Ethical conduct and precepts
The first of the three higher trainings
Part of a series of teachings on The Easy Path to Travel to Omniscience, a lamrim text by Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen, the first Panchen Lama.
- The higher training of ethical conduct
- The benefits of taking precepts
- The eight types of pratimoksha or individual liberation precepts
- Five factors that lead to transgressing precepts and how to counteract them
Easy Path 26: Ethical conduct and precepts (download)
In the previous weeks, we contemplated the first two of the four truths for aryas: true dukkha or the unsatisfactory conditions that we live in as beings in cyclic existence and also the true origin, the causes—ignorance, afflictions, polluted karma—that produce all these unsatisfactory circumstances. We had contemplated that and, by repeatedly contemplating that, you can generate a very strong wish to attain liberation from that, and we have to be convinced that attaining liberation is possible.
His Holiness always stresses this, to see how ignorance controls so much of our mental processes and our behavior, and how these mental states and these behaviors, the karma we create, lead to our unpleasant and unhappy situations. Then, gaining conviction that ignorance misapprehends phenomena. In other words, it’s a wrong consciousness. When we have some idea that what the object ignorance apprehends does not exist at all then we can begin to see that generating the wisdom that understands reality can be a direct antidote to that ignorance. If ignorance is apprehending something that is nonexistent, like inherently existent people and phenomena, and if wisdom sees things as empty of inherent existence, because wisdom is a correct consciousness it can overpower the ignorance which is a wrong consciousness. When the ignorance ceases, then the afflictions cease, then the polluted karma ceases, then the true dukkha ceases.
To really understand this, we have to have some feeling for emptiness, to gain that kind of conviction. When we do then we’re very confident, not only that samsara stinks but that it’s possible to get out of it. If you only think samsara stinks, but you are not sure you can get out of it, you are in a really bad situation. We have to have that confidence that there exists a state beyond samsara—the third noble truth, true cessations—and there exists a path to get to that state, which is the fourth truth for the aryas, the true paths, the wisdom consciousnesses. Then, when we have that confidence, that there’s a way to get out of it—to attain true cessations by practicing true paths—then the next question is what are the true paths that we practice. These are summarized in terms of the three higher trainings; one reason they’re called “higher” is because you do them having taken refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. They become really higher trainings when you become an arya, but at least having refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
The three higher trainings
Those three trainings that we practice: the first one is ethical discipline, ethical conduct; second is concentration; third is wisdom. These three come in all the Buddhist traditions; they all talk about these three higher trainings and their importance. We’re going to talk about these three. We’re going to start out with the first one, the higher training in ethical conduct, and so here, because this is in the lamrim, we’re talking about practicing in common with beings of middle level capacity. The kind of precepts that beings of middle level capacity take are the pratimoksha precepts, or the precepts of individual liberation. People don’t take the bodhisattva or tantric precepts until they are practicing the path of advanced capacity beings. Here the three higher trainings are taught in the context of practicing in common with middle level capacity beings, the pratimoksha precepts.
First we have to ask, why are there precepts? Why don’t we just stop doing negative actions, and why can’t that be just as good? It is just as good, but the problem is that it’s hard for us to just stop our negative actions. Because we’ve already gone through, in the path in common with the initial capacity beings, abandoning the ten nonvirtues. That’s already pretty hard. If we look, we don’t necessarily do that so well. Taking precepts is our real way to set ourselves on that path. Because when we take precepts, we are doing it in a public ceremony in the sense that there is a teacher, and we’ve requested the teacher to please to give us refuge in the Three Jewels, to please give us the precepts. Then we do it by visualizing the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in the space in front and repeating the refuge formula for taking precepts after our teacher.
You imagine that you have really received the precepts, and when you have the precepts, it gives you so much more internal strength to avoid negativities. When we just say, “Well, it would be really nice if I stopped lying. It would be good. I really should stop lying.” You know how it is: when there’s a convenient situation where you can gain something by lying, [and] then we lie. Whereas if you take a precept in the presence of the Buddha, in the presence of your teacher, then you take your resolve a little more seriously. It’s like, “Well, I promised the Buddha; I promised my teacher I wasn’t going to do this. I better keep my promise.”
Also we realize that when we take precepts we are making a promise to ourself. It’s not just an aspiration; it’s something stronger than an aspiration. It’s like, “I’m really going to try hard to do this.” Of course, if we could keep the precepts perfectly, we wouldn’t need to take them, so we take them because we can’t keep them perfectly, but we have to have some confidence that we can keep them to a reasonable extent and some inspiration to do that.
