The Samaya Vows of the Guhyagarbha Tantra

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro Rinpoche
HITS( 12100)

Only those who have received the inner tantra empowerment should read this text.



The fourteen root tantric vows and the eight branch vows are the common vows for all the highest tantras, or the inner tantras. All Vajrayana practitioners must observe these vows; therefore, we need to know precisely what each vow entails.

Here, we will discuss the vows pertaining to the Guhyagarbha Tantra. Many people know that the Nyingma practice is categorized into three different yogas, namely, Mahayoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga, of which Mahayoga is the most basic. Just as Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way is the root treatise of the six major treatises of Madhyamaka, the Guhyagarbha Tantra is the root tantra of the eighteen tantras of Mahayoga. That is to say, the contents of Mahayoga are all included in the Guhyagarbha Tantra. Therefore, the Guhyagarbha Tantra is also one of the tantras of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.

There are fifteen vows pertaining to the Guhyagarbha Tantra, including five root vows and ten branch vows. It is considered keeping the samaya pure if one can strictly observe these fifteen vows. Although there are the uncommon vows of Anuyoga and Atiyoga in addition to the fifteen vows, the main portion of the vows are already covered by the fourteen root downfalls and the five root vows discussed here. Our introduction to all the tantric commitments is essentially complete with the basic fourteen root vows, and the vows of the Guhyagarbha Tantra. If we don’t violate any of these vows, we can pride ourselves on being worthy Vajrayana practitioners.

The scope of the tantric vows is rather broad, including even the pratimoksha and bodhisattva vows. To subsume, there are three levels of tantric vows—common, uncommon, and special.

The common vows are the pratimoksha and bodhisattva vows; the uncommon vows are the fourteen root downfalls, the five root vows, and the like; the special vows are the ones that must be observed strictly when undertaking particular practices. Our discussion here falls in the category of the uncommon vows.

The choice of the different levels of vows to be taken varies from person to person. We should choose based on our own actual situation. Given the right condition, if one chooses to take the pratimoksha vows for the monastic, do that; if not suitable, one can still take the less stringent vows for a lay practitioner. Having established this base, one can proceed to take the bodhisattva vows. As for the level of the bodhisattva vows to be taken, one can also choose. Practitioners of superior capacity can choose the higher, more demanding level of twenty bodhisattva vows; practitioners of medium capacity can choose the level of four bodhisattva vows or eight vows as each vow can also split into two; those of inferior capacity who are unable to practice bodhicitta in action can just promise to uphold bodhicitta in aspiration. It is only appropriate to receive the tantric vows on the basis of having taken the bodhisattva vows.

Pratimoksha and bodhisattva vows are common to both sutra and tantra, and the former is common to Mahayana and Theravada. Vajrayana practitioners ought to take these vows as well, but in the uncommon tantric vows, such as the fourteen root downfalls and the five root vows, there is no mention of refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and cheating, because pratimoksha and bodhisattva vows do not belong to the category of either the uncommon or the special vows.

There are two ways to take vows. One is to take vows in sequence—first the pratimoksha vows, then the bodhisattva vows, and finally the tantric vows; the sadhanas for taking these three vows are also different. The other is at the time of receiving Vajrayana empowerment. Because the tantric vows already encompass the essence of the pratimoksha and bodhisattva vows, one can receive the essence of the other two vows concurrently when empowerment is conferred. Nevertheless, the most prudent and appropriate way is to take the vows in the order above.

If one has received Vajrayana empowerment and also kept the samaya pure, one will attain liberation within sixteen lifetimes even without ever having practiced the generation or completion stages. If on the basis of keeping pure samaya, one also undertakes practice in strict accordance with the lama’s instructions, one will advance very quickly on the path and be able to attain liberation in this lifetime, in the bardo, or in the next life. On the other hand, if one breaks the samaya and refuses to repent, one will not only miss out on any chance for liberation but also end up in vajra hell wherein suffering is far more unbearable than any hellish suffering described in the sutra system.

However, the tantric vows have an advantage. That is, if after properly receiving empowerment for the first time, one either intentionally or unintentionally breaks the vows but wishes to repent and mend this mistake, one can recover the essence of the vows, even if the vajra master is not present, by visualizing the yidam and the vajra master transmitting the vows again.

Now there are some practitioners who completely overlook the precepts and the practices of renunciation and bodhicitta, preferring to focus instead on the practices of yidam deity, the generation stage, tsa lung, Dzogchen and so on. In reality, if the foundation is not solid, we are far, far away from any chance of attaining results from these practices, begetting no real benefit for us even if we practice day and night.

