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Ethics, Vows, Titles

Given a certain amount of situations regarding abuse these last years within Buddhism, I think it is important to remind ourselves about the importance of ethics. In many fundamental Texts, across all traditions, there is a clear emphasis on ethical values, and the importance of vows, to establish guidelines, to strengthen the mind and collect merits. Buddha Shakyamuni was a monk and started the establishment of the ordained Sangha. The purpose of ordination is to live and practice with less possibilities to engage in improper activities.
We are indeed in a very strange time of our civilization. At the same time, we can notice a widening of the field of spirituality, but also a degeneration of its depth. It has been predicted that Buddhism will last 5000 years from the time of its founder; and we are around its half.
Though clearly ethic & vows are of utmost importance throughout all traditions of Buddhism, this article is mostly about Tibetan Buddhism.
From the time Dharma entered the Land of Snow Mountains, it has undergone various periods of development and degeneration. But we can say that Buddhism has been wonderfully kept inside Tibet, with a strong tradition of memorization and oral transmission. The texts available today, basis of studies and practices, are descending in a straight line from Shakyamuni Buddha’s Teachings, either under His historical form, or His subsequent Manifestations. Ethics and moral behavior have also been challenged throughout the history, with many misunderstandings about what should be done and what should be avoided.
This has been one of the reasons that in the 14th century, a famous Lama known as Je-Tsong-Kha-pa, or Lobsang Drakpa, after having learned from Masters of the three existing schools, started a new one – Gelug.pa – with the goal of reviving the importance of Ethics and Knowledge. Ethic as the basis of all virtues; Knowledge to avoid wrong views, and to purely preserve the Buddha’s Teachings.
One source of confusion in the West nowadays is based on titles. Most people do not know what they cover and what they don’t and tend to take as their Root Guru people who do not have the required qualifications for that. So, let’s take a look at the main titles in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism:
Geshe: The Gelug.pa system starts based on a system of studies. A monk usually enters monastery around the age 7 to 10; he will learn for about 20 years, going through the 5 great topics: Par.Chin (Paramitas or Perfections), U.Ma (Madyamika or Middle Way), Dul.Wa (Vinaya or Code of Ethic), and Dzö (Abhidharma or Metaphysics). Then, he will pass an exam and become a Geshe (Doctor in Buddhist philosophy). He can go on for one or more years to the Gyu.Me or Gyu.Tö Tantric College to learn about Tantras.
This diploma of a Geshe is a “scholastic degree” i.e. it doesn’t imply any spiritual realization. Here, we should emphasize that there are four levels of Geshes. This fact is often unknown in the West and leads to certain mistakes. The first and second are very basic scholarship levels; they are mainly able to memorize, but do not go in depth in the understanding or in the debate. Almost all of these will get the Geshe title when reaching the end of the study program.
Nowadays, there are wishes from the Central Tibetan Administration that only the highest degree – Geshe Lharampa – could hold the title of Geshe. Because the level of “Doctor in Philosophy” can indeed only be compared with those who have succeeded in their studies through the Lharampa class and passed the final exams. This takes nearly 25 years of study. “Lharampa” Geshes have not just learned and memorized the Texts, but have gone more in depth in their understanding, with a special skill in logic. Yet, there is still a big gap between “understanding” and “realizing”. When in the West students hear the word “Geshe”, they tend to mix it up with “Lama”. A Geshe “knows”; a “Lama” has some spiritual realizations and/or experience. A Geshe can be Lama or not; a Lama can be Geshe or not.
Lama: (Sanskrit: Guru) is a Spiritual Guide. There is no school for “Lamas”. This title is obtained after having followed a very ethical life and showing signs of Wisdom. It is given by other Lamas, or by a large group of disciples. It is also given automatically to the reincarnation of Lamas. Let’s also point out the fact that in the Kagyu.pa Tradition, a person who has performed a certain amount of years in retreat (from 3 to 6) can get the title “Lama”. In the same way in which studies don’t automatically bring realizations, retreat doesn’t either. In that aspect, the title “Lama” is not always a warranty of realizations.
