The Fourteen Root Tantric Vows

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro Rinpoche
HITS( 26092)

Persons who intend to receive or have already received an empowerment must study the fourteen root tantric vows; persons who have never received and do not plan to take an empowerment should not read the following text!


There are many different classifications for the various systems of thought and practice in Vajrayana Buddhism. For example, in the Nyingma tradition, the inner tantras are divided into three categories—Mahayoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga. The other traditions also have their own classifications. But regardless of the Buddhist tradition and classification, the fourteen root vows are the common precepts acknowledged by all Vajrayana schools in Tibet. Regardless of the kind of tantric empowerment received, these vows must be upheld.

Of course, with the fourteen vows as a basis, the empowerments also have different precepts. Dzogchen has precepts that are specific to Dzogchen, the Guhyagarbha Tantra has precepts that are specific to the Guhyagarbha Tantra, Kalacakra has precepts that are specific to Kalacakra. Whatever the other precepts may be, the fourteen root vows are the common prerequisite. Previously, we explained the five stages of tantric practice in accordance with Rongzom Pandita’s viewpoint; two of the stages pertain to precepts: one is receiving the empowerment to enter the mandala, the second is receiving the precepts. Here we restate the problems connected with receiving precepts and upholding them.

Presently, empowerments prevail in many places, whether at home or abroad. Wherever the initiations are held, they attract a lot of followers. But regrettably, the precepts are usually not emphasized during the empowerment; moreover, the people receiving the empowerment never give thought to what is expected of them after the empowerment. Although there is inconceivable significance in an empowerment, great harm can be caused if we receive the empowerment in haste and without care, and do not strictly comply with the precepts afterwards. Empowerments can thus be both beneficial and harmful. For this reason, it is important that the precepts in Vajrayana Buddhism are explained.

As a start, prior to taking any kind of empowerment, we should become familiar with the precepts that correspond with the empowerment and examine if they can be complied with; if the precepts are difficult for us to follow, we should not consider taking the empowerment. For instance, the Guhyagarbha Tantra has five root vows and ten branch vows; if these vows are difficult for us to uphold, we should not receive this empowerment. Compared to tantric vows, the noncompliance of lay precepts is not as critical. When we are already circumspect in selecting which lay precepts to receive, we must be even more cautious with respect to tantric vows.

Currently, a serious problem exists at home; followers do not inquire into what is expected of them prior to the empowerment or after the empowerment. This may lead to far more harm than good. Without an understanding of the tantric vows, we can easily violate the tantric vows; if we do not repent upon violating the vows, the outcome may be quite alarming

A comparison can be made between the pratimoksa (individual liberation) and bodhisattva vows, and tantric vows: although breaking the pratimoksa vows is a major wrongdoing, it is trivial compared to breaking the bodhisattva vows; although breaking the bodhisattva vows is a major transgression, it is insignificant compared to breaking the tantric vows. The tantric vows are the most stringent of the three types of precepts and thus cannot be taken lightly; they must be studied and strictly upheld.

Be that as it may, the tantric vows are also incomparable in their superiority. For instance, from the standpoint of Hinayana Buddhism, the pratimoksa root vows cannot be reinstated if they are broken; however, from the standpoint of Mahayana Buddhism, with bodhicitta as a basis, they can be completely reinstated. If the bodhisattva vows are broken, one can receive them again from the guru; if the tantric vows are broken, one can not only receive them again from the guru but also renew the essence of the vows, through one’s own visualization of the buddhas and bodhisattvas and their mandala, by repenting in front of the buddhas and bodhisattvas and receiving empowerment.

The two most critical problems involving precepts are: first, breaking the vows; second, not repenting. In the Hinayana sutras, the Buddha also said two kinds of people deserve to be praised: one is a person who does not violate the precepts at all; the other is a person who has the courage to repent his or her wrongdoing. This applies to all precepts. Although ultimately these two kinds of people can avoid descending into hell, there is a vast difference in how quickly they can gain accomplishment. The more precepts one violates, or the more serious the precept is, the further away one is from attaining buddhahood. Consequently, we must take into account the gravity of this matter and nip any violation in the bud.

