Many people these days rush to every empowerment with little understanding or heed to the commitments we are taking on when we receive a higher tantra empowerment. These empowerments (Tibetan: wang; Sanskrit: abisheka) are not just blessings, a panacea with only good results. Rather, they are a bit like a double-edge sword. Handle them correctly and they are a marvelous, even miraculous tool. Handle them incorrectly and one can do oneself and others serious harm. When we receive a higher tantra empowerment (which is the main kind of empowerment given today within Tibetan Buddhism), we, knowingly or unknowingly, agree to abide by 14 root tantric vows or samayas. It is axiomatic that, in order to keep these vows, we have to know what they are. So below is a discussion of the 14 root tantric vows primarily based on explanations by Alexander Berzin (http://studybuddhism.com/en/advanced-studies/prayers-rituals/vows/common-root-tantric-vows).
As with Bodhisatva vows, there are root and secondary tantric vows which we promise to keep until reaching Enlightenment and which continue on in our mental continuums into future lives. The Gelug, Kagyu, and Sakya traditions confer these vows with any empowerment, permission to practice (je-nang), or mantra-gathering (ngag-tu) for any practice from one of the two higher classes of tantra – Yoga or Anuttarayoga – according to their fourfold classification scheme. The Nyingma tradition confers them with any of the above three rituals for any practice from one of the four higher tantra classes – Yoga, Mahayoga, Anuyoga, or Atiyoga (Dzogchen) – according to its sixfold scheme.
The 14 root tantric vows are to refrain from 14 actions which, if committed with the four binding factors (kun-tri zhi), constitute a root downfall (ngag-kyi tsa-tung) and precipitate a loss of the tantric vows. If we commit one of these downfalls and lose any of these root samayas, then we will not gain accomplishment (siddhi) or realizations (tog-pa) through our practice of tantra. This is because our practice will lack the necessary support. Except for one of the tantric root downfall actions, giving up Bodhichitta, a transgression of any of the other 13, without the four binding factors being complete, merely weakens the tantric vows. It does not eliminate them from our mental continuum.
The 14 Tantric Root Downfalls
1. Scorning or deriding our Vajra Masters
The object is any Teacher from whom we have received empowerment (wang), permission to practice (je-nang), or mantra-gathering (ngag-tu) into any class of tantra, full or partial explanation of any of their texts, or oral guidelines for any of their practices. Scorning or deriding such Masters means showing them contempt, faulting or ridiculing them, being disrespectful or impolite, or thinking or saying that Their teachings or advice were useless. Having formerly held them in high regard, with honor and respect, we complete this root downfall when we forsake that attitude, reject them as our Teachers, and regard them with haughty disdain. Such scornful action, then, is quite different from following the advice in The Kalachakra Tantra to keep a respectful distance and no longer study or associate with a tantric Master whom we decide is inappropriate for us, not properly qualified, or who acts in an improper manner.
2. Transgressing the words of an Enlightened One
The objects of this action are specifically the contents of an Enlightened Being's teachings concerning pratimoksha, bodhisattva, or tantric vows – whether that person be the Buddha himself or a later great master. Committing this downfall is not simply to transgress a particular vow from one of these sets, having taken it, but to do so with two additional factors present. These are fully acknowledging that the vow derives from someone who has removed all mental obscuration, and trivializing it by thinking or saying that violating it brings no negative consequences.
3. Criticizing our Vajra Brothers or Sisters out of anger
Vajra brothers and sisters are those who hold tantric vows and have received an empowerment into any Buddha-figure system of any class of tantra from the same tantric Master. The empowerments do not need to be received at the same time, nor do they need to be into the same system or class of tantra. This downfall occurs when, knowing full well that certain persons are our vajra brothers or sisters, we taunt or verbally abuse them to their face about faults, shortcomings, failings, mistakes, transgressions, and so on that they may or may not possess or have committed, and they understand what we say. The motivation must be hostility, anger, or hatred. Pointing out the weaknesses of such persons in a kind manner, with the wish to help them overcome them, is not a fault.
4. Giving up love for sentient beings
Love is the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. The downfall is wishing the opposite for any being, even the worst serial murderer – namely, wishing someone to be divested of happiness and its causes. The causes for happiness are fully understanding reality and the karmic laws of behavioral cause and effect. We would at least wish a murderer to gain sufficient realization of these points so that he never repeats his atrocities in future lives, and so eventually experiences happiness. Although it is not a tantric root downfall to ignore someone whom we are capable of helping, it is a downfall to think how wonderful it would be if a particular being were never happy.
