The Golden Method of Mental Purification

By Lama Thubten Yeshe, By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kathmandu, Nepal

A translation and commentary on the 36 vows upheld by novice monks and nuns [Tib: getsul; getsulma]. 

Translated by Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, with Anila Losang Dolma [Canada], in Kathmandu, Nepal on November 20, 1971. Donated by Max Losang Chokyi for the benefit of all mother sentient beings.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe near Lawudo Retreat Center, Nepal, 1970. Photo by Terry Clifford.

The 36 precepts are taken at the time of ordination of a novice monk or nun.

Lay people, ordinary human beings, who qualify can take the five precepts. Those strongly willing to renounce samsara—the unsatisfactory, confused, worldly life—and who have permission from the guru or abbot, may then take the 36 precepts, thus becoming a novice monk or nun.

One takes these precepts with complete understanding of the nature of samsara, completely putting one’s three doors—body, speech and mind—into the path of nirvana, or liberation. This ordination is a lifelong commitment that must be followed until one reaches nirvana because it is the path to liberation.

Your ordination is your protector, your true saviour—it prevents uncontrolled negative actions and keeps the mind peaceful. Your true protector is the purely-motivated mental rules which are within you. Your true saviour is within you and your true path is within you.

By taking this ordination and following the rules, you become a truly religious person. Your life has meaning and you live on the true path. But with an uncontrolled mind and without living in the Dharma rules, it is impossible to work towards liberation. Just going through the insincere motions of attending the temple, church, monastery or ashram is mere emptiness, bringing no answer to the inner psychological problems of delusion.

The mind must have rules. If you subject your mind to every confused situation and all confused objects, just taking in everything as it comes, how can you control your mind? What is your method? Leaving yourself wide open to whatever comes is not enough.

Keeping the precepts has limitless benefits: the highest benefit is receiving enlightenment; then bodhisattva realizations; then realization of the perfect peaceful happiness of self—nirvana or liberation.

Following the precepts is also important at the beginning of the practices of shamatha [Tib: shi-nä] meditation and penetrative insight [Skt: vipashyanâ; Tib: lhak-tong] meditation, leading to the higher meditations and the realization of absolute true nature. Unless the precepts are kept and the necessary rules of the mind are understood, there is difficulty in practice and a long time is spent in gaining these realizations.

Just as water which is turbid and turbulent does not give clear reflections, so the mind of one not concerned with precepts or purely-motivated mental rules is always confused and distracted, even while trying to practice shamatha meditation. Keeping precepts helps make the practice of meditation continuous, assisting progress in shamatha meditation. As the water becomes cleaner and quieter, one sees reflections of the true nature of the essence of mind more clearly.

The results of keeping precepts and meditating do not come intuitively, but only through understanding knowledge and right mental effort. Understanding knowledge, right mental effort and continual practice of meditation are very important to achieve the everlasting peaceful mind.

Some Westerners looking for the highest realizations of the East take the precepts with an inconsistent mind and expect almost instant enlightenment. They expect the impossible.

Precepts protect us from creating negativities of body, speech and mind. They control the unsubdued mind, which is like a completely mad elephant, harming itself and destroying others. This unsubdued mind is the cause of every problem, and so its opposite, the subdued mind, is the cause of every happiness and brings peace to oneself and others.

Guru Shakyamuni clearly saw that the ignorant egocentric mind is the true cause of suffering. He gave the precepts to help all mother sentient beings control their egocentric minds, and so to reach enlightenment. Because he had crossed the ocean of samsara, he could say what was necessary for the journey and what was the true path.

So now we can see that becoming a monk or nun, following precepts and wearing robes, is not merely done to preserve customs and Buddhist partisanship. The significance of wearing robes is that it reminds us of renunciation of the worldly life, which is uncontrolled, confused and conditioned, and it reminds us of the responsibility of keeping the precepts for the sake of all sentient beings.

The essence of the precepts and of all Guru Shakyamuni’s teachings is true compassion. For instance, if you had the choice of killing another sentient being or of being killed yourself, which would you choose? If you were a true follower of Guru Shakyamuni’s teachings, you would give up your own life. Not having this kind of powerful inner-feeling realization, with understanding, yet wanting to take the precepts, is just a fantasy—isn’t it?

Just taking the ordination is easy, but vows alone are not enough. Why? Because without training the mind you definitely cannot keep them. Some people take precepts but do not train their minds—they don’t change the old confused mind’s habits, and continue to act like confused beings.

So that’s the purpose of taking the ordination!

The 36 Precepts

The first four precepts relate to killing [Tib: sog-chö; taking of life].

