Introduction: Perfect Conduct Ascertaining the Three Vows

This was written as an introduction to the book, "Perfect Conduct Ascertaining the Three Vows", by Ngari Panchen Padma Wangi Gyalpo. 



Commitment is the essence of the Buddhist vows. They mark the dedication of one's life to refraining from any harmful deeds and to fostering peace and joy in oneself and others. These aims are accomplished by disciplining the mind itself. For the mind is the key to all spiritual actions, experiences and attainments. The Buddha said:

Not committing any evil deeds,

Fostering all the virtuous deeds, and

Taming one's own mind

Are the teachings of the Buddha.

Buddhist discipline starts with taming the mind, because the mind is the source of all mental events and physical actions. If a person's mind is open, peaceful and kind, all his or her thoughts and efforts will benefit himself or herself and others. If a person's mind is selfish and violent, all his or her thoughts and physical actions will manifest as harmful to all. The Buddha said:

Mind is the main factor and forerunner of all (actions),

If with a cruel mind one speaks or acts,

Misery follows, just as the cart follows (the horse). ...

If with a pure mind one speaks or acts,

Happiness follows, as the shadow never departs.

Although the mind is the main factor, for us whose spiritual strength is limited, the physical disciplines of living in solitary peace and refraining from indulging in violent actions are crucial. Our mental attitudes and concepts are formed by habits that are totally conditioned by physical and external circumstances and they are enslaved by those circumstances. We cannot think, act or function independently of them. Physical disciplines protect us from being the prey of the so-called sources of emotions, such as enmity, beauty, ugliness, wealth, power and fame, which give our mind a craving and aggressive nature, resulting in harmful physical reactions. Thus, physical discipline is an essential means of avoidance and a defensive mechanism.

In order to refrain from committing any evil deeds, one must persistently follow the guideline of physical and mental disciplines. There are different sets of disciplines in Buddhism, especially in tantra, but the classification of them into three vows is universal for Tibetan Buddhist tradition. For the Nyingmapa school of Tibetthe Absolute Certainty of the Three Vows (sDom-gSum rNam-Nges) by Panchen Padma Wangyal (1487-1542) of Ngari province has been for centuries the text for learning the codes of the three vows. In this text, the author elucidates each vow with its history, nature, divisions, how to receive the vow, how to observe the vow, how to repair broken vows and the result of observing the vow. The three vows are the vows of pratimoksa, bodhisattva  and tantra.

PratimoksaVow: The vow of pratimoksa (individual liberation) mainly emphasises disciplining one's physical behavior and not harming others. Pratimoksa  discipline is termed the "foundation of Buddhism", because for ordinary people physical discipline is the beginning of spiritual training and it is the basis of spiritual progress. The aspiration of the pure pratimoksadiscipline is the achievement of liberation for oneself, as it belongs to Sravaka  training. However, Tibetan Buddhists are followers of Mahayana from the beginning, so they emphasise taking the pratimoksavows with the attitude of bodhicitta, taking and observing the vow in order that all beings may have happiness and enlightenment.

In pratimoksa  there are eight types of precepts. The upavasa (one-day lay devotee) observes 8 vows for twenty-four hours. The upasaka, the male devotee and upasika, the female devotee, observe the 5 precepts. These three are the precepts for the lay householders. TheSramanera, the male novice, and the sramanerika, the female novice observe 10 (13 or 36) vows.  The Siksamana, the probationary nun, observes 12 vows in addition to the precepts of samenerika. The Bhiksu, the fully ordained monk, observes 253 vows and the bhiksuni, the fully ordained nun, observes 364 vows. These five are the precepts for those who are celibates who have renounced their household life. In Tibetan monastic practice, the last seven pratimoksavows are not taken for a temporary period but for life. Some do not count the upavasavow as a pratimoksa, since it is a temporary precept.

In essence, the training in observing the pratimoksa  vow is to stay away from any source of improper deeds, the sources of mental afflictions and pain for ourselves or others. Thus we can break the chain of negative causations and habits, andestablish within ourselves a spiritual basis, a source of peace, joy and benefits for ourselves and all the mother beings. It is important to remember that unless we can improve our own life, step by step, we are not yet properly equipped to be the perfect tool for bringing true joy to others.

