Bodhisattva precepts

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Bodhisattva Precepts (T. byang sdom བྱང་སྡོམ; C. pusa jie; J. bosatsukai 菩薩戒) are the codes of conduct prescribed for those undertaking the bodhisattva path within the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition. The bodhisattva precepts are typically adopted in addition to the sravakayana precepts (the pratimoksha for monastics; and five precepts for lay practitioners).

In One Teacher, Many Traditions, the 14th Dalai Lama states:

Those practicing the Bodhisattva Vehicle take the bodhisattva ethical restraints with the wish to attain full awakening to benefit all sentient beings. The bodhisattva precepts focus on subduing self-centeredness, the main obstacle to generating bodhicitta and engaging in the bodhisattvas’ practice. Different versions of the bodhisattva ethical restraints are found in Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese Buddhism.
Unlike the prātimokṣa precepts that focus on physical and verbal actions, bodhisattva and tantric precepts emphasize ethical conduct on the mental level. Here motivation is foremost. This means that if our motivation is pure, we can transform all actions into the Dharma. However, this does not give us license to rationalize selfish and nonvirtuous actions by saying “My motivation was compassion."[1]

Precepts in Tibetan Buddhism

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are two lineages of bodhisattva precepts, one from Asanga and another from Shantideva. Asanga delineated 18 major vows and forty-six minor vows in the Bodhisattvabhumi. According to Alexander Berzin, the bodhisattva vows transmitted by the 10th-century Indian master Atisha derived from the Ākāśagarbhasūtra, "as cited in Śikṣāsamuccaya, compiled in India by Śāntideva in the 8th century" including 18 primary and 48 secondary downfalls.[2]

These Bodhisattva vows are still used in all four major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. The eighteen major vows (as actions to be abandoned) which are shared by both traditions are as follows:[3]

  1. Praising oneself or belittling others due to attachment to receiving material offerings, praise and respect.
  2. Not giving material aid or (due to miserliness) not teaching the Dharma to those who are suffering and without a protector.
  3. Not listening to others' apologies or striking others.
  4. Abandoning the Mahayana by saying that Mahayana texts are not the words of Buddha or teaching what appears to be the Dharma but is not.
  5. Taking things belonging to the Buddha, Dharma or Sangha.
  6. Abandoning the holy Dharma by saying that texts which teach the three vehicles are not the Buddha's word.
  7. With anger depriving ordained ones of their robes, beating and imprisoning them or causing them to lose their ordination even if they have impure morality, for example, by saying that being ordained is useless.
  8. Committing any of the five extremely negative actions: (1) killing one's mother, (2) killing one's father, (3) killing an arhat, (4) intentionally drawing blood from a Buddha or (5) causing schism in the Sangha community by supporting and spreading sectarian views.
  9. Holding distorted views (which are contrary to the teaching of Buddha, such as denying the existence of the Three Jewels or the law of cause and effect etc.)
  10. Destroying towns, villages, cities or large areas by means such as fire, bombs, pollution or black magic.
  11. Teaching emptiness to those whose minds are unprepared.
  12. Causing those who have entered the Mahayana to turn away from working for the full enlightenment of Buddhahood and encouraging them to work merely for their own liberation from suffering.
  13. Causing others to abandon their Prātimokṣa vows.
  14. Belittling the Śrāvakayāna or Pratyekabuddhayāna (by holding and causing others to hold the view that these vehicles do not abandon attachment and other delusions).
  15. Falsely stating that oneself has realised profound emptiness and that if others meditate as one has, they will realize emptiness and become as great and as highly realized as oneself.
  16. Taking gifts from others who were encouraged to give you things originally intended as offerings to the Three Jewels. Not giving things to the Three Jewels that others have given you to give to them, or accepting property stolen from the Three Jewels.
  17. Causing those engaged in calm-abiding meditation to give it up by giving their belongings to those who are merely reciting texts or making bad disciplinary rules which cause a spiritual community not to be harmonious.
  18. Abandoning either of the two types of bodhicitta (aspiring and engaging).

