Vows and Vinaya in the Tibetan Tradition

Wow. Is there no rule in the vinaya making this compulsory? If there is, then how to the Mahayana traditions reconcile that with their behaviour?

That sounds reasonable. In which country is that? And do we know about the other 3 schools?

I’ve experienced this difficulty in obtaining any English version of the Tibetan vinaya! Quite frustrating. Now that you’ve said it’s deliberate, that reminds me of the Catholic Church banning the Bible from being translated into any language the common folk could understand. Which seems to be a power move, deliberately keeping the common people ignorant.

In the Tibetan case, I’ve noticed that they seem to break a great many vinaya rules, continuously, though it’s hard to confirm that without being able to see the specific vows they take! Though I do expect that running a business or accumulating sponsor money and buying fancy watches and motorbikes, and buying meals to eat while watching TV in restaurants, should be against their vinaya?

This is not meant as a criticism. Just things I’ve noticed.


Simply stated, the uptaking of the vinaya is guided by very compassionate and accommodating principles.

If the local Sangha leadership is compassionate, patient and generous enough, as long as none of the four parajikas are committed, everything else can be dealt with without expelling a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni from the community.

Have a read of the vinaya vibhanga and if you do so with that bias in mind you will see how everything is set out to allow for an infinitely patient and accommodating enforcement of discipline by local Sangha leaders.


I know your frustration. I suffer from it recently… :joy:

1 Like

The problem being, you can’t know if they actually embody the vinaya if they don’t let you know what the vinaya is! In this respect, them not letting us know what vows they took, may be related to the fact that they do not keep their vows!

If I assume that their vinaya is similar to the Theravada vinaya, then I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever met or even heard of any Tibetan who keeps their vows. In particular in relation to storing food; cooking food; having many possessions; partaking in song and dance; going to shows; owning money; doing business for money; gambling (I’ve seen this and dancing etc. in New Year celebration days in a big Gelug monastery in India by the way, seems common); eating several times per day; financing the fur trade (skins of leopards etc.); sleeping in high beds; having luxurious accommodation or even grand houses in the case of teachers; having chauffeurs; drinking alcohol (in rituals); burning seeds (in rituals), and so on.

I think ‘faith in the Sangha’ can be a healthy thing, but somehow I don’t see it being optimal, to keep their faith by pretending to follow something they’re not following. Something seems very… un-Buddhist about that, in terms of the spirit of the Buddha’s Buddhism.


Actually the reason I did not ordain myself in the Tibetan tradition was principally because I was unwilling to take vows that I had no intention of keeping. Even if that’s what was being taught and done by everyone. For me the principle of ‘right speech’ was personally more important - I don’t like to lie. I only want to say I’ll do something if I will do it. Even if sometimes it takes me time to get around to it!

but it all worked out in the end :slight_smile:

1 Like

Their Vinaya is very similar to the Theravadin, Dharmagupta, etc.

If you contrast it with the text, all those things you mention are not faults which would result in the expelling from the Sangha.

And, as I wrote above, if those senior and leading want they can enforce the rules in an infinitely compassionate and accomodating manner. In theory, that was the Buddha approach, as even with the parajika offenses, the first individuals to comit those were not expelled as they served as example and cause for establishing those boundaries.

To be clear, if someone previously ordained kills a human being, has sexual intercouse with another human, steals from another human or falsely claims a profound spiritual attainment, then and only then, he / she is automatically expelled.

This link may be helpful to understand that:

All this is not to mean that this approach is acceptable or aligned with the motivation men and women should have when they decide to take on robes and abandon the householder lifestyle.

As far as I understand, when Je Tsongkhapa re-established alignment to Vinaya he had in mind bringing back to Tibetan Buddhism what he probably saw or heard about was the case in other parts of the Buddhist world, including Theravadin and Dharmarguptaka monastic communities.


Does the Tibetan ordination ceremony actually involve the taking of vows to observe the Vinaya rules? Or is it (as in the Theravada) merely a tacit expectation that those who are granted upasampadā will endeavour to do so?


I’ve always questioned the motivations for keeping the patimokkha “secret” from the lay people. Many of the rules were created exactly because of the laities’ reaction to the early monastic’s behaviour. So stopping them from knowing about it now seems like the monastics in question have something to hide (“You’ll know how poorly we keep the vows if we tell them to you.”). I’m OK with a more relaxed manner of keeping the vows, but I think that should be communicated to the laity along with a general understanding of what the vows are.

