From the Dalai Lama’s recent book Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions.
The Higher Training in Ethical Conduct
The four truths establish the reason and framework for Dharma practice. To attain nirvāṇa we must cultivate the three higher trainings in ethical conduct, concentration, and wisdom (DN 10:1.6). The three higher trainings differ from the three trainings because their goals are higher. The mere three trainings are done to fulfill aims in saṃsāra, such as having a fortunate rebirth, while the three higher trainings are directed toward liberation and full awakening.
The Importance of Ethical Conduct
Buddhists accept that human life has a deeper purpose and that good rebirths, liberation, and full awakening are valuable aims. Since afflictions prevent us from actualizing our virtuous aims, we try to reduce and eventually eradicate them. The various ethical codes are designed to do this by helping us to subdue our physical, verbal, and mental actions.
According to the Sanskrit tradition, the wisdom realizing selflessness eliminates obscurations from the root. For wisdom to function properly, it must be accompanied by single-pointed concentration. To gain deep concentration, firm mindfulness and introspective awareness (sampajañña, samprajanya) are needed to subdue the subtle internal hindrances. These are initially cultivated through restraining the coarse external hindrances of nonvirtuous physical and verbal actions through practicing ethical conduct.
Ethical conduct means to restrain from doing harm and applies to both monastics and lay followers. Tibetan Buddhism contains three levels of ethical restraints: prātimokṣa (Pāli, pāṭimokkha), bodhisattva, and tantric. The prātimokṣa ethical restraint focuses on abandoning harmful physical and verbal actions. The bodhisattva ethical restraint emphasizes abandoning self-centered thoughts, words, and deeds. The tantric ethical restraint aims to overcome subtle mental obscurations. Because their focus is progressively more subtle, the three sets of ethical restraints are taken gradually and in that order.
Keeping the commitments and precepts we have taken is essential to attain realizations. Some people are brave when taking precepts and commitments but are cowardly when it comes to keeping them. We should be the opposite, thinking well before taking ethical restraints, humbly requesting them from our teachers, and afterward keeping them properly and joyfully.
Whether someone practices principally the Śrāvaka Vehicle or the Bodhisattva Vehicle, ethical conduct is the foundation of the practice. The prātimokṣa precepts help us regulate physical and verbal actions, and in doing so, we must work with the mind that motivates these actions.
Although all Buddhists try to abandon the ten nonvirtues, taking precepts involves special commitment and thus brings special benefit. Living in precepts prevents destructive karma and purifies harmful habits. It also brings rapid and strong accumulation of merit, because every moment we are not breaking a precept, we are actively abandoning that destructive action, thus enriching our mind with merit from acting constructively. Ethical conduct cools the fires of afflictions, prepares the mind to attain higher states of meditative absorption, is the path leading to the awakenings of all three vehicles, and brings about the fulfillment of our wishes. Keeping ethical conduct prevents guilt, remorse, and anxiety. It averts fear and reproach from others and is the basis for self-esteem. Our ethical conduct contributes to world peace, for others trust and feel safe around a person who abandons the wish to harm others. Good ethical conduct cannot be stolen or embezzled; it is the basis for having a fortunate rebirth, which is necessary to continue practicing the Dharma. Living in precepts creates the cause to encounter favorable circumstances and be able to continue practicing in future lives. Because we will already be habituated in our future lives to releasing attachment and practicing the path, we will attain awakening swiftly.
Prātimokṣa Ethical Restraints
The principal motivation to receive any of the eight types of prātimokṣa ethical restraints is the determination to be free from saṃsāra. Five types of prātimokṣa ethical restraint are for monastics: (1–2) fully ordained monks (bhikkhu, bhikṣu) and fully ordained nuns (bhikkhunī, bhikṣuṇī), (3) training nun (sikkhamānā, śikṣamāṇā), and (4–5) novice monk (sāmaṇera, śrāmaṇera) and novice nun (sāmaṇerī, śrāmaṇerikā). Three are for lay followers: (6–7) laymen (upāsaka) and laywomen (upāsikā), and (8) one-day precept holders.