If the tantric vows are upheld, the merit attained is immeasurable. It is possible for a tantric practitioner to actualize the buddhahood of Samantabhadra in just this lifetime; he need not undergo the very long process described in sutra which takes three asamkhyeya kalpas. Likened to travelling by plane which is expensive, has strict security measures, and can be fatal if the plane malfunctions, it is nonetheless faster than all other forms of transportation. The tantric vows are the same way. If the precepts are broken and not purified through repentance, the downfall is rebirth in vajra hell which cannot be transcended. Therefore, if one blindly receives initiations without studying the tantric precepts, the consequences can be frightening.

Currently, many lay followers think that by attending the empowerment ceremony, they will receive an empowerment as a matter of course; this is not necessarily the case. If a person lacks knowledge of the precepts, it is better if empowerment is not received. If a person receives an empowerment without knowing the first thing about tantric vows, one can imagine the outcome. Thus, it is best to first acquire an understanding of the precepts, whether it is receiving the pratimoksa vows, bodhisattva vows, or tantric vows. The fourteen tantric root precepts are explained separately below.

1. Deriding the Guru

This violation is the most serious of the fourteen precepts. To start with, we should understand what a guru is. The concept of the guru is explained in different ways. In many of the discourses in tantra, there are six classifications: gurus who guide others to take refuge in the Three Jewels, gurus for the confession of one’s sins, gurus who give the ripening empowerments with samayas, gurus who transmit the liberating instructions of the tantras, gurus who transmit the pith instructions, and general lineage gurus who teach the Dharma to students. The Guhyagarbha Tantra also elaborates on these six types of gurus, but does not comment on whether deriding the six types of guru leads to the same result. On this point, different views exist. Although the Nyingma tradition acknowledges one cannot slander these six types of guru, it does not clearly state whether or not disrespect for any one type constitutes a violation of the precept.

Some of the gurus maintain that the root vow may be broken if any one of these six types of gurus is derided. They base this rationale on the sixth root precept which prohibits criticism of one’s own or other teachings. The term “one’s own” refers to tantra, and “other” to sutra. If deriding the teachings in sutra is a violation of the precept, deriding the spiritual masters in sutra should also be a violation. Hence, these gurus believe this vow may be broken if any one of the six types of gurus is derided. Although this argument has its logic, it lacks sufficient theoretical basis.

Another viewpoint is representative of certain Indian siddhas and the great master Tsongkhapa. They assert that disparaging any one of the six types of guru is a major transgression, but not all cases are a violation of the root vow. The gurus referred to in this precept are the three most gracious gurus who confer the empowerment, who expound the tantric teachings, and who transmit the pith instructions.

To sum up, the different viewpoints have this in common—slandering the three most gracious gurus is definitely a violation of the precept. In many commentaries, these three most gracious gurus are cited separately; this at least shows the consequence of deriding these three types of guru is more severe than that of deriding the other gurus.

Regardless of the viewpoint, the Vinaya in sutra holds on to the most conservative criterion in addressing problems of such kind. Hence, on this question, we should also refer to the strictest requirement of not deriding any type of guru, including the spiritual master in sutra; it is the safest approach. If we have disparaged a guru of any kind, we should repent in accordance with the rules on violating a root precept. This vow must not be taken lightly; it is best to be circumspect.

What action towards a guru constitutes a violation of the precept? The commentaries are very clear on this point; there is no dispute, as all viewpoints are the same. To deride a guru is to think one has on one’s own already surpassed the guru—whether from the secular standpoint, one thinks the guru lacks character, knowledge, etc., or from the spiritual standpoint, one thinks the guru has broken the precepts, does not have wisdom, lacks meditative concentration, etc. The limit to violating the precept is thinking one has already received the teaching one ought to have, and no longer needs to pay respect to or maintain ties with the guru. The most serious is to harbor anger and hatred towards the guru, scorn the master, and disturb his mind. A violation is not confined to actions of body and speech; a person is deemed to have broken this vow just by generating these thoughts in the mind. The other precepts do not necessarily have this requirement.

