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Explanation of Atisha's Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment

Alexander Berzin
Prague, Czech Republic, January 2003

Session Three: Bodhisattva Vows and Commitments

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:54 hours)

The Benefits of Developing a Bodhicitta Aim

Atisha was describing the ritual with which we can generate and then reconfirm our pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta and then he goes on to mention the benefits. He says:

(12) The benefits of generating aspiring minds like this
Have been thoroughly explained
By Maitreya in
The Sutra Spread Out Like a Tree Trunk .

This uses the word in the plural, the “ aspiring minds like this,” and it’s referring to the two stages that we mentioned, the merely aspiring and the pledged aspiring states. And this sutra – in Sanskrit it’s called The Gandavyuha Sutra – is a very famous sutra about the bodhisattva path and it explains a great deal about the benefits of developing bodhichitta. Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition, praises it a great deal. He says that one of the reasons why teachings about bodhisattva are so widespread is because of this particular sutra.

Atisha doesn’t mention the specific benefits here, but the benefits are also discussed by Shantideva. And it’s very, very important when one tries to develop a certain state of mind to understand what the benefits of it are, then we appreciate it much more fully. And by reminding ourselves of the benefits over and again, that encourages us to go further in this direction.

[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, chapter 1.]

So, if we always are keeping this bodhichitta in mind, we’re always keeping this goal of focus on our future enlightenment in mind. When we speak about a state of mind, Tsongkhapa says quite clearly that we need to know what is it focused on and how does the mind take that object. Here, as I said, with bodhichitta it’s focused on our own future enlightenment. The way that our mind takes that object, our future enlightenment, is with the intention, “I’ve got to help everybody. I really want to help everybody. And in order to help them the best I need to achieve this future enlightenment. And when I achieve that, then I will benefit others as much as I can.”

Of course, there are long lists of the traditional benefits which are mentioned in the texts, but if we speak in general, here our whole mind is opened up completely. It’s aimed at the fullest development that we can possibly achieve and we’re always thinking, “I need to achieve this, I want to achieve this, and I can achieve this.” So we’re thinking in terms of the highest state of evolution that’s possible and “I’m going to do it” and “I can do it.”

And we’re doing that in order to be able to help others, “It’s not just because of myself.” The mind is expanded to being able to help everybody, so the mind is as vast as it can possibly be. This gives us a tremendous amount of energy, much more than if we’re just thinking in a very limited way of doing something to benefit ourselves, or to benefit just a few people.

We know this from just a simple example, like if we’re living by ourselves and we have a headache, we don’t feel very well, then we might not bother to make a meal when we come home in the evening. We just go to sleep. But if we have children, then obviously we can’t do that. So our concern for our children gives us the strength to overcome that headache that we might have and that doesn’t stop us. And so we’re able to do something helpful for somebody else, we make a meal for our children.

The way it’s explained in the texts is that we’re not thrown off by obstacles because of the need that everybody has. And the need for us to grow and overcome these obstacles, it gives us the strength to break through. Although we can have, let’s say safe direction in life, refuge, our life has a meaning, but there’s much more urgency to it. There’s much more energy to it when we really want to reach this goal, because of our concern for others, and it gives us the energy to undertake huge things.

Look at people who are working for the cause of Tibet or for anti-war or whatever. They’re thinking in terms of the welfare of everyone, then that gives you this tremendous energy to do something really big, not just sit in our homes and think only about ourselves and worry. And it gives us the courage to try new things, to try to discover new abilities, new talents that we have and to use them, to use them as fully as possible, which we might not have the energy to explore otherwise.

(13) When you have read this sutra
   or heard from your guru concerning this,
And have become aware of the boundless benefits
   of full bodhichitta,
Then as a cause for making it stable
Generate this mind over and again.

When we learn about these benefits from either reading about them in this sutra or we’ve listened to our spiritual teacher explain about them and we become aware of this – that doesn’t mean that we just find out about it, but we really know it and we know it from the depths of our heart, we really feel this and we’re convinced “ of the boundless benefits of bodhichitta,” then we need to try to “ make this state of mind stable” and a very firm part of ourselves, a whole way in which we’r e always thinking, in which we’re always moving in our lives.

And to do that we need to “ generate this mind over and again.” That means to strengthen it, to reaffirm it, over and over again. Now, in the beginning we’re going to have to work ourselves up to feeling this state of mind, so we would need to go through a process in meditation of taking love and compassion and how to help others, the best way is to become enlightened, and like that we work ourselves up to this bodhichitta. And this is natural; this is the way that we need to do it at first.