If we want to take the path to liberation or learn and practice true Vajrayana, we must start by cultivating renunciation and bodhicitta; the way to do that is through the outer and inner preliminary practices. Some lay practitioners ask, “My lama gave me permission not to practice the preliminaries, so I don’t need to, right?” I think this is like giving one permission not to gain liberation! Having established a firm foundation, we can go ahead to receive empowerment; afterwards the most important thing is to strictly observe the vows. If the samaya vows are broken in the course of practice, one must immediately repent and renew the vows again.

Usually we can also proceed to the practices of the generation and completion stage after empowerment. But we in this modern age face too many attractions, spend too much time and effort on gathering wealth and fame, troubled by constant discursive thoughts and serious afflictions. It becomes extremely difficult to rely on the complex practices of the generation and completion stage to eradicate samsara from its root when the general condition of the world now is not conducive to leading a contemplative life. Therefore, for people like us living in this degenerate age, we need a practice that’s well-directed, easy to apply, and powerful enough to be able to dismantle self-grasping with ease. This practice is Dzogchen.

Of course, not everyone is of the right capacity for Dzogchen; if not, this practice may not be helpful. The criterion for determining the level of one’s capacity is faith. If one has strong aspiration for Dzogchen, wishing earnestly to practice Dzogchen, and ultimately attain the fruit of Dzogchen, one is deemed to have the necessary capacity for the Dzogchen practice.

Nonetheless, whether it is to practice Dzogchen or other tantras, rigorous observance of the tantric vows is top priority. Failing this, all chances of attaining accomplishment will be gone. In order to further your understanding of the importance of tantric commitments, I will discuss the tantric vows from another angle which can serve as a reminder these vows are to be upheld.

The way to receive Vajrayana vows is through empowerment. However, presently there are some problems with regard to empowerment in many places including Tibet; the situation is much worse in China. Although this subject has been touched upon many times before, it is still necessary to repeat it here in order to raise more attention.

Nowadays in many places, there is no shortage of vajra masters conferring empowerment, and opportunities to receive empowerment are aplenty; people in general have a keen interest in this. However, many of them tend to overlook the tantric commitments that are closely related to the empowerment. People know they have received empowerment, but they know nothing about the samaya vows that must be observed subsequently. What remains is only the formality of practicing Vajrayana, with very few people actually benefiting from the tantric practice.

The first problem happens at the time of empowerment. Because the recipients don’t really know how to obtain true empowerment, whether or not the person giving empowerment is qualified or they themselves are qualified to receive it, they just blindly go along with the ritual. No result or progress can be attained in Vajrayana practice under this circumstance. The second problem is after receiving the empowerment, the recipients pay no attention to the tantric vows and don’t even realize it when the vows are broken. People like to make excuses for themselves by saying “those who know nothing have no fault,” but there is no mercy in front of karma.

The cause of these problems is that Vajrayana is not taught systematically in the Chinese regions and the method of propagation is not appropriate. Presently, in the Han Chinese area, Vajrayana is equated with activities like empowerment, blessing, acquiring treasure vase, conducting fire offering, tsok offering, etc., but whether these represent true Vajrayana is difficult to say. Many highly respected masters and followers of sutra maintain a negative view of tantra, partly because they have not grasped the real meaning of the tantric teachings and also because the method used to spread Vajrayana in the Han area is not quite right.

These problems occur not because Vajrayana itself is flawed but because Vajrayana practitioners do not follow the proper steps. To stop the resulting damage, we need to re-educate those who have gotten empowerment but are ignorant of what empowerment entails, offering them different ways to make up for what they have missed. This is the first goal of teaching the samaya vows.

The second goal is to strengthen the dissemination of this knowledge, to educate people on its critical importance so that those who intend to take up Vajrayana practice will take precaution against breaking the vows, which can only be helpful to their own practice.

Clearly, the propagation of knowledge about Vajrayana practice is absolutely necessary. So far we have discussed the significance of explaining the tantric vows. The specifics of the samaya vows of the Guhyagarbha Tantra will be introduced next.


The samaya of the Guhyagarbha Tantra consists of fifteen vows—five root vows and ten branch vows.

The Five Root Vows

  1. Venerate the Vajra Master

This is the same as the first vow of the fourteen root downfalls. It has been emphasized in many Nyingma tantras that all tantric attainments, both great and small, depend entirely on the blessing of the vajra master. Whether one can obtain any siddhi from the master is a matter of one’s own faith. Absent the faith, we cannot obtain any blessing and siddhi even if the master is a real buddha or Vajradhara.

