We were discussing bodhichitta and what it means to be a bodhisattva, and we saw what role taking the bodhisattva vows has in the general progression of developing bodhichitta, and in the stages of developing bodhichitta. What’s really important is to understand the role of these vows and when we actually take them. Many of us may take them a bit prematurely when we really haven’t fully developed even the initial stages of bodhichitta. Nevertheless, even with a limited understanding of bodhichitta and not sincerely thinking of absolutely everybody, trying to follow the guidelines of the bodhisattva vows is very beneficial.
However, even if we’ve taken the bodhisattva vows, we need to continue working on improving our generation and development of bodhichitta, and never trivialize what is actually involved with the state of mind of bodhichitta. Because not only is it initially aimed at absolutely everybody equally, which is enormously vast, but it’s also aimed at enlightenment – our own not-yet-happening enlightenment – which is a vast attainment, and we need to have some sort of accurate concept of it.
Taking the Bodhisattva Vows vs the Pratimoksha Vows
When do we actually take bodhisattva vows? How do we take them? We take them either in a specific ceremony for taking the bodhisattva vows, or as part of a tantric initiation (or empowerment). Without going into the details of the different types of empowerments, subsequent permission, and these other types of tantric rituals – they all involve taking the bodhisattva vows. Those that are involved with the two highest classes of tantra, whether we’re speaking of the Nyingma tradition, so the highest class, or we’re speaking of the new traditions (Gelug, Sakya and Kagyu), it’s the same. If it’s an empowerment or subsequent permission with kriya or charya tantra, it has bodhisattva vows, and if it’s yoga tantra, it is both the bodhisattva and tantric vows. If it is in the New Schools’ anuttarayoga tantra or in the Nyingma mahayoga, anuyoga, or atiyoga (dzogchen), it also has bodhisattva and tantric vows.
Sakya Pandita, a great master, has said very clearly, “Without taking vows, there is no empowerment and there is no initiation.” To take the vows, we have to actually consciously know what we are doing and consciously accept them; otherwise, we have not taken the vows. For instance, if during the initiation we had no idea of what we were doing, it was all in a language that we didn’t understand, and only afterward somebody told us, “Well, actually, you took the bodhisattva and tantric vows,” don’t fool yourselves. We haven’t taken the vows or received the empowerment. Yes, we have been there; we have received what is commonly called in the West the “blessings of the empowerment,” which more technically would be inspiration from attending it, but we haven’t actually received the empowerment because we have not taken the vows and participated in the empowerment consciously.
If we have attended empowerments in this way without really knowing what we were doing or knowing what was going on, our attendance was no different from that of a pet dog that the Tibetans often bring to an empowerment – it does not receive the empowerment, by the way, by attending the initiation. Nevertheless, if we are trying to do the practices (the mantra and the visualizations and sadhana and so on) from the empowerment, that’s okay so long as we have the full intention that in the future, when the opportunity comes, we will take the initiation properly. Then, it’s okay. The main thing is not to be pretentious and think, “Oh I’ve accomplished so much!” when actually we haven’t.
For receiving the bodhisattva vows, it’s very necessary to have some level of the pratimoksha vow beforehand. “Pratimoksha vow” means a vow for individual liberation. This forms the basis or foundation for bodhisattva vows. This may be at the level of the householder lay vows, the novice monk or nun vows, or the fully ordained monk or nun vows; there’s also provisional nun vows. With the householder lay vows, there are five vows; we may take all five or four or three or two or one; it makes no difference – at least some level of the vows. That’s up to us and it is our own private decision. We don’t announce it to anyone, including the teacher. We can, but it’s not necessary.
These lay vows are not to take the life of others, not to kill; not to take what has not been given (not to steal); not to say or indicate what is untrue (not to lie); not to indulge in inappropriate sexual behavior – this word “inappropriate,” is a bit difficult to translate properly, but let’s call it that provisionally; finally, not to take intoxicants, referring specifically to alcohol but it can be extended to what we would call recreational drugs, like marijuana, heroin, cocaine, etc. We call them in English “recreational drugs,” which are things that we take purely for our own entertainment, and not medicinal for purposes; for instance, when terminal cancer patients are given morphine to deal with pain. We’re not referring to that or taking an aspirin for a headache.
This isn’t the place to go into detail about these five vows, but Tsongkhapa wrote in his Letter of Practical Advice on Sutra and Tantra that, first of all, “Whenever we enter the door of any Buddhist vehicle of mind” – so Hinayana, sutra Mahayana, or tantra Mahayana – “we need to set as its basis the ethical discipline of its own set of vows.” This is referring to the pratimoksha vows for Hinayana, or the bodhisattva vows for general Mahayana, and the tantric vows for the highest classes of tantra. He goes on to say, “And especially when we enter secret mantra,” – that’s tantra – “then since bodhichitta is the ultimate essential point for all the Mahayana pathway minds, it’s very important for that to be firm with the bodhisattva vows.”
