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Introduction to the Pledged Bodhicitta Actions for Training and the Root Bodhisattva Vows

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, October 2009

Session Two: The Five Trainings for Bodhicitta Resolve

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:36 hours)

We were discussing bodhichitta and what it means to be a bodhisattva, and we saw what place taking the bodhisattva vows has in the general progression of developing bodhichitta, and the stages of developing bodhichitta. And what’s really important is to understand the role of these vows and when we actually take them. Many of us may take them a little bit prematurely, when we really haven’t fully developed even the initial stages of bodhichitta. But nevertheless, even with a limited understanding of bodhichitta and not really thinking of absolutely everybody sincerely, trying to follow the guidelines of the bodhisattva vows is very beneficial. But even if we’ve taken the bodhisattva vows, we need to continue working on improving our generation and development of bodhichitta, and never trivialize what is actually involved with the state of mind of bodhichitta. Because not only is it initially aimed at absolutely everybody, equally, which is enormously vast, but also aimed at enlightenment – with our own not-yet-happening enlightenment – but enlightenment, which is a vast attainment that we need to have some sort of accurate concept of.

Now when do we actually take bodhisattva vows is a question. Or how do we take them? We take them either in a specific ceremony for taking the bodhisattva vows, or we take them as part of a tantric initiation (or empowerment). Without going into the details of the different types of empowerment, and subsequent permission, and all these other types of tantric rituals – all of them have the taking of bodhisattva vows. And those that are involved with the two highest classes of tantra, whether we’re speaking of the Nyingma tradition, so the highest class, or we’re speaking of the new traditions (Gelug, Sakya, and Kagyu), it’s the same. If it’s an empowerment involved with yoga tantra, it has bodhisattva vows and tantric vows. I mean if it’s with kriya or charya tantra, it has bodhisattva vows. And if it’s yoga tantra, it is both the bodhisattva and tantric vows. And if it is in the New Schools’ anuttarayoga tantra or in the Nyingma mahayoga, anuyoga, or atiyoga (dzogchen), it has bodhisattva and tantric vows.

And Sakya Pandita, great master, has said very clearly, “Without taking vows, there is no empowerment, there is no initiation.” And to take the vows, you have to actually consciously know what you are doing and consciously accept them; otherwise you have not taken the vows. And so if during the initiation you had no idea of what you were doing, it was all in a language that you didn’t understand, and only afterwards somebody told you, “Well, actually you took the bodhisattva and tantric vows.” Don’t fool yourselves. You haven’t taken the vows and you haven’t received the empowerment. You have been there; you have received what is commonly called in the West the “blessings of the empowerment,” which more technically would be inspiration from attending it, but you haven’t actually received the empowerment because you have not taken the vows consciously and consciously participated in the empowerment.

Now if we have attended empowerments in this way without really knowing what we were doing or knowing what was going on, then although our attendance was no different from that of a pet dog that the Tibetans often will bring with them to an empowerment – it does not receive the empowerment, by the way, by attending the initiation – nevertheless, if we are trying to do the practices (the mantra and the visualizations and sadhana and so on) from the empowerment, that’s okay so long as we have the full intention that in the future, when the opportunity comes, I will take the initiation properly. Then it’s okay. The main thing is not to be pretentious and think, “Oh I’ve accomplished so much!” when actually we haven’t.

Now for receiving the bodhisattva vows, it’s very necessary to have some level of pratimoksha vow before. “Pratimoksha vow” means a vow for individual liberation. This forms the basis or foundation for bodhisattva vows. So this may be at the level of the householder lay vows or the novice monk or nun vows, or the fully ordained monk or nun vows; there’s also provisional nun vows. With the householder vows, the lay vows, there are five; and we may take all five or four or three or two or one, no difference – at least some level of that. There’s no obligation that when we take these lay vows that we take all of them, all five. That’s up to us and it is our own private decision. You don’t announce it to anyone, including the teacher. You can, but it’s not necessary.

