December 6, 2009 – Tergar Monastery, Bodhgaya
Teachings, Day Three:
His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa today tackled a number of complex debate issues, clearing the way for the examination of the main topic of this year’s winter debate teachings—how one person can keep all three types of vow. At the same time, he emphasized that the optimal Buddhist practitioner is one that does hold and preserve all three types of vow—pratimoksha, bodhisattva and tantric.
First, Gyalwang Karmapa explored the major points of contention that arise in defining and classifying pratimoksha and bodhisattva vows. Some texts mention traditions of conferring pratimoksha vows according to the Mahayana textual tradition, and His Holiness, who is fluent in Chinese and conversant with the Chinese Buddhist canon, noted that the Chinese canon preserves a number of texts that describe how to do so. By contrast, he pointed out, the Tibetan canon contains only scattered references and instances of such ritual texts, an example of which would be the Mahayana sojong vows offered each morning during the Kagyu Monlam.
Following the text, His Holiness moved on to a discussion of the ways the different types of vow are conferred, and how they are cancelled, or lost. He stressed that taking a higher type of vow by no means cancels the lower vows. After receiving higher vows, we still need to observe and guard the lower vows as part of the discipline that is the foundation of all our practice as Buddhists. The teachings this week have as their aim to clarify the relationships among the vows and to help us understand how to proceed when conflicts arise among them.
Tibet became a place where all three of the major forms of Dharma—the foundational Buddhism of the pratimoksha vows, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana—were transmitted and preserved, His Holiness observed. They were maintained in Tibet not merely in their outer appearances, but were actually implemented through serious inner practice, and thus were able to flourish in Tibet.
Nowadays, this is so not only in Tibet, but wherever there are people practicing Tibetan Buddhism. Since the Dharma that flourished in Tibet has now spread throughout the world, it can rightly be called a worldwide Buddhism, Gyalwang Karmapa stated. Because of the richness that comes from preserving all three vehicles and offering teachings suited to people at a wide variety of capacities, this Dharma is highly inclusive. In this way, a wide range of people are able to practice the Dharma that flourished in Tibet.
Ethical discipline offers us a common foundation on which we can all base our practice. We should avail ourselves of the various types of vow that the Dharma offers us, the Gyalwang Karmapa urged, not simply taking those vows but also guarding them fully, from refuge vows onwards. To become a Buddhist implies much more than just getting a new name, or in the case of monastics, new clothes and a new name. We need to know what it means to be Buddhists and we then need to implement that in our behavior and in our very beings, he said.
For example, among the refuge vows, we have the precept that stipulates that once we have gone for refuge in the Dharma, we should abandon harming others. This vow to cease harming others is not limited to beating them physically or abusing them verbally. It includes the inner aggression or hostile thoughts we may harbor towards others. If we do not work to abandon such thoughts and attitudes, they simply fester within us and at a certain point, they will overwhelm us and lead us to act harmfully. If we think that we are not aggressive simply because we do not act out aggressively toward others, we should look at what is in our heart, to see how our thoughts are oriented and to ask ourselves whether we are nurturing hostility and aggression towards others. It is crucial that we do so, and that we continually work to correct whatever faults we find within us, so that all our thoughts may become wholesome and beneficial.
When we speak of ‘practicing’ the Dharma, His Holiness explained, the term ‘practice’ in Tibetan has two components, one indicating ‘experience’ and the other indicating ‘taking.’ When we gain some experience in our lives, we should take that into our hearts and into our practice. Gyalwang Karmapa gave the example of the people begging at the stupa in Bodhgaya, many of whom are desperately hungry, some lacking limbs, lacking their faculties and others unable even to speak out to ask for help. When a feeling of compassion arises upon seeing them, we should not leave this as a momentary experience, but should actively take this experience into our practice, he advised.
His Holiness observed that we may feel that we simply have an aggressive personality, and console ourselves with the thought that we were just born that way. But if we resign ourselves to having such faults, we will never take the steps needed to change. On the contrary, by familiarizing ourselves with the reasons that we do need to change, many more possibilities for transforming ourselves do open up, starting by taking the refuge vows and training within them, and later taking up the other forms of discipline. We cannot expect the Dharma to work if we simply say at the very outset that, ““I am going to be enlightened quickly and become a Buddha,” and then go about collecting tantric initiations. Rather, we need to begin by eliminating our non-virtuous actions. This can happen only when we ourselves make efforts, and take the responsibility to work with the afflictions in our own minds. It is for this reason that we first take pratimoksha vows, and only afterwards the bodhisattva and then tantric vows.
If we do not thus proceed in stages and in the right order, His Holiness said, it is like attempting to lift a huge boulder without first training ourselves gradually in preparation. If we are not careful, the boulder could end up landing right on top of us. Among all that Buddha taught, His Holiness said emphatically, there is nothing that we are not capable of achieving. We just need to look within ourselves to determine what our capacity is at the moment, asking ourselves what vows we are actually capable of holding and observing, and taking only those. If you do not do so, there is no other way to reach enlightenment. We should know that we do have all the basic capacities we need; we just have to proceed step by step in the practices suited to our abilities.