This is part one of a 12-part series on how to skillfully train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts. The 15th of every month is Precepts Day, when Kadampa practitioners around the world typically take and observe the Precepts.
Normally we think of our vows and commitments as an afterthought at best or as chains at worst. We have all taken our vows many times when we receive empowerments or when we engage in our daily practice, but most of us still have not started to take our practice of them seriously. We often swing from either the extreme of not even giving our vows a second thought to the extreme of beating ourselves up with them out of guilt for all the different ways we fall short. We swing from the extreme of over-interpreting the words “do your best” to mean “don’t even bother trying” to the extreme of thinking in absolutist terms about what they mean and imply. We quite often view them as rules or restrictions imposed from the outside, or we view them as constraints on our having any fun in life. To us, vows and commitments seem to restrict our freedom, but we grudgingly accept we have to pretend to take them because we want to go to a given empowerment. But the reality is most of the time we rarely think about them and we make almost no effort whatsoever to train in them.
This series of posts will attempt to reverse our attitude towards our vows and commitments, in particular with respect to the Eight Mahayana Precepts. Instead of viewing them as restrictions on our freedom and fun, we can come to view them as an internal GPS guiding our way to the blissful city of enlightenment where the party never stops. If we wanted to go to a particular city, we program our GPS, hit go, and start driving. We happily follow the directions without feeling like we are being deprived of all the wonders on the side streets we could be exploring. When we miss a turn, we usually say a curse word, but then the GPS plans a new route, and we happily continue on our way. When we arrive at our destination, we think to ourselves, “this thing is great. How did I ever get around without one?”
It is exactly the same with our vows. We want to go to the city of enlightenment (our good motivation), the Eight Mahayana Precepts are like the directions the GPS gives us along the way to keep us on our chosen route, and if we follow them happily but persistently, they will definitely deliver us to our final destination. If we get lost or take a wrong turn, we don’t need to worry, because the GPS gives us new directions which we then follow. No matter how lost we become, no matter how many wrong turns we make, we always know if we just keep following the directions it gives us, we will eventually get there. It may take longer than what was originally planned (wrong turns), or there may be unexpected traffic (negative karma we need to purify), but if we just keep at it, we will get there.
I know some people think their GPS gets upset at them when they make wrong turns. But this is just our own anger at ourselves projecting our frustration onto the GPS voice. But nowadays, we can program our GPS with all sorts of different voices to choose one more pleasant. I actually know somebody whose GPS has the option of choosing the voice of a Porn Star (turn right, baby…)! In the same way, we need to make an effort of giving the Eight Mahayana Precepts “the right voice” within our mind. When we remember them or but up against them, we need to have them speak to us with the loving, understanding voice of our Spiritual Guide. We need to hear him chuckle and say, “don’t worry, be happy, just try.” The chuckle is important. The sign that we have proper renunciation is we are able to have a good laugh at ourselves and our delusions. It is OK and it is normal that we make a hash out of it. When we make mistakes, we learn from them and move on. We think beating ourselves up with guilt motivates us to do better, but it does not. Guilt is anger directed against ourselves. It destroys all joy in our training, and when we lose the joy, we lose our effort (effort is taking delight in engaging in our practices). Without effort, we have nothing. We might do our practice every day for aeons, but if we do not enjoy ourselves while trying, we actually have no effort and will therefore experience no results. If we want, we can give the Eight Mahayana Precepts the seductive voice of Vajrayogini calling us to join her at her place!
Our conception of freedom is completely wrong. Freedom is the ability to choose. But being a slave to every whim of our delusions is not freedom, it is bondage of an eternal order. True freedom is the ability to choose to pursue what we know is actually good for us. The Eight Mahayana Precepts run in exactly opposite of the direction our delusions want to go. Since we are still fooled by the lies of our delusions, we think if we follow them they will lead us to happiness. The reality is all delusions share the same final destination – the deepest hell. They all eventually lead us to the same place, but they trick us by painting an image of an illusory paradise just over the horizon. Duped again and again, we run towards suffering and away from true freedom.
There are three main reasons why we should train in the moral discipline of the Eight Mahayana Precepts. First, doing so creates the karmic causes to maintain the continuum of our Dharma practice without interruption between now and our eventual enlightenment. Second, doing so strengthens the power of our mindfulness and alertness, which are the two most important muscles for strong concentration. And third, moral discipline is the substantial cause of higher rebirth. We seek the highest rebirth of all – enlightenment – but getting there is often like climbing many, many flights of stairs. But it is a joyful climb, because the higher we go the more blissful we feel. And it is certainly better than the alternative of falling down the stairs…
In this series of posts, I will first explain a skillful attitude to adopt towards our training in the Mahayana Precepts, then explain how we do so with a bodhichitta motivation, then I will provide a brief commentary for how to actually take our precepts on Precepts Day, and finally, I will provide some practice suggestions for how to practice to each of the Eight Precepts. I will post these on the 15th of every month as a way of marking Precepts Day and a reminder/encouragement for people to take this practice to heart. My hope by explaining all of this I might improve my own understanding and practice of the Precepts and then enjoy all the spiritual fruit that flows from this. If others are also able to benefit from these explanations, then it is all the better.