Guidelines from Developing Bodhichitta and Taking Bodhisattva Vows

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The Great Benefits of Bodhichitta

There are great benefits to be derived from the development of an enlightening aim of bodhichitta. The positive force built up by it of are discussed in twelve lines from a sutra of the Buddha which was requested by the householder Viradatta. The text reads as follows:

(14) The positive force of this is shown extensively in The Sutra Requested by Viradatta. As it is summarized there in merely three stanzas, let me quote them here.
(15) "If the positive force of bodhichitta had form, it would fill completely the sphere of space and go beyond even that.
(16) Although someone may totally fill with gems Buddha-fields equal in number to the grains of sand on the Ganges and offer them to the Guardians of the World,
(17) Yet should anyone press his or her palms together and direct his or her mind toward bodhichitta, his or her offering would be more especially noble; it would have no end."

The meaning of these verses is that this enlightening aim of bodhichitta is a state of mind. It is not something physical. If it were to have form, it would be so enormous that it would fill the entire sphere of space. The universe is located in space, and it would be even larger than that. The magnitude of the great qualities of bodhichitta are illustrated by such an example. 

Stanza sixteen explains that even if we were to fill the entire world with jewels and offer it to the Buddhas, the positive force from that would not be as great as that generated by this enlightening aim of bodhichitta. There are two types of networks: one is the network of positive force, sometimes translated as the “collection of merit,” and the other is the network of deep awareness, sometimes translated as the “collection of insight.” 

The development of the enlightening aim builds up both networks. This is because, with this motivation, we continuously make offerings to the Three Jewels of Refuge and we meditate on voidness. Specifically, we make offerings of the first portion of our meals and things like this. In this process, a great deal of positive force is built up. 

Furthermore, there are other beings, and many of them are invisible, such as gods, demigods and various types of elemental spirits. We also need to make offerings of food, cakes, biscuits, tormas, and so forth to them. We imagine that they partake of these. In addition, we need to practice making offerings to those who are hungry and poor, the sick, those who have nobody to help them, and even just giving small pieces of bread to birds. This is all part of the practice of training ourselves in bodhichitta. 

We should never give up on any living being and say, “I can’t really help this person; I give up,” and then forget about them. Rather, we need to always work for every single being, never giving up on any of them, and work to attain enlightenment for their sake to help relieve each of them of their suffering. 

The Four Lustrous and Four Murky Actions

In our training in bodhichitta, there are guidelines for us to follow. They are known as the four lustrous or, literally, “white” actions and the four murky or, literally “black” actions. The murky ones are what we need to abandon, and the lustrous ones need to be adopted. 

  1. The first of the murky actions is that we should never cheat, lie or deceive our gurus, the ones who teach us. Likewise, we should never do this toward our parents. If we do so, this constitutes one of the murky actions. 
  2. The next murky action is not having a kind heart and warm feelings toward everyone, but to be pretentious and have false humility with them instead. With pretension, for instance, we don’t have any particular talents or abilities, but we pretend that we do and boast that we have certain good qualities. The other one is sometimes translated as “false humility,” but it’s about being devious in the sense of hiding our faults. If we are either devious or pretentious with others, this is a murky action because we should not have any motives other than the exceptional resolve to help all others. 
  3. Another murky action is to cause others to regret whatever constructive things they might do. 
  4. The fourth murky action is to criticize or say bad things to others who might be bodhisattvas. In general, we can never tell who might be a bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas sometimes manifest even in the form of animals. Therefore, we need to never say bad things about anyone because we never know who they might be. 

The opposites of these are the lustrous actions that we need to practice. 

  1. The opposite of deceiving our gurus and our parents is to act in a very honest, straightforward way, and never to deceive them. 
  2. The opposite of being pretentious and devious, without the exceptional resolve toward others, is to never to deceive others at all. Simply put, be honest with others. 
  3. The opposite of causing others to regret the constructive actions they do, would be to encourage others to do constructive things and in this way try to lead them to the Mahayana path. We encourage constructive actions rather than cause others to regret them. 
  4. The opposite of criticizing others who might be bodhisattvas is to always show respect for others and try to recognize everyone as our teacher. We can learn from everyone, and we need to never criticize anyone. These are the four lustrous actions. 

