If you decide that Tibetan Buddhism is the path for you, and you wish to formalise your commitment, you may choose to take part in a ceremony called ‘Taking Refuge.’ (I have previously written about this concept in my blog: https://davidmichie.com/what-is-a-buddhist-a-definition/)
The refuge ceremony is often short, and as well as taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, as ‘lay people’ – as opposed to monks or nuns – we also take at least one of five lay precepts. These are commitments to uphold certain ethical principles. They are to:
- Abandon killing
- Abandon stealing (i.e. taking what is not freely given)
- Abandon sexual misconduct (i.e. sexual activity that harms others)
- Abandon lying
- Abandon intoxicants (alcohol, wacky baccy and the like)
Tibetan Buddhism takes a pragmatic, step-by-step approach to many things, including lay vows. We are required to take only one of these vows – to abandon killing – which hopefully isn’t too big an ask. If we are engaged in ongoing fraud, are conducting a clandestine affair, are compulsive liars who get rip-roaring drunk every weekend, then best to leave off the other four commitments for the time being! We can always come back to them later, perhaps once our understanding of the Dharma has begun to transform our behaviour.
Why have any commitments at all? Ethics, along with meditation and developing wisdom are three key elements of Buddhist practice. For millennia it has been understood that it’s challenging to cultivate meditative concentration if your life out in the world is harmful. How can you abide in a state of benevolent well-being while knowing that you are causing pain to others? It is when our outer and inner behaviours are coherent and mutually supporting that we can optimise our likelihood of developing single-pointed focus and insight.
At the Dharma centre I go to, most of my fellow students are willing to take the first four lay precepts. But for many of us, the fifth one presents more of a challenge. That said, we all know that alcohol in excess can seriously impair our judgement, causing us to say and do things we wouldn’t otherwise say and do. Some of us try to walk a middle path on this one, while saluting those who are willing to take the vow to go all the way.
There is a Buddhist morality tale I’d like to share on exactly this subject. It’s a story I was going to share in a novel I was writing, but it impeded the narrative flow, so I removed it. Knowing that you, my readers, are keen on stories, and given the theme of this blog, I thought you may enjoy it here.
There was once a young monk, travelling alone through the Tibetan countryside on his way to consult with a great master. It was the custom in Tibet for villagers in rural Tibet to offer monks a meal and a place by the fire for the night – supporting those who were devoting their lives to the Dharma being a virtuous action.
Late one afternoon as the skies were beginning to darken, the monk approached a small settlement. An attractive young woman emerged from one of the tents. It soon emerged that all the menfolk were in the mountains gathering yaks, and were away for the night. But, with the most welcoming – and was it, suggestive? – smile, she invited him to stay the night.
The young monk knew himself and his own instincts, only too well. Having only very recently been ordained, taking the vow of celibacy required of monks was a major commitment still vividly present in his mind. Deciding he still had time to walk further, and find less ethically challenging hospitality, he politely declined.
‘Will you at least stop for something to eat before you go on your way?’ the young woman entreated him, with her beautiful, slate-blue eyes. Before even reaching the settlement, the monk had caught the delicious aroma of fresh stew and dumplings. But unless the meat used for the stew had arisen from the natural death of an animal – an unlikely occurrence, the monk recognized – if he was to eat it he would be part of the karma of killing – the first and greatest precept shared by monks and lay people alike.
After he declined the offer of a meal, the young woman stepped closer, pleading, ‘Well, at least pause briefly for a drink of chang?’ Chang is a beer brewed from millet, popular throughout Tibet, and an assumed part of many social occasions. The young monk had, of course, taken a precept to abandon intoxicants, just as he had vowed not to kill or to engage in sexual activity. But having already turned down the kind girl’s first two invitations, not wishing to cause offense, and feeling confident that a few mouthfuls of chang were hardly going to make him drunk, he accepted.
We all know what happened next. After taking a few sips, the monk felt the warm glow of relaxation spread throughout his body. Chattering to the vivacious young woman, the two of them discovered how much they had in common, and what great chemistry there was in each other’s presence. Taking a few more sips, the idea of getting up and venturing back into the gathering darkness became all the more unappealing. The monk agreed to a second drink of chang.
There was, of course, a third drink after which the monk agreed to be served stew and dumplings. And before the night was out, he had broken his vow of celibacy too!
(Photo credit: Thanks for the image of the man silhouetted Augustin de Monstequiou on unsplash.com, and prayer flags on mountainside to Daniele Salutari on unsplash.com)
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