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Gyalwang Karmapa Teaches on “How to Handle Conflicts Among the Different Vows”

December 8, 2009 – Tergar Monastery, Bodhgaya

Teachings, Day Five:

Following yesterday’s debate-style discussion of the various schools’ views on the three vows, His Holiness began by commenting that it is crucial that we have a clear understanding as to what our own position is and what that of others is. When we sketch out a range of positions, Gyalwang Karmapa noted that sometimes people get confused and begin mixing the view of our school with that of others. The great scholars of the past composed treatises that explore crucial points, refuting others’ views and establishing their own, in order to make clear for us the reasoning behind their position. He observed that such texts often begin by defeating the views of others, and may do so using what can strike us as harsh speech.

If we find ourselves put off by the strong language scholars use in negating the views of others, as we study these texts it is important that we bear in mind what their purpose was. When we read the compositions of the Eighth Karmapa, for example, when he argues powerfully against others, we need to keep in mind that the point is to cut through wrong views, rather than to find fault with others. Such debates were waged among great scholar-yogis who stated their positions strongly with the motivation of spreading the teachings, for the benefit of all sentient beings. Sentient beings have various attitudes and aptitudes, and so we need different presentations, and thus it is appropriate and in fact necessary that the Dharma offers a range of views.

His Holiness cited the example of Lama Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa school, who argued that the monastic discipline in the Sakya school had degenerated. This resulted in heated debates between the Sakya scholars, Gorampa and Shakya Chogden, and Lama Tsongkhapa and his followers. Yet it is utterly mistaken to conclude that these discussions were driven by competitiveness and pride, for these are great lamas who are free of the influence of such afflictions and who have high realizations of the Dharma. Indeed, Lama Tsongkhapa’s comments sparked a revival of interest in vinaya study and practice. As such, Gyalwang Karmapa said, we can see that these vigorous debates injected vigor into the Dharma and thus helped it to remain fresh and to spread in Tibet. Therefore it is most appropriate that we view those who initiated and participated in such debates with respect.

Returning to the discussion of vows, His Holiness went on to comment that both those who hold the upasaka, or genyen vows of lay practitioners and those who hold higher monastic vows are sustaining the teachings of the Buddha. Just as a well-constructed house needs four pillars, the teachings of the Buddha are built around the four pillars of upasakas, upasikas, (male and female holders of lay precepts) and bhikshus and bhikshunis (in Tibetan, gelongs and gelongmas, or fully ordained monks and nuns). Among the monastics, the two communities that are considered senior or supreme are the bhikshus and bhikshunis. Among the lay followers, the highest are the male and female holders of lay precepts. When all four are present, the house becomes stable. His Holiness stressed that the presence of all four is indispensable in order for the Buddha’s teachings to remain long and flourish. He added that such topics would be discussed further in the upcoming vinaya colloquium that also forms part of this year’s winter debate session.

Continuing the topic of various communities that contribute to the Dharma, His Holiness turned his attention to lay followers, and addressed a wide number of ways that lay Buddhists can deepen their commitment by taking precepts to become upasaka, or genyen. In doing so, lay Buddhists will find there are many benefits, and they may also consider that they are receiving vows that come from the Buddha and are maintaining the discipline that is the foundation of the Dharma. Gyalwang Karmapa described 100 different types of upasakas, ranging from those who observe only one vow for a limited time up to those who vow to a life of celibacy and abstention from the ten non-virtuous actions. With such a variety of options, he noted, we can see that the Dharma offers many opportunities for people to proceed gradually, committing only to what they can actually maintain.

His Holiness further broached the issue of conflicts among types of vow. For example, in a situation where our bodhisattva vows require us to engage in certain actions to benefit others that are prohibited by our pratimoksha vows, the higher vows take precedence. Throughout the discussion, His Holiness re-affirmed that we still need to hold all our vows as strictly as possible, but that this counsel applies in those cases where direct conflicts among vows arise. At the same time, Gyalwang Karmapa pointed out that if, for example, a bhikshu is in a situation where his higher vows will lead him to engage in actions that might harm the faith of laypeople if they were to see a bhikshu acting in that way, he must first offer back his lower vows, and only after that, engage in the action — as a layperson rather than as a monastic.

In general, His Holiness said, we may be more flexible in our application of the bodhisattva vows than we are with our pratimoksha vows. This is in part because when we take bodhisattva vows, we agree to hold them until we are enlightened, whereas the pratimoksha vows do not continue after this present life. Moreover, the pratimoksha vows are primarily concerned with actions of body and speech, whereas the bodhisattvas vows ask us to discipline our mind itself. It is far easier to restrict our actions of body and speech than it is our mind. Thus to ensure we will have the courage to take and then actually hold the bodhisattva vows all the way until our enlightenment, more leeway is granted. However, in the case of the pratimoksha vows, taken only for this life and aimed at subduing our bodies and speech, we are required to observe them strictly.

In any case, His Holiness said, the advice that we should act in ways that contravene our pratimoksha vows in order to uphold our bodhisattva vows only applies to actual bodhisattvas, who truly know what is most beneficial for others. It does not apply to ordinary beings like us, who just happen to have taken bodhisattva vows. Gyalwang Karmapa proceeded to paint in vivid terms just what qualities bodhisattvas possess. First, he said, bodhisattvas are in no way controlled by their afflictions, but act purely out of an unbearable sense of compassion for others. If it will serve the aim of benefiting beings, bodhisattvas will descend into the most painful hells as happily as if they were plunging into a lake, but only if it contributes to the well-being of others. A bodhisattva holds the different vows deep within his or her being and acts within the vows to benefit others. A bodhisattva has skill in deploying different means to benefit beings. A bodhisattva is able to anticipate how people will respond to his or her actions. A bodhisattva understands who will benefit from which action, and does not engage in actions that benefit a few but are detrimental to a larger number. A bodhisattva needs great courage, His Holiness said, adding that bodhisattvas are rightly referred to in the texts as ‘heroes.’

Gyalwang Karmapa concluded the day’s teachings by reading from one of Milarepa’s songs that stresses the importance of knowing what we need to put into practice and what we need to give up. His Holiness added that we also need a clear sense of what we want to accomplish with our practice. Otherwise, we may study for twenty years but, when it comes to knowing what to apply in our actual practice and what to avoid, we find ourselves at a loss. It’s as if having spent a great deal of time thinking and talking about food, we arrive in a restaurant and can’t figure out what to order. In the end, the purpose of our Dharma practice, His Holiness stated, is to pacify our mind. It is what we do on the inside that counts. The point is not to wear our Dharma practice on the outside, like an actor putting on a new costume, but to actually transform our own minds.