This is covered by the verse in the text: 

(18) Having generated the aspiring states of bodhichitta, ever enhance them with many efforts; and, to be mindful of it in this and other lives too, thoroughly safeguard as well the trainings explained in the texts.

The next verse reads:

(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.

Engaging in the Practice of the Bodhichitta

As mentioned, there are two types of bodhichitta, the aspiring state and the engaged state. In the second, we engage in the actual practices that will bring us to the attainment of enlightenment. Once we’ve developed the aspiring state of bodhichitta, to increase and enhance it, we must engage ourselves in the actual practices. The attitude involved is known as the engaged state of bodhichitta. The aspiring state of bodhichitta is merely the aspiration to attain enlightenment to be able to benefit all living beings; whereas, with the engaged state of bodhichitta, we feel that to actually attain the state of enlightenment, we will enter into the practices of the bodhisattvas. To actually achieve this state of enlightenment entails, specifically, the practices of the six far-reaching attitudes, the so-called “six perfections,” the “six paramitas”: generosity, ethical self- discipline, patience, perseverance, mental stability or concentration, and discriminating awareness or wisdom. This is the difference between these two states of bodhichitta, the aspiring and engaging. 

For example, let’s imagine we develop the wish to go to India. Once we have made up our mind to actually go to India, we buy our tickets and actually arrange to get into the car, train, airplane, or whatever means of transportation we organized. This is analogous to the engaged state of bodhichitta, because we are actually going. If, in fact, we sincerely wish to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha, we must engage ourselves in the actual practices of the bodhisattvas that will bring us there. With the attitude known as the engaged state of bodhichitta, we venture into the practices. This involves taking the bodhisattva vows and following other specific advice and trainings in order to practice the six far-reaching attitudes correctly. 

Taking Vows

Concerning the taking of the bodhisattva vows, the text 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.

Concerning these seven classes of pratimoksha or individual liberation vows, as householders we can hold these on two different levels. There is the one-day set of vows, and the other is to take the vows of a layperson. The one-day vows are eight particular precepts that we keep for one day. This comes under the category of householder vows. The vows of a layperson involve five particular vows. We can take either one, two, three, four or all five of them. The five layperson’s vows are: not killing, not stealing, and not indulging in inappropriate sexual behavior. The fourth is not to lie, which primarily refers to lying about our spiritual development. The fifth is not to drink alcohol or take intoxicants. 

When we take the vows in the traditional ceremony, we verbally promise to keep all five of them, but the ones that we actually keep is our particular choice. In other words, at the ceremony the spoken words are of keeping all five, but in terms of what we will keep, we can personally decide at that point in our mind which ones they are. That is the traditional way of taking them.

The Benefits of Taking and Keeping Vows

There is a huge difference in the amount of positive force involved in the following two examples. On the one hand, there is someone who considers all the disadvantages of killing and sees that it is something very negative, which leads to a great deal of suffering. Then, on the basis of this understanding, that person decides formally to now refrain from killing for the rest of their life. On the other hand, we have somebody who merely makes the decision at one particular moment not to kill in a particular instant. There is a great deal of difference in the positive force generated by these two people. 

This is because someone who sees the disadvantages of killing on just one particular occasion and so refrains from it only produces some positive force at that particular moment. That is the extent of that constructive act, and then it’s over. Whereas someone who vows from now for the rest of their life not to kill because they see the disadvantages of this, that person builds up more and more positive force at all times, even when they are asleep. That is the difference involved here. 

Making a promise such as this, to refrain from taking the lives of others from now on, to never kill any being, is known as taking a vow. A vow can be taken in front of anybody; it doesn’t matter who it is. 

Once, at the time of the Buddha, there was a great shravaka arya by the name of Katyayana. He was requesting alms with his begging bowl when he came to the house of a butcher. Katyayana asked this butcher if he could promise to stop killing because it had many disadvantages. This butcher said he could promise to stop slaughtering, but only at night, not during the day. 