It’s like when we work with the understanding of voidness, we need to go through the lines of reasoning over and again in order to reconfirm that conviction in voidness and be totally convinced that this is how things exist. I mean, with voidness it’s being convinced that things don’t exist in certain impossible ways, to be more precise. But once we are able to build ourselves up to this state of mind, whether it’s bodhichitta or the understanding of voidness, through a process, and we do that over and over and over again, then eventually it’ll reach a point where it becomes so familiar that, without going through this line or process, we just feel it instantly.

If we skip this step of working ourselves up to bodhichitta through a process and in the very beginning just instantly go, “May I achieve enlightenment for all sentient beings,” if we do like that, then there’s a danger. The danger is that we won’t feel very much of a positive emotion behind the bodhichitta and it’s not going to have the strong support of love and compassion which need to accompany bodhichitta.

In other words, “May I achieve enlightenment to help all beings,” we just sort of say that in a very casual type of way, but we don’t really feel. We’re not really reminding ourselves of the suffering that others have and how terrible that is and how we really would like to do something about it and, “This is what I’m going to try to do to help them.” So there’s an emotion behind, a feeling behind the bodhichitta.

This is very important, because it’s very easy to just skip over that, and then bodhichitta is just words, it’s not really a felt emotion. And by reminding ourselves of the benefits of bodhichitta, this gives us even more incentive to really work on it in a proper way.

(14) The positive force of this is shown extensively
In The Sutra Requested by Viradatta.
As it is summarized there in merely three stanzas,
Let me quote them here.

When I say “ positive force,” this is what’s usually translated as “merit,” and it is referring to the positive energy. It’s the positive energy that comes from developing this state of mind, and that positive force is something which is very, very strong. It gives us a tremendous momentum to achieve this goal. And so if we look at these three verses from the sutra, it says:

(15) “If the positive force
Of bodhichitta had form,
It would fill completely the sphere of space
And go beyond even that.
(16) Although someone may totally fill with gems
Buddha-fields equal in number
To the grains of sand on the Ganges
And offer them to the Guardians of the World,
(17) Yet should anyone press his or her palms together
And direct his or her mind toward bodhichitta,
His or her offering would be more specially noble;
It would have no end.”

When we are working with bodhichitta, we’re thinking to achieve enlightenment, and enlightenment is something in which our minds and our hearts are going to be open as broadly as is all of space and we’re going to think to benefit everybody throughout all of space. That is really quite extraordinary that we’re thinking on such an unbelievable scope; and obviously the positive force from thinking on such a large scope likewise is going to be as enormous.

If you think about that, to take that seriously, even if we’re not thinking in terms of past and future lives, to really be sincere about, “I’m going to try to liberate and bring to enlightenment every insect in the world, every cockroach, every mosquito, and so on” and to really be sincere about that, that’s extraordinary, isn’t it? Unbelievable. That one could actually be totally serious about that and actually feel that, that somebody could really be like that and not only that somebody could be like that, but that “I can be like that.”

If we were to actually be able to reach that state and be totally sincere about that, the positive force of that, the energy that that would give us, it’s inconceivable. As it says, “ it would fill all of space,” just as our mind fills all of space, “ and it would be even more than that.

Of course, to reach that state we have to work in stages. Very often people say, “Oh yes, I want to benefit all sentient beings.” But you’re not really taking seriously all sentient beings in this statement; so it’s almost meaningless, it’s jargon. We need to work on a small scale first: think in terms of ourselves, people that we know, friends, neutral people, people we don’t like, and extend it to everybody in our city, our country, this planet, and different life forms, other planets.

You work gradually in steps. You can’t just go instantly, “all sentient beings” and have that really be meaningful on an emotional level. Somebody who’s saying that they’re working for all beings, but there’s no time for their family or no time for their friends, then what is the meaning of working for all beings?

As the second two verses say, developing this bodhichitta attitude, this bodhichitta mind is far more positive force then making offerings to all the Buddhas. Buddhas don’t need offerings of gems and so on; what are they going to do with money? That’s not what a Buddha needs in order to be able to benefit others. I mean, of course, if they’re great beings who are working to help others, then obviously they do need some sort of financial help and so making offerings for great projects of service to others, of course this is beneficial. But actual Buddhas in Buddha-fields, that’s something else.

But in any case, if we develop this attitude ourselves, it has far more positive force, because that really is going to drive us on to reach this state of enlightenment ourselves and bring much more help to everyone.

The Trainings from Having Developed the Aspiring States of Bodhicitta

(18) Having generated the aspiring states of bodhichitta,
Ever enhance them with many efforts;
And, to be mindful of it in this and other lives too,
Thoroughly safeguard as well the trainings explained in the texts.

