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Cyber-Shedra Distance Learning Program

By Khenpo Tenzin Norgay Rinpoche and Namdroling, Montana

Lesson 1, Perfect Conduct

Session 3

Please read Perfect Conduct, First: The Initial Virtue, pages 3 5

This text was written by Ngari Pandchen Pema Wangi Gyalpo (1487-1542) who was a Treasure
Revealer and a great scholar. It is one of the first texts taught in Shedras in the Nyingma
tradition. The theme of Buddhist scripture can be subsumed in view, meditation and conduct.
The view is the foundation of the practice, meditation is maintaining the awareness upon the
view, and conduct is a means which facilitates the actualization of the view. The text gives clear
explanations on the conduct of Buddhists: refrain from harming others, love all sentient beings,
and strive to bring profound benefit to all sentient beings. These are respectively the core
practice of the pratimoksa vows, bodhisattva vows and tantric vows. The text has five chapters.

The first chapter, General Fundamental Teaching on The Three Vows, explains that Sakyamuni
Buddha has taught different levels of teachings to meet different dispositions and faculties of
sentient beings. The final goal of all these teachings is to realize one ultimate truth: The Great
Perfection which is the nature of all phenomena. Atiyoga teaches this innate truth clearly and in
completion. The others yanas are steps which gradually lead to this truth. All of them are valid
teachings of Buddha and can achieve their respective goals. These goals, however, are not
complete. Further accomplishments must be pursued until attaining complete enlightenment.
The chapter explains why there are three different vows taught in the sutras and tantras.

The second, third and fourth chapters are on the pratimoksa, bodhisattva, and tantra vows
respectively. Each of the vows is discussed in four topics: the history on the origin of the vow,
how to initially take the vow, how to keep the vows without deterioration, and when impaired
how to revive the vow. In this course, we will not study the teachings on the monastic vows,
Getsul (novice vows) and Gelong (vows of full ordination) that are taught in the second chapter.
If one does not hold these vows there is no point in discussing them. Further, according to
Vinaya, the precepts of Gelong are to be taught only to those who hold the vow. In our Shedra in
India, the section of Gelong vows are not taught to the students as most of the students in the first
year hold only Getsul vows. If time permits I will try to give the private teachings for those who
hold these vows.

The fifth chapter describes how to practice the three vows together without conflict. This is an
important chapter. Some precepts of the three vows seem contradictory making it impossible for
a practitioner to observe all three vows together. A vajrayana practitioner must observe all the
three vows. This chapter explains how all these three vows can be observed by a Vajrayana
practitioner and be a true Vajradhara endowed with three vows.

The unique feature of the text is proclaimed by the author at the end of this text. "However three
vows still remain as mere names." He is referring to other texts on the three vows, namely
Domsum Rab dBye Distinction of The Three Vows by Sakya Pandita, which is loaded with
critiques and is vague on instruction on how to hold the three vows. Ngari Penchen wants to give
clear teachings on observing the vows rather than focusing on philosophical debates.

There are few commentaries written by Nyingma scholars to explain the root text. The most
extensive commentary is by Lochen Dharmashri called "A Cluster of Branches of the Wish
Fulfilling Tree". The other commentaries are a concise version of this commentary. The
commentary by Rigzin Kunzang Sherub, the founder of Palyul lineage is not popular. The
commentary "Dom gSum Rig 'Dzin 'Jug Ngogs" written by Khenchen Yonten Gyatsho is widely
used. Our shedra in India uses this last commentary, and I will be referring it during this course.

We are studying the commentary, Perfect Conduct, because it is concise and gives a clear
explanation. Besides, it is the only commentary on the text available in English. I would like to
thank Khenpo Gyurmed Samdrup and Sangye Khandro for translating the text. Without their
hard work we would not be able to study this important text together.

The more we know Dharma, the less we feel that we are good dharma practitioners. In this
course we will be aware of different precepts and words of honor. Do not feel discouraged! We
can do our best and aspire to improve.

At places I may use my version of translation just to express some of my views. If I don't come
up with something original you may get bored. And one of the characteristics of a scholar is not
to agree with other scholars, right? So I must pretend to be one of them.

The Commentary
In discussing scriptures, the title of the text, the homage, maintaining humility and the
commitment to compose the text, are the classical way to begin writing a scripture. This is
called the initial virtue. The main theme of the text is the intermediate virtue. The conclusion of
the text, confessing the mistake in writing the book, dedication and auspicious verses, is the
concluding virtue. This is to let the reader know that dharma is virtue in the beginning, virtue in
the middle, and virtue at the end. The words and the meaning of the text are flawless and all
The Title
A Shastra on Branches of the path of the Natural Great Perfection Called Ascertaining the
Three Vows

Let us discuss the meaning of the title word by word. The innate nature of our mind has the
qualities of three kayas spontaneously present in completion without any stains. There is no
difference between the kayas and wisdom minds of Buddhas and that are present in the Buddha
nature of all sentient beings. This aspect is called Perfection or Completion (as some translators
like to translate). This is the nature of all phenomena which pervades samsara and nirvana and is
the unsurpassable truth, so it is Great. This truth is the foundation of all practice. When on the
path these qualities in the process of manifestation are called the qualities of the path. When all
qualities are completely actualized they are the qualities of fruition. So the qualities of the
foundation, path and fruition are spontaneously present in all sentient beings. All enlightened
qualities are completely present in the innate nature of all sentient beings. There is nothing new
created and nothing missing. This is called the Great Perfection.

Atiyoga teaches this truth clearly and in full completion. All other yanas, Anuyoga on down, are
gradual steps or Branches which lead to this ultimate truth. It also implies that an ordinary mind
must approach the teachings gradually in order to understand the teachings of Dzogpa Chenpo.
In fact, the whole first chapter explains how all yanas are gradual steps or branches on the path
of Dzogpa Chenpo, of which every one of us would like to have a bite!

The core practice of all sutras and tantras is observing the Three Vows. A person who cannot
refrain from harming others cannot generate bodhichitta to benefit others. Without Bodhichitta,
the genuine practice of Vajrayana, which brings greater benefit to all sentient beings, would be
impossible. Therefore to abide by ethics is very important to accomplish the goal of the path.

Understanding that observing vows is essential on the path, one must know the precepts. There is
a saying "Assuming that one is holding the vows without knowing the precepts is ridiculous."
Generally to have certainty, one must investigate with three validations, using direct perceptions
to validate the actual objects (which are evident) that are directly perceived by senses, using
rational evidence to infer the facts hidden to our senses, and relying on valid scriptures to
determine the facts that are beyond the capacity of ordinary mind. The clear understanding of the
vows through these three evaluations is Ascertaining.

I have added Shastra to the title because it is in the original Tibetan title. That is why it appears
in the commentary by HH Dudjum Rinpoche. The closest definition for Shastra in English would
be commentary. A Shastra is a treatise written by a qualified follower of Sakyamuni Buddha
with "undistracted mind" (without worldly gains) and solely intends to benefit the seeker of
liberation by explaining the teachings of Buddha. The Rational Exposition says that Shastra
must have two qualities, the ability to amend the afflictive emotions and give protection from
being born in the lower realms. We have discussed the meaning of shastra (bTan bcos in
Tibetan) in detail when discussing Bodhicaryavatara.
Now we know why wise ones are able to figure out the theme of the whole text just from the title
of a text.