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The meaning of precepts

The meaning of precepts

Part of a series of teachings on Essence of Refined Gold by the Third Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Sonam Gyatso. The text is a commentary on Songs of Experience by Lama Tsongkhapa.

  • Practice of refuge and precepts
  • Guidelines to follow in daily life
  • Meaning of taking precepts

Essence of Refined Gold 22 (download)

We will begin by generating our motivation and rejoicing that we have this precious human life, with all the opportunities to study and learn the Dharma. Not every human life is a precious human life because not everybody has the opportunity to learn and practice the Dharma. Somehow this lifetime we have that karma; we have that clarity of mind, we have the interest, we have our health, we have teachers and Dharma friends and books, and so many opportunities.

Let’s really make a strong determination to make use of our life in a really productive way so that at the time of death we’ll be able to look back on our life and really rejoice and say, “This was a life that was worthwhile, that was worth living, that created more virtue than nonvirtue,” and we will be able to look back on our life with a really happy mind. One of the best ways to do that is to generate the bodhicitta, the loving, compassionate thought that’s concerned with the welfare of each and every sentient being. This means people we like, sentient beings we don’t like or that we are afraid of—each and every sentient being. See them not just in terms of how they relate to us and what we think of them; but as beings bound by their ignorance and karma, beings exposed to all the misery of samsara, and therefore worthy of compassion. With that in mind, let’s generate the determination to become a fully enlightened Buddha for their benefit.

You don’t have to understand everything right away

I thought I would just explain something by way of introduction today, because we had some feedback from one of the groups that’s been listening. People were saying, “Well, we understand some of what you’re saying but we don’t understand everything. There are a lot of big words and there’s a lot of new terms and a lot of new ideas, and we’re beginners and, who are these stream-entry guys anyway? I just am looking for the wading pool, not the stream. Help!” I thought I would just give a little bit of an introduction because, on these series of tele-teachings, we have a variety of listeners.

Some of you are comparatively new to the Dharma and some of you have been listening to teachings for ten years or more. There’s a wide variety. I wanted to, in this chunk of the teachings when we’ve been talking about refuge, talk about the qualities of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in a little bit more depth for the senior students.

You don’t always have the opportunity to hear more about the qualities of the Buddha, the qualities of the Dharma, the qualities of the Sangha. I thought to really explain something that you don’t ordinarily get, because a lot of times you may have a guest teacher come in and they explain refuge and it’s a fairly standard teaching and you need a little bit more depth. For the people who are comparatively new, this might seem very advanced. But the thing is, if you listen, you may not understand everything right away but you’re going to get something out of it; and you’re at least going to hear the words and hear the concepts. That puts some imprint in your mind and the next time you hear the same words and the same concepts, you’re going to understand them a little bit more.

For example, last summer we had teachings by Khensur Lobsang Tenzin on the paths and grounds on the Salam texts, and somebody at the Abbey said to me that when she heard those teachings they were all just like, “Whoop!” over the top of the head. Now when she’s listening to the refuge teachings that I was giving, she was going, “Oh I remember those words!” This teaching she understands the meaning of the words a little bit better and they don’t seem so strange.

When we learn the Dharma we have to have that attitude of: We’re not meant to understand everything clearly exactly at the beginning. A lot of this is stuff we just have to hear repeatedly. We become familiar with the terminology and the concepts and think about it, and slowly it becomes clearer and clearer. Those of you who are new, don’t get discouraged by all of this but hang in there, because the only way you ever progress is by hanging in. If every time we didn’t understand something or we got discouraged we said, “Well, okay, that’s it!” then we’re never going to get anywhere.

Can you imagine being in kindergarten and you see a third-grade book and you go, “Oh, that’s so difficult, that third-grade book—I’m never going to learn to read, so forget reading!” If your kindergarten child did that you’d go, “It’s okay! You don’t have to understand a third-grade book! Just concentrate on kindergarten and you’ll get to third grade when you’re in third grade, and don’t worry about it.” It’s the same kind of thing when we’re learning the Dharma. Just hearing the words puts that imprint in our mind and gives us some background.