Tsongkhapa emphasizes the need for bodhisattva vows with tantra. Tsongkhapa also goes on to say, “The actualizations gained by having taken bodhisattva vows, while having already been ordained on one of the levels according to the Vinaya rules of discipline” – in other words, either lay vows or novice or full monk or nun vows – “these are best.” Taking the bodhisattva vows, the actualizations that we get with the bodhisattva vows, based on one of these pratimoksha vows, “are best compared to those gained by having only maintained bodhisattva vows alone.” In other words, we’ll get firmer and more proper, higher realizations if we have a firm basis of a pratimoksha vow than if we only had bodhisattva vows.
Tsongkhapa goes on, “This is what Buddha meant when he said in many sutras that if there were two bodhisattvas equal in all respects, except that one was a householder with no vows of individual liberation” – in other words, no pratimoksha vows – “and the other ordained” – meaning that they had one of these levels, lay or monk or nun, “the latter,” the one with this level of vow, “would be more praiseworthy. Buddha has clearly set forth all these points in his presentation of the vows.”
[See: A Letter of Practical Advice on Sutra and Tantra]
We need some level of the pratimoksha vows before taking the bodhisattva vows, in addition, of course, to having developed some level of bodhichitta. Remember bodhisattva vows are taken when we achieve or attain this engaged state of bodhichitta. We have to have already developed the wishing or aspiring state of bodhichitta. We saw that the aspiring bodhichitta has two stages: the merely wishing stage – we merely wish to become a Buddha to benefit others; and the pledged state of never giving this aim up until we actually achieve enlightenment. When we develop that pledged state, it can be done at a separate ceremony. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often does this, giving a ceremony for the development of this aspiring state of bodhichitta which includes both the merely wishing and the pledged state, before he would give bodhisattva vows. Then, in terms of that pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta, we make a promise to try to follow the five types of trainings.
The Five Trainings for Bodhichitta Resolve
This means four trainings for bodhichitta resolve not to decline in this life, and one training for not losing our bodhichitta resolve in future lives. The last one entails avoiding four modes of behavior and practicing the four modes of behavior that are the opposite of it. This means that before we take bodhisattva vows, we are already following a certain type of training, a certain type of discipline, not just in terms of pratimoksha vows, but also in terms of these promises, these trainings.
What are these trainings? The four trainings are for bodhichitta resolve not to decline in this life. What we want to do is always have a strong bodhichitta aim. We don’t want to have it weaken. How would we make this strong? The first way would be to remember the benefits and advantages of developing bodhichitta every day. We have a long list of these benefits in the first chapter of Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. However, if we read that and go over it each day, obviously, this is very beneficial. Even if we don’t actually read the text as part of our daily practice, nevertheless, we can think of the main points to remind ourselves. The only way that we could possibly attain enlightenment is by having this bodhichitta aim: “I want to attain it, I’m working toward attaining it, I’m convinced that I can attain it, and what I’m going to do with it is to help all beings.”
Working with this scope, we are able to bring about happiness not only for ourselves – because we’re obviously working to overcome our own limitations if we’re going to achieve enlightenment – but we are going to able to benefit and bring happiness to everybody. Even if we just think in terms of worldly values, like being praised and appreciated by others, as Shantideva says, “If someone is praiseworthy just for giving a little bit of food to a few hungry people once” – like giving aid after an earthquake or something like that – “if that’s praiseworthy, what about bringing unending happiness to absolutely everybody in the universe that will last forever, and bringing them to enlightenment?”
If we’re working toward enlightenment, we are not going to get discouraged or tired (I don’t mean just on an ordinary level of getting tired at the end of the day), but we will have the strength: “I’ve got to achieve this to help everybody.” That gives us an unbelievable amount of strength all the time to be able to work toward helping others. It’s the best protection and antidote against acting destructively or acting like an idiot. “How can I act like an idiot? How can I be selfish? How can I act in a destructive way and hurt anybody if I’m really working to achieve enlightenment to benefit everybody?” There are lots of benefits, so we try to remind ourselves of this each day. I mean actually, it’s not just trying. We promise to do that, and on the basis of that promise, we try to do that.