There is another kind of situation: although the guru has merit and is accomplished in practice, he does not treat me fairly nor do as he is expected; when the guru directs me to do something, I am unwilling and become angry. This attitude is not a violation of the precept, but it is nonetheless a transgression. Under the circumstance, even if we have practiced diligently and have attained a certain level of realization, our progress will be interrupted. Hence, we should realize our error and earnestly repent. Harboring anger and hatred towards our vajra brothers and sisters is a grave matter, let alone towards the guru. On this question, we must all take every precaution to refrain from actions that we later regret.

Therefore, to avoid this serious fault, all tantric practitioners are reminded over and over again to conduct a thorough examination of the guru prior to taking refuge with him. In the sutra system, this expectation is not as high but it is still best to be circumspect. Once a relationship is established between the guru and disciple, the guru should be respected and cherished. Whatever the circumstances, and however the guru manifests, we should only consider the guru’s merit, not his inadequacy or wrongdoing. This is at present our most serious problem at home.

Nowadays, many people lack wisdom and rush to receive all kinds of initiation without truly understanding the background and character of the vajra master. After the empowerment, they quickly discover the problems the master has and proceed to disparage him. They are blind at a time when they ought to be investigating the master; they are fastidious and critical at a time when they should not be investigating the master. This is perverted conduct due to lack of knowledge and education. Hence, expounding and clarifying the tantric vows is a matter of great urgency; it cannot be delayed.

Regardless of the precept, a person who breaks the vow must be in a normal state of mind. If one’s mental state is not normal, actions of body and speech which violate the precepts are not considered a violation, since the mind is empty of the thoughts that guide these actions.

2. Trangressing the Words of the Buddha

1. This must be a violation of the three types of vows—pratimoksa, bodhisattva, and tantric; it does not apply to rules contained in other scriptures; 2. This must be a violation committed with knowledge that one’s conduct is a transgression; 3. This must be a violation undertaken with careless disdain for the Buddha’s words concerning the precepts. For example, we know that stealing is wrong but we think there is nothing special about stealing, so a transgression is not worth fussing about; or we know that drinking alcohol is prohibited in Hinayana Buddhism but we think drinking alcohol is not an obstruction on the path to liberation, so it is a reasonable thing to do. This kind of disdain for the words of the Buddha constitutes a violation of this precept. If we do not take the teachings lightly, for instance, we know drinking alcohol is wrong but we think—I simply cannot resist the temptation and am truly repentant, taking alcohol with this mindset (although a violation of the pratimoksa vow) is not a violation of this precept. However, if we have no regard for the teachings, for instance, we know that taking food after noon is a violation of the pratimoksa vows (albeit the least serious) but we continue to be reckless and think there is nothing to fear, this transgression is a violation of this precept.

3. Accusing One’s Vajra Brothers and Sisters out of Anger

The Nyingma tradition maintains that all Vajrayana practitioners are vajra brothers and sisters; they are the object of breaking the vow. A root downfall committed against a fellow practitioner who takes empowerment from the same master is even more severe in consequence. However, fellow practitioners must uphold the tantric vows; if the other party has already broken the vows, he or she is not considered a vajra brother or sister.

What constitutes a violation? If there is anger but no physical or verbal abuse, it is not a violation of the root vow. However, if anger is accompanied by any form of abuse in body and speech, it is considered a violation. A verbal abuse must be received or heard by the other party; he must also know that it is directed against him. If the other party is hearing impaired and does not hear the accusation, it is not a violation of the root vow. The pratimoksa vows also have this qualification; for instance, if a practitioner tells a lie, the other party must also hear the lie; otherwise, it is not a violation of the root vow.

If an action is not taken in anger but only to help the other party, like a mother hitting her child, it is not considered a violation.

Therefore, the boundaries of a violation are: 1. the object is a vajra brother or sister; 2. the other party upholds the tantric precepts; 3. one clearly knows the other party is a vajra brother or sister who upholds the tantric precepts; 4. anger is accompanied by physical and verbal abuse; 5. an accusation must be heard and understood by the other party. If any one of these factors is absent, the transgression is not considered a violation of the root vow, only a fault.

