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Vows & Commitments

Vows & Commitments in Buddhism
By Lama Tubten Shenpen Rinpoche
Teaching given at Shenphen. Rime.Tschöling, Vienna, Austria, on 4th of May, 2002
Tonight we will try to have an understanding and a view about what are vows, commitments, and engagements in Tibetan Buddhism. There are various levels of vows, various levels of engagements and commitments within Tibetan Buddhism, and they all participate in what we call the control of the mind and the ethics of life.
Most of the time, when we talk about control, we have a negative attitude. We believe that control is a way to enclose our mind. But in fact, when we understand well, it is completely the opposite. A vow or a commitment is something that will enforce our practice and develop some specific characteristic of our mind.
In our daily life, our mind is running uncontrolled, jumping from one idea to another idea, without a facility to operate any control on that. Therefore, it is difficult to concentrate on a topic or to concentrate on a practice, and it is difficult to remember what is good to do and what is not good to do. So we understand easily and clearly that if we could operate any control over this mind, and if we could learn how to focus more easily on a subject, or to focus more easily on our practice, we could go deeper into the understanding of that topic, and we could reach a higher goal in our practice.
When we hear what is rather good to do and what is better to avoid, we can meditate on that. We can think about that, we can reflect about that. But without taking any clear decision to avoid some things and promote some other things, it is rather difficult, first of all, to remember about those things in different situations in the daily life, and secondly, it is difficult to apply them.
If I take a quick example: if you decide that from tomorrow on you will stop to eat chocolate cookies, then you can take the decision within yourself and say: 'Okay, tomorrow, I will stop to take such cookies!' But if the decision is not firm, if it is not formalized, then the next time you will pass in front of a bakery, or the next time you will open the door of your kitchen, there will be this kind of attraction towards the chocolate cookies.
But if you formalize your decision not to take anymore any chocolate cookies by making a kind of vow, not just in front of yourself, but if you involve, e.g., Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and you say in front of all Holy Beings, 'I take the decision that, from now on, I will not take any more chocolate cookies!', then it will surely leave a strong imprint on yourself, and the next time you will feel irresistibly attracted by the chocolate cookies, you will remember that you have taken this clear engagement in front of Holy Beings, thus it will be more difficult for you to break this commitment. 
Obviously, this is only an example, which gives the essence of what is a commitment and how we can proceed into making a different step in this engagement, between just to tell in front for ourselves, 'okay, I will stop this', and to take a firm commitment.
We formalize a vow not just by invoking Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but by going in front of a member of the Sangha, a Lama, and taking the vows verbally, which makes it a more concrete step in the direction of respecting an engagement. In any case, commitments are taken by ourselves, thus, the decision is ultimately taken by ourselves, which has the opposite meaning of what people usually think about control.
Usually, when we think about control, it is a control of somebody or of something outside of ourselves who or which forces ourselves to do something. But when we talk about an engagement, or even a vow, this is not the case, it is a choice that we take, and we go into the process of taking the vows by ourselves, because we follow a purpose. Therefore, basically, the meaning of formalizing a commitment or an engagement is to remember it quicker in the situation where this engagement can be broken, and in order to ensure more deeply that we will keep such an engagement, and, at the longer term, with a clear mind about what we have to do.
Thus, we see that in all cases, this control is not something that blocks us, or that refrains us, against our will, to do something, but, on the contrary, it is something that will strengthen our mind, and by making our mind stronger, it will give our mind some more possibilities to achieve something, to achieve a goal, to achieve a specific commitment.
Now let's see a little bit the different types of engagements that we can go through:
Taking refuge (tib. /skyabs 'gro/)
One of the first set of engagements that we might go through is when we take refuge. This is usually not called 'vows', because it does not have the same strength as vows have. This is why we call it usually an 'engagement'. So, even though it's something that you decide, it's not something that you decide to do firmly, it's something firm that you decide to improve.
For example, when we take refuge and when we talk about the ten non-virtuous actions, it is not in terms of vows. If we take, e.g., the non-virtuous action of lying and how far it is better not to lie, it is not a vow that you are taking at the moment of refuge, it is an engagement in the sense that you will do all the best to avoid lying. Therefore, if it happens that you lie, the consequences exist in term of Karma, but you do not break a vow.
