The Peaceful Prison

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Chenrezig Institute, Australia (Archive #072)

In this teaching Lama Yeshe advises the importance of pratimoksha vows and responds to students' questions about the five lay vows. The teaching was given at Chenrezig Institute, Eudlo, Australia, on September 12, 1979. Edited by Nick Ribush.

See also Mandala magazine, June 2006 edition, to read about Nick's experience of taking precepts.

Lama Yeshe teaching at Chenrezig Institute, Australia, 1979.

The one who takes precepts is very fortunate. If we don't act, then what can we do? You are taking precepts because you want to do something, aren't you? Actually, the world today is so impure, so impure. If you look at the political situation in the world, even in Australia, you can see how people are cheating each other and how unbelievably impure the world is becoming. You can see that. What you can do to make the world better is to act better, isn't it? Instead of worrying, “The world is becoming disastrous, everybody is becoming impure therefore I want to become impure,” instead of thinking that way, “The world is impure therefore I want to become impure too,” we should see that that is no good, that is not a solution. For the world and human beings to become better, the solution is for us to act better. We should not look at the world, “The world is doing this this this, therefore I am doing that, that, that.” We cannot say that.

Remember last year, there was one man, Jim Jones, who became some kind of big guru. The result of what he did was that he killed all his students by poison—unbelievable. He was doing that, “The world is horrible now, I must kill all my students.” That can't help, can it? But that horrible situation is reality too. You learn, we learn. I think it is good, that man demonstrated how the human mind is. I think that Western people should learn from that also, I think that he is showing us a great realization. Somehow the Western mind has no wisdom to judge who is the right leader for salvation or liberation; we don't have discrimination. We blindly follow, “Aaaaaah,” like this. [Lama shows being led by the nose] Can you imagine such people who choose that kind of leader, they even take that one. Unbelievable. I could not believe it myself. However, instead of our blaming those people we should know that they are human beings, the same as us. If we are not careful, we might end up in that sort of situation.

So somehow it is really fortunate that you people have decided that you want to act better, you want to correct your own actions and transform them into tranquility and peace. I think that is incredible. A brave mind. Especially, we know how difficult it is in the West to live a pure life. It is so difficult. The Western environment is like soup—everything is overwhelming, there are all kinds of things going on, unbelievable things, and especially, if there is some impure action happening everybody is interested, everybody wakes up to do impure things. But when there are really pure things to do everybody gets sleepy, everybody becomes kind of sloppy and dull. We understand this situation is difficult, but the individual, recognizing his own weaknesses and how he causes his own problems, really wanting to act, to follow the right livelihood and direct himself to the liberation of enlightenment, is so worthwhile, so worthwhile. If we do that it means that we are not hypocritical, we are acting in some way.

And also, I want you to understand that by taking the precepts you are not promising something to Lama. “I want to take refuge; I won't do this or that.” The Buddhist way is not like that. By taking precepts you are receiving some energy or gaining some kind of energy to counteract dissatisfaction. In fact, the precepts are the path to enlightenment, so they are really worthwhile. Difficulties result from our uncontrolled mind, not from circumstances. Taking precepts is the real Buddhist way of treating the mind, of understanding how the sensitive emotional mind works and how we become neurotic. That is good, we can recognize these things by taking precepts. Otherwise we don't recognize, we don't recognize the space and time between here and the crazy mind—we just end up in such situations. But precepts make you aware of what your attitude is, of what is going on in your mind. The purpose of taking precepts is also to develop higher consciousness or to develop comprehension of the nature of your own mind.

I want you to understand what is involved in breaking a vow. For example, let's say that you have vowed not to kill. The most important thing is the way in which you kill, the attitude with which you kill. I don't want you to take it literally, “I promised not to kill, I took the precept to avoid killing. After that while I was walking to the kitchen, I think I killed an insect, so I broke my vow immediately, ooooh.” [Lama shows crying] I don't want you to understand it that way. I'll tell you why. Sometimes the Western mind is wonderful, sensitive; they take things so seriously. Even when they take precepts they take them so seriously, they take them in a really concrete way. I don't want you to take them that way. I want you to understand that when you are taking the precept of not killing it is the attitude—either hatred or desire—that is most involved. When you act unconsciously, there is no breaking of the vow, I want you to understand. If you kill somebody in a dream, of course there is some negative energy but don't think that you are breaking your vow. You are not breaking it.