As long as our mind is weak and attracted to the sources of emotions, it will be easily influenced or overwhelmed by anger, lust andconfusion. Then it is most important to physically refrain from the sources of emotion by observing the pratimoksa  vows. For example, if we are weak, it is wiser not to confront our powerful enemies but to avoid them. The Pratimoksa  vows are a vehicle to defend us from encountering the mental afflictions or their sources. They are easier to observe, as they are gross and are physical disciplines, such as refraining from killing and stealing. When our mind is strong enough to stand on its own with less influence from physical activities or external influences, we can put more emphasis on the disciplines of the bodhisattva.

Bodhisattva Vow: The vow of the bodhisattva (adherent of enlightenment) mainly emphasises observing the bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment, a mental attitude of taking responsibility for bringing happiness and enlightenment to all the mother beings, with love and compassion, without any trace of selfish interest, even for a single instant, and putting it into practice.[1] So here we are not just refraining from harming others, but dedicating ourselves to serve them.

The bodhisattva  precept has three major aspects. The first is "refraining from harmful deeds", which has two traditions. According to the Nagarjuna tradition, there are 18 major precepts to observe. According to the Asanga tradition, for the vows of "aspirational bodhicitta", there are 4 general precepts for notlosing the vows, and 8 precepts for not forgetting them. For the vow of the practical bodhicitta, there are 4 root downfalls and 46 auxiliary faults to refrain from.

The second is "the amassing of virtuous deeds". It is the training on "the six perfections:"generosity, moral discipline, patience, diligence, contemplation and wisdom.

The third is "the service of others". It is the practice of "the four means of gathering" or bringing others to Dharma. They are the practice of generosity, pleasing speech, leading others to the meaningful path of Dharma and the abiding of the leader him/herself in the same path.

Whereas, according to Longchen Rabjam,[2] the vow for "the bodhicitta of aspiration" is to contemplate on "the four boundless attitudes": love, compassion, joy andequalness, and the vow for "the bodhicitta  of practice" is the training on the "six perfections".

The Bodhisattva vow is to be maintained until one reaches enlightenment, the final goal of aspiration. Unless we abandon the bodhicitta, it will remain in us through deaths and births, pain and joy. Its force of merit increases in us, even in sleep or distraction, as the trees grow even in the darkness of night. Here, people might have a problem with the concept of maintaining the vows after death. But, according to Buddhism, the physical attributes, such as the body, wealth and friends, will not company us into our next lives, but the mental habits, convictions, strengths and aspirations with their effects, the karma, will stay with us until they are ripened ordestroyed. So if we make powerful aspirations and efforts, they will remain with us and will form thecourse of our next lives.

The Bodhisattva  vow is much harder to observe than the vow of pratimoksa, as its main discipline is maintaining the right mental attitudes and understanding, which are subtle and difficult to control. But it is more powerful and beneficial, since if we have bodhicitta  in our mind, we cannot do anything that harms anybody but only what benefits them. And it is not a mater of avoiding the mental afflictions or their sources, but of destroying or neutralizing them. For example, the compassionate attitude pacifies anger, seeing the nature of impermanence of phenomenal existents alleviates desire and realization of causation and/or the absence of a "self" end ignorance. For example, when you are strong, by facing the enemy, you defeat him with your strength. People who are exceptionally intelligent and diligent with full of energy and enthusiasm, and totally open and appreciative could enter or put more emphasis on the disciplines of tantra.

TantricVow: The vow of tantra(esoteric continuum) mainly emphasises realizing and perfecting the union of wisdom and skillful means and accomplishing the goal of both oneself and others simultaneously.

Tantric trainings start with receiving the empowerment (Skt., abhisekha)  from a highly qualified tantric master. In the transmission of the empowerment, the master's enlightened power causes the awakening of the primordial wisdom, the meaning of empowerment, in the disciple. Such wisdom is inherited in every being, but hidden, like a treasure buried in the walls. With the power of the awakened wisdom one trains in the two stages of tantra, "the development stage" and "perfection stage" of various tantric teachings, and accomplishes the goal, the attainment of Buddhahood for the benefit of oneself and others. In order to preserve, develop and perfect such awakened wisdom, one must observe the samaya(esoteric precepts), as it is the heart of tantric training. Breaking tantric samaya  is more harmful than breaking any other vows. It might like falling from an airplane compared to falling from a horse. For the tantric realization and transmission is full of power, depth and greatness. There is no way of giving up tantric vows except to break them and fall.

