Bodhisattva Vows, Training, and Receiving Tantric Initiation

Bodhisattva Vows

For practicing the engaged state of bodhichitta and being best able to practice the six far-reaching attitudes, we need to take the bodhisattva vows. This involves refraining from committing the 18 root downfalls and the 46 faulty actions that transgress these vows. Atisha states:

(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.

An example of the 18 actions that constitute a root downfall from the bodhisattva vows would be praising ourselves and criticizing or putting down others. This is something we shouldn't do. Bodhisattvas never praise themselves and, likewise, never speak badly about others and say that they are no good. 

To have a complete downfall from these vows, the transgression has to be complete with what are known as the “four binding factors.” These four binding factors make the breach complete, and we lose the vows. For instance, in terms of praising ourselves and criticizing others, the binding factors are: 

  • Doing this constantly and continually
  • Not seeing it as being mistaken
  • Being happy about doing it and not thinking to turn away from repeating doing it
  • Having no sense of self-respect or care for how our actions reflect on others.

 Various further details are involved and, again, you can learn these from the geshes.  

The second root downfall transgressing the vows is, out of miserliness, being unwilling to share, give, or teach the Dharma to others, or being unwilling to share wealth and possessions. To be unwilling to share the teachings and wealth and possessions with others out of anger or hostility is one of the 46 faulty actions, whereas doing this out of miserliness is a root downfall. 

Another root downfall is, if someone does something wrong and we get angry, and then they apologize and say, “I'm sorry; please forgive me,” we don’t forgive them but continue to hold a grudge and be angry with them. Doing that is a root downfall. In other words, the root downfall is not forgiving someone when they apologize. 

Another downfall is saying that the Mahayana teachings are not the teachings of the Buddha and refusing to practice them. Still another root downfall is to follow distorted teachings and to consider a distorted version of the Dharma as being the correct Dharma and following that. 

There are 18 root downfalls like these. These are things that you should ask about in the future, and receive teachings on them so that you are aware and recognize what the various vows are and can actually keep them purely. 

Concerning the pre-requisites for receiving the bodhisattva vows, Atisha states:

(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.

This refers to having as a basis for development of the bodhisattva vows one of the seven sets of vows for individual liberation, known as the pratimoksha vows. Atisha states that, among the seven, the full vows of a celibate monk are supreme:

(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.

One way to receive the bodhisattva vows is through a ritual ceremony with a fully qualified spiritual teacher. Atisha explains:

(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 ritual ceremony Atisha specifies is from the “Ethical Discipline Chapter” of The Bodhisattva Stages (Byang-sa, Skt. Bodhisattvabhumi) by Asanga. 

As for who would be an excellent, fully qualified guru, Atisha 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.

This is how we take the bodhichitta vows when there is a lama present. However, if there is no lama present, then there is another method for doing this: 

(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.

Atisha gives the source for this point: 

(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.

Atisha then gives the actual ceremony and the words that we recite during 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.
(27) From now until my attainment of a supreme purified state, I shall never act with harmful intentions, an angered mind, miserliness, or jealousy.
(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.
(29) I shall take no delight in attaining enlightenment by a speedy means for my own self, but shall remain until the end of the future, if it be a cause for (helping) one limited being.
(30) I shall cleanse everything into immeasurable, inconceivable realms and remain everywhere in the ten directions for those who have called my name.
(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.”

Training in Bodhisattva Behavior

Higher Ethical Self-Discipline

Having received the bodhisattva vows, we need to engage in the three higher trainings that we discussed before. The first of these, the training in higher ethical self-discipline, has three aspects: 

  • The ethical self-discipline of refraining from negative actions
  • The ethical self-discipline of following vowed rules of conduct
  • The ethical self-discipline of working to benefit all living beings. 

Atisha states:  

(32) If you train yourself well in the three trainings of ethical discipline by living in accord with the vows that are the very nature of engaged bodhichitta and which are a cause for purifying completely your body, speech, and mind, your respect for the three trainings in ethical discipline will increase.

He then gives the preeminent qualities of practicing this higher training: 

(33) Through this (will come) the completely purified, full state of enlightenment; for, by exerting yourself in the vows of the bodhisattva vows, you will fully complete the networks needed for total enlightenment.

