Teachings From the Vajrasattva Retreat

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Soquel, CA USA 1999 (Archive #1055)

This book is an edited transcript of Lama Zopa Rinpoche's teachings at a three-month Vajrasattva retreat held at Land of Medicine Buddha, from February 1 to April 30, 1999. The teachings cover many lam-rim topics, purification practices, mantras, pujas and more.

Chapter 33: March 2-a


Eight Mahayana Precepts

The explanation of the benefits of taking the Mahayana Reviving and Purifying Vow, or the Eight Mahayana Precepts, has two divisions: the shortcomings of degenerating the vows and the benefits of protecting the vows. The second division, the actual explanation of the benefits of protecting the vows, also has two divisions: the individual benefits of protecting the eight precepts and the elaborate general benefits of protecting the eight precepts. The explanation of the specific benefits of each precept was given before [see Chapter 4, Monday, February 8]. Today I will be explaining the general benefits of protecting the vows.

General benefits of the eight Mahayana precepts

  1. The first benefit of protecting the vows is that, like the earth, it becomes the basis of all virtues.
  2. The second benefit is that it enables one to abandon the eight states which have no freedom to practice Dharma and to receive the freedoms and richnesses.
  3. The third benefit of keeping the precepts is that it closes the door of the suffering transmigratory beings and allows one to achieve a deva or human body.
  4. The fourth benefit is that one becomes endowed with all good qualities.
  5. The fifth benefit of protecting the vows is that it is superior to the practice of charity.
  6. The sixth benefit is that it is superior to making offerings to the buddhas.
  7. The seventh benefit of protecting the vows is that one is reborn as a close disciple of Maitreya Buddha.
  8. The eighth benefit is that in all future lifetimes one will achieve deva or human bodies and will become a foe destroyer, or arhat. The Tibetan term for arhat is dra-chom-pa, which means “one who has destroyed the enemy.” The enemy here is the obscurations. There are two types of obscurations: the disturbing- thought obscurations, the gross defilements (nyöndrib), which mainly interfere with the achievement of liberation from samsara for oneself, and the subtle obscurations (shedrib), which mainly interfere with the achievement of full enlightenment. Therefore, the term dra-chom-pa, or arhat, can refer to one who has destroyed either level of obscuration.

When used alone it generally refers to the one who has destroyed just the gross defilements, the disturbing-thought obscurations. The final benefit is that one will achieve peerless full enlightenment. Here the term dra-chom-pa, the one who has destroyed the enemy, is referring to the being who has become a peerless buddha—someone who, besides having destroyed the disturbing-thought obscurations, has destroyed even the subtle obscurations, the obscurations to the fully knowing mind. It is these obscurations to knowledge that interfere with the achievement of full enlightenment for the sake of sentient beings.

We shall now discuss the eight general benefits of protecting the precepts in more detail.

1. Protecting the vows is the basis of virtue

Just as the earth, the ground, is the basis for all sentient beings, as well as for all enjoyments such as trees, plants and crops, morality is the basis for all virtue. It is in dependence upon the cause of having protected morality that one achieves the state of a deva or a human, particularly a human body that has the eight freedoms and ten richnesses. Having such a perfect human body, one then meets a holy virtuous friend and is able to enjoy the three practices of listening, reflecting and meditating. One is then able to collect the two types of merit and achieve the perfect bodies of a buddha. Such a perfect body enables us to live in the four Mahayana Dharma wheels. And as Lama Tsongkhapa emphasizes in The Hymns of the Experience of the Path to Enlightenment, unless we have such a perfect body with the eight ripening qualities, we can’t really make any significant progress in achieving realizations of the path to enlightenment.

Achieving a perfect body also includes birth in a pure land of Buddha, especially in one of the pure lands where you can become enlightened, such as Shambhala or the pure lands of Heruka or Vajrayogini.

According to my root virtuous friend, His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche, you can also become enlightened in the Amitabha pure land. According to Denma Lochö Rinpoche and Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche, however, you cannot practice tantra in the Amitabha pure land, so you have to be born back into a human world where the tantric teachings exist, such as into the Southern Continent, where we have been born. As a beginner in the practice of tantra, you need a body that is composed of three substances received from the father (marrow, sperm and bone) and three received from the mother (flesh, skin and blood). You need such a body to practice tantra in order to achieve enlightenment in that life. We are talking here especially in relation to the practice of the completion stage.

Therefore, you need to reincarnate back into a human world where the teachings of Highest Yoga Tantra exist. According to His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche, in Amitabha pure land you can also practice tantra and become enlightened.

