Factors Involved in Transgressing Tantric Vows

General Presentation

The Four Binding Factors

According to the Gelug master, Kedrub Norzang Gyatso (mKhas-grub Nor-bzang rgya-mtsho) in A Lamp to Illuminate the Closely Bonding Practices (Dam-tshig gsal-ba’i sgron-me), except for the fifth root tantric vow, giving up aspiring bodhichitta, a downfall from the tantric vows (gsang-sngags-kyi rtsa-ltung), like a downfall from the root bodhisattva vows, requires transgressing one of the fourteen root vows with the four binding factors (kun-dkris bzhi) being complete. These factors must be held and maintained from the moment immediately after developing the motivation to break the vow, up until the moment right after completing the act of transgression. In such cases, we lose our tantric vows; otherwise, we merely weaken them.

[See: Common Root Tantric Vows]

The four binding factors derive from the Ethical Self-discipline Chapter (Tshul-khrims-gyi le’u) of Asanga’s Bodhisattva Stages of Mind (Byang-chub sems-dpa’i sa, Skt. Bodhisattvabhumi). They are:

  • not regarding the negative action as detrimental, seeing only advantages to it, and undertaking the action with no regrets,
  • having been in the habit of committing the transgression before, having no wish or intention to refrain now or in the future from repeating it,
  • delighting in the negative action and undertaking it with joy,
  • having no moral self-dignity or care for how our actions reflect on others, and thus having no intention of repairing the damage we are doing to ourselves and to them.

There are three levels of being bound by the binding factors. Only in the first case do we lose our tantric vows:

  • If all four binding factors are present when transgressing a root tantric vow, it is a great bind (kun-dkris chen-po).
  • If not regarding the negative action as detrimental is present, but not all of the other three factors, it is an intermediate bind (kun-dkris ‘bring).
  • If not regarding the negative action as detrimental is not present – in others words, if one does regard the transgression as detrimental – but any or all of the other binding factors are present, it is a small bind (kun-dkris chung-ngu).

Even if the four binding factors are present when transgressing one of the eight thick actions (sbom-po, secondary tantric vows), it is not a downfall and we do not lose our tantric vows.

[See: Secondary Tantric Vows]

Factors Needed for the Karmic Results to Be the Fullest

In addition, as with the ten destructive actions and the bodhisattva vows, for the karmic results to be the fullest, there must be complete:

  • a basis for the action, namely an object against whom or which the action is directed,
  • an action actually committed,
  • a finale that the action reaches.

Elsewhere, added to these three as what must also be complete are:

  • a person who commits the action, namely a holder of untransgressed tantric vows,
  • a correct discernment, namely of the object against whom or which the action is directed,
  • an attitude containing the four binding factors.

[See: The Main Points about Karma]

Factors Causing the Transgression of a Vow

Several factors may cause us to transgress our vows. The Dakini Vow Tantra (mKha’-‘gro-ma’i sdom-pa’i rgyud, Skt. Dakinisamvara Tantra) lists:

  • not knowing the vow,
  • not caring and being careless,
  • being overwhelmed by disturbing emotions,
  • lack of respect,
  • forgetfulness,
  • weak mindfulness.

Purification Methods

The procedures for purifying ourselves of the negative force built up by a transgression and subsequent loss of our tantric vows are, in general, to apply the four opponent forces (gnyen-po'i stobs-bzhi), after openly admitting our transgression. These forces are also applied for strengthening our tantric vows if we have weakened them:

  • sincere regret,
  • the firm decision not to repeat the transgression,
  • reaffirming our foundation, namely safe direction (refuge) and the bodhichitta aim,
  • application of counteracting opponent forces, such as repetition of the hundred-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva or the mantra of Samayavajra (Dam-tshig rdo-rje).

If we have lost our tantric vows by having incurred a downfall, the counteracting opponent forces include:

  • one hundred thousand repetitions of the hundred-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva and then retaking the tantric vows at another empowerment,
  • retaking the vows as part of performing the self-initiation (bdag-‘jug) of the Buddha-form (yi-dam) of our practice. We may only take the self-initiation if we have previously completed the serviceability retreat (las-rung) of that Buddha-form, during which we have repeated the relevant mantra at least a hundred thousand times and followed this by the appropriate fire-puja (sbying-sreg).