4. Abandoning Loving-Kindness for Sentient Beings

This violation is directed against individual beings, not all living beings. That is to say, if one abandons loving-kindness even for one living being, it qualifies as a violation. We know that giving up on all beings is very difficult. However cruel or evil, a person will always have compassion for someone, like his or her own parents and children. Hence, the reference here is to any individual being. This vow is relatively easy to break. An ordinary person who cannot manage his or her emotions will, in a fit of anger, lose his or her senses and break this precept.

What constitutes abandoning loving-kindness? If we vow to ignore a person, even if one day we are able to save and help that person; or we hope that a certain person does not find happiness and always encounter suffering. This mindset constitutes abandoning loving-kindness. Ordinarily, when we argue and fight, even in anger, we do not necessarily make such a pledge; only a very cruel person harbors this kind of thought.

The boundaries of this violation are: 1. the other party is any sentient being; 2. the pledge alone is sufficient, it need not be accompanied by any action.

The Hinayana sutras maintain when the thought of desire arises in our mind, it is a transgression far greater than one hundred angry thoughts. Because this view asserts that actions like killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct that are prohibited in the pratimoksa vows are primarily the result of desire, not anger. However, from the Mahayana perspective, when anger arises in our mind, it leads to a transgression far greater than that produced by one hundred thoughts of desire. This is because the foundation of Mahayana Buddhism is bodhicitta, which is in direct conflict with anger. Hence, in Mahayana Buddhism, anger is a transgression that is truly terrifying.

In abandoning compassion for sentient beings, we are concurrently breaking the bodhisattva root vow. Mahayana practitioners who have, for instance, listened to the teaching of The Way of the Bodhisattva or the practice of bodhicitta and the four immeasurables will in general not break this vow if they have some level of realization. If this vow is broken, the outcome is unthinkable. We must make every effort to eliminate this kind of thought.

5. Relinquishing Bodhicitta

It is not possible to relinquish ultimate bodhicitta, so the bodhicitta we are referring to here is relative bodhicitta. Specifically, between bodhicitta in aspiration and bodhicitta in action, it is the former. The reason being that even if we abandon bodhicitta in action, for instance, the practice of generosity, ethical conduct, and patience, it is not a violation of this precept as long as we still aspire to attain buddhahood to deliver sentient beings. However, if we abandon the aspiration to attain buddhahood for all sentient beings, our entire practice and effort will be wiped out along with the aspiration, in the same way a piece of paper when burned leaves no traces of the words on it. If we are lazy or incur insult, that is, we have the aspiration at first but come upon harm inflicted by others, we may think: it is too difficult to deliver sentient beings, I am better off just protecting myself and seeking liberation for myself. This kind of thought constitutes a violation of this precept.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the sutras contain many cases in which actions like stealing, sexual misconduct, and lying are not prohibited. Exceptions are made if the intention is to help others, not to benefit oneself in any way. In The Words of My Perfect Teacher, examples of this kind are often cited. Violations of precepts governing our actions are not terrifying; what is most terrifying is selfishness. If our mind is obsessed only with ourselves, the root of the Mahayana teachings is basically severed. Selfishness causes us to relinquish aspiration bodhicitta; the more selfish we are, the more likely we are to abandon the aspiration.

But self-attachment is not terrifying if we can transform attachment an ordinary person has to the self into a pledge to help others—I want to deliver sentient beings, I want to benefit sentient beings; regardless of my ability, I want to carry out this pledge now. If the true intent of practicing the preliminaries and releasing animals from captivity is not to benefit sentient beings, but only to serve one’s own interests and attain favorable retributions in this life and after, this pledge in Mahayana Buddhism is as terrifying as taking drugs. Whenever this thought arises, all modes of learning—listening, contemplating, and meditation—that are connected with the thought become contaminated. Developing aspiration bodhicitta is not an easy thing. It would be truly regrettable if under the circumstance the aspiration bodhicitta that we worked so hard at developing vanished completely.

In relinquishing bodhicitta, we are concurrently breaking the bodhisattva vow. It is extremely foolish to violate two types of precepts in just one thought. We should know that abandoning aspiration bodhicitta is likened to losing all the information on a magnetic disk after it is formatted; all the merit accumulated through years of listening, contemplating, and practice will come to naught. Therefore, when the first sign of relinquishing bodhicitta appears, we must be relentless in cutting it off to ensure a terrible mistake is not made.