2. One abandons the eight states without freedom and achieves the freedoms and richnesses

Protecting the vows enables one to abandon the eight states, or circumstances, that have no freedom to practice Dharma and to receive the eight freedoms and ten richnesses. Why is this? Because the cause of these eighteen qualities, the eight freedoms and ten richnesses, is protecting morality.

3. One closes the door of suffering rebirths and achieves a deva or human body

Protecting the morality of the eight limbs, the Reviving and Purifying Ordination, closes the door to the rebirth of a suffering transmigratory being and causes rebirth in a deva or human body.

There is the story related to this. In the past there was a world called Adorned with Jewels, and in that world was a Tathagata called Sangye Legtong, who turned the Dharma wheel and inspired all the people to practice the morality of the eight limbs, the Reviving and Purifying Ordination. In that way, Sangye Legtong led some people to the states of devas and humans; some to arhatship as solitary realizers or hearers; some on the path of the bodhisattva; and others to the state of peerless enlightenment.

At that time, a wheel-turning king called Sojong Pagpa (Reviving and Purifying Transcendent One) took the Eight Mahayana Precepts from this Buddha, Sangye Legtong. After taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts, King Sojong Pagpa flew up high in the sky. (Wheel-turning kings can fly in the sky, though I am not sure whether or not they need a vehicle to do this. It is said that they fly around Mount Meru and the continents.) He then made a law that the human beings of the four continents should take the Eight Mahayana Precepts on the special dates.

The “special dates” are the eighth, fifteenth and thirtieth of the Tibetan calendar. Maitreya Buddha’s teachings also mention the fourteenth as a special date. It seems generally that people can create more merit on these days and that any negative karma created then is heavier.

But I haven’t heard a particular explanation as to why these days are regarded as special. I have yet to hear a satisfying explanation about this.

When the human beings of the four continents protect the eight limbs, the Reviving and Purifying Ordination, they close the door to reincarnation in the lower realms—in the hell, hungry ghost or animal realms—and open the door to higher rebirths. Like a main road that allows many people to come through, taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts allows so many people to achieve higher rebirths. It is also explained that many of the human beings of the four continents who die will be able to be reborn as human beings again and as desire realm gods in the realms of the Four Great Kings, the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods, the Strifeless, the Joyful, the Delighting in Emanation and the Mastery over Transformations. There are deva realms belonging to the desire realm, form realm and formless realm. Here we are talking about the deva realms of the desire realm.

Also, in the bodhisattva scriptures, Buddha explains, “Innumerable eons ago, the tathagata, Sangye Jigtob (Buddha Glorious Powerful One), came in the world and led many sentient beings to take the ordination of the eight limbs, or the Eight Mahayana Precepts. Some of those people became bodhisattvas; some became pratyekabuddhas; some achieved the stages of continual entrance [stream enterer], returning [once returner] and non-returning, and arhatship; some achieved the Dharma eye without dust (I’m not sure what this means); and at the very least, they achieved the state of a deva or human being. They then became enlightened.”

It is explained in the teachings of the Buddha that all those beings became enlightened and then, like Buddha, passed away in the sorrowless state.

Previously, after the teaching of the Buddha had existed for an inconceivable number of years, the teaching was about to degenerate, when a Dharma king came into that world. A Dharma king is one who acts in accordance with the Dharma; he lives his life and makes the policies to guide his people in accordance with the Dharma. When this Dharma king was checking through the Buddha’s teachings, he saw the benefits of taking the eight limbs, the Reviving and Purifying Ordination. He then collected together all the gelongs and brahmins. (The term ge-long means virtue beggar, with virtue referring to nirvana, or liberation. Some translators mistakenly relate the term to the begging of food because they only translate long (beggar) and leave out the most important thing, that which is begged for, ge (virtue). Gelong—beggar of virtue or beggar of liberation—is a very rich name. The term ge-tsul has a similar meaning— abiding in the path to liberation.)

Anyway, the Dharma king then said to all the gelongs and brahmins he had gathered, “Does anyone understand the method of living in the eight limbs, which was taught by Buddha? You should learn the ceremony, then give it to me. And if you don’t find it, I will punish you.”

Everybody gathered together and asked each other, “Do you know anything about this method of taking the eight precepts?” No one seemed to know even the name of the practice. However, scared of being punished by the king, they scattered in all directions to look for it. They looked in bedrooms, they looked in toilets, but they couldn’t find it anywhere.

Finally one old woman said, “When I was a little girl my father practiced the morality of the eight limbs, the Reviving and Purifying Ordination. Inside a pillar at our home, there is a sutra with the method of the eight limbs of reviving and purifying as taught by Buddha.” When they looked at the pillar in the old woman’s house, they found inside it a hole covered by a square piece of wood. Hidden inside, they found a small text containing the method of the eight limbs and its benefits.