As in all Buddhist countries, Tibetan history, culture, and geography need to be taken into account when trying to understand how their monastics keep the patimokkha. Buddhism was transmitted to Tibet in waves and at a relatively late date. Indian monasticism had itself already changed a lot by that time. I’m not sure if we have any information about whether or not the monks at Nalanda still went on alms round.
They might not have, since we do know that Buddhism was almost totally gone in India by the time Atisha went to Tibet, and it did disappear sometime shortly thereafter. So there might not have been enough Buddhist laity around Nalanda to support all the monks through alms round. I’ve never heard of Tibetan monks going on alms round, but that doesn’t mean it never happened. I know that at least in some monasteries in Tibet, it was the responsibility of the family to provide their son (monk) with food, not the monastery itself or the local laity living near the monastery. So monks stored and prepared their own food.

This is another factor that makes comparing Vajrayana and Theravada monastics…difficult, at best. The bodhisattva and tantric vows are both seen as having precedence over the patimokkha. Ideally, a monastic would keep all three sets of vows perfectly. However, if breaking a patimokkha rule was the right thing to do from the perspective of the great compassion the bodhisattva vows embody, then it was considered fine to do that. Tantra makes thing even more complex. For example, in some Tibetan traditions you have a layman tulku, who is married and has children, as the head of a monastery filled with celibate monks. Because he’s a tulku (rinpoche), he’s considered to be at least somewhat enlightened. So his status as a layman isn’t important when considering his position in relation to monastics (i.e. it’s higher). It’s just a totally different beast.

1 Like

My point is not that they are not expelled for doing these things. My point is that those actions are entirely standard for Tibetan monks. I.e., there seems no sense whatsoever that such things are in any way prohibited. I.e. that they in fact have no such rules prohibiting those behaviours. Even if they may have taken some vows with words that mean those are not allowed.

This would be similar to a group of men reciting the rules of golf, but never playing golf. Just reciting them as a ritual, with no intention of following them whatsoever. That is entirely different from a situation where rules are meant to be followed, and are applied, but people are merely chastised or punished for not following them, though not expelled.

In particular, these rules are broken by the teachers and highest authorities of the monastic orders of Tibetan Buddhism. Continuously. This only reinforces the fact that these rules are not even considered to be rules to actually follow. And this seems to me to be entirely different from the Buddha’s Sangha.

I don’t know. I didn’t get that far - I discussed the issue with my master instead. HIs advice was excellent. Anyway, I assumed their ordination requires taking the vows - isn’t that the only way to ordain as a bhikkhu?

So far this is possible to accomplish without ordaining. Take for example Marpa the farmer, Milarepa the yogi, or Dudjom Rinpoche, perhaps the greatest Tibetan lama of the 20th century - none of these people were monks. In Tibetan Buddhism, enlightenment does not rely on ordination.

This same person might then experience confusion if he finds out that he’s being asked to take vows that he’s being expected to break. Or that the masters he so admires, are continually breaking the vows they took.

In this case we are actually talking about less than the vinaya.

Yes. This purpose is not being fulfilled by monks habitually eating breakfast lunch and dinner. Not to mention storing food, cooking food, buying food at restaurants, etc. If the rule is one meal per day and no food after noon, unless you’re sick, then clearly this rule has simply been abandoned. So also with storing and cooking food, and having money etc.

Incidentally, in China don’t they pretend to be sick so that they can eat an evening meal? Using that loophole about sick people being allowed to eat after noon?

Well it would also theoretically be possible to have an honest Sangha which admits to the lay supporters that it doesn’t follow the vinaya, that instead they have their own rules, and then try to justify why they do deserve to be supported by the lay people in their lifestyle. Now, that might take some adjustment. For example, that might make it harder to justify spending the money given them by poor people, on luxury cars and chauffeurs, palaces, private cooks, luxurious food, luxurious hotels, and so on. But it might be worth it - they could adjust themselves to be more deserving of support. Perhaps even by returning to a lifestyle closer to that which the Buddha taught they should be living! Otherwise, perhaps they can make their own money to spend! Or just be honest about what’s going on.

Yes. In my monastery we actually sipped whiskey straight from a human skull. I understand that Tibetan Buddhism has many later elements, including a lot of influence from Hinduism, such as burning seeds in fire rituals, and these tantric practices such as drinking alcohol or using meat in rituals. However, this does require directly breaking vinaya vows. Seed burning and alcohol are both expressly forbidden for monastics, right?

It looks like 84000.co is working on it.


