Taking Vows (and Buddhism) Seriously

Previously, Lama Jampa wrote an article titled Buddhism and the Age of Compassion, in which he cautioned against confusing compassion with sentimentality and spoke of the importance of having an ethical foundation at the core of our spiritual endeavors. From the post:

It is vital that our understanding of compassion should be consistent with Buddha’s tough and clear-minded teachings on moral discipline, since, as he insisted, unless people live an ethical life, the genuine happiness that we wish for them in this and future lives will be unobtainable.

We can find these teachings in the vows of the Pratimoksha (‘Individual liberation’), which is regarded in Tibetan Buddhism as the ethical code of the so called Hinayana, just as the Bodhisattva and Vidyadhara vows are the codes for the Mahayana and Vajrayana respectively. In the Pratimoksha vows Buddha set out four fundamental ethical trainings for both householders and monastics:

To avoid taking life
To avoid taking that which has not been given
To avoid sexual misconduct
To avoid false speech

Thus, when we wish that others be endowed with the causes of happiness, we must understand that it is only the practice of these moral precepts that constitutes such causes. In other words, the proper fulfillment of the Bodhisattva vow, the supreme expression of compassionate engagement with the needs of others, depends upon our reliance on the essence of the preceding vow, the Pratimoksha.

In this post, he takes this teaching further:

Last time I talked a little about the need for compassion to be founded on the solid rock of moral behavior and pointed to the role played by the Pratimoksha vow, whether for renunciates or householders, in providing that ethical foundation. Now we can discuss the Bodhisattva vow, the second in the sequence of vows taken by Tibetan Buddhist practitioners and the most powerful expression of compassion, while, at the same time, exploring its relationship to the Pratimoksha.

To characterize the significance of the Bodhisattva vow one might say that, just as taking refuge in the Three Jewels defines one as a Buddhist, so taking the Bodhisattva vow defines one as a Mahayanist. Specifically the Bodhisattva vow itself is the acceptance of the commitment to achieve Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings. The ceremony of the vow is thus the manifestation ofbodhichitta, the altruistic thought of enlightenment in a ritual setting. As such it comprises both the aspiration to become a Buddha and the application to undertake the path that leads to that very goal.

In Tibetan Buddhism the Bodhisattva vow has been transmitted in two Mahayana lineages—that of the eminent Indian master Atisha and the Kadam tradition and that of the philosopher Nagarjuna and the Sakya school. In addition, two tantric lineages of the Bodhisattva vow also exist, a general one transmitted in tantric initiations and a special one given during the exposition of the ‘Path and its Fruit’ teaching in the Sakya school.

Three important questions arise, when one examines the relationship between the Pratimoksha and Bodhisattva vows.

1. Is it necessary to have received the Pratimoksha before one can take the Bodhisattva vow?

The followers of Atisha’s lineage argue that it is necessary, citing his statement:

Those who maintain any of the seven kinds of Pratimoksha vow have the good fortune for the Bodhisattva vow but others do not.

On the other hand, Sakya masters claim that it is not necessary, adducing two principal reasons. The first is that, contrary to the Pratimoksha vow, the Bodhisattva vow may be taken by beings in any of the six realms.

The second reason is somewhat more complex. It revolves around the fact that the Pratimoksha vow, being concerned with restraint from physical and verbal misconduct, is tied to the body and thus inevitably ceases at death. As opposed to this,  the Bodhisattva vow, being generated exclusively as a mental resolve, can continue in to future lives. As that is so, it can be present from the beginning of the next life, whereas a person who dies while holding the Pratimoksha vow of a monk cannot then be conceived in the womb at the beginning of his next life automatically possessing the Pratimoksha vow. Yet the absurdity of a monastically ordained unborn child would inevitably follow, if, like the Bodhisattva vow, the Pratimoksha vow did not cease at death. Therefore one can only conclude the Bodhisattva vow can exist in the absence of the Pratimoksha.

2. What happens to someone’sPratimoksha vow if he or she subsequently takes the Bodhisattva vow?

In this case the Pratimoksha vow, though it is transmitted exclusively through the ritual found in the Vinaya scriptures of so called Hinayana schools such as the Sarvastivada or Theravada, becomes, in effect, a Mahayana Pratimoksha vow, because it is henceforthmaintained with a Mahayana attitude.

As the erudite Sakya master Drakpa Gyaltsen states:

If one has previously obtained the Pratimoksha, then when one generates the Bodhisattva vow, one obtains the Pratimoksha of the Bodhisattva.

One may conclude from this that any practitioner, who holds a Pratimoksha vow from Theravada, becomes a Mahayanist simply by taking the Bodhisattva vow. In other words, he or she would maintain their identity as a Theravadin, at the very least by virtue of their Pratimoksha vow, but be a Mahayanist in their orientation to the final goal of their practice. Actually, there is nothing surprising about this, when one realizes that Tibetan Buddhists themselves are simultaneously followers of the Sarvastivada, a ‘Hinayana’ school, through their Pratimoksha vow and are ‘Mahayanists’ through their Bodhisattva vow.

3. Can the Pratimoksha and Bodhisattva vows ever be taken in the same ceremony or must they always be given separately?

In the preliminary part of tantric initiations, which, as we have already mentioned,  preserve a form of the Bodhisattva vow, they are given together.  To explain this in a little more detail:

In ‘permission’ initiations, the most commonly bestowed form of initiations, the candidate for initiation is required to take the Pratimoksha and Bodhisattva vows during the preliminary procedures of the initiation. Usually this is accomplishedthrough recitation of the ‘seven branch declaration’ drawn from the Vajra Panjara tantra. The two vows are taken, or retaken if one has taken them previously, at this point because one cannot receive the permission to practice Vajrayana unless one already has become a Buddhist by taking refuge and maintains the vows of the preceding two vehicles. Naturally in the case of a householder the Pratimoksha vow taken in this fashion is that germane for householders. 

Furthermore, in the case of a major initiation from one of the two higher sets of tantras, the initiate also receives the specifically tantric vow of the Vidyadhara alongside the Pratimoksha and Bodhisattva vows in the preliminary part of the initiation.

All this may well lead us to reflect on the seriousness with which we should view initiations, since they carry such commitments. Yet if one looks around one can easily see that people often receive them without this requisite knowledge. Such an ill-considered approach is one of the main causes of disillusionment experienced by many dharma followers in these modern times.


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