6. Deriding the Teachings of Sutra and Tantra

This is about deriding one’s own system of thought or that of others. Differences exist in what is perceived as the object of this precept: in one view, one’s own refers to Buddhism, and others to the non-Buddhist, which is to say deriding the non-Buddhist schools is also a violation of this precept; in another view, one’s own refers to tantra, and others to sutra, so the non-Buddhist schools are excluded. Of these two views, the second is correct.

Thus, this precept is directed at all Dharma in Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism, from Sravakayana to Dzogchen. It does not apply to the non-Buddhist schools.

Regarding the non-Buddhist schools, the sutras also mention sentient beings are vastly different in mental capacity and inclinations, and seek liberation in a wide variety of ways. We cannot control what others believe, nor force everyone to study Buddhism and tantra. Therefore, we must not arbitrarily slander other systems of thought if transforming or delivering other beings is not an imperative. Although deriding the non-Buddhist schools is not a violation of the root vow, it is very harmful. For instance, when we practice tantra and deride others at the same time, we substantially prolong the process of achieving liberation; what could have taken a very short period of time, like a year or two, would take much longer to attain realization—ten, twenty years, even past this lifetime.

What constitutes slander? For example, if a person raises thoughts of anger towards a certain Buddhist school or say, with no basis at all, that the tenets of this school or a scripture that it follows did not originate from the Buddha. Naturally, from the standpoint of getting to the truth, you may state your position if it can be clearly substantiated. But if a person arbitrarily asserts, for instance, that the Buddha did not expound the tantras, it is a major transgression even if he has not received empowerment and entered tantric practice, and cannot break the tantric vows. If he has received the tantric precepts, the vows are without question already broken.

In slandering other Buddhist schools, is it necessary for the other side to hear what was said? Some people maintain the other side may need to hear it, but on this point we have not seen anything definitive. Thus, whether or not the other side must hear it, we should all be careful not to deride other Buddhist schools. The Dharma must not be slandered; the consequence is otherwise unbearable to contemplate.

Does this precept also apply to the treatises? The true meaning of the definitive treatises like Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way and The Way of the Bodhisattva are not different from the Buddha’s words even though they are classified as treatises; if we deride these treatises at random and say their view is nonsense, it is a violation of this precept. If we are just joking or if we lack confidence in all the scriptures, it is not a violation of this precept as long as no slandering is acted out. The teachings in Sutrayana, Tantrayana, Pure Land, and Ch’an all originate from the Buddha and must not be slandered.

In deriding the teachings of sutra and tantra, we are also committing the serious karma of slandering the Dharma at the same time; that is, in breaking both vows, we are concurrently leaving the karmic imprints of these two transgressions in our mind continuum. It is essential that we take every precaution not to slander the Dharma. This is the sixth root vow.

7. Disclosing Confidential Teachings

This violation pertains to disclosing the uncommon viewpoints, practices, and activities in tantra to people who do not understand the Vajrayana system of thought. This is not to say tantra has deficiencies and mistakes it wants to hide from others. Sentient beings are endowed with different mental faculties; transmitting the supreme, uncommon teachings to certain people who are not fully mature to receive them may lead instead to resentment on their part.

“A tree that stands taller than the forest is the first to be destroyed by strong winds.” History has borne witness to this. Several profound systems of thought and practice were misunderstood by people when they were first introduced. For instance, when Mahayana Buddhism was established, it was opposed by Sravakayana bhikshus who maintained that the Mahayana teachings offered something new and different simply to attract attention, and did not originate from the Buddha; when Ch’an Buddhism was initially introduced in China, it was confronted on all sides by traditionalists who accused it of being deliberately mystifying; similarly, when Vajrayana Buddhism first emerged, it was also met with opposition from individual practitioners of Sutrayana. In Tibet, the situation was also the same: when Prasangika Madhyamaka, Kalacakra, and Dzogchen were first propagated, all of them encountered major obstacles of varying levels of difficulty.