The Mahayana Precepts:
This is a set of vows, taken for a period of 24 hours. For the first time, they have to be taken in front of a Lama, then they can be taken alone, at home or wherever. The benefits of taking those vows are immeasurable. They are eight vows, rather strict, that need to be kept purely from one sunrise to an other. (For a detail of this practice, click here).
The five vows or lay vows (tib. ' Genyen', /dge bsnyen/)
After having taken Refuge, and independently from the Mahayana Precepts, the Genyen vows can be taken by lay-people. These five vows can either be taken all at once, or any of these vows can be taken distinctly, and they can either be taken for one's whole life-time, or for a period of time that we decide ourselves. The lay ordination, when it is taken fully, is called the Genyen ordination.
As can be seen, these vows are already something more formal, and these are vows that shall not be transgressed, because otherwise the vows are lost, but it is more subtle in its way of application.
These five vows are compatible with the lay life, which means that, e.g., the vow concerning sexual activity is not turned into a way to stop all type of activities, but just gives guidelines of how to behave well in one's sexual life.
The eight vows or rab jung vows (tib. /rab 'byungs/)
The next step is already closer to the monk's or nun's lives, it concerns the eight vows, and within these eight vows, there is a transformation of the vows concerning the conjugal attitude which is close to monk, because the person taking this rab-jung ordination becomes chaste. And now that we are dealing with rab-jung, the eight vows, we cannot choose which vows we would like and which vows we would not like, and we cannot choose the period of time we are taking them. That is, we have to take the eight vows at once, and at the moment we are taking them, we are taking them for our whole life.
The novice ordination (tib. 'Gets'ül', /dge tshul/)
The next step is called the novice ordination, and it is called the getsül ordination, and it contains 36 vows. You cannot choose which one you would like and which you would not. You take all of them, and for your life.
The full ordination (tib. 'gelong', /dge long/, skt. bikshu)
The last and complete ordination is called the 'gelong' ordination and contains 253 vows; it can be taken only when you reach the age of 21.
Giving back vows
But to be precise, we have to add that from the beginning, when the Buddha has established this set of vows for monks and nuns, it has been allowed [by Him] to give them back again. Therefore, basically, when we take them, we take them for our life-time, we repeat the prayer "I take these vows in front of the Buddha for my life-time", but due to his Compassion and his understanding of the human mind, the Buddha has also established that if somebody cannot keep them, it is possible to give them back. And not only is it possible to give them back once, but it is possible to give them back three times in one's life. 
Thus, the emphasis is put on the fact that while we have vows, it is extremely important to keep them, and to keep them clean, pure, unbroken. If we cannot keep them, however, it is better, far better, to give back the ordination than to commit any breach of the vows.
From the rabjung ordination upwards, if we break one of the major vows, the full ordination is broken and cannot be taken again any more in one's life. On the other hand, if we give back the vows, it will be possible later on to take the ordination again. This is just a system wisely established in order to maintain a certain purity in the ordination, and at the same time not to create frustration in the minds of people who cannot keep their vows anymore, giving them the possibility to give them back.
Within Tibetan Buddhism, there has never been this idea that, if you give back your vows, you are excommunicated, i.e., if somebody has vows and cannot keep them anymore, and prefers to return to lay life, it is completely admitted within the Tibetan traditions (actually in all Buddhist traditions I think, but I can be sure only about the Tibetan one), that a monk or a nun can give back their vows and have a lay life again, while remaining, of course, within Buddhism. Such a person is not 'thrown out', as it used to be the case in the catholic tradition in the past, when a priest or a monk wanted to return to the lay life, he was excommunicated, put aside from the religion. Such things have never existed in Buddhism.
Vows are a choice
We were also already talking about the required age for taking the vows; as was said, the Gelong vows can be taken only from the age 21 onwards, while the Getsül ordination can be taken usually from age 13 or 14, and the rab-jung ordination can be taken from age 7. At least this is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama has advised. In a monastery, somebody should not take the Getsül vows (which are 36 in total) before the age of 14.
Knowing how the vows work, and considering the age they can be taken as well as the fact that one can give them back, makes one understand that the children who were brought to a monastery and were ordained within the Tibetan tradition, were not forced to remain monks for their whole life - at least from the ideological point of view; from the social point of view, it may have been another situation. Within Buddhism, if a child was brought into a monastery, he had to take some vows in order to follow a program, in order to do the studies, to do the practice and to be taken care of by elder monks, but he was not forced to remain a monk. Therefore, at any moment of his teenage or adult age or whatever age he wanted to quit the monastery, it was possible for him to give back the vows and to lead a lay life.