Lay followers take the five lay precepts for the duration of their lives, abandoning killing, stealing, unwise and unkind sexual behavior, lying, and taking intoxicants (alcohol, recreational drugs, and misuse of prescription medicines). When taking the eight one-day precepts, lay followers additionally abandon sexual activity; sitting on high or luxurious seats or beds; singing, dancing, and playing music; wearing perfumes, ornaments, or cosmetics; and eating at improper times (between midday and dawn of the following morning).
People have different abilities and interests, so you can choose the type of prātimokṣa ethical restraint best suited to you. Whichever one you choose, practice the precepts with a good motivation. The wish to escape debts or avoid caring for children or aged parents are not good reasons for taking monastic vows; neither is the wish for a place to live or free food.
Some people think that because monastic precepts restrain physical and verbal misdeeds, purity in vinaya involves only external appearances—acting and speaking in a refined manner. However, to actually subdue our outward behavior requires subduing the mind, because all physical and verbal activities flow from a mental intention.
For those who choose to become monastics, the practice of vinaya helps increase contentment. Because we voluntarily put limits on what we do, we practice being satisfied with what we have and let go of our desirous impulses. A monastic may eat only during certain times and may not demand specific food; whatever he receives, he must accept. Buddhist monastics are not required to be vegetarian, although Chinese monastics who hold the bodhisattva ethical restraint are. Monastics are limited to having one set of robes that we consider our own. Monastics cannot wear expensive robes and are limited to having a small number of personal items. Anything else should be considered as property of the monastic community or as property shared with other monastics. This reduces the dissatisfied mind seeking “more and better.”
Monastics limit relations with family in order to avoid emotional dependency and involvement in activities that take us away from Dharma practice. Using our ordination name signifies leaving behind our old identity as others’ relative or friend and adopting the life of a monastic.
The practice of vinaya develops mindfulness and introspective awareness. If we are about to do certain actions, we train to immediately think, “I am a monastic and have chosen not to do this.” By cultivating such mindfulness and checking if our behavior is proper when we are awake, our mindfulness becomes stronger and will also arise in our dreams.
The practice of vinaya also helps to develop fortitude (khanti, kṣānti). The Prātimokṣa Sūtra says:
Fortitude is the first and foremost path.
The Buddha declared it as the supreme way to attain nirvāṇa.
One who has left the home life yet harms or injures others
is not called a renunciate.
To refine their virtue, the Buddha instructed monastics to practice fortitude in four situations: (1) If others are angry with you, do not react with anger but with fortitude. (2) If others hit you, do not retaliate. (3) If others criticize you, do not criticize them in return. (4) And if others embarrass or insult you, do not respond by embarrassing or insulting them. These are real ascetic practices that will increase your fortitude, bring harmony to your relationships and to society in general, and lead to awakening.
Some people think of precepts as nonnegotiable rules propounded by an absolute authority. Naturally, this makes them uncomfortable. But the prātimokṣa precepts are not like this. They are helpful trainings that lead to good results. For example, if we want to be healthy, we voluntarily adopt new eating habits and avoid activities that weaken our bodies. Similarly, when we want to abandon ignorance, anger, and attachment, we voluntarily curtail actions motivated by them and avoid objects that trigger them. Thus precepts are not forced on us by an external authority; they are trainings we voluntarily uphold because we want to fulfill our spiritual aims.
For the first twelve years, the saṅgha did not have any precepts. But when some monks misbehaved, it was reported to the Buddha, who established a precept to abandon that action. Later, when different conditions were present, he made exceptions or gave other guidelines. Thus precepts are not absolute rules.
Some precepts concern etiquette. Since etiquette differs from one culture to another, we must adapt our behavior to whatever is suitable in a particular place.
Prātimokṣa ethical restraints are common to practitioners of all three vehicles. Those engaging in bodhisattva or tantric practice cannot ignore or belittle their prātimokṣa precepts. In fact, being negligent with respect to prātimokṣa precepts is explicitly forbidden in the bodhisattva and tantric precepts, and doing so is a serious downfall. We must try to maintain all our precepts as best as we can.