Once we’ve “ generated these two aspiring states of mind” – merely wishing to achieve enlightenment and pledging not to ever turn back until we reach that enlightenment – then we need to strengthen it and strengthen it with a lot of work, as it says “ with many efforts.” We want to strengthen it so that we don’t have to work ourselves up to this state of mind through the meditations on love and compassion, but it just comes instantly on a very sincere level.

And then we want to strengthen it even further, so that we have it all the time, not just when we remember. In order to remember it – that’s what it means when we say here “ to be mindful of it in this and other lives too” – then there’s a certain set of trainings that helps us to achieve this. There are four things that we train in, that we train with, that’s going to help our bodhichitta resolve not to decline, not to get weaker in this life:

The first of these is: each day and night we recall the advantages of having this bodhichitta motivation. Well, every day and night, sometimes I say, “Do it three times in the morning, three times in the evening,” it doesn’t matter, as much as we can. Atisha himself was pointing this out in an earlier verse, when we think about the benefits of bodhichitta, if we are mindful and remember these benefits every morning, every evening, for instance in our meditation, then this resolve is not going to weaken.

The second training is to reaffirm and strengthen our bodhichitta motivation by rededicating our hearts to enlightenment and others three times each day and three times each night.

Then the third one is to strive to build up these, what I call “enlightenment-building networks of positive force and deep awareness.” This is often called “the collections of merit and wisdom,” but here we’re talking about the positive force, rather than merit, of doing many constructive things, like actually helping others, meditating on bodhichitta. And it’s not that we’re getting points for every time that we help somebody and we’re collecting points like in “collection of merit,” it’s not like a collection of stamps. But rather that positive force from all of these constructive actions are going to network with each other. We’re dedicating it to enlightenment, so it’s going to build up a force to bring us to enlightenment, to actually have a physical body of a Buddha that can fully help others.

And then the other one is deep awareness, that is our awareness of voidness, basically. And again, the more frequently that we meditate on voidness, that deep awareness that we get of voidness also is going to network with each other, so that our understanding becomes deeper and deeper, becomes more and more firm. And that also is going to be enlightenment-building, it builds and acts as the main cause for having a mind of a Buddha.

So if we’re always working to try to strengthen these networks, these enlightenment-building networks all the time, then obviously we’re doing that with bodhichitta, because what is the purpose of it? The purpose of it is to achieve enlightenment; the purpose of it is to be able to benefit others more as we progress further and further toward enlightenment and ultimately when we achieve enlightenment.

[See: The Two Enlightenment-Building Networks (The Two Collections).]

And the further that we go along this path of strengthening these networks, then as a result of that, our resolve is going to get stronger and stronger. We’ll start to get some benefits from these networks in terms of our whole way of being. And our life becomes very, very meaningful, very directed, and our mind stays in a more positive state more and more frequently. This helps our bodhichitta resolve not to decline, not to weaken in this life.

And then the fourth one is never giving up trying to help anyone, or at least wishing to be able to do so, no matter how difficult the person might be. If we give up on somebody, then our resolve to be able to help everybody obviously is going to get weaker and weaker, “Because I really don’t want to have to deal with that one; and that one over there is just too terrible, too difficult."

So, even if we can’t help somebody and it would be not a very productive use of our time, because there are many other people that we can benefit more fully and so, “OK, temporarily I’m not going to make a big effort with you,” at least we would still maintain the wish to be able to benefit this person when they become more receptive, when they become more open and so on. If we never give up on anyone, then likewise this resolve will not decline. Those are the four trainings for our bodhichitta resolve not to decline in this lifetime.

Then there are various points of training for not losing this bodhichitta resolve in future lives. The training for not losing our bodhichitta resolve in future lives is to rid ourselves of the four types of murky or dark behavior and to develop instead the four glowing types of behavior. The literal Tibetan words are the four “black” actions and the four “white” actions, but that’s not very politically correct nowadays to use that type of terminology, so I use instead “murky” and “ glowing.” Anyway, the first one is the negative action that we avoid and the second one in each of these pairs is the positive one that we adopt.

The first is we need to stop deceiving, ever deceiving our spiritual teachers or our parents or the Triple Gem and instead to be honest with them concerning our motivation and our efforts to help others.

It’s very important to be honest about how much are we actually helping others, how much are we actually thinking of others, and not pretend that we’re such wonderful, great bodhisattva practitioners when in fact we’re not, we’re just very, very selfish. Again, it’s important to be realistic about this. And just as samsara and our moods are going to go up and down until we become a liberated being, until we become an arhat, similarly, until we completely rid ourselves of any type of grasping for a solid me, our motivation is always going to be slightly mixed with some selfish thoughts.