Further Detail

The Seven Conjoining Factors

The Drikung Kagyu master Rigdzin Chodrag (Kun-mkhyen Rig-‘dzin chos-grags), in Vajra Garland: Points in Which to Train with Regard to the Vows of Peerless Tantra (Bla-med rdo-rje theg-pa’i sdom-pa’i bslab-bya rdo-rje’i phreng-ba), lists seven conjoining factors (sbyor-ba bdun) that must be complete for a downfall from the tantric vows to occur:

  • being motivated by one of the three disturbing emotions,
  • knowing that to be that – this can be taken to mean discerning the action to be a fault, as in the four binding factors, or correctly discerning the basis for the action, as in the factors for karmic results to be the fullest,
  • not restraining the actions of our body or speech,
  • being parted from damaging – according to The Encyclopedia of Knowledge (Shes-bya kun-khyab), by the Rimey master Kongtrul (‘ Jam-mgon Kong-sprul Blo-gros mtha’-yas), this means there was too little damage, meaning interruption, made to the downfall’s being complete; in other words, if we apply opponents within three hours of transgressing the vows, this breaks or damages the infraction, but with this factor, we let more than three hours pass,
  • having known (the action to be faulty), not regretting it,
  • rejoicing in it,
  • not being deceived in our nature – this means not being of unsound mind or deranged when committing the action.

Rigdzin Chodrag then adds as a further stipulation:

  • letting more than the (permissible) time pass before openly admitting (the downfall to our tantric master while he or she is still alive) and retaking the vows.

Kongtrul, on the other hand, includes both not regretting the action and rejoicing in it as one factor and counts letting more than the permissible time pass as the seventh in the list of the seven conjoining factors.

The permissible time period within which to openly admit a downfall and retake the tantric vows varies according to the level of tantric master from whom we have received the vows.

  • If we have received them from a tantric master with three qualifications (gsum-ldan-gyi slob-dpon), the permissible time period is one year,
  • if from a tantric master with two qualifications (gnyis-ldan-gyi slob-dpon), two years,
  • if from a tantric master with one qualification (gcig-ldan-gyi slob-dpon), three years.

The three levels of tantric master are differentiated according to what we have received from them:

  • A tantric master with one qualification is one from whom we have received merely an empowerment (dbang; initiation).
  • One with two qualifications is one from whom, in addition to an empowerment, we have received an explanation of tantra.
  • One with three qualifications is one from whom, in addition to an empowerment and an explanation of the hidden (secret) points of tantra, we have received quintessence teachings (man-ngag) concerning a tantric practice.

Degrees of Transgression

There are several degrees of transgression of the tantric vows. Rigdzin Chodrag explains:

  • If all seven conjoining factors are complete when transgressing a vow, but the prescribed time has not elapsed before openly admitting the transgression and retaking the vows, it is a root downfall (rtsa-ltung). In such situations, we are able to retake the tantric vows.
  • If, in addition to the seven factors being complete, the prescribed time period has already passed, then the transgression is no longer a downfall, it is a total defeat (pham-pa). This means that we are disqualified from receiving another empowerment and retaking the vows.
  • If our transgression is not parted from being damaged – in other words, if we apply the opponents within three hours of committing the transgression – but the first three conjoining factors are present, then it is a thick action (sbom-po).
  • If the actions of our body and speech had merely become careless (bag-med-pa), but the other six conjoining factors are not present, then it is merely a faulty action (nyes-byas). Kongtrul adds that it is also a faulty action if we transgress a vow because of not remembering it.

If there is a special need for transgressing a tantric vow, it is not a faulty action. Such situations are enumerated in Essence Ornament for the General Procedures for All Secrets (gSang-ba thams-cad-kyi spyi’i cho-ga’i snying-po rgyan, Skt. Sarvaguhyavidhigarbhalamkara):

  • when done for a higher purpose, such as for the benefit of others,
  • when keeping the vow would cause an obstacle, endangering our life,
  • when we have received permission to disregard the vow from our tantric master,
  • when we are unable to keep it, such as because of illness.