The Ritual for Taking the Bodhisattva Vows

Taking the Vows for Involved Bodhichitta, Engaged Bodhichitta 

(19) Except through the vows that are the very nature of engaged bodhichitta, your pure aspiration will never come to increase. Therefore, with the wish to progress toward aspired full enlightenment, take them definitely on, energetically for that sake. 

The engaged state of bodhichitta is when we actually engage ourselves in the practices that will bring us to enlightenment, and that means taking the bodhisattva vows. Basically, a vow is setting up the boundaries and saying that, “I’m going to refrain from negative behavior which is beyond these boundaries.” Thus, a vow is to restrain from something negative. 

The way that we are actually going to reach enlightenment is through practicing the six far-reaching attitudes, which are sometimes called the “six perfections.” They’re “far-reaching,” that’s literally what the Tibetan and Sanskrit mean, in the sense that they’re going to take us all the way to enlightenment. 

With the bodhisattva vows, there are various vows in association with each of these far-reaching attitudes, things that we are going to avoid, that would make a serious problem in terms of our practice of generosity, ethical discipline, patience, perseverance, mental stability or concentration, and discriminating awareness or wisdom, or that would prevent us in general from helping others. These vows are regarding things that we want to avoid. There are 18 primary ones and 46 secondary ones, and we can find extensive discussion of these in various articles on the Study Buddhism website. 

Atisha says here, “unless we take these vows, which is the nature of engaged bodhichitta,” – in other words, engaged bodhichitta means taking the vows, structuring our behavior in this way – “then that aspiration” to achieve enlightenment is not going to take us all the way there, “is not going to increase” all the way to actually bringing us to enlightenment. We have to do something; we have to work to develop ourselves. 

He says if we want to make progress toward that full enlightenment that we aspire to, that we’re wishing to achieve, then we have “to definitely take on these vows.” We have to do it very consciously, in a very formal manner. By “energetically,” he means that it is not casual; we put effort into actually keeping these vows. 

What would be the preparation for this? Is there a prerequisite for taking these vows? Atisha says: 

(20) Those who maintain at all times other vows from any of the seven classes for individual liberation have the proper share for the bodhisattva vows; others do not. 

The vows for individual liberation are called the “pratimoksha vows” in Sanskrit. The seven classes are the vows for a layman or a laywoman and then a provisional nun − provisional means we’re trying it out for a few years before we make up our mind to actually do it – and then the vows for a novice monk and a novice nun and then the vows for a full monk and a full nun. Those are the seven classes. 

When we speak about lay vows, there are five of them, but it’s not necessary to take all five; any number of them will be sufficient. The five are: refraining from (1) taking a life, killing, (2) stealing, (3) lying, (4) indulging in inappropriate sexual behavior, in other words, acting under the influence of extreme disturbing emotions, with complete overwhelming desire or hatred, to hurt somebody through sexual behavior, or naivety, thinking that it’s a path to liberation, and (5) taking intoxicants − that’s alcohol, and we would also include drugs. 

If we maintain one of these vows for individual liberation or liberation from samsara, then also, on the way, we get liberated from the indecisiveness of, “Should I have a drink? Should I not have a drink?” “Should I kill this mosquito? Should I not kill this mosquito?” When we’ve taken a vow, our mind is made up, “I’m not going to do it,” and then we’re free from this indecision, from this tension. These vows are very liberating not only in the sense of helping us to achieve ultimate liberation, but also very liberating on the path. 

If we are keeping some level of these vows, then we “have the proper share,” he says. We have the proper portion of ethical discipline that will serve as the basis for us to be able to take and keep the bodhisattva vows, which are subtler than these pratimoksha vows. 

For instance, first what we want to avoid is praising ourselves and putting down others because of our attachment to getting things from people. For instance, saying, “Oh, I’m the best teacher,” or “I’m the best this or that and nobody else is any good,” because we want to get people to come to us. That really prevents us from being able to help others, because we’re trying to get others to give us something over anybody else, so it’s really very self-interested. If people understand that, and if people are not so stupid and they figure that out, then they’re not going to trust us and not going to trust our motivation. That’s going to make a big obstacle to being able to help others, so we want to avoid that. 

That’s a very subtle type of discipline with our speech, and what’s going to give us the basis for being able to restrain ourselves from that type of harmful speech is if we at least have a foundation of restraining ourselves from lying, thanks to the pratimoksha vows. Then, that gives us the opportunity to restrain. It’s the share of discipline, to be able to restrain from something a little bit more subtle. Those who don’t have this type of basis of one of these seven classes of vows, Atisha says, don’t really have a firm foundation for being able to keep the bodhisattva vows. 

Not all Buddhist masters, particularly in some of the Tibetan traditions, agree with Atisha. Some of them say, “Well, tantric vows are enough; you don’t need to take any other vows.” However, Atisha’s advice is followed very strictly in the Gelug tradition at least, and there’s a great deal of wisdom behind Atisha’s advice. 