Again, we’re not going to get rid of that until we become a liberated being, an arhat. And so, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, if we’re honest and we look at ourselves, we always find that we’re going to have a mixed motivation: part is going to be altruistic, but there’s going to be a little bit of self-interest in there as well. Don’t worry about that, but try to make the altruistic part stronger than the self-interested part.

So, we need to be honest about this, not deceive our teachers, not deceive our parents, not deceive ourselves, not deceive the Triple Gem.

The second training is to stop ever faulting or being contemptuous of bodhisattvas, but instead, since only Buddhas can be certain who actually are bodhisattvas – “How do I know if that person is a bodhisattva or not?” We don’t know – so since only a Buddha really could know, then we try to regard everyone in a pure way as our teachers. Even if people act in terrible ways, still they can teach us to not act like that, so we follow.

If we are not honest about our motivation, then obviously in future lives that’s going to go down and down. How are we going to really continue in that direction if we’re not being honest about it, if we’re deceitful about it? And similarly, we want to work toward enlightenment in future lives as well, work as a bodhisattva. So if there are other people who are working in that direction and we say, “Oh, what you’re doing is no good and it’s too big,” or “...not the way that I would want to do it,” like that, then again, that’s going counter to this whole direction of bodhichitta. So naturally in future lives we’re not going to continue to have that resolve.

We don’t need to agree with everything that everybody is doing, but it’s not helpful to have a very critical, negative mind. If we don’t agree with what the person is doing, “But I can learn from that, reaffirm in myself not to act like that,” for example. So, always try to see the positive side of things, “What is it I can learn from things that really is in the flavor of bodhichitta?” When we’re thinking of the positive goal that we want to attain, rather than “all my shortcomings,” we think of all our good qualities that we want to develop more and more; and in terms of the shortcomings, “That’s what I want to eliminate.” Likewise other people and shortcomings that they have, “Well, I’d want to eliminate them in myself as well.” So, they teach us; it’s something positive that they’re doing.

The third one is stopping ever causing others to regret anything positive that they’ve done. If we ask somebody to help us, let’s say to type something on the computer, and they make a lot of mistakes, if we yell at them, then they may never offer to help us again. They were trying to help us; they were trying to be positive, trying to develop more and more and we say, “You’re stupid. You can’t do anything.” Then they regret and turn away from trying to act positive and that has a negative effect on our own future development.

Instead what we try to do is to encourage others to be constructive and – if they’re receptive – encourage them to work on overcoming their shortcomings, realizing their potentials, to be of more benefit to others, in other words, encourage them in the Mahayana path – but not as a missionary pushing them, and only if they’re receptive.

And then the fourth one, the last one, is stopping ever being hypocritical or pretentious in our dealings with others, in other words, hiding our faults and pretending to have qualities that we lack. Instead, we take responsibility to help others and we’re always honest and frank about our limitations and about our abilities. If we’re trying to help somebody, we don’t promise more than we’re capable of doing – that’s important, otherwise we let them down. They get very disappointed and then we get discouraged as well. So, don’t pretend to be able to do more than we can and don’t hide the faults and limitations that we have – very important.

[See: Actions for Training from the Pledged State of Aspiring Bodhicitta.]

So, these are the trainings to enable us not to lose this bodhichitta resolve in future lives. When Atisha says “ to be mindful of it,” meaning bodhichitta, “ in this and other lives,” in future lives “ too, thoroughly safeguard as well the trainings explained in the texts,” that’s referring to these trainings.

Taking the Vows for Involved Bodhicitta, Engaged Bodhicitta

(19) Except through the vows that are the very nature
   of engaged bodhichitta,
Your pure aspiration will never come to increase.
Therefore, with the wish to progress toward aspired full enlightenment,
Take them definitely on, energetically for that sake.

The engaged state of bodhichitta is when we actually engage ourselves in the practices that will bring us to enlightenment, and that means taking the bodhisattva vows. Basically, a vow is setting up the boundaries and saying that, “I’m going to refrain from negative behavior which is beyond these boundaries,” So a vow is to restrain from something negative.

And the way that we actually are going to reach enlightenment is through practicing the six far-reaching attitudes – that’s sometimes called the “six perfections.” They’re “far-reaching,” that’s literally what the Tibetan and Sanskrit mean; it’s going to take us all the way to enlightenment.

