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Buddhism & Ethics

By Lama Shenpen Rinpoche (Kharnang Gendune Rabgye Tulku) for the magazine "Buddhism of Russia"
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.
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 the studies and practices, are in the straight line descending from  Shakyamuni Buddha's Teachings, either under His historical form, or subsequent Manifestations. Ethic and moral behavior has also been challenged along the history, with many misunderstanding about what should be done and what should be avoided.
This has been one of the reasons, in the 14th century, for a famous Lama known as Je-Tsong-Kha-pa, or Lobsang Drakpa, after having learned from Masters of the three existing schools, to start a new one -  Gelug.pa - with the goal of reviving the importance of the Ethic and Knowledge. Ethic as the basis of all virtues; Knowledge to avoid wrong views, and to preserve purely the Buddha's Teachings.


One source of confusion in the West nowadays is based on the titles. Most people do not know what they cover, and what they don't, and tend to take as root  Guru people who do not have the qualifications for that. So, lets review the main titles:
Geshe: The Gelug.pa system starts based on a system of studies. A monk enters usually monastery around 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 becomes Geshe (Doctor in Buddhist philosophy). He can go for one or more years to Gyu.Me or Gyu.Tö, Tantric College , to learn about Tantras.
This diploma of Geshe is a "scholastic degree" i.e. it doesn't imply any spiritual realization. Here, we should detail that there are four level of Geshe! This is often unknown in the West and lead to certain mistakes. The first and second are a very basic scholarship level; mainly able to memorize, but not to go in depth in the understanding or in the debate, they will nearly all get the Geshe title when reaching the end of the study program.
Nowadays, there are wishes from the Tibetan Government that only the highest degree - Lharampa - could hold the title of Geshe. As we could compare the level of "Doctor in Philosophy" only with those who have succeeded in their studies through the Lharampa class, and pass 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 a big gap between "understanding" and "realizing"! When in the West, students hear the word "Geshe", they tend to mix 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 of "Lama" (despite what the Buryat community has set-up in their country). 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, become "Lama" someone who has perform a certain amount of years in retreat (from 3 to 6)! In the same way that studies don't bring automatically Realizations, retreat doesn't either. In that aspect, "Lama" title 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 monastery (Khenpo Rinpoche) which they keep also when retired from this function (Khensur Rinpoche).
Tulku: "Emanation Body". This refers originally to highly realized beings - Buddhas or Bodhisattvas - taking a rebirth for the sake of sentient beings. But nowadays, all reincarnated Lamas are called 'Tulku', on the basis of their past life has a good practitioner.
As a conclusion about the titles, none of them is a guaranty in term of "spiritual liability". In Tibet , there was quite more possibility to control the titles and whoever couldn't 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 check and counter-check cautiously the qualities of a teacher before to consider him as 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: 
•  He must be disciplined by the training in Ethic. 
•  Appeased by the training in meditative absorptions. 
•  Pacified by the training in Wisdom. 
•  His virtues are superior to the one of his disciples. 
•  He possesses energy and enthusiasm for the accomplishment of others benefit. 
•  He is rich of the study of the scriptures. 
•  He has a realization (manifest or conceptual) of  Emptiness
•  He is able to teach and has skilful means. 
•  He reveals the doctrine with  Compassion
•  Gives up discouragement while having to repeat the instruction constantly.