No one forces us to take precepts; it’s something done completely voluntarily that comes from our own wisdom, and really sitting down and thinking. If we start with the five lay precepts—to abandon killing, taking what isn’t freely given, unwise and unkind sexual behavior, lying, and intoxicants—then we just do a little life review. What’s happened when I’ve killed sentient beings, or what would happen—maybe I’ve just killed insects, but animals are bad enough. My 21st birthday, they took me out to have a little fun; we picked out live lobsters and dropped them in the hot water. I have so much regret for that. We thought, “Oh, what a fun thing to do.” Then you think that even killing a human being, what would happen if I do that? That would be really awful. Then you think, “Well, all the other times I’ve killed, do I really want to keep acting like that, doing like that?” Then you begin to see, “No, I’m harming others, and when I harm others, I’m harming myself. I create negative karma.”
What about taking things that haven’t been freely given to us? What happens when I do that? Then nobody trusts me to be around their stuff. Because I just take this and that and the other thing when I feel like having something, so nobody is going to trust me. I could get into trouble with the law. I might make some extra money, but is it really worth it? How do I feel about myself when I act that way? Similarly, with unkind or unwise sexual behavior: if I sleep around, of course my spouse and the other person’s spouse aren’t going to find out about it, but they usually do. Then what happens to your marriage, what happens to the children? Do your children trust you after they find out that you’ve been sleeping around? When you use people for your own sexual satisfaction without caring about them, what happens to those people? When you have unprotected sex, what happens to yourself, to the other person? We begin to think about these things, and then from our own experience, in looking at these situations and from our own examination, really thinking deeply about them, we come to conclude that I really don’t want to do those things.
Then, when you take a precept, what you are saying is that “I’m not going to do the things I don’t want to do anyway.” I really want to emphasize that because lots of people think, “Oh, you take precepts then you can’t do this and you can’t do this and you can’t do the other thing. Oh, you’re just suffering all the time because you can’t do all these things,” but no, it’s not like that because through your own examination and experience, you’ve decided I don’t want to do those things. But sometimes I’m weak minded, so I want to take a precept because that will give me the structure and the framework and the inner strength to not do what I don’t want to do.
Precepts are very valuable in that way. Also, when we take precepts, we accumulate a lot of merit, and we purify a lot of negativity, and those two things are not done without the precept. For example, if there’s two people sitting in the room and one person has the precept—let’s say to not kill—the other person doesn’t have the precept, both of them are sitting in the room, neither one of them are killing, but the first person who has the precept is constantly accumulating merit because they are keeping the precept. They made this determination that they are not going to do that, they are following through with it, so every moment, even if they are sleeping, they are accumulating the merit of not killing whereas the other person who hasn’t taken that precept is not accumulating that merit.
Also, remember when we studied the different results of karma, one of them was the tendency to do the action again, and we were saying that that’s really the worst of the results because you just keep doing it, so you accumulate more and more negative karma. When you have a precept, you are consciously stopping the ripening of that karmic result, of the habituation to do the action again. You are really purifying that habit, that tendency, that we may have had for many, many lifetimes, even many, many eons. Keeping precepts like this brings so many benefits when we do that, so that’s why the Buddha set up these things of precepts.
The pratimoksha precepts
The pratimoksha, or individual liberation precepts, are the group we are talking about here in the context of the three higher trainings. They consist of eight kinds, eight types of pratimoksha precepts. You start out with the one-day precepts—these are eight one-day precepts that you just keep for 24 hours; you take them in the morning, keep them for 24 hours. Then there’s the five lay precepts that you take for life. The five lay precepts that you take for life are divided into male and female. There’s eight kinds: the first kind is the eight precepts then the male and female five lay precepts; then the male and female novice monastic precepts; then the training precepts for a nun; and then the last two are the full precepts, again for both male and female. Those are the eight types of pratimoksha precepts.
The eight precepts, these are not the Mahayana precepts. The precepts sound alike, but the Mahayana precepts you take with a bodhicitta motivation; these precepts you take at least with the motivation of renunciation of samsara. You don’t have to be practicing the bodhisattva path to be able to take the eight one-day precepts. Even though the listing of the precepts is very similar, it’s not the same as the eight Mahayana precepts. Another reason is that when you take the pratimoksha precepts, if you’ve taken higher levels of those precepts then you aren’t allowed to take the lower levels. Because you’ve already taken them and you have a higher level of precepts. I think the only thing that would not be in line with that would be the case of the male and female lay followers who have the five precepts; they can take the eight one-day precepts.