This has to be mentioned also to counter what people sometimes think when they see some ordained children, when they say: "Oh, this is not good, because they are so young, do they know exactly what they are doing?' and 'They may have been converted or forced to take some vows!", or whatever - which is, most of the time, not the case. It can be a choice given to the child to take the vows for a certain period of time, and, if by growing up he understands the meaning of the vows, he can keep them. But if he prefers to choose the lay life, then this is also his own choice to give them back.
Within Buddhism, I always found that a big importance is given to the choice of the person, there is nothing which is imposed by force, but the choice is given. This point is even more obvious, maybe, in the western civilization nowadays, but also in the Tibetan tradition. Within the Tibetan monasteries where I have been living in South India, I have seen some teenagers quitting the ordination and returning to the village, without any problem.
The 'vows of individual liberation'
The monk and nun vows are called 'vows of individual liberation'. The vows themselves do not imply that the practitioner is motivated to help the others. At first, what is pointed by taking the vows, is how we can direct our own life, how we can manage our own ethics, the personal ethics. Therefore, the vows are the same in the Hinayana, the smaller vehicle, and in the Mahayana, the higher vehicle: Monk and nun vows are exactly the same. We can just add, maybe, that the nuns have a few more vows; the explanation being easy in the sense that in comparison, there exist more situations in which a woman is at risk.
For the women who react when I say that, I would like to make this point clear: I am not talking about the women's own capacities or their own mind being more at risk, but in the social environment, in a 'machist' environment, in whatever environment, they are facing more risks. I do not name here the various risks, but the vows are established in order just to protect.
The ordination is like a castle: there are the four main vows of chastity, not killing, not lying, not stealing, these are the five pillars of the ordination. The first vows that come after to protect them is not taking intoxicant, drugs and alcohol. And after that, all the other vows are just like barricades around, walls around, in order to prevent that any of these vows can be broken. Therefore, there are 253 vows for the Gelong. When we give the number, people say: "Ahhh! So much!". But it is not the case that at every moment of our life, we have 253 vows on our shoulders, it is just that when we are in a certain situation, we remember some advice contained in these vows, and we will withdraw from such a situation in order not to put our ordination at risk to be broken.
If some of them are even transgressed, some lesser vows - because the vows are divided into different categories -, if you do not respect them, this will not destroy the whole ordination.
Thus, they are more understood as advice. But the 13 first vows, and mainly the four that I enumerated, are the pillars, are what should be kept purely.
We cannot give the list of the vows to the people before they are going to take them, thus, we cannot explain what are the vows to people who don't have them or who do not intend to take them. But just to give one example: for a Gelong, it is not permitted to sleep in the same room together with a woman; we can easily understand the reasons for that; and most of the vows are built like this or are established in such a way that we have less possibility to destroy the main vows.
Biskhuni or Gelong-ma, full ordination for women
The nun ordination, the Gelong-ma ordination (tib. /dge longs ma/, skt. bikshuni), the full ordination for women, does not exist anymore within the Tibetan tradition. If a woman wants to take the full ordination, she has to take it from another tradition, probably from a Theravada tradition which has maintained this tradition. 
The cause for this is not the men, but it is due to the fact that in Tibet at some time, it has happened that there were not ten nuns to ordain a new one - because in order to ordain a new Gelong or a new Gelong-ma, it is necessary to have the person who ordains plus ten fully ordained witnesses. And the circumstances have made it that, in Tibet, it was at one point no longer possible, thus, the lineage has been broken. But it still exists, and therefore it is possible to get it, but it does not exist any more in the Tibetan tradition.
You understand now how these vows are established in order to keep one's mind in one's life within some ethic boundaries. They work for us as guidelines, things that we can do, which have been described by the Buddha as possible to do and valuable to do, and outside these guidelines are these boundaries established by the vows, there are things that are not suitable to be done by monks or nuns, things which are not ethical.
Another point which is important to understand as well is the fact that, when you take some vows, whatever level of vows you are taking, it is said that it strengthens your practice. It strengthens your practice in two ways: First of all, it brings a better control, a better awareness about what you are doing and what you are not doing, and this can also help in other circumstances or in the practice in general. Secondly, it strengthens it also, because, due to the power of the vows, all the actions done by the three doors - by speech, mind, and actions - are multiplied.