The Optimal Situation for Being Able to Take the Bodhisattva Vows and Keep Them

(21) As for the seven classes for individual liberation, the Thus Gone One has asserted in his explanations that those of glorious celibacy are supreme; and those are the vows for fully ordained monks. 

The “Thus Gone One,” that’s how I translate the word Tathagata. Tathagata is another name for a Buddha. The gata of Tathagata is “gone” or “progressed;” they have gone or gone through stages, and tatha means “thusly in this way” or “accordingly,” according to the proper understanding of voidness, so that when they achieve enlightenment, what they have progressed to is in accordance with all the descriptions of a Buddha, and they’ve seen things according to how they actually are. There’s a lot of meaning to the word Tathagata

Buddha has said that, of these seven classes, the one that’s supreme is the class of vows of “glorious celibacy.” Atisha explains in his commentary that “celibacy” means restraining from sexual conduct and from alcohol, from intoxicants; so it’s abstaining from both. Calling celibacy “glorious” is saying that this is something which is a very positive thing; he’s talking about full celibacy, and this is referring to the vows of a fully ordained monk. 

One has to understand this within the context of Indian society at that time, since obviously fully ordained nuns have the exact same vow. However, in that context of ancient India, women were not treated in an equal type of way; Atisha’s statement is not a reflection on female rebirth, but it’s a reflection on the society of the time. It’s not a fault within women; it’s a fault within the society of that time. A woman would face many more obstacles in trying to help others as a bodhisattva than a man in the same role would face. 

A woman going out and trying to help men in a difficult situation might be raped by them, for example, so she would face more obstacles. That’s why he’s saying as a monk one has a better situation for being able to benefit others. This may not be the case at present in our Western societies. One has to understand these types of statements about men and women within the context of the time when these were taught. 

Here it’s referring to the disadvantage of a layperson’s having a partner or being married. Obviously, in this context of India, we’re talking about a layperson being married and having a household; this might be a bit of a problem in terms of really working to benefit all beings because we have a very serious responsibility to our family and taking care of them. Furthermore, when we have a sexual partner, our attention is very strongly focused on this person, and we would like to spend more time with this person than with anybody else. We tend to want to stop helping others, at least for a while, so that we can go off and have our private life with our lover. So, that could be a problem. 

Similarly, if we are taking intoxicants, alcohol, drugs, and so on, that clouds our judgment, our discrimination. We can get very lazy; they can make us sleepy; they have many drawbacks that could prevent us from really helping others. We become dependent. Usually, we feel that we can’t do certain things unless we have our drug. 

This is not stating that unless we are a fully ordained monk, we can’t really follow the bodhisattva path; it’s not stating that. It’s just saying that if we are a fully ordained monk and live this type of life of abstinence, this would be the optimal situation for being able to take the bodhisattva vows and keep them. 

Taking the Bodhisattva Vows from a Qualified Guru

How do we take these bodhisattva vows? Atisha says: 

(22) Through the ritual well expounded in the “Ethical Discipline Chapter” of The Bodhisattva Stages take the (bodhisattva) vows from an excellent, fully qualified guru. 

The Bodhisattva Stages is a text by Asanga. It’s called Bodhisattvabhumi in Sanskrit. It talks about the stages of the bodhisattva path, and there’s a chapter on ethical discipline that talks about the bodhisattva vows, and there’s a ritual there for actually taking them. If we take the vows with that type of ritual, then we need to take it from a spiritual teacher, a “guru,” and that teacher needs to be “fully qualified.” 

One of the qualifications for such a Mahayana guru, someone who can give the vows, Atisha presents in the next verse. He says: 

(23) Know that an excellent guru is someone who is skilled in the vow ceremony, by nature lives by the vows, has the confidence to confer the vows, and possesses compassion. 

The teacher has to be “someone who is skilled in the ceremony,” in other words, knows how to perform the ritual. And “by nature” they’re somebody that actually “lives according to these vows.” They have bodhichitta and these bodhisattva vows, and they really follow them; they really keep them, so they’re somebody with pure bodhisattva vows themselves. 

They have “the confidence to confer the vows.” This word is “confidence” here, and actually, the Tibetan word is the word for patience. “Patience” can imply that they have the patience to endure all the difficulties that are involved in keeping the vows and in teaching others the bodhisattva path, the patience not to get discouraged in terms of helping others, because sometimes people are very difficult to help and give us a hard time. We can understand all of this from the word that’s used here, “patience.” 

However, many of the commentaries explain that word as “confidence,” in the sense that if the teacher has these different types of patience, then they have a great deal of strength, inner strength: that of keeping the vows, of being able to deal with others, helping others, and so on. It’s this strength or self-confidence that allows them to really serve as an ethical authority, an authority of bodhichitta that will inspire confidence in us as well when taking the bodhisattva vows from them. 