All the gelongs and brahmins brought this text to the king. With prostrations they offered it to him. The king was extremely pleased and gave a huge offering to the gelongs and brahmins. He also gave a great many things to the old woman.

The king and his entourage then made a law that the vow of the eight limbs should be practiced on the special days. All the people then protected the eight limbs of reviving and purifying on the special days.

Because these human beings protected morality in this way, the population of the deva realms increased—I guess the deva realms became like Calcutta or Chicago! All the devas were very happy.

In the country ruled by that religious king the rains always came at the right time when needed for the crops and did not come when there was no need. Also, all contagious diseases, wars and fighting were pacified.

The people living in that world also closed the door to rebirth in the lower realms. As soon as they died they were born in the deva realm the Strifeless (Tab-trel), which is free of fighting, or Ganden, the Joyful Realm. In this way, they received infinite benefit.

4. One is endowed with all good qualities

The sutra Living in Pure Morality says, “One who lives in morality meets the buddha when he descends.” Living in pure morality creates the cause to meet buddha when he descends into the world. “Living in morality is the best of all ornaments. Living in morality is applying the best perfume; it gives a natural fragrance. Living in morality is the cooling water that eliminates the suffering of heat. Living in morality brings praise from the whole world.”

I’m not sure of the precise meaning of the next sentence. It could be “Living in morality pleases the holy beings” or “Living in morality makes the transmigratory being holy.” I am not quite sure. Like this, infinite benefits are explained.

5. Protecting vows is superior to the practice of charity

Living in morality collects more merit than making charity. Why does living in these vows bring greater good fortune, greater merit, than making charity? It is said that a person who keeps the Eight Mahayana Precepts for just one day collects far greater merit than someone who makes charity to others day and night for hundreds of years. This is a point that encourages us to take the vows. Even though making charity is regarded in the world as something very generous and very good, in terms of creating merit, living in the morality of the Reviving and Purifying Ordination for even one day creates far greater merit.

There is a reference here to Lobpon Ignyen, or Vasubandhu, the great pandit who wrote the Abhidharmakosha. There are six great Indian pandits, who wrote the basic scriptures that are commentaries to the teachings of the Buddha. Many Tibetan lamas later wrote commentaries to these basic scriptures. Lobpon Ignyen said, “The fortune of a person who protects morality for one day is more exalted than that of a person who with devotion makes charity for one hundred years.”

6. Protecting vows is superior to making offerings to the buddhas

The King of Concentration Sutra explains, “The merit from making offerings of all the possessions of humans and devas, for eons equal in number to the sand grains of the Ganges River, to buddhas equal in number to the sand grains of the River Ganges, cannot be compared to the merit from protecting the morality of the eight limbs for one day during the time when the holy Dharma is degenerating.” Since the River Ganges is so long and wide, the number of sand grains in it is unbelievable. Yet the merit from having made offering to an unbelievable number of buddhas for an unbelievable number of eons cannot be compared to the merit from keeping the Eight Mahayana Precepts for one day. The merit of living in these vows for one day when the Buddha’s teachings have degenerated, which is our current time, is hundreds, thousands, millions, billions, trillions of times greater than having made all the human and deva offerings to that many Buddhas for that many eons.

7. One will be reborn as a close disciple of Maitreya Buddha

If you listen with devotion to Dharma teachings during the period when the teachings of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha exist and if you protect the morality of the eight limbs, you will be born as a close disciple of Maitreya Buddha. Maitreya Buddha himself said this.

8. One will achieve the body of a deva or human, then become an arhat

Maitreya Buddha also said, “In all lifetimes one will achieve the supreme body of a deva or a human, and one will gradually become an arhat.”

As I mentioned before, arhat, or foe destroyer, can refer to someone who has destroyed the disturbing-thought obscurations or to someone who has also destroyed the subtle defilements, a buddha.

Motivation for taking the precepts

“At this time, I am free from all obstacles and have every opportunity to practice Dharma. It is not sufficient that I simply avoid being born in the lower realms and take rebirth in a deva or human realm. Even my achieving liberation from samsara is not sufficient. I must achieve enlightenment in order to liberate the numberless hell beings, the numberless hungry ghosts, the numberless animals, the numberless humans, the numberless asuras and the numberless suras—the source of all my past, present and future happiness—and bring them to full enlightenment.

Therefore, I am going to take the Eight Mahayana Precepts.”