Guidelines for the practice of refuge

I’d like to continue today with some of the guidelines for the practice of refuge. Last session we went through the ones that were mentioned specifically in the text The Essence of Refined Gold and we talked about the guidelines in terms of each of the Three Jewels and we also talked about the common guidelines that we practice in relationship to all Three Jewels. Now I’m going to talk about some other guidelines for the practice of refuge. Remember that these guidelines are things that are meant to benefit our practice. Whenever we have guidelines or precepts, we shouldn’t see them as a tax: “I want to take refuge in my taxes, I have to keep the precepts.” No, it’s like, we take refuge because we see its value; and then we know that keeping the refuge guidelines, the refuge precepts, really helps us to keep our refuge very fresh and clear in our minds.

Commit yourself wholeheartedly to a qualified spiritual mentor

If you’re following we’re in the Pearl of Wisdom I book talking about some of the refuge guidelines. The first three are an analogy to taking refuge in the Three Jewels. First, an analogy to taking refuge in the Buddha: “Commit yourself wholeheartedly to a qualified spiritual master.” What this means is, we didn’t have the karma to be born at the time when Shakyamuni Buddha was alive and teaching but we did have at least the fortune to be born at a time when we could meet a spiritual master. Some people are born at times when there’s no spiritual master around to teach them, so we’re very fortunate to have spiritual masters, and we want to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to form a constructive, useful relationship with them.

I was just thinking today, everybody forms different kinds of relationships with their teachers and everybody has a different attitude. Some people, when they form a relationship with their teacher, they’re really kind of skeptical. They’re kind of hanging back, “Okay, what’s this person saying and what are they going to tell me to do? I don’t like their political opinions and I don’t like their policies about this and that, and they seem biased about this and that, and I don’t like this and that—but they kind of give good teachings and it helps me a little bit.” They’re critical and skeptical. There are people who encounter the Dharma and form a relationship like that and so they really struggle quite a bit.

Then there are other people who have what I call “Mickey Mouse” devotion and it’s like, “Oh, my teacher’s a Buddha. My teacher said this, it’s the best thing on earth! Oh, my teacher is just wonderful!” They sit and just space out and all they do is talk about, “My teacher’s an incarnation of this one and an incarnation of that one.” They don’t really listen to the teachings very seriously. They’re more just in this kind of undiscriminating devotion, and then whatever the teacher says, “Oh, this is great. My teacher said to bring him a cup of tea. I’m going to get the tea!” This kind of way of serving our teacher, it’s okay. But to be a good disciple, you really need to take the teachings seriously and think about them and understand them; and not just have devotion without investigation.

There are other people who are really eager to learn the Dharma and when their teacher gives them an instruction they think about it and it makes sense to them, and they put it into practice. Those people really get somewhere when they practice. They don’t just have this undiscriminating faith but they really think about it and they aren’t so skeptical that they put all the instructions on hold. Instead they actually take the instructions seriously and put them into practice. These people, you can really see that they begin to change with time—and so it’s nice to have that kind of attitude.

I sometimes meet people who come and they ask for advice in their life. As soon as I start to give advice they nod and they say, “Yes, but, blah blah blah,” and then explain how my advice doesn’t fit or why they can’t do it. Then I’ll usually try to give some other advice and then they say, “Yes, but” to that one. At that point I just figure there’s not much sense in saying anything because they’re not really wanting to hear.

The people who ask for advice and then really listen and take it and put it into effect in their own practice, they resolve their problem and they really get somewhere in their practice. When we’re talking about committing ourselves wholeheartedly to a spiritual mentor, this is the kind of thing we’re talking about, where we’re thoughtful and we’re intelligent. We’re not indiscriminately devoted but we also listen attentively and practice, and take the advice; whether it’s personal advice or advice on the teachings, we take it seriously.

Listen to and study the teachings

The second one is an analogy to taking refuge in the Dharma: “Listen to and study the teachings, as well as put them into practice in your daily life.” That’s the essence of the whole thing and if we have a good relationship with our teacher, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We’re going to study the teachings and then we’re going to put them into practice in our daily life. Practicing in our daily life—that doesn’t mean that you just practice in your daily life and you don’t do a meditation practice. It’s very good to have a formal daily sitting practice because that gives you some space and time in your life to be a little bit more quiet and reflective and to go deeper in your contemplation of the Dharma. Whatever you get from your meditation session, you try and apply that in whatever your daily activities are.