To break the vow you have to have the attitude of deliberately wanting to kill, and then performing the action, and then afterwards feeling happy, “Good, finally I was successful.” It has that kind of evolution. So to break the precept of killing there has to be this evolution—that is the way you break it. You cannot break it by killing somebody accidentally—perhaps you are going somewhere and accidentally you knock somebody over and they fall into the ocean and drown. Who is responsible? You are not really responsible, and you should not feel guilty. You had no intention to drown that person in the ocean. Therefore, you should not feel guilty, “Oooh, now I have broken my vow, better that I jump in and drown myself also.” That kind of thing is foolish, we should not do it.

You see, there is the attitude, that brings you toward the action and then there is the completion of what you aimed to do; that is the way you break the precepts you have taken. Therefore, really, don't worry. Anyway, people who live in Western cities are very little involved with nature. They are not involved in killing things unless they are army generals. An army general just sits in his concrete house and says, “Hey! you go there and kill immediately.” But we are simple people, not involved in anything, so somehow it is lucky.

And also, if the situation really involves compassion, if the attitude is compassion, there is completely nothing to do with the self-cherishing thought, it is only compassion, only compassion concerning the welfare of other sentient beings; if you kill in those circumstances with the right reason, there is no breaking of the vow. That is not the sense of breaking the vow of not killing. The vow is broken only if there is a negative mind creating a negative action. That is the way the mind becomes unhealthy; that is the way we say the vow is broken. Otherwise, there is no reason.

The reason I'm telling you all this is that many of my students are so sensitive, “Lama, I have broken my vow.” I discuss with them, “How did you break your vow?” Many times they didn't break their vow. They took it kind of literally and they felt they had broken it, but they hadn't. That's the reason I'm telling you this. I want you to understand that to break any of these five precepts, it is necessary to have the basic attitude of either craving desire, grasping or hatred. When you act in such a way, completely, then we can say the vow has been broken. I think it is fortunate to come to such conclusion.

Intoxicants are one of the things that we are most involved with. You can take some wine; you can take a little wine to participate with your parents or friends for social purposes. You can take this much wine; it does not make you break your vow. I want you to understand this and not take the vow seriously thinking, “If I drink a little of this wine I have broken my vow”—no. The reason for this vow is that if, out of craving desire, we drink to an overwhelming extreme and become intoxicated, drunk, that is against the development of higher consciousness isn't it? For that reason, Buddha said it is better not to drink.

So, you can drink a little bit of wine but it is better not to drink too much, not to become uncontrolled. That is absolutely no good. Look at a drunk man, look at his face, his attitude: he beats his wife, he beats his child, and generally he appears so unkind. But he's so uncontrolled he doesn't feel he is being unkind. When we look at him we feel he is such an unkind person, but he doesn't feel that because he doesn't know what he is doing, he's unaware of what he's doing. So that is what we avoid by this vow: taking intoxicants with craving desire and without having understanding of the limit, taking too much. That is not so good.

And the same thing, becoming intoxicated by drugs. Taking drugs is no good—it does not give you satisfaction. So becoming intoxicated does not necessarily mean only by drinking alcohol—all kinds of drugs can make you intoxicated. However, there is an exception. Normally, monks are never allowed to drink even one drop of wine, according to the Vinaya rules. But if people are sick, even monks, they can take wine for medicinal purposes. For you people it's the same thing—if you are sick you can take drugs for medicinal purposes.

I think that basically you understand, so perhaps it is better that you ask questions instead of my continuing to talk. I want you to clear up any doubt. The reason I want you to be clean clear is because I'm responsible, I don't want to create confusion for you. It is not fair if a Tibetan monk comes and instead of clearing things up he makes more confusion for you. That is not so good.

Student: I was wondering if you accidentally partly kill an animal, is it better to put it out of its suffering or does it have to pay off that suffering and therefore is it better not to kill it in that situation?

Lama: If you discover that the only thing left is suffering and misery, there is no happiness in life, with that compassion, you can kill, yes, with compassion. I have already told you that, you can do that one, there's nothing to do with you, there is only compassion. He's suffering, and even if you get negative karma by killing, you don't care, isn't it? Put it the other way, if I'm suffering, let's say I am suffering and in misery and am going to be suffering continuously for more than ten years, and you definitely know, and really you think, “I can't understand this man, for the next ten years he's going to be suffering like this, twenty-four hours a day, miserable—I can't take it myself, he can't take it either, I don't care that by killing him I will get negative karma, I will have to go to some hell, I don't care.” So, you kill with compassion, no problem.