The definition of sunrise

As Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo and various other teachers explain, sunrise refers to the very beginning of the day, when a whitish color first appears in the east. Even though the rest of the sky is dark, that white color in the east signals the dawn.

Another way of defining sunrise is to say that it is when it starts to be light in the place where you are. The time of sunrise depends on whether you define sunrise in relation to the world as a whole or to the place where you are. The way you define sunrise makes a difference in terms of when you can eat on the following morning. You should act in accordance with your original intention.

Prayer of the precepts

When you say “...in order to eliminate famine, in order to eliminate sickness...,” think that you are taking the vows so that no sentient being needs to experience famine or sickness. Remember all the sick people in hospitals and in their homes, all the people dying from cancer, AIDS and other sicknesses. Also think of the people who are dying in wars and of the people who are doing the killing. Think that you are taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts in order to stop all harm to other sentient beings.

Usually when a lama gives the Eight Mahayana Precepts, at the end of the third repetition of the prayer for taking the precepts, the lama says, “Tap yin-no”and the disciples reply, “Leg-so.” Other ceremonies have this written at the end, but it doesn’t matter.

Make a strong determination that you have received pure precepts in the presence of the lama that you visualized as Shakyamuni Buddha and of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas gathered like a cloud around the lama.

The definition of noon

In defining noon you can follow either according to 12 o’clock on a clock or according to noon by the sun. There is still a tradition of judging time by the shadow cast by the sun when getsul and gelong ordinations are given. A gelong takes a four-inch piece of stick outside, plants it in the ground, then measures the shadow. An inch is kang-pa, in Tibetan.

They then come back and inform the rest of the sangha and the people taking the vows of the specific time the vows were taken. The place where the vows were received and from which abbot are also mentioned.

This practice is still done, but these days, when there is no sunlight because the ordination is being done at night or the day is overcast and there is no shadow, the time by the clock—which minute of which hour—is also mentioned. But if the day is clear, the stick is always used.

History of taking precepts within the FPMT

I don’t remember whether or not we took the Eight Mahayana Precepts during the very first Kopan course, which went for five or seven days, but we did take them during the second course and certainly from the time of the third course. The tradition started during the second week of the third course. Around that time I also used to fast after lunch, without having taken the Eight Mahayana precepts. I fasted for quite a long time while I was in Lawudo and at Kopan.

The thought just came to me that taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts, now a common practice within the FPMT organization, started at Kopan in those early times. So many people who attended the Kopan courses have had the opportunity to collect this extensive merit, the cause to achieve so much happiness, not only in this life but in all the coming future lives up to enlightenment. They have had the opportunity to receive so much happiness and so much benefit, as we have just listed.

All the people from that time up to now who have done courses and taken the Eight Mahayana Precepts within the organization, at Kopan or at any of the other centers, have received unbelievable benefit. Without talking about other practices, just the practice of the Eight Mahayana Precepts started from Kopan and has now spread to be practiced in centers in various parts of the world.

Even this practice alone has been of unbelievable benefit to those people and to the people who are still coming to attend courses at the centers. Starting from the early times at Kopan, so many people have received and will receive unbelievable benefit, up to enlightenment—and after enlightenment the benefit of liberating all sentient beings. The thought of this just came to my mind. Taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts is an unbelievably worthwhile thing to do. Of course, it takes time for people to understand the reasons for doing the practice. The first two weeks of the one-month course provides the basis for understanding the reasons for doing the practice, and the final two weeks are spent doing the actual practice, the essential practice of protecting karma by living in the vows, which has all these infinite benefits.

This all happened due to the kindness of the gurus. I think it was His Holiness Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche who first inspired both taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts and doing nyung-nä, when he explained the importance of these two practices. Due to that inspiration received from the gurus, the courses were organized to include the Eight Mahayana Precepts and the practice became common. That many people have had the opportunity of doing this practice is a cause for rejoicing. It is the most worthwhile thing to do in your life, for yourself and for other sentient beings, and the best gift you can give to other sentient beings.

Talking about this has reminded me of something that happened at Chenrezig Institute a long time ago. I’m not sure whether the person concerned is still involved with the center or even with the Dharma. At that time, one-month courses, similar to the Kopan courses, were given at Chenrezig Institute, with the Eight Mahayana Precepts being taken during the last two weeks. If I was teaching, the whole course would be a suffering course—a course on suffering and a suffering course. The course would be on the subject of suffering and it would be a suffering course because people would get angry because they couldn’t understand what I was saying and also suffer in many other ways during that time.

Then everyone would take the Eight Mahayana Precepts during the last two weeks.