And so the bodhisattva vows – there are various vows in association with each of these far-reaching attitudes, things that we are going to avoid, that would make a serious problem in terms of our practice of generosity or of ethical discipline or patience or joyous perseverance, mental constancy – constancy of mind, concentration – and discriminating awareness or wisdom, or which would prevent us in general from helping others. So, these are things that we want to avoid. There are eighteen primary ones and forty-six secondary ones, and you can find a big discussion of these in my website.

[See: Root Bodhisattva Vows. See also: Secondary Bodhisattva Vows.]

Atisha says here, “ unless we take these vows, which is the nature of engaged bodhichitta” – in other words, engaged bodhichitta means taking the vows, structuring our behavior in this way – “ then that aspiration” to achieve enlightenment is not going to take us all the way there, “ is not going to increase” all the way to actually bringing us to enlightenment. We have to do something; we have to work to develop ourselves.

He says if we want to make progress toward that full enlightenment that we aspire to, that we’re wishing to achieve, then we have “ to definitely take on these vows,” in other words, do it very consciously, in a very formal manner. “ And energetically,” he says, which is not casual, but we put effort into actually keeping these vows.

What would be the preparation? Is there a prerequisite for taking these vows? Atisha says:

(20) Those who maintain at all times other vows
From any of the seven classes for individual liberation
Have the proper share for the bodhisattva vows;
Others do not.

The vows for individual liberation, that’s called the pratimoksha vows in Sanskrit. And the seven classes are the vows for a layman or a laywoman and then a provisional nun – provisional means you’re trying it out for a few years before you make up your mind to actually do it – and then the vows for a novice monk and a novice nun and then the vows for a full monk and a full nun. So, those are the seven classes.

When we speak about lay vows, there are five of them, but it’s not necessary to take all five, any number of them will be sufficient. The five are: refraining from (1) taking a life, killing, (2) stealing, (3) lying, (4) indulging in inappropriate sexual behavior, in other words, acting under the influence of extreme disturbing emotions, with complete overwhelming desire or hatred, to hurt somebody through sexual behavior, or naivety, thinking that it’s a path to liberation, and the fifth one is taking intoxicants, that’s alcohol, and also we would include in there drugs.

If we maintain one of these vows for individual liberation or liberation from samsara, also on the way we get liberated from the indecisiveness, “Should I have a drink? Should I not have a drink?” “Should I kill this mosquito? Should I not kill this mosquito?” When you’ve taken a vow, your mind is made up, “I’m not going to do it,” and then you’re free from this indecision, from this tension. So these vows are very liberating not only in the sense of helping us to achieve ultimate liberation, but also very liberating on the path.

So, if we are keeping some level of these vows, then we “ have the proper share,” he says. We have the proper portion of ethical discipline that will serve as the basis for us to be able to take and keep the bodhisattva vows – the bodhisattva vows are more subtle than these pratimoksha vows.

For instance the first one, what we want to avoid is praising ourselves and putting down others because of our attachment to getting things from people. So saying, “Oh, I’m the best teacher,” or “ I’m the best this or that and nobody else is any good,” because you want to get people to come to you. That really prevents us from being able to help others, because we’re trying to get others to give us something over anybody else, so it’s really very self-interested. And if people understand that, if people are not so stupid so they can figure that out, then they’re not going to trust us and not going to trust our motivation. So that’s going to make a big obstacle to being able to help others, so we want to avoid that.

Well, that’s a very subtle type of discipline with our speech and what’s going to give us the basis for being able to restrain ourselves from that type of harmful speech is if we at least have a foundation of restraining ourselves from lying, from the pratimoksha vows. Then that gives us the opportunity to restrain – I guess it’s the share of discipline, to be able to restrain – from something a little bit more subtle. Those who don’t have this type of basis of one of these seven classes of vows, Atisha says they don’t really have a firm foundation for being able to keep the bodhisattva vows.

Not all Buddhist masters, particularly in some of the Tibetan traditions, agree with Atisha. Some of them say, “Well, tantric vows are enough; you don’t need to take any other vows.” But Atisha’s advice is followed very strictly in the Gelug tradition at least – and there’s a great deal of wisdom behind Atisha’s advice.

(21) As for the seven classes for individual liberation,
The Accordingly Progressed has asserted in his explanations
That those of glorious abstinence are supreme;
And those are the vows for fully ordained monks.

The “ Accordingly Progressed,” that’s how I translate the word “Tathagata.” “Tathagata” is another name for a Buddha. The “gata” of “Tathagata” is “progressed,” they have progressed or gone through stages, and “tatha” means “accordingly,” according to the proper understanding of voidness, so that when they achieve enlightenment, what they have progressed to is according to all the descriptions of a Buddha and they’ve seen things according to how they actually are. There’s a lot of meaning to the word “Tathagata.”