“An insect that dwells in the summer cannot talk about ice.” This is to say, people who were ill-informed or wanted to stick to old ways had difficulty accepting these newly developed systems of thought that were original, out of the ordinary, and too profound to be understood. However, with the passage of time, they slowly developed an understanding of the teachings and began to identify with them. Many of the schools that once faced endless criticism were accepted by the public after they overcame various obstacles, but all had to undergo a process. Therefore, when others disapprove, it does not mean a particular system of thought is flawed; rather it is often because the view is sacred. We should not arbitrarily disclose the profound tantric view and practices to those who do not apprehend the real meaning behind these practices or whose faculties are not suitable. This is to prevent these people from slandering the Dharma. The consequences of revealing such secrets at random are serious.

Disclosing confidential teachings with no regard for the rules is a violation of this precept. Who are the people we should not reveal the teachings to? They should not be disclosed to: 1. a person who has never received an empowerment; 2. a person who may develop the wrong view if he or she cannot accept the profound teachings that are revealed to him or her; 3. a person who has only taken the vase initiation and can receive just the corresponding generation stage teachings but not the completion stage or Dzogchen teachings; 4. a person who has broken the tantric vows but is not willing to repent. Naturally, this precept does not apply to someone who is willing to engage in genuine repentance after breaking the tantric vows.

In addition, this precept is broken if the six following conditions are all met: 1. the person receiving the secret teachings must be one of the four kinds mentioned above; 2. the receiver must have generated the wrong view; 3. we know full well the other party will generate the wrong view—it is not a violation of this precept if we did not expect the other party to develop the incorrect view but it happened; 4. the other party must understand the teachings that are revealed to him or her; 5. the disclosure is not really necessary—for instance, an exception can be made when most people in the audience can uphold the precepts and practice according to the Dharma; we may consider giving tantric teachings to benefit the majority of people even though some individuals among them do not have the right capacity; 6. the teachings that are disclosed must be the uncommon tantric viewpoints and practices. The preliminaries that are practiced before undertaking Dzogchen, like precious human birth, impermanence, and so forth, do not belong in this category; if the other party develops the wrong view towards the preliminaries, it is not a violation of this precept.

We cannot read other people’s minds or know their thoughts as clearly as if one were seeing fire; we can only count on the other party’s expression to determine if the person has already generated the wrong view. Although this precept is not easy to violate, it may be broken if we expound the profound views at random to people with no foundation in tantra at all. Everyone should still take this seriously.

8. Mistreating One’s Own Body

In Vajrayana Buddhism, our body is the mandala of the five Buddha-families; it is entirely pure. If someone maintains the body is impure, impermanent, not the mandala of the five Buddha-families, it constitutes a violation of the five aggregates. As far as the Vinaya is concerned, burning one’s finger as light offering to the Buddha, fasting, abstinence from food after noon, and so forth are all considered a violation of this precept. However, this is not to suggest we cannot observe the eight precepts or make light offering with our fingers. Tantra gives praise to asceticism if it is undertaken as a Dharma practice. Tantra also contains meditation practices on the impurity of the body and impermanence.

Although these appear to be contradictory, the fundamental problem is in the view we hold. If we think—the essence of the five aggregates is the mandala of the five Buddhas but the body, in the minds of ordinary people, is a composite of many tainted elements, like blood, flesh, bone, skin, and fester; it is only an illusion, but the sense organs, that is, eye, ear, nose, and tongue perceive it as impermanent and impure; meditation on the impurity of the body and ascetic practices are also skillful means espoused by the Buddha—this view does not violate the tantric precept.

However, if we think—from the standpoint of ultimate truth our body cannot be the mandala of the buddhas, that the Buddha taught pure perception only to people of certain mental capacities—this view is certainly not definitive. Thinking this way contradicts the underlying view in tantra; to mistreat the body based on this reasoning violates this precept. The scriptures are not entirely clear on what constitutes the limits of a violation, some only mention ascetic practice and suicide. However, is taking one’s own life a clear violation of this precept? Not necessarily. If a person commits suicide based on the view that the body is not the mandala of the buddhas, the tantric vow is broken. If a person cannot think through his or her problems and commits suicide, it counts as half the transgression of killing a person (taking the life of others bears the full karmic consequence); however, this fault is not connected in any way with breaking the root tantric vow, so it is not a violation of this precept. This is the eighth root vow.