At the end of the course, this particular student said, “During the first two weeks you beat people with the lower realms, during the last two weeks you beat them with the ordination, and at the end, you ask them for money!” Since Chenrezig Institute had no other source of income, the money for building and improving the facilities had to come from the people who did the courses, so at the end of each course, someone would introduce the center activities and ask for donations. When I mentioned rejoicing in the fact that the practice of the Eight Mahayana Precepts had started at Kopan, the thought of what this student said just came into my mind.


“Due to all the merits of the three times collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, may I, the members of my family, all the students and benefactors of this organization, as well as all other sentient beings, be able to complete the paramita of morality by keeping our morality purely and without pride.

“May bodhicitta be actualized without even a second’s delay within my mind and the minds of all sentient beings. May that which has been generated increase.”

The news has come over the internet that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has taken the aspect of having some health problems. The doctors are still checking, but it seems to be pneumonia or something like that.

Appointments have been cancelled for the past few days, but I’m not sure if the losar teachings will be cancelled. So, dedicate the merits for His Holiness’s health.

While I was in Taiwan recently, I heard that the Tibetan Government had requested a prediction from a protector, and the protector’s advice was that this year many millions of OM MANI PADME HUMS, the Most Secret Hayagriva mantra and the Padmasambhava mantra should be recited. I’m not sure whether the mantra of Miyöwa [Achala], a deity for eliminating obstacles, is also to be recited. From time to time news comes from Dharamsala that every Tibetan should recite a certain number of mantras. A representative in each Tibetan settlement collects the number of mantras people have recited and notifies Dharamsala of the total number. Just before I left Taiwan a representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Taiwan came to the center with some sheets of information on the latest advice from the protector. I think that this year there are some obstacles for His Holiness.

Therefore, dedicate the merit from all the practices done during the Vajrasattva retreat, including the Eight Mahayana Precepts, to His Holiness’s immediately showing the aspect of returning to good health.

“May His Holiness have a stable life and may all his holy wishes be accomplished immediately.”

The wishes and prayers of one bodhisattva include the happiness of all us sentient beings, so when we pray for a bodhisattva’s wishes to be fulfilled, our prayer includes the achievement of all our own happiness and that of all sentient beings. Praying for the wishes of a bodhisattva such as His Holiness to be accomplished is the same as praying for the happiness of all sentient beings to be achieved.

“May all obstacles and cause of displeasure be ceased. May the political leaders in mainland China develop unbelievable devotion to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and do exactly what His Holiness wishes, not only in relation to the freedom of Tibet but in relation to everything.” If this happened, millions of people in mainland China would have so much peace and happiness. If there is complete freedom, the Dharma could be strongly established in Tibet, and also spread to mainland China, where after all their suffering, many millions of people are now hungry for peace and happiness, hungry for Dharma. Dedicate the merit in this way.

“Due to all the merits of the three times collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, may all the father and mother sentient beings have happiness; may the three lower realms be empty forever; may all the bodhisattvas’ prayers be accomplished immediately; and may I be able to cause all this by myself alone.

“Due to all the merits of the three times collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, may I able to offer extensive benefit to all sentient beings as Lama Tsongkhapa did, by having within me the same qualities that Lama Tsongkhapa had, from now on, from this second, in all my future lifetimes.”

Give all the merits from having taken the precepts, as well as all the past, present and future merits, and all the resultant happiness, up to enlightenment, to all sentient beings—to every hell being, every hungry ghost, every animal, every human being, every asura, every sura and every intermediate state being. You can also offer the merits to the arhats and to the bodhisattvas for them to actualize the rest of the path to enlightenment. Think that they receive everything they need and that it causes them to actualize the path to enlightenment, to actualize method and wisdom. Think that they cease all their defilements and achieve enlightenment.

By doing this, we have collected numberless merits: “Due to these numberless merits, may all the sufferings that sentient beings experience ripen upon me, and may all my happiness ripen upon all other sentient beings.

“Due to all the merits of the three times collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings—which are projected as real by my own mind, by my own ignorance—may the I—which is also projected as real by my mind, by my ignorance—achieve Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment—which is also projected as real by my mind, by my ignorance—and lead all sentient beings—who are also projected as real by my mind, by my ignorance—to that enlightenment—which is also projected as real by my mind, by my ignorance—by myself alone— which is also projected as real by my own mind, by my ignorance, because of the negative imprint left on the mind.

“As Manjughosha and Samantabhadra realize, and as the three time buddhas and bodhisattvas dedicate their merits, I dedicate my merits in that way to enlighten all sentient beings.”

Next Chapter:

Chapter 34: March 2-b »