For tantric samaya there are numerous precepts to observe, but Panchen Padma Wangyal presents the main ones. They include the precepts of 25 esoteric activities, the 5 Buddha-families, the 14 root downfalls, and the 8 auxiliary downfalls of tantra in general. There are 27 root downfalls and 25 auxiliary precepts unique to Dzogpa Chenpo.

Without taking and maintaining samaya, there is no way of accomplishing any tantric attainments. Buddha said: [3]

For those who have faulted the samaya,

The Buddha never said that they could accomplish tantra.

Je Tsongkhapa writes:[4]

Those who claim to be practicing tantra without observing the samaya , have strayed from it, since in anuttara-tantra it is said, "The tantra  will never be accomplished by those who do not observe samaya, who have not received proper empowerments and who do not know the suchness (the meaning of empowerment, the wisdom), even though they practice it.

The three vows are the steps that lead to the same goal, enlightenment. The stream of lower vows merges into the higher vows, and the higher vows embody all the vows or the merits of the lower ones. Furthermore, when we are empowered in tantra, we are also ordained in the pratimoksaand bodhisattva  disciplines. Panchen Padma Wangyal writes:[5]

By receiving the empowerment, all the three vows will be born simultaneously.

As Tibetan Buddhists are followers of tantra, they should observe all the three vows. Most of the lay practitioners observe upasika  of pratimoksa, the bodhisattva  vows and tantric  vows. Most of the monks physically observe every moral code of vinayain order to tame the mind. Mentally they are bodhisattvawith the dedication of benefiting others with love and compassion. In wisdom, they are tantrics taking all as the path of pure nature. Longchen Rabjam writes:[6]

With the unconflicted three vows of

Sravaka, bodhisattva  and vidyadhara,

Tame one's mind stream, provide benefits for others

And transform every appearance into the path of pure (nature).

Highly accomplished tantrics, through the power of realization, canmaintain the vow of celibacy, even if they have consorts, but such claims of attainment can only be certain if they are also able to restore the dead to life. So for a highly perfected trainee of a higher tantra, all the other vows are also perfected. Mayajala-tantra says:[7]

In the vow of unexcelled tantra

All the disciplines of vinaya  and

The disciplines of the bodhisattva

Are embodied entirely and are pure.

      Many of us, who are so called Dharma followers, are mundane in respect to true discipline and realization but fall into the tendency to boast about our wisdom. We get relaxed about the guide-lines of the precepts and indulge in craving for sensual phenomena under the disguise of transmuting everything into the means of training. Some of us adopt this attitudeintentionally in order to polish our ego or for the sake of worldly pleasures. Others have deviated into those wrong notions because they are confused by the darkness of ignorance. We don't want to be like eyes searching others' faults, but like a mirror seeing our own deficiencies.

      Lineage of the three Vows: The Pratimoksa lineage came to Tibet in three different traditions from the Sarvasthirvadin  school of ancient India, as it went to Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka from theTheravadin  school.

      The first tradition is "the Lower Lineage of Vinaya  (sMad-'Dul)". Thelineage was passed from the Buddha down to my teacher through the following succession: Buddha, Shariputra, Prince Rahulagupta, Brahman Rahulagupta, Nagarjuna, Bhavaviveka, Shrigupta, Jnanagarbha and Shantarakshita, (who brought the lineage to Tibet in the 9th century a.c.), Ba Ratna, Tsang Rabsal, Lachen Gongpa Rabsal, Lume Tshulthrim Sherab, Dorje Gyaltshen, Newo Tragpa Gyaltshen, Dre Sherab Bar, Cha Duldzin Tsondru Bar, Zhonu Senge, Tromo Chewa Dudtsi Trag, Chimchen Namkha Trag, Tragpa Sherab, Chimton Lobzang Tragpa,  Kunga Ggyaltshen, Trupa Sherab (the last 6 masters are throne-holders of Narthang monastery), Gedun Trub (the first Dalai Lama), Kunga Geleg of Nenying, Gedun Gyatsho (the second Dalai Lama), Geleg Palzang of Dewachen, Paljor Gyatsho,  Konchog Chophel (the last three masters are throne-holders of Gaden monastery), Konchog Tendzin, Lochen Dharmasri (1654-1717),[8] Chokyi Tragpa, Gyurme Choden, Ogyen Tendzin (the last four are Khenpos from Mintrolling monastery),[9] Rigdzin Zangpo, Sengtrug Padma Trashi (both are Khenpos of Dzogchen monastery),[10] Domtsa Khenpo of Shichen monastery, Sershul Khenpo Ngawang Kunga of Dodrupchen monastery and Khenpo Choyag (living) of Shugchung monastery. Nyingmapas and most of the Gelugpas are ordained in "the Lower Lineage."[11]