As a result of this, in his next lifetime, this butcher was born in a distant and beautiful land with a very nice house. At night, everything was extremely lovely for him. He had enough to eat and drink and was extremely comfortable. But during the daytime, from sunrise to sunset, all the animals in the area would attack him. The wild animals would come, jump on him and bite him, and the animals with horns would come and butt him. He had an absolutely horrible time during the day, but then, as soon as the sun set everything would quiet down and he would be very comfortable. 

One Buddhist monk arrived at the place where this man lived. He reported back to the Buddha what he saw and asked the Buddha the reason for this occurrence. The Buddha explained that in this person’s last lifetime, he took a vow in front of the arya Katyayana and promised not to kill at night; however, during the day he continued to slaughter animals. As a result, he was very happy at night but during the day all the animals attacked him. 

To review the lustrous actions, the first is that we need to be honest with others. The second is to have a kind heart toward others. The third is that we should always encourage others in their constructive actions. The fourth is that we need to see everyone in a pure way, to see everyone as our teacher and as precious as a wish-fulfilling gem. We need to try to see everyone with this type of pure appearance. 

Here is an account to illustrate the results of not lying. A long time ago there was a man who, as a result of not having lied in the past, had a special power. Every time he smiled or laughed, a pearl would fall out of his mouth. Everybody would always try to make him laugh because of this. However, he didn’t find things very funny and didn’t laugh very easily. 

One day, a monk came by, looking very smart and nice, carrying a long monk’s staff. He invited the man with the special power to visit the king of the district at his palace. The king invited the monk and the man for a tour all around his palace. 

They came to a treasure room where the king had a lot of gold. There was also a lot of golden brocade and when the monk was walking around inside the treasury, pieces of golden thread stuck to his robe. When the monk went outside, he picked the pieces of thread off his robe and blew them away onto the ground. The bottom of his staff was like very sticky honey and, as the monk walked away, some of the gold thread stuck to the bottom of his staff. The man who was famous for his special power saw this and laughed. A pearl fell out of his mouth.

If we don’t lie, the result of this will likewise be that pearls can fall out of our mouth when we laugh. Such accounts like this actually happened in history and are not just made up. Therefore, we need to practice the four lustrous actions very well. 

To return to the text, to take the bodhisattva vow, we need to have, as a foundation, one of the types of pratimoksha or individual liberation vows. To review, if we are a layperson, this can be either the one-day vows or the layperson’s vows. Even if we can’t keep those, at least we need to vow to try to refrain from the ten destructive actions. It is on the basis of the ethical self-discipline we have in keeping such vows that we can take on, as well, the bodhisattva vows. 

Bodhisattva Vows

The one-day vows remain in our mental continuum for one day only. At the end of that day, they are no longer there. The vows of a layperson or of a novice monk or nun remain until we die. When we die, then we lose these vows. However, once we take the bodhisattva vows, they remain in our mental continuum for all our future lifetimes. In other words, once we promise to work for the sake of all beings, unless we actually give up these bodhisattva vows, they continue to remain on our mental continuum and don’t degenerate when we die.

If, in order to have the bodhisattva vows, we need the pratimoksha vows of a layperson or a novice as a basis, then the question might arise: if the bodhisattva vows continue into future lifetimes, and we lose the pratimoksha vows at the time of death, then how can we have a bodhisattva vow in our future lifetime without the basis of a pratimoksha vow, which was lost at the previous death? 

This is a good question. When we take the pratimoksha vows, we promise that we will not harm or kill others. Just as, for instance, an old person needs a wooden cane to support himself when he gets up, the cane doesn’t fall on the floor due to the fact that the old person is holding on to it. Likewise, to take the bodhisattva vows, we need the pratimoksha vows as a basis for making the bodhisattva vows arise.  

Specifically, the vow that we need is the vow not to harm or kill others. This acts as a basis for the bodhisattva vows to arise on our mental continuum. Although, in general, the pratimoksha vows are lost at the time of death, nevertheless, if we have the bodhisattva vows, then we hold the one vow of not killing others even after we die. In general, in the next life, if we don’t have bodhisattva vows, then we won’t have the pratimoksha vows. All the pratimoksha vows we have taken in the past will have been lost at the time of death. However, if we do have the vow not to kill others from the bodhisattva vows, then it will be kept on our mental continuum. This is because the bodhisattva vows need some basis in order to continue on. This is like the old man keeping hold of the cane in the above example. 