5. Giving up Bodhichitta
This is the same as the 18th Bodhisatva root downfall and amounts to giving up the aspiring state of Bodhichitta by thinking we are incapable of attaining Buddhahood for the sake of all beings. Even without the four binding factors present, such a thought voids us of both Bodhisatva and tantric vows.
6. Deriding our own or others' tenets
This is the same as the sixth Bodhisatva root downfall -- forsaking the holy Dharma -- and refers to proclaiming that any of the Buddhist textual teachings are not Buddha's words. "Others' tenets" refer to the sutras of the Shravaka, Pratyekabuddha, and Bodhisatva vehicles, while "our own" are the tantras (which are also a part of Mahayana).
7. Disclosing confidential teachings to those who are unripe
Confidential (i.e., secret) teachings concern actual specific generation or completion stage practices for realizing emptiness that are not shared in common with less advanced levels of practice. They include details of specific sadhanas and of techniques for actualizing a greatly blissful deep awareness of emptiness with luminous mental activity. People who are unripe for such teachings are those who have not received the appropriate level of empowerment, whether or not they would have faith in these practices if they knew them. Explaining any of these unshared, confidential procedures in sufficient detail to someone whom we know fully well is unripe so that he or she has enough information to attempt the practice, and this person understands those instructions, constitutes the root downfall. The only exception is when there is a great need for explicit explanation, for example to help dispel misinformation and distorted, antagonistic views about tantra. Explaining general tantra theory in a scholarly manner, not sufficient for practice, is likewise not a root downfall. Nevertheless, it weakens the effectiveness of our tantric practice.
8. Reviling or abusing our aggregates
The five aggregates (Tibetan: phung-po nga; Sanskrit: skandha) constitute each moment of our experience. These five are: 1) forms of physical phenomena, such as sights or sounds, 2) feelings of happiness or unhappiness, 3) distinguishing one thing from another (recognition), 4) other mental factors such as love or hatred, and 5) types of consciousness, such as visual or mental. In brief, our aggregates include our bodies, minds, and emotions.
Normally, these aggregate factors are associated with confusion (zag-chay), usually translated as their being "contaminated." With higher tantra practice, we remove that confusion about reality and thus totally transform our aggregates. Instead of each moment of experience comprising five factors associated with confusion, each moment eventually becomes a composite of five types of primordial wisdom that are dissociated from confusion (zag-med ye-she), and which are the underlying natures of the five aggregates. These are the mirror-like primordial wisdom, the primordial wisdom of equality, the individually discriminating primordial wisdom, the all-accomplishing primordial wisdom, and the primordial wisdom of the sphere of reality (Sanskrit: dharmadhatu).
A higher tantra empowerment plants the seeds to accomplish this transformation. During generation stage practice, we cultivate these seeds by imagining our aggregates already to be in their purified forms through visualizing them as their corresponding Buddha-figures. During completion stage practice, we bring these seeds to maturity by engaging our aggregates in special yoga methods to manifest luminous mental activity with which to realize the five types of primordial wisdom.
The eighth root downfall is either to despise our aggregates, thinking them unfit to undergo this transformation, or purposely to damage them because of hatred or contempt. Practicing tantra does not call for a denial or rejection of the sutra view that regarding the body as clean and in the nature of happiness is a form of incorrect consideration. It is quite clear that our bodies naturally get dirty and bring us suffering such as sickness and physical pain. Nevertheless, we recognize in tantra that the human body also has a deeper nature, rendering it fit to be used on many levels along the spiritual path to benefit others more fully. When we are unaware of or do not acknowledge that deeper nature, we hate our bodies, think our minds are no good, and consider our emotions as evil. When we hold such attitudes of low self-esteem or, in addition, abuse our bodies or minds with masochistic behavior, unnecessarily dangerous or punishing life styles, or by polluting them with recreational or narcotic drugs, we commit this tantric root downfall.
