Renewing the Bodhisattva Precepts

 “Has the Sangha gathered together?”
We are all gathered.”

Is everyone united and in harmony?”
We are united and in harmony.”

For what have you all gathered?”
We have gathered to hear the Bodhisattva Precepts explained, and to reflect upon our own shortcomings.

Thus begins the ceremony for the Bodhisattva Precepts in Korea. While laypeople can and do take these precepts, every six months, monks and nuns are required go to their regional head temple for this ceremony.  (It’s  held once a month in meditation halls and sutra study halls, but it’s also held separately for those who aren’t in one of those.) Attendance is required; they actually make us sign in before the ceremony, and then sign out again after it’s over — no signing the ledger and slipping away!  Traditionally, this should be held at least once a month, but there is a lot of overlap with the Thousand Hands Sutra, which is chanted ever day.

Of the Ten Precepts, when western Buddhists think of numbers 6-10, they may be actually thinking of the ones from the set of Bodhisattva Precepts. 

6: Not discussing the faults of others.
7: Not praising yourself, or speaking ill of others.
8: Not being stingy with material or spiritual aid.
9: Not indulging in anger
10: Not speaking ill of the Three Treasures, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

You may have heard of the precepts against sleeping in a high bed, wearing perfumes, and accepting gold and silver. These are the original precepts of the Vinaya school, and are for renunciates. Whereas the Bodhisattva precepts were developed later, and are not necessarily for monastics alone.

  In total, there are 48 Bodhisattva Precepts. They originate from the Chinese version of the Bramha-jala Sutra, which takes the form of the Buddha reciting these precepts (here’s a link to one version of this sutra). Essentially what the Buddha is saying, is that those who are enlightened behave like this, and not like that. So if you want to become enlightened and a blessing for those around you, (and greatly reduce your own suffering) start by following the example set by the great practitioners whose awakening is reflected in their behavior.

Interestingly, the demand for complete vegetarianism comes from this sutra, as does the requirement of not eating the garlic and onions (perhaps they were considered the oysters of their day?) Some of these precepts seem like they are directed towards lay people, while others are clearly for monastics.

Some of these precepts are:

Don’t act as an agent or emissary for political powers,
respect your teacher and fellow practitioners,
help nurse those who are ill,
not teaching for the sake of profit,
not teaching those who would use what they learned to harm Buddhism and the faithful,
and so on. 

Here’s the full entry for a couple of precepts, to a taste of how they are presented (the quotes come from here) : 

On Slander and Libel

A disciple of the Buddha must not, without cause and with evil intentions, slander virtuous people, such as Elder Masters, monks or nuns, kings, princes or other upright persons, saying that they have committed the Seven Cardinal Sins or broken the Ten Major Bodhisattva Precepts. He should be compassionate and filial and treat all virtuous people as if they were his father, mother, siblings or other close relatives. If instead, he slanders and harms them, he commits a secondary offense.  
These precepts are also often worded in a way that makes it hard to deceive ourselves: he must not do it himself, nor command others to do it, nor allow it to happen through inaction, etc.

Some of these precepts also carry interesting insights into how the culture of how people lived at the time. I’m sure we can extrapolate the intention of the following precept, but look at who it’s directed at: slash and burn farmers.

On Starting Wildfires

A disciple of the Buddha shall not, out of evil intentions, start wildfires to clear forests and burn vegetation on mountains and plains, during the fourth to the ninth months of the lunar year. Such fires [are particularly injurious to animals during that period and may spread] to people’s homes, towns and villages, temples and monasteries, fields and groves, as well as the [unseen] dwellings and possessions of deities and ghosts. He must not intentionally set fire to any place where there is life. If he deliberately does so, he commits a secondary offense

 Martine Batchelor has actually published an excellent translation of the complete Korean ceremony with precepts. It’s called The Path of Compassion: The Bodhisattva Precepts.  If you are at all interested in this subject, I recommend checking out her book. This sutra and ceremony are a huge part of the Buddhism of Korea, Japan, and China. I’d like to write a lot more about it, but I can’t find my copy! (If you’re the person I loaned it to, please send it back! ^-^)

13 thoughts on “Renewing the Bodhisattva Precepts”

  1. (If you’re the person I loaned it to, please send it back! ^-^)

    Isn’t there a precept about this?! LOL!

    when western Buddhists think of numbers 6-10,…

    Eh? Is there a difference between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ precepts?

    I know many people who live in the ‘west’ who would think of the next set of precepts being the Therevada ones, and I know many in the ‘west’ who would think of them being the Mahayana ones. It depends upon which tradition they are most familiar with.

