Vows that set you free

2 August 2010 - 8:51am Comments Off

Take a good look at the picture on the right. What do you see? Remember your answer, we’ll get back to it later!

In preparation for the Chenrezig Ngesung Kundrol initiation, Kechara House recently hosted a teaching on the Bodhisattva Vows. Conducted by David Lai, it was a well-attended teaching of more than 80 people eager to learn more about the vows, which are a prerequisite to any higher initiation. David, a writer with Kechara Media & Publications and Liaison to His Eminence Tsem Rinpoche, received the vows from Rinpoche in 2005. During that time, he also received teachings on the vows, which he was now sharing with us.

Buddha Shakyamuni himself taught that everyone has the potential to develop our current existence, and transform from lesser beings to intermediate beings, and finally into great beings. In this context, great beings are those who generate great compassion. One such example is a bodhisattva who possesses bodhicitta, or the spontaneous wish to attain Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings.

Developing our potential means aspiring towards Buddhahood or enlightenment; such an aspiration requires us to step through the gateway of bodhicitta. In our current capacity however, it is difficult for us to generate such a spontaneous altruistic intention. Therefore, to propel us in that direction, Shakyamuni compassionately taught a set of vows, to help transform us into selfless beings. Holding these vows, known as the Bodhisattva Vows, guides us towards generating an aspiring or artificial level of bodhicitta. This action, in turn, creates the merit for us to realise spontaneous bodhicitta. Holding the Bodhisattva Vows also lays the foundation for us to receive further vows, for instance tantric and ordination vows. Therefore, far from imprisoning us, the vows actually set us free and protect us from self-harm.

With a lineage stemming directly from Buddha Shakyamuni, the Vows were compiled from ancient sutras by the saints of old, including Arya Asanga, Chandragomin, Shantideva and Lama Tsongkhapa. They were then passed down from great master to great master, and were received by our Guru, His Eminence Tsem Rinpoche, who has held these vows since he took them. Having held these vows, Rinpoche is now able to pass them down to some of his fortunate students. With such an illustrious background and lineage, if we take these vows and hold them well, imagine the kind of merit we would derive from such a practice, and the powerful transformation we will experience towards achieving our ultimate potential.


The Bodhisattva Vows

There are 18 Root Vows and 46 Secondary Vows (which you can find HERE). As they were written a long time ago, David explained each vow in today’s context, giving examples of situations where we could be at risk of breaking them.

David explained that an infraction of any of the 18 Root Vows constitutes losing all the vows. We are considered to have broken a vow if all four binding factors are present at the time of the incident. If any of the binding factors are not there, the vow is not completely broken. However, we would of course still collect the negative karma of the action.

The Four Binding Factors

  1. Not considering the action to be wrong
  2. Not wanting to abstain from the action and wanting to repeating it in the future
  3. Taking pleasure in the action and delighting in it
  4. Having no conscience or feeling no shame or embarrassment about the action

David then elaborated on the root vows, explaining that there are two Root Vows that can be broken even if not all four binding factors are present. These are to refrain from Holding Wrong Views, and to refrain from Abandoning the Mahayana. These two Root Vows can be broken even if not all four binding factors are present, because the vows refer to the state of the mind.

Speaking about the 46 Secondary Vows, David said that their purpose is to help us to develop the Six Paramitas (Perfections) of Generosity, Morality, Patience, Joyous Effort, Concentration and Wisdom.

David speaks as the talk is streamed live on the Internet, and recorded

If we break a vow, is it the end?

The short answer is that no, it is not the end – like all phenomena, nothing is permanent, not even karma. Rinpoche has previously explained that if we break our vows today, it does not mean we have broken them tomorrow. Having broken them, we should not use it as an excuse to give up our vows completely. In fact, breaking them one day should propel us to make a greater effort to hold them the following day.

Of course, we should not take vows thinking it is okay if we break them! Taking the vows is like denying ourselves the licence to harm – when we take the vows, we use them to train our minds to become, at the very least, a better person. However, there are times when we might slip and break them, and during those times when it might be necessary for us to repair the vows, there are purification practices available.


What’s your verdict?

By the end of David’s talk, there will probably have been two camps of opinions, with some viewing the Bodhisattva Vows as a great opportunity to accelerate their merit-generating potential, and others viewing them as a jail sentence. It is important to remember however, that such views are purely our perception. This can be dangerous because, as the word ‘perception’ suggests, in reality the object may or may not exist. We must contemplate if we will let our perceptions propel us to greater heights or shackle us in self-defeat; fundamentally, it is our choice.

Going back to that picture of the glass, did you say it was half-filled or half-empty? Either way, you would be correct. However, the glass is an example to show how an object can remain unchanged, but end up being treated differently according to the perception of the person viewing it.

If we are afraid of breaking the vows and therefore refrain from taking them, does it mean we would like to retain the license to harm? Whilst contemplating upon this thought, it would be helpful to view our Vows as our Code of Ethics. We have such Codes at work and think nothing of them…so what is so different about holding the Vows?

Ultimately, it is not about breaking the vows, but about holding the vows.

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