So this is not to take the life of others, not to kill; not to take what has not been given, in other words not to steal; not to say or indicate what is untrue, in other words not to lie; not to indulge in inappropriate sexual behavior – this word “inappropriate,” that’s a little bit difficult to translate properly, but let’s call it that provisionally – and not to take intoxicants, referring specifically to alcohol but can be extended to what we would call recreational drugs, like marijuana, heroin, cocaine, etc. We call them in English “recreational drugs,” which are things that you take purely for your own entertainment, not medicinal like for instance when terminal cancer patients are given morphine for dealing with pain. We’re not referring to that, or taking an aspirin for a headache.

Now this isn’t the place to go into detail about these five, but Tsongkhapa writes that, first of all he says, Whenever we enter the door of any Buddhist vehicle of mind” – so Hinayana, sutra Mahayana, or tantra Mahayana – “we need to set as its basis the ethical discipline of its own set of vows.” It’s referring to pratimoksha vows for Hinayana, or bodhisattva vows for general Mahayana, and tantric vows for the highest classes of tantra. And then he goes on, he says, “And especially when we enter secret mantra,” – that’s tantra – “then since bodhichitta is the ultimate essential point for all the Mahayana pathway minds, it’s very important for that to be firm with the bodhisattva vows.”

So Tsongkhapa emphasizes the need for bodhisattva vows with tantra. And Tsongkhapa also goes on to say (this is in his Letter of Practical Advice on Sutra and Tantra), “The actualizations gained by having taken bodhisattva vows, while having already been ordained on one of the levels according to the Vinaya rules of discipline” – in other words either lay vows or novice or full monk or nun vows – “these are best” – in other words taking the bodhisattva vows, the actualizations that you get on the bodhisattva vows, based on one of these pratimoksha vows – “are best compared to those gained by having maintained only bodhisattva vows alone.” In other words, you’ll get more firm, more proper, higher realizations if you have a firm basis of a pratimoksha vow than if you only had bodhisattva vows.

Tsongkhapa goes on, “This is what Buddha meant when he said in many sutras that if there were two bodhisattvas equal in all respects, except that one was a householder with no vows of individual liberation” – in other words, no pratimoksha vows – “and the other ordained” – meaning that they had one of these levels, lay or monk or nun, – “the latter” – the one with this level of vow – “would be more praiseworthy. Buddha has clearly set forth all these points in his presentation of the vows.”

Okay. So we need some level of pratimoksha vow before taking bodhisattva vows, in addition of course to having developed some level of bodhichitta. Remember bodhisattva vows are taken when we achieve this (or attain this) engaged state of bodhichitta. We have to have already developed the wishing state or aspiring state of bodhichitta. And we saw that the aspiring bodhichitta has two stages: merely wishing stage – we merely wish to become a Buddha, in order to benefit others; and the pledged state – of never giving this aim up until we actually achieve that enlightenment. And when we develop that pledged state, which can be done at a separate ceremony – His Holiness the Dalai Lama often does this, of giving a ceremony for the development of this aspiring state of bodhichitta which includes both the merely wishing and the pledged state, before he would give bodhisattva vows – then in terms of that pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta, we make a promise to try to follow the five types of training.

So this means four trainings for bodhichitta resolve not to decline in this life, and one training for not losing our bodhichitta resolve in future lives. The last one entails avoiding four things and practicing the four things that are the opposite of it. So this means that before we take bodhisattva vows, we are already following a certain type of training, a certain type of discipline, not just in terms of pratimoksha vows, but also in terms of these promises, these trainings. So what are these trainings?

First the four trainings for bodhichitta resolve not to decline in this life. What we want to do is always have our bodhichitta aim strong. We don’t want to have that weaken. So how would we make this strong? First way would be to remember every day the benefits and advantages of developing bodhichitta. So we have a long list of these benefits in the first chapter of Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. But if we read that, obviously this is very beneficial, and go over it each day. But even if we don’t actually read the text as part of our daily practice, nevertheless we can think of the main points, remind ourselves. The only way that we could possibly attain enlightenment is with having this bodhichitta aim: “I want to attain it, I’m working toward attaining it, and being convinced that I can attain it and what I’m going to do with it: help all beings.”