The second training is to reaffirm and strengthen this motivation by rededicating our hearts each day, taking and regenerating bodhichitta, three times in the morning and three times in the evening. That doesn’t mean mindlessly reciting a verse. We could mindlessly recite a verse either in Tibetan or in our own language. Just because it’s in our own language doesn’t guarantee that it’s not going to be mindless. Mindless means just going “blah blah blah” and not actually feeling or generating anything in our mind except the words. That means we need to think of the benefits and then to actually go through the stages: equanimity, being open to absolutely everybody equally; everybody’s been kind, as a mother and other times, going through the whole line. Then, that way, this is going to reinforce our bodhichitta. If we do that every day, our bodhichitta resolve is not going to decline or get weaker.
Although we have certain practices, certain standard verses that we can use for generating this wish, generating this bodhichitta, that we can recite three times in the morning and three times in the evening, we need to try to not just leave that on the level of “blah blah blah.” Let’s not fool ourselves. That’s not easy to actually do every morning and every evening. It requires quite a bit of effort, doesn’t it?
The third training is to strive to build up the networks of positive force and deep awareness. It’s usually translated as the “collection of merit and wisdom.” In other words, we try as much as possible, with this wishing state of bodhichitta, to help others as much as we can. That builds up positive force. We don’t just sit on our cushion and wish everybody well but, even before we take the bodhisattva vows, we try to help others as much as we can. This is building up a network of positive force.
In other words, to just stay in our safe little meditation area: “I wish everybody well. I’m going to achieve enlightenment and help everybody,” but in daily life, we say to others when they ask for our help, “I’m too busy” and “I can’t be bothered,” and so on, this will not do. We try to help as much as possible. “As much as possible” means being realistic, not promising to do more than we are capable of doing at our current stage and in our current situation. Shantideva emphasizes that quite clearly. Don’t promise more than we can deliver. The expression that is used is “I invite everybody to be my guest to the banquet of enlightenment.” Shantideva says this in a very poetical way, which means that I am working for your enlightenment, so that I will invite you as this guest that will come to enlightenment as well. This we’re promising and this we are never going to give up, and this I will deliver to you when I achieve enlightenment. That’s different from what I was referring to, which is that a bodhisattva at one level doesn’t attempt to try to do the bodhisattva actions of a bodhisattva on a higher level. That’s poetically stated as “A fox doesn’t jump where a lion can jump.”
Shantideva says to examine ourselves carefully before we promise to do something like, “I’m going to translate the entire Kangyur into Russian,” when we can’t possibly deliver on that promise in this particular short period of time. We need to examine very well whether we can do it. It’s better to say “I can’t do it” beforehand, rather than to promise and start and then give up because we can’t do it. However, that’s different from promising to bring everybody to enlightenment. We try as much as possible to help others, to build up the network of positive force, to meditate on voidness, and to build up this network of deep awareness at whatever level of understanding of voidness we have. We ask, why am I doing this? “I’m doing this in order to achieve enlightenment to help everybody.” This helps our bodhisattva resolve to not decline.
The fourth training is we never give up trying (or at least wishing) to help anyone, no matter how difficult he or she may be. Remember, bodhichitta: we are working to benefit absolutely everybody, no matter how difficult they might be. Of course, we can extend this to the mosquito that is flying around our head while we are trying to go to sleep. “I’m never going to give up trying to help to bring you to enlightenment, Mr. Mosquito, because in your last lifetime you were my mother.” That is quite advanced, isn’t it? However, we can at least try to extend this to other human beings.
I’ll give an example from my own experience. There’s this one woman who is in Germany and she has severe schizophrenia; she is in quite a bad shape and refuses to go to professional psychiatric help. She’s always turning to various Dharma organizations and teachers to somehow help her and won’t even acknowledge that she’s schizophrenic. She’s especially attached to me and calls and sends me e-mails all the time. She’s been kicked out of so many different Dharma centers and organizations because she can be quite upsetting to other people when she’s around acting in a difficult way. When she calls me I always say to her, “Look,” I say very clearly, “I am not capable of helping you. This is beyond my capacity. I’m not a professional psychiatrist. I don’t know how to help you. You have to go to somebody professional.” Giving her some mantra to say, or something like that, is ridiculous. That’s not going to help her at this stage of mental disturbance.
Now it would be very easy if she calls, to just hang up and tell her, “Never call me again” and forget it. However, there’s this training. I’ve said very clearly that I can’t help you now, but at least I have the wish, “I wish that I could help you.” I’m not capable of doing it now. I don’t just throw her away in the garbage. This requires great patience and tolerance, of course, but this is the type of thing that we work on here with this training. The fact that I don’t tell her to piss off and get lost is at least some help. Although, as I was just saying before, I’m not pretending that I can do more than I can. I can’t help her.
