PRECEPTS – GUIDES TO RIGHT LIVING
When the Buddha began teaching the Dharma, he also created a method for his disciples to accomplish the goal of enlightenment in the fastest way possible. The method he established was the community of monks (and later nuns), known as the sangha. Those who wished to devote their lives to the accomplishment of the Buddha’s teachings became a monk or nun by simply taking refuge in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. They were then given their saffron robes and begging bowls and were allowed to join the sangha.
The derivation of the Pali word for a fully ordained monk, Bhikṣu, sheds some light on the motivation one has for becoming a monk. Bhikṣu literally means “beggar”, but it comes from two Pali words, bhayaṃ ikkhatīti, “the person who sees danger”, meaning one who sees danger in samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth, and who wishes to renounce samsara in order to gain release from this prison. Ordination provides the fastest method for doing that.
However, it soon became apparent that rules were needed to serve as guides to staying on the path. Certain activities would lead directly to losing one’s way. These became the five basic vows that everyone who becomes ordained takes. These five are to refrain from killing (to kill a human is a root breakage), to refrain from lying (particularly about one’s spiritual accomplishment), to refrain from stealing, to refrain from sex, and to refrain from partaking of intoxicants, as it is much easier to break the four preceding vows when intoxicated. There are five other basic vows included in novice ordination, śrāmaṇera in Sanskrit, gyetsul in Tibetan. These are rules of conduct, including to refrain from listening to music, to refrain from dancing, to refrain from sleeping on a high bed, to refrain from eating after noon, and to refrain from wearing bodily adornments and perfume.
Further rules were adopted as the need arose. For example, there is a vow taken by fully ordained monks and nuns (bhikṣu/bhikṣuṇi in Sanskrit, gelong/gelongma in Tibetan) to always look in one’s seat before sitting. This rule is said to have come about when a certain monk was invited to dinner at a layperson’s house and sat in a chair before looking in it, only to sit on a baby that was already there. So the Buddha created a rule to avoid any such unfortunate occurrences in the future.
Altogether the fully ordained gelong monk takes 253 vows and the gelongma 364. Other traditions may have more or less vows, depending on the ordination tradition that they use. These vows are collected in what is known as the Vinaya, the code of conduct for ordained monks and nuns. The Vinaya is observed by the ordained of nearly every Buddhist tradition, with few exceptions. Zen monks in Japan, for example, do not observe the vow of celibacy, mainly for historical/political reasons having to do with Japanese culture.
Many of the vows refer to situations that are rarely, if ever, encountered in modern day life, such as vows concerning the amount of black wool that the monk or nun may possess. However, the basic essence of the vows is to support mindfulness and renunciation in everyday life, so in that sense they remain as fresh and effective as the day they were created.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Buddha never urged monks and nuns to refrain from eating meat. He only said that if the meat came from an animal that had been killed specifically for the monk or nun, then they should not eat it. The Buddha emphasized living as a beggar, eating only what was given, which could include meat. Some Buddhist traditions do not eat meat, particularly the Theravadan tradition in Southeast Asia. The Tibetan tradition, however, does allow the eating of meat. Historically Tibet’s climate does not allow the growing of vegetables and fruit to any great degree, so it was not possible to live without eating meat. Also the tantric tradition has a different take on eating meat than other traditions. But there is no rule set down by the Buddha that forbids it.
Full ordination for women has unfortunately disappeared in many Buddhist traditions, including the Tibetan and Theravadan traditions. In Tibet, the brutal suppression of Buddhism by King Langdarma, a supporter of the indigenous Bön tradition, killed off the lineage of full ordination for women, and it has never been reestablished. The highest level of ordination available to women in the Tibetan traditions is called gelobma, an intermediate level that consists of 22 vows. Efforts are underway to reestablish the gelongma tradition of full ordination for women in Tibetan Buddhism. Some Western nuns have received bhikṣuṇi ordination in the Chinese tradition, but debate continues as to whether this is valid or not. The 17th Karmapa has vowed to reestablish full ordination for females. This is something we fervently pray for.
Lay practitioners may also receive what is known as lay ordination (genyen/genyenma in Tibetan). The vows are similar to the ordained vows but less strict. For example, instead of completely renouncing sex, lay ordination allows sex but forbids promiscuous sex or sexual misconduct. Lay practitioners who have taken the vows of lay ordination may also wear robes with the permission of their teacher. These differ from ordained robes in that the lay ordained wear white shirts rather than yellow ones and do not receive the yellow robes of ordination. Lay practitioners who wear the robes of lay ordination are known as rabjung in Tibetan.
There are other forms of vows in Tibetan Buddhism that do not involve ordination. The three main types are refuge vows, Bodhisattva vows and tantric samaya vows. Refuge vows are a formal declaration of one’s intent to dedicate this life and every future life to the attainment of realization by taking refuge in the Three Jewels, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The vows accompanying refuge vows are intended to support the practitioner in this intent. The Bodhisattva is a being who pledges to work ceaselessly for the liberation and salvation of all sentient beings. Bodhisattva vows are a declaration of this intent. Tantric samaya vows are taken when receiving tantric empowerments to help guard the student against transgressing the commitments that are part of this commitment.
In summary, vows or precepts are external supports for our practice that help remind us what we have committed to and keep us on target. They are a valuable aid to our practice and an absolute necessity in achieving our ultimate goal.