Gyalwang Karmapa Commences Weeklong Teachings on the “Three Types of Vows”

December 4, 2009 – Tergar Monastery, Bodhgaya

With the sound of the gyaling heightening the sense of anticipation, His Holiness entered the packed assembly hall of Tergar Monastery this afternoon to commence a weeklong series of teachings. The teachings are part of the 13th annual Karma Gunchoe, or winter debates, now under way in Bodhgaya. For this year’s teachings, His Holiness will take as his main topic the relationship among the three types of vows: pratimoksha—which includes the monastic vows as well as the upasaka or genyen vows held by many lay Buddhists—bodhisattva and tantric vows. Over the course of the next six days, His Holiness will be commenting on Brief Notes on Difficult Points of the Three Vows, a concise but important work on the subject composed by the 7th Karmapa Chödrak Gyatso.

His Holiness began by greeting the learned abbots and members of the monastic assembly, and extended a special word of welcome to the lay disciples who had travelled from many countries. As His Holiness himself noted, the winter debate teachings have attracted increasingly large crowds. While the teachings are directed primarily at the monastics who have gathered from Kagyu monastic centers for an intensive period of study and debate, in recent years they have been attended as well by many of His Holiness’ Western and east Asian lay followers. Reflecting that international presence, simultaneous translation of His Holiness’ teachings is being provided this year into English, Chinese and Spanish.

His Holiness opened the series of teachings with a brief overview of the context and history of the presentations of the three vows. While many important masters from Nagarjuna forward have provided us with detailed explanations of each of the vows—both the manner of conferring them and how to keep them—the study of the three sets of vows particularly addresses the question as to how the vows relate to one another, and how a single person can keep all three types of vows simultaneously. On the face of it, there appear to be conflicts among the different levels of vows, His Holiness noted, giving rise to the important question of how the vows are to be reconciled. Although this question was raised in India, Tibetan masters devoted particularly great attention to exploring the topic, His Holiness explained. As such, the study of the three vows has become one of the special strengths of Tibetan Buddhism. Drawing on the presentations of Indian masters Abhayakara and Vibhuticandra, important works on the three vows were produced in Tibet by such eminent scholars as Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen and Sakya Pandita within the Sakya tradition, and by Tsongkhapa within the Gelugpa. Among those in the Kagyu tradition who made major contributions to the understanding of three vows is the 7th Gyalwang Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso, whose text forms the basis of this year’s teachings.

As an introduction to the topic, His Holiness emphasized the tremendous importance of higher training in ethical discipline. Our very ability to progress towards liberation and enlightenment is based on having a higher rebirth, and specifically on having a human birth that allows us to practice the Dharma and develop love and affection. Were we to fall into one of the lower realms—of animal, preta or hell being—we would have no opportunity to move forward on the path to enlightenment, and thus it is crucial that we close the door to those lower realms. Since the way we end up falling into lower rebirths is by engaging in actions that are harmful, in order to close the door to those lower births, His Holiness stressed, we must completely abandon all non-virtuous actions done with our body and speech. Since the cause for attaining higher rebirths can be traced to our maintaining ethical discipline in past lives, the need to guard our discipline now is clear. Discipline, in short, is the foundation for all of our Dharma practice, His Holiness said.

In conclusion, His Holiness noted that the organizers of the winter debates had designated the following day as a day of rest, and thus all present should enjoy a day of holiday, as he himself planned to do.