Rinpoche: “Very precious”. It is given mostly to reincarnated Lamas; but also, as an honorific title, to the Abbots of big monasteries (Khenpo Rinpoche) – which they keep also when retired from this function (Khensur Rinpoche).
Tulku: “Emanation Body”. This originally referred to highly realized beings – Buddhas or Bodhisattvas – taking rebirth for the sake of sentient beings. But nowadays, all reincarnated Lamas are called ‘Tulku’, on the basis of their past life as good practitioners.
As a conclusion about the titles, none of them is a guarantee in terms of “spiritual liability”. In Tibet, there was a lot more possibility to control the titles and anybody couldn’t just play the role of a Lama. Nowadays, with the gap between East and West, some lower Geshes pretend to guide spiritually without any realization and without a clue about Western life and problems; and some Western teachers claim to have this or that realization, holding the title of Lama for their own sake.
It is indeed the responsibility of each Dharma student to carefully check and counter-check the qualities of a teacher before considering him or her a reliable Spiritual Guide. To guide the disciple on the progressive path of the three types of practitioners, a spiritual master in the Mahayana path needs to possess 10 qualities:
Must be disciplined by the training in Ethics.
Appeased by the training in meditative absorption.
Pacified by the training in Wisdom.
Virtues are superior in virtues to the virtues of his disciples.
Possessing energy and enthusiasm for the accomplishment of the benefit of others.
Rich of the study of the scriptures.
Having a realization (manifest or conceptual) of Emptiness.
Able to teach and has skillful means.
Revealing the doctrine with Compassion.
Gives up discouragement while having to repeat the instruction constantly.


Pratimoksha Vows, or Vows of Individual Liberation:
All the advises given by Shakyamuni Buddha about Ethics are gathered in a Text called “Vinaya” (Skt.) or Dul.Wa (Tib.). We learn that there are different levels of engagement in the practice, a different depth on the Path to renunciation and dedication.
Genyen: This is a lay person who takes 5 vows: not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, no sexual misconduct, and no alcohol (or any intoxicant).
Rabjung and Rabjung.ma: This is the first step to engage into the monastic life. It is considered as the first and very important step to become monk/nun. There are 8 vows: not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, to preserve one’s chastity, no alcohol or intoxicants, changing of clothes (to wear the monk robes), changing of name (getting a new name), changing the mind (renouncing the lay life and livelihood).
Getsul and Getsul.ma: Formally called “novice”, even though the novitiate is clearly started from Rabjung. The novice has to take 36 vows that can be taken usually from the age of 13 or 14. In the same was as a fortification around castles, those extra vows are added to protect the “main vows” also called “defeat” (i.e. not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, chastity).
Gelong and Gelong.ma (Bhiksu and Bhiksuni in Sanskrit). The fully ordained monk respects 253 vows and the fully ordained nun respects 364 vows. These vows cannot be taken before one is 21 years old. [Note that the lineage of the Gelongma ordination has been lost in Tibet, by the nuns. Nowadays, a woman who seeks full ordination must take it from another Buddhist tradition.]
Vows are fixed guidelines to channel the mind in the direction of pure conduct, source of all virtues. Some of them are based on the action performed, some others more on the motivation.
According to the Vinaya, we should not expose the full list of Getsul and Gelong vows to people not ready for ordination. Nevertheless, for a better understanding of monkhood we can take out and explain some of the major vows.
The four defeats (common to Rabjung/ma, Getsul/ma and Gelong/ma) which, if broken, destroy the ordination (other vows can be purified during a special ceremony held each 14 days in a monastery, called “Sojong”):
* Not to kill: this is broken by killing a human being; but a branch vow also includes other sentient beings.
