A Pure Life: Putting the “Mahayana” in Precepts Days

This is part three 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.

This practice is called training and the eight mahayana precepts. The eight precepts themselves are specific moral disciplines that we train in. What makes them mahayana precepts is we train in this moral discipline with a bodhicitta motivation. Any virtuous activity can become a buddy safas perfection by engaging in that virtue with a bodhichitta motivation.

What is bodhichitta? Bodhichitta is a mind that spontaneously wishes to attain enlightenment for the sake of protecting all living beings from their suffering. It observes that all living beings are suffering, drowning in the ocean of samsara, and wishes to do something to help them. But it recognizes that at present we currently lack the ability to help living beings. We ourselves remain trapped within samsara, controlled by our delusions, and limited in our capacity to do much good to help people over a sustained period of time. We also frequently have no idea how to actually help people, and all we can do is perhaps offer them a shoulder that they could cry on. Observing this, we conclude it is not enough to simply wish others did not suffer, but we must ourselves do something to free them from their suffering.

If a mother saw her child drowning in a river, she would not merely wish the child not drowned but would actively dive in to try save her. But the problem is at present we do not know how to swim. So even though we would want to help others, we lack the ability to actually do so. We then ask ourselves, who does have the ability to help all living beings and lead them out of the ocean of samsara onto the island of enlightenment? Only a Buddha does. A Buddha possesses the omniscient wisdom that always knows how to help others, is able to continue to help others life after life without interruption unimpeded by their own death or the death of those they are trying to help. A Buddha is also able to emanate countless forms for each and every living being trapped within samsara. They are not limited by simply one body and one voice, but can emanate as many forms as living beings need to always be there with them 24/7 life after life. Buddhas also possessed the skillful means necessary to guide complicated samsaric beans how to enter, progress along, and eventually complete the path. Let us face it, most people reject the advice that they receive even if it’s exactly what they need to hear. Having skillful means knowing how to encourage people to engage in spiritual practices makes the bodhisattva’s task possible.

Understanding that only a Buddha has the ability to actually fulfill the compassionate wish to protect others from their suffering, we then make the firm determination that we ourselves must become a Buddha in order to help all other living beings. The primary wish of bodhichitta is the wish to help others, and the wish to attain enlightenment is the secondary wish we need to do in order to fulfill our primary wish. Geshe-la gives the analogy of wanting a cup of tea. If we generate the intention that we would like to have a cup of tea, we naturally get a cup, a tea bag, and hot water. This happens almost automatically and is a natural consequence of our primary wish to have a cup of tea. In the same way, when we wish to protect all living beings from their suffering, we then naturally get the body, speech, and mind of a Buddha that enable us to fulfill our primary wish. This happens almost automatically and without our having to give it much thought, we are simply driven by the desire to protect others and we naturally do what is necessary in order to fulfill that wish.

Each of the eight precepts by itself is a practice of world discipline. What makes it a mahayana practice of moral discipline is we engage in them with a bodhicitta motivation. When we explore each of the eight precepts themselves, I will attempt to explain how our observing that precept specifically helps us gain the ability 2 protect others from their suffering. But generally speaking, how does our practice of moral discipline help us attained enlightenment? 

To attain enlightenment, we need to purify our very subtle mind of the two obstructions. The two obstructions are the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience. Delusion obstructions are simply the delusions of our mind, and the obstructions to omniscience are the imprints of our past solutions and past deleted actions. Once we have purified our very subtle mind of the two obstructions, we will naturally attain enlightenment. In other words, enlightenment is already within us, we simply need to uncover it.

How do we purify our mind of the two obstructions? We do so by meditating on the emptiness of our very subtle mind where all of our delusions and their imprints are stored. When we directly realize the emptiness of our very subtle mind, it functions to uproot directly and simultaneously all of the contaminated karma we have accumulated since beginningless time.

How do we then gain a direct realization of emptiness? That depends upon our ability to concentrate our mind. In the Sutra teachings on tranquil abiding, we learn how to concentrate our gross mind. And in the tantric teachings regarding controlling our inner winds, we learn how to concentrate our very subtle mind. It is impossible to concentrate with our very subtle mind if we are incapable of concentrating with our gross mind.

Concentration is primarily a training in overcoming distractions. Distractions cause our mind to move away from our chosen object of meditation towards something else. If we do not mix our mind with the Dharma, it will have no power to transform our mind. Distractions are the thief that robs us of our spiritual life.  Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path of Good Fortune that distractions are of three types: mental excitement, mental wandering, and mental sinking. Mental excitement is when our mind moves to an object of attachment. Mental wandering is when our mind moves to another object of Dharma other than our chosen object of meditation. Mental sinking is when we lose the clarity or grip of our mind on our chosen object, but our mind has not necessarily gone to something else. In the beginning, our primary obstacle is mental excitement.