Out of all the seven classes of pratimoksha vows, the best basis for taking the bodhisattva vows is that of the vows of the fully ordained monk or nun. If we don’t have these, then below these vows are the novice vows and, below them, the layperson’s vows. We need one of these sets of vows. 

The verse that deals with this particular point is:

(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.

Taking the bodhisattva vows entails a ceremony. It says here in the text: 

(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.

There is a ceremony involved to be able to take the vows, and the person from whom we take the vows must be a fully qualified guru. The text now addresses the guru. It 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.

However, if we cannot find a guru like this, it is also possible to take the bodhisattva vows without a guru. There are two ways of doing it. The text says:

(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.

We set up an altar with various images of the Buddhas and follow the procedure for taking the bodhisattva vows ourselves. The text states:

(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 where this particular way of generating bodhichitta and taking the vows is explained. The actual ritual or text that we recite for taking the vows by ourselves is as follows:

(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.”

We can study by ourselves more specific details of what is involved here. 

The main thing that we need to practice at this time is not to have harmful thoughts or ill-will toward others. Whatever we do, we need to try to decrease these harmful thoughts as much as possible. Furthermore, we need to not be miserly. If we are miserly and keep things to ourselves, the result is to be reborn as a hungry ghost. We need to try not to be jealous. Jealousy is the attitude where we are not happy about the positive attributes of others. We need to practice and act with our body, speech and mind in a pure and excellent way. 

The Three Types of Ethical Self-Discipline 

To train ourselves, we need to practice the three types of ethical self-discipline. There is the ethical self-discipline of refraining from destructive actions, the ethical self-discipline of engaging in constructive actions, and the ethical self-discipline of working to benefit others. The text 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.

Speaking about the preeminent qualities of keeping these three types of ethical self-discipline, the text goes on to say: 

(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.

Through keeping the three types of ethical self-discipline, we will be able to attain enlightenment. Normally, we never speak about our own most excellent qualities but rather about the excellence of others. Here it is speaking about the greatness of keeping these three types of ethical self-discipline. 

Refraining from Destructive Actions

The ethical self-discipline of refraining from destructive actions means to keep whatever vows we have taken, such as the vows to refrain from killing and so forth. We can think of the advantages of keeping this type of ethical self-discipline. For instance, when we see flowers, they are very beautiful. Likewise, when someone has an ethical character and self-discipline, like someone who never kills, lies, steals, drinks alcohol or smokes or anything like this, naturally they will be a very beautiful person, and everyone will see them as beautiful. 

Working to Benefit Others

The next type of ethical self-discipline is that of working to benefit others. No matter whom we encounter, we need to try to help them as best as we can, in whatever way is appropriate. We must never turn back from this all the way to our attainment of enlightenment. We must never give up. For instance, if we are in a country where there is sickness, we need to try to completely eliminate the sickness in everybody and follow through to the end. If the sickness is eliminated completely, then this is proper. 

Engaging in Constructive Actions

The ethical self-discipline of engaging in constructive actions means that we have the discipline to develop and work on whatever positive or good qualities exist. Working like this, we become like a vase full of water. We collect all of these good qualities until the vase is full. If a vase is completely filled up to the top with pure clean water, there is no sound of splashing water inside the vase. Whereas, if the vase is half full of water, then when we carry it around, the water splashing back and forth makes a lot of noise. Likewise, if we are completely filled with good qualities and talents and have attained all that is possible, then we are very humble and don’t make any noise. If we only have a little bit of good qualities, then we go around boasting and bragging about them, making a lot of noise like water splashing in a half-filled vase. 

All Three Types of Ethical Self-Discipline Together

If we keep the ethical self-discipline of refraining from destructive actions, our body will become very wonderful looking. We will come to be a very beautiful person because of refraining from destructive actions. If we keep the discipline of always working to benefit others, this will take us directly toward enlightenment. Our path to enlightenment will be a straight one with no interferences from sickness or other difficulties. If we keep the ethical self-discipline of always engaging in constructive actions, then we become like a vase filled with water. These three types of ethical self-discipline are spoken of in terms of these three examples or illustrations.