So, Buddha has said that of these seven classes, the one that’s supreme are the vows of “ glorious abstinence.” Atisha explains in his commentary that “ abstinence” means restraining from sexual conduct and from alcohol, from intoxicants, it’s abstaining from both. And “ glorious” abstinence is saying that this is something which is a very positive thing and he’s talking about the full abstinence from it and this is referring to the vows of a fully ordained monk.

One has to understand this within the context of Indian society at that time, since obviously fully ordained nuns have the exact same vow. But in that context of ancient India, women were not treated in an equal type of way; and Atisha’s statement is not a reflection on female rebirth, but it’s a reflection on the society of the time. It’s not a fault within women, it’s a fault within society of that time – a woman would face many more obstacles in trying to help others as a bodhisattva than a man would face.

A woman going out and trying to help men in a difficult situation might be raped by them, for example, so they would face more obstacles. So that’s why he’s saying as a monk one has a better situation for being able to benefit others. This may not be the case at present in our Western societies. One has to understand these type of statements about men and women within the context of the time when these were taught.

And here it’s referring to having a partner, or we’re married – obviously in this context of India we’re talking about being married and having a household and so on – that this might be a bit of a problem in terms of really working to benefit all beings because you have a very serious responsibility to family and taking care of them. And when we have a sexual partner, then likewise our attention is very strongly focused on this person and we would like to spend more time with this person than with anybody else. And so we tend to want to stop helping others, at least for a while, so that we can go off and have our private life with our lover.

So, that could be a problem. Similarly, if we are taking intoxicants, alcohol, drugs, and so on, that clouds our judgment, our discrimination. We can get very lazy; it can make us sleepy; it has many drawbacks that could prevent us from really helping others. We become dependent on it usually, that we feel we can’t do certain things unless we have our drug.

This is not stating that unless we are a fully ordained monk, we can’t really follow the bodhisattva path, it’s not stating that. It’s just saying that if we are a fully ordained monk and live this type of life of abstinence, that this would be the optimal situation for being able to take the bodhisattva vows and keep them.

So, how do we take these bodhisattva vows? Atisha says:

(22) Through the ritual well expounded in
The “Ethical Discipline Chapter” of The Bodhisattva Stages
Take the (bodhisattva) vows
From an excellent, fully qualified guru.

The Bodhisattva Stages is a text by Asanga. It’s called Bodhisattvabhumi in Sanskrit. It talks about the stages of the bodhisattva path, and in it there’s a chapter on ethical discipline and there it talks about the bodhisattva vows and so there there’s a ritual for actually taking them. And if we take the vows with that type of a ritual, then we need to take it from a spiritual teacher, “a guru,” and that teacher needs to be “fully qualified.”

One of the qualifications for such a Mahayana guru, someone who can give the vows, Atisha gives in the next verse. He says:

(23) Know that an excellent guru is someone who
Is skilled in the vow ceremony,
By nature lives by the vows,
Has the confidence to confer the vows,
And possesses compassion.

The teacher has to be “ someone who is skilled in the ceremony,” in other words, knows how to perform the ritual. And “ by nature” they’re somebody that actually “ lives according to these vows.” They have bodhichitta and they have these bodhisattva vows and they really follow them, they really keep them, so they’re somebody with pure bodhisattva vows themselves.

And they have “ the confidence to confer the vows.” This word “ confidence” here, actually the Tibetan word is the word for patience. “Patience” can imply that they have the patience to endure all the difficulties that are involved in keeping the vows, that are involved in teaching others the bodhisattva path, the patience not to get discouraged in terms of helping others, because sometimes people are very difficult to help and give you a hard time. So we can understand all of this from the word that’s used here, “ patience."

But many of the commentaries explain that word as “confidence,” in the sense that if the teacher has these different types of patience, then they a great deal of strength, inner strength, that of keeping the vows, of being able to deal with others, helping others, and so on. And it’s this strength or self-confidence that allows them to really serve as an ethical authority, an authority of bodhichitta that will inspire confidence in us as well when taking the bodhisattva vows from them.

A good example is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We look at His Holiness and how much difficulty he faces, what a hard time he faces from the Chinese, from the difficulties within the Tibetan community itself, and from the nearly hopeless situation that the Tibetans face. And yet he still continues to help others, to have compassion, to have patience with all of this, and this really gives him moral authority, this “ confidence to confer the vows.

And the fourth quality which Atisha mentions is that the teacher needs to actually “ possess compassion,” is sincerely compassionate, really wishing for others to be free from suffering and the causes for suffering and really is working in that direction, not just saying.

