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Gyalwang Karmapa Explores Differing Philosophical Positions of “The Nature of Vows”

December 7, 2009 – Tergar Monastery, Bodhgaya

Teachings, Day Four:

In today’s teaching, His Holiness moved deep into philosophical territory, exploring a range of positions on the nature of vows. The main question raised was whether the three types of vow are one in nature or distinct. His Holiness’ skills in debate were much in evidence as he pitted the positions of the Vaibhasika school, who identify vows as a particular type of physical form, against that of Shantideva, who describes vows as the resolve to abstain. Gyalwang Karmapa further surveyed the views of major Indian scholars as to precisely how the vows co-exist within a single person at the same time. Turning next to presentations by Tibetan scholars, he decisively refuted the stance of the great Sakya scholar Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen, who holds that the three vows are one in nature but the lower vows transform when the higher vow is taken. His Holiness further tackled a second Tibetan view that maintains that the lower vows become parts, or aspects, of the higher vow. Adopting the position staked out by the Seventh Karmapa Chödrak Gyatso, he demonstrated the fallacy of this view, on the basis that if lower vows were parts of higher vows, then actions damaging the lower vows would render the higher vows incomplete. After establishing that these opposing views are untenable, His Holiness clarified that the Kagyu tradition follows Gampopa in understanding that the three types of vow are separate in nature, and that the lower vows do not transform when the higher are taken. Rather, he emphasized, when we have taken all three types of vow, we remain responsible for observing and guarding all three of them.

Gyalwang Karmapa spoke of three types of discipline, each based on a different motivation. One form of discipline is grounded in fear, and His Holiness noted that the vinaya contains many accounts of people in India seeking monastic ordination out of a wish to escape punishment by the king. A second type of discipline is motivated by the hope or wish to be reborn in higher realms in the future, and the third is a discipline based on renunciation of cyclic existence itself. Not only is the third form of discipline superior to the other two, His Holiness said, it is the only authentic basis for holding the vows.

Illustrating this point, he related the story of the Kadam geshe, Geshe Potowa, who had already taken monastic ordination before he met the layman Dromtonpa, heart disciple of the founder of the Tibetan Kadam tradition, the great Indian pandit Jowo Atisha. Upon seeing Dromtonpa and receiving instruction from him, Geshe Potowa underwent an intense experience of renunciation, and, consequently, although he had already received his monastic ordination from another teacher, Geshe Potowa declared that Dromtonpa the layteacher was his abbot—that is, the preceptor who had granted him his monastic vows—because it was from Dromtonpa that he had received his first genuine experience of renunciation. It was this renunciation that transformed his monastic discipline into the third type of discipline—pure discipline that is based on renunciation. In that sense, Dromtonpa merited the title of abbot even if he did not preside over the actual ceremony conferring the vows.