Let’s start with listing the five precepts: to abandon killing, stealing, unwise and unkind sexual behavior, lying, taking intoxicants. Those are the five. If you take the eight, then the third one—because you are only taking the eight for one day—then it’s a little bit stricter, the third one becomes celibacy. For 24 hours you’re celibate. Then you add three more onto that: you add not sitting on high or expensive seats or beds, and then not using perfumes, ornaments, garlands, or singing, dancing, playing music, going to entertainments, and not eating after midday.
That’s done just for the one day. Then when you take the novice precepts, the novice precepts have ten: that one that was singing, dancing, playing music becomes one; and then the other part of it, using perfumes, ornaments, garlands, becomes another one; and then you add onto it not handling money or precious things, gold, silver jewelry, valuable things. That becomes the ten novice precepts, the sramanera or sramanerika.
The five lay is upasaska and upasika. Then for women, there’s another ordination before full ordination; it’s called siksamana; it’s a training ordination. This one, from the Dharmaguptaka school, the vinaya school we follow, has six precepts, which are just the same as the sramanerika precepts except to keep them really, really strictly. They are to abandon killing, stealing, to be celibate, to abandon lying, abandon intoxicants, and to not eat after midday. Those are the six for the probationary nun. Then, for the fully ordained monk and nun, there’s more precepts. In the Dharmaguptaka, the men have I think 227; in the Pali they have 227 I know. I think the women, we have 348. For the Mulasarvastavada, the monks have 253 and the women have 364. We can look it up; it’s in Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions.
Maybe I should talk a little bit about this now. There are different vinaya traditions. When the Buddha taught, he just taught vinaya, but then as the teachings spread, they went to different geographical areas, so different schools got established. Transportation and communication wasn’t so active then, so they couldn’t find out what they were doing, and all the precepts were passed down orally for several hundred years. There came to be these different vinaya traditions.
Considering that it was an oral tradition for many centuries, there’s remarkably little difference between the traditions. You do have some things, like in the enumeration of the full precepts for monks and nuns, there’s some difference in how you enumerate them or how you describe them, but they are not like huge, enormous things. Those are the eight types of pratimoksha. At the beginning, they say there were 18 different schools, but actually if you look at the list, there were many more than 18. But nowadays there are only three that are extant, and so you only have these three vinaya lineages. The first one is the Theravada or the Pali one, so that exists in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, parts of Vietnam and parts of the West. Then there’s the Dharmaguptaka lineage, and that one exists in China, Taiwan, Korea, parts of Vietnam, also the West. Then there’s the Mulasarvastavada, which is the tradition followed in Tibet, Mongolia, and the Himalaya regions.
Of these three, the only one that still has the lineage for a full ordination for women is the Dharmaguptaka. So, that’s the one we follow so that all of the nuns here can be fully ordained. We think it’s important to have the full ordination. In Sri Lanka, they began to give the full ordination around the year 2000. They are going to have the first ordination in Thailand this year even though some Thai women have gone to Sri Lanka and taken it before. In the Tibetan system, there is no full ordination for women. There’s a lot of talk about restoring it, but unlike in the Theravada tradition, it hasn’t been restored. So, all of us have gone to Taiwan to take it. Some people will go to Vietnam to take it, too, or to a Chinese temple in the US or somewhere in the West.
Any questions about that so far?
Audience: There’s a question online about the anagarika ordination and how that works.
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Okay, so how does anagrarika fit in? Anagarika has the eight precepts and you take them for a longer period of time than one day. For example, here at the Abbey, when people come before they ordain, they take the anagarika precepts, they take the eight precepts, and they keep them for around a year. Instead of taking them every morning and doing the ceremony every morning, we do the ceremony once, and they say “from now until the next year” or whatever date, however long they are going to keep them. They say that date, and then they have the precepts for that long. Anagarikas is a really good way for people to practice and to prepare if they are interested in monastic ordination. Because it’s eight precepts; you have the main things, but you still can handle money. At the Abbey, people wear a uniform of sorts, but there are also people who are out in society with the eight precepts, so it’s an individual choice, but especially if you are thinking about ordaining, taking the eight precepts first is a very good way to train and see how you feel about living in precepts. It’s very, very helpful.
VTC: Are there other questions so far?
Audience: I just want to make sure. A person who wants to take the eight mahayana precepts, do they have any [pratimoksha] precepts?
VTC: If you want to take the eight Mahayana precepts, you don’t have to have any of the pratimoksha precepts first to do that. You need to take refuge before you take the eight Mahayana precepts.
