A Pure Life: How to take the Eight Mahayana Precepts

This is part four 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.

In this post I will explain how to actually take the Eight Mahayana Precepts using the sadhana called A Pure Life.  If we have not yet received the Eight Mahayana Precepts, we first need to receive them directly from a preceptor. Once we have done so, we can take them again on our own anytime we wish. Typically, Kadampa practitioners around the world retake the Eight Mahayana Precepts the 15th of every month. This is not that difficult to do nor is it a particularly onerous moral commitment. But through training gradually month after month, year after year, eventually our behavior begins to change, and we naturally start to live a pure life.

How do we receive them directly from a preceptor? The easiest way of doing so is to request the resident teacher at the closest Kadampa center to us to grant them. Since most Kadampa centers engage in this practice once a month, it should be very easy for them to grant you the precepts formally. If we are unable to make it to a Kadampa center to take the precepts, it might also be possible to do so online through zoom or a similar service. I would recommend simply asking if this is possible. I imagine if your intention is sincere, your closest resident teacher will find a way to make it happen.

The way of taking the precepts for the first time and the way of retaking them every month is almost identical.  We typically take the precepts at dawn. But if this is not possible, it is OK to take them first thing in the morning. Again, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

When it comes time to take the precepts, we should first recall that we have accumulated a nearly infinite amount of negative karma associated with violating the eight precepts. This karma remains on our mind, and if we do not purify it, we will eventually suffer its bitter consequence. One of the most effective methods for purifying our past transgression of the eight precepts is by retaking them. When we do so, we can purify all of our past transgressions and renew afresh the commitments upon our mind.

We then should imagine that our spiritual guide in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni appears clearly in the space in front of us. He is delighted that we have decided to engage in the precepts practice. When we actually take the precepts, we are not promising our spiritual guide that we will keep them, rather we are promising to ourselves that we will keep this moral discipline and our spiritual guide in the space in front of us is a witness to our commitment. He is honored to be such a witness.  With this mind fearing the karmic consequences of our past negative behavior, strong faith in the value of moral discipline practice, and remembering our spiritual guide as a witness, we can then engage in the refuge prayers of the sadhana while contemplating deeply upon their meaning.

Once we have done so, we can then recall our bodhichitta motivation for engaging in the practice of the Eight Mahayana Precepts.  How our practice of the precepts helps us attain enlightenment was explained in the previous post of this series. The short version is to attain enlightenment we need to purify our very subtle mind of the two obstructions.  To do that, we need to realize the emptiness of our very subtle mind, which requires a powerful mind of concentration. The mind of concentration in turn depends upon the practice of moral discipline. Moral discipline is a special wisdom that recognizes delusions and negative behavior are deceptive and is therefore not tempted by them. This wisdom then enables our concentration to be stronger, which then strengthens our meditation on emptiness, enabling us to purify our very subtle mind. Recalling this, we then recite the bodhichitta prayers.

We then purify our environment, arrange beautiful offerings, invite the field for accumulating merit, and engage in the practice of the prayer of the seven limbs and the mandala as outlined in the sadhana. We have all received commentary to these practices many times. What is unique in this context is we should recall and connect all of these trainings into the broader specific narrative of us retaking the Eight Mahayana Precepts.

After we offer the mandala, we then stand and make three prostrations to the visualized field of merit. We then kneel with our right knee on the floor and place our palms together at our heart. If we have bad knees and it is too painful to actually kneel while taking the precepts, we can simply do so seated in whatever physical posture is comfortable while mentally imagining that we are kneeling in front of our spiritual guide. We then once again recall our bodhichitta motivation for taking the Mahayana precepts. In the sadhana, in the italics, Geshe-la provides a contemplation we can engage in. What matters is we generate a qualified and personal bodhicitta motivation for taking the precepts.

If we are taking the precepts in front of a preceptor, we then recite three time the line “O preceptor, please listen to me.” But if we are taking them on our own, we can recite three times, “All buddhas who abide in the ten directions, and all bodhisattvas, please listen to me.”  Once we have completed this request, we then repeat the statement outlined in the sadana. The essential meaning of this statement is just as all the previous holy beings gained the ability to help all living beings through practicing the Eight Mahayana Precepts, so too will we now take the precepts and practice them throughout the day.

We then recite the prayer of the precepts by following the words in the sadhana. As we do so, We should mentally make the firm personal promise that we will observe these precepts for the next 24 hours.  After reciting the precept prayer, we then recite the mantra of pure moral discipline seven, twenty-one, or as many times as we wish strongly believing that we are requesting the wisdom blessings necessary to joyfully engage in the practice of moral discipline in general, and the Eight Mahayana Precepts in particular. It is a good idea to memorize this mantra and use it anytime we feel tempted to break some moral discipline we have taken on. If we recite this mantra with faith, we will receive powerful wisdom blessings which cut the power of our delusions tempting us to break our moral discipline. Again, the practice of moral discipline is not one of willpower but rather having the wisdom to no longer want to engage in negativity and to no longer want to follow our delusions. After reciting the mantra, we can then engage in the prayer of moral discipline and dedication.

Our practice after taking the precepts is to then observe them throughout the day. As we do so, we should recall again and again the dangers of not following them and the advantages of following them. Through training and familiarizing our mind with this wisdom, we will gradually loosen the hold of our delusions over our behavior. We will build up strength within our mind to not want to engage in impure behavior. This wisdom and these mental habits will help us engage in pure behavior not just on precepts day but throughout the month, and indeed throughout our life.

Sometimes, it will not be possible for us to actually engage in the sadhana A Pure Life on precepts day. If this is the case, it is enough for us to recall our bodhichitta motivation for wanting to keep the precepts, to then mentally make a promise to observe them throughout the day, and then recite the mantra of pure moral discipline strongly believing that we have renewed our precepts. Then we practice throughout the day in exactly the same way. Ideally, we would engage in this sadhana on the 15th of every month. But again, if this proves too difficult, it is better to do this short version of taking the precepts then not doing so at all. The danger, though, is we just engage in the short method and never fully engage in the whole sadhana. Our practice of the Eight Mahayana Precepts then becomes rather superficial, and the transformative effects on our mind are limited. Therefore, we should try our honest best to engage in this practice as Geshe-la presents it.

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