Student: There is no karma?

Lama: There is karma, but even though there is karma, who cares? Let's say she killed me and because of that for the next ten lifetimes she is going to be killed by other sentient beings, but she doesn't care: “I'm happy if others take my life, kill me, I don't care, but I don't want this man to suffer for ten years; I would rather be killed ten times than let him suffer,” having that attitude strongly. Let me put a situation, let's say I'm going to suffer for ten years and you think, “Oh, my Lama, he's a poor man. For the next ten years he's going to suffer. Instead of my letting him suffer it's better that I kill him now. I don't care even if the Australian police come and put me in jail, that's not the point, I don't care for my pleasure, I am only concerned for him.” So you kill me and then spend the rest of your life in jail, OK?

Student: It's blown me out, Lama, what you've said about killing, even with that motivation. Even with that motivation, you see that animal suffering, you run over a snake on the road and half of him goes this way and the other half goes that way, so you go over and he's deeply suffering, and you kill him?

Lama: That's OK.

Student: I can't understand it.

Lama: Why?

Student: Because I feel that that snake is suffering and his karma is to suffer. You try to reduce his suffering, but you cannot do it without teaching him Dharma with some insight. So perhaps...

Lama: So, first you teach Dharma to the snake. So you are first going to teach him Dharma.

Student: ... [Question missed while tape turned over]

Lama: He's already in the lower realm, who cares, next he is going to circle again in the lower realm.

Student: Doesn't he work off some karma through that suffering?  

Lama: Maybe if you kill him, he goes to heaven or to a human rebirth, who knows? Come on, when a snake dies do you think it has to again become a snake? Snakes become human beings again also. Sometimes maybe you killed with your higher motivation, this karma he is flashing with clarity, and he becomes a human being—it's possible.

Student: I'm not sure whether it was directly from you, Lama, but that same question about the severely injured animal or insect was always answered differently in previous courses, that you shouldn't kill it, that you should leave it. And I had the situation with you last time you were in Melbourne, when our goat was badly injured and dying, you told me better not to kill it, you said to leave it.

Lama: OK. If you don't know, if you don't know if it is the solution or not, then better leave it.

Student: Yes, but how do you know?

Lama: That is the question. That you have to judge, you have to use wisdom. For example, I'm suffering, is my suffering for the next ten years worthwhile or not, you have to check out, isn't it?

Student: But we don't have the level of mind to make those sorts of decisions—I think that is why it has always been indicated that we should not make the killing decision but are better to make the decision to try to be helpful.

Lama: Yes, try to be helpful, I think that is right. For example, half the animal is smashed, it is in this condition, you can see with your eye and you feel there is no way to fix it sort of, there is no way for the life to be worthwhile, you are completely clean, clear, then you can kill.

Student: I think you explained at the time my goat was badly injured that there is a natural response in animals and maybe in people too, with regard to the conscious state … [a few words missed] a little bit hypnotized.

Lama: Yes, I remember the situation when your goat died; he died naturally. For example, let's say I am smashed and you say, “Poor Lama, my dear friend is dying now, smashed.” Anyway, you check up my pulse. “I think he has only one or two hours left.” So only one or two hours left. “He's going to suffer for two or three hours, perhaps I should kill my Lama. But, perhaps it's not necessary, two or three hours is nothing, better just leave him as he is.” So the situation is kind of delicate. Better you leave—two or three hours, what difference? But what I am saying is if I have to suffer for ten years, miserable day and night, then there is some solution—better kill with compassion.

Student: I think it's difficult because we can't always tell what's going to happen. It might look like ten years, but...

Lama: Yeah, if you know, I say, better do; if you don't know, better don't. The condition is that if you don't know clean clear it is the right solution, you should not do. I agree, you shouldn't do. That's right. Thank you. This is the condition, we are making, conditions: if, if, if, if. I think it is very dangerous to make that kind of decision without knowing. Very dangerous. But if you know clean clear, then you can do.

Student: What should we do if we know that we have broken one of our precepts?  

Lama: Then you do strong meditation if you broke one of the precepts today and you feel, “Today I broke it, yeah, I think I broke it. Today I deliberately told a lie to my friend. That's terrible.” You can see that you did it for no good reason, that you were stupid, “For no beneficial reason I am doing terrible things. There is no reason.” So tomorrow as punishment, you get up at six o' clock. You tell yourself, “Tomorrow, I'm going to get up at six o'clock and take the eight precepts and do strong meditation.” The negative karma vanishes. Or you say, “Tomorrow I'm going to be silent, to punish my mouth.” So you keep silence, it's wonderful. Perhaps you only say mantra. People ask you to reply, but there is no “eeh, eeh, eeh,” nonsense things all day. Instead you say 100,000 OM MANI PADME HUM mantras. That is so profound, for the transformation of the broken precept, telling lie speech. Is that good enough for you?