It is said that the same action done at a higher level of vows also has a higher or stronger result. We must add that this holds true for both positive and negative actions! It multiplies the karma somehow. This is why we usually say that, being ordained or keeping some vows, we have a better chance to progress quickly, at the restriction that we act in a good way, of course, because the accumulation of positive karma is multiplied. But I am mentioning this restriction, because if we pretend to keep some vows, but still act in a negative way, then it becomes more harmful for us. 
If we feel, that we can take some vows, it is very important to do so, it is a very fruitful experience and a fruitful situation, but we have to keep these vows correctly. This is also one of the reasons why we do accept to ordain children or young people, because whatever time they will spend within this ordination, it is a plus in their karma, it is a plus in their practice, whatever time they will spend as monk or nun.
This concerns the 'vows of individual liberation'. Now there are two other types of vows, the 'Tantric vows' and the ' Bodhisattva vows'.
The Bodhisattva vows
Each of these types of vows can be taken independently from each other, so you can be a monk or nun without having the Bodhisattva vows, you can get the Bodhisattva vows without being a monk or nun. Equally, you can take the Tantric vows without being a monk or nun.
One ordination which is dependent from another one are the Tantric vows; namely, you cannot take the Tantric vows without having taken the Bodhisattva vows - as it is clearly explained that Tantric practice without the Bodhicitta motivation is useless. 
The Bodhisattva vows can be taken either as a set of vows like an ordination or they are taken prior to a Tantric Initiation. We will not enumerate them all now, although it is possible for them to be known before to be taken, and I guess that either in some books, or on the internet, it is quite easy to find a list of the Bodhisattva vows. They comprise 18 main and 46 lesser vows; in total: 63, with the 18 root vows and the branches.
These vows are completely directed towards our capacity, or our motivation, to help others. They are all built not in order to preserve only our own ethics, but also to organize our compassionate relation with other sentient beings. We must add here that the Bodhisattva vows, once broken, can be restored by taking them again. This is fortunate, because our mind is used in such ways since lives and lives, and just from the beginning of this life, that, usually, when we take the Bodhisattva vows one day, the next day the ordination might been breached already - except for people who can really control their mind very well; but usually, there are few vows that are not 'impossible to be kept' (of course, they are completely possible) but that 'need some training' in order to be preserved.
For example, one vow asks to keep all sentient beings without exception within our compassion. If, for one moment, we are angry-hateful against one person, if we loose compassion for one being, these vows are breached. 
Therefore, they can be taken again and again, in order to improve every time a little bit more our motivation, until finally we are able to keep them as purely as possible.
The Tantric vows
The last set of vows is the Tantric vows, vows which are taken while taking an 'Initiation' of a certain level. Within the Tantric path, we are talking about four Tantric classes, and it is only at the fourth Tantric class that we have to go through the Bodhisattva vows, for sure, and the Tantric vows as well.
These vows cannot be exposed before we take them. So if you find them on the internet - and nowadays we find everything there - it is not correct from the person who has exposed them, and if that person has taken the Tantric vows and exposes them on the internet, that person at the same time breaks his or her vows, because, once you have these vows, you are not allowed to expose them to somebody else who does not have the same level of engagement. 
These vows are established on the same basis as the Bodhisattva vows and the other vows, in order to protect the mind of the Tantric practitioner, and in order to avoid for him or her to put himself or herself in some situation which can be dangerous for his or her practice. 
As the Bodhisattva vows, these Tantric vows, when they are not respected, can be renewed every time you take a Tantric Initiation containing these vows.
Tantric commitments
Without to be contained within a set of vows, we must talk also about the commitment that one takes while receiving one of those Tantric class Initiation. 
When you take an Initiation of the fourth Tantric class (anuttarayogatantra), you take, at the same time, the commitment to perform a certain number of meditation sessions per day, as well, according to the Initiation you have taken and according to the master who has given the Initiation, you also have a certain amount of mantras to recite daily, and sometimes the daily practice of the deity on which you have taken the Initiation.
But all this depends on the master who is giving this Initiation; some masters are known as being very strict concerning the commitments, and some are known to be more 'supple' in giving commitments. 
According to how much effort you can put into the practice, you should better know the amount of commitments before taking an Initiation. Otherwise, you end up having a huge amount of commitments to do per day, which is almost impossible to do, so that you finally break your engagements which is not good. One must think carefully about the commitments before taking the Initiation, because the more Initiations you take the more you can accumulate commitments.