According to Atiśa, the Prātimokṣa vows are the basis for the Bodhisattva vows. Without keeping one of the different sets of Prātimokṣa vows (in one of the existing Vinaya schools), there can be no Bodhisattva vow.[4]

Precepts in East Asian Buddhism

In One Teacher, Many Traditions, the 14th Dalai Lama states:

Two renditions of the bodhisattva ethical code exist in Chinese Buddhism. The Brahmajāla Sūtra contains ten root and forty-eight auxiliary precepts, and the Yogācārabhūmi Śāstra has four root and forty-one auxiliary precepts. There is much overlap between the lists in these two scriptures, as well as with the bodhisattva precepts of Tibetan Buddhism.[5]

Brahmajāla Sūtra

The Brahmajāla Sūtra presents a list of ten major and forty-eight minor Bodhisattva vows.[6] These are often called the "Brahma Net Precepts" (Chinese: 梵網戒; pinyin: Fànwǎng Jiè). According to the sutra, the ten major bodhisattva precepts are in summary:[7]

  1. Not to kill or encourage others to kill.
  2. Not to steal or encourage others to steal.
  3. Not to engage in licentious acts or encourage others to do so. A monk is expected to abstain from sexual conduct entirely.
  4. Not to use false words and speech, or encourage others to do so.
  5. Not to trade or sell alcoholic beverages or encourage others to do so.
  6. Not to broadcast the misdeeds or faults of the Buddhist assembly, nor encourage others to do so.
  7. Not to praise oneself and speak ill of others, or encourage others to do so.
  8. Not to be stingy, or encourage others to do so.
  9. Not to harbor anger or encourage others to be angry.
  10. Not to speak ill of the Buddha, the Dharma or the Sangha (lit. the Triple Jewel) or encourage others to do so.

Breaking any of these precepts is described as a major offense in the sutra.

A fuller description is as follows:[7]