Over the many years of learning Vajrayana, we have truly come to realize that, without the master’s blessing and pith instructions, all the skillful knowledge gleaned from the precious sutras and tantras may not necessarily be of any real value.

For example, after becoming a disciple of H.H. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, I stayed at Larung Gar for the next twenty years studying scriptures including the Five Great Treatises and many others. Although I can pass as a somewhat knowledgeable person, what I know is just intellectual understanding from the books; for actual, specific questions, I must still rely on the master for ways to respond. Besides the vajra master’s blessing and pith instructions, what we learn from the books is often not useful when we are at a critical juncture, nor is it capable of taking us to liberation. This I have experienced deeply numerous times!

In the days that we spent with the master, we could feel the warm attention from the master at all times, like the sun shining on us. When we encountered difficulties or setbacks, the master’s blessing was even more ubiquitous. And it was precisely with this blessing that innumerable people were able to overcome obstacles that strike like ferocious storms on the spiritual path, to solve a myriad of intractable issues, and to pass insuperable difficulties.

Whether it is personal practice or spreading the Dharma to benefit sentient beings, no significant success can be achieved without the master’s blessing and pith instructions. We can only realize the most profound meaning of the Dharma when we combine theoretical learning with the master’s blessing. Therefore, not only Mipham Rinpoche and other great masters in the past repeatedly pointed out the importance of the vajra master to us, but we have also come to realize this truth in the course of our actual practice. Hence, all tantric practices place particular emphasis on having faith in the vajra master.

This is how Vajrayana should be learned and practiced—we must find a supremely qualified vajra master first, then generate strong faith to match it. Only when the two are combined can we taste the profound meaning of Vajrayana. When learning Vajrayana without such faith, it ends up being just a formality. Therefore, being able to maintain rock-solid faith in the master is critical to the practice of Vajrayana.

Here, the master refers to the six types of vajra masters as mentioned in the Nyingma tantras: 1. The one who guides us into the door of Buddhism, such as transmitting the vows of refuge, the vows of the lay practitioner, pratimoksha vows, etc.; 2. The one who teaches the tantras; 3. The one who gives pith instructions, who not just explains the common tantric texts but the essence of tantric practice as well, such as the proper steps of undertaking practice; 4. The one who practitioners go to express repentance after breaking the samaya; 5. The one who confers empowerment; 6. The regular lineage master—besides the aforementioned five masters, the one who benefits us with some teaching of the Dharma, that is, who has taught us more than four lines from the sutric scriptures.

On the question of whether a root vow would be violated if one were to abandon any one of these six types of masers, the opinion from those who are more influential and respected in Vajrayana vary somewhat. On this, more has been said in the discussion on the fourteen root downfalls.

However, the three types of masters, those who confer empowerment, explicate the tantras, and transmit the pith instructions for tantric practice, are absolutely the object of committing downfall; if one disrespects or abandons these three masters, one will surely break the samaya. Regarding this, our respectable predecessors all happen to agree. As for the other three types, so far I have not seen any two lamas holding exactly the same view.

I have also discussed the proper attitude toward the other three types of masters before. The view of one master is this: the seventh of the fourteen tantric root downfalls—deriding our own and others’ tenets—draws the line between sutra and tantra. Our own tenets refer to tantra; others’ tenets refer to sutra. If the sutric teachings cannot be casually slandered, the masters of the sutra tradition must also not be slighted but receive the respect they rightly deserve. It is reasonable to suggest the vow is broken if we don’t respect these masters. This opinion does make sense, hence we should take the most conservative approach to treating all masters.

This is also what we have done over the years. For example, in the case of tantric teachings, except for the masters who were invited by my lama to either confer empowerment or transmit important lineage teachings to us, I have never received empowerment from any other. The few masters that I have were all appointed by my lama. Now that I have enough empowerments and lineage transmissions, I do not plan to receive any more in the future. Many of these masters have already passed away, only a few still remain; hence this should not be too big a problem for me.

With regard to sutra, in the early days in our institute, many fellow Dharma friends obtained lineage teachings from one another. For this reason, we still treat these Dharma friends with the same respect as we do vajra masters. Although we have not stayed around to serve them at all times, mentally we remain very cautious, constantly reminding ourselves not to show disrespect or bring harm to them. If you can do this, you are safe. Never do anything recklessly just because they are teachers of sutra lest the samaya vow may be inadvertently destroyed. Among all the samaya vows, violation of this particular vow is the most serious. So do pay attention to this.