A good example is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We look at His Holiness and how much difficulty he faces, what a hard time he faces from the Chinese, from the difficulties within the Tibetan community itself, and from the nearly hopeless situation that the Tibetans face. Yet he still continues to help others, to have compassion, to have patience with all of this, and this really gives him moral authority, this “confidence to confer the vows.” 

The fourth quality that Atisha lists is that the teacher needs to actually “possess compassion,” which means be sincerely compassionate, really wishing for others to be free from suffering and the causes for suffering and is really working in that direction, not just saying so. 

Ritual for Taking Bodhisattva Vows Without a Guru

What happens if we can’t find such a guru? Then, there’s another ritual for being able to take the bodhisattva vows without a guru. This is actually quite significant. For pratimoksha vows, vows for individual liberation, or for tantric vows, we have to have a teacher in order to take them. We can’t just take them without a teacher; although with tantric vows, we can renew without a teacher, but to take them for the first time it has to be with a teacher. For bodhisattva vows, it is possible to take them for the first time without a teacher. Actually, it’s not that we take the vows from a teacher, in a sense, because one makes these promises in terms of the Buddhas; the teacher is the vehicle through which it is done. 

(24) However, if you have made effort in this and have been unable to find such a guru, there is a ritual other than that for receiving the vows, which I shall explain in full. 

There’s a source for this in the sutras, it’s not just something that he makes up. He says: 

(25) Concerning this, I shall write here very clearly how Manjushri generated bodhichitta in previous times when he was King Ambaraja, just as is explained in The Sutra of an Adornment for Manjushri’s Buddha-Field

This is the source, and the following verses are what Manjushri recited and what we would also recite when taking the bodhisattva vows in this way, without a teacher. Obviously, there’s a more elaborate ritual than this. This is just giving the main features of how Manjushri did it. 

(26) “Before the eyes of my Guardians, I generate bodhichitta and, inviting all wandering beings as my guests, I shall liberate them from uncontrollable rebirth. 

By “Guardians,” this is referring to the Buddhas, that they are guardians of us. They help us along the path and protect us from wandering astray. “With them as my witness, I generate this bodhichitta resolve,” reaffirm it, “and I invite all wandering beings as my guests.” In other words, “I’m focused on everybody that’s wandering through uncontrollable rebirth, and they’re my guests, I invite them,” that means that we’re not going to let them down. 

Attitudes and Behavior to be Abandoned or Adopted

What am I going to do for them? “I’m going to try to liberate them from uncontrollable rebirth.” That means that I’m going to work to help them as much as I can now and try to achieve enlightenment so that I can help them as best as possible, although obviously, it’s impossible for anybody with just a snap of the fingers to liberate everyone.

(27) From now until my attainment of a supreme purified state, I shall never act with harmful intentions, an angered mind, miserliness, or jealousy. 

When talking about “purified state” – the word is bodhi in Sanskrit – it could be the purified state of a liberated being, an arhat, who would be either a shravaka or pratyekabuddha arhat. The supreme purified state is the attainment of a Buddha; so, enlightenment. So, “from now until my attainment of that supreme purified state,” in other words, enlightenment, “from now until then, I’m going to never act,” which means “I’m going to try never to act” because obviously, it’s impossible to promise that we’re never going to get angry again; however, “I certainly am going to try my best not to do that.” 

“I’m not going to act with harmful intentions,” which is the exact opposite of love; we want them to be happy, not for them to be unhappy. “Harmful intentions” is the wish for them to be unhappy, that something terrible happens to them. 

“I’m not going to act with an angered mind,” a mind that thinks, “I’m really angry with you and I don’t like you anymore and I reject you;” “I’m not going to act like that.” To “not act with miserliness,” where miserly means that we hold back and think, “I don’t want to share what I have with you. I don’t want to give anything to you.” It could also be that we’re talking about being miserly with our help; it doesn’t necessarily mean being unwilling to give or share material things. We can be very miserly with our time, our energy and so on. It’s saying, “I’m not going to be that way.” 

“I’m not going to act with jealousy.” Jealousy can have many negative connotations here. One would be where somebody else does something that’s helpful and we think, “I’m jealous that I didn’t do it because I want all the credit.” We are unhappy about anything positive that the other person did, and we wish that they hadn’t done it. That’s also very negative in terms of working for the benefit of everybody. The benefit of everybody doesn’t mean that “I have to benefit them.” We should think, instead, “If anybody benefits them, that’s wonderful.” 

Another form of jealousy is if somebody gave something to somebody else, did something nice for somebody else, we’re jealous that “They didn’t give it to me.” If they’re showing love to somebody else, “They’re not showing their love to me,” so “I’m jealous.” We are also not going to act like that; it’s not that we want things for ourselves. 

