The Pratimoksha vows are the vows of individual liberation. Just as the refuge vows primarily function to maintain an uninterrupted continuum of our Buddhist practice between now and our eventual enlightenment, so too training in the Pratimoksha vows primarily functions to maintain an uninterrupted continuum of our intermediate scope practice between now and our eventual enlightenment. This is important because there are many spiritual paths in the world which will help us attain a better rebirth in samsara, but there are few paths indeed which will help us actually get out of samsara. In fact, we can say only those paths which teach the Madhyamika Prasangika view of emptiness will actually lead to liberation from samsara as defined by the Buddhist path. This is not to say attaining a better rebirth within samsara is not good, rather it says it is just not good enough.
What does it mean to escape from samsara? To answer this question, we need to know what is samsara. Samsara is uncontrolled rebirth into contaminated aggregates. Humans suffer from human suffering because they uncontrolledly project their I onto human aggregates of body and mind. Animals suffer from animal suffering because they uncontrolledly impute their I onto an animal’s body and mind. The same is true for hungry spirits, hell beings, demi-gods and gods. To escape from samsara is to gain control over what we impute our I onto. When we have such control, instead of uncontrolledly imputing it onto the body and mind of a samsaric being, we controlledly impute it onto the body and of a liberated or enlightened being. When we can do this, we will have become ourselves a liberated or enlightened being.
At a practical level, we can say our samsara is our delusions and our dying body. Our delusions and our dying body create all sorts of problems for us that we are forced to endure. If we can learn to break our identification with our delusions and our body, then what happens to them will not be happening to us.
At a more profound level, samsara can best be thought of as us being trapped in an uncontrolled dream. Right now, our dream is not too bad! We are human, have all our faculties, sufficient resources, pleasant surroundings, etc. But this will not last. We know this because the karma giving rise to such appearances is quickly exhausting itself and we are doing nothing to create more karma for similar lives. Once we have burned up our merit giving rise to this particular pleasant dream, it will revert to something much more awful. Once that happens, it will be almost impossible to get back to the good dream, like the sea turtle trying to get its head through that golden yoke. It is said that it is easier to attain enlightenment (wake up from the karmic dream) once we have become human than it is to become human again after we have fallen into a lower state.
I once had a dream where I was being chased by some monsters. They trapped me and there was no escape. But then I realized I was dreaming and I requested blessings to be able to wake up. I then did, and I escaped the monsters. There was no escape in the dream, but there was an escape by waking up. It is exactly the same with samsara. We can travel anywhere within samsara, and we will find no escape. There is no hiding within samsara from its inevitable sufferings. The only way to escape them is to wake up. Waking up is not easy. It runs counter to almost all of the mental habits we have built up since beginningless time. But if we don’t encounter a path that leads to us waking up, then waking up is actually impossible. We will remain trapped forever. So our choice is rather stark: either we train in our Pratimoksha vows and be guaranteed to eventually awake or we don’t and remain trapped forever. There is, unfortunately, no middle ground.
This does not mean we need to keep them all perfectly. Rather, it means we need to never abandon the intention to keep trying to do a little bit better every day. If we maintain this intention, and carry it with us into our death, we will refind the path again in our next life. Some people have a mistaken understanding that somehow the Pratimoksha vows are different than the other vows. That somehow these vows are black and white, on or off, and that we don’t just maintain our intention to do our best. This may be true for ordained Sangha, but even there there are many shades of gray. But for lay practitioners, we should consider such vows like we do any other. We do our best to do a little bit better every day. It is better to keep them imperfectly and be happy about our training than to expect perfection, fall short and then do nothing.
At a very technical level, the Pratimoksha vows are broken when four factors are present: The object, the intention, the preparation, and the completion. A full intention requires three factors to be present: correct discrimination, determination, and delusion. To be authentic Pratimoksha vows they must be taken with at least a motivation of renunciation.
If we have not yet received Pratimoksha vows, we should request our local teacher to grant them and to provide a commentary. In the posts that follow, I will explain each lay Pratimoksha vow in turn.