Antidotes to transgressions
In the part that we read from the text when you were still meditating, there it talks about four ways, four factors, through which we often transgress our precepts. Ignorance is the first one. Ignorance means we don’t really understand what the precepts are, we don’t understand what constitutes keeping the specific precepts we’ve taken, what constitutes breaking them, what constitutes a root transgression, what constitutes a minor transgression. If you are ignorant of the precepts and you don’t know these things—what constitutes transgression or what constitutes keeping them—then its’s very easy to transgress precepts. The antidote to that first one of ignorance is to hear about the precepts and to learn about the precepts. You can see how that’s the antidote. This is actually quite important because I’ve seen people have what I call “ordination fever:” they want to get ordained really badly, so quickly, and they get ordained, someone gives them the ordination, they put on the robes, they shave their head, and then they don’t bother to learn the precepts. Because they were so focused on getting ordained that they don’t think about, “What do you do after you’re ordained?” Like, what does getting ordained entail? Well, you’re taking some precepts. What are those precepts? You have to learn them.
You have to know how to keep them and what constitutes a break and how to repair them if you have transgressed them. It’s very imporant to learn these kinds of things. It’s up to you to request somebody to teach you or to request somebody, “Please, tell me what books to read that will explain these kinds of things.”
Then the second one is, “Since disrespect is a door to transgressions, as its antidote, may I respect the guide”–in other words, the Buddha—“the precepts he established, and those of pure conduct, my companions, who train well in the precepts.” If we don’t respect the Buddha then we think, “Who cares about these precepts? Buddha gave these precepts? Who cares; I don’t have any special respect for the Buddha.” Or if you don’t respect the precepts themselves, then you say, “Why did they make all these precepts? Some of them are pretty strange, you know? What’s the big deal against drinking? Why are these people so uptight?”–being disrespectful of the precepts themselves or being disrespectful of people who keep pure conduct, our Dharma friends on the path. Those could be other lay practitioners, but they could especially be monastics. If you have a very scornful attitude towards monastics—“Look at these people. What do they think they’re doing. They can’t do this, and they can’t do that, and they think they’re so special just because they can’t do things.” It’s having a very diminutive attitude of them or—and I’ve heard people say this—“These monastics, they’re keeping celibacy because they don’t want to face their sexuality, and they don’t know how to be in intimate relationships.” That kind of disrespecting of the Sangha, the monastics, is really quite heavy, and you can see that if somebody has that attitude, they aren’t going to keep the precepts themselves because they are going to think this is all so very stupid.
It’s actually quite ignorant. The disrespect comes from a lot of ignorance, and it’s very, very harmful for the person. As an antidote to that, then we try to cultivate respect for the Buddha as the Enlightened One. It’s funny, some of the people who criticize monastics who have precepts, they’re Buddhists, but they seem to have forgotten that the Buddha himself was a monastic. You have to be pretty careful about this, but if you really respect the Buddha, then you think, “Well, the Buddha chose to keep precepts.” Even though he was already a fully awakened one, he chose that lifestyle. Why? Why did our teacher the Buddha choose to keep precepts? It wasn’t because he had nothing better to do with his time; it wasn’t because he was supressing his sexuality and didn’t know how to be intimate. I think it’s hilarious when people say that. But why did the Buddha do that? Because living a disciplined life is a natural outflow of having a liberated mind.
You aren’t going to attain liberation and then create all sorts of nonvirtue, are you? You can’t do that. Having precepts is just a natural expression of a liberated mind, and for those of us who want to attain a liberated mind, because we don’t have one yet, then keeping precepts is the way for us to approach being like the Buddha. The Buddha is saying, “This is what I did,” and we’re saying, “I want to do the same thing as you did because you’re my role model. I want to become like you.” We respect the Buddha; we cultivate respect for the precepts themselves; and we cultivate respect for people who keep pure conduct, who are good role models, who can be good companions for us on the path. Again, that’s so important, it’s like if we want to have good ethical discipline, we have to hang around people who have good ethical discipline. Just as our parents always told us, “Birds of a feather flock together,” and we’re going to become like our friends. If you hang out with people who drink and drug, you are going to drink and drug eventually. If you hang out with people who are sleeping around, you are going to start sleeping around. If you hang out with people who do under the table business deals, they will get you involved in their business deals. If we really respect people who have good conduct, whether they’re lay people or whether they’re monastics, then they become an incredible support system for us; they become our role models; they become our companions that help to guide us. Because when we’re around them, we all do the same thing together, and we reinforce and support each other. That’s one of the reasons why the Buddha set up the Sangha community where people practice and support and help each other: so we all go in the same direction.
