The Peaceful Prison
Mandala Magazine asked Nick Ribush, Director of the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, to comment on his experience of taking precepts.
Lama Yeshe used to liken taking precepts to putting yourself in jail; the “peaceful prison,” he used to call it. What he meant was that, just as the rules and laws of regular society indicate what can and cannot be done, precepts, too, keep us on the straight and narrow, the difference being that societal laws are forced upon us whereas we choose to take precepts freely.
And that’s the thing about Buddhism, isn’t it? You can choose what to do and what not to, and the clearer your mind, the more you’re capable of taking on.
I first learned about precepts about two weeks into my Dharma career when, during the third Kopan course (my first) back in 1972, we all had to take them for the last half of the one-month course. These were, of course, the eight Mahayana precepts that you keep for a 24-hour period. My main memories are of getting up extremely early in the cold, trudging up the hill to the gompa in the dark (we stayed at the bottom of the hill in those days), and going to bed hungry. It must have been doing me good.
At the end of the course, Lama Yeshe offered refuge and precepts to those prepared to make a lifelong commitment and I leapt right in. I felt that I was really putting myself on the rails: putting myself in the position where for the rest of my life I would be making fewer decisions (“Will I? Won’t I?”), saving me a lot of time and protecting me from creating heaps more negative karma than I otherwise would have.
The reason for taking precepts is that to gain the wisdom-realizing emptiness, the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, we need perfect concentration, and to gain that we need to live a disciplined life: to practice morality. Even to avoid rebirth in the lower realms we have to practice morality.
As Lama Zopa Rinpoche always explains, the essence of the practice of morality is keeping precepts, and the fundamental precepts to keep are the pratimoksha, the monastic vows of individual liberation. So, after my first course I began with taking the five basic lay precepts – not to kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, lie or use intoxicants – from Lama Yeshe. A few months later I had a chance to build on these when, after the fourth course, Lama offered the bodhisattva vows.
Then I went to Lawudo, spending the first of two spectacular summers there editing Rinpoche’s teachings from the previous two courses. Of these, the teachings that had the greatest impact on me were those on the perfect human rebirth, where Rinpoche emphasized that of the freedoms and luxuries of a perfect human rebirth, some of the most significant were those that allowed the practitioner to take precepts.
The thing about precepts, Rinpoche said, was that the more you take, the better; the longer and purer you keep them, the better; and the sooner your purity breaks the better.
The more you take the better? The pratimoksha comprised more than the five lay precepts I’d taken – there were the thirty-six vows of the novice and hundreds of the fully-ordained monk or nun. Putting all that together I decided that the best way of extracting the essence from my human rebirth was to become a monk. There were ten of us at the fifth Kopan course who’d come to this conclusion, so Lama Yeshe arranged for us to get ordained at Bodhgaya in January 1974, after the Kalachakra initiation, and it was there that several of us also took tantric vows for the first time.
So that was it.we had all three levels of precepts, about as many as you can take. But, as the lamas say, taking precepts is easy – it’s keeping them that’s hard.
Nick Ribush remained a monk until he disrobed in 1986. He is now the director of the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive and still tries to hold his original five precepts.