Those are the four trainings for our bodhisattva resolve not to decline in this life. The fifth training that we promise to follow is intended for not losing our bodhichitta resolve in future lives. This involves four sets of contrasting modes of behavior. That means avoiding or stopping acting in a certain way and acting in the opposite way instead. That’s what we mean by a contrasting mode of behavior.
The Four Sets of Contrasting Modes of Behavior
The first behavior is we stop deceiving our gurus, parents, and the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha). Instead, we’re always honest with them, especially about our motivation and our efforts to help others. This is very important. With parents, to start with, they are the ones that are going to take care of us as babies and raise us and so on. We’re always going to have to be dependent on parents – unless we were born from a lotus like Guru Rinpoche, but let’s speak more of what would happen more commonly. Because of their kindness to us and our need to rely on parents in the future, we don’t want to act in a way that deceives them, that’s cheating them, pretending to be something that we’re not, particularly in terms of spiritual things. However, as I said, we are honest with them.
This behavior is very clear and straightforward when we’re talking about our spiritual teachers. We don’t want to deceive and lie to them and say, “Oh, I’ve had this realization, or that realization,” when we haven’t, or “I’m doing this or that practice,” when we’re not. Or in terms of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (the Triple Gem): “I’m going in this direction, I’m putting this direction in my life,” and we’re not. We’re working just for some sort of harmful purpose. If we want to continue in future lives with our bodhichitta, we need to rely on parents; we’re going to need to rely on gurus; we’re going to need to rely on refuge, the safe direction of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. That’s why we don’t deceive them. We’re honest with them so that we will continue to have the circumstances in future lives to develop this bodhichitta resolve, to refresh and regenerate it in future lives.
The bodhisattva and tantric vows are not like the pratimoksha vows. We take the pratimoksha vows just for this lifetime. The bodhisattva and tantric vows, we take for all our lifetimes, all the way up to enlightenment. If we take bodhisattva vows in this lifetime, in the next lifetime, in the beginning, they’re going to be dormant, sleeping. Let’s say we’re born as a cockroach. Does the cockroach have bodhisattva vows? If the cockroach took the bodhisattva vows in his previous lifetime, well, yes, but they are dormant. It’s sort of somewhere there on the mental continuum. However, the cockroach is not practicing bodhisattva behavior.
We take a bodhisattva vow until our enlightenment. For example, if now I die with my bodhisattva vows intact, and I am reborn as a cockroach, do I still have bodhisattva vows as the cockroach in the cockroach lifetime? Yes. Are they active? No. We are going to have to regenerate and develop bodhichitta, and take the bodhisattva vows once more, even if we are reborn as a human being. That means we’re going to have to depend on parents and a spiritual teacher and the Triple Gem. We want to have an honest straightforward relationship with them and not one of deception. Because what happens if we have a deceptive teacher? Then, we get into all sorts of abusive situations, cults, and parents that could abuse us, and so on. We want to avoid that so that we’ll be able to develop pure bodhichitta again in future lifetimes.
However, as I said, with parents it’s a little bit delicate, as many of us might have parents that aren’t necessarily understanding or in favor of our spiritual path. We’re not talking about having to tell our parents every tiny detail of our personal life. We don’t have to lie, but that doesn’t mean we have to say absolutely everything. What it’s referring to is in terms of spiritual things and helping them. If we say we’re going to help our parents take out the garbage every day, then we take out the garbage every day. We don’t deceive them, in terms of helping them, and when they ask about our spiritual practice. “Well, yes, I am…” We don’t lie that this is not something important in our life.
The second behavior is we stop faulting and being contemptuous of bodhisattvas. Being contemptuous means that we dislike someone; we are finding fault because we are angry with this person. The problem here is that unless we’re a Buddha, we can never be certain who is actually a bodhisattva. The opposite of this is to regard everyone as our teacher. Even if people are acting in a crude and distasteful type of way, nevertheless, they teach us to not behave in that way. Now, we have to be very careful with this because we could have a fault of saying this is a law, and it has an existence all by itself from its own side, and we don’t try to see the relativity of this. This is not saying that if somebody is acting destructively, we don’t try to stop them. For instance, somebody’s making a mistake or somebody is acting harmfully, then that’s part of the bodhisattva vows: if we have the ability to stop them, we stop them. Buddha did that all the time. The point is not to find fault, with anger and hatred. “You’re a bad person and now I’m going to punish you, I’m going to hit you.” This person is acting destructively; they are my teacher; of course, they are teaching me not to act that way. However, I want to help them, and to help them I need to help them to stop building up negative karma and to stop causing harm. We’re doing this out of love and compassion.