1. Avoidance of taking a life. Worst is to kill an arhat or bodhisattva.
Impulse: anger, hatred, desire to kill, ignorance, jealousy or self-attachment.
Object: complete human body or fetus, i.e. abortion.
Goal: that the other dies before you do.
Action: done personally, or indirectly, i.e. by other person or means.

2. Avoidance of killing an animal or insect.
Impulse: greed, anger, desire to kill.
Object: animal or insect.
Goal: that the animal or insect dies before you do.
Action: direct or indirect.

3. Avoidance of inadvertently killing an animal or insect through an action done for the purpose of one’s negative mind.
Impulse: not caring for the lives of animals or insects.
Object: animal or insect.
Goal: inadvertent death of animal or insect.
Action: direct or indirect. For example, using water without straining it, or digging a hole in the earth without considering little animals or insects.

4. Avoidance of inadvertently killing an animal or insect through collective action involving people other than oneself.
Impulse: not caring for the lives of animals or insects.
Object: animal or insect.
Goal: inadvertent death of animal or insect.
Action: direct or indirect.

The purpose of these last two precepts is to make one consciously avoid harming animals or insects. The minds of all mother sentient beings have sensations and feelings.

5. Avoidance of sexual intercourse.
Impulse: continuous sexual craving, involved in self-attachment. The desire arises first and should continue uninterrupted to the orgasm; if it ceases before this, the action is not complete or fulfilled.
Object: man or woman.
Goal: Experiencing the sexual happiness.

If one of these branches is missing the action cannot be completed but could violate a lower precept. The karmic result differs because the negative impulse is not the same.

The purpose of keeping these first five precepts is to avoid rebirth in the three lower realms of suffering, and to avoid increasing the egotistic mind, to make progress on the path, and to develop others’ faith in keeping the ordination or precepts.

6. Avoidance of stealing, i.e. taking that which has not been freely offered.
Impulse: desire arising from self-attachment.
Object: something of value possessed by another.
Goal: happiness in possessing or receiving.
Action: direct or indirect.

Borrowing becomes stealing when the impulse arises to not return the object. Taking others’ possessions with force. Stealing is objected to because it causes the continual negative desire to steal the possessions of others in future lives. Present stealing causes the same results time and again, the loss of possessions and having many worries. It also results in horrible rebirths with much discomfort in an uncomfortable, ignorant, primitive life.

7. Avoidance of telling lies [Tib: pham pä dzün; the full action of the lie].
Worst is to pretend through words and actions that one has high true realizations, e.g. telepathic power, which are not so.
Impulse: desire to lie for impure motive and self-attachment, to give misconceptions to others or to change others’ wills. 
Object: another human being.
Goal: other people need only hear the words or see the actions.
Action: direct. [The lies must be heard or seen before the action is “complete”.]

Lying is objected to because it can cause people to have misconceptions about religion and to follow false teachers. This is very dangerous because it misleads many sentient beings, bringing more suffering by giving confused ideas. It results in rebirths in the three lower realms, habitual lying in future lives so that one is never trusted by others, and in being belittled by others in this and future lives. So the purpose of this precept is to avoid these results and attain right speech.

Consider being belittled by another for no apparent reason. You become angry due to the uncomfortable vibrations he is giving you, yet it is only the karmic result of your own belittling of others in previous lives. There is no reason to get angry by thinking it is the other person’s fault; this is the major wrong conception, and comes from not knowing your own inner karmic causation. This comes from believing your view that only “self-existent” external phenomena are acceptable because they can be scientifically proven, or that “seeing is believing”.

8. Avoidance of belittling a venerable pure monk or venerable pure nun, by saying that he or she broke one of the four basic rules [killing a human, sexual intercourse, stealing, lying] which is not the case.
Impulse: to belittle or abuse out of jealousy and hatred.

9. Avoidance of insinuating to a venerable monk or nun that they broke one of the four basic rules, which is not the case.

10. Avoidance of causing disunity amongst the community of the Sangha through untrue slander or taking sides in a disagreement.
Impulse: jealousy.
It is objected to because it interrupts the unity of monks and nuns, and causes rebirths in the three lower realms for eons.

11. Avoidance of going along with another’s idea to cause disunity amongst monks or nuns.

12. Being a monk or nun, avoidance of complaining untruthfully to lay people that action brought by the Sangha against oneself was unfair, e.g. expulsion from monastery.
Impulse: anger and hatred due to being punished by the Sangha for breaking rules.
It is objected to because it causes lay people to lose faithful relationship with the Sangha.