* Not to lie: this defeat is completed by claiming to have a spiritual Realization that one doesn’t have. A branch vow includes “telling voluntarily something which is not true”.
* Not to steal: robbery is observed when taking a significant object from someone without their permission.
* Chastity: means not to penetrate any of the “three doors” (i.e. vagina, mouth, anus) of any being.
After those four defeats we usually add the vow of not taking alcohol and intoxicants, as under their influence we could break any or all the four defeats.
It is useful to know about those vows, so that a disciple who would be approached by an ordained teacher (monk, Geshe, …) in a way which contradict the vows, should be able to refuse categorically without any shame. Shame is for those who abuse their status as a teacher to obtain pleasure from those who regard them as a Guru.
Bodhisattva Vows
While the monks’/nuns’ vows are common to both the Theravada and Mahayana Path, another set of vows concerns only the practitioners who engage in the Mahayana Path. It contains 18 root vows and 36 secondary ones. Among the root vows, we can bring out that one should not: * not forgive, especially if someone has presented excuses, * praise oneself and depreciate the others, * teach Emptiness to those who are not ready, * claim to have realizations that one doesn’t have (specially about Emptiness), * take for oneself means dedicated for the Three Jewels, * depreciate the value of those following the Theravada, * abandon Bodhicitta (exclude even a single being from our Bodhicitta).
Vajrayana Vows
These vows are taken by Vajrayana practitioners while they take an Initiation of the fourth Tantric class. They should not be displayed to those who do not have taken them. Such practitioners have to take the Bodhisattva vows too. Nevertheless, we could point out that one of them is specifically to not expose Tantric content to those not having taken the required Initiation.
It is important to understand what Tantra/Vajrayana is, and what it is not, as this term is used and misused in the West. Vajrayana is a specific Path within Mahayana Buddhism which uses our most subtle energies for Spiritual achievements. That way, it also uses all our emotions (which are energies), transforming them into the Path instead of spending years to pacify them.
This Path is known as the “short-cut to Enlightenment”; its methods are powerful and very skillful. Nevertheless, it is not suitable for all practitioners, and only highly qualified Masters are able to decide who enters those practices and who should not. Consequently, these Masters are able to guide their disciples through the methods.
When we wish to climb a difficult mountain, we wouldn’t think to do it without an experienced guide; in the same way, one should not even for a second think to walk the Tantric Path without a seriously qualified Spiritual Guide.
Tantra is mainly based on very precise visualizations which the practitioner should hold firmly and identify with. Those techniques require to have mastered “Shine”, Mental Quietness, and should be grounded on the motivation of Bodhicitta, the Ultimate Compassion. As well, a correct and firm understanding of Emptiness is needed. So, we can see that not all people pretending to practice Tantra are really Yogis. Also, we can hear a lot about sexual practices within the Vajrayana, but mainly in the West. Because Tantrayana is not about sexual practice at all. It is about the union of Method and Wisdom, symbolized by a male and a female deity sitting together. It would be deeply mistaken to consider that the core of the Tantric practice is based on sexual activity. There are some methods involving the physical aspect, but it is related with highest level Yogis, having realized Emptiness and Bodhicitta, and with a consort possessing the same level of realization.
In the Vajrayana, the place of the Guru, the Spiritual Guide, is fundamental. To find a root-Guru, establish the Master-to-Disciple relationship, and follow faithfully the advice of our root-Lama is a source of great merits and swift realizations. Our Guru is seen as Enlightened, and his actions as pure. Followers do benefit from advices, guidance, adapted to their level and needs.