And working with this scope we are able to bring about the happiness not only of ourselves – because we’re obviously working to overcome our own limitations if we’re going to achieve enlightenment – but we are going to able to benefit and bring happiness to everybody. And even if we just think in terms of worldly values, like being praised and appreciated, and so on, by others, as Shantideva says, “If someone is praiseworthy just for giving a little bit of food to a few hungry people once” – like giving aid after an earthquake or something like that – “if that’s praiseworthy, what about bringing unending happiness to absolutely everybody in the universe that will last forever, and bringing them to enlightenment?”

If we’re working toward enlightenment, we are not going to get discouraged or tired (I don’t mean just on an ordinary level of at the end of the day you get tired), but we will have the strength: “I’ve got to achieve this to help everybody.” That gives you an unbelievable amount of strength all the time to be able to work toward that, to help others. It’s the best protection and antidote for acting destructively or acting like an idiot. “How can I act like an idiot? How can I be selfish? How can I act in a destructive way and hurt anybody if I’m really working to achieve enlightenment to benefit everybody?” There are lots and lots of benefits, so we try to remind ourselves of this each day. I mean actually, it’s not just try. We promise to do that, and on the basis of that promise we try to do that.

And then the second training is to reaffirm and strengthen this motivation by rededicating our hearts each day, taking and regenerating bodhichitta each day, three times each day and three times each evening. So that doesn’t mean just merely mindlessly reciting a verse. We could mindlessly recite a verse either in Tibetan or in our own language. Just because it’s in our own language doesn’t guarantee that it’s not going to be mindless. Mindless means just going “blah blah blah” and not actually feeling anything or generating anything in our mind except the words. So that means to think of the benefits and then to actually go through the stages: equanimity, open to absolutely everybody, equally; everybody’s been kind, as a mother and other times, etc. etc., go through the whole line. And then, that way, this is going to reinforce our bodhichitta. If we do that every day, our bodhichitta resolve is not going to decline, it’s not going to get weaker.

So although we have certain practices, certain standard verses that we can use for generating this wish, generating this bodhichitta, that we can recite three times in the morning and three times in the evening, please, we need to try to not just leave that on the level of “blah blah blah.” And let’s not fool ourselves. That’s not easy to actually do every day and every evening. It requires quite a bit of effort, doesn’t it?

Then the third training is to strive to build up the networks of positive force and deep awareness. It’s usually translated as the “collection of merit and wisdom.” In other words we try as much as possible, with this wishing state of bodhichitta, to help others, and as much as we can. That builds up positive force. We don’t just sit on our cushion and wish everybody well but, even before we take the bodhisattva vows, we try to help others as much as we can. This is building up a network of positive force.

In other words, to just stay in our safe little meditation area: “I wish everybody well. I’m going to achieve enlightenment and help everybody,” but in daily life we say to others when they ask for our help, “I’m too busy” and “I can’t be bothered,” and so on, this will not do. We try to help as much as possible. “As much as possible” means being realistic, not promising to do more than we are capable of doing at our current stage and in our current situation. Shantideva emphasizes that quite clearly. Don’t promise more than you can deliver. The expression that is used is “I invite everybody to be my guest to the banquet of enlightenment.” Shantideva says these in a very poetical way, which means that I am working for your enlightenment, so that I will invite you as this guest that will come to enlightenment as well. This we’re promising and this we are never going to give up, and this I will deliver to you when I achieve enlightenment. That’s different from what I was referring to, which is that a bodhisattva at one level doesn’t attempt to try to do the bodhisattva actions of a bodhisattva on a higher level. That’s poetically stated as “A fox doesn’t jump where a lion can jump.”