What counts as disrespect? As defined previously in the discussion about the binding factors of a transgression, it is not necessary to actually do or say anything to have this vow broken. Just the thought—I have already gotten the teaching and the transmission that I want, so I no longer need to beseech the master to teach me anymore, or to serve and respect him—is enough to be deemed abandoning the vajra master. It is an even more serious offence if this thought is also accompanied by action. Because the requirement for observing this vow is so stringent, tantra always stresses the necessity of examining the vajra master prior to establishing a master-disciple relationship.

Unfortunately, it happens so often now in many places that people rush to receive empowerment without due examination beforehand and start to deride the master recklessly, broadcasting his or her faults, almost immediately after the empowerment. This is terrible! However, it is very likely that the recipients never actually received this so-called empowerment. The reason being the person bestowing the empowerment is not qualified, or the recipients are not eligible to receive the empowerment. Under the circumstance, it is best if the attendees do not receive anything at all; if however they received the empowerment but denounce the master out of ignorance, they are committing a root downfall.

Details about how to follow the master are explained clearly in Finding Comfort and Ease in the Nature of Mind by Longchenpa and in The Words of My Perfect Teacher. Every Vajrayana adherent must know thoroughly the required qualifications of a genuine vajra master and the proper way to be a disciple so as not to behave in any way that one will regret later on.

In the Guhyagarbha Tantra, venerating the vajra master is the second vow, but because this vow is the most important and the outcome of breaking this vow the most serious, I have chosen to move it to the first place to give it adequate attention.

  1. Do Not Reject the Supreme View

The “supreme view” means the tantric view or the state of realization attained in tantra. Because this state is the ultimate reality of all phenomena, and the highest possible in Buddhism—be it the Great or Lesser Vehicle, the inner or outer tantras—it is deemed supreme.

To an unrealized person, this must seem like a very vague concept. Simply put, it has two levels of meaning: first, it is emptiness as explicated in the Madhyamaka texts Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way and Introduction to the Middle Way, and the view of emptiness put forth in much simpler and common language when we discussed the idea of “no self of person, no self of phenomena”; second, it is the essence of the third turning of the wheel of Dharma, tathāgatagarbha or the luminous nature of mind, a view most prominently featured in the Nirvana Sutra.

Although the two are discussed separately, they are in fact one and the same. The union of emptiness, the theme of the second turning, and luminosity, the essential point of the third turning of the wheel of Dharma, is the realized state of Vajrayana. All these concepts are available in the sutric texts, but only obscurely presented, while the explanations given in the tantric texts are very clear. Nonetheless, tantric realization does not go beyond what is presented in sutra; all are within the confines of the second and the third turning of the wheel of Dharma. This is the “supreme view” from the standpoint of ultimate truth.

From the point of view of relative truth, the “supreme view” of Vajrayana is that “all phenomena are the mandala of the buddhas.” On this level, there is greater discrepancy between sutra and tantra. Theravada deems all phenomena are unsatisfactory, impermanent, without self-existence, and empty; Yogācāra holds all phenomena are only mind’s construct; Madhyamaka posits all phenomena arise interdependently and are of empty nature. The “irregular” view of tantra is difficult for the other schools to accept.

At this point, we cannot observe directly with our naked eye all phenomena are the mandala of the buddhas. Everything we see before our eyes are formed by the fierce afflictions of sentient beings and the impure outer environment, but in buddhahood all these appearances are as pure as that of the Western Pure Land; through the practices of the generation stage and tögal, we can actually see or sense they are the pure mandala. But as it stands now, such state to us is still something in the distant future. Even so, we should know the nature of all phenomena is thus. This is how tantra defines the “supreme view” from the perspective of relative truth.

Here, the distinction between relative and ultimate truth is made from the tantric point of view, unlike the definition given in the context of Madhyamaka. The “supreme view” in our discussion here represents the highest realized state of relative and ultimate truth in tantra. If this is rejected, one is deemed to have broken the vow.

What constitutes rejection of the supreme view? Actually, the supreme view and our mind are inseparable, so we can’t really discard it. It is a very serious downfall if we think that the Vajrayana view, which claims the nature of all phenomena is luminosity and the mandala of the buddhas, is merely an expedient way used to help certain sentient beings give up their attachment or afflictions, that it is not the ultimate but the provisional meaning of the Buddha’s words; or that the nature of phenomena cannot possibly be the mandala of the buddhas or pristine luminosity, since only what we see with our eyes is absolutely real and correct.

