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These vows are commonly taken by lay people when one takes refuge in the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. There are various interpretations of the vows according to the many Buddhist traditions. People visiting or living in Buddhist centers are encouraged to abide by these vows while they are at the center.
One is encouraged to take as many of the vows as you can keep. This creates powerful protection from falling to the lower realms at death and helps one to accumulate vast merit. These vows form the basis of a moral lifestyle which is seen as essential for successful meditation and spiritual progress of any kind.
Here are the vows explained by two great teachers, both contemporary Buddhists.
By Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese tradition)
The First Mindfulness Training
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.
The Second Mindfulness Training
Aware of suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants and minerals. I will practise generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.
The Third Mindfulness Training
Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.
The Fourth Mindfulness Training
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticise or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
The Fifth Mindfulness Training
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family and my society by practising mindful eating, drinking and consuming. I will ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programmes, magazines, books, films and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger and confusion in myself and in society by practising a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.
Explained by Geshe Michael Roach (Tibetan Tradition)
No killing - no killing humans or a human foetus. Obviously you shouldn't hurt other creatures, but the vow which you are formally committing to for your whole life is not to kill a human or a human foetus. Nobody in this room goes around killing humans or human foetuses normally, so why should I take a vow if I'm not going to do that anyway? If you take a vow, the karma is much, much, more powerful. For example, the karmic result of keeping the vow of respecting life is that you become healthier. If you take the vow to do that you will be much healthier your whole life than if you hadn't taken the vow. Making the commitment formally is much more powerful karma.
No stealing something of value. There are many opinions on what value is. The one I think is closest is the cost of a decent sweater. That was the line, ok? Can you steal a pen from work? It's ok - you don't break your lifetime layman's vow. But if you knowingly remove someone's coat from the coatroom at work, you have broken your vow.
Sexual misconduct in the form of adultery with another persons sworn mate/spouse, meaning, they have taken a formal vow of marriage and you commit a sexual act with either one, you break the third vow. Some people asked my lama, 'what if they are divorced?' If they are legally divorced, no problem. It's not adultery. If they are separated, no problem if they both consider themselves divorced. If they are separated and one person still thinks they are married, it's adultery. What if they are boyfriend and girlfriend, and you are cheating on your boyfriend or girlfriend? You haven't broken this vow, but you have done a very serious bad karma. But you can still do that and not break your lifetime layman's vows - not that you would want to! These are the technical lines, so it's not so hard to keep.
No lying about your spiritual life. And specifically no claiming that you have seen emptiness when you haven't. No claiming that you have seen tantric deities when you haven't, and no claiming that you have recognized so-and-so as a tantric deity when you don't have the equipment to do that - because those things all imply that you have seen emptiness directly. The ultimate lie is claiming that you have seen emptiness directly. There is sort of an unwritten protocol among Aryas - people who have seen emptiness directly - that they will not admit it directly. They will not stand there and say on July 28, 1975, I saw emptiness directly. They wouldn't make a statement like that. It's a very private thing and there are many reasons why they don't make direct statements like that.
No use of intoxicants - alcohol or drugs of any kind. Can you use cough syrup? Yes. Can you take anaesthesia? Yes. Can you drink coffee and tea? Yes. Can you use wine in cooking? If it boils off, but it's not a good idea because it gets you used to the taste. The vow is, does it lower your inhibitions? Or, if you continued to sip it, would it lower your inhibitions?
Those are vows to commit to if you take lifetime layman's vows.
~ Enlightenment is Possible in This Lifetime ~
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