Respect the Sangha as your spiritual companions

The third one is an analogy to taking refuge in the Sangha: “Respect the Sangha as your spiritual companions and follow the good examples they set.” This was, like I was explaining last time, about respecting the monastics, the Sangha, not because there’s a hierarchy but because they keep good ethical discipline; and their good ethical conduct we can take as a role model for us. If you see a Sangha member making a mistake and not keeping their precepts very well, don’t follow that! Not all of the monastics are buddhas, and we make mistakes. You only follow the good example of somebody. You don’t follow the bad example of somebody!

You have to be very astute about this because sometimes we can get a bit confused. We’re maybe not even looking at a monastic’s behavior but a senior layperson’s behavior, and that person’s behavior doesn’t really match the precepts. But you think, “Well, they’re fudging in this way and they’re fudging in that way, so that must be okay for me to do also.” Well, no, it’s not. We have to understand the precepts and then apply them to our own life. If other people aren’t keeping the guidelines well, then we don’t use that as an excuse for our not keeping them well. We do the best that we can and we respect others for their good practice.

Like I was saying before, when we talk about the conventional Sangha, we’re talking about a community of four or more fully ordained monastics. There’s a special something that happens when you have four or more monastics together, aside from the fact that we can give ordination. Well, actually we need five people to give ordination but we can do our twice- monthly confession and do a lot of the other Sangha activities in a group of four. There’s a special energy that happens when you have that community. Especially if you think that the Sangha community existed from the time of the Buddha and that this has continued through the ages from teacher to disciple, living this way of life as the Buddha himself embodied.

Sometimes people nowadays say, “Oh, monasticism is old fashioned! It’s sexist. It’s hierarchical. We’re American, we’re modern—we don’t need that!” And also, “Monastics, they’re just keeping celibate, suppressing their sexuality, they’re not drinking, they don’t have any fun in their life! We’re practicing tantra, we’re going to have sex, we’re going to drink, we’re going to have Dharma and nirvana all at the same time. This is really the way to go because we’re modern American Buddhists!” What’s interesting about that is, if you look at the Buddha’s life, how did the Buddha himself live? What example of a lifestyle did the Buddha use to embody how he thought the Dharma should be lived?

I mean, think about it. Was the Buddha on one hand taking precepts and on the other hand going out and having a girlfriend and going out to the bar? No, that’s not the way the Buddha lived. The Buddha didn’t have a house filled with all kinds of junk. Excuse me, all kinds of “possessions”—or maybe they’re synonymous? The Buddha lived a simple life and he didn’t have a lot of stuff and he didn’t need a lot of stuff. He was polite and courteous to everybody and he spoke with everybody. If you read the sutras, the Buddha was incredible. He taught poor people, he taught rich people, he taught prostitutes, he taught the king, he taught everybody. He taught people with wrong views who made fun of him, he taught people with very little dust on the wisdom eye who listened to him.

If we really look at how the Buddha lived, this is the example that we should emulate. Even if we can’t live that way exactly, at least do what we can to try and follow that lifestyle, and respect the people who are capable of doing it in a little bit more than we’re capable of at this present moment. That way we respect the example of the people who are emulating the Buddha’s lifestyle. And we do our best, according to our capacity and our ability, without pushing ourselves in an inappropriate way, to do what we can to emulate the Buddha’s lifestyle as well.

Avoid being rough, arrogant, and running after desirable objects

The next guideline is, “Avoid being rough and arrogant, running after any desirable object you see and criticizing anything that meets with your disapproval.” That one’s tough, isn’t it? That one’s really hard. Avoid being rough and arrogant. The personality that says, “I feel like doing this. I want to do this. This is the way I think things should be done. My idea is the best way so we’re going to do it my way. I’ve been practicing Dharma for five years so the whole Dharma center should listen to me!” This kind of attitude. Avoid being like that and avoid running after any desirable object that we see or hear or touch or taste or smell.

