This is the second of two episodes on the practice of formally making vows – typically taking refuge and precepts – and becoming a Buddhist as a lay person, in which I introduce you to two more ways of approaching lay vows in Buddhism. As promised, I’ll describe the practice at two different local Buddhist centers in my area – one Theravadin, and one Vajrayana, and wrap up by talking about what motivates people to take this step.
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Lay Vows in a Theravadin Community
To give you a taste of lay vows in a Theravadin practice community, I had the good fortune to speak to a senior student, Greg, at Portland Friends of the Dhamma (in the Thai forest tradition of Ajahn Chah). I should emphasize that I’m not personally familiar with the way this community does things, and that different Theravadin communities may do things differently.
With that caveat, then, at Portland Friends of the Dhamma, lay practitioners have the option of formally taking vows to follow the classic five moral precepts that date from the Buddha’s time. Once they do this, they’re referred to as Upasikas, which essentially means lay disciple, but which can be translated as “one who sits close by,” referring to “lay people who join monastics in the practice of the Dhamma.”[i] They word their precepts like this:
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking the life of any living creature.
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
I undertake the precept to refrain from lying.
I undertake the precept to refrain from consuming intoxicating drink and drugs which lead to carelessness.[ii]
People are welcome to participate in this lay Theravadin community – including meditation, study, and ritual – without taking any vows. If someone wants to commit to the five precepts, they need to study them ahead of time with a Dhamma teacher,[iii] and consider the step carefully. One challenge for many people is that, in this tradition, the precept against consuming intoxicants is taken literally. Before and after you’ve taken the precepts your practice is your own responsibility and no one polices your behavior, but the vows are seen as stating your intention to refrain from consuming any alcohol or intoxicating drugs. (In my community, by contrast, we interpret our fifth precept as not abusing intoxicants, which allows most of us to imbibe with moderation. Our interpretation has its roots in the Brahmajala Sutra, where the fifth major precept actually prohibits selling intoxicants, while the precept prohibiting the consumption of intoxicants is one of the 48 minor ones.)
Once someone has prepared and decided to take lay vows at Portland Friends of the Dhamma, they are invited to participate in a ceremony called “Requesting the Five Precepts.” Traditionally such a request would be made to a senior Theravadin monastic, but given the relative inaccessibility of monastics in the West, some lay Dhamma teachers have been empowered to give people the precepts.
In the short Requesting the Five Precepts ceremony, those making the request make three bows, place their hands in prayer position, and then state three times, “We request the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts,” chanting first in Pali and then in English. The person giving the refuges and precepts then leads those assembled in a chant in which everyone states that they take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha three times, and then chants the five precepts. The ceremony ends with the following verse and three bows:
The Requesting the Five Precepts ceremony may happen on a regular basis, especially at a monastery, and it tends to be folded into the larger practice schedule, such as before a meal offering to the monastics. Rather than being a big ceremony that calls special attention to people taking the precepts for the first time, it is rather low-key, and Upasikas participate regularly to renew their vows. This de-emphasis on initiation of first-timers is in part because, in keeping with their aspiration to live according to the Buddha’s teachings, including the teaching of anatta, or not-self, Upasikas in this tradition are encouraged to see the precepts as a practice they are undertaking, rather than as part of an identity.
In fact, in Thailand, there might not even be an explanation of what was happening before a Requesting the Five Precepts ceremony; everyone would know, and often those participating would just be taking precepts (sometimes five, sometimes an additional three for a total of eight) for a relatively short period of time (such as the duration of their stay at a monastery). In the West, particularly when those present mean to commit indefinitely, there’s usually an explanation of the ceremony in case there’s anyone present who doesn’t know what they’d be getting into by reciting the vows.
After becoming an Upasika in the Portland Friends of the Dhamma community, you’re encouraged to participate in ongoing study and practice specifically for those who are – as they say it – “living according to the five precepts.” Keeping the precepts isn’t easy, and efforts are made to facilitate lay practitioners in supporting one another. The Abhayagiri Monastery, with which Portland Friends of the Dhamma is connected, has created a program for Upasikas with a fairly demanding set of guidelines – in addition to the precepts – in order to give structure to lay practice,[v] including daily meditation, regular gatherings with other Upasikas, and commitment to the Thai forest tradition as the focus of one’s Buddhist practice.
Lay Vows in a Vajrayana Community
My other featured Buddhist center for this episode is Kagyu Changchub Chuling, or KCC, a Tibetan Vajrayana community in the Karma and Shangpa Kagyu lineages, founded by the Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche. I spoke with one of their associate teachers, Zopa, about their practices surrounding lay vows. She emphasized that different lineages do things differently, and also that individual lamas, or full teachers who are holders of the lineage, may also vary in their approaches.