Student: Does all exaggeration go with lying?

Lama: Exaggerating is not really telling a lie. For example, when I say I exaggerate to you, you know, when I give lectures I exaggerate certain things. I don't have a lying attitude, but some things I exaggerate to get a response from you people. Do you think I exaggerate sometimes when I give lectures? I do, it's true. Do I exaggerate? You know I exaggerate. But my exaggeration is a form of expression—the purpose of language is to make expression, to clear up the mind. That is the purpose. So don't worry, it depends on the attitude, exaggerating depends on the attitude. If your mind is twisted, you want to make more delusion in other people's mind, then exaggerating is close to telling lies.

Student: Lama, could you clarify the vow of sexual misconduct?

Lama: I think it has many meanings. In the Vinaya rules there is a strict way of taking and an easier way of taking. The easier way of taking is when you are married you do not have sexual contact with the wives or husbands of others. I think you know that. If some other man or woman is free and you yourself don't have any obligation, I can't see that there is a problem in your coming together. I think in the West it is a common problem—a man and a woman are married, have a commitment toward each other, but at the same time they have relationships with other people. That is a disaster. I think that is cheating, actually, that is telling a lie. It is telling a lie and at the same time it is kind of stealing, because you are stealing somebody else's wife or husband, aren't you? So you are stealing, and there is sexual misconduct—how many things together simultaneously? That's interesting, isn't it? Because you broke the trust with your wife, you are telling a lie. Because you are taking somebody's woman or man, you are stealing. And then of course there is sexual misconduct. So there are three things going on simultaneously.

And another thing is, to the Buddhist way of thinking, there is no way that this can really bring you satisfaction. Unless maybe Buddha is your husband, perhaps Buddha gives you satisfaction—if you are married with Shakyamuni. I'm joking. Or if your lady is Tara, maybe there is satisfaction. But most of the time it is only dissatisfaction. If both partners are at the same level, a higher level, then perhaps it is beneficial. But if only one is higher, even that one is Dharma, the other brings that one down. That's how life goes—we reflect each other. That is the human mind, the human consciousness works that way. We reflect each other. That's why the beauty of the human being is that the human being has clean-clear intelligence—everybody has. Don't think that you don't have intelligence and so you do not pick up vibrations. You pick up delusion because you have the vibration quality of grasping.

Student: I feel I cannot take the killing vow because if I eat meat and wear leather. If I have the opportunity to kill the animal that I will eat or maybe use the skin of, I should take the opportunity to kill the animal to learn a lesson, to respect the animals that I cannot have the opportunity to kill. I feel I can't take that vow.

Lama: Good. I think that if you cannot take the vow you shouldn't take it. I think that is very honest, true. If you don't think that it is worthwhile to take it, you shouldn't take it. Everybody, not only you, should take only whatever they feel relates to their life; whatever becomes the cause of some kind of confusion that you want to eliminate. If the situation does not bring you some confusion or lead to a restless state of mind then there is no need to take it.

Student: Excuse me, Lama, in Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey's book it mentions that sexual intercourse on full moons and new moons constitutes sexual misconduct—is the reason for that because there is more tendency to have worse repercussions?

Lama: The reasoning is that the full moon and the new moon have tremendous energy—if you generate positive energy, so powerful; if you generate negative energy, it also becomes so powerful. I tell you. Actually, you can see, if you are aware you'll notice that on the full moon you even have so much physical energy. I'm sure that most men and women will find that ordinarily, on those days, they have so much sexual desire, which manifests either physically or mentally. For some reason it does, you check up. You have more energy on the full moon. So it's obvious that when you take the precepts in a strict way, if you control yourself on the full moon and new moon you create much good karma and your meditation becomes more powerful. For example, if you don't meditate on the full moon and new moon days, you are going to have pretty strong negative mind too. So that's the reason that they mention those kinds of things in in the Vinaya rules sometimes. But I don't think that you can make those precepts for the normal Western family, I think it is very difficult for the Western mind, but of course....

Student: I knew that you weren't going to make them like that, but I was just wondering why they had them the other way—I thought that that was the reason.

