This is part two 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.
Most of us know the teachings Geshe-la has given on the correct attitude to have towards our vows and commitments, but sadly we sometimes don’t really believe him when he explains it. We still tend to think of them in absolutist, black and white terms, when in reality each vow has many, many different levels at which we can keep it. We think in terms of our ability to “keep” our vows instead of viewing them as trainings we engage in.
When we go to the gym, there are all sorts of different exercise machines. Each one works out a different muscle, and each person who uses the machine uses it at a different level (different amounts of weight, different number of repetitions, etc.). But everyone in the gym uses the same equipment. It is exactly the same with our vows. Each vow is something we train in, not something we are already expected to be able to do perfectly at the maximum. Each vow focus on strengthening different mental muscles, but doing all of them strengthens the whole of our mind. We each train in the vow at different levels according to our capacity, but we know the more we train, the more our capacity will grow. Everyone in the spiritual gym trains with the same vows regardless of our level. In almost every way, the correct attitude towards a physical exercise regimen is exactly the same attitude we should cultivate towards our spiritual exercise regimen of the Eight Mahayana Precepts, and indeed all of our vows. I often find it helpful to read the sports training literature, especially that of long-distance tri-athletes. Our journey is very long and will require almost unthinkable stamina, but we must recall every Iron Man Champion was once a baby who couldn’t even lift their head.
Geshe-la explains there are four main causes of the degeneration of our vows and commitments. These are known as the ‘four doors of receiving downfalls’. He says to close these doors we should practice as follows:
- Closing the door of not knowing what the downfalls are. We should learn what the downfalls are by committing them to memory. We should learn how they are incurred. We should make plans to avoid such situations. In this series of posts, I will try explain all of these things for each of the Eight Mahayana Precepts.
- Closing the door of lack of respect for Buddha’s instructions. We can protect ourselves from this primarily by training in the refuge vows. Refuge is not a difficult concept. When we have a toothache, what do we do? We turn to the dentist. When we have a legal problem, what do we do? We turn to a lawyer. When we have an internal problem with our mind, what do we do? We turn to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Dentists can fix our teeth and lawyers can solve our legal problems, but only the three jewels can help us with our inner mental problems. In particular, we need to contemplate the benefits of each of the Eight Mahayana Precepts. We need to think about how much better our life would be and all the karmic fruit that flows from training in them. When we see the value of keeping the Precepts, we will naturally have respect for them. Geshe-la said we should contemplate as follows:
“Since Buddha is omniscient, knowing all past, present, and future phenomena simultaneously and directly, and since he has great compassion for all living beings without exception, there is no valid reason for developing disrespect towards his teachings. It is only due to ignorance that I sometimes disbelieve them.”
- Closing the third door of strong delusions. The reason why we engage in non-virtuous actions is we are currently slaves to our delusions. They take control of our mind and then compel us to engage in harmful actions. We may voluntarily participate in the process, but that is only because our delusions have so deceived us, we actually believe their lies. Largely, the Eight Mahayana Precepts oppose our delusion of attachment. Our attachment does not want to keep the precepts, and frankly views them as standing in the way of our fun. We cannot keep our vows through will power alone. Perhaps we can for Precepts Day itself, but if in our heart we still want to engage in these behaviors, what we will really do is simply do slightly more negativity before and after Precepts Day, so for the month as a whole, it is exactly the same amount of negativity. That’s obviously not the point! Our goal should be to train in the Precepts and gradually expand the scope of keeping their meaning throughout the month and indeed throughout our whole life. To do this, we need to want to keep them more than we want the objects of attachment they oppose. We are desire realm beings, which means we have no choice but to do whatever we desire. The only way to sustainably train in moral discipline is to change our desires away from delusions and towards virtue. This is primarily accomplished through a sincre and consistent practice of Lamrim. Lamrim is a systematic method for changing our desires from worldly ones to spiritual ones.
- Closing the fourth door of non-conscientiousness. We should repeatedly bring to mind the disadvantages of incurring downfalls, and the advantages of pure moral discipline. These have been explained in the previous post, and the specific karmic benefits of each Precept will be explained in the explanation of each Precept.
In brief, Geshe-la explains, we prevent our vows from degenerating by practicing the Dharma of renunciation, bodhichitta, correct view, generation stage, and completion stage.
It is important to be skillful in our approach to all of our vows, including the Eight Mahayana Precepts. We should not have unrealistic expectations or make promises we cannot keep. It will happen to all of us in the early stages of our Dharma practice that when we are at some festival and feeling very inspired, we make these outlandish vows that we (at the time) intend to keep our whole life. Then we get home, try at first, but eventually are forced to abandon the vow. Venerable Tharchin says when making promises, we should ask ourselves, “what can I do on my absolute worst day?” We promise only to do that. On any given day we will most likely do better than our promise, but then we will not actually break it. It is a bad habit to make spiritual promises which we later break. We will all make all sorts of what I call “beginner’s errors” with this one. It does not matter. When you break the promise, realize your mistake, recalibrate your promise and try again. Eventually you will get the right balance.
We should adopt our vows gradually, as each can be kept on many levels. In this way, we can gradually deepen the level we are able to keep the vows. If we are a teacher, we should explain the vows well and not encourage our students to promise to keep them all perfectly from the beginning. Getting the correct attitude towards our vows is well over half the battle. But keeping the vows gradually does not mean that we can temporarily put to one side the vows that we do not like. We have to work with all the vows, gradually improving the way we observe them.
Finally, Geshe-la says we should begin to practice all the vows as soon as we have taken them. Then we practice them to the best of our ability. Geshe-la says we should never lose the determination to keep our vows perfectly in the future. He says by keeping the intention to keep them purely in the future we keep our commitments, even if along the way we repeatedly fall short. I can’t remember who, but some wise person once said, “the day you can keep all of your vows and commitments perfectly is the day you will no longer need them. It is because we can’t keep our vows and commitments perfectly that we do need them.” This is useful to always keep in mind.
All of that being said, the Eight Mahayana Precepts are unique in our training in moral discipline because on Precepts Days we do strive to keep them perfectly. On Precepts Days we make a point of emphasizing the practice of moral discipline and we strive our best to observe the the vows as purely as we can. The literal meaning of many of the precepts is quite black and white, we either keep the vow or we do not. In this sense, we can say it is an exception to the otherwise gradual approach we take to our practice of moral discipline. But if we look beyond the literal meaning of the precept, we realize that they all also have many different levels at which they can be kept. Further, we can gradually expand the scope with which we engage in our precepts practice by observing their essential meaning throughout the month, not just on Precepts Days. In any case, we should not worry but always simply try our best. If we break our precepts, we can learn our lesson, retake them, and try again.