The human life is in the desire realm. We talk of three realms: desire realm, form realm, and formless realm. We are definitely desire realm. We have our six senses, and particularly the five sensual senses, and any object that gives us some pleasure? Boy, it’s like we’re a donkey with a hook through our nose, and that object is just leading us! We see something and, “Oh, there’s some attractive person! Oh, there’s some food! Oh, there’s a job and prestige!” We’re like this donkey. That other person is leading us along because they have a string with a hook that goes through our nose and we just follow docilely behind this attractive object, thinking that the purpose of our life is to get whatever we see that seems desirable. That behavior, if we really want to go in depth with our Dharma practice, we should really try and avoid.

It’s difficult to practice Dharma when we spend most of our time running after sense objects. You can only do so much in a day. If most of your day is consumed by running after sense objects, it’s really difficult to have some time to practice the Dharma. You run after the sense objects and you get them, and they’re not as good as you thought they were going to be, so then you feel depressed and disappointed. Or you run after them and you can’t get them, or somebody else got them, and then you’re furious and jealous. There are so many problems that come from that. It’s really not worth it. That’s the first part of that guideline: “Avoid being rough and arrogant and running after any desirable object we see.”

Avoid criticizing anything that meets with your disapproval

Then the second part is, “Avoid criticizing anything that meets with your disapproval.” That one’s also pretty hard because there’s a lot that meets with our disapproval. I mean, our “opinion factory,” our “judgment factory,” it works overtime, all the time. We’re so judgmental all the time, thinking, “Oh, look what somebody’s doing, look what they’re wearing, look how they comb their hair, look how they’re walking, look how they’re talking. Oh, they think such crazy ideas! They’re not mowing their lawn, they’re not vacuuming, they leave their clothes on the clothesline too long or they don’t put them up soon enough.” Or, “This is wrong and that’s wrong,” and all the time one complaint after another. We don’t like how this one does this and we don’t like how that one does that. We’re just so judgmental and criticizing, and making a commentary on everybody’s behavior.

How do we feel when we do that? What’s the state of our mind when we’ve spent a whole period of time just complaining, criticizing, and judging? Is our own mind happy? No, it’s not very happy. It’s so funny about complaining—we’ll sit there and while we’re complaining we feel like, “Okay, I’m getting it off my chest!” Then afterwards, we’ve done all this complaining, and do you really feel better? Sometimes I just feel like, “Eeeeew! That person I complained to probably doesn’t think very well of me. They probably have good reason for not thinking so well of me because I just sat there and wasted a lot of their time with my complaints and my judgments and my ‘blah blah.’” Just like running after desirable objects and criticizing things that meet with our disapproval, it doesn’t make us happy now and it doesn’t create good karma. In fact, it creates negative karma. We’re left with this feeling of malaise at the end of the day, like, “Okay, I criticized everybody else, but where did that get me?”

I remember Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey—this was like 30 years ago—would say to us, “You get together with your friends and maybe one other friend, two other friends, and all you do is talk about what everybody else is doing, criticizing this one, putting down that one, and then the conclusion at the end of your discussion is that the two or three of you are the best ones in the universe!” He says, “That’s the only thing that comes from that conversation.”

Plus, we’ve wasted our precious human life, which is so difficult to get, doing that. This is when I think it’s really hard. But as much as we can be mindful and observant, and try to restrain ourselves in this way, we find that we’re happier and more content now. Our mind is just generally in a better mood. I say this because when our mind is always focused on what we don’t like about everybody, then we’re in a constantly grumpy mood, aren’t we? As they say, the pickpocket sees pockets, so the judgmental person sees something to judge. You focus on what you’re looking for and then all you find is faults. When all you find is faults, how do you go through your life? Not very happy.

Be friendly and kind to others

The next refuge guideline is, “Be friendly and kind to others and be concerned more with correcting your own faults than with pointing out those of others.” This is the antidote to the previous one. Instead of being rough and arrogant, and just 100 percent focused on getting what we want, when we want it—instead, be friendly and kind to other people. Open our eyes. Look at how other people are. Look at what their experience is. How can we help them, what can we do?

You can really see people who are like that. They’re just looking out for others and if somebody needs something, they get up and get it for them. They’re just very considerate people who aren’t just focused on, “I want this and I want that.” They’re looking and seeing how they can relate to others in a really pleasant way. In the morning when we make that determination not to harm and to be of benefit, this is a really nice way to be of benefit to others.