If we make a list, we could say that when we take one of the fourth Tantric class Initiations, we take the Bodhisattva vows, we take the Tantric vows, we take what we call the six sessions of the Guru Yoga to do per day, and you have a certain amount of mantras to recite. Additionally, some masters give the Sadhana, the full practice to do per day.
Most of the time during the Initiation the master will tell you at one moment to choose the amount of mantras that you will recite daily. One piece of advice from me is to be careful in this moment about the number you decide to recite, because it then becomes a commitment. It is better to take the decision to recite a small amount and to increase it according to your time rather than to be forced to do a certain amount because it is a commitment and you get very tired.
This is good to know, especially because there will be the Kalachakra Initiation in Graz at the end of this year, in October, and the Kalachakra Initiation is an Initiation into the fourth Tantric class, although, in this case, it is widely open to the public. Basically, the attendants will be divided into two categories: 1) the people who will come to this event to take a benediction, the blessings from His Holiness, the blessing from the Initiation, the blessing from the Mandala, and 2) the people who will take the Initiation, i.e., people who will really go carefully, with motivation, through the process of the Initiation.
People who tend to go through the process of the Initiation in order to get that Initiation will have to take these commitments. It has to be clear to them what the engagements are. But, in my opinion, these engagements are completely compatible with a lay life and with our active life. One should not be discouraged to go into such practice or to take such an Initiation, thinking that it is so much that only advanced people, or retired people, can attend such an Initiation.
Within the six sessions of Guru Yoga, there exists a normal-length practice, but there also exists a middle-length practice, and there exists a short-length practice according to the time we can give every day. The Tantric vows, although we cannot normally know them before we take them, it is clear that they will not be given to a large public if they were very restrictive. Thus, they are also compatible with the lay active life.
The Initiations that imply taking the six sessions of the Guru Yoga and the Tantric vows are the Kalachakra, Yamantaka, Heruka, Hevajra, and Guhyasamaja Initiations. After there are Initiations that imply to have taken these commitments already, like Vajrayogini, or some highest forms of Mahakala. But what we call the 'five doors' to the fourth Tantric class are those five Initiations.
This is an overview about all the different the commitments and vows that exist within the Tibetan Buddhism, and as you understand, they have their importance in terms of strengthening our practice. It is important to understand that these vows have been established by the Buddha, and especially the monks' and nuns' vows have been set by the Buddha Shakyamuni himself, with a specific purpose to strengthen the practice, to keep a good ethics within the practitioner, and they cannot be put aside with the excuse that we are now in 'modern times', and that the time is different, or whatever. 
Some of you know why I am saying that: because there are some lay teachers, specifically one from another tradition who claims in almost every of his teachings that monks' vows are 'old-fashioned' and not necessary anymore. This man goes so far to say that it even 'hinders' monks and nuns to be really helpful in society, and to be really helpful for other sentient beings. This is clearly contrary to the right, traditional, Buddhist view, because vows have been established by the Buddha for the purpose of making men and women stronger in their practice, and once engaged in the Mahayana path, of course, it helps them to be more helpful for the others.
Questions & Answers
Q: I have one question concerning the fact that one cannot know these vows before one takes them. What is the purpose in that, because I think it is very difficult, if you want to take them, but not to know what they are? 
A: The situation is that we should not decide alone which Initiation we have to take or not to take, but we have to ask the permission from our Lama, from our spiritual guide. If somebody pretends to decide by himself or herself to go into a certain Initiation, it is already a breach within the Tantric engagements which is to follow the advice of the guru, the master. Therefore, there is a specific bound, which is clearly explained and which is very important within Tibetan Buddhism, between the master and the disciple. If we want to attend a certain level of Initiation, we have to ask our master, who, either out of his own clairvoyance, or out of divination, will tell you whether you are ready and whether you are apt to proceed in such an Initiation.
Q: Is it the case that the teacher explains, before giving the Initiation, what the vows would be? And the second Q: There are many people who simply go to some Initiation and who perhaps even do not know that they would have to ask a Lama in advance - Is this already a breach of the Tantric commitments?
A: To the first Q: No, it is not 'compulsory' that the Lama explains the different vows during the Initiation, as it is usually implied that those who take the Initiation get the explanation either from the same Lama after the Initiation, or from elder monks or nuns or elder practitioners coming out of the Initiation.
