Vows, commitments and modern life: Root downfalls of the Bodhisattva Vows, abandoning the Mahayana and stealing property from the three jewels

Abandoning the Mahayana. 

This downfall is incurred if we reject any Mahayana scripture claiming that it is not Buddha’s teachings.  It also occurs if we propagate views that contradict the Dharma and encourage others to practice such false teachings.

For most of us, it is highly unlikely that we would reject some Mahayana scripture claiming that it is not Buddha’s teachings.  We have been explained the lineage of the teachings, and either we believe it or we think it is some elaborate lie Geshe-la has concocted.  To my knowledge, despite all of the criticism that has been lodged against the NKT over the years, nobody has ever disputed the lineage of the teachings. 

But we are far more susceptible to the other means of breaking this vow, namely propagating false views and encouraging others to practice them.  Every time I hit submit on this blog, I run the risk of doing this!  Every time a teacher teaches, they run the risk of doing this.  Every time any one of us speaks about the Dharma, we run the risk of doing this.  Understanding this, some people fall into the extreme of thinking the only safe thing to do is to repeat exactly what Geshe-la said, and they get very nervous anytime somebody says something that they can’t directly trace back to some direct quote by Geshe-la.  This is an extreme because we are encouraged to contemplate and meditate on the Dharma, not just parrot it.  We need to transform what we read and listen to into our own understanding and personal experience.  If Geshe-la didn’t want us to express the Dharma in our own words, then why would he have us discuss the Dharma in our centers or why would train people to be teachers instead of just make available on the internet his books and teachings?

If we understand being a Dharma parrot is an extreme, how do we protect ourselves then against falling into the other extreme of inventing our own lineage?  I think the answer is implicit in the way this vow is worded “…not contradict…”  I once had a lengthy conversation with a few other teachers about this question in between sessions at an ITTP one year.  What I am about to say should in no way be considered any sort of official answer to this question, but it is an accurate representation of our best faith answer to the question.  We said when we have some understanding of the Dharma that we haven’t read anywhere in Geshe-la’s books, and we are not sure whether our new understanding is correct or not, we can perform the following tests:

  1. Does this new understanding contradict in any way any known instructions?
  2. Does this new understanding naturally and logically follow from contemplating the interactions and implications of all known instructions?
  3. Before we explain it to anybody else, have we made over a sufficiently long period of time a request to Dorje Shugden, our Dharma Protector, “If this new understanding is not correct, please sabotage it thoroughly within my mind.”?

If any new understanding can survive these three tests, then we can have a pretty high degree of confidence that it is at least not wrong.  If we do, however, share this understanding with others we should make explicitly clear that what we are saying is our own personal understanding after having contemplated the Dharma and made clear that others should not consider what we think to be definitive in any way.  They should investigate matter for themselves.  Of course it would grow tiresome to say this in front of every sentence, so it is really more an issue of our “style” in how we present things.  If we pretend we are some great scholar or yogi and make definitive proclamations about the “truth”, then we are in grave danger of making a fool of ourselves!  But if instead, we say things like “it seems to me,” and “from my perspective,” or “I don’t know if this is right, but…” etc., then there is little danger of people misunderstanding.

A final way, of course, we can abandon the Mahayana is of course to stop practicing or to put some sort of explicit limitation on who we will generate love, compassion and bodhichitta for.  This doesn’t mean we are breaking the vow if we have not yet generated a qualified universal compassion, but it does mean we break the vow if we say “I will attain enlightenment for all beings except this person.”

Stealing property from the Three Jewels. 

We incur this downfall if we steal anything that has been offered to the Three Jewels.  Besides the obvious meaning of embezzling funds or actually stealing something from a Dharma center or some practitioner, this vow has many more subtle implications.

While it is true that all Dharma centers say, “nobody will be refused for an inability to pay,” if we do make a commitment to pay a certain amount and then fail to follow up on that commitment, it is stealing.  The administrative directors of all centers will say the same thing, “do what you can afford, and don’t worry.”  All we need to do is discuss our situation with them and reach an agreement about what we can commit to, even if it is only $1 or nothing, but we will help clean up afterwards, something.  But if we fail to do this and sneak in hoping we can get away with not paying, and then afterwards think we got lucky that nobody stopped us, then this too is stealing.  If we copy correspondence recordings we don’t have a right to and didn’t pay for, this too is stealing.  If we use any property (physical or intellectual) of the three jewels without asking their permission and if we could reasonably suspect that they wouldn’t want us to do so then this too is stealing.  If we are in doubt about this and are not willing to ask if it is OK for us to use their property because we are afraid they might give us an answer we don’t want to hear, then this too is a form of stealing. 

Stealing from the three jewels is really a foolish thing to do.  Since the three jewels use everything they have for the sake of all living beings in all of their lives, stealing from them is karmically equivalent to stealing from all living beings in the worst possible way, namely stealing, even if only on the margin, their access to the Dharma. 


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