Ordinary people have tremendous arrogance. Many are used to being self-centered, relying solely on their five sense organs to make decisions. What they themselves cannot feel must not be correct. However, the conclusions derived from the analysis and judgment of the sense organs only have a say over matters in our everyday life; for things at the deeper level, they become untenable. Therefore, we must leave our pride behind and observe this vow as best we can.

How should we uphold this vow? From now on, whether or not we have attained realization or are able to appreciate the transcendental state of Secret Mantra, we should constantly remind ourselves that despite our inability to realize or comprehend the significance of these states, they are the teachings of the Buddha himself, which have been proven true by numerous accomplished masters and respected practitioners through their personal experience; this must have significance in itself. What we fail to understand today, due to our ill-prepared capacity, we will one day be able to realize. At the least, this is the kind of attitude we should have in order not to break the vow. Hence, not having attained realization of emptiness does not imply the vow is broken. Whether the vow is broken or not depends on the attitude we hold toward the divine state gained from the tantric path.

The substance of this vow is also contained in the fourteen root downfalls, just not listed separately.

  1. Continual Practice of Mantra Recitation and Mudra

“Mantra” can have multiple meanings, but usually it means the heart mantra of the yidam deity that we normally recite; “mudra” also can mean many things, but usually it’s about the gesture performed with our hands.

The meaning of “continual” has three levels. The upper level is to practice mantra recitation and mudra at all times day in and day out; the medium level is to perform recitation and mudra on the 8th, 10th, 15th, 25th, 28th, 29th, and 30th of each month based on the lunar calendar; the lowest level is not to go without practice for more than three months. If nothing is done for more than three months, the vow is deemed broken. Even though this is stipulated in the texts, the real criterion for breaking the vow is the intention not to practice mantra recitation and mudra ever again. Absent this intention, it is not considered a root downfall if one skips the practice for lack of time or forgets to practice because of other preoccupations. However, according to the texts, it is a downfall if the oversight lasts longer than a quarter of a year or two months. So, in any case, we cannot go against this vow. It is perhaps somewhat difficult to maintain the practice every day, but to require the practice not be interrupted more than a period of three months is not too much to ask.

Some people may have this worry, that is, they have received many different empowerments and each empowerment requires recitation of its particular deity mantra, which can be difficult to do. Under the circumstance, we can take all the mantras together as a whole and choose only one mantra in place of all to recite. This way, as long as we continue to practice the heart mantra and mudra of one deity, it can be construed as continuously performing the mantra recitations and mudra of all the deities. It is a root downfall if no mantra recitation is performed whatsoever.

Nevertheless, this vow is normally not so easy to break.

  1. Treat Those on the Right Path with Kindness and Respect

The main point of this vow is to ask vajra brothers and sisters to be kind and friendly with each other. The consequence of violating this vow is not as serious as that of rejecting one’s vajra master, but this vow is very easy to break, hence it is equally important and worthy of our attention.

Here, the “right path” means tantra. All followers of tantra, regardless of their affiliations with the different schools like Nyingma or Gelug, are vajra brothers and sisters. Although the scriptures say the luminous mind of the tathagata pervades all sentient beings and hence all are Dharma brothers and sisters, the criterion for breaking this vow is whether one has received empowerment or not.

If violation of this vow takes place among disciples who have either received empowerment from the same master or received empowerment in the same mandala, the resulting retribution is even more severe.

Here, we can use an example to explain the notion of “receiving empowerment from the same master.” Suppose one follower receives Guhyagarbha empowerment from H.H. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, and another follower receives Kalacakra empowerment also from H.H. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok. Even if the two receive empowerment in different mandalas, but from the same master, they are like siblings having the same biological father.

We can also use another example to illustrate the so-called “receiving empowerment in the same mandala.” Suppose one follower receives Kalacakra empowerment from H.H. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, and another follower receives the same empowerment from a different master. Even if the two receive empowerment from different masters, but in the same mandala, they are like siblings having the same biological mother. So, these vajra followers should take care even more to maintain unity and treat one another with respect.

This vow is directed not just at vajra brothers and sisters who have such a close relationship. In fact, all Vajrayana followers are deemed the object of this vow. As it is very easy to break this vow, we all must be mindful.

Nowadays, the situation with vajra followers in the Chinese regions is quite worrisome. In some cities, the Vajrayana communities are segregated into many sub-groups, with some based on sects such as Gelug or Nyingma, some on different lineages within the same sect such as Palyul or Dzogchen of Nyingmapa, and others by the different masters they follow. The groups fight among themselves, each boasting of having superior teachings and the best master.