To the second Q: this is a problem of organisation, basically; in the sense that people who access a Dharma Centre, on the day of a specific Initiation, should be informed by people of the Center of what they will go through. It is not possible to establish a 'police', so to say, to control whether you have such or such an Initiation, or such and such things - if people want to trick and go there, it is not possible to stop them; but, at minimum, they should be informed of the commitments they are going through.
I am personally shocked sometimes to see people who at the same moment take refuge and take Tantric vows, take the Bodhisattva vows, take commitments, but maybe on the next day, or in the next month, they will no longer respect these vows, because they have not been prepared for them long enough.
Usually, we say that it is better to have taken refuge for five years before to engage into the fourth Tantric class. Exceptions can be made according to the advice given by the teacher, but the minimum required normally is five years between taking refuge and taking an Initiation of the fourth Tantric class.
If people go through the door and realize in the middle of the Initiation that they are taking some commitments, correctly they should leave the room before the end of the Initiation, and for me it is a mistake of the people of the Centre not to have organized everything to let them know.
The people could also inform themselves, they could inquire a little bit more, but if they are at the wrong place at the wrong moment, because they did not know, they have to leave. Honestly, they should stand up and quit the room.
Q: My first time - I was very new in Buddhism and people were bringing me into a very high Initiation - I realized that I got a commitment, and then I was standing there. Is this a bad karma I have?
A: No, we could say in such case that you have not taken the Initiation completely, because in order to take an Initiation, it is not just to listen and to repeat, and to see what is going on, but it is a deep inner process of transforming ourselves into the deity, into visualizing some syllables melting into ourselves, it is a whole process we have to go through in order to pretend to [really] have taken the Initiation. Somebody who just arrives like this and does not know much, from my point of view, has not taken the Initiation.
Q: Why is it not possible that women get ordained by men, since the tradition has been interrupted? And what does this mean for nuns that they cannot be fully ordained?
A: It is possible to ordain somebody only on the basis of what you have been ordained in yourself. So, for example, if you are just a Getsül, you cannot ordain a Gelong, and if you are just a rab-jung, with eight vows, you cannot ordain somebody to be Getsül, with 36 vows. When you are a monk, you have your 253 vows, and you cannot ordain a nun who does not have the same amount of vows and who has different vows than yourself. You can only give what you have.
And to the second Q: It is possible to get this ordination; it is just more difficult, in a way, because it has to be taken in another tradition. Nowadays, maybe, there are more possibilities to get ordained easily, when high teachers, Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche or such high Lamas, his Holiness the Dalai Lama, are coming there are always at least ten fully ordained monks. It is thus easier to get an ordination. While to get the ordination from the Theravada tradition, you have to travel and to go to another place, where it will be given; this is slightly more complicated. But, once again, it is not the fault of men here....
Q: But what does it imply that the nuns cannot get the 300 and something vows?
A: Within the Tibetan tradition it is possible only to take 36 vows for a woman, so she becomes a Getsül-ma. Nowadays, in the Tibetan tradition, there exist Gelong, but not anymore Gelong-ma. Therefore, the Gelong-ma ordination, which is a 'bhikshuni' ordination in other traditions, has to be taken usually in Sri Lanka, or in India, within the Theravada tradition. Thus, women can take full ordination, but not in the Tibetan tradition. But I would say, who cares? ... If you can go there as a woman and get the 300 and something vows of a nun, then, within the Tibetan tradition, you will wear the Tibetan clothes, i.e., you will not be draped as a Theravada nun. In short, it does not matter so much.
Q: I have another question concerning the Bodhisattva vows, when it is so easy to break them, what effect does it have on karma?
A: Anyhow, when you take some vows and you break them, it is a negative karma. But it is not the same negative karma as breaking monks' or nuns' vows, in the sense that they are different; if you break them, you can take them again and again and again. Thus, the mode of application of the Bodhisattva vows and the vows of individual liberation is different. We can say that it is negative, because you don't respect an engagement you have taken, but it does not have the same negativity as to break one of the monks' or nuns' vows - It is different. It is a negativity, but it is not as heavy as it would be for a monk or a nun to break his or her vows.
Q: What are the five vows for the Genyen?
A: Not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, not to commit sexual misconduct, not to take any intoxicants - which includes alcohol and drugs.