9. Raising Doubt about the View

This vow is similar to the eighth root vow. The object of this root downfall encompasses all external phenomena and oneself. In Vajrayana, external phenomena and one’s being are inherently pure; they are the mandala of the buddhas, the so-called five aggregates are also the five Buddha-families. If we think—from the standpoint of ultimate truth all phenomena cannot be the mandala of the buddhas, that the Buddha taught the intrinsic purity of phenomena out of expediency only to certain people to transform them, that in fact is not so. Even raising doubt about the tantric view is a violation of this precept.

In Logic, skepticism is divided into two kinds. For instance, a person can respond to the statement “all things arising from causes and conditions are impermanent” in two ways. One, are conditioned phenomena impermanent? Maybe. Two, are conditioned phenomena impermanent? Maybe not. If our opinion towards the tantric view is “maybe not”, this precept is broken. Many people do not have any understanding of the Vajrayana viewpoints before entering tantra, so there is no violation of the precepts to speak of. However, they are breaking this vow if they begin to raise doubt after an understanding of the tantric view is acquired. The right approach is: I do not comprehend the tantric concepts now, but they are the teachings of the Buddha and should therefore be correct; when I have a chance to hear and study the tantric scriptures in the future, I will gradually acquire the right understanding. This way the tantric vow is not in danger of being broken. When we overly rely on or believe in our sense perceptions, we take our perceptions to be the reality of all phenomena, arbitrarily interpret the Buddha’s words, and reject the tantric view, and in so doing violate this precept. This is the ninth root vow.

10. Keeping Bad Company

The object of violation in this precept pertains to people who engage in unvirtuous or evil deeds; this includes “people who slander the Three Jewels and spiritual masters in general, who break their vows and lose faith in the tantric teachings, who cause damage to the Dharma and harm other sentient beings, and those beings in the three lower realms, etc.” If one has the ability and the right condition to deliver these ten kinds of beings, but does not make the effort, it is a violation of this precept. Ordinary people like us do not have the ability to transform others and are not required to do so; hence this precept is not directed at us.

However, there are circumstances under which we may still violate this precept. Although we do not have the ability to deliver others, we must keep a distance, that is, not associate in body or speech with people who slander their guru, denigrate the Dharma, and harm other beings. Naturally, we should still engender bodhicitta. In the mind of bodhisattvas, these people who have created all kinds of negative karma are not enemies but our past parents to whom we are indebted. Thus, we must not relinquish compassion for them in our mind. If unable to deliver them we moreover appear to be their best friends and outwardly treat them with loving-kindness (in body and speech), we are violating this precept.

Emphasis should be placed on one point: if contact is maintained with these kinds of people to correct them, the purpose being to protect the Dharma and the interests of sentient beings, it is not a transgression.

This precept consists of two levels: one is directed at accomplished practitioners who possess the ability to deliver malevolent people—it is a violation of the precept if they refrain from helping them; the other is directed at tantric practitioners in general—it is a violation of the precept if practitioners give the appearance of maintaining a very close and harmonious relationship with the ten kinds of people mentioned above, and show compassion for them on the surface. This is the tenth root vow.

11. Failing to Reflect on Emptiness

The object of violation in this precept is emptiness. In the ninth vow, the object is intrinsic purity and clear light, which is explained from the standpoint of phenomena. Here, emptiness which is free of all conceptual elaborations is closer to the view expounded in the Prajnaparamita sutras or established by the Prasangika-Madhyamaka school. If we use logical reasoning to infer the vast expanse of emptiness is beyond conceptual elaboration, inconceivable, and inexpressible, yet conclude in the end—that emptiness is not beyond conceptual elaboration but is instead the Hinayana view of no-self or the view of non-existence initially propounded by the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka school—we are violating this precept. This is not to say we must be well versed in or realize emptiness that is free of conceptual contrivance, only that no vow is broken if we do not have this understanding or experience. This is the eleventh root vow.