  1. A disciple of the Buddha shall not himself kill, encourage others to kill, kill by expedient means, praise killing, rejoice at witnessing killing, or kill through incantation or deviant mantras. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of killing, and shall not intentionally kill any living creature. As a Buddha's disciple, he ought to nurture a mind of compassion and filial piety, always devising expedient means to rescue and protect all beings. If instead, he fails to restrain himself and kills sentient beings without mercy, he commits a Parajika (major) offense.
  2. A disciple of the Buddha must not himself steal or encourage others to steal, steal by expedient means, steal by means of incantation or deviant mantras. He should not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of stealing. No valuables or possessions, even those belonging to ghosts and spirits or thieves and robbers, be they as small as a needle or blade of grass, may be stolen. As a Buddha's disciple, he ought to have a mind of mercy, compassion, and filial piety -- always helping people earn merits and achieve happiness. If instead, he steals the possessions of others, he commits a Parajika offense.
  3. A disciple of the Buddha must not engage in licentious acts or encourage others to do so. [As a monk] he should not have sexual relations with any female -- be she a human, animal, deity or spirit -- nor create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of such misconduct. Indeed, he must not engage in improper sexual conduct with anyone. A Buddha's disciple ought to have a mind of filial piety -- rescuing all sentient beings and instructing them in the Dharma of purity and chastity. If instead, he lacks compassion and encourages others to engage in sexual relations promiscuously, including with animals and even their mothers, daughters, sisters, or other close relatives, he commits a Parajika offense.
  4. A disciple of the Buddha must not himself use false words and speech, or encourage others to lie or lie by expedient means. He should not involve himself in the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of lying, saying that he has seen what he has not seen or vice versa, or lying implicitly through physical or mental means. As a Buddha's disciple, he ought to maintain Right Speech and Right Views always, and lead all others to maintain them as well. If instead, he causes wrong speech, wrong views or evil karma in others, he commits a Parajika offense.
  5. A disciple of the Buddha must not trade in alcoholic beverages or encourage others to do so. He should not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of selling any intoxicant whatsoever, for intoxicants are the causes and conditions of all kinds of offenses. As a Buddha's disciple, he ought to help all sentient beings achieve clear wisdom. If instead, he causes them to have upside-down, topsy-turvy thinking, he commits a Parajika offense.
  6. A disciple of the Buddha must not himself broadcast the misdeeds or infractions of Bodhisattva-clerics or Bodhisattva-laypersons, or of [ordinary] monks and nuns -- nor encourage others to do so. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of discussing the offenses of the assembly. As a Buddha's disciple, whenever he hears evil persons, externalists or followers of the Two Vehicles speak of practices contrary to the Dharma or contrary to the precepts within the Buddhist community, he should instruct them with a compassionate mind and lead them to develop wholesome faith in the Mahayana. If instead, he discusses the faults and misdeeds that occur within the assembly, he commits a Parajika offense.
  7. A disciple of the Buddha shall not praise himself and speak ill of others, or encourage others to do so. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of praising himself and disparaging others. As a disciple of the Buddha, he should be willing to stand in for all sentient beings and endure humiliation and slander -- accepting blame and letting sentient beings have all the glory. If instead, he displays his own virtues and conceals the good points of others, thus causing them to suffer slander, he commits a Parajika offense.
  8. A disciple of the Buddha must not be stingy or encourage others to be stingy. He should not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of stinginess. As a Bodhisattva, whenever a destitute person comes for help, he should give that person what he needs. If instead, out of anger and resentment, he denies all assistance -- refusing to help with even a penny, a needle, a blade of grass, even a single sentence or verse or a phrase of Dharma, but instead scolds and abuses that person -- he commits a Parajika offense.
  9. A disciple of the Buddha shall not harbor anger or encourage others to be angry. He should not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of anger. As a disciple of the Buddha, he ought to be compassionate and filial, helping all sentient beings develop the good roots of non-contention. If instead, he insults and abuses sentient beings, or even transformation beings [such as deities and spirits], with harsh words, hitting them with his fists or feet, or attacking them with a knife or club -- or harbors grudges even when the victim confesses his mistakes and humbly seeks forgiveness in a soft, conciliatory voice -- the disciple commits a Parajika offense.
  10. A Buddha's disciple shall not himself speak ill of the Triple Jewel or encourage others to do so. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods or karma of slander. If a disciple hears but a single word of slander against the Buddha from externalists or evil beings, he experiences a pain similar to that of three hundred spears piercing his heart. How then could he possibly slander the Triple Jewel himself? Hence, if a disciple lacks faith and filial piety towards the Triple Jewel, and even assists evil persons or those of aberrant views to slander the Triple Jewel, he commits a Parajika offense.

Applying the precepts

Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese traditions

In traditional Mahayana monastic communities in East Asia, a fully ordained monk or nun ordains under the traditional Prātimokṣa precepts first, as described in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya. In the Chinese tradition, this is called the Four-Part Vinaya (Chinese: 四分律; pinyin: Sìfēnlǜ). Then as a supplement, the same disciple would undertake the Bodhisattva Precepts as well.

Monks and nuns are not considered "ordained" through by the Bodhisattva Precepts, but rather by the ordaining under the Four Part Vinaya, while the Bodhisattva Precepts served to strengthen the Mahayana ideals.[8] Similarly, the Bodhisattva Precepts are given to lay disciples to strengthen their devotion to Buddhism as well.[8] Such disciples often take the basic five precepts and then the Bodhisattva precepts as a supplement.

Chinese Chan Buddhist monk, Yin Shun wrote:[9]

To cultivate bodhi mind means to accept the bodhisattva precepts and practice the ten good deeds.