    At the Therevada meditation group I used to attend in the UK (and here in Bangkok for example) most ‘western’ Buddhists would assume the next precepts to be about sleeping on a high place, wearing perfume, eating after noon and so on as these are taken by Therevada laypeople in Thailand on Buddhist holy days and when on retreat (and monks all the time of course!)

    But many ‘western’ Buddhists in the UK and elsewhere would think that the next set of precepts are the same as in Korea and Japan, the ones you talk about here based on the Brahma-net Sutra. What ‘western’ Buddhists percieve to be the next set of precepts depends entirely upon the tradition they are most familiar with.

    I don’t see how making this division into ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ is useful. Not only in this case, but in almost all others. Further, I’d say that the very categories have no meaning. Chong Go Sunim, you are a monk in Korea and have been for how many years? Are you western or eastern? Surely the question and the categories are meaningless?

    Sorry to go on and please delete this comment if you feel fit (I’m proably breaking a stack of precepts) but this idea that ‘westerners’ feel and think this and ‘easterners’ feel and think that simply doesn’t apply.



  2. Sorry Marcus,
    That was just based upon my experience in North America, where much of the Buddhism has been influenced by the Japanese Mahayana tradition. Most of the Buddhists I knew tended to think of the Bodhisattva version. I’d forgotten the influence of Theravadan Buddhism on the UK, where people might naturally tend to think of the orginal, ie Vinya, 6-10.

  3. “Not discussing the faults others”


    A friend of mine who practices yoga said to avoid garlic and onion because the taste lingers leading to craving/attachment. It may have been a similar thing in the precepts?

    She also doesn’t eat eggs because of the chance of life (although there probably aren’t many roosters around the large factories, I suppose they should be avoided for other reasons!)

    1. Yeah!
      Even though I’m a monk, I find the Bodhisattva versions to be more helpful for my behavior.

      Somewhere, in a Chinese commentary (probably) it says that beings of higher dimensions, ie devas, etc., don’t like the smell of the five pungent herbs and so avoid anyone who eats them.

      I’m not sure what to make of this. To be honest, I’m a bit doubtful about this reasoning, but can’t say anything definitively. In the Vinya precept about not eating onions, a monk says that when he eats them, he can’t stop thinking about women. I suspect the Buddha’s original reply was something like, “Well, then don’t eat them!” Then, if onions, garlic, etc. were considered the early equivilant of Viagra, and those people who were eating lots of them had hopes of a similar effect on their sex life, then perhaps it was the intention of someone lost in lust that the higher beings found repulsive.

  4. A couple more thoughts…

    I noticed it says, “Not indulging in anger” as opposed to not getting angry…

    Does it imply that even a Boddhisattva might still have a bit of anger arise, but just not to get carried away by it?

    And isn’t Buddhism, in a sense, pretty much a great big discussion of all of our faults?? (^_^)

  5. ”Has the Sangha gathered together?”
    “We are all gathered.”

    “Is everyone united and in harmony?”
    “We are united and in harmony.”

    “For what have you all gathered?”
    “We have gathered to hear the Bodhisattva Precepts explained, and to reflect upon our own shortcomings.“

    Wow! This brought back touchy memories… We used to recite the precepts in community with other ordained lay practitioners. Everytime the dharma leader read the “united and harmony” line, I would cringe knowing we simply we NOT united and harmonious. Yet we would all respond, We ARE! I shared this inner conflict with another dharma teacher and he said, “simply say ‘We are hopeful to be united and in harmony.”

    That really helped!

    1. I understand exactly what you mean, (and I think that was a great answer- we are hopeful, we are desirous to be united and in harmony.)

      The ordination ceremony in Korea follows the very oldest form, and one part asks: “Do you have your parents permission?” And everybody is supposed to answer “Yes.” Which in most cases is not true at all. If my parents had any inkling that my ordination depended upon their permission…. ! The best way I found was just to keep silent during that part.

      I asked one of the heads of the Vinya school here in Korea about it, and he said that part is considered to be superceeded by the fact that everyone is over the age of 18, and therefor an adult with the authority to decide for themselves.

  6. In Traditional Chinese Medicine garlic and onions (and obviously chili pepper) are “hot” foods and therefore create disturbances in the mind. They’re very subtle but I suppose when your mind is calm enough you may notice them. We can notice when drinking a lot of caffeine it’s hard to still the mind. Coffee is very hot. Korea in general is off the charts in heat according to TCM, which makes sense when you look around there.

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