Demon: “So why do you consider my presence a pollution, a disease? Is it because there is that within you which is like unto myself? …If so, I mock you in your weakness, Binder.”
Sam: “It is because I am a man who occasionally aspires to things beyond the belly and the phallus.”Roger Zelazny, “Lord of Light”
Recently, I wrote a post about the Five Precepts of Buddhism, which are a nearly universal code of conduct that lay disciples can choose to undertake both as a benefit for themselves (dignity, mental well-being) and towards others.
In addition to the Five Precepts, the Mayahana branch of Buddhism1 gradually developed a second set of precepts called the Ten Bodhisattva Precepts. The history of the Ten Bodhisattva Precepts is a bit convoluted,2 but the primary source is a Buddhist text called the Brahma Net Sutra, specifically the Mahayana-Buddhist version. The sutra lists 10 major precepts, and 42 minor precepts a bodhisattva is meant to undertake as part of their training, but traditionally only the 10 major precepts are focused on (source):
- Not to kill, nor encourage others to do so.
- Not to steal, nor encourage others to do so.
- Not to engage in licentious acts, nor encourage others to do so.3
- Not to use false words and speech, nor encourage others to do so.
- Not to trade or sell alcoholic beverages, nor encourage others to do so.
- Not to broadcast the misdeeds or faults of the Buddhist assembly, nor encourage others to do so.
- Not to praise oneself and speak ill of others, nor encourage others to do so.
- Not to be stingy or greedy, nor encourage others to do so.
- Not to harbor ill-will, nor encourage others to do so.
- Not to speak ill of the Buddha, the Dharma or the Sangha (lit. the Triple Jewel), nor encourage others to do so.
Monastic followers, that is monks and nuns, in the Mahayana tradition often take up these Bodhisattva Precepts on top of the more traditional monastic rules. There are exceptions, such as in Japan, were monastics only take up the Bodhisattva Precepts in some traditions. These are called the endonkai (円頓戒) or bosatsukai (菩薩戒) in Japanese Buddhism, among other terms.
Lay followers typically take the original Five Precepts mentioned above, but may opt to undertake the Bodhisattva Precepts as a kind of “extra credit”, especially since they overlap quite a bit. Unlike the Five Precepts where one openly declares their vows to a monk, nun or a Buddhist statue (if alone), the Bodhisattva Precepts don’t usually require a formal ceremony as such. One is welcome to declare one’s intention, but it’s not strictly necessary. If you uphold them, great. If not, the Five Precepts alone are more than sufficient for many.
Medieval Buddhist history in East Asia complicates this all somewhat because institutions changed over time, especially in more remote areas like Japan, and there are sometimes alternate “bodhisattva precepts” or other such codes of conduct depending on which community you are discussing. Similarly, what defines a “bodhisattva” has also shifted and changed over time and is a larger discussion.
But for simplicity sake, a bodhisattva can be said to be anyone who not only takes up the Buddhist path, but reaches a point in their life where they begin extend the goodwill (metta) of Buddhism toward all beings, not only liberating others in the process, but also themselves. One comes to the realization that we’re all in this together, and simply leaving the world won’t do.
In summary, the Bodhisattva Precepts are a way to extend one’s daily practice of Buddhism by not just avoiding more gross deeds, but also gradually polishing the mind by avoiding greed, ill-will and ignorance and thereby removing the source of further suffering for yourself and others.
Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu
P.S. Happy Bodhi Day 2021!
1 The Mayahana Branch encompasses pretty much all of Buddhism you see in places like China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet and so on. The other branch, Theravada, is found more in Southeast Asia: Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and so on.
2 In earlier Buddhism, the Buddha encouraged lay followers to not only take up the Five Precepts, but also practice something called the Ten Good Deeds. It’s likely, in my opinion, that these more nebulous Ten Good Deeds were eventually codified into the 10 major precepts of the Brahma Net Sutra above, and thus became the Bodhisattva Precepts.
3 A monk or nun is expected to abstain from sexual conduct entirely.