Shantideva says examine ourselves carefully before you promise to do something like, “I’m going to translate the entire Kangyur into Russian,” when we can’t possibly deliver on that promise in this particular short period of time. Then examine very well whether you can do it. And it’s better to say “I can’t do it” beforehand, rather than to promise and start and then give it up because you can’t do it. So that’s different from promising to bring everybody to enlightenment. Okay. So we try as much as possible to help others, to build up the network of positive force, and to meditate on voidness, to build up this network of deep awareness at whatever level of understanding of voidness we have. And why am I doing this? I’m doing this in order to be able to achieve enlightenment to help everybody. So it helps our bodhisattva resolve not to decline.

Then the fourth one. We never give up trying (or at least wishing) to help anyone, no matter how difficult he or she may be. Remember, bodhichitta: we are working to benefit absolutely everybody, no matter how difficult they might be. So of course we can extend this to the mosquito that is flying around our head while we are trying to go to sleep. “I’m never going to give up trying to help to bring you to enlightenment, Mr. Mosquito, because in your last lifetime you were my mother.” That is quite advanced, isn’t it? But we can at least try to extend this to other human beings.

I’ll give an example from my own experience. There’s this one woman who is in Germany and she has severe schizophrenia, and she is in quite bad shape and won’t go, she refuses to go, to professional psychiatric help. She’s always turning to various Dharma organizations and teachers to somehow help her and won’t even acknowledge that she’s schizophrenic. And she’s especially attached to me and calls me all the time and sends me e-mails all the time. She’s been kicked out of so many different Dharma centers and Dharma organizations because she can be quite upsetting to other people when she’s around and acting in a difficult way. And when she calls me I always say to her, “Look,” I say very clearly, “I am not capable of helping you. This is beyond my capacity. I’m not a professional psychiatrist. I don’t know how to help you. You have to go to somebody professional.” Giving her some mantra to say, or something like that, is ridiculous. That’s not going to help her at this stage of mental disturbance. Now it would be very easy if she calls, to just hang up and tell her, “Never call me again” and forget it. But there’s this training. I’ve said very clearly that I can’t help you now, but at least I have the wish, “I wish that I could help you.” I’m not capable of doing it now. And so I don’t just throw her away in the garbage. This requires great patience of course, and great tolerance, but this is the type of thing that we work on here with this training. The fact that I don’t tell her to piss off and get lost is at least some help. Although, as I was just saying before, I’m not pretending that I can do more than I can. I can’t help her.

So those are the four trainings for our bodhisattva resolve not to decline in this life. Then the fifth one that we promise to follow, the fifth training, is intended for not losing our bodhichitta resolve in future lives. And this involves four sets of contrasting modes of behavior. So that means avoiding or stopping acting in a certain way, and acting in the opposite way instead. That’s what we mean by a contrasting mode of behavior.

First one is we stop deceiving our gurus, parents, and the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha). Instead we’re always honest with them, especially about our motivation and our efforts to help others. This is very important. With parents, to start with. Parents are the ones that are going to take care of us as babies and raise us and so on. We’re always going to have to be dependent on parents – unless we were born from a lotus like Guru Rinpoche, but let’s speak more of what would happen more commonly. And so because of their kindness to us and our need to rely on parents in the future, you don’t want to act in a way that deceives them, that’s cheating them, pretending to be something that we’re not, particularly in terms of spiritual things, we’re talking about. But instead, as I said, we are honest with them. Now this is very clear and straightforward if we’re talking about our spiritual teachers. You don’t want to deceive them and lie and say, “Oh, I’ve had this realization, or that realization,” when we haven’t, or “I’m doing this or that practice,” when we’re not. Or Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, (the Triple Gem): “I’m going in this direction, I’m putting this direction in my life” – and then we’re not. We’re working just for some sort of harmful purpose. If we want to continue in future lives with our bodhichitta, we need to rely on parents; we’re going to need to rely on gurus; we’re going to need to rely on refuge, safe direction of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. That’s why we don’t deceive them. We’re honest with them so that we will continue to have the circumstances in future lives to develop this bodhichitta resolve, to refresh it, to regenerate it in future lives.