Regarding the preeminent qualities of developing an enlightening motive, Atisha says that if we develop this state of mind on our mental continuums, we will quickly be able to attain enlightenment.

In order to continue in our practice, we need to put into practice all six of the far-reaching attitudes, the six perfections: 

  • First, we need to practice generosity, giving to others
  • Second, we need to keep pure ethical self-discipline, self-control, and
  • Third, we need to practice patience. Patience is the main remedy or opponent to counter anger. Anger is extremely negative because, with anger, we can destroy all the positive potential and force that we’ve built up in the past. Therefore, it’s extremely important to perfect the practice of patience. 
  • The fourth is the practice of perseverance. With perseverance, we take pleasure in any constructive action we undertake and work with great effort and enthusiasm to see it through to the end. 

Training in Higher Concentration

To be able to benefit others and work for their sakes, it’s very important to have advanced awareness, ESP. Without this, it’s very difficult to really be of benefit. For instance, one time, a fish jumped out of a river and someone came along and put it back in the water. Although this person had a kind heart with a very good motivation, wanting to benefit this fish, he didn’t have advanced awareness so he couldn’t see what was in the water. When he put the fish back in the water, it was quickly devoured and eaten up by some larger carnivorous fish. If we really wish to help others with compassion, then it’s very important to have advanced awareness because if we don’t, we could make many disastrous mistakes like this.  

The method for developing advanced awareness is to develop a stilled and settled mind of shamatha. This is what we need to develop first. Atisha states:  

(34) As for the cause that will fully complete these networks having the nature of positive force and deep awareness, all the Buddhas have asserted that it is the development of advanced awareness.
(35) Just as a bird without fully developed wings cannot fly in the sky, likewise, lacking the force of advanced awareness, you will be unable to fulfill the aims of limited beings.
(36) Whatever positive force is had in a day and a night by someone possessing advanced awareness is not had even in a hundred lifetimes by someone lacking advanced awareness.

Therefore, if we wish to fully and quickly complete our network of positive potential for total enlightenment, we should make effort and thereby come to achieve advanced awareness. Advanced awareness is not to be had by the lazy. Atisha states:  

(37) Therefore, if you would wish to fully complete, quickly, the networks for total enlightenment, make effort and thereby come to attain advanced awareness. It is not to be had by the lazy.
(38) Someone who has not achieved a stilled settled mind will not attain advanced awareness. Therefore, repeatedly exert effort to actualize a stilled settled mind.

A stilled and settled state of shamatha is necessary to gain advanced awareness, and in general, it’s absolutely necessary to have this state of absorbed concentration, samadhi, in order to attain Buddhahood. This is something that we should not neglect.

If we don’t know the methods for achieving single-pointed, absorbed concentration, even if we practice for a thousand years, we won’t be able to attain it. Therefore, it’s extremely important to know the proper methods. If we do and we practice properly, then it’s possible to attain this state within six months. 

The methods for achieving a stilled and settled mind of shamatha include many different objects that we can use as the focus; however, regardless of what we use, there are specific methods and techniques for achieving this state. In the future, you should ask various learned geshes for the complete instructions on how to achieve it. Practitioners can make many mistakes and have a lot of confusion without the proper methods. Atisha says:

(39) However, should the factors for a stilled settled mind be weak, then even if you have meditated with great effort and even if for thousands of years, you will not attain single-minded concentration.
(40) Therefore, maintain well the factors mentioned in the chapter on A Network for Single-Minded Concentration. Then place your mind on something constructive: namely one of the appropriate objects of focus.

If we develop absorbed concentration, it will be easy to develop advanced awareness. Atisha says:  

(41) When a yogi actualizes a stilled settled mind, he or she attains, as well, advanced awareness.

Training in Higher Discriminating Awareness

Just to develop absorbed concentration by itself is not sufficient. We need, as well, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind of vipashyana with which we apprehend voidness.  

(42) If you have failed to apply yourself to far-reaching discriminating awareness, you will be unable to deplete the obscurations. Therefore, in order to rid yourself of all obscurations, without exception, regarding the disturbing emotions and knowable phenomena, always meditate on the yoga of far-reaching discriminating awareness together with methods.

In other words, we need to have these two together, method and discriminating awareness, or wisdom, in order to be able to eliminate all the different stains and obstacles from our minds. Atisha explains:  

(43) This is because discriminating awareness lacking methods as well as methods lacking discriminating awareness have been said still to be bondage. Therefore, never abandon having both.

