Taking the Bodhisattva Vow


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If we get it wrong then there is no other solution. Teaching emptiness, therefore, is dangerous. If you want to discuss emptiness with someone, the first thing to decide is whether that person is ready or not. If they are not, it might cause many difficulties and great misunderstanding. The second thing to decide is whether you yourself are ready or not to teach. We have to be so careful. That indicates how important it is to really find the right moment and the right person to teach this topic.

The wrong shade of meaning and the student might feel it is nihilism, which will leave very bad imprints on their mind streams. Even when bodhisattvas entering into the Path of Accumulation start to realise emptiness, there is often great, great fear. When they start to realise emptiness they are terrified that they themselves are somehow being extinguished and if they become non-existent their main aim to benefit sentient beings is being lost. So great caution is needed with the teaching of emptiness.

This can easily occur to us in this life. Enlightenment is too far — it is an unrealistic goal. We can easily become discouraged ourselves and we can easily carry that discouragement through to others.


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Of course we must have realistic expectations. That is important in order to carry on our practices but, at the same time, we should not be discouraged and feel that we will never attain enlightenment nor make others feel that it is impossible. The Buddha himself recognised that there are different mental dispositions.

Some people are not interested in attaining full enlightenment but just want to attain liberation. But for people who have an interest in that path, it is important to support their interest and not to discourage them because our buddha nature can become active at any time.

Walking the Bodhisattva Path

His Holiness has said that for him just having some understanding that there will be many, many lives is not discouraging, it is encouraging. I will have many lives so I will try to attain full enlightenment although, at this stage, it is very distant. It is a bit difficult for me to measure but I will keep trying through all these lives. We need to use this kind of logic to encourage ourselves and also to encourage others, particularly those who are interested in that path. Lama Tsong Khapa gives the example of a small action giving rise to vast merit, such as offering a cup of water to a person who needs with the thought to attain full enlightenment.

By really focusing on the main aim — the attainment of enlightenment — no matter how small the action is, it acquires vast merit. Sometimes it is very, very helpful to read those great masters talking about this in order to encourage ourselves. The differences between the eighth downfall and this one is in the object of the action. The eighth downfall refers to ourselves breaking the Individual Liberation vows whereas this one is about causing others to break them. This can be done by disparaging the Individual Liberation vows, telling others that they are not as important as the Bodhisattva vows and can be disregarded in order to keep the Bodhisattva vows.

This one is also about degree. The eighth downfall deals mainly with the four root vows, whereas this one refers to all of them. Some of the Individual Liberation or monastic vows are very subtle. Our common sense may ask what they mean. There is a vow which says if a monk beats somebody with a single straw, they are breaking a vow.


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How is this so? It is not really causing any pain. Although there is no pain, the action is accumulating that habit of violence. So this vow is about respecting the vows of Individual Liberation. We need to see how important they are and because of that not encourage anybody in any way to break them. They are the base. Without them the other vows are difficult to keep.

Root Bodhisattva Vows

It is very risky for Mahayana practitioners to think that the Mahayana teachings are the highest, the most complete or advanced teachings and that the other teachings such as those of the Theravadin are lower or incomplete. Having such a feeling is really a very heavy negativity. When the Buddha taught these different liberation vehicles he did not teach that the Individual Liberation vehicle is the starting point, the Mahayana vehicle is in the middle and Vajrayana is the completion.

Of course, in order to understand teachings such as the Vajrayana, an understanding of the Bodhisattva teachings on emptiness and bodhicitta is needed because there is a strong link between them and the entire Vajrayana practice is designed to make the Bodhisattva path quicker. It is very important not to have a notion that some teachings are lower or inferior to others. To falsely claim such a thing for self-gain — power, name, fame —is considered a very heavy negativity, mainly because those who proclaim false accomplishments might become teachers and lead others.

beastie boys - shambala/bodhisattva vow

Tibetans are not completely free from these things, but generally speaking the great masters are very humble. They would not admit to having any realisations for fear of giving wrong information to other people. If a high lama says that they have no realisations then someone who the people know is lower cannot claim to have them.

Taking Vows (and Buddhism) Seriously — Lama Jampa Thaye

That is the kind of culture we Tibetans have. On the other hand, on one occasion His Holiness the Dalai Lama said that it is good to be humble but if no one admitted to having realisations there would be an entire population without them. Being truthful can also be helpful in some situations. This is very similar to the fifth one, taking offerings intended for the Three Jewels.

The fifth one, however, is more about stealing offerings whereas this one is more about misusing them, even though we might have permission to use them. It is easy for people in authority in monasteries or Dharma centres to take shortcuts and start using funds and gifts for their own purpose — maybe not really stealing but just to make life a bit easier for themselves. In a Dharma centre we are using centre property that actually belongs to the Three Jewels all the time, so we really need to be mindful. As with the previous downfall, this one poses a greater risk for someone in authority at a Dharma centre or monastery.


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  4. If the fifth vow is stealing and the last one misusing property, this one is to do with misusing the rules an organisation has. Here we bend the rules or pass a false judgement to get our own way because we have the power to do so. The Tibetan term for this has the sense of making bad rules, bad in terms of stopping opportunities for other people to have Dharma teachings or harming them in some way. It does not just have to apply to a large organisation.

    This can also apply in a shared house, where we have to live with others. Especially if someone, like the person whose name is on the lease, has some power and then starts to abuse it.

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    We always have to be so careful with power. If we have some sort of authority or have followers, we are in danger. That power can so easily blind our wisdom and then it becomes so difficult to make the right decision. For example, if a Dharma centre is setting up a teaching programme, someone in authority might vote against a particular teacher coming just because they have a personal grudge against them or because they personally dislike their teaching style, not because they think the teacher is inappropriate for the centre.

    It is so important to go beyond self-interest where Dharma is concerned.

    The Preparation

    Because of the power of the object the negativity is so much greater if we do not. The last downfall is actually giving up bodhicitta. We so often start out with great enthusiasm when we first hear about bodhicitta. The idea of it, how it is so beneficial for others, how we can develop the mind and so on, all seems so inspiring. But when we start to face the reality of developing that mind, it is not that easy. Quite often we are torn between working on our mind and the real world. The real world is not peaceful, calm or sincere all the time.

    We find our wish to help others comes up against real obstacles and it starts to seem too difficult. Our compassion, however, is mixed up with all sorts of other feelings — feelings that confuse us and obstruct our progress. The simple pure wish to benefit others comes unstuck when we are faced with the difficulties of actually doing it.

    The stories may seem strange to us. For someone who has undergone such hard work to develop the mind of bodhicitta — accumulating so much merit, dedicating so much time, doing so much meditation — how could they give it up? Actually, giving up bodhicitta is not difficult at all. No more than that, no less than that. It does not take a long time. For sixteen of the eighteen root downfalls there are four factors needed for it to be a complete downfall. The first one, not being mindful of the disadvantages, means having committed one of the downfalls and with no sense that it has been an unwholesome action.

    Say, for instance, that after we have praised ourselves — the first downfall — we realise that it was an unwholesome thing to do. That is not a complete downfall.

    Taking the Bodhisattva Vow Taking the Bodhisattva Vow
    Taking the Bodhisattva Vow Taking the Bodhisattva Vow
    Taking the Bodhisattva Vow Taking the Bodhisattva Vow
    Taking the Bodhisattva Vow Taking the Bodhisattva Vow
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