As I said, those vows can be divided, which means that it is not any more the full Genyen ordination, but often, when people feel ready to take these vows, they take the four first ones, and they do not take the "not drinking alcohol" one. This is understandable, because it is a social habit to drink a little bit of wine, a little bit of alcohol with friends, or whatever. At the same time, it is a danger, because while you are under the effect of alcohol, then you can break any of the other vows. There is a story of a monk who was walking on a road in Tibet, and suddenly there was a kind of demon which appeared in front of him and who threatened to kill him straight away, if he did not accept to break one of his five major vows. Thus, the monk was thinking and thinking, and said to himself: 'I cannot kill, I cannot have a sexual activity, I cannot do this and that', so he finally decided that the least important of his vows was not to drink alcohol. Therefore, he accepted to drink alcohol, but while he was under the effect of alcohol, he broke all the other vows.
Q: A concrete example: if somebody holds the lay vows and the Bodhisattva vows, which means that one is not allowed to drink alcohol; if one is now in a situation, for example, a birthday party or the like, with a majority of non-Buddhists, and those people would get very angry, if one does not drink a little bit, is it the case that the Bodhisattva vows are not more important than the lay-vows so that it would be possible to take a small amount of alcohol?
A: A vow is a vow. If we know that we will be in a situation where the vows could be endangered, it is better not to go there. At the same time, we have to be careful, because one of the Bodhisattva vows states not to refuse an invitation motivated by laziness or by any negative mind. Thus, we have to put these facts in balance; we have to check our motivation why we do not accept an invitation. But if we have the vows not to drink alcohol, then we shall not drink alcohol.
I must add here that there is one exception, which is in some pujas, we are taking a drop of alcohol - it is not a sip, usually. Therefore, if you have the vows not to drink alcohol, you are still allowed to take that drop of alcohol which you take with the tip of your finger.
Of course, there are exceptions. When there are rules, there are exceptions. There are stories of monks, especially, there is one story of a monk in Lhasa who was by night quitting the monastery and going to some kind of Tibetan pub and who was drinking and drinking with all his friends; and through the months, he started to drink a little bit less, and while he himself was drinking a little bit less, his friends were also drinking a little bit less and less and less. And finally, he invited them to his home, and all his friends came to his home, and, with the time, they stopped to drink alcohol altogether, and they were listening to the teachings he was giving, and they became practitioners, and they became good Buddhist practitioners. This is a story that just depicts the possibility for somebody who has achieved a certain level, to transgress some vows. But we should add immediately that in order to take the decision to transgress one of the vows, we have to be one hundred percent sure of our motivation. More specifically, we have to have realized Bodhicitta firmly; and not only Bodhicitta, but we have to have realized Bodhicitta and Emptiness at the same time, which makes us a Bodhisattva of the first level, the first ' Bhumi', and only then do you have a clear mind to decide what is better for the benefit of the others, even is going against a vow.
But in the usual situation, a vow is a vow and shall not be transgressed, neither by ourselves nor by whoever else. I mean that somebody who pretends to be a Lama or a high teacher or a high practitioner, if he is a monk, he has to respect all his monk vows; and it is not the case that, if he or she pretends to be a Tantric practitioner, that he or she can allow himself or herself to have, e.g., sexual intercourse or other kinds of behaviour that are against the monks' or nuns' vows. Nowadays, we see all kinds of transgressions of vows and of the ethics, therefore, we have to be very clear that monks are monks, nuns are nuns, and they have to respect the monks' and nuns' vows - whatever other vows they have.
Q: Within the Mahayana precepts, it is said that one is allowed only to eat once a day, and only before 12h00. The question is: How 'supple' is this rule - because it is extremely difficult not to transgress this rule, it is almost impossible, due to the daily life, to eat only before 12:00.
A: As far as I remember, the text doesn't say that we shall eat before 12h00, at noon, the text says that we should have only one meal, and it has to be the noon meal. I don't remember any specific time given for that, so, according to our life schedule, if you eat at one o'clock in the afternoon or two o'clock in the afternoon, it is not a breach of the vow. You have to eat at your noon meal, and to be sincere, honest with it; of course, you don't take the noon-meal at five o'clock in the evening, but if it is taken at one o'clock or two o'clock, it is not a breach of the commitment. 