Japanese traditions

In Japanese Buddhism, with the rise of Saicho and the Tendai sect, the original Vinaya lineage was de-emphasized,[8] and a new monastic community was set up using the Bodhisattva Precepts exclusively. All Vinaya ordinations at the time were given at Todaiji temple in Nara Japan, and Saicho had wanted to both undermine the power of the Nara Buddhist community, and establish a "purely Mahayana lineage",[10] and made a request to the Emperor to Later Buddhist sects, which was granted 7 days after his death in 822.

Later Buddhist sects in Japan, including Soto Zen, Shingon and Jodo Shu adopted a similar approach to their monastic communities, and exclusive use of the Bodhisattva Precepts. By this time in Japan, the Vinaya lineage had all but died out and Japan's remote location made it difficult to re-establish though limited efforts by Jokei and the Shingon Risshū sect revived it for a time. This was further enforced during the Meiji Period when the Nikujiku Saitai Law (肉食妻帯) of 1872 decriminalized clerical marriage and meat-eating.[11][12]

The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts in Sōtō Zen

In the Sōtō school of Zen, the founder Dōgen established a somewhat expanded version of the Bodhisattva Precepts for use by both priests and lay followers, based on both Brahma Net Sutra and other sources. These precepts are translated by John Daido Loori as follows:[13]

  • The Three Treasures
    1. Taking refuge in the Buddha
    2. Taking refuge in the Dharma
    3. Taking refuge in the Sangha
    The Three Treasures are universally known in Buddhism as the Three Refuges or Three Jewels.
  • The Three Pure Precepts
    1. Do not create Evil
    2. Practice Good
    3. Actualize Good For Others
    These are also known as the Three Root Precepts, and are mentioned in the Brahmajāla Sūtra as well.
  • The Ten Grave Precepts
    1. Respect life – Do not kill
    2. Be giving – Do not steal
    3. Honor the body – Do not misuse sexuality
    4. Manifest truth – Do not lie
    5. Proceed clearly – Do not cloud the mind
    6. See the perfection – Do not speak of others' errors and faults
    7. Realize self and others as one – Do not elevate the self and blame others
    8. Give generously – Do not be withholding
    9. Actualize harmony – Do not be angry
    10. Experience the intimacy of things – Do not defile the Three Treasures


  1. Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2014, s.v. Chapter 4, Section "Bodhisattva and Tantric Ethical Restraints".
  2. Dr. Alexander Berzin, Root Bodhisattva Vows,
  3. 32px-Wikipedia-logo-v2.svg.png Bodhisattva Precepts, Wikipedia
  4. Gyaltsen, Konchog (1990). Great Kagyu Masters: The Golden Lineage Treasury. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications. pp. 154–86. ISBN 9780937938881. OCLC 22210145. 
  5. Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2014, s.v. Chapter 12, Section "Aspiring and Engaging Bodhicitta".
  6. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. bodhisattvaśīla.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Thanh, Minh (2000). "The Brahma Net Sutra". New York: Sutra Translation Committee of the United States and Canada. Archived from the original on June 11, 2011. Retrieved 10 December 2012.  Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Ford, James L. (2006). Jokei and Buddhist Devotion in Early Medieval Japan. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 131, 132. ISBN 0-19-518814-4. 
  9. Yin-Shun, Ven. (1998). The Way to Buddhahood. Wisdom Publications. p. 329. ISBN 0-86171-133-5. 
  10. Abe, Ryuichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University Press. pp. 40–44, 50–52. ISBN 0-231-11286-6. 
  11. Horii, Mitsutoshi (2006). Deprofessionalisation of Buddhist Priests in Contemporary Japan. A Socio-Industrial Study of a Religious Profession, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies 6 (1), unpaginated
  12. Jaffe, Richard (1998). "Meiji Religious Policy, Soto Zen and the Clerical Marriage Problem". Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 24 (1-2): 46. 
  13. Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism Archived August 21, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.


External links

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