What’s coming to mind is, as some of you know, Venerable Tenzin Kacho. She embodies this very, very well. She’s extremely considerate and very thoughtful, looking out after other people. Last spring when my mom was sick, I went down to visit my mom. Venerable Tenzin came to visit me and she brought some flowers for my mom. It was like, she didn’t need to do that. She doesn’t know my mom very well. She’s met her on a few occasions and she was coming to talk to me. But it was just so beautiful; she walked in the door with this bouquet of flowers for my mom. This kind of thoughtfulness and friendliness and concern for others, when our mind is focused that way, then we spread joy just by doing small things. In addition, our own mind is happy.

I remember some of you were at the retreats in Mexico (when we were doing one-month retreats in Mexico) and you’d see this amongst the Mexicans. All you “jalapenos,” I’m praising you now—don’t get a big head! (laughter) You really see it amongst the Mexicans. When we were on retreat people would do such small little things for other people. I was doing a private retreat by myself and sometimes I would just find when I walked out of my room, somebody had left a little piece of chocolate. Or they left two or three little flowers in a small cup. Or just very small things they would leave for each other or for me or for the people at the retreat center. They weren’t big and flamboyant things but just small things like that, that were so thoughtful, letting people know you realize they’re alive and you care about them. There are so many things like this.

We have one young man who just applied to come to the Abbey. He’s living across the country right now with his parents and he has to earn some money to be able to get the fare to come out here. I told him, your Dharma practice right now is being kind to your parents. I said that’s the best way in the world to convince your parents of the value of the Buddhadharma. Just be kind to them, clean the dishes, and clean your room. Wow, mom and dad are going to go, “Woo hoo, we like Buddhists!”

Be more concerned with correcting your own faults

Be friendly and kind to others, and be more concerned about correcting your own faults than with pointing out those of others. There’s a verse in the Dhammapada that says this. I can’t remember it exactly but it’s the exact same thought. It has something to do with, instead of looking at what others have done and left undone, look at what we have done and left undone. Instead of looking at other people and, “They did this, they did that, and they shouldn’t have,” or “they didn’t do that and they didn’t do this and they should have done it.” Instead of minding other people’s business, be more concerned, “How is my own practice going? Am I remembering to offer my food before I eat? Am I remembering to generate my motivation when I wake up in the morning? Am I sitting down in the evening and reflecting on how the day went and doing some kind of confession and purification? Am I being considerate to the people that I work with or the people I live with?” Be more concerned with that then with just paying attention to what everybody else is doing.

Avoid the ten nonvirtuous actions, and take and keep precepts

The next one is, “As much as possible, avoid the ten nonvirtuous actions, and take and keep precepts.” I think most of you are familiar with the ten nonvirtuous actions. I’ll just list them right now: killing, stealing, unwise sexual behavior—those are the three ones of the body. There’s four of speech: lying, creating disharmony with our speech, harsh words, and idle talk. There’s three of the mind: covetousness, maliciousness, and distorted views. As much as possible, try and avoid those. Try to take and keep precepts. So this could mean the five lay precepts or it could mean the eight Mahayana precepts. As you practice more, some of you may want to consider monastic precepts.

The five lay precepts are a good place to begin. If you can’t keep all five then keep four or three or two or one. Do what you’re able to do. Those five lay precepts, some of them overlap with the ten non-virtues. The five lay precepts are to not kill or steal or have unwise sexual behavior or lie, and then the fifth one is to avoid intoxicants. The thing about intoxicants is, if you take them then you usually wind up doing the other four. We try to avoid intoxicants.

The one on intoxicants, that’s often the most difficult for people I find. People have so many difficulties around that. Some of you may remember we had a retreat a couple of years back at Indianola and we got into a discussion about the intoxicant precept. It was like “True Confessions.” Some of you might remember that? All of these people are saying, “Well, I’ve got to tell you, I broke that precept.” Then somebody else goes, “I did, too!” The third person goes, “Yes, me also.” There’s so much trouble with that one about intoxicants. We spent quite a while talking about that and the peer pressure people feel to do what other people are doing; or whatever it is we tell ourselves. “Oh, a glass of wine is good for my health.” Yes, right; you have your glass of wine with your potato chips and your hot fudge sundae and your pork chops, right! You’re having the wine because you’re taking care of your health…okay.