At KCC, a Refuge Ceremony is generally held once a year, and presided over by their head teacher, Lama Michael Conklin. In this ceremony, people publicly state that they take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. As in the two lineages I’ve already described, people may be participating for the first time, while others will be renewing their vows. Zopa said some teachers will require people to take one or more precepts along with the refuges, but Lama Michael doesn’t require this. When precepts are added, they are the five traditional lay precepts phrased as not causing bodily harm, not taking what is not freely given, not lying, not engaging in unwise sexual behavior, and and not using intoxicants. (I don’t know about the strictness of KCC’s interpretation of the precept on intoxicants in general, but I suspect if someone were to be asked to take that precept specifically in conjunction with taking refuge, they and the lama giving refuge would decide together what that would entail.)
The KCC Refuge Ceremony itself is fairly open; on their website it says the ceremony is open to anyone who wants to attend, and “if you are taking refuge for the first time, it is helpful for Lama Michael to know in advance… though [it’s] not absolutely necessary.” This may seem to imply the Refuge Vow is taken lightly, but apparently that’s not the case at all; also on KCC’s website is a long essay by Lama Michael about the meaning and implications of taking refuge. In it, he explains that doing so means you aspire to stop taking refuge in what ultimately can’t provide lasting peace and happiness – material things and worldly relationships – and instead take refuge in “Buddha, the teachings regarding the path to the realization of Buddha, and the inspiration of those who have already accomplished the path.”[vi]
In addition, according the Lama Michael’s essay, Refuge in the Vajrayana tradition means turning toward the three treasures as conceived in original Buddhism, but also implies taking refuge in the Vajrayana roots of the Buddha (the guru), the Dharma (yidams), and the Sangha (protectors). Briefly, the guru is a human being who gives you refuge, and to whom you look for inspiration and guidance. Yidams are meditational deities used in tantric Buddhism and relationship with them is seen as an especially effective means to enlightenment. The protectors – and I can’t say I understand this concept fully – are manifestations of awakened mind, appearing in myriad forms and ways to support our practice and facilitate our awakening. Note: This is a very basic overview from someone personally unfamiliar with Vajrayana practice, but suffice it to say that Taking Refuge at KCC means you commit to exploring the Buddhist path via the Vajrayana, or “diamond vehicle.”
Before taking refuge in a Vajrayana setting, you might also want to carefully consider the implications of doing so in a Buddhist tradition that embraces the premise of transmigration! Lama Michael explains the duration of a Refuge Vow: “In the Mahayana, the vow embraces the totality of experience. That is, it is in force for all experience, for all time, until enlightenment takes place. Since there are no time boundaries, we take the vow with the intention that it will be active in future existences.”[vii]
Zopa explained to me that the relationship between a student (someone who has taken Refuge) and their lama (or guru) is taken quite seriously. There can be considerable variation in how this relationship looks – it can range from regular practice and study in close proximity to more of a heart connection from afar – but if a student decides to leave the practice or take another teacher, they’re asked to inform the teacher who gave them Refuge, and pay respects.
Why Do Lay Buddhists Take Vows?
Now that you’ve gotten a brief overview of three different traditions of lay vows in Buddhism, I’ll close with something about why lay people choose to take this step. There will always, of course, be variation in this motivation among sects and lineages of Buddhism, and even more variation among individuals, but I think I can say a few general things.
First, lay Buddhists take vows and/or precepts in order to deepen their own practice. I plan to devote a whole episode, at some point, to what it looks like to practice with precepts in your daily life, but briefly, precepts challenge your self-attachment. Your inclinations to kill, steal, misuse sex, lie, abuse intoxicants, etc., almost always arise because of self-concern or a desire for worldly gain or pleasure. When we notice we’re breaking a precept, or are tempted to do so, we have an opportunity to look more carefully at what’s going on and challenge our self-attachment head-on. In addition, keeping precepts means you create a whole lot less karmic mess as you go about your daily life, and this relative peace is conducive to spiritual practice. And finally, from the Mahayana point of view, your practice isn’t worth anything if it’s not based in compassion, and the precepts are all about your relationship with other beings.
Second, public and formal vows help hold your toes to the fire, if you will. It’s pretty easy to forget your intentions or change your mind when things get tough – unless you’ve taken established vows in front of others, and other people know what keeping those vows entails. Many a lay Buddhist will find themselves reminded of their own aspirations when a non-Buddhist friend or family member remarks on their negative behaviors, saying, “Hey, aren’t you a Buddhist?!”
Third, lay Buddhists taking vows are usually seek a sense of community – both with an actual group of people, and with the lineage of Buddhism through time. Those who have taken vows can look to one another for moral support and inspiration, and count on one another to help keep the Sangha and the tradition alive. I was touched when Greg from Portland Friends of the Dhamma mentioned to me that their Upasikas are encouraged to wear black and white when Theravadin monastics visit their community, at least in part as a sign of support to the monastics who have given their entire lives to the Dhamma and live according to not just five but over 250 precepts. This illustrates how a lay Buddhist takes vows not just for their own sake, but out of gratitude and a sense of belonging to something greater.
[ii] As found in the Abhayagiri Chant Book: https://www.abhayagiri.org/books/424-abhayagiri-chanting-book
[iv] As found in the Abhayagiri Chant Book: https://www.abhayagiri.org/books/424-abhayagiri-chanting-book, under the Ceremony for Requesting the Five Precepts.