Vows, commitments and modern life:  Treat your teachers with respect

Showing contempt for our preceptors.

We incur this downfall by showing contempt for any of the vows that we have taken by thinking ‘I do not need to observe this vow.’

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  A dam is only as strong as its weakest point.  In the same way, our moral discipline is only as strong as our weakest commitment.  In the Lamrim, the story is told of the monk who was confronted with the dilemma of drink alcohol or sleep with a woman.  Figuring drinking was less bad, he drank, became drunk and wound up sleeping with the woman anyways.  Shantideva likes to use warfare analogies.  In that vein, in ancient Greece, fighters would form a Phalanx, where each soldier would lock their shields together into a tank like form.  Great King Leonidas said the Phalanx is only as strong as its weakest shield.  In the same way, the different vows each support and reinforce one another, and when practiced as a whole, they create an impenetrable, inter-locking defense within our mind against delusion and negativity.

It is for these reasons that we are told we cannot pick and choose which vows we want to keep, but we should instead work with all of our vows, gradually, but consistently, until one day we can keep them all purely.  Of course, there will be some vows we keep better than others, but we never generate the thought that says, “I am not going to practice that vow.”  This is also not to say it is not good to keep only some of the vows.  It is better to keep some vows than none at all.  But it is better still to maintain the intention to one day keep them all perfectly than to pick and choose.

Sometimes, due to our lack of understanding, we can mistakenly think our vows contradict one another.  For example, the earlier stages of the path encourage us to abandon attachment, whereas our Tantric teachings explain we should use it.  Sometimes people mistakenly think the higher vows trump the lower ones, and so it is OK to violate the lower ones as long as we are keeping the higher ones.  But this view is completely wrong.  We can think of our vows and commitments as like our different lines of defense.  When the enemy of delusion is attacking from the outside, it will probe to find the hole in our defenses.  Once it breaks through in one place, it easily swarms through and destroys everything else.  Our innermost wall of defense is our refuge vows.  Surrounding those are our Pratimoksha vows, surrounding that are our bodhisattva and then finally tantric vows.  It is possible for the outer walls to be breached, but our inner walls remain in tact, but if we break the vows of our inner walls, our entire Kingdom is lost.

Je Tsongkhapa explains how all of our vows can be practiced by a single person in a way that is consistent with all of them.  He said outwardly, we train in the Pratimoksha vows, inwardly we train in the Bodhisattva vows, and secretly we train in the Tantric vows.  “Secret” here does not mean when nobody is looking and you have your internet browser switched to “in private viewing.”  Rather, secret means in the context of the self-generated deity in our meditation practice.  It is on the foundation of our Pratimoksha vows that we train in our bodhisattva vows, and it is upon both of these that we train in our Tantric vows.

This vow is worded to not show contempt for our preceptors, but its explanation is we do so by failing to sincerely practice all our vows.  How do we understand the connection between these two?  First, just as a Buddha is not separate from his emanations, so too a Preceptor is – at a very profound level – not separate from the precepts he gives.  The reason for this is due to the fact that when we take vows, we are making a promise to somebody, namely our spiritual guide.  Therefore, breaking the vow is not only breaking our moral discipline, it is also breaking our promise to our spiritual guide.  Second, karmically speaking, every time we practice an instruction of our spiritual guide, we become karmically closer to him.  In dependence upon this closer karmic connection, his blessings can flow more easily through us.  But when we reject his instructions, we are in effect rejecting him (even if only marginally), and as a result we cut ourselves off to that extent from his blessings.

In short, we should work gradually and consistently with all of the vows we have taken, without rejecting any of them; and we should know that none of them are contradictory, in fact, they are all mutually supporting.

One thought on “Vows, commitments and modern life:  Treat your teachers with respect

  1. WAAOOOWWW ! Je ne regarderais plus jamais les voeux et engagements de la même manière à l’avenir.
    J’espère que je n’étais pas le seul à penser que la protection ultime était les voeux tantriques et que les voeux pour les débutants étaient les voeux du refuge 🙂

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