(28) I shall live according to celibate behavior; I shall rid myself of negativities and attachment/greed. Taking joy in the vows of ethical discipline, I shall continually train myself as the Buddhas have done. 

This is in the context of being an ordained monk going to live according to celibate behavior. Certainly one would want not to have the motivating main force in our lives devoted all the time to our sexual partner, having a lover, or getting drunk all the time. The best is to devote all our time and energy to helping others. Of course, that has to be within the context of knowing when to take a break and not pushing too hard and being a fanatic; otherwise, it’s self-defeating. 

Now, obviously, sexual drive is something that is very strong in many of us. To deny or repress that, especially if it’s done in an unhealthy way, can also be a big obstacle. However, it is important to not be ruled by our sexual drives, not be overwhelmed by them, particularly if we’re trying to help somebody whom we find attractive. What is our motive for helping them? Is it just, “I want to help this one because I find them attractive? What am I really after? Am I after them liking me, or getting some sort of sexual favor from them, rather than really helping them?” 

That can really distract us, really make a big problem; if the other person realizes that, they can become very negative toward us. Even if we are actually helping them, there’s part of us that still wants to get physically close to the other person, so this undermines our pure motive. It’s quite interesting, if this is the case, to examine ourselves and see, “Would I be so interested in helping this person if they didn’t look the way that they look, if I found this person ugly?” 

If we find that we wouldn’t be so interested in helping the person if they looked like somebody that we found very unattractive, then we really need to examine what’s going on with our motivation. If our sexual drive is strong, we need to somehow deal with that, be honest with that, find some sort of resolution that’s not going to make a major impediment in our helping others. Also, as Shantideva points out in his text, when we’re trying to gain concentration, single-minded concentration, the biggest distraction is going to be mental wandering because of sexual desire. 

Atisha says, “I need to rid myself of negativities and also attachment.” It’s a word that can mean either attachment or greed, wanting to get something that we don’t have, or if we have it, not wanting to let go and wanting even more. “Negativities” can also refer to the negative force that’s been built up by our destructive behavior, so we want to purify ourselves of that, because when we have such negative force, we’re always thinking in a very depressed way and in a very defeatist, negative type of way; so we want to rid ourselves of that. 

Then, “taking joy in the vows of ethical discipline;” in other words, not feeling that this is a terrible burden and like a prison sentence that we’re abstaining from these things, but taking joy in it, “This is wonderful. This is giving me a structure that will allow me to help others. How wonderful it is that Buddha has pointed out the things to avoid if we want to help others. This is great. I didn’t have to learn by making mistakes myself; the Buddha has pointed out the things to avoid.” “I’m delighted with this, this is wonderful. Thank you.” 

By taking joy in these vows and this discipline, we think, “I’m going to continually train the way the Buddhas have done,” and follow their examples. That doesn’t mean that we have to do absolutely everything exactly the way that our teacher does. We’re not going to be monkeys and just blindly imitate. We obviously have to adapt what the Buddhas and our teachers have done to the circumstances that we face in life and the people that we meet and the connections we have to be able to help them, but follow the basic themes of training the way the Buddhas have done. 

(29) I shall take no delight in attaining enlightenment by a speedy means for my own self, 

In other words, we’re not going to just work to achieve enlightenment for ourselves, but we’re going to work for the sake of others. Atisha then says in the second half, 

but I shall remain until the end of the future, if it be a cause for (helping) one limited being. 

Even if we’re helping just “one limited being,” “I’m going to continue to work,” and “I’m not just working for myself.” 

(30) I shall cleanse everything into immeasurable, inconceivable realms and remain everywhere in the ten directions for those who have called my name. 

That means that I’m going to try to make everything around me into what, he says, is an “immeasurable, inconceivable realm”; in other words, make everything like a Buddha-realm, “so that everything around me is conducive for people being able to make spiritual progress.” In this sense, we “cleanse” the atmosphere around us. 

And remain everywhere in the ten directions,” so no matter where, “I’m going to remain to help those who have called my name,” in other words, those who have some sort of karmic connection with me to be helped by me and who call for me to help them. 

Then, the last verse of this quotation is: 

(31) I shall purify all the actions of my body and speech, and purify as well the actions of my mind: I shall never commit any destructive acts.” 

In “purify the actions of body, speech, and mind,” “purify” can have two meanings: either we purify away all the obstacles that are preventing our body, speech and mind from functioning at their fullest, so purifying away the negative potentials, or “purify” can be understood in the sense that we’re going to try to make “all the actions of my body and speech” pure; in other words, act in a pure way with a proper bodhichitta motivation and aim. 

Finally, “I shall never commit any destructive acts” means, at least, “I’m going to try not to act in a destructive way from the negative emotions or attitudes.