In other words, we must always have both the discriminating awareness and method side of practice. In order to have both, we need to know exactly what discriminating awareness and methods are. Atisha explains:  

(44) To get rid of doubts concerning what is discriminating awareness and what are methods, I shall clarify the actual division between methods and discriminating awareness. 

What is the actual division? It’s made in terms of the six far-reaching attitudes. The first five of these, leaving aside far-reaching discriminating awareness, the “perfection of wisdom,” are known as the methods, while far-reaching discriminating awareness is the wisdom side. Atisha says in reference to these first five of the six perfections: 

(45) The Triumphant One has explained that leaving aside far-reaching discriminating awareness, all networks of constructive factors, such as far-reaching generosity and so forth, are the methods.

Atisha continues:

(46) It is by the power of having meditated on the methods that, through meditating thoroughly on something with discriminating awareness, someone with a (bodhichitta) nature can quickly attain enlightenment. It does not come about by having meditated on the lack of (self-established) identities alone.

Atisha further asserts that it is not sufficient merely to develop the discriminating awareness side alone; we also need to have the methods in order to attain enlightenment.

Understanding the Voidness of Self-Established Existence

Up to this point, the text has discussed the training in higher ethical self-discipline and the training in higher concentration. At this point, Atisha begins the discussion of the training in higher discriminating awareness. 

In order to gain an understanding of voidness, emptiness, we need to understand the various bases for voidness. A basis for voidness is an object that is devoid of self-established existence, so-called “inherent existence.” Such bases span the five aggregates, the eighteen cognitive sources and the twelve cognitive stimulators. Atisha explains: 

(47) Awareness of the voidness of self-establishing natures that has come to realize that the aggregates, cognitive sources, and cognitive stimulators lack (a self-established) arising has been fully explained as discriminating awareness.

Lines of Reasoning

Furthermore, in order to develop the discriminating awareness that understands voidness, we need to rely on logic and various lines of reasoning: 

  • The first of these is known as the “line of reasoning refuting the four possibilities of arising.” This analyzes the arising of results. 
  • The next line of reasoning, “vajra droplets,” analyzes causes. 
  • The third line of reasoning, “parted from being either singular or plural,” analyzes the nature of a phenomenon in terms of whether it exists as one or many entities. 
  • Worldly people say that things arise on the basis of self-established existence because we can see them with our eyes. For these people, we need to apply the fourth line of reasoning, “refuting the arising of something already existent or nonexistent.”

 Atisha explains this first line of reasoning analyzing results in this verse:  

(48) If (things had self-established) existence, it would be illogical for them to have to arise. Further, if (they were self-established as) non-existent (at the time of their cause, they could not be made to arise), like a flower out of space. Moreover, because there would be the absurd conclusions of both these faults, things do not come about from having both (self-established existence and non-existence) either.

He gives the second line of reasoning analyzing causes, the vajra droplets line of reasoning, in the next verse:  

(49) Phenomenal things do not arise (self-established) from themselves, nor from something different, nor from both. Neither do they (arise) from no causes at all. Because of this, by their essential nature (everything) lacks a self-establishing nature.

Atisha gives the third line of reasoning, whether a phenomenon is one or many, in the next verse: 

(50) Furthermore, when you analyze all things if they are (self-established as) one or many, then since their essential nature is the lack of anything that can be aimed at, you can become certain of the total non-existence of self-establishing natures.

Those three verses present how to establish the validity of voidness by means of these lines of reasoning. Likewise, we can establish its validity further by relying, in addition, on scriptural authority. There are many texts containing the teachings on voidness. For example, Atisha mentions: 

(51) Furthermore, the lines of reasoning in The 70 Stanzas on Voidness and from The Root Text on the Middle Way and so forth explain as well how the self-nature of phenomenal things is established as voidness.
(52) However, because this text would have become too long, I have therefore not elaborated here. What I have explained has been for the purpose of meditation on merely a proven system of philosophical tenets.

How to Meditate on Voidness

Regardless of whether we establish voidness by logic and lines of reasoning or by scriptural authority, once we have become convinced of the validity of voidness, the actual way to meditate on it is given by Atisha:  

(53) Thus, since you cannot be aimed at the self-establishing nature of any thing, without an exception, meditation on the lack of (self-established) identities is meditation on discriminating awareness.

