OPL 12.1: Refuge, vows, and renunciation

We tackled a tricky topic head on in the chapter 8 refuge class, and based on feedback from a few participants, I wanted to clarify why I included it and what value it may have for modern-day lay practitioners once you get past the hyperbole of its traditional Tibetan monastic expression. But first: the hyperbole!

In traditional texts and teachings, sometimes the bar is set so high, so “all or nothing,” as someone put it in class, that it can feel discouraging in a culture where many of us are taught to constantly judge ourselves and feel like we can never measure up even to ordinary standards of success. Apparently, this was not the case in Tibetan culture. A Tibetan monk I know, when asked about this, said that not once in his life has he ever felt there was anything wrong with him. How many of us could say the same, or even imagine what that would feel like? So when we encounter teachings that seem to set an impossibly high bar, they may resonate with our background sense of already not being good enough, whereas Tibetans may not have had this particular vulnerability.

It’s worth noting that the hyperbole works both ways. In this chapter alone, the stated benefits of taking refuge (OPL 107) include: “All our negative actions will be purified. We will be undaunted by obstacles created by humans or nonhumans. All that we wish for will be achieved. We will not fall into the lower realms. We will soon become truly and perfectly enlightened.” Reading this at face value, we could just take the refuge vow and wait around for enlightenment to strike. But even if we took such statements literally as beginners, we quickly learned that the reality is much more complex, and the refuge vow is just a foundation for the rest of the path.

The first inkling of this cultural divide may have been at an early Mind and Life conference in 1990 when the Dalai Lama was told about a phenomenon called self-hatred; when he asked his audience to raise their hands if they had ever experienced this, he was quite shocked when a large proportion of them did. Today in the West, even the oldest generation of teachers born in Tibet, who began teaching here decades ago in the same way they trained and were taught, have gradually softened their approach for Western practitioners, having come to understand that our psychology and needs, our vulnerabilities and our strengths, are different in key ways from those of their native culture.

I definitely witnessed that evolution with my own, very traditional, root lama. Younger contemporary Tibetan teachers such as Mingyur Rinpoche and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who have lots of Western students, have become very adept at teaching directly to our needs and sensitivities. And then there was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who even in the 1970s began to reinvent Vajrayana Buddhism in a more Western idiom, though there are some cautionary notes about his radical, free-wheeling, 1970’s-style approach.

Living in twelfth-century Tibet, eight centuries before Tibetan Buddhism would spread to other cultures, and speaking to an audience of monastics who already held vows and were committed to a life of dharma, Gampopa taught in the idiom that suited his time and place. So if we want to benefit directly from his teachings, we have to do some intercultural translation and sometimes separate the value they may hold for us from the way in which they are expressed. This is a demanding task, and we will certainly hit some bumps and have to work through doubts that may arise. The traditional Tibetan literature is rife with examples that clash with our modern understanding, such as the definition of sexual misconduct in the ten unvirtuous actions, and the sometimes blatant orientation toward male practitioners. Alternatively, we could rely exclusively on contemporary teachers who understand our needs as 21st-century Westerners, and that is a very reasonable option. For example, in Path to Buddhahood, Ringu Tulku does a lot of that work for us, leaving out or softening some of Gampopa’s observations that might cause confusion — such as the relationship between refuge, vows, and renunciation.

The issue: At the beginning of chapter 8 Gampopa lists four prerequisites for a person to become “a suitable basis for the cultivation of bodhicitta”: 1) a Mahayana level of motivation (that’s pretty much by definition, as bodhicitta is the basis of the Mahayana); 2) refuge in the Three Jewels, 3) any one of the seven levels of additional monastic or lay (pratimoksha) vows, and 4) the development of aspiration bodhicitta, the actual heartfelt wish to attain liberation in order to help other beings do the same.

The third prerequisite, holding vows, is where it gets sticky for us, and in fact Gampopa states that there was disagreement about this even in his time, though it seems to be based on technicalities (OPL 109). Ringu Tulku doesn’t even go there, saying instead (page 67), “In the tradition of Atisha, followed by Gampopa, it is considered that one must have previously taken refuge or one of the Vinaya vows, to be capable of developing true bodhicitta.” (Emphasis added.) Since refuge is the basis of the Buddhist path and also of all subsequent vows, I don’t think he means that refuge is optional, but rather that additional vows, in our time and place, are not necessary for the development of true bodhicitta, even if they were considered to be in Gampopa’s monastic environment.

We could have just gone with Ringu Tulku’s explanation, but I wanted to explore what reasoning there might be in Gampopa’s statement that both are needed. As we explore this reasoning, I don’t mean to suggest that anyone should make a formal commitment they don’t feel ready for. We can take Ringu Tulku’s word that it’s not necessary. I just think it’s worth examining what Gampopa actually said.