Cultivating respect is the second antidote. Then the third says, “Since carelessness is a door to transgression, as its an antidote, may I cultivate mindfulness and introspective awareness, integrity and consideration for others, and conscientiousness.” Carelessness is a door to transgression because we’re just reckless, and what we have in our mind is the opposite of these five. We don’t have any mindfulness of our precepts; we’ve forgotten them. We have no introspective awareness that is monitoring what we’re saying and doing and thinking. We don’t have integrity in our mind at that time, so we don’t really care about our own ethical conduct. We don’t have consideration for others at that time, so we don’t care how our nonvirtuous actions affect other people. We don’t have conscientiousness because we don’t even value ethical conduct at all. This one of carelessness you have, these five mental factors that are the opposite of the five virtuous ones.
When we studied mind and mental factors, if you look in there, you’ll find most of them there in the 20 auxiliary afflictions. What we do to counteract them, first we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is a mind that remembers what our precepts are, remembers what our values are, so that we can live by them. Introspective awareness, the second one, is a mental factor that checks, “What am I doing? Am I living according to my precepts? Am I living according to my values? Or am I in la-la land doing all sorts of inappropriate behaviors?” You can see the functions that they play in helping us to keep good ethical conduct. We have to remember our precepts and values, and we have to recognize whether or not we are following them.
The next one is integrity. Some people translate this as shame, and I really disagree with that translation because the word “shame” in English has several different meanings. One of the meanings of shame in English is virtuous in the sense of “I can do better than this.” But most of the time in the West, when people hear the word “shame,” they don’t think of that wholesome mind that says, “You know, I can do better than this,” they think of a mind that says, “I’m defective goods; I’m worthless.” That’s why I don’t agree with translating this as shame because too often people can misunderstand it and think, “Oh, I have to feel shame; I have to feel guilty, and that will keep me from breaking the precepts.” Shame and guilt are not wholesome mental factors to cultivate. Instead, I prefer the translation of integrity, meaning that you have a sense of self respect and because you care about yourself, because you care about your own Dharma practice, then you abandon negative actions. That’s a wholesome mental factor to have.
It’s based on caring about ourselves and respecting ourselves. Its friend, consideration for others, has the same function of abandoning negativity, but consideration for others thinks, “If I act in a harmful way, how will that affect other living beings?” I will directly harm them, and also, they will lose faith in me; they might even lose faith in the Dharma if they see somebody like me acting in a totally nonvirtuous way. I care about the effect of my actions on other people; I really care about how my actions influence others. Those two, integrity and consideration for others, are another pair that really help us to keep good ethical conduct, so we want to cultivate those: to care about ourself and what kind of karma we’re creating, and to care about others and how we influence them.
Then, the fifth one mentioned here is conscientiousness, and conscientiousness is a mind that cares about ethical conduct, that appreciates ethical conduct and wants to observe it. To consciously generate conscientiousness by thinking of the value and importance of keeping ethical conduct, what its results are, what its benefits are: in that way we really develop respect for ethical conduct and an aspiration to keep it. It’s something important in our lives. You can see if you are around people who have good ethical conduct, we feel more comfortable. I don’t know about you, but at least I do. If I’m around somebody who doesn’t kill, I feel safe. If I’m around somebody who doesn’t steal, again, I can leave my belongings around; I don’t have any fear. If I’m around people who keep celibacy, then I don’t have to worry about people making a pass or trying to chat me up or who knows what. If I’m around people who don’t lie then I can trust what they say, and that really puts my mind at ease when I can trust people. Whereas if you are constantly thinking, “Is that person telling me the truth,” then it becomes very difficult to be close to that person because some basic fundamental trust is missing.
It’s the same with taking intoxicants: if I hang around people taking intoxicants, I’m never quite sure who I’m going to meet when I go see them. I can meet somebody who is not intoxicated that day, or I can meet someone who is drunk, or I can meet someone who is high on meth, or I can meet somebody who is on heroine. You don’t know who your friend is going to be that day. Of course you get dragged into all of the stuff they’re doing. Who our friends are is really, really important to keeping precepts.
Then the fourth one is, “Since an abundance of afflictions is the door to transgressions, having meditated on ugliness as the remedy to attachment, love as the remedy to anger, and dependent arising as the remedy to ignorance, may I correctly train in order to make my ethical discipline pure and unsullied by transgressions.” When we have an abundance of afflictions, sometimes we may know our precepts, and we may even respect the precepts and the Buddha, and we may not be careless, but our minds are just overwhelmed by an affliction at a certain time. Have you ever had that happen? One part of you is saying, “I don’t want to do this; I don’t want to say this,” and there you go, you do it because the mind is overwhelmed by afflictions. That’s a door to transgressions, so we have to learn to get a handle on our afflictions.