The eight Mahayana precepts

There are the five lay precepts that you take for life. Or, another thing to do is to take the eight Mahayana precepts. Those are the five lay precepts, except when you take the eight Mahayana precepts—since you’re just taking them for one day—the third precept, because it’s for one day, is the precept of no sexual activity at all; not just avoiding unwise sexual behavior. In addition to those five, you have three other ones. You have: (#6) not wearing cosmetics or jewelry or perfumes, and not singing, dancing, and playing music, because all those things draw attention to ourselves and they take a lot of energy. The next one (#7) was not sitting in high or expensive places or on very elaborate and plush seats because that increases our arrogance. The third one (#8) was to not eat at inappropriate times, which means not eating after midday; or if you keep it very strictly, then you only have one meal that day which is taken before midday. It’s very good to keep these eight Mahayana precepts. If you can do them on new-moon and full-moon days it’s very good. And actually, a very good day to take them is Vesak Day—it’s the anniversary of the Buddha’s birth and his enlightenment and his passing away. So it’s a good day to take and keep the eight precepts.

Have a compassionate and sympathetic heart towards all beings

Then the next guideline is, “Have a compassionate and sympathetic heart towards all other sentient beings.” This is really something very good to do. We’re not going to be able to do that instantly but to try and cultivate a compassionate and sympathetic heart towards others. This also is an antidote to the judgmental mind and the “opinion factory.” Also, really looking at others with the eyes of compassion and realizing that they’re doing their best and they’re under the influence of ignorance and afflictions. So have some patience with them instead of having so much expectation that they’re going to be wonderful and perfect and do everything you think they should do. Have some patience and tolerance and sympathy for people.

Make special offerings to the Three Jewels on festival days

The next guideline is to “Make special offerings to the Three Jewels on the Buddhist festival days.” The reason we do this one is that it’s an opportunity to create a great deal of positive karma. This is because on those festival days they’re merit-multiplying days, and so the good karma we create is more powerful. For example, Vesak Day is one of those days; also the day of Turning the Dharma Wheel, which is seven weeks after Vesak. I think it falls around July 17 or 18, something around there. Then there’s the anniversary of the Buddha’s Descent from the God Realm of the Thirty-Three, where he went to teach his mother the Dharma during one of the rainy seasons. There is also the Day of Miracles, where these nonbelievers challenged the Buddha to a display of miraculous powers, and he put them off and put them off and then finally he complied. And of course he defeated them and they converted and became Buddhists. Those are the four great Buddhist festival days. Then every new and full moon it’s very good to make special offerings. If you go to the temple or the Dharma center to make offerings or make offerings on your shrine at home, or make donations or something like that, it’s very good to do that because of the merit that we create. It’s very good on those days to take the eight Mahayana precepts as well and to do some extra Dharma practice on those days.

Audience: I have always had a question about how these merit-multiplying days work. Is it the deepening understanding of why we celebrate and, in that light then, that’s what makes actions more meritorious?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): I’ve asked my teachers about it and I’ve gotten diverse answers. I think on the new and full moon, that has something special because of the energy. I mean, even the police departments know that on the new and full moon, sometimes there’s more crime on those days. So doing the opposite of doing something virtuous on that day is going to be more in direct opposition to sometimes the way that our internal energies are affected by the external planets. It could have to do with that. But my guess is that mostly it has to do with the fact that we know it’s a merit-multiplying day and we know that this is an anniversary of something that’s very special and something that’s very precious. By the force of thinking about the Buddha’s life, like on the four special holidays, you think about the Buddha’s life and what he did, and how he lived, and all of that. Your mind becomes so joyful, and so has much faith and confidence and trust in the Buddha, and in his teachings, and in the Sangha community. I think on the basis of having that kind of faith and trust, then any kind of virtuous activity you do becomes more powerful because your motivation is one that is different. My guess is that may be how it works.

Audience: I took the bodhisattva vows a number of years ago and I have to say that I am incredibly lax about remembering how to review them. At this point I’m wondering whether I was premature at that time to actually take them. I was inspired in the moment. There came to my mind a deepening of responsibility to my own actions and deepening responsibility to how I related to others. Where are they in line to the Mahayana and the lay precepts?

