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. So as His Holiness has said, if the information is available anyway then it’s better to have correct information than incorrect information.

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

Now of course the problem is, even if we’re having difficulties with our practice and making mistakes, very often you 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 in our place that is qualified to guide us.

In Tibet most of the practitioners, the serious practitioners, were in monasteries. Or if they were not in monasteries, they were laypeople who lived very close to monasteries. So there were always plenty of people around that you could ask questions to. For us it’s much more difficult. And what’s even more dangerous is that there are unqualified people around us that, if we ask questions to, might give us very misleading advice, pretending that they know what to do when they don’t. And so 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? And is it the most important thing in my life?

For most Westerners, unfortunately, it’s not the most important thing in their life. And so, 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 just like a hobby that they do in their spare time. But 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 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 in order to get teachings; and how much effort Milarepa had to put in, in order to get teachings from Marpa. So 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 really, really are willing to put in the effort. And 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. But there are other qualified teachers of lesser rank than His Holiness the Dalai Lama who are able to guide us.

So if we are relying on books for our instructions and the teachings, please don’t see that as a substitute for having relation with a spiritual teacher. But in Buddhist practice we don’t need a teacher to hold our hand all the time and guide us through every tiny little step. The teacher gives you the teachings and then you go off by yourself, 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. So 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 pratimoksha vows, we actually take the vows in front of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And so 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. And the teacher is a representative of the unbroken lineage. That’s very important, that there be an unbroken lineage. Now supposedly it’s a pure lineage, and that’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? But in any case it’s a prerequisite that the lineage be intact and, in theory, pure, not broken. This is the problem with reinstating full nun’s vows, the bhikshuni vows, in the Tibetan tradition as the lineage has been broken a lot. But without going into technical details about that, the unbroken lineage is important. We’ll end that paragraph with that statement.

Now with the tantric vow you 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. But the problem here in what you’ve asked is in our understanding of what it means to take a vow. A vow is not like something that a teacher has, like a football – and 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 you somehow assimilate it – throwing something at you, and you catch it. But, rather, the vow arises on your mental continuum as something that has arisen dependently on many circumstances and causes and conditions. So this leads us into what I wanted to discuss next, which is vows.

What is a vow? So it’s 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. So that, 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, and you pass it on to your disciples.” It’s not like that, although that might be our childish view of it. But rather, as I said, it’s something that arises as a dependent phenomenon. So what does it depend on? It depends on an unbroken lineage, a representative of the unbroken lineage whose presence will generate this vow.

With bodhisattva vows it’s 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. So even here in the case of bodhisattva vows, you don’t actually need a teacher. So, for some reason, lineage and unbroken lineage is very central in terms of pratimoksha vows and tantric vows, in terms of the role of the teacher and the teacher being present. With the bodhisattva vows, it needs to be taken from someone who has unbroken pure bodhisattva vows. Well you can renew your bodhisattva vows at any time, and actually we can renew them every day, by ourselves, with visualization and a small ceremony recitation. But 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. Why that is the case, I’ve never heard a clear explanation – any explanation, for that matter.

But, in any case, if we speak more in general, 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. The bodhisattva vow, we certainly need a development of bodhichitta, sincere and specifically the engaged state of bodhichitta. And with tantra there are even more prerequisites that we need to have – in addition to renunciation and bodhichitta, also some basic understanding of voidness, of preliminary practices; there are many things we would need. And we have to have a very conscious intention to generate these vows in our mental continuum, and the intention to keep them as best as we can. Monk and nun vows, there are more things that are necessary in terms of people present with the ritual. But that’s not our topic, how you take monk and nun vows.

What actually is a vow then? There are two views on this. One view is what we have in the Sautrantika, Chittamatra and the Yogachara-Svatantrika schools. According to these schools it is a mental factor – a vow is a mental factor – to restrain from a certain type of detrimental behavior, which during a specific ceremony we formally promise to refrain from. So in a sense it’s like a stronger form of ethical self-discipline that is based on a strong promise made in a ceremony. But according to the Vaibhashika, Sautrantika-Svatantrika and Prasangika-Madhyamaka views, a vow is a non-revealing form – which I will explain what that is – and it’s a non-revealing form on a person’s mental continuum that performs the same function as this mental factor. It’s shaping our behavior.