When certain respected masters go to these places to transmit Buddhadharma or organize activity such as life release, they have to deal with some uncomfortable situations. If the teacher is a house guest of a member of one group, the other group would be displeased; if the teaching location is arranged by one group, the other group would refuse to attend; if the teacher participates in life release organized by one group, the other group would immediately back out, and so on. Some people often like to say things that are not conducive to cultivating the spirit of unity, causing discord or even a rift among vajra brothers and sisters. Such behavior is at once silly and childish, which is something all Vajrayana followers must put an end to in both thought and action. We sincerely hope that Buddhadharma or Tibetan Buddhism can have a healthy development everywhere, guiding people to think correctly, resolving the negative emotions, pressure, anxiety, and ignorance of people so as to lead them to a life of happiness and awareness. It is never our intention to cause unnecessary argument or trouble for others.

What action constitutes a downfall? First of all, there must be aversion or antipathy. If the bickering with or the mean words said to our vajra friends are actually for their sake, like parents scolding their children, it is not a downfall. If, however, physical or verbal abuse is executed out of plain aversion with selfishness as its base, and the abusive words are heard by the other party, it is a downfall. Aversion alone without the accompanying actions cannot cause a root downfall. These criteria are also described in the chapter “The Fourteen Root Tantric Vows” in this book.

Please note that it is quite easy to break this vow. If bickering with fellow vajra brothers or sisters takes place out of aversion, a downfall is committed. We all know that unpleasant exchanges with people around is a common scene, but we must prevent this from happening with fellow tantric practitioners. We may be excused if we don’t know the requirement of this vow, but once known, as we do now, it is inexcusable if we fail to observe the vow. Therefore, be sure to be mindful at all times, lest we should regret later on.

  1. Keep Secrets from Those Who are Uninitiated

The purpose of this vow is not to reveal secrets to those who are uninitiated in the Vajrayana training.

There are ten types of secrets. The first four are eternal secrets, that is, they must always be kept as secrets. The next four are temporary secrets, that is, they are secrets only for a limited time; once past a certain limit, they need not be kept secret anymore.

The ninth is that which should be kept secret after careful consideration is given. For example, upon discovering the faults of a vajra master or vajra brother, one decides not to say anything after thoughtful evaluation, as it would cause others to have unnecessary misunderstanding and develop the wrong view as a result. This kind of secret should not be revealed.

The tenth is the entrusted secrets, that is, things that others entrust us with, such as the names of their yidam deities. In this case, “others” represent the vajra master and fellow vajra adherents. Anything that they advise us not to go public with, we must remember to keep to ourselves.

To whom should we not reveal these ten secrets? We should not tell those who have not yet received empowerment or those who are biased against Vajrayana. If others develop a mistaken view of Vajrayana as a result of being told these secrets by us, we have broken the vow. If we disclose the secret that all phenomena are intrinsically the pure mandala of the buddhas, but the other party does not raise doubt or lose faith in Buddhadharma, nor develop the wrong view, it is not considered a root downfall.

The first of the four eternal secrets is the above-mentioned view of Vajrayana.

Normally, Mahayana practitioners would not have a mistaken view regarding the nature of all phenomena being emptiness and clear light from the perspective of ultimate truth, because the teachings related to this subject are quite substantial in the sutras.

With regard to relative truth, the tantric view maintains that all phenomena are primordially pure. The inherent nature of all sentient beings, at this very moment, is already the buddha, including one who is in the midst of doing evil deeds; but if one cannot realize this in the present moment, one can only be an ordinary person burdened with afflictions. Many practitioners of sutra find this hard to apprehend. Although they are used to the saying “a butcher becomes a buddha the moment he lays down his cleaver,” they would be flabbergasted if a villain raising a chopper were deemed a buddha; they would then retort, “Thus, wouldn’t beings in the hell realm also be buddhas?” In their minds, such a view is really very ridiculous. Therefore, the tantric view from the perspective of relative truth should not be carelessly revealed to the public at will except to those vajra brothers and sisters who have received empowerment and are undertaking the tantric practice.

The second eternal secret is the tantric acts. It is quite possible tantric practice may call for extraordinary and baffling behavior from its practitioners. In order to prevent others from developing the wrong view, the details of these acts are not even to be told to those who have received empowerment but have yet fully understood the significance thereof. It can only be revealed to them in measured steps when they gradually gain understanding and adjust themselves to the idea.

The third eternal secret is the name and image of the yidam.

The fourth eternal secret is the auspicious signs marking certain progress in the practice.