VTC: Where do the bodhisattva vows fall in terms of the eight Mahayana precepts and the five lay precepts, and what order do we take all of these in? The first thing we do is we take refuge—that’s the first thing. On the basis of refuge, technically speaking, that gives you the ability to take either the five lay precepts or the eight Mahayana precepts. Now, Zopa Rinpoche received permission from his teacher, I think from Trijang Rinpoche, for people to take the eight Mahayana precepts without having taken refuge first. Usually you have to have taken refuge but we do it with special permission because sometimes there are people who aren’t Buddhist but they are attending a course and they want to take the eight Mahayana precepts. So it’s permissible to do that. The first time you take the eight Mahayana precepts, you have to take them from somebody who has those precepts; so you usually go to a teacher. The teacher takes the precepts themselves in their own room in the morning and them comes and gives the precepts to the whole group of people. After you’ve received them like that in a lineage, then in the future, on the special days, you can take the eight Mahayana precepts yourself by having a Buddha statue and imagining the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and repeating the prayer and contemplating like that. You then take them by yourselves without there being a teacher.

Refuge is the first thing and then some people may do the eight Mahayana precepts from time to time and then just start taking the five lay precepts. If you can’t do all five then do four or three or two or one. Get some stability in your lay precepts, those five precepts, and then after that, do the precepts of aspiring bodhicitta. These are not the bodhisattva vows. These are the ceremony of aspiring bodhicitta. Those precepts are in the red prayer book Pearl of Wisdom II, you can read them. So you do those; take aspiring bodhicitta. After you feel comfortable with that, then take the bodhisattva vows. After you practice the bodhisattva vows for a while, then take the kriya tantra initiations, like Tara or Medicine Buddha, things like that. After you do those practices for a while, when you feel really ready, then take the tantric vows and highest-class tantra initiation.

It’s really much better if you do things in this kind of series. A lot of people, they just have “vow-taking fever” and they’re brand new to the Dharma and they hear, “Oh, so-and-so’s coming and they’re giving an initiation and it’s such a precious, rare opportunity and you should really take it!” These people jump in and they take all these precepts all at once and they really don’t have a very good foundation in Buddhism. Then they get really confused afterwards. It’s much better to go slowly and really thoughtfully.

We have a young man at the Abbey right now and he wants to take refuge and precepts. It’s coming up this weekend at the weekend retreat. He said the other day, “I don’t feel like I’m quite ready to take them; I really want to take them but I feel like I need some more time to prepare.” He was going through the booklet that DFF [Dharma Friendship Foundation] put together about refuge—the refuge questions and all the readings. When he said that, I really respected the fact that he wanted to wait until he felt ready to take refuge and precepts, because that was telling me that he takes his spiritual practice seriously. To me, that was a real sign of being quite serious and earnest. I think that’s quite a good sign, kind of knowing when you’re ready to take something and doing it when you feel ready. Some people, they rush into it, take stuff, and then afterwards contemplate, “How does this fit?” That’s like going to the store and buying a lot of clothes without trying them on first, taking them home and then seeing if they fit and if they’re what you need to wear. That doesn’t work very well. It’s much better to know what you need, go to the store, try it on, and then get it as you see that it fits. It’s the same thing with taking these various levels of things.

Also, the reason that they’re set up in that sequence is because the precepts that are the easiest to keep are the five lay precepts and the monastic vows because they just deal with actions of body and speech. The bodhisattva vows are more difficult to keep than the monastic vows because they deal with actions of mind as well. So you can break the bodhisattva vows without even saying or doing anything, just by the way you think. The tantric vows are even more difficult to keep because those really emphasize the mental state, and so it’s easy to break them when your mental state isn’t on top of it.

There are people who are really keen to take tantric vows but then they look at the five lay precepts and say, “Why are you telling me not to drink and not to lie? That’s baby stuff! I want Mahamudra and Dzogchen and highest-class tantra.” Those people are building the roof without building the foundation. If you think about it, if you can’t stop lying then how are you going to keep your bodhisattva vows? It’s going to be really difficult. If you really have a penchant for drinking and drugging—that’s a physical action, which in comparison to mental actions are much easier to restrain from. If you can’t keep yourself from drinking and drugging because your mind is going, “Oh, I really want to take a drink, I really want a drug, all my friends are doing it…” If you can’t restrain from that, it’s going to be very hard for you to really keep bodhisattva and tantric vows. That’s why there’s this progression in the series that we take.