Aside of this, some Masters have shown actions and behavior we could qualify as against the usual norms of ethics. Yet, in the past such Lamas have been respected and venerated, as what they did was seen as skillful means, ways to bring more people into the Dharma Path. These Masters had enough Wisdom and Realization to transcend concepts without being caught by any of them. They were not acting out of attachment or their own ego; they were acting solely for the sake of others. But of course, from the outside, it’s very difficult to see what someone’s real motivation is, or to evaluate their level of Wisdom. Clearly, some of the Masters of the past, such as Marpa, would today be subject to court processes and would end up in prison for how they acted towards their disciples (for example Milarepa). More contemporarily, we could mention Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
So here we have the ingredients for a profound and powerful Path to Enlightenment … and at the same time the risk for major downfalls and abuse. The question I guess is how to find the first and avoid the latter?
The answer can be already found within the teachings. There is a great deal of explanation regarding the qualities a Teacher should have, the importance of the lineage behind, and the respect of ethical values.
In countries where Buddhism has been present for a long time, abuse cases are very limited because people are careful, and information about each Teachers, authentic or “wannabe”, is circulating. Thus, one cannot really establish a system of abuse. In the West, because it is fairly new and probably also for some other reasons, we encountered quite some problems in these last years. People don’t know what they are allowed to talk about, or not; what is normal between master and disciple, or not; how one can react in front of a strange or shocking situation, etc. But all is explained if you do search well or ask questions on specialized forums.
We are in a society of de-responsibilization, where individuals tend to always place themselves in the role of a victim and might hire lawyers to act on their behalf when the first problem occurs. As Buddhists we must and do understand the law of causality, which places us back at the center of what is happening to us.
I know, some people, even Buddhists, don’t like this point of view, because it can easily be twisted to excuse the actions of real abusers behind a simple: “it’s your karma”. There is a middle way to be found between understanding our responsibility from a karmic point of view and reacting conventionally, which can include hiring a lawyer if needed. Through the whole process of analyzing and reacting to any situation, we need to keep in mind the law of causality, based on our motivation.
With that in mind, instead of always throwing all the blame on the fake gurus, I would like to point out also the responsibility of the “fake disciples”. Indeed, as a disciple, one should read well the basic texts, question, analyze, and use his/her good sense. Of course, some people are skillful in hiding, lying, manipulating, but we shouldn’t also try to hide our own laziness and lack of investigation behind such assertion. Later on, to claim “I was abused” shows at least that we might have been quite naïve, and light headed. And sometimes there are also other motivations, ego reactions and revenge. Some disciples for example, when their mistakes are pointed out, with the right motivation to help them improving their mind, can leave their Teacher, slam the door and talk badly about the Guru.
Unfortunately, some teachers have been or are manipulating others to obtain their favors, sexually, financially, etc. And some newbies are falling for their strategies, even if we can point out the mistakes of these new members too. Such wrong practices need to be exposed. Yet, as for every aspect of our life, we need to check carefully our motivation and how we will proceed, remembering once again that all our thoughts, words, and actions do have karmic consequences.
I particularly like the approach of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, when His Holiness recommends to simply move away from any insidious teacher, not falling into the mistake of slandering against him (or her). Of course, asked about the reasons, one can say what s/he has been the subject of, factually, as objectively as possible, avoiding as well as possible any negative emotions, so as not to create negative seeds for oneself. Especially as negative karma in the field of spirituality can have consequences over several incarnations.
To conclude, remaining on the topic of Ethics: if a so-called practitioner of Dharma would enter in any sexual conduct with you, especially if that person is ordained, then it would be a serious misdeed! The great Masters have a very controlled mind, remaining in special equipoise state, and do not need any pleasure of the senses. No Geshe, Lama, Tulku, Rinpoche or whoever shall use his title or position to force or mislead anyone into sexual activities based on “I-don’t-know-what” Tantric practice … If this happens, you have the right to speak out about it, and to report this behavior to higher instances in Buddhism. But we should not fall into the big mistake of false accusations in order to draw attention or to take revenge against anyone.
At last, we can conclude by saying once more that Ethics is the basis of all accumulation of merits.


Words of Wisdom

"If the merit of Bodhichitta were to take physical form, even the whole of space itself would not contain its vastness."
- Buddha

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