We should never grasp at discriminating awareness, or wisdom, itself, as if had truly self-established existence. Atisha clarifies this point:  

(54) With discriminating awareness, a self-establishing nature of any phenomenon is never seen; and it is explained that the same is true regarding the reality of discriminating awareness itself. In this (way) meditate (on voidness) non-conceptually.

In order to meditate properly, we have to understand that conceptual thoughts of self-established existence are things that bind us to uncontrollably recurring samsaric existence. Therefore, it’s necessary for us to rid ourselves of such conceptual thoughts in order to gain liberation, nirvana, the state beyond sorrow. Atisha says:  

(55) This compulsive existence which has come from conceptual thoughts (grasping for self-established existence) has an identity nature (merely fabricated) by conceptual thought. Therefore, the state of being rid of all concepts, barring none, is the supreme Nirvana State Beyond Sorrow.

The discriminating awareness of voidness is the opposite of and turns back all conceptual thoughts of self-established existence. Atisha states:

(56) Like this as well, the Vanquishing Master Surpassing All has said, “Conceptual thought (grasping for self-established existence) is great unawareness, that which makes you fall into the ocean of uncontrollably recurring existence. By abiding in absorbed concentration devoid of such concepts, you will make clear, like space, a non-conceptual state.”
(57) Also, from The Dharani Formula for Engaging in the Non-Conceptual, he has said, “If the Offspring of the Triumphant involved in this pure Dharma practice were to contemplate this state of no conceptual thoughts (grasping for self-established existence), they would transcend these concepts that are difficult to pass beyond and would gradually attain a non-conceptual state.”

Then Atisha summarizes: 

(58) When you have become certain, by these quotations and lines of reasoning, that all things are devoid of self-established existence and without a (self-established) arising, meditate in a state of no conceptual thoughts (of self-established existence).

The Result Attained from Meditation on Voidness

The result that comes from all of this is that we progress through the five pathway minds and the ten bodhisattva bhumi-levels of mind until we attain the enlightened state of a Buddha. Atisha addresses this point: 

(59) When you have meditated on the facts of reality like this and have gradually attained the heat (stage) and so forth, you will then attain (the stage of) extremely joyous one and so on, and the enlightenment of Buddhahood will not be far.

Why is enlightenment not far if we have meditated properly on voidness? It’s because we have progressed correctly through the graded stages of the path. First, we take refuge in terms of the teachings of a person of initial scope and then we have continued through the various meditations and stages until we developed an enlightened motive of bodhichitta with which we’ll not turn back. In addition, we have mastered the various practices for gaining the one-pointed absorbed concentration of shamatha and vipashyana apprehending voidness. All of these trainings, together with the various other practices, bring us to enlightenment. 

If we train ourselves very well in all the teachings of the initial, intermediate, and advanced scopes, we will be able to attain the first of the three stages of the first of the five pathway minds, the building-up pathway mind. These three stages are the initial, intermediate, and advanced stages of the building-up pathway mind. Following this, we attain the four stages of an applying pathway mind. These are the heat, peak, patience and supreme Dharma stages. After that, we attain a seeing pathway mind. The stages between a seeing pathway mind and the final stage of an accustoming pathway mind are divided into the ten levels of bodhisattva bhumi-minds. These start with the extremely joyous one and so forth. These are the stages and levels of bhumi-minds that Atisha refers to in the verse. 

On the basis of following this graded path, we achieve the enlightened state of a Buddha. This state has three Buddha Bodies: a Dharmakaya or Body Encompassing Everything, a Sambhogakaya or Bodies Making Full Use, and a Nirmanakaya or Emanation Bodies. The Dharmakaya includes the five types of deep awareness (ye-shes), the so-called “five Buddha-wisdoms.”  