What’s very nice as a warm-up, before you take any of the precepts, is to live as if you had them even though you haven’t taken them yet. You may not have taken the five lay precepts but try living according to them for a while and see how it works and how you feel. If you feel good then you know you’re ready to take them. Or before taking aspiring bodhicitta or later on the bodhisattva vows, live with them even before you take them and have some practice. That’s one good thing to do to prepare.

Journaling on the five precepts

Another thing that is really quite helpful is to take each of those precepts and do some journaling about it. Look back at your life and see when you’ve done actions that have contradicted that precept. For example, with the five lay precepts you start out with killing: “Okay, well, when in my life have I killed?” You first think, “Oh, well, I haven’t killed. I’m not a serial murderer.” Then you think of the flies you swatted, and the snails you squashed, and the lobsters you dropped in the hot water, and the pets you euthanized, and all these kinds of things, and you think, “Okay, well what was going on in my mind that I got involved with killing in that way? If that situation happens again, how can I work with my mind so that I don’t do that same action once more?” Do some journaling and really use it as an opportunity to reflect on your whole life and to learn about your behavior.

Then you take stealing, and you think, “Oh, well, I haven’t stolen anything. I’m not a bank robber!” Well, I did all sorts of naughty things like sneak into theaters without paying for a ticket. How often have we done things where we’ve avoided paying tickets? Or we’ve avoided paying taxes we needed to pay. Or where we’ve borrowed things and then kept them very knowingly without returning them. Or when we were kids, taking money out of our parent’s wallet. We did all sorts of naughty things, didn’t we? Then just think about that and doing a whole “life inventory,” and how have I related to other people’s property? Really write it down. When have I done that and what was going on in my mind when I did it? How can I think in the future so that I don’t do that action again?

The third one, boy, we all go bonkers over this one, the one on unwise and unkind sexual behavior. Do a little reflection on how you’ve used your sexuality. That one’s probably going to be 50 pages long! It’s a really good opportunity to really do some contemplation. We’ll see how sometimes we have so much emotional conflict afterwards and the cause is that we really haven’t used our sexuality wisely and kindly. At those times we’ve hurt other people, we’ve hurt ourselves, we feel taken for granted or used, or we’ve used other people. Such pain comes from that. It’s really a good opportunity to do some reflection on that. What was going on in my mind that I was doing those things? What was going on in my mind when I slept with that person and this one and the other one? What in the world was I trying to do? What can I do to refrain from that behavior now and really use my sexuality with thoughtfulness?

Then you do the same thing for lying—how many lies have we told in our lives? Deliberate lies, “little white lies,” exaggerations, deceptions, cheating people, lots of lies. What’s going on? Why do I lie? Some people, they’ve told me that they’ve really noticed, in preparation for taking the precepts, that, “Boy, I have a lot of trouble telling the truth in certain circumstances. I just really have this habitual thing for fudging what I know is the truth, and why am I doing that?” Then, of course, doing the same thing with drinking and drugging.

Really go through and use it as a life review and as an opportunity to get to know ourselves and assess our behavior. Understand why we did things and make determinations for how we want to do things in the future. This is very useful, especially if you do this in conjunction with making prostrations or with Vajrasattva practice as you’re doing these reflections and we’re seeing all of the times we messed up in the past. If we do Vajrasattva practice right after that or we do prostrations to the 35 Buddhas and we really feel some genuine, sincere regret because we’ve just done this reflection, this is a very good way for preparing to take the precepts.

I think that gives you something to meditate on and some homework to do. It’s very helpful also, if you’re in one of the groups that are listening, everybody go home and do this kind of life inventory. Then come together again and share some of the things that you’ve learned about yourself in the process. Like, what Dharma antidotes you think will really help you in dealing with those afflicted mental states that got you into doing those actions. It’s very useful, especially when you talk about this stuff with other people. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It actually helps us to be more honest and more transparent and we usually realize that we’re not the only one who’s done all those things. It really helps us to have trust in our Dharma friends because we’ve all made mistakes in the past and we’re all trying to remedy them now.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.

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