What resonated most with me in Gampopa’s explanation was his logical argument (OPL 108-109) that “through the pratimoksha vows, you abandon harm to others along with its basis. Through the bodhisattva vows, you benefit others. There is no way in which you can benefit others without first renouncing harming them.” In short, the vows represent formal renunciation of samsaric patterns, i.e., decisive resolution (a more literal translation of the Tibetan word for renunciation) to free ourselves from samsara. It follows logically that if we hesitate to take even the minimum level of vows, that hesitation is a sign that we are still clinging to samsara in some form. This may or may not be true, and each of us has to decide that for our own situation. But perhaps it is worth asking ourselves the question periodically: is freedom what I really want, and is that what I’m reinforcing through my actions? If not, what would help me more fully live my aspirations? Gampopa also explained the reason for taking vows through simile (that vows help us purify the vessel that will hold bodhicitta) and scriptural authority (from the sutras, which are considered to be the Buddha’s direct teachings).

To further explore this question, I turned to Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s commentary on a text by the first Kalu Rinpoche, Karma Rangjung Kunchab, who lived from 1905-1989 — definitely a teacher of the old school, though he was also one of the pioneering teachers who brought Tibetan Buddhism to the West in the 1970s. In Single Sufficient Virtue (page 10), Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche says, “As long as we don’t come to some definitive resolution about what we are doing, where we are headed, and what we are trying to do, then we remain in a state of delusion and denial. We remain in delusion about samsara and in denial about the fact that there is no real permanent happiness within it.” He then quotes Kalu Rinpoche: “If you don’t actually gain decisive resolution about this, … if you don’t turn your mind away from this delusion and denial about samsara, then all of your Dharma practice and meditation won’t really matter, because your craving for and fixation on samsara will just increase … Therefore, this is the ground for all of our practice and it is indispensable. Nothing else that we do will actually work if this ground is not present.”

Kalu Rinpoche’s words are quite uncompromising, which caused some discomfort during the class discussion, but I don’t think we need to interpret them literally. Whether we hold vows or not, and even if don’t have full renunciation, we can still see clearly for ourselves that our practice is beneficial and that we are waking up incrementally. It’s also important to remind ourselves, as is frequently said in the teachings, that renunciation, or decisive resolution, doesn’t mean giving up all our possessions, worldly activities and enjoyments; it means we fully understand that they are not a reliable source of true happiness or meaning in our lives, and we enjoy them only for what they are, gradually ceasing to crave more than we have and to resist what we have no control over.

The five lay, or householder, vows: Putting aside any question of the six categories of monastic ordination, the five lay vows (Tibetan: genyen vows) available to any practitioner lucky enough to have the opportunity to take them, are simple: to refrain from 1) killing, 2) stealing, 3) lying, 4) harmful sexual conduct, and 5) intoxicants (not referring to medications, but only recreational substances). Interestingly, and unlike the vows of monastic ordination, the lay vows are not all or nothing. You can take all five, or just one, or any number in between. I would think that holding even one lay vow, such as not to intentionally kill, might fulfill Gampopa’s strict prerequisites for cultivating full bodhicitta. But from my point of view, we are still going with Ringu Tulku on this: only refuge is required, vows are added value.

A class member suggested that holding a vow can serve as a support for someone who is struggling with a strong habitual pattern that makes it especially difficult to refrain from a particular action that is taught to be an obstacle to awakening (all five actions prohibited by the lay vows fall into this category). And even though it is certainly possible to refrain from all harmful actions, and even have full renunciation, without taking any formal vows, vows are said to offer an additional benefit above and beyond merely refraining from harmful actions: Ken Holmes explains in endnote 153 of OPL: “… the karmic power of a vow such as refuge acts continuously, even during sleep” and thus serves as a basis for accumulating vast merit. Is this hyperbole? I have no idea. But I find it inspiring!

In closing, a class member who has had many teachings from the His Holiness the Dalai Lama over the years shared with us that he begins every teaching by encouraging students to take to heart whatever resonates with them, and to disregard what doesn’t. The path clarifies itself as we travel it. It’s fine to be patient, take our time, and trust that all our practice is beneficial, even if we aren’t able to dot every traditional i. I first heard from Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche the classic Tibetan saying, “Mistake by mistake, I travel the perfect path.” Chamgon Kenting Tai Situpa once reassured us, “Don’t panic! You don’t have to accomplish everything in one lifetime. If you improve by just one percent, you should rejoice.”

I have lived this life of not feeling good enough too. For many years, I always felt the deities and teachers on my shrine were frowning at me in disapproval: “Surely you can do better than this!” Gradually, over four decades, I’ve finally come to feel they are actually looking upon me with compassion and encouragement, even in those moments when I’m disappointed in myself.

Our tendency to self-doubt and discouragement is exactly why we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. They are our support system, they are always on our side, and they are said to be unfailing. When things are not going well and we are feeling stressed or unworthy, if we can remember to take refuge in the Three Jewels (instead of in ice cream or Netflix), that is how we will overcome all obstacles and travel the path to buddhahood — whatever specific form our practice takes.

Related 37 practices verse: verse 7