The second tradition is "the Middle Lineage (Bar-'Dul)", also known as "the Khache or Panchen Lineage". This lineage came from the Buddha through Sariputra, Prince Rahulagupta, Brahman Rahulagupta, Nagarjuna, Gunajnana (Gunamati), Ratnamitra, Dharmabhadra (Dharmapala), Gunapati (Gunasagara), Dharmamala, Santakaragupta (Akaragupta) and Panchen Sakyasribhadra of Khache (Kashmir),[12] who brought it to Tibet and ordained Sakya Pandita(1181-1251), Dorje Palzang and others. Most of the Sakyapas and Kagyudpas are ordained in this lineage.[13]

The third tradition is "the Upper Lineage" (sTod-'Dul), brought to Tibet by an Indian scholar named Dharmapala. However, as this lineage has been ended[14] in Tibet, "the Middle Lineage" has become popularly known as "the Upper Lineage".

The Bodhisattvavow has two major lineages. "The Nagarjuna Lineage" came from the Buddha to Manjusri and then to Nagarjuna, and "the Asanga Lineage" came from the Buddha to Maitreya and then to Asanga.[15] These lineages later came to Tibet from the Mahayana masters of ancient India.

Tantrasof various types appeared in the world and came to Tibet through numerous lineages. But the major tantras of Mahayoga and Anuyoga of Nyingma came from Samantabhadra of the Dharmakaya through the Buddhas of the Five Families of the Sambhogakaya, the three Bodhisattvas, the Five Classes of Beings and King Dza of Oddiyana, the first human recipient. Later on Vimalamitra, Guru Padmasambhava and Nub Sangye Yeshe brought them to Tibet. Nyingthig tantras, the innermost teachings of Atiyoga,  came from Samantabhadra of the Dharmakaya through the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, Vajradhara, Vajrasattva, Vajrapani and then Garab Dorje, the first human recipient. Later on Vimalamitra and Padmasambhava brought them to Tibet.

Maintaining the Vows:  It is essential to learn each code of law of the three vows, as explained in the Absolute Certainty of the Three Vows, and to observe them accordingly. However, because of the limitations of knowledge, time, atmosphere, dedication and energy, it might be hard for many of us to observe them. I like to quote the advice of Kyabje Dodrupchen Rinpoche given at the end of the empowerment of Yashi,  bestowed in 1989, in the temple of the Mahasiddha Nyingmapa Center in Massachusetts. He said: "It might be difficult even to learn the names of the vows, let alone observe them. But be loving to people, especially those who are close to you; your friends, relatives, Dharma brothers and sisters, and neighbors. Don't do anything that hurts them. Be respectful to them, as all are enlightened in their true nature. Then in a simple way, you are moving towards fulfilling the pratimoksa  vow of not harming others, the bodhisattva  vow of being loving to others and the tantric  vow of pure perception."

Restoring the Vows: After taking the vows, we must learn how to repair the decay and ruptures of the vows, for we will undoubtedly be causing these to happen. Otherwise, it will be like an explosive in the hand of a deranged person. Each of the three vows have their own ways of purification. However, as the followers of Tibetan Buddhism are tantrics, it is proper to use a tantric way of purification, as it is more powerful and it purifies the faults committed in any of the vows. Among tantric purifications, for many of us the purification through Vajrasattva recitation is familiar and also it is one of the most powerful means of purifications. So one could practice this purification with "the four forces" (sTobs-bZhi). In the case of Vajrasattva purification, (a) "the force of the source of the power of purification" is total reliance on the Vajrasattva consorts with trusting faith, devotional warmth and one-pointed concentration. See them as the embodiment of the power of purification of all the Buddhas with perfect wisdom, infinite power and ceaseless compassion. (b) "The force of sincere regret" is the strong feeling of remorse for whatever faults we have committed, knowingly or unknowing, as if we have drunk poison. (c) "The force of promising not to commit any more" is the determination from the depth of the heart that now, even at the cost of my life, I won't commit such a fault again. If we have a strong, sincere regret and determination not to commit them again, like using the brakes and steering when driving, it will gradually force us to change the direction of our life. (d) "The force of purification" is the actual recitation and meditation of Vajrasattva. Visualize the Vajrasattva consorts above ourselves and say the prayers and mantras with faith in and devotion to them. With sincere regret for the past misdeeds and total commitment not to repeat them, pray for their blessing power of purification. See and feel the devotion and openness in ourselves and the compassion and power of the Vajrasattva consorts. Then, as the result, the purification power descending from the body of the Vajrasattvas in the form of stream of nectar, washes down all the impurities of our body, speech and mind without any trace. Feel free from the defilements. Finally fill up the body with the nectar with the feeling of peace, bliss and openness, the blessing power of the Vajrasattvas. The purification or confession is not just the act of telling the person involved or to a Lama that "I hate you/him" or "I did hate you/him" etc., but it is the meditation and experience of all "the four forces" in one's own mind from the depth of the heart.