Code of Ethics

Pratimoksa  Vows, or Vows of Individual Liberation
All the advises given by Shakyamuni Buddha about Ethic are gathered in a Text called "Vinaya" (Skt) or Dul.Wa (Tib.). We learn that there are different levels of engagement in the practice, different depth on the Path to renunciation and dedication.
Genyen: It is a lay person who takes 5 vows such as 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 religious life. It is considered as the first and very important step in the monkhood. There are 8 vows: not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, chastity, not alcohol and intoxicants, changing of clothes (to wear the monk robes), changing of name (getting a new name), changing the mind (renunciating the lay life and livelihood).
Getsul and Getsul.ma: Formally called "novice", even though the novitiate is clearly started from Rabjung. It is about 36 vows that can be taken usually from 13 or 14 years old. As for fortification around castles, those more vows are coming 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 nuns with 364 vows. It cannot be taken before 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 has to take it from other Buddhist tradition.]
Vows are fixed guidelines to channel the mind in the direction of a 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 shall not expose the full list of Gestul and Gelong vows to people not ready for ordination. Nevertheless, for a better understanding of the monkhood, we can take out and explain some of the major vows.
The four defeats (common to Rabjungs/ma, Getsuls/ma and Gelongs/ma) which, if broken, destroy the ordination (other vows can be purified during a special ceremony held each 14 days in a monastery, named "Sojong") : 
•  Not to kill: this is broken by killing a human being; but a branch vow also include other sentient beings. 
•  Not to lie: this defeat is completed by claiming spiritual Realization that one doesn't have. Branch vow includes "telling voluntarily something which is not true". 
•  Not to steal: robbery is observed when taking a significant object to someone without his permission. 
•  Chastity: means not to penetrate any of the "three doors" (i.e. vagina, mouth, anus) of any being.
We usually add just after those four defeat the vow of not taking alcohol and intoxicants, as under their influence we could break any or all the four defeats!
We can point out that within the secondary vows (which doesn't destroy the ordination): 
•  Getsuls abandon as well singing, dancing, listening music, perfumes, sitting on high seats and beds, possessing gold and such, should not eat after lunch. 
•  Gelongs shouldn't release semen (by any means), touch women with lustrous mind, stay in a closed room alone with a woman, etc
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 of teacher to get pleasures from those who regard them as a Guru.
Bodhisattva Vows
While the monks/nuns vows are common to both  Theravada and Mahayana Path, an other set of vows concern only the practitioners who engage into 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  Hinayana, * abandon Bodhicitta.
Vajrayana Vows
Those 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 practitioner has to take as well the Bodhisattva vows. Nevertheless, we could point out that one of them is specially to do not expose Tantric content to those not having taken according Initiation.
It is important to understand what it is, and what it is not, as this term is used and misused in the West, to cover anything, far to be really Tantra. Vajrayana is a specific Path within Mahayana Buddhism which uses our most subtle energies for the Spiritual achievement. That way, it uses also 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 for any kind of practitioner, and only highly qualified Masters are able to decide who enters or not those practices, and 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; as well, one should not even one 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, the Mental Quietness, and should be grounded on Bodhicitta motivation, 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 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! Indeed, there are some techniques involving the physical aspect of ones practitioner, but it is related with high level Yogis, having Realized Emptiness and Bodhicitta, and with consort possessing the same level of Realization.
We shall remember that one of the greatest Master of Tantra, Lama Tsong-Kha-Pa (who wrote Himself about 18 huge volumes, among which only 3 or 4 were about Sutras, and whose Tantric treatises are the basis for the practices in the four school of Tibetan Buddhism nowadays) was a monk, and remained monk till his death! Wasn't He a great Yogi? Surely He was; yet, he kept his pure morale conduct all his life.
So to say, to remain in the topic of Ethic, if a so-called practitioner of Dharma would enter in any sexual behavior with you, especially if that person is ordained, than it would be a serious misdeed! The great Masters have 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 May this to happen, you have the right to speak out about it, and to report this behavior to higher instances in Buddhism or even to the Ministry for Religious Affairs of the Tibetan Government.
We shall not fall in the big mistake of false accusation in order to draw attention or to take revenge against anyone. And we shall not just believe the first rumor coming to our ears, which could also be generated for malignant purpose! At the same time, to let misconduct to develop is the source of quick degeneration of Dharma. And in that last point, disciples have also their responsibility to take.
At last, we can conclude by saying once more that Ethic is the basis of all merits accumulation. And no one can by-pass the accumulation of merits to progress on the Spiritual Path, as the two "pillars" to build one's Path are 1) accumulation of Merits and 2) accumulation of Wisdom.
And this was one of the Six Paramitas. There are five others to investigate and practice! :-)


Words of Wisdom

"To be aware of a single shortcoming in oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in someone else."
- His Holiness the Dalai Lama

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