Bodhisattva vows and tantric vows are not like pratimoksha vows. Pratimoksha vows, we take it just for this lifetime. Bodhisattva and tantric vows you take for all your lifetimes, all the way up to enlightenment. So if we take bodhisattva vows in this lifetime, in the next lifetime, at the beginning, they’re going to be dormant, sleeping; dormant. Let’s say we’re born as a cockroach. Does the cockroach have bodhisattva vows? If the cockroach took the bodhisattva vows in his previous lifetime, well, yes, but they are dormant. It’s sort of somewhere there on the mental continuum. The cockroach is not practicing bodhisattva behavior.

A bodhisattva vow you take until your enlightenment. So now I die, with my bodhisattva vows intact, and I am reborn as a cockroach. Do I still have bodhisattva vows as the cockroach in the cockroach lifetime? Yes. Are they active? No. Going to have to regenerate, develop once more, bodhichitta and take once more the bodhisattva vows, even if we are reborn as a human being. And so that means we’re going to have to depend on parents and a spiritual teacher and the Triple Gem. And so you want to have an honest straightforward relationship with them and not one of deception. Because what happens if you have a deceptive teacher? Then you get into all sorts of abuse situations, and cults and so on, and parents that could abuse you, and all of this. So you want to avoid that so that you’ll be able to develop pure bodhichitta again in future lifetimes.

But as I said, with parents it’s a little bit delicate for many of us who might have parents that aren’t necessarily understanding of our spiritual path or in favor of it. We’re not talking about having to tell our parents every tiny little detail of our private life, personal life. We don’t have to lie, but that doesn’t mean you have to say absolutely everything. But what it’s referring to is in terms of spiritual things, in terms of helping them. If I say I’m going to help you, my parents, take out the garbage every day, then we take out the garbage every day. We don’t deceive them, this type of thing, in terms of helping them, in terms of if they ask about our spiritual practice. “Well, yes, I am….” We don’t lie that this is not something important in our life.

Then the second one is we stop faulting and being contemptuous of bodhisattvas. Being contemptuous means that we dislike you, we are finding fault because we are angry with this person. But the problem here is that unless we’re a Buddha, we can never be certain who actually is a bodhisattva. What is the opposite of this, is to regard everyone as our teacher. Even if people are acting in a crude and distasteful type of way, nevertheless they teach us to not behave in that way. Now you have to be very careful with this because we could have a fault of saying this is a law, and it has an existence all by itself from its own side, and we don’t try to see the relativity of this. Because this is not saying that if somebody is acting destructively you don’t try to stop them. Somebody’s making a mistake or somebody is acting harmfully, then that’s part of the bodhisattva vows: if you have the ability to stop them, you stop them. Buddha did that all the time. The point is not to find fault, with anger and hatred. “You’re a bad person and now I’m going to punish you, I’m going to hit you.” This person is acting destructively; they are my teacher; of course, they are teaching me not to act that way. However, I want to help them, and to help them I need to help them to stop building up negative karma and to stop causing harm. So I’m doing this out of love and compassion.

My own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, I remember, without mentioning any names, there was another Tibetan spiritual master who was teaching his students to do something, to practice a certain practice which was very advanced, beyond the level of these students. And Serkong Rinpoche, said, “Well, yes, this teacher’s motivation might be pure, bodhichitta type of motivation to help others, but he’s not very skillful in his methods.” So he’s pointing out a fault and he’s even pointing it out to not that teacher, but pointing it out to me, his student. Is this gossip? No. What was Serkong Rinpoche doing? He was pointing out – he was not angry at this other teacher, but he was teaching me that regardless of your good intentions and bodhichitta motivation and aim, you have to be skillful in the methods that you use to help others. Think carefully about what you teach others.

