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Precepts and Vows

The description below talks about the vows of the Tibetan tradition. Other Buddhist traditions may have different vows and rules. However, the foundation of Buddhist practice is always to avoid harming others.

Ten harmful activities

An important guideline for our general behavior is avoiding the ten harmful activities:

  • Three physically harmful activities: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct (adultery)
  • Four verbally harmful activities: lying, divisive speech, swearing and profanity, meaningless chatter (gossip)
  • Three mentally harmful activities: greed, malice, wrong views

Vows, why?

The Buddha has devoted many lessons to human behavior, and he talks about what may or may not be harmful to ourselves and others. Everyone is free to follow this advice. However, if you want to take things a step further, you can set your intentions by making a solemn promise to do or not to do certain things and to take vows. The essence of a vow is the strength of the intention, the motivation. By firmly resolving and making a promise not to engage in a harmful activity, constant positive energy is created, even while you sleep. That is quite different in karmic terms than simply refraining from killing or lying without having made a promise.

It is good to realize that taking vows is not a first step for most of us, it is a gradual process. Similarly, no one will ever ask you to become a Buddhist. And everyone moves at their own pace. It takes a lot of time and energy to change our negative habitual patterns. It is a psychological process, in which you guide yourself slowly through study and contemplation. But there are simple teachings that can benefit you right away. For example, if you make a mistake, you can try to make amends, regret it, and make a firm resolve to do better next time. A mistake then becomes a lesson, and not a reason to get depressed or leave a nagging feeling of guilt.

Vows help you to live more consciously, allowing you to avoid negative actions. As a result, vows can have a liberating and not restrictive character. The Buddha has said that keeping a single precept has unprecedented benefits. It creates a lot of positive energy.

With vows, we strive to free ourselves from problems by restraining the activities of body, speech, and mind. The goal is to stop accumulate negative karma, to quickly accumulate positive karma and eventually to realize the wisdom of selflessness. Because when we are no longer controlled by karma and disruptive emotions this allows us to attain liberation from cyclic existence (samsara) and attain nirvana.

All vows in Buddhism begin with taking refuge (becoming a Buddhist). This can only be done by a fully qualified teacher and in front of others who have taken the same vows before.

It may be important to note that over the many centuries there have been differences here and there in the exact interpretations of vows. If you are considering taking certain vows, it is therefore highly advisable to first ask the teacher's interpretation and opinion with whom you are going to take those vows, to avoid confusion afterwards. Tantric vows are an exception to this: you usually don't get an explanation about this before you receive them, see also below for more information.

Five lay vows

If you find that Buddhism motivates you, you can choose to take refuge (become a Buddhist) and take one or more of the following five lay vows:

  • Don't kill. This is mainly about killing people, but it is also good to have respect for all sentient beings, including fish and small animals (mosquitoes, ants, etc.).
  • Do not steal, that is: take what is not given.
  • Do not lie.
  • No sexual misconduct, i.e. no adultery, and certainly no sexual abuse.
  • Do not take intoxicants, such as alcohol and drugs.

Lay vows you take for the rest of this life. However, there are vows that can be taken for just 24 hours. It is therefore wise to think about this well in advance. The vows are taken in a short ritual, usually combined with taking refuge.

Mahayana Vows for One Day – for laypeople, monks and nuns alike

There is an option to take one-day vows, which is the one-day Mahayana vows, which has eight precepts. The first time you take these vows, you have to take them in the presence of someone who keeps them too, but after that you can take them in front of the buddhas that you mentally envision.

The bodhisattva vows - for laypeople, monks and nuns

When you intend to become a buddha for the good of all beings, you can also take the bodhisattva vow. There are two versions of this: the wishing bodhisattva vow and the commencing bodhisattva vow.

(In China and Japan, for example, you will find a completely different kind of Bodhisattva vow, also called the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, which contains only four lines. This tradition probably originated in the sixth century, by the Chinese master Chih-i.)

Tantric Vows and Obligations - for laypeople, monks, and nuns

For the practice of the different classes of tantra, there are different requirements of the student, with at least of course taking refuge, and usually also taking the Bodhisattva vows.

Tantric vows are not made public to avoid confusion among those who do not practice tantra. In addition, an initiation (permission) for a particular practice is required from a qualified teacher, and additional obligations are sometimes taken, such as a daily practice or an obligation to do a specific retreat, see also the page about Vadjrayana. Within the Nyingma tradition there are also slightly different vows for tantric practitioners (so-called ngakpas). Unlike the vows for monks and nuns, celibacy is not a precept of the tantric vows. Maitreya Institute follows the Gelug school of Buddhism.

Vows for Monks and Nuns

It is possible in Buddhism to receive different levels of monk or nun ordinations: from novice to fully ordained monk or nun. It is of course not necessary to become a monk or nun to be a Buddhist, but if you want to devote your whole life to the Buddhist practices and way of life, this is a serious possibility. According to the Buddhist Vinaya texts, describing these vows, celibacy is always part of the vows of monks and nuns. Simply put, monks or nuns who are not celibate are not monks or nuns according to the Buddhist definition.

As a continuation, see the page: Monks and nuns