The Significance of the Bodhisattva Vow – Lama Zopa Tarchin

Photo of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche by Robert Hansen-Sturm.

Taking the bodhisattva vow involves the formal generation of bodhichitta. What is bodhichitta? Although there are many ways of classifying and defining bodhichitta, in essence, it is the earnest wish to attain to buddhahood for the welfare of all living beings. That intention is the greatest, most noble thought that we could ever have. For this reason bodhichitta is called the precious jewel of mind. For it is far more valuable than anything else in the world. It is the inception of the mahayana path and the seed or cause of our eventual awakening if we never forsake it. Each and every buddha has generated bodhichitta when they were ordinary beings in the presence of a previous buddha or bodhisattva.

While the greatness and qualities of bodhichitta cannot be fully measured or expressed in words, in brief, it has three main qualities: it is the cause of attaining buddhahood, it increases our virtue, and it eradicates all evil. Among all virtues, bodhichitta is supreme. As Shantideva said:

If the mere thought to be of help to others
Exceeds in value the veneration of the buddhas,
What need is there to speak of the work
That brings about the happiness and benefit of all living beings?

However, we cannot give rise to this precious mind by ourselves without assistance. The most intelligent people in the world such as Plato, Benjamin Franklin, or Albert Einstein, could not conceive of this. Even the gods can’t imagine bodhichitta. Only the buddhas know of this great intention. We practitioners can engender bodhichitta through the kindness and encouragement of an authentic lama, the representative of the buddhas. Among the causes for generating bodhichitta that are identified in the bodhisattva scriptures, following a qualified lama who perfectly upholds and can transmit the bodhisattva vow to others is one of the most important. Then when we are ready, after having gone for refuge in the Three Jewels as a pre­requisite, we should take the bodhisattva vow. The bodhisattva vow itself is a ritual or ceremony conducted by our bodhisattva preceptor that guides us through the stages of the vow. The preceptor will tell us exactly what we need to do with our body, speech, and mind in order to receive the vow.


There are two main traditions of the bodhisattva vow originating from the great masters of India that were later transmitted to Tibet. The first comes from the Bodhisattva Manjushri and Arya Nagarjuna and is called the lineage of profound view. The second comes from the Bodhisattva Maitreya and the great master Serlingpa or Dharmakirti and is called the lineage of vast conduct. Because the second tradition is extremely extensive and complex, the first tradition of Nagarjuna is the most common. It is this lineage of profound view which is given by our eminent master Kyabje Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche at KTD.

There are also several ways of bestowing this vow from the lineage of profound view. There is a very concise way of giving the vow and the complete or long form of the bodhisattva vow. Due to the constraints of time and circumstances, most lamas nowadays give the concise form. Kyabje Khenpo Rinpoche is one of the few masters who gives the complete vow. This is why he asks us to attend the entire weekend: it takes that long to bestow the vow in full.

His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa and Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche; from archives.
His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa and Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche; from archives.

There is a special reason why Khenpo Rinpoche takes the time and effort to give the complete form of the vow. Many years ago when the previous 16th Gyalwang Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpe Dorje, was teaching in America, he told Khenpo Rinpoche that while he had given the concise form of the bodhisattva vow on several occasions, he wasn’t completely comfortable about doing it in that way. The Karmapa then told Khenpo Rinpoche, “In the future when the circumstances come together, it would be excellent for you to give the complete form of the bodhisattva vow.” Now we have the great good fortune to receive it in this way. Please keep in mind that there is far greater power and blessing when the vow is done in its complete form.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche at his 92nd birthday party; image by Stephanie Colvey.

Another issue concerning the bodhisattva vow is how to maintain the vow once it has been taken. Because there are many violations and infractions of the vow that can occur due the fact that we are imperfect, ordinary beings, it is extremely important to renew and restore the vow both by ourselves in the course of our daily Dharma practice and in the presence of a lama. In the case of a vow that has been broken or lost completely, it must in fact be restored through taking the vow once again in the presence of a preceptor. To think that one does not need to retake the vow is mistaken understanding. It is necessary for everyone to renew and repair the vow as often as possible. I thus implore all students both old and new alike, to go to KTD and take the vow directly from Khenpo Rinpoche while we have this precious opportunity even if it involves great expense or difficulty.

Once the vow has been taken, it is important to learn about what the vow entails and the extensive practices of the bodhisattvas. For this there is nothing better than the Bodhicharyavatara or the W​ay of the Bodhisattva​ by Shantideva. The entire text in ten chapters is like an extensive, versified meditation on bodhichitta. It is also beneficial to study Chapter 9 of the D​akpo Targyen or O​rnament of Precious Liberation ​by Lord Gampopa. Here you will find extensive explanations of the various definitions and classifications of bodhichitta as well