Why does our mind go to objects of attachment instead of our object of meditation? The reason why is our mind is naturally more interested in objects of attachment because we still believe them to be causes of our happiness and we have not yet realized that our objects of meditation are causes of happiness, rather we find them to be quite distance or perhaps even boring. Our mind will naturally go to wherever it feels it will be happiest. Why does our mind believe objects of attachment are causes of happiness? Simply habit. The habit of believing the lies of our attachment that external objects are indeed causes of our happiness. We are so accustomed to these lies that we do not even call them into question. If we are to overcome our mental excitement, we must stop being fooled by our attachment.

A good example is spam. We have all received the emails from the Nigerian Prince who promises to transfer us a bunch of money for safekeeping if only we give him our bank account numbers. When we first receive this email, we wonder maybe it is true, and we are tempted to send our bank information. But when we know clearly that this is a scam and a lie, we are no longer fooled and do not feel tempted to send our information. In fact, simply receiving such an email reminds us of the need to be careful to not be fooled by the many scams that exist out there. We may not be able to prevent such spam from arriving in our inbox, but we can cut the power or the danger of such messages by seeing them as the lies that they are. In the same way, our minds of attachment are like spam. They promise us all sorts of happiness if only we follow their advice. When we first encounter such lies, we are tempted and often do follow their advice. When we fail to find the happiness that they promised, our attachment then lies to us again and says we did not experience it because we did not do it well enough. So once again we believe the lie and follow it. We start to do this again and again, until eventually we have no choice and we follow such lies blindly believing them to be the truth.

But with Dharma wisdom, we can recognize attachment for the lie that it is. It is the spam of our mind. When the thoughts of attachment arise in her mind, we then see them for the lies that they are. The more they come, the more we strengthen our determination to not be fooled. Like with our spam, we might not be able to prevent such thoughts from arriving in our mind, but with wisdom we can cut the power of such thoughts over us in terms of controlling our behavior.

How do we game such wisdom and such power? Through training in moral discipline. The practice of moral discipline is quite simply seeing the dangers of engaging in negative behavior and then making the determination to not do so. It is a wisdom that is no longer fooled by the lies of our attachments. It sees through these lies and recognizes them as deceptive, trying to trick us into engaging in negative behavior thinking it will bring us happiness when in fact it only brings us more suffering.

So how then do we train in moral discipline? When the temptation to break our moral discipline arises in our mind, we remind ourselves of the wisdom that caused us to take the vow or precept in the first place. We recall how the minds of attachment encouraging us to break our moral discipline are in fact deceptive, promising us happiness but simply guaranteeing more suffering. The practice of moral discipline is not an exercise in willpower. If in our heart we still want to engage in the negativity, we may for a short period of time be able to refrain, but all we will actually be doing is repressing our attachment wanting to do the opposite until eventually our attachment grows in strength and it overwhelms our willpower.

Rather, moral discipline is the practice of changing our desires. By contemplating again and again how are delusions are deceptive and how our wisdom and virtues are non-deceptive, we gradually change our desires to no longer want to chase the objects of our attachment and be fooled by their lies, and rather we want to train in the opposite virtues which we know are reliable methods for bringing us the happiness that we seek.  It is easy to take the Eight Mahayana Precepts, but the actual training is keeping them in the face of our deluded temptations to break them.

When the temptations arise in our mind, we then recall the disadvantages of breaking our moral discipline, the deceptiveness of the attachments lying to us, and the benefits of observing our moral discipline and following pure conduct. Through engaging in these contemplations again and again and again, we gradually change our desires. We no longer want to follow attachments, we instead want to follow our wisdom and virtues. By gaining experience with these contemplations and in keeping our vows, we gradually build up tendencies similar to the cause within our mind that are familiar with this way of thinking. Then, when we are in meditation itself and objects of distraction, or objects of mental excitement, arise in our mind, we are not tempted to go follow them but rather we see them as deceptive. We are then able to more easily renew our determination to not follow our distractions and instead to keep our mind focused on our object of meditation.

It is for this reason that Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path of Good Fortune that the practice of moral discipline overcomes gross distractions and the practice of concentration overcomes our subtle distractions. We first need to overcome our gross distractions through the training in moral discipline and then we can overcome our subtle distractions through our training and concentration. By training in concentration, we can gradually gain control over our gross mind, which then creates the space for us to gradually gain control over our subtle mind through the trainings of learning to control our inner winds. Once we can control our inner winds, we will eventually be able to make manifest our very subtle mind of clear light. Once this mind is manifest, we can then engage in the meditation on the emptiness of our very subtle mind and purify our mind of the two obstructions and thereby attain enlightenment.

In this way, we can see the very clear connection between our training in the practice of the Eight Mahayana Precepts and our eventual attainment of enlightenment. When we see this connection, we can easily generate the bodhicitta motivation to take the Mahayana precepts. In this way, our practice of the eight precepts becomes training in the eight Mahayana precepts.

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