The Tantric Path

In order to actually achieve the enlightened state of a Buddha, however, we must enter upon the path of tantra. There is no achievement of Buddhahood without attaining the tantra pathway minds. If we practice tantra, we are able to achieve the common and the extraordinary actual attainments, the siddhi in Sanskrit. But in order to practice tantra, we need to find a qualified guru and receive the proper initiations, the proper empowerments. Atisha says: 

(60) If, however, through actions such as pacifying, stimulating, and so forth, attained from the force of mantras and through the power as well of the eight great actual attainments and so on, such as actualization of an excellent vase and so forth,
(61) And through a blissful awareness, you wish to fully complete the enlightenment-building networks, and if you wish also to practice the actions of the secret mantras discussed in the kriya, charya, and so forth classes of tantra,
(62) Then, in order to be conferred the (vajra) master empowerment, please your hallowed guru by all such things as respectful service, giving him precious substances, and so on, and doing what he says.

If we ask, “What is the purpose of receiving an empowerment?” one purpose is to purify away our negative karmic potentials. Atisha states: 

(63) By being conferred the complete (vajra) master empowerment from having pleased your guru, you will purify yourself completely of all negative forces and, in nature, become endowed with the proper share to achieve the actual attainments.

"Share" means share of positive force. As for the person who is actually going to receive the tantric empowerments, Atisha describes:

(64) Because it has been strictly prohibited from The Great Tantra of the Primordial Buddha, the secret and discriminating awareness empowerments are not to be (conferred or) received (in a literal fashion) by those who are celibate.

(65) If you were to take these empowerments so conferred while living according to the ascetic practice of, you would be committing prohibited actions and because of that, your vows of asceticism would degenerate.
(66) In other words, as a practitioner of tamed behavior you would contract the downfalls of total defeats and since you would definitely fall to one of the worse rebirth states, you would never have any attainments.

Atisha then states: 

(67) However, if you have received (in a non-literal fashion) the conferral of the (vajra) master empowerment and are aware of actuality, there is no fault in your actions of listening to all the tantras, explaining them, performing fire pujas, making offering pujas, and so forth.

If such a person as described in the previous verses receives the appropriate empowerments in the proper way from a qualified tantric master and follows the practices in a strict fashion, keeping all the vows and so forth, then they can perform all these various practices. 

We shouldn’t think that just because we have received an empowerment, that means we can engage in all the various advanced tantric practices. It’s only if we have the highest realizations that we’re able to act in the different ways that are described in the tantra texts. In this context, Atisha is speaking in terms of someone advanced who follows all the practices according to all the proper procedures and vows. 

Conclusion of the Text

The text was written by Atisha and he concludes by saying that he has taken as his source all the various sutras and tantras. He composed this text at the request of King Jangchub Ö. He writes:  

I, the Elder Shri Dipamkara, having seen (everything to be) as is explained from the Dharma teachings of the sutras and so on, and having been requested by Jangchub Ö, have composed this abbreviation of the explanation of the path to enlightenment.

This text is very extensive and brings in many different points, but there hasn’t been time to explain all of them in great detail. However, in the future, you should ask various learned geshes to explain these more extensively. 

Do not think that there’s anything in this text that we can’t realize or gain insight into. If we practice in a continuous fashion, without any breaks, then slowly and certainly, we’ll be able to gain all the realizations as described in this text.  

Final Advice

I have received the oral lineage of these teachings and so have now passed on the lineage to you, so that now you have the uplifting inspiration of the lineage gurus of this specific text. This will make a great difference in terms of realizations in the future when you study the text. It will make a big difference in how you will understand it. 

There are many different ways to explain and teach texts. For instance, in one method, a teacher will explain every single word in a very complex and precise manner. There are others who simply read the text to a group of disciples and then leave. With both methods, people find that in the future when they read the text themselves, they’re able to understand it. 

There are other styles in which the master will give the text to the student and have the student read it out loud with the guru, and then the master sends the student away. By the inspiration of this experience, when the student goes home, they find that when they read it again, they’re able to understand it quite well. 

In short, if we have proper confident belief in the power of such oral transmission, then in fact we do receive inspiration and it makes it easier to understand the texts. Of course, if we don’t have confident belief in this, then it’s very difficult. 

Have strong confidence in the two lamas who come here and teach. See them as being Buddhas and then you’ll be able to gain great realizations and benefits from their teachings. If you imagine that all the Buddhas are present at the teachings and have confident belief they’re there, you will receive inspiration from all of them. Then, even if there are no Buddhas actually present, you will receive the inspiration of all the Buddhas. This is because all the Buddhas are aware, they’re omniscient; they know our aspirations and so we can receive their inspiration to bring them to fulfillment.  

Read and listen to the original text “Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment” by Atisha.