So, what happens if we can’t find such a guru? Then there’s another ritual for being able to take the bodhisattva vows without a guru. This is actually quite significant. For pratimoksha vows, vows for individual liberation, or for tantric vows, you have to have a teacher in order to take them. You can’t just take them without a teacher, although tantric vows you can renew without a teacher, but to take it for the first time it has to be with a teacher. But bodhisattva vows, it is possible to take it for the first time without a teacher. And actually it’s not that you take the vows from a teacher, in a sense, because one makes these promises in terms of the Buddhas; the teacher is the vehicle through which it is done.

(24) However, if you have made effort in this
And have been unable to find such a guru,
There is a ritual other than that for receiving the vows,
Which I shall explain in full.

There’s a source for this in the sutras, it’s not just something that he makes up. He says:

(25) Concerning this, I shall write here very clearly
How Manjushri generated bodhichitta in previous times
When he was King Ambaraja,
Just as is explained in The Sutra of
An Adornment for Manjushri’s Buddha-Field .

This is the source and the following verses are what Manjushri recited and what we would also recite for taking the bodhisattva vows in this way, without a teacher. And obviously there’s a more elaborate ritual than this. This is just giving the main features of how Manjushri did it.

(26) “Before the eyes of my Guardians,
I generate bodhichitta
And, inviting all wandering beings as my guests,
I shall liberate them from uncontrollable rebirth.

By “ Guardians,” this is referring to the Buddhas, that they are guardians for us. They help us along the path and protect us from wandering astray. “ With them as my witness, I regenerate this bodhichitta resolve,” reaffirm it, “ and I invite all wandering beings as my guests.” In other words, “I’m focused on everybody that’s wandering through uncontrollable rebirth and they’re my guests, I invite them,” that means that we’re not going to let them down.

And what am I going to do for them? I’m going to try to liberate them from uncontrollable rebirth. That means that I’m going to work to help them as much as I can now and try to achieve enlightenment so that I can help them as best as possible, although obviously it’s impossible for anybody with just a snap of the fingers to liberate everyone.

(27) From now until my attainment
Of a supreme purified state,
I shall never act with harmful intentions,
An angered mind, miserliness, or jealousy.

To talk about “ purified state” – that’s the word bodhi in Sanskrit and that can be the purified state of a liberated being, an arhat – either a shravaka or pratyekabuddha arhat – or the supreme purified state is the attainment of a Buddha, so enlightenment. So “ now until my attainment of that supreme purified state,” in other words, enlightenment, “ now until then, I’m going to never act,” which means “I’m going to try never to act,” because obviously it’s impossible to promise that we’re never going to get angry again, “I certainly am going to try my best not to do that.”

I’m not going to act with harmful intentions” – that’s the exact opposite of love, we want them to be happy, not for them to be unhappy. “ Harmful intention” is the wish for them to be unhappy, that something terrible happens to them.

“I’m not going to act with an angered mind,” that “I’m really angry with you and I don’t like you anymore and I reject you,” “I’m not going to act like that.” And “not act with miserliness” – miserly means that we hold back and, “I don’t want to share what I have with you. I don’t want to give anything to you,” whether we’re talking about help, time. It doesn’t mean necessarily material things; we can be very miserly with our time, our energy and so on. So it’s saying, “I’m not going to be that way.”

And, “I’m not going to act with jealousy.” Jealousy can have many negative connotations here of: somebody else does something that’s helpful and “I’m jealous that I didn’t do it, because I want all the credit.” We are unhappy about anything positive that the other person did and we wish that they hadn’t done it. So that’s also very negative in terms of working for the benefit of everybody. The benefit of everybody doesn’t mean that “ I have to benefit them,” “If anybody benefits them that’s wonderful.”

Another form of jealousy is if somebody gave something to somebody else, did something nice for somebody else, we’re jealous that, “They didn’t give it to me.” If they’re showing love to somebody else, “They’re not showing their love to me,” so “I’m jealous.” That also, we are not going to act like that; it’s not that we want things for ourselves.

(28) I shall live according to abstinent behavior;
I shall rid myself of negativities and attachment/greed.
Taking joy in the vows of ethical discipline,
I shall continually train myself as the Buddhas have done.

This is in the context of being an ordained monk going to live according to abstinent behavior. And certainly one would want to at least not have as the motivating main force in our lives devoting all our time to our sexual partner and having a lover and all of that and getting drunk all the time. Best is if we devote all our time and energy to basically helping others. Of course that has to be within the context of knowing when to take a break and not pushing too hard and being a fanatic, otherwise it’s self-defeating.