Lama: Right dear, good reason, understand. Normally I do not make those conditions about the full moon and new moon. I think that's very difficult. And also, sometimes Western people don't know when there is the new moon and when there is the full moon. Because their mind is so busy with the daily things, there's no time to think about full moon and new moon—there is something they are only waiting for Saturday and Sunday. Those are great things because they are holidays, you get to go to the beach. Those are the big things, not the full moon or new moon.

Student: Lama, I'd like to know if one withholds money that is demanded, say by the government, does that constitute stealing? You're not actually taking the money; you are refusing to give the money—does that constitute stealing? Taxation is an example.

Lama: I think it is better that you pay your taxation.

Student: The reason I ask is that I thought the vow against stealing meant taking that which is not freely given.

Lama: Normally, yes, exactly. But if you do not pay tax, actually it is kind of stealing. That's right, exactly.

Student: I seem to have a problem, not a problem, like, I like to get out of it, I like to drink every so often and get drunk.

Lama: Drunk?

Student: Yes. I mean, what else do you drink for? Not often, but like if I'm at a party or something. So I suppose I shouldn't really take the intoxicants vow.

Lama: Yes, I think better not take.

Student: Maybe I'll try and do without it, but....

Lama: Right, yes, try to do it for one year. Give yourself time. If at a certain point you reach control, then at that time you take the vow.

I think that's good enough, so we understand, I think you understand. We are taking the pratimoksha vows, the Sanskrit word is pratimoksha. Prati means individual, moksha means liberation, so individual liberation. One who acts into the right path, right livelihood, can liberate himself. Shakyamuni is liberated already, but we are still confused because we have not been acting into the right livelihood. So the same thing, you people have come to the conclusion that you want to act into the right livelihood, I think that's very important. That's why Buddhism is a way of living life—you cannot separate life and Dharma. If you try to separate life and Dharma it doesn't work, it doesn't work. So actually, to act is most worthwhile.

So this time, you are taking the precepts from Lama and the buddhas and bodhisattvas, with renunciation. Basically you understand the situation of reality that you are going to renounce—the confused situation—and you are determined that, “From now until I discover enlightenment or liberation I am going to keep those precepts.” You are supposed to kneel as you do at the morning precepts, on your right knee. This symbolizes the single-pointed penetrating thought, putting yourself into this position.

The objects from whom you are taking the precepts are all universal buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions; the past buddhas, the present buddhas, and the future buddhas, all existing in space. From these, by understanding the reality of what you are going to renounce, and especially knowing that the reason to renounce is to create an environment of tranquility and peace to allow penetrated concentration meditation. If our mind is kind of shaking and like a tornado, we can't have samadhi concentration meditation, deep meditation. Deep meditation, penetration, comes from the clean-clear mental environment. Taking precepts makes a tranquil and peaceful environment within our nervous system. Thereby we can grow infinitely.

“From now on, when I take the pratimoksha ordination, until I discover enlightenment for the sake of benefiting all universal living beings, of liberating all universal living beings. In order to help the people and others who surround me, I must make myself strong and liberated. If I am confused, absolutely I can't help. Even though I love them and want to help, I am just joking. I don't want to joke any more. So in order to help other people, in order to help even one person, the first thing I have to do is liberate myself, in some way get myself together. For that reason, I am renouncing confusion and taking pratimoksha ordination.” Each of you should mention to yourself at the moment which of the particular precepts you are taking, and then with strong motivation you repeat this....

[Lama performs the ordination ceremony]

Alright, now we are finished. At this point we usually give those who want a name. However, the name is an illusion and has nothing to do with reality. But traditionally, the reason is that we need a reminder of the time when we deliberately took the precepts, we were clean clear, absolutely no question at this time. You see, when you go back to your samsaric nest, sometimes you might think, “Well, I don't understand why I have taken this. It is not really part of my culture, perhaps this Tibetan monk hypnotized us, he is really an outrageous man, I should write to him and tell him that at that time he hypnotized me and gave me the precepts, and I took it unconsciously, so now I don't want this ordination, please take it back.”

Anyway, as a reminder, traditionally we give the name. If you want it you can come and get it, but if you don't want it, it is not necessary to come, it is up to you. You know, sometimes if you find you are getting a bit much, too extreme, you can use your ordination name, “Listen so and so, back in September 1979 you took these vows and look at the way you are behaving now.” Sort of you can use it in that way also. Anyway, not necessary. Thank you so much.