The benefits of observing the vows: All the achievements of happiness and enlightenment, the Buddhahood, are the results of maintaining vows. Remember that maintaining a vow is making a strong commitment to live with and only with the proper and virtuous deeds and to refrain from doing any wrong and evil deeds. By such practice, we will create good karmaor, in the case of tantra, pure samaya  and it will result in happiness, wisdom and Buddhahood, the source of joy for all. Panchen Padma Wangyal writes:

Then spontaneously will achieve the goals of oneself and of others.

This timely book is comprised of translations of the Absolute Certainty of the Three Vows, the text and the wonderful commentary on it by Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche. It fulfills a crucial need for serious Western students of Tibetan Buddhism. Sangye Khandro, with her gift for language and knowledge of Buddhist wisdom, has made every word of these most important texts available to English readers. At last we have a handbook in English, which explains the full code of discipline of pratimoksa, bodhisattva  and tantric trainings, with an elucidation of their philosophical principles and historical background.

Tulu Thondup

Buddhayana, Massachusetts


[1]              Commentaries of sDom gSum rNam-Nges  by Tulku Tshulthrim Zangpo, pp. 695, and by Guna (Khenpo Yonten Gyatso), pp. 84a/5,6

[2]              See Sems-Nyid Ngal-gSo  by Longchen Rabjam, pp. 33b/5

[3]              Lam-Rim Ch'en-Mo  by Je Tsongkhapa, pp. 518a/5

[4]              Lam-Rim Ch'en-Mo  by Je Tsongkhapa, pp. 518a/5

[5]              sDom-gSum rNam-Nges  by Panchen Padma Wangyal, pp. 2b/2

[6]              bSam- gTan Ngal-gSo  by Longchen Rabjam. pp. 4b/2

[7]              Auto-commentary of bSam-gTan Ngal-gSo  by Longchen Rabjam, pp. 14a/4

[8]        Names upto this are according to: sDom-rGyun rNam-Thar by Dharmasri, Vol. Ga, Lochen Sungbum, and Ch'os-'Byung  by Guru Trashi, pp. 349/9.

                Among Indian masters in the pratimoksa lineage, according to Tibetan sources, there were many who attained longevity and lived for centuries. They include Brahman Rahulagupta, Nagarjuna and Shantarakshita

[9]              Ch'os-'Byung  by Guru Trashi, pp. 715

[10]            Ch'os-'Byung  by Zhechen Gyaltshab, pp. 209b/2

[11]            Ch'os-'Byung Blo gSal mGrin Pa'i mDzes rGyan  by Kongtul Yonten Gyatsho, pp. 5a/5

[12]            These names are from gSan-Yig  by Zhuchen Tshulthrim Rinchen, pp. 59b/4 , Deb-Ther sNgon-Po by Golo Zhonupal, pp. I-57/17 and Ch'os-'Byungby Pawo Tsuglag Threngwa, pp. 505/11

[13]            sDom-gSun Nam-Thar  by Dharmasri, pp. 29a/2 and Ch'os-'Byung Blo gSal mGrin Pa'i mDzesrGan  by Kongtul Yonten Gyatso, pp. 6a/5

[14]            sDom-gSum rNam-Thar by Dharmasri, pp. 29a/2, and Commentary of sDom-gSum Nam-Nges by Guna (Khenpo Yonten Gyatso), pp. 22b/3 and others.

[15]            Nagarjuna and Asanga received the transmissions from Manjusri and Maitreya directly in person, not in human forms but in wisdom bodies.