Which Vows Are Which? A Beginner’s Guide
A beginner interested in learning about Buddhism can easily become lost in the wealth of traditions and teachings available. Must one take refuge? Must one take precepts? And which vows are which?
Here is a brief summary of refuge and the vows that a practicing Buddhist can take in their quest for enlightenment.
Refuge: Refuge in Buddhism is a ceremony, a commitment, and a statement of faith. A practitioner requests the refuge ceremony from a qualified teacher; some regard this process as conferring upon them the state of being a “Buddhist.” The rituals of the ceremony may vary slightly according to the teacher, but the core element is the practitioner’s commitment to seeking liberation from suffering. The triple gem in which one takes refuge is the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings/path), and the Sangha (the Sangha jewel one takes refuge in is strictly the community of monks and nuns; in the West, the term sangha has also become common parlance for a community of practitioners).
The Five Lay Precepts: According to Buddhist teachings, the practice of ethics is one of the three principle forms of training that Buddhists engage in; the other two being meditation and wisdom. Ethical precepts (vows) guide a practitioner in examining cause and effect (karma), as well as how the renunciation, patience, and honesty required of this practice illuminate the teachings.
During the refuge ceremony, a practitioner is instructed that they may take all five precepts, none of the precepts, or a combination of the five. Male and female lay practitioners who choose to take all five precepts are called an upasaka (Sanskrit) or upasika respectively.
The five precepts are:
- Abstain from killing living beings;
- Abstain from taking that which is not given;
- Abstain from sexual misconduct;
- Abstain from telling lies;
- Abstain from alcohol. (Alternate translation: Abstain from all intoxicants.)
As one reflects upon the precepts, layers of meaning are illuminated in each vow. Of great importance in taking precepts is the understanding that it is an individual commitment; using the precepts to judge another’s behavior is utterly counter-productive.
The Pratimoksha Vows: The Pratimoksha vows comprise the basic rules of monastic discipline. Novice monks and nuns take thirty-six vows. Fully-ordained male and female sangha (bhikshus and bhikshunis) are governed by 227 to 354 vows depending on the school and tradition. These rules are contained in the Vinaya, the collection of the Buddha’s teachings on monastic discipline.
The Eight Mahayana Precepts: On special holy days, during retreats, and at other times suggested by one’s teacher, a practitioner may choose to take the eight Mahayana precepts. The eight precepts are taken for twenty-four hours, with an option to take them again the following day. These precepts include the five lay precepts and an additional three:
- Abstain from taking food at inappropriate times;
- Abstain from entertainments such as dancing, singing, and music, as well as refraining from the use of perfumes, ornaments, and other items used to beautify the person;
- Abstain from using high or luxurious beds.
Note: In taking the eight Mahayana precepts, the sexual misconduct precept becomes a vow to abstain from any sexual activity.
The Eighteen Bodhisattva Vows: A bodhisattva is an awakened being who embodies bodhichitta: the aspiration to attain full enlightenment in order to help all sentient beings. There are eighteen bodhisattva root vows (and forty-six branch vows) given in various Mahayana Buddhist practice contexts in order to help guide and train the practitioner in the behavior of a bodhisattva.
Tantric Vows: Tantrayana, also called Vajrayana, is a school of Tibetan Buddhism. Tantric initiations are given by qualified teachers at four different levels: action tantra, performance tantra, yoga tantra, and highest yoga tantra. Tantric vows are given only with highest yoga tantra initiations.