Training in Far-Reaching Generosity and Far-Reaching Ethical Self-Discipline 

Far-Reaching Generosity

We need to train specifically in the six far-reaching attitudes, starting with generosity, all the way up to discriminating awareness. The first of these far-reaching attitudes is generosity. This is the wish to give away everything, our body and all possessions, to others. The actual generosity is not, in fact, the giving away of all our possessions to poor people but rather the attitude of being willing to do so. The final result of the far-reaching attitude of generosity is not when there are no more poor people in the country or in the world. 

In the world today, there are a lot of poor people. The fact that there is still poverty in the world indicates that the far-reaching attitude of generosity doesn’t mean the elimination of all poverty. This is because the Buddha perfected generosity and yet there is still poverty. The Buddha completely understood voidness and, as a result, perfected generosity in the sense that he is totally willing to give away anything to anyone, even to someone who would cut the Buddha’s head off or something equally destructive. The Buddha was willing to give up his life numberless times for others. It is this attitude of being completely willing to give everything away that is known as the far-reaching attitude of generosity. 

The result of generosity is that, in the future, we will have great wealth. It is like when we have a well from which we draw water. The more water we draw from it, let’s say from an underground stream, the better the water becomes and the more water flows in. Whereas if we make no use of the well, the water in it turns foul, dries up, and the well becomes stagnant and of no use. Likewise, the more we practice generosity and give away, the more will come to us. 

For instance, there might be two fields right next to each other, and we can see that in one field the crops are very good and in the other the crops are very poor. The difference is that the person with the field of good crops has been very generous to others in the past, whereas the person with crops that failed has not been generous to others in the past. 

There are many scriptural accounts of the Buddha’s practices of generosity in his previous lifetimes. We need to study these to learn examples. 

Far-Reaching Ethical Self-Discipline

The next far-reaching attitude is that of ethical self-discipline. For this, we need to safeguard and firmly keep whatever vows we have taken, by not killing, stealing, and so on. If we don’t keep strict ethical self-discipline, then it will not be possible for us to attain even a human rebirth, let alone enlightenment. 

If we practice generosity but do not practice ethical self-discipline in addition, we will not achieve a human body. We will be reborn as an animal or hungry ghost who still has a great deal of wealth as a result of the generosity. However, because we haven’t practiced ethical self-discipline, we won’t be a human and thus won’t be able to make great use of the wealth that we have. For instance, there are nagas, a type of serpent who has great wealth, and there are hungry ghosts that live with great splendor in a house made of gold but who are completely unable to use it or to eat any food. Although there might be a great deal of food around, they have to eat a piece of their own flesh in order to survive. This is the result of generosity without ethical self-discipline. In fact, as a hungry ghost, we may have many possessions due to our previous generosity; however, on the basis of being a hungry ghost, we no longer engage in the practices that allow us to have wealth again in the future. 

If we practice both generosity and ethical self-discipline, we can be reborn as a human being. We will have the wealth that is the result of our previous generosity, and, in addition, we will be able to make use of it. We will be able to continue to act with ethical self-discipline and in generous ways in this lifetime, and thereby we can ensure that we will be able to attain a human rebirth again in the future, continuing to have the prosperity that is the fruit of our generosity. 

Among the disciples of the Buddha, the most outstanding was Shariputra. He had the greatest discriminating awareness. In his past lifetime, he had been a messenger carrying letters back and forth between people. As he traveled to deliver these letters, he would sometimes have to spend the night on the road. On one such occasion, he stayed in a house and, while repairing the sole of his shoe, he lit a butter lamp to be able to see in the darkness of the night. There were many paintings inside this house. Lighting this lamp and seeing everything around him very clearly resulted in his having great discriminating awareness in a future life.

This is another illustration of an aspect of karma. From a small cause, great results follow. Likewise, if we keep great ethical self-discipline and practice great generosity, then very extensive results will follow. If we keep strict ethical self-discipline, then we will be reborn as a human being and have great discriminating awareness and great prosperity.  

This concludes our discussion of the far-reaching attitudes of generosity and ethical self-discipline. There are also far-reaching patience and perseverance, but let’s leave them for now.