On Violation of the Precepts
The three sets of pure precepts and the four great vows, once received by a practitioner, are maintained across however many lifetimes it may take for the recipient to attain complete enlightenment. Once the seed of compassion and wisdom, also known as the 'essence of precepts', has been sown in the mind of a practitioner through the transmission of the bodhisattva precepts, it will remain in the recipient's 'storehouse consciousness' and can only be cast off through the recipient's express declaration of his or her intention to abandon the bodhi-mind. A recipient of the bodhisattva precepts cannot lose or negate the essence of precepts simply by breaking one of them.
This does not mean, however, that a recipient of the bodhisattva precepts is somehow exempt from the law of karma, or that taking the precepts somehow "magically" protects one from the karmic consequences of one's actions. Actually, part of the bodhisattva practice consists exactly in becoming more sensitive to the law of karmic causality and in taking responsibility for one's actions. Violations of the precepts and lapses of discipline, manifested in unwholesome or self-centered actions or thoughts, will certainly cast shadows over the essence of precepts in a recipient's consciousness. If a recipient breaks the precepts habitually, this essence of precepts will indeed become clouded and may even seem to disappear. Yet the essence of the bodhisattva precepts, though obscured, remains. When causes and conditions permit, the violator's compassionate intention to strive for the liberation of all sentient beings will again become fervent, and the essence of precepts' power to prevent wrongdoing, hitherto dormant, can be reactivated through sincere repentance and the formal retaking of the precepts. Again, this does not mean that since the essence of the bodhisattva precepts cannot be lost through misconduct, we should feel free to break the precepts at will. On the contrary, to counter our inclination to forget the vows we make, we should redouble our diligence and take every available opportunity to study and practice the precepts.
While we should not treat the bodhisattva precepts lightly, breaking them at whim, neither should we hesitate to take them out of fear that we may break them. Nor should we, after taking the precepts, live in anxiety and worry over the possibility that we might inadvertently break them and have to suffer some sort of terrible retribution. In fact, once we receive the bodhisattva precepts, we will naturally meet with various favorable conditions that will help us to keep them.
Perhaps the best attitude to adopt toward violation of the precepts is to understand that ordinary bodhisattva practitioners, meaning all of us, are "infant bodhisattvas." When babies first learn how to walk, they invariably fall down over and over again. However, it is only in this way-by taking a few steps, falling down, getting back up again, and taking a few more steps-that babies do finally learn to walk. Thus we, as newborns on the bodhisattva path, should not be disheartened by the repeated falls, or failures, along the road. Rather, we should know that as our legs become stronger and we learn what to do with them, we will fall down less and eventually learn not only to walk, but to run, skip, and jump! So our attitude toward keeping the bodhisattva precepts should not be one of fear and guilt, but rather one of open-mindedness, self-acceptance, hope, and joy.
As there are many subtle and complex aspects to the practice of the precepts and many levels of understanding, from crude to refined, it is almost inevitable that we will stumble in treading the bodhisattva path. It is said that the period between a practitioner's initial aspiration to Buddhahood and their attainment of complete enlightenment is three asamkhya kalpas. An asamkhya kalpa is an incalculably long period of cosmic time, the sort of time used to measure the life span of universes. We should know that there are numerous stages along this path, and that it takes a long time to purify the mind of the various poisons and defilements that are the actual cause of any violation of the precepts. Over such a long period of time, it is only natural that infant bodhisattva practitioners will break the precepts repeatedly.
Still, it is better to break the precepts than not to have any precepts to break. With our initial vows to keep the precepts in mind, we can repent and renew our vows over and over again as many times as necessary. There is, in fact, an intimate relationship between repentance and the observance of the bodhisattva precepts: by virtue of repeated repentance, we become increasingly aware of the depth of our delusion and grow in our commitment to the cultivation of compassion. By continuing to practice with increased mindfulness and diligence, we can gradually purify the deluded mind and strengthen our resolve and ability to help all sentient beings attain Buddhahood.