13. Avoidance of telling other lies as well as those specified in precepts 7, 8, 9, 19, or 20.
For example, saying that you are going to a certain place, but going somewhere else.

14. Avoidance of belittling the monk managing the food, by saying that he gave benefactors’ offerings to one monk instead of sharing them with all, which is not the case.
Impulse: self-attachment or hatred.
It is objected to because it betrays other monks and gives wrong ideas.

15. Avoidance of criticizing directly or by insinuation, that the manager of the monk community did not give one a share of the food or other things equal to that given to other monks.
Impulse: negative desire.
It is objected to because it causes other people to have and create misconceptions and negative actions.

16. Avoidance of claiming that another monk gave a teaching in return for a little food, which is not the case.
Impulse: negative desire, jealousy or hatred.
It is objected to because it causes others to have wrong feelings with that monk and creates negative actions.

17. Avoidance of belittling a monk by saying that he committed a secondary downfall, or a “remainder,” [Tib: lhag ma], which is not the case, e.g. saying that he caused disunity (10) amongst the Sangha.
Impulse: negative desire.

18. Avoidance of not seriously following the moral practices of the precepts, e.g. not making confession due to careless mind.
It is objected to because the broken precepts increase more and more without being purified.

19. Avoidance of covering the vegetables with rice.
Impulse: to get more vegetables or change another’s mind by deception.

20. Avoidance of covering the rice with vegetables.
Impulse: to get more rice by deception.
It is objected to because it deceives others, and causes one to create negative actions with greed and self-attachment.

21. Avoidance of taking intoxicants.
Impulse: impure motive of ignorant craving which is attached to the comfort of the temporal life.
The intoxicated mind is an uninhibited mind and is open to all negative impulses.
It is objected to because it causes one to break many of the precepts and to lose the pure power of one’s mind and physical body, causing danger to the lives of others through one’s unconsciousness. Using intoxicants takes one in the opposite direction to peaceful consciousness.

22. Avoidance of singing with greed or self-attachment, or for nonsensical reasons.

23. Avoidance of dancing with impure motive or self-attachment, or for nonsensical reasons.

24. Avoidance of making music with impure motive or self-attachment, or for nonsensical reasons.

25. Avoidance of wearing ornaments with impure motive or self-attachment.

26. Avoidance of wearing cosmetics with self-attachment, to improve one’s color.

27. Avoidance of wearing perfumes with impure motive or self-attachment.

28. Avoidance of wearing the rosary like jewelry, with impure motive or self-attachment.

29. Avoidance of sitting on a high throne with impure motive or self-attachment.

30. Avoidance of sitting on a large expansive bed with impure motive or self-attachment.

31. Avoidance of sitting on a higher bed with impure motive or self-attachment.

32. Avoidance of eating in the evening with self-attachment. [Exceptions: if one is ill and requires nourishment, or if one cannot meditate properly without food.]

33. Avoidance of touching expensive jewels with greed and self-attachment.

The Three Degenerative Actions

34. Avoidance of degenerating the precept of not wearing lay peoples’ clothes and ornaments again.
Impulse: impure motives or self-attachment.

35. Avoidance of degenerating the precepts of wearing a renounced being’s clothes (robes) as vowed.
Impulse: impure motives.

36. Avoidance of degenerating the will to follow Guru Shakyamuni or his followers.
Caused by either materialistic influences or ignorant mental attachment to self-comfort due to not having a deep understanding of samsaric nature and absolute truth.

Lord Buddha objected to actions done with the impure motive of self-attachment because they cause loss of realizations, bring more problems and destroy the peace of others. Actions opposite to those of the above-mentioned precepts are allowed, if done with a mind not attached to temporal comfort, and with pure, compassionate, selfless reasons and the knowledge that these actions are capable of guiding others from suffering. Therefore, actions cannot be judged unless one can see the result of any action and the actual motive for it.

If one takes a high ordination and breaks the precepts, the greatest negative karma is created, but keeping such an ordination pure offers the strongest, limitless benefits. So taking a higher ordination without having true understanding knowledge is dangerous.

This is a very deep and profound subject of karma which, if realized, allows understanding of the whole karmic concatenation.

Observing ordinations, disciplining the mind, is the essential Dharma practice and a quick and practical method of receiving enlightenment.

The titles for tung-wa de nga, the five divisions of moral falls, are applied to gelong, full monks, only. They are: pham pa, lhag ma, tung je, sor-shak and nye-jä.

Novice monks who break precepts do not have these titles applied to their moral fall, but use pham de nye jä for breakage of the four principal precepts, and nye jä for the rest.