12. Deterring Those with Faith

This precept pertains to upsetting those who have faith in the teachings. The object of violation encompasses people who have faith in the Three Jewels and in tantra particularly.

If we say or do things to humiliate people with the purpose of instilling doubt which causes them to feel annoyed, lose faith, and abandon the tantric path, it is a violation of this precept.

These four conditions must be met to qualify as a violation: 1. the other party is a person with faith; 2. measures are taken with the purpose of deterring people’s faith; if we unintentionally cause others to dislike the Mahayana teachings, it is not a violation; 3. the intention to deter alone is not a violation, it must be followed by actions in body and speech; 4. the other party loses faith as a result.

Students of Buddhism will not in general break this vow. Nevertheless, due to disputes among the various schools of thought, one should still be mindful that taking sides could lead to a violation of this precept. This is the twelfth root vow.

13. Failing to Observe the Samaya Commitments

There are two kinds of samaya objects: one, samaya substances; two, samaya implements such as a bell, vajra, kapala (skullcup), etc. If we think the samaya substances are dirty, or the ritual implements are unnecessary, that we only need to practice and can do so without the samaya objects, it is a violation of this precept when we refuse the samaya objects with this view in mind.

Meat and alcohol must not be taken wantonly when our practice has not reached a certain level. At ceremonies where alcohol is offered, it is only necessary to dip one’s finger in the alcohol and apply it to the lip; where meat is offered, it is only necessary to take a bit no larger than the leg of a fly. This hardly qualifies as eating meat and drinking alcohol from a mundane perspective, but it signifies an acceptance of the samaya substance. Even in tantra, the teachings strongly oppose the enjoyment of samaya substances at will. As for ritual implements like the bell, vajra, and kapala, a tantric practitioner can place these on the offering table. Even if they are missing, as long as we do not reject them, we are not breaking this vow.

The nectar pill which is unique to tantra is made up of different medicinal drugs, among them samaya substances as well as the nectar of Guru Padmasambhava and other vidyadharas. If a person receives the nectar pill, for instance in a tsok practice, it means he or she is accepting the samaya substance, so a vow is not broken.

Not all practitioners observe the samaya commitments the same way. Two kinds of people need not formally accept the samaya objects: the first is a novice who is not expected to comply since the person is still unable to accept the samaya objects; the second is a highly accomplished practitioner who perceives meat, nectar, sugar, fruit, etc. as one and the same and does not discriminate among them. All other practitioners should observe the samaya commitments.

Our mind has a natural tendency to discriminate between things and see phenomena as either pure or impure. The purpose of accepting the samaya objects is to overturn this discriminating thought; in recognizing all things as equal through this mode of acceptance, we can progress in our practice and eventually attain a state of great equanimity. As a novice, we are not able to comprehend the original face or true nature of phenomena. However, if we stay attached to our own sense perceptions and maintain the samaya substances are impure not only in appearance but also in essence, we have already contradicted the view in tantra and therefore violated this precept. This is the thirteenth root vow.

14. Denigrating Women

The object of violation in this precept is all women. Because in this degenerate time, many dakinis assume different identities to save sentient beings. More of them appear as women than men. On any occasion, the dakinis can manifest and appear. If we arbitrarily denigrate women as a whole, we could unknowingly slander the manifestations of Vajravarahi, White Tara, Kurukullā, and other buddhas.

The following four conditions must be met to qualify as a violation of the fourteenth root vow: 1. the other party must be all women; although the insult is directed at one woman, it has to be established with all women in mind; 2. the remark is intended; 3. the substance of the slander is a fault common to all women; 4. the other party must hear the insult.

These fourteen root vows are the most basic precepts in Vajrayana Buddhism. A tantric practitioner must abide by these precepts at all times and take great precaution in protecting and maintaining them. If a vow is broken, we must pull back before it is too late and immediately repent. Although many methods of purification exist, the most common and most sacred is the Vajrasattva practice. Through this practice and with the four powers, we can repent and amend our mistaken ways. However serious the transgression may be, it can be purified through repentance. This is where Vajrayana Buddhism is unsurpassed.

To practice tantra, we must accept some rules, but what we get in return is immeasurable.