I spoke with Gyumed Khensur Rinpoche Losang Jampa briefly about the five root vows and monastic vows. Entering the Buddhist path involves taking Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The purpose of taking vows – whether they are refuge vows, lay vows, tantric or monastic is to help us control our minds so we do not engage in non-virtuous, harmful behavior.
Five Root Vows (ge nyen, Tib)
The five root vows are the foundation for the monastic vows. The five root vows are: 1.) Not killing human beings, 2.) Not stealing, 3.) Not lying, 4.) Not committing sexual misconduct (adultery), 5.) Not becoming intoxicated (drugs, alcohol). The lay vows center around taking the five root vows.
“Killing” refers to taking the life of any sentient being. Killing as a root downfall — meaning that when committed, one loses the vow completely, refers specifically to killing human beings.
“Stealing” is culture-specific as different societies value different things. Transgressing the root vow would be to steal an object that is valued by society so that you end up in trouble with the law.
“Lying” is defined as pretending to have realized emptiness, omniscience etc. In general, lying refers to any verbal or non-verbal expression done with the intention of deceiving others. So it also refers to making factual statements with the intention to deceive others.
The supreme ge nyen vow is the same as the five root vows with the exception being that instead of sexual misconduct, one takes the vow of celibacy. Having taken the supreme ge nyen vow, one can also wear robes.
The five root vows are taken in the presence of a spiritual elder.
Renunciate vows (rab jung, Tib)
By taking the rab jung vows, a person commits to: 1.) leave behind lay clothes and signs, 2.) wear the robes of an ordained person and shave one’s head, 3.) follow the Buddha’s teachings.
The combination of the five root vows and rab jung vows is the first step to ordination. After taking these vows, one can then take the vows of a novice nun (getsulma) or monk (getsul). For nuns, this is an additional ten vows. 253 additional vows are taken for becoming a fully ordained monk (gelong). As far as I can tell, while His Holiness expressed support for full ordination for nuns in 2007, this has yet to be implemented.
The International Mahayana Institute guidelines state that anyone who ordains must not work unless it’s for a Dharma center. Unless you can stop working, you can not take even the rab jung vows because novices wear robes.
Although currently there are many monks and nuns in the West who work, the new policy was developed by Lama Zopa Rinpoche and the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as being in the best interest of protecting the sangha and buddha dharma in the West.
For more advice from Lama Zopa Rinpoche regarding ordination and an explanation of the process of applying for ordination through FPMT, please visit the International Mahayana Institute website: http://www.imisangha.org/ordain/resources_fpmt_imi.html
Ven. Thubten Chodron, an American Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition and founder and Abbess of Sravasti Abbey, has written extensively about ordination. She explains the benefits as well as challenges that monastic life entails particularly for those living in the West. She skillfully helps those seeking ordination decide if it’s the right decision. A must read. Her website has a free pdf ebook Preparing for Ordination, it’s a collection of essays by spiritual masters including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh and many others.
Tsenshab Serkong Rinpoche’s teaching on the meaning of renunciation gives us the background to understand what ordination truly means — renouncing the sufferings of cyclic existence for the benefit of all sentient beings.
(updated March 4, 2018)