It is even said by Lama Yeshe and by Lama Zopa Rinpoche that if you take the Mahayana precepts every day for a long period of time, you are even allowed to take a little breakfast. In the sense that you have to keep a certain strength for your practice.
Q: Is it the case that for people who, for reasons of health, have to eat more often than once a day, cannot accumulate this sort of Merit?
A: Well, it might be connected also with their karma; unfortunately. But I would say that in such a case one has to go to see the Lama of reference and ask. Although it is not possible according to the text, I do believe that according to the situation, the health situation, some exception can be done. In the case of diabetic people, they might be allowed to take a minimum of sugary drink to keep up their level of sugar in the blood.
Q: Is it allowed to drink juice?
A: It is not allowed to drink fruit juice containing the pulp of the juice, and it is not allowed to take milk without to be half cut with water. 
Q: I have a question concerning the Bodhisattva vow of not killing. Does this, first of all, also include plants? And, secondly, for little creatures, for instance, when I wash my salad, I might kill some creatures?
A: To the first Q: Plants do not hold a consciousness, an individual consciousness. So when you cut a salad, a flower, a plant, you do not kill a being. This should be clear. Only in some particular cases, that some big trees have a spirit consciousness in them. In such case, it's not a being that has taken rebirth as a tree, but as a spirit who will be 'linked' into a tree, as it could be into a house, a rock, or whatever else.
The vegetal realm does not exist as a possible realm of rebirth. Thus, to cut a plant is not killing, by any way.
The second question implies the insects in the salad; well, we have to be careful as much as we can. The vow of not killing, in its major form, does not include insects or animals, but include human beings. Therefore, clearly, if you kill animals, having any vows or not having any vows, it is a negative karma, but it is not breaking the vow. Otherwise, if you have the Bodhisattva vows, you could not take a car any more. We have to be careful as much as we can, and on the road, when there are frogs, or when there are animals, we have to drive more slowly, to be able to avoid them as well as we can. We cannot avoid them all, as we understand when we look at the front of the car. 
If you can, and if you are not afraid of remarks of others, then you can stick a Mantra in front of your car! Either you can buy an adhesive one, or you can make one, or ask somebody to make an 'Om mani peme hung' mantra and stick it on the front side of your car, as it is said that it is very valuable for the insects that will collapse on this part of the car.
Q: I have heard that when you have many commitments, when you do just one commitment on one deity, it contains the commitments on the other deities. Is this true or not?
A: It is not true concerning the mantras. Because each mantra is different, thus, you have to recite all the mantras on which you have taken the Initiation. If you have taken ten Initiations, you have to recite the ten mantras of each deity according to the number you have chosen during the Initiation. To continue the ' Lung', the Transmission of the energy of the mantra, you have to recite every day the mantras of the Initiations you have taken. First point. 
Second, the Sadhanas are different. If you have taken two commitments during two Initiations, then you have to do the two Sadhanas. And not just one Sadhanas. 
But… If you have taken a few times a higher Tantric Initiation, the six sessions of the Guru Yoga has to be done only once. You have to do six daily meditations, most of the time what is done is that we group the three meditations of the day in one session, and the three meditations of the night in one session, we don't have to do them every two hours strictly, in the day and in the night. We condense three in the day and three in the night. You have to do the six sessions of the Guru Yoga, either you have one higher Tantric Initiation, or three or four. Every time you receive one of these 'five doors' Tantric Initiations, you take the six sessions of the Guru Yoga, but they have to be done only once per day. 
But of course, the Sadhanas and the mantras are different.
Q: I cannot imagine three sessions during the night… What is the night? Is it during the evening?
A: From the dark. We consider the next day from the moment when outside we can see the line in the palm of our hand. For example, when we want to take the Mahayana precepts, we take them before the sunrise, and when is that? Before the sunrise means when you still cannot see the line in the palm of your hand. Being able to see it, this is the next day. We tend to count the next day from twelve in our society, but in the Tibetan society, it is from sunrise to next sunrise. When you take the Mahayana precepts, it is from one sunrise to another sunrise. At the moment, when the needle of the watch passes twelve, you cannot jump on food. You have to wait for the next morning.
We may stop here, because we have passed two hours; we can stay as long as you want, but we will conclude for tonight. 
Thank you


Words of Wisdom

"Your up and down emotions are like clouds in the sky; beyond them, the real, basic human nature is clear and pure."
- Lama Zopa Rinpoche

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