What is a non-revealing form (rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs)? It’s a very subtle form. It’s not made of atoms. It’s called “non-revealing” because it doesn’t reveal the initial motivation with which the action was practiced. The non-revealing form starts at the beginning of the action, when we begin the action, and it continues after we have finished the action – continuing further on our mental continuum and it will continue there so long as we have the intention to repeat that type of action. If we decide that we're never going to do that action again, then we lose that non-revealing form.

And what is the function of this non-revealing form? The vow is to refrain from doing something negative, something detrimental.  This vow will act as a cause for us not to repeat that type of behavior. We lose that vow when, among other things, we decide I’m never going to do that again. 

If I take a vow to not eat after noon, what this is going to do is to generate the cause for me not eating after noon. If I decide this was completely stupid, what I did, and I’m never going to follow that discipline again, I’m always going to eat in the evening, then I no longer have that vow. This is what a vow is, it is this very subtle form that continues with the mental continuum. But 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 take it from them.

The word that is used in Tibetan is to “receive” a vow on our mental continuum. That doesn’t mean necessarily that we get it from somebody else, like we receive a letter. It’s more the connotation of we “obtain” it. It arises on the basis of many, many factors that have to be present, as I explained. And then it arises on our mental continuum, we generated it, and then what we try to do is to keep it as strong as possible. So this whole terminology that often we use of “breaking” a vow is quite misleading, because if we don’t follow the type of behavior that the vow is to follow – this type of behavior, if we don’t do that – then what happens is that we weaken the vow. So that is called “transgressing” the vow, I think is the best terminology to use. We’ve transgressed it. We’ve gone beyond the boundary of the vow. And 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 I’m keeping very, very strictly “I’m not eating after noon” and then, well, one day I ate after noon, and another day I ate after noon. Then the strength of it is weaker, because we’ve seen that, well, sometimes I don’t do that. And we need to understand what it means, that we’ve weakened 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. And there have to be many, many factors all combined in order to actually lose that vow from our mental continuum, but we will get to that later on.

Okay. So is that a little bit more clear? It’s a little bit sophisticated and subtle, what a vow is, 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.

There’s in abhidharma the discussion of a vow; and something which would be perhaps very, very difficult to translate (maybe an “anti-vow” or something like that); and then a something that’s in-between. So a vow is something that has been formulated by Buddha, Buddha Shakyamuni, so: pratimoksha vow, bodhisattva vow, tantric vow. Very specific. We’re not talking about a Christian marriage vow or something like that. That wouldn’t be considered a vow here in this classification; that would be in that in-between category. An anti-vow (as I say, it’s very difficult to get a good translation for it) is a vow to do something destructive like, for instance, I join the army and I take a vow to kill the enemy. So it’s basically to vow to do something that is the exact opposite of what in the Buddhist vows we vow not to do. And then an in-between one would be a promise, a strong promise, to do something usually not included in either of those two.

I’ll give an example from the vow about sexual ethics. The vow to refrain from inappropriate sexual behavior is a whole long list of what is inappropriate. Let’s say we feel that I am ready to refrain from some of the things in this list like, for instance, rape, raping somebody. Of course, well, I’m not going to do that, but there are some other things in it that I’m not quite ready to refrain from. So we would say, for instance, that, “Okay, I want to just take part of the vow.” Well, you can’t really do that, in terms of the vow. Either you take the vow, which means the whole vow, or you don’t take the vow. Nobody’s saying you have to take the vow. But what we could do is take this sort of in-between category type of vow, which would be a very strong promise that I’m going to avoid part of what is in the whole vow. So that’s not as strong as taking a Buddhist vow, but it’s still much stronger than just sometimes not doing it. So, very positive to do, to make this strong promise, and vow that I’m not going to rape, for example; and this is going to build up much more positive force than just avoiding raping. We actually make this vow, 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? But 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 to that, and we’ll cover later that so that we get more precise understanding.