In the pabbajjā (“going forth”) as a sāmaṇera the candidate requests and is given the ten precepts. But in the upasampadā ceremony (see the link below) at no point in the proceedings does the bhikkhu-to-be make any promise to observe the Vinaya or even just the Pātimokkha training rules. It’s simply assumed that he will do so.

Ordination Procedure

By the way, when Tibetans speak of “taking vows” in connection with ordination, and of “handing back one’s vows” in connection with disrobing, do you happen to know what Sanskrit word is being translated as “vow”? I find it a curious usage, given that in the EBTs there’s hardly any talk at all of “vows” in Vinaya contexts. The only example I can think of is a rule prohibiting bhikkhus from taking a vow of silence.


Not so! Certainly, many monasteries have lax vinaya standards, but not all. The vibanga, commentaries, subcommentaries, etc attest to the enduring need for interpretation even in the early Sangha. And lastly, many forest monasteries here in Thailand add “kor wat” rules that in practice make the vinaya even stricter than it nominally is.

Iirc, Bhante, the ordination procedure does require the ācariya to explain the four parajikas no? :pray:

This might be on account of the Bodhisattva and Tantric Vows which, like the samaṇera vows, are actually taken in the ceremony?

Sure, but merely being taught about them at the conclusion of the upasampadā doesn’t amount to the taking of a vow.

1 Like

I think that’s something else. I’m only referring to the Vinaya-related use of the expression. For example, when Tibetan-ordained monks decide to disrobe, in place of the EBT and Theravada expression “to abandon the training and return to the lower [life of a householder]” the Tibetans speak of “returning one’s vows”.

As I wrote before, as long as they do not commit any of the parajika rules they are 'still playing golf". :man_shrugging:

And, as per bhante @Dhammanando contributions, if their full ordination procedures are phrased like the ones in Theravada, to join the golf club you don’t have to necessarily commit to becoming a “professional golf player” yourself…

Also, I don’t think it’s wise to say that all ordained men ordained in Gelug are bad monks. The restablishment of vinaya is one of the key aspects making them different from the other sects within Tibetan Buddhism.

Just note that it’s not that I am arguing against the disagreement implied in your words with the possibility and reality that many may take these vows to just not follow them.

It’s just that when I carefully read, translated and considered key parts of the Vinaya vibhanga I came to see that there’s a lot of room for a very compassionate, accommodating and generous approach to enforcing these rules as a whole.

And, maybe, what we see in terms of laxity in other ordination lineages may be explained by that… :man_shrugging:


Yes, they start making some Vinaya translation. :grin:

1 Like

It’s very easy to criticize. It’s very difficult to practice.

I’d recommend folks (or @moderators) move the Vinaya discussion to another thread since it’s quite off topic now from the OP?


Ok so maybe it’s more like… people reading the rules of golf, then under the supervision of the man put in charge of the golf course, they drive cars onto the green where they dig a fire pit, and have a party. But don’t get kicked out or told off because the boss is fine with it!

I was actually thinking about the Tibetan monastic habits recently… and this line of thought occurred to me:so far as I understand, the Buddha’s Sangha, and presumably also monastic behaviour, was focused on jhāna practice. So, aside from the principle of non-harm, and the element of maintaining a good image for their donors in order for the community to survive (good manners, such as not leaving rice in a stream after washing one’s bowl etc.), it seems to me that there’s a lot about protecting jhāna practice. Hence, rules about avoiding any kind of sensual entertainment such as going to shows or listening to music, or the modern Tibetan monastic habit of watching TV and playing with smart phones.

But Tibetan Buddhism categorically rejects jhāna practice. They have a totally different spiritual path than the Buddha’s, condemning the Buddha’s teachings on withdrawing from the senses, in favour of very different types of practice, which to a very significant degree embrace sensual input and even sensual pleasure.

So, there is some logic in their abandoning the vinaya. For people who never practice jhāna, jhāna based rules are irrelevant! Though it seems this is complicated by the absence of any admittance of them rejecting the Buddha’s path. If they took a rational approach, I think they would be able to openly admit that they have abandoned the Buddha’s path, and therefore can openly abandon the vinaya, rather than having to conceal the vinaya from lay people and… pretend?.. that they’re following it. What do you think?

In the same vein, I think it would do Tibetan Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism in general a great service if they were to admit the vigorously proven facts of the evolution of doctrine over time, and use that as a basis for removing the radical sectarianism in Mahayana doctrine, admitting that these are highly negative aspects of their teachings were created by unenlightened men, and abandon their standard blind faith approach to their texts and doctrines.