A Pure Life: Do not Steal

This is part six 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.

The object of stealing is anything that someone else regards as their own.  This includes other living beings.  If we take something that no one claims to possess, the action of stealing is not complete.  Like with killing, the intention must include a correct identification of the object of stealing, a determination to steal, and our mind must be influenced by delusion, usually desirous attachment, but sometimes out of hatred of wishing to harm our enemy.  It can also sometimes be out of ignorance thinking such stealing is justified such as not paying taxes or fines, or stealing from our employer, downloading pirated music or videos, etc.  Stealing also requires preparation.  It may be done secretly or openly, using methods such as bribery, blackmail, or emotional manipulation.  Finally, it must also include completion.  The action is complete when we think to ourself ‘this object is now mine.’

In modern life we have countless opportunities to steal and we often take advantage of most of them.  Common examples include not giving money back when we have been given too much change at the store, accidentally walking out with some good we didn’t purchase and not making an effort to go back and pay for it, stealing work supplies from work for our personal use, stealing our employers time by doing personal things on company time beyond what is conventionally acceptable in your work place (most work environments allow you a limited amount of personal administrative time.  The point is do not go beyond what is intended by your employer).  Another very common form of stealing is lying on our taxes so that we pay less arguing our government is wasteful.  We come up with all sorts of justifications for why this is OK, but it is still stealing. 

Stealing can also include saying certain clever things to cause something to come to us when it would otherwise normally go to somebody else.  One of the most common forms of stealing these days is downloading pirated music or videos, or copying and using software we didn’t pay for.  Again, our rationalizations for such behavior know no limits, but it is still stealing.  The test for whether we are stealing or not is very simple:  if we asked the other person would they say its legitimately ours?  If not, it was stealing.

Stealing is incredibly short-sighted.  Anybody who feels tempted to steal should take a few hours driving through a really poor neighborhood or they should go visit a very poor country or watch a documentary on global poverty.  You can find plenty of material just on YouTube.  When we see these things, we should remind ourselves that this is our future if we steal.  When we steal, we create the causes to have nothing in the future.  Giving is the cause of wealth, taking is the cause of poverty.  It is as simple as that.  Why are Bill Gates and Warren Buffet so rich?  Because they have the mental habits on their mind to give away everything.  Because they did this in the past, they became incredibly rich in this life.  Because they are again giving away all of their wealth, in future lives they will again be incredibly rich.  Just as they are external philanthropists, a Bodhisattva is an inner philanthropist.  We seek vast inner wealth so that we can have even more to give away.

There are also many subtle forms of stealing that occur due to the way we have structured our economy. As many of you know I am in economist by training. I very much believe in free markets as the least bad way of organizing an economy. However, the optimal effects of the market only occur when there is what is called perfect competition. When there is perfect competition, excess profits are competed away and both consumers and producers are as good off as they could possibly be on the aggregate. But when markets are not perfectly competitive, markets do not produce optimal results. For example, if a company has a monopoly on the sale of a certain good that everybody needs, it can charge extraordinarily high prices and people will be forced to pay. The company intentionally restricts production to drive the prices higher than would otherwise exist in a perfectly competitive market. As a result, they extract a surplus in profit not due to the quality of their product, but rather by virtue of their market power. Extracting this surplus profit is a form of stealing from the consumers and also from society as a whole because not as much of the good is produced as would otherwise be the case.  It is beyond the scope of this blog to outline them, but there are many examples of market power being used for selfish purposes. 

At a personal level, the point is we need to be aware of the situations in which we have some form of market power over others and to not take advantage of our more powerful position to extract greater profits then we are justifiably due. If we fail to do this, it is a form of stealing. Likewise, if we live in a society in which corporations have disproportionate power and enjoy political protection for their monopolistic behavior, if we vote for or lend political support for such policy knowing that it is a form of stealing, then we are also engaged in a subtle form of stealing. The point is this, we live in a society and we have a say in how that society is run. If we use our political power for selfish purposes or to support those who do so, then are these not karmic actions that have karmic effects? This is not mixing Dharma with politics; this is understanding that the actions we engage in have effects on those around us and we must take that into account when choosing our actions.  I would not say that all of this is a violation of our Mahayana precept to abandon stealing, but it is once again a directional question. Are our actions moving in the direction of stealing or are they moving in the direction of not stealing. That is the question.

A Pure Life: Please Don’t Kill

This is part five 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.

The first precept is to abandon killing.  Geshe-la explains the object of killing is any other being from the smallest insect to a Buddha.  In the chapter on karma in Joyful Path, four factors must be present for the action to be complete.  First, for our intention, we must have the correct identification of the person we intend to kill.  We also need a determination to kill the person we have correctly identified.  Killing by accident is not a complete action, though this doesn’t mean there are not negative consequences of accidental killing.  Our mind must also be influenced by delusion, specifically anger, attachment, or ignorance.  It is possible to kill out of compassion to save the lives of others, but this requires great wisdom and courage.  Killing out of compassion is not a downfall since compassion is not a delusion.  The action also requires preparation, namely we prepare the means to engage in the action.  This includes having others do the action for us or engaging in the action as a group.  Finally, it requires the completion – the action must be completed, the person actually is killed and dies before we do.

The reality is we are killing all of the time.  Every time we scratch our arm, we are no doubt killing thousands of tiny bacteria or microbes.  Even if we do not eat meat, we are indirectly killing thousands of insects who died in the rice paddies or to the pesticides sprayed on our food.  Samsara is a slaughterhouse, and everything we do essentially kills.  This doesn’t mean we are doomed and it also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother trying to not kill because it is unavoidable.  What it means is we need to do our best to lead as low impact of a life as we can.  We should work gradually to kill less and less while working within our capacity and the karmic conditions we find ourselves in.

There are also many forms of negative actions that are adjacent to kill it that we should also try avoiding. For example, rejoicing in negative actions is karmically similar to engaging in those actions ourselves. Virtually every day on the news there are reports of people being killed in some form of military conflict. The United States, for example, has been at war nonstop for essentially the last 25 years. Our soldiers are killing people on an almost daily basis and the news is typically reported as a success story of having killed some “terrorists” or some other perceived enemy. These reports are designed to generate a mind of rejoicing in such killing. While this is not us killing ourselves, when we rejoice in such activities, we create karma similar to killing others.

There are also many subtle forms of killing that we may not even be aware of nor our role in perpetuating the systems that engage in such killing. Social scientists have coined the term structural violence to refer to societal structures that function to shorten the lives of particular groups of people. For example, due to structural racism in the United states, people of color tend to have worse access to health care, higher rates of poverty, lower rates of education, suffer from higher rates of crime, and so forth all of which contribute to shortened life spans compared to most white people. One study estimates that 8,000,000 African Americans are missing compared to what should be if structural racism did not exist. These are the victims of a form of unintentional slow-motion genocide.

Once we are aware that such structures exist and inflict violence, even if a subtle form of violence, against certain populations and then we do nothing to correct for it or we even seek to rationalize away such effects by denying it is occurring or it is justified based upon some arbitrary criteria, then we are participating in or enabling a subtle form of killing.  We may even be voting for such policies.  Even simply benefiting from such structures and not using our surplus privilege associated with being at the top of such structures to dismantle them, is a form of perpetuating them. These things would not be a violation of our Mahayana precepts per se, but they do move in a direction similar to the action of killing.  As Mahayana practitioners, we should be striving to move in the direction of not killing. And we should cast the net wide to avoid even subtle forms.

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.

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.

A Pure Life: How to Skillfully Train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.”

  1. 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. 
  1. 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.

A Pure Life: Motivation for Series

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.