One of the afflictions that often overwhelms us is attachment: “I want this now or as soon as possible; I’ve got to have this.” When you think about the ugly aspects of whatever it is you’re craving, then the object doesn’t seem so desirable, and that helps you overcome the attachment. Anger is another one; we get really wrapped up with our anger, and it overwhelms us, who knows what we say and do. The antidote to that is developing fortitude and developing lovingkindness. If we take time to meditate on fortitude, to meditate on lovingkindness, it helps us not to be overwhelmed by anger. Sometimes we get overwhelmed by confusion; we’re not sure what is virtuous. “Should I do this? Should I do that? Is this virtuous? Is that virtuous? I don’t really know,” and we make bad decisions because we think that something’s virtuous when it isn’t. To overcome that kind of confusion, then we meditate on dependent arising because that helps us see the link between cause and effect. If you want this kind of effect, what kind of cause do you need to create? If you want happiness, what kind of nonvirtues do you need to abandon? If you want happiness, what kind of virtues do you need to cultivate? If you don’t want unhappiness, what kind of nonvirtues do you need to abandon?
Learning the antidotes to the afflictions is very, very helpful to prevent that kind of transgression. I want to pause again; are there any questions with what we’ve covered so far?
Questions and answers:
Audience: This person is asking, “Where does the energy of the purification come from that causes accumulation of merit when we formally take precepts and keep them? Is it from intention and inherent wisdom of our own mind?
VTC: The question in short is how do we develop the intention to keep precepts?
Audience: No, it’s, “Where does the energy of purification come from?”
VTC: “Where does the energy of purification come from,” but what does that mean?
Audience: What causes the accumulation of merit when we formally take precepts and keep them. What causes the purification and accumulation of merit?
VTC: Oh, what causes the purification and accumulation of merit when you take and keep precepts?
Audience: Yes, is it our intention or our inherent wisdom?
VTC: It’s our intention and following through with what our intention is. We have the intention to abandon certain nonvirtues and then we actively abandon those, so that purifies the tendency to do it again. It prevents us from creating nonvirtues. We have the intention to act in the opposite way of, let’s say, killing or stealing or whatever. With that intention again, we carry through with that, and we create virtue by doing that. Or even by abandoning the negativities, that both purifies and accumulates merit.
Audience: Someone asks, “Even though you may want to but are temporarily physically incapable of keeping the precept of not eating after midday, can you still create merit on those days by keeping the other seven precepts?”
VTC: If you are physically incapable of keeping the precept of not eating after midday, can you still create merit by keeping the other seven? Yes, you can. The thing is, the one-day ordination, you take all eight precepts. What you would do in that case, if you really couldn’t keep one, you wouldn’t take the precepts in an official kind of ceremony, but what you would do is in the morning make a very very strong determination to yourself that “I’m not going to do these seven actions for the next day” and make a very, very strong intention. When you take an ordination, you can’t say, “I take all of them but not this one and not that one and not the other one.” They always come together as a set.
Audience: Is the power of merit the same?
VTC: Is the power of doing it that way the same? I think it’s going to be more powerful if you are able to take the precepts, but still, it talks about in Abhidharma, if you have a very strong intention to do something or not do something, it creates especially strong karma. So, it will definitely be stronger than just not having that strong intention or determination.
Audience: The answer was ok.
Audience: When you’re overwhelmed by afflictions, and you can’t tell if it’s attachment or confusion is there a go-to antidote?
VTC: If you’re not sure if you’re suffering from attachment or confusion, what do you do? Can you give me an example?
Audience: No, I can’t think of a good example, but I’ll remember this and think of it for next time.
VTC: Because it’s helpful to be able to identify what is the affliction in my mind so that we can apply the proper antidote. If we can’t identify the affliction or if we don’t know the proper antidote then we may apply the wrong thing and then get more upset or more confused than we were before.
Audience: In that case, it sounds like it’s probably confusion because I don’t know.
VTC: Yeah, that’s what confusion is: “What’s virtuous; what’s nonvirtuous? What should I do? I don’t know?” That’s where if you have that kind of confusion then really studying about karma can be very helpful or a book like The Wheel of Sharp Weapons can be extremely helpful because it talks about what kinds of actions create what kinds of results. There’s a sutra called The Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish that talks about it, and also studying about karma, studying about refuge—learning about the refuge visualization—that also describes what kinds of negativities we may have created in relationship to our spiritual mentors and the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. That gives us some idea of things that we want to abandon that are negative. If you read the confession prayer in the Prostration to the the 35 Buddhas, there are certain things we’re confessing there, and it lists them out, so we know those are negative. Some of those things are ways for us to learn. Then it’s helpful not just to have a whole list of things that are negative but to really understand and really look, like: “Okay, if somebody does this, why did the Buddha say that this is going to bring a suffering result?” You really sit and think about it: “What kind of mind state does that action? Where’s that going to take me if I think like that, if I act like that, if I speak like that?” Then you can really start to develop your own wisdom about many of these things because you can see, you get in touch with your own mindstream, and you can begin to tell what a nonvirtuous mindstream feels like.