My own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, I remember, without mentioning any names, there was another Tibetan spiritual master who was teaching his students to do something, to practice a certain practice which was very advanced, beyond the level of these students. Serkong Rinpoche, said, “Well, yes, this teacher’s motivation might be a pure, bodhichitta type of motivation to help others, but he’s not very skillful in his methods.” He was pointing out a fault and he wasn’t even pointing it out to that teacher, but pointing it out to me, his student. Is this gossip? No. What was Serkong Rinpoche doing? He was pointing out – he was not angry at this other teacher, but he was teaching me that regardless of our good intentions and bodhichitta motivation and aim, we have to be skillful in the methods that we use to help others. We need to think carefully about what we teach others.
We acknowledge that somebody is doing a fault when they are doing a fault; we don’t have anger, and we try to learn from that. If the other person is receptive to changing, we point out their fault. If they are a bodhisattva, or aspiring to be a bodhisattva, that doesn’t mean that they are as skillful as a Buddha and know exactly what is the best way to act and the benefit of this. We do this without setting ourselves up as: “I am the holy authority” and “Holy, holy, sacred me! I know what is best.” Certainly not in that type of pretentious way, but very humbly, offering advice.
The point is not to criticize, not to find fault out of anger; it says “with contemptuous state of mind,” with hating the person and being angry with them. Because they are trying. We don’t know. We’re not a Buddha, so we don’t know if they’re acting this way because they’re an unskillful bodhisattva, or if they’re acting this way just because they are incredibly deluded. The point is not to get angry with the person because they might be a potential bodhisattva, and so maybe what they’re doing is to teach us something. Then, we continue to have respect for bodhisattva behavior, and that will help us to continue having this bodhichitta resolve in future lives.
The third behavior is we stop causing others to regret anything positive or constructive they have done. Instead, we encourage others to be constructive and helpful, and if they’re receptive, we encourage them to work on developing bodhichitta, following the spiritual path to enlightenment. For instance, somebody’s doing something constructive, let’s say they are doing some type of spiritual practice, following some teacher which is not our own. What we need to avoid is causing them to regret that: “You’re stupid for going to that teacher, doing that practice, or belonging to that Dharma center” – causing them to regret having done that. They could get very discouraged and not want to continue at all. Instead, we encourage and help them.
If what they are doing is constructive and positive, great! If they are receptive, we might suggest further things that they can do. If they’re not receptive, we don’t. If we want everybody to reach enlightenment, then what is going to help them to reach enlightenment is their acting constructively; if they’ve acted constructively, encourage them. Don’t discourage them by causing them to regret it. For instance, they donated money to this other Dharma center, not to our Dharma center. “Aww, you shouldn’t have given it to them – you should have given it to me.” This is not something we do.
The last behavior of these four sets, is we stop being hypocritical and pretentious in our dealings with others. Being “hypocritical” would be to hide our faults and pretend that we don’t have them, and “pretentious” means that we pretend to have qualities that we don’t have. We’re a hypocrite: We tell someone not to smoke cigarettes, but we go outside or in our room and smoke cigarettes. That’s being a hypocrite. We’re hiding our own shortcomings. Instead of acting like that in our dealings with others, if we’re taking responsibility to help others, we have to always be honest and open with them. What are our limitations? What are our abilities? That’s very important to know.
Especially if we’re in the Dharma area and trying to help others either as a teacher or a Dharma practitioner, don’t pretend to be some holy sort of being when we’re not. Many people who are desperate for help very easily will project all sorts of things onto someone whom they see as possibly being able to help them. They romanticize, idealize, and have all sorts of false hopes. Often they are extremely disappointed in the end and get very discouraged – “disillusioned” we say in English – and might even give up.
However, if we are in a position to help others, or if we’re a teacher, we don’t have to necessarily reveal absolutely everything about our shortcomings; when it’s relevant to the other person, we admit our shortcomings. “I haven’t studied this. I still get impatient. I still get angry.” We admit these shortcomings. We don’t hide them, but we say we’re working on them. Because if we’re trying to help others – although they could be inspired by some idealization – often what will be more inspiring on a stable level is the example of somebody who is very sincerely working on their shortcomings. That is something that we can relate to more as a student needing help.
These are the five types of trainings that we promise to follow when we have the aspiring state of bodhichitta, and specifically, the pledged aspiring state. Four trainings for the bodhichitta resolve not to decline in this lifetime; and one training (which actually has these four parts) of not losing our bodhichitta resolve in future lives.