Now obviously sexual drive is something which is very strong in many of us. And to deny that or repress that, especially if it’s done in an unhealthy way, can also be a big obstacle. But it is important to not be ruled by our sexual drives, not be overwhelmed by them, particularly if we’re trying to help somebody whom we find attractive. What is our motive for helping them? Is it just, “ I want to help this one because I find them attractive? And what really am I after? Am I after them liking me, or getting some sort of sexual favor from them, rather than really helping them?”

That can really distract us, really make a big problem; and if the other person realizes that, they can become very negative toward us. And even if we are actually helping them, there’s part of us that still wants to get physically close to the other person, so this undermines our pure motive. It’s quite interesting, if this is the case, to examine ourselves and see, “Would I be so interested in helping this person if they didn’t look the way that they look; if I found this person ugly?”

And if we find that we wouldn’t be so interested in helping the person if they looked like somebody that we find very unattractive, then we really need to examine what’s going on with our motivation. So, if our sexual drive is strong, we need to somehow deal with that, be honest with that, find some sort of resolution with that that’s not going to make a major impediment in our helping others. Also, as Shantideva points out in his text, when we’re trying to gain concentration, single-minded concentration, the biggest distraction is going to be mental wandering because of sexual desire.

And Atisha says, “ I need to rid myself of negativities and also attachment” – and it’s a word that can mean either attachment or greed, wanting to get something that we don’t have, or if we have it, not wanting to let go. “ Negativities” can also refer to the negative force that’s been built up by our destructive behavior, so we want to purify ourselves of that. Because when we have such negative force, we’re always thinking in a very depressed way and in a very defeatist, negative type of way, so we want to rid ourselves of that.

And “ taking joy in the vows of ethical discipline,” in other words, not feeling that this is a terrible burden and like a prison sentence that I’m abstaining from these things, but taking joy in it, “This is wonderful. This is giving me a structure that will allow me to be able to help others. How wonderful it is that Buddha has pointed out what are the things to avoid if we want to be able to help others. This is great. I didn’t have to learn by mistake myself; the Buddha has pointed out the things to avoid.” So, “I’m delighted with this, this is wonderful. Thank you."

So, taking joy in these vows and in this discipline, “I’m going to continually train the way the Buddhas have done,” so follow their examples. That doesn’t mean that we have to do absolutely everything exactly the way that our teacher does. And we’re not going to be monkeys and just blindly imitate. We obviously have to adopt what the Buddhas have done, what our teachers have done to the circumstances that we face in life and the people that we meet, that we have the connections to be able to help, but follow the basic themes of the training the way the Buddhas have done.

(29a) I shall take no delight in attaining enlightenment
By a speedy means for my own self,

In other words, we’re not going to just work to achieve enlightenment for myself, but we’re going to work for the sake of others. So he says in the second half,

(29b) But I shall remain until the end of the future,
If it be a cause for (helping) one limited being.

So, even if we’re helping just “ one limited being,” “I’m going to continue to work” and “I’m not just working for myself."

(30) I shall cleanse everything into
Immeasurable, inconceivable realms
And remain everywhere in the ten directions
For those who have called my name.

That means that I’m going to try to make everything around me into, what he says is, an “ immeasurable, inconceivable realm,” in other words, make everything into like a Buddha-realm, “so that everything around me is conducive for people being able to make spiritual progress.” In this sense we “ cleanse” the atmosphere around us.

And remain everywhere in the ten directions,” so no matter anywhere, “I’m going to remain to help those who have called my name,” in other words, those who have some sort of karmic connection with me to be helped by me and who call for me to help them.

Then the last verse of this quotation:

(31) I shall purify all the actions
Of my body and speech,
And purify as well the actions of my mind:
I shall never commit any destructive acts.”

In “ purify the actions of body, speech, and mind,” “ purify” can have two meanings: either we purify away all the obstacles that are preventing our body, speech, and mind from functioning at their fullest, so purify away the negative potentials, basically. Or “ purify” can be understood in the sense of we’re going to try to make “ all the actions of my body and speech” pure, in other words, act in a pure way with a proper bodhichitta motivation and aim.

And, “ I will never commit any destructive acts” – at least “I’m going to try not to act in a destructive way from the negative emotions or attitudes.

That finishes this section of “Taking the Vows for Engaged Bodhicitta” and that perhaps is a good place to stop for today.

So, we end with a dedication. We think, whatever understanding we’ve gained, may it go deeper and deeper and may it act as a cause for not just improving my samsaric situation, but may it act as a cause for reaching enlightenment and truly being able to benefit all beings as much as is possible.

Thank you.