These latter two secrets should not be revealed to anybody, not even vajra brothers and sisters. If one thinks one’s own vajra master is not good at keeping secret, one can withhold these secrets from the vajra master as well, for fear that he might tell others while teaching or during conversations. It is not because the master cannot hear these secrets but that he might tell others about them. If others know these secrets, one cannot make progress in one’s practice. Of course, if the master has a scrupulous disposition and is able to keep a secret well, then it is all right to tell the master. But one should never tell vajra brothers and sisters the name and image of one’s yidam deity, nor various phenomena appearing in the course of practice.

Many lay practitioners in the Chinese regions are very interested in this topic, often holding heated discussions about this. Their discussions range from seeing magnificent images of buddhas and bodhisattvas, magical lights or a beautiful heavenly being, and so on. They talk with extravagant gestures and make outrageous claims.

I’d like to remind everyone that if what you see is an illusion, it is merely a phenomenon that can neither benefit nor hurt you. In this case, do not hold any attachment to it, or flaunt this in front of others; just let it run its course. If it is a real sign of progress in your practice, make sure it is not revealed to anyone but your master, as a revelation of this kind can cause hindrance and damage to your practice. If you lie about seeing the deities, you are likely to commit the downfall of making false speech; if it is true, you should not tell anybody at all. Although such a revelation does not inflict any harm on Vajrayana, it would become an obstacle to your own practice.

One should be practical and down-to-earth when learning Buddhadharma. Don’t brag about the so-called unusual phenomena that you think you encountered, such as seeing some kind of light, rainbow or feeling certain energy flow, and so on. It will not do you any good to talk about it, only bring harm to yourself.

There is no time limit on the aforementioned four secrets; they remain secrets forever.

As for the four temporary secrets, we can illustrate with the following example. If one prepares to do a month-long mountain retreat with three or four friends for yidam practice, the location, time, members practicing in the same mandala, offerings, and dharma vessels to be used in the practice are all information that should be kept secret, and not disclosed to anyone before the completion of the retreat. After the month-long retreat ends, so ends the need to keep it secret.

Regarding this rule, Rongzom Pandita held the view that when Vajrayana is accepted by people in general and is taught rather publicly, it is really not a problem to divulge these secrets. But in earlier times when Vajrayana was not as widely spread and people were mostly wary of its teachings, it was necessary to keep such things secret.

In any case, it is best to keep things secret in the course of doing practice; otherwise, untimely disclosure may bring both human and non-human disruptions and obstacles. Hence, do not reveal the four temporary secrets before any scheduled practice is completed.

The ninth secret is that which one thinks ought to be kept secret because its contents may cause misunderstanding that brings harm to Buddhadharma, vajra masters, and fellow vajra practitioners, or cause sentient beings to incur loss.

The tenth is the entrusted secrets which are secrets entrusted by the vajra masters or vajra brothers and sisters.

None of these ten secrets can be disclosed to people who have not received empowerment, who have broken samaya but refuse to repent, who used to practice Vajrayana but have since stopped, who have no faith in Vajrayana, and who refute the ideas of karma and samsara. If one tells these secrets recklessly, causing the other party to develop the wrong view, one will commit the root downfall; even if no mistaken view is engendered, one will still commit the branch downfall. This vow is the same as the seventh of the fourteen tantric root downfalls.

These secrets do not signify any problems within Vajrayana; the aim is to allow people to slowly ease into the tantra tradition and to spread tantric teachings on the basis of not causing harm to sentient beings in any way. The concern here is the fact that Vajrayana does offer something unique which is not available in the sutra tradition, and is not easily accepted by people who have only learned from sutra. It is akin to the situation where people found it hard to accept Ch’an Buddhism when it was first introduced into China, and certain scientific theories when they first emerged.

The above concludes the five root samayas of the Guhyagarbha Tantra. It is stated in the root verse of the tantra that these five samaya vows include all the vows of Vajrayana and the pratimoksha. As far as Vajrayana is concerned, anyone who can strictly observe these five root vows is deemed having pure samaya. But according to the higher samaya of Dzogchen, these five only encompass all the samayas up to the level of the Guhyagarbha Tantra.

The Ten Branch Vows

The branch vows are divided into two groups with five vows in each group. The first group is to not forsake the five poisons; the second is to not forsake the five nectars.

  1. Do Not Forsake the Five Poisons

The five poisons are five kinds of afflictions, namely, greed, aversion, delusion, pride, and jealousy.

The meaning of “do not forsake” varies. The view of Theravada holds that the five poisons are real, so they must be eliminated. The Bodhisattva Vehicle sees the five poisons not necessarily something that must be obliterated; if there is bodhicitta that can serve as the premise or the supporting condition, afflictions can then be transformed into the means for awakening. The view of Vajrayana is quite high, which maintains afflictions don’t really exist; the so-called greed, aversion, delusion, pride, and jealousy are actually the wisdom of the buddha, once realization is attained. Thus, there is no need to forsake anything.