So we acknowledge that somebody is doing a fault when they are doing a fault; we don’t have anger, and we try to learn from that. And if the other person is receptive to changing, we point out their fault. If they are a bodhisattva, or aspiring to be a bodhisattva, that doesn’t mean that they are as skillful as a Buddha and know exactly what is the best way to act and the benefit of this. And we do this without setting ourselves up as: “I am the holy authority” and “Holy, holy, sacred me! I know what is best.” Certainly not in that type of pretentious way, but very humbly, offering advice. So the point is not to criticize, not to find fault out of anger; it says “with contemptuous state of mind,” with hating the person, angry with them. Because they are trying. We don’t know. I’m not a Buddha, so I don’t know if you’re acting in this way because of being an unskillful bodhisattva, or if you’re acting this way just because you are incredibly deluded. But the point is not to get angry with the person, because this person might be a potential bodhisattva, and so maybe what they’re doing is to teach me something, then we continue to have respect for bodhisattva behavior, and that will help us to continue having this bodhichitta resolve in future lives.

The third one is we stop causing others to regret anything positive or constructive they have done. Instead we encourage others to be constructive and helpful, and if they’re receptive we encourage them to work on developing bodhichitta, following the spiritual path to enlightenment. So somebody’s doing something constructive, let’s say they are doing some type of spiritual practice, following some teacher which is not our own. What we need to avoid is causing them to regret that: “You’re stupid for going to that teacher, doing that practice, or belonging to that Dharma center” – causing them to regret having done that. They could get very, very discouraged and not want to continue at all. But we encourage them, we help them. If what they are doing is constructive, positive – great! And if they are receptive, we might suggest further things that they can do. If they’re not receptive, you don’t. If we want everybody to reach enlightenment, then what is going to help them to reach enlightenment is their acting constructively; so if they’ve acted constructively, encourage them – great! Don’t discourage them by causing them to regret it. They donated money to this other Dharma center, not to my Dharma center! “Aww, you shouldn’t have given it to them – you should have given it to me.” That is not what we do, okay.

And then the last one, the last of these four sets, is we stop being hypocritical and pretentious in our dealings with others. Being “hypocritical” would be to hide our faults when we have them and pretend that we don’t have them, and “pretentious” means that we pretend to have qualities that we don’t have. I’m a hypocrite: I tell you not to smoke cigarettes, but I go outside and in my own room I smoke cigarettes. That’s being a hypocrite. I’m hiding my own shortcomings.

Okay. So instead of acting like that in our dealings with others, if we’re taking responsibility to help others we have to always be honest and open with them. What are our limitations? What are our abilities? That’s very, very important. Various people, especially if you’re in the Dharma area and trying to help others either as a teacher or a Dharma practitioner, don’t pretend you’re some holy sort of being when you’re not. Many people who are desperate for help very easily will project all sorts of things onto someone whom they see as possibly being able to help them. They romanticize, idealize, and have all sorts of false hopes. And often they are extremely disappointed in the end and get very discouraged – “disillusioned” we say in English – and might even give up. But if we are in a position to help others, or if we’re a teacher, we don’t have to necessarily reveal absolutely everything about our shortcomings; but when it’s relevant to the other person, we admit our shortcomings. “I haven’t studied this. I still get impatient. I still get angry.” You admit these shortcomings. You don’t hide them, but you say I’m working on them. Because if we’re trying to help others, often – although they could be inspired by some idealization – often what will be more inspiring on a stable level is the example of somebody who is very sincerely working on their shortcomings. That is something that you can relate to more as a student needing help.

So these are the five types of training that we promise to follow when we have the aspiring state of bodhichitta, and specifically the pledged aspiring state. Four trainings for the bodhichitta resolve not to decline in this lifetime; and one training (which actually has these four parts) of not losing our bodhichitta resolve in future lives.

So we will end our session here and continue at five o’clock. And if you have questions, we can start the session with some questions. Okay. Thank you.