9. Rejecting emptiness
Emptiness (Sanskrit: sunyata) here refers either to the general teaching of the Prajna Paramita Sutras that all phenomena, not only persons, are devoid of impossible modes of existence, or to the specifically Mahayana teachings of the Chittamatra or any of the Madhyamaka schools concerning phenomena being devoid of a particular impossible way of existing. To reject such teachings means to doubt, disbelieve, or spurn them. No matter which Mahayana tenet system we hold while practicing tantra, we need total confidence in its teachings on emptiness. Otherwise, if we reject emptiness during the course of our practice or attempt any procedure outside of its context, we may believe, for example, that our visualizations are concretely real. Such misconceptions only perpetuate the sufferings of samsara and may even lead to a mental imbalance. It may be necessary, along the way, to upgrade our tenet systems from Chittamatra to Madhyamaka – or, within Madhyamaka, from Svatantrika to Prasangika – and, in the process, refute the emptiness teachings of our former tenet systems. Discarding a less sophisticated explanation, however, does not mean leaving ourselves without a correct view of the emptiness of all phenomena that is appropriate to our levels of understanding.
10. Being loving toward malevolent people
Malevolent people are those who despise our personal Teachers, spiritual Masters in general, or the Buddhas, Dharma, or the Sangha, or who, in addition, cause harm or damage to any of them. Although it is inappropriate to forsake the wish for such persons to be happy and have the causes for happiness, we commit a root downfall by acting or speaking lovingly toward them. Such action includes being friendly with them, supporting them by buying goods they produce, books that they write, and so on. If we are motivated purely by love and compassion and possess the means to stop their destructive behavior and transfer them to a more positive state, we would certainly try to do so, even if it means resorting to forceful methods. If we lack these qualifications, however, we incur no fault in simply avoiding all contact with such persons.
11. To conceptualize the Dharma that is beyond words
As with the ninth tantric root downfall, emptiness or the view can be understood according to either the Chittamatra or Madhyamaka systems. Once we gain an understanding of such a view, it is a root downfall to let more than a day and night pass without meditating on it. The usual custom is to meditate on emptiness at least three times during the course of each day and three times each night. We need to continue such practice until we have rid ourselves of all obstacles preventing omniscience – at which point we remain directly mindful of emptiness at all times.
12. Deterring those with faith
This refers to purposely discouraging people from a particular tantric practice in which they have faith and for which they are fit vessels, with proper empowerment and so forth. If we cause their wish to engage in this practice to end, this root downfall is complete. If they are not yet ready for such practice, however, there is no fault in outlining in a realistic manner what they must master first, even if it might seem daunting.
13. Not relying properly on the substances that bond us closely to tantric practice (dam-dzay)
The practice of the higher tantras includes participating in periodic offering ceremonies known as tshog in Tibetan and ganachakra puja in Sanskrit. These ceremonies involve tasting the five meats and five nectars, which include alcohol. Not to take part in these is not to rely on these samaya substances. These substances symbolize the aggregates, bodily elements and, in Kalachakra, the energy-winds – ordinarily disturbing factors that have a nature of being able to confer deep awareness when dissociated from confusion and used for the path. The root downfall is to consider such substances nauseating, to refuse them on the grounds of being a teetotaler or a vegetarian, or alternatively, to take them in large quantities with gusto and attachment. You are also not allowed to refuse tshog because it is after noon.
14. Disparaging women
The fourteenth downfall is to disrespect women who are the nature of wisdom. Women are necessary to bestow two of the four empowerments. In addition, women's bodies contain more of the red element which has the nature of wisdom. Therefore, it is a tantric root downfall to belittle, deride, ridicule, or consider as inferior a specific woman, women in general, or a female Buddha-figure. When we voice low opinion and contempt directly to a woman, with the intention to deride womanhood, and she understands what we say, we complete this root downfall. Although it is improper to deride men, doing so is not a tantric root downfall.
What to Do If We've Broken One of These 14 Root Tantric Vows
If we realize that we have committed one of the above 14 root tantric downfalls, we should purify and amend this downfall as quickly as possible. The longer we go before purifying and amending the downfall, the more negative repercussions there will be and the harder it will be to remedy the downfall. The good news is that there are many skillful means for purifying and repairing broken samaya. The two most common and frequently used of these are saying the Vajrasattva mantra with proper motivation and visualization and offering tshog. This is why it is so commonly recommended to say at least 21 long Vajrasattva mantra per day and to offer tshog as often as possible. In retreat, this means offering tshog every day. When not in retreat, it means offering tshog on the 10th and 25th days of the lunar months or, at the very least, once per year. It is also possible to make every meal into a tshog ceremony by saying a special tshog prayer with proper visualization. There are also special classes of confession prayers and pujas called shak-pa, confession, and kang-wa, fulfillment, that can be done (often accompanied by prostrations) to confesses and repair breaches in samaya. Usually, one or more of these is included in every tshog ceremony. However, they may also be done on their own, with the 29th day of the lunar being especially effective for offering such confessions.