Naturally, from the point of view of ordinary people, the five poisons are absolutely not the wisdom of the buddha. But in the divine state of the deity after attaining realization, all are the wisdom of the buddha.

How can we actually apply this? Although we can elevate our state of realization through continual practice and eventually come to the realization that the inherent nature of all phenomena is the wisdom of the buddha, we will never be able to perceive or encounter this state if our practice fails to reach this level. As we have yet reached such a high level in our practice, we must first eliminate the afflictions. Take greed as an example. While the practice of white skeleton meditation is not in accord with the tantric view that all phenomena are the mandala of the buddhas, the practice can still be used as an antidote to counter greed by tantric practitioners before they attain this level of realization. It would be wrong to make irresponsible remarks by saying greed, aversion, and delusion should be left to stay because they are all the wisdom of the buddha, that to practice white skeleton meditation is just a silly move.

Therefore, please don’t misunderstand. The intention here is not to say we don’t need to obliterate afflictions right now; rather, it is just a rough description of what it would be like after attaining realization.

  1. Do Not Forsake the Five Nectars

We all know what the five nectars are. The reason why we should accept them is because they are a skillful method unique to Vajrayana for swiftly eradicating our attachment. The sutric method for breaking attachment adopts a gradual approach. In order to achieve this goal more quickly, those who ascribe to the tantric view, have a foundation in the practices, and possess the right capacity are required to accept the five nectars so that they can personally experience the total equality of all phenomena, and perceive the truth that the notion of being pure or impure is nothing but attachment of the mind. This is also one of the acts unique to Vajrayana as mentioned above. However, Vajrayana strongly opposes forcing beginners on the tantric path to accept the five nectars.

How should we actually apply this particular vow? It is stated in the writings of Longchenpa and other masters that, before attaining a certain state in the practice, one can start by consuming the nectar pills made with nectar from realized masters in the past. Now, many nectar pills contain a small amount of such nectar in their ingredients. Consuming these nectar pills is deemed complying with the vow. If such nectar pills are not available, one can instead visualize the meals as five meats and five nectars at meal time every day or on auspicious days. This can also be seen as accepting the five meats and five nectars.

It is easier to keep the ten branch vows than the root vows. Although breaking the branch samaya is serious enough, it is nothing compared to violating the root samaya. If one commits a root downfall and refuses to repent, it will cause great damage to this and future life and to one’s merit accrued from practice, even its total destruction. The consequence is severe and frightening, hence the designation of the vows as the root samayas. Whereas breaking the branch samayas will only cause damage to one’s merit from practice to varying degree, depending on the seriousness of the violation, but not its fundamental destruction. That’s why these are the branch samayas.


This is a simple introduction to the root and branch samayas of the Guhyagarbha Tantra. As students of Vajrayana, it is all right if you don’t have the chance to learn Dzogchen or the generation stage practice, but you must observe the samayas without ever breaking any. If you are forced to break the vows or do so on purpose, you must make sure to repent and restore the vows again. This is particularly important.

It is most dangerous when some people pay no attention to this, break the vows recklessly, and don’t repent. This would not only destroy merit accrued from practice over many lives but also condemn them to vajra hell with no hope of escape for eons.

Many of us received empowerment from H.H. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok. Whether or not we were able to visualize clearly during the empowerment, we can rest assured that we received complete empowerment simply due to the inconceivable power of blessing from the supreme master. There is no question about this at all. The rest is to observe the samaya. The good thing about tantric vows is that if one breaks the vow after receiving empowerment and a qualified master is nowhere to be found, one can still receive empowerment again from the master through visualization of the vajra master. In terms of how to receive empowerment, related information can be found at the end of the chapter on Guru Yoga in The Words of My Perfect Teacher. One can restore the samaya by following the instructions therein.

However, there is no similar method to restore the pratimoksha vows. One of the advantages that tantric vows have over others is its supreme methods for repentance and restoration of samaya.

If we can keep samaya pure, we will definitely attain liberation in the not too distant future, even if it doesn’t happen in this life. These are the words said by the Buddha himself. The Omniscient One never lies; of this we have substantial proof.

Water holds up the boat, it also sinks the boat. Tantric vows can help us attain the state of Vajradhara swiftly, but they can also send us to the most horrible vajra hell. It is totally up to us where we want to end up.