The ritual verse we use to actually take the bodhisattva vows is as follows:
(3.23) Just as all the previous Sugatas, the Buddhas,
Generated the mind of enlightenment
And accomplished all the stages
Of the Bodhisattva training,
(3.24) So will I too, for the sake of all beings,
Generate the mind of enlightenment
And accomplish all the stages
Of the Bodhisattva training.
What exactly are we promising when we take the Bodhisattva Vow?
We are essentially promising that we will spend the rest of eternity leading living beings to enlightenment. We have decided that this is what we want to do with the rest of our eternity. We can sometimes feel overwhelmed by such a prospect, but at this stage we are merely saying we can’t think of anything better to do with the rest of our eternity. It is a choice of direction and final destination. We are not committing to already do this, but that we will work in this direction for as long as it takes until it becomes a reality.
Sometimes we think it is not possible, we can never become a high bodhisattva, so we don’t really ‘go for it.’ But it is perfectly possible, the methods are there, the only thing lacking is our wish. Sometimes we are afraid of committing to such a prospect because we fear that it will mean we will have to give up so much. We think this because we still believe the deception of samsara. In reality it is the opposite, we only give up that which prevents us from having everything.
Sometimes we have reluctance because we want to hedge our bets between samsara and our practice, but eventually this becomes impossible and just leads to inner tension. We will eventually have to let go of one or the other. If we let go of our practice, all of the problems of samsara come right back. If we let go of samsara, we go from joy to joy until we attain enlightenment and beyond. But for now, we should continue to do what we want, but change what we want. We will talk more about that in later posts.
All of the practices of the Bodhisattva are included in the Six Perfections and the practice of the Bodhisattva vows. For the remainder of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva explains how to prevent our vows from degenerating and how to complete the practice.
In its most general sense, the bodhisattva vow is a promise to eventually become a Buddha for the benefit of all living beings. It is a choice of what we want to do with the rest of eternity.
You can read in the book ‘The Bodhisattva Vow’ the various downfalls of the Bodhisattva vows and how to purify them. You can also read the previous series I did on “Vows, commitments and modern life” where I went through each vow in considerable detail, focusing on how to integrate them into our modern life. Each vow has many different levels, and it is always a question of degree. We should study each of these vows and make plans to avoid transgressing them.
After we have received the vows formally from a preceptor, which we can do at any Kadampa center around the world, we will no doubt transgress them almost instantaneously. This is normal. We are not expected to keep them all perfectly from the very beginning, but instead we work gradually with them over a long period of time until we can eventually keep them all purely and without fault. When we do break the root downfalls, we can retake the vows on our own and thereby restore them. When we break the secondary downfalls, we can engage in the 35 confession Buddhas or Vajrasattva meditation. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking, “it’s OK for me to break my vows, because I can always retake them later.” If we think like this, our promise to keep the vows will lack any weight or meaning in our mind and our regret will be artificial. Not only will we not purify the transgressions, our subsequent taking of the vows will not produce the fruits of sincere practice.
To make things simple, we can reduce our practice of the Bodhisattva vow to two things: First, practice cherishing others more than yourself. Geshe-la said that we can most simply keep our bodhisattva vows by practicing cherishing others more than ourselves. If we do this, we will naturally be keeping our vows. Second, actively work to transform other living beings into fully qualified Kadampa Spiritual Guides.
The “business plan” (if I can call it that) Je Tsongkhapa gives us for actually accomplishing and fulfilling our bodhisattva promise is to form others into fully qualified Spiritual Guides. Behind each person are countless others who that person will eventually lead to enlightenment when they become a Buddha, and with a desire to free all those countless others we should seek to form others into fully qualified Spiritual Guides. This is our main job at this center. We form Spiritual Guides who can form other Spiritual Guides, and in this way we can send out an army of fully qualified Spiritual Guides out into samsara to lead all living beings to freedom. The first thing we need to do is transform ourself into a fully qualified Spiritual Guide who has the ability to train others to do the same.
All of our activities we do to support our local Dharma centers, such as working for the center, cleaning, distributing publicity, handling administrative matters, filling statues, etc., are all the very means by which we actually put into practice and fulfil our bodhisattva promise. Geshe-la has placed at our feet a means by which we can learn how to be bodhisattvas and fully qualified Spiritual Guides. He said if we really understood the karmic value of working for our local centers, we should even be willing to pay to have the opportunity to do so! If one has really decided that they want to actually embark on the bodhisattva path they treasure the opportunity to do work for the center to make it flourish. They see this as the most precious opportunity they have in their life. Without it, our Mahayana practice is quite abstract.
Geshe-la started with nothing but the bodhichitta in his heart and a copy of Shantideva’s Guide. From there, he established Manjushri center as the mother center of the New Kadampa Tradition. He then formed teachers, who themselves established yet more centers, teachers and so on, until Kadampa centers can now be found worldwide. He has given us the books, the study programs, the practices, the internal rules, the structures, everything. We lack nothing. There is no reason why we can’t pick up what he has given us and do for our local area what he has done for the world. This is our good fortune.