Audience: Some minds are unwilling to admit that it’s attachment, coming up in my mind with very valid reasons [partly inaudible]
VTC: Oh yes, we all know that one. That’s book of excuses 999,789,515 excuses why this really isn’t attachment [laughter]. After awhile, when you practice, you can see when your mind is making up an excuse. Then it’s a thing, do you have the strength at that moment to really say, “Yes, this an excuse; I’ve got to put it down,” or do you say, “Yes, this is an excuse, but it’s really not that bad of an excuse, and it’s only a little negativity, and it’s not really harmful; anyways nobody else will know, and I have consideration for others, it won’t affect them.”
Audience: Following up on that, I always mix up consideration for others, reputation and people pleasing.
VTC: Okay, for the nth time, how do you tell the difference between attachment to reputation, people pleasing, and consideration for others? Consideration for others is, you’re looking, and you’re saying, “If I do this nonvirtuous action, how is that going to affect the people who know that I did it? Will they lose faith in me and think I’m a totally nonvirtuous person, and if they did that, would that harm their faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha? They know I’m a Buddhist practitioner; if I get involved in this shady business deal, what are they going to think of Buddhists?”
Of course, not all Buddhists are Buddhist, and Buddhists make mistakes, but to really care: “If I act this way, how are other people going to feel?” Or even if people don’t know I’m a Buddhist and there’s none of that, if I am just totally inconsiderate to other people and bossy and pushy, how is that going to affect the people around me. They’re not going to be very happy, and I care about these people. I don’t want them to be unhappy. I don’t want them to lose faith in the Dharma. Even if they aren’t Buddhists, I don’t want them to lose faith in humanity. You know how it is, sometimes somebody may see somebody do a very negative action, and they just get so depressed about the state of the world and humanity in general. To think, “I don’t want to be the cause for anybody to feel that way because I care about others.”
The thing about consideration for others is we care about others. The thing about attachment to reputation is we don’t care about others. We care about ourselves. We want to have a good reputation because then we feel like we’re good people. We lack the ability to evaluate our own actions; we’re focused outward for other people to tell us if we’re a good person or a bad person. We don’t really care about others; we’re caring about ourselves, and we don’t want them to think badly about us. Also, if they think badly about us, they may not ask us out, they won’t give us presents, they won’t praise us to other people. I’ll lose all sorts of worldly perks; I won’t get a promotion. It’s like, “If they think badly about me then my worldly life is going to be harmed.” Can you see the difference between that and consideration for others?
Similarly, people pleasing is you want to be Pollyanna and Goody-Two-Shoes all rolled into one because you’re thinking what other people feel is my responsibility. If they’re upset, I am bad because I made them upset. Then again, you don’t really care that they’re upset; you just care about yourself feeling like a lousy person. You want to please other people so that they’ll like you so that you won’t torment yourself with your own guilt. It’s all kind of tangled up psychologically, really a mess. It’s like, “I hate feeling guilty, but the problem with people pleasing, the big mistake, is we think we’re responsible for things that we’re not responsible for. That’s the problem with people pleasing. Of course, I want other people to be happy, but I cannot control whether they feel happy or not. If I’m doing something virtuous, and they’re unhappy, there’s no reason for me to regret what I did or to feel bad because their unhappiness came from their mind, from their own confusion. People pleasing is this kind of contorted thing like I’m responsible for everybody else; I’ve got to make sure that everybody is happy so I don’t get blamed. I’ve got to make sure everybody likes me so I can think I’m a good person. I don’t like hearing any criticism. You can see that it’s self-oriented in not a healthy way.
Audience: A lot of people are saying this is a very helpful explanation. [Laughter]
Audience: It seems like we’re raised for that, and it’s really hard to tease that out.
VTC: It is because in many ways, especially women, we are raised to feel responsible for what other people feel. Men are not raised that way. Eh, you make somebody unhappy, too bad, tough luck. Women, we’ve got to make sure the family is okay, everybody is okay, the workplace is okay, check up with everybody, make sure that everybody is happy. It’s a very confused mindset because it’s not because we actually care that everybody’s happy; there’s some ulterior motive. We are raised that way, and I know for myself, one of the big things I’ve had to work on in my practice, and I still have to keep very mindful of it is, “What’s my responsibility and what is not my responsibility?” To be very clear on that because when I’m not clear then my relationships with other people are not clear. Then there’s all sorts of weird stuff that happens in relationships because when you’re not clear about what’s your responsibility and what isn’t, then other people hook you all the time. People say, “I want you to do this; you should do this,” and you get hooked by it even though it’s not something healthy in the relationship or even though it involves acting in a way that Dharma doesn’t advise you to act in certain kind of relationships. But we get hooked because we feel guilty and responsible for things that are not our responsibility.
Also, when we’re like this we disempower the other person. Initially, to the other person, they may think we’re being mean because they can’t hook us, but when we let them hook us, we’re disempowering them. When we don’t let them hook us then they have to sit and think, “What’s my responsibilty and what’s not my responsiblity, and how can I improve my own situation.” Intead of sitting there saying, “I’m helpless; you better do all these things for me because I’m unhappy or I’m this or I’m that.” That’s not helpful to the other person to let them keep thinking and acting like that. Of course, sometimes, like I said, they get mad at you, but hopefully they’ll figure it out at some point, that they’re the ones who are responsible for certain aspects of what they’re feeling. We can’t control them. Sometimes even if you want to, you could do seven backflips and jump off the grand canyon, and you can’t change what they’re thinking or make them happy.
Audience: What practices can we do to repent for bad actions we had done before we took the precepts, like killing insects and [inaudible]?
VTC: How do we purify? We discussed this a little bit under karma, but it’s always very good to review. There’s the practice of the four opponent powers. The first one is to have regret—not guilt but regret. Second is, I call it “restore the relationship;” what it means is to generate a positive attitude towards whoever it was that we acted negatively towards. If we did something negative in relationship to our spiritual mentor or to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha then we take refuge; if we did something negative to other sentient beings then we generate love and compassion and bodhicitta. Third is to make a determination not to do the action again or at least not to do it for a certain amount of time and to be really conscientious about that. Fourth is to do some kind of remedial behavior. This could be reciting the mantras of different buddhas and visualizing the light and nectar coming from them, reciting the buddhas’ names, bowing to the 35 buddhas, making offerings to the Triple Gem, publishing Dharma books for free distribution, doing volunteer work in a charity, doing volunteer work in a monastery or Dharma center, meditating on emptiness, meditating on bodhicitta, any kind of virtuous action. Volunteer work can be quite nice, I think, in many ways, as well as your Dharma practices.
You do these four opponent powers repeatedly and at the end, you really say to yourself, “Now I’ve purified these things.” You may not have purified them completely, but it’s very helpful to think, “Now I’ve purified them.” You still have to do them many times, but it’s linked with self forgiveness, I think, when we’re finally able to let something go.
Audience: What about doing something that you know will make someone else happy and will not harm you?
VTC: What about doing something you know will make someone else happy and will not harm you? Then fine, unless you’re doing something out of attachment or doing something illegal. You still have to use some wisdom about it because lots of times just because your doing something that will make somebody happy that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing to do. Lots of times people are happy when other people have done things that aren’t so good to do, like you give an alcoholic some money or you give them a bottle of booze, they’re very happy. Does that mean it’s virtuous to give an alcoholic a bottle of booze? No. Just because it makes somebody happy doesn’t mean it’s good to do. You have to see what it is.
Audience: If you’re doing a longer remedial action, and it takes longer, and you don’t have the concentration to keep in mind the whole time why you are doing it, is it good to just keep in mind at the beginning and end why you are doing it?
VTC: Yeah, like if you’re doing prostrations or reciting Vajrasattva mantra or something, you don’t necessarily have to be thinking every single instant, “I want to purify this action; I want to purify this action; I want to purify this action.” Because you want to be doing the visualizing, you want to be saying the Buddha’s name or chanting the mantra, you want to really be feeling like you’ve purified. If there’s any remaining stuff inside you, that unclarity about that action, you want to think about it so you can creally let it go. All that’s involved in the remedial action.
I think that’s it for this evening. We’ve finished “Ethical Conduct,” and then we’ll go on in a little bit to concentration and then a little bit to wisdom, to the eightfold noble path.
One more question?
Audience: Is it necessary or helpful to do the formal refuge and precepts every day or more than once?
VTC: Is it necessary or helpful to do the formal refuge and precepts ceremony more than once? It’s not necessary to do that. Some teachers won’t let you do it multiple times; other teachers will let you do it multiple times. Personally speaking, I think for many people it’s very helpful to do it more than once because the first time they took it maybe they didn’t understand it so well or they’ve broken some precepts, and now that they’ve grown in the Dharma they really want to start afresh. For that reason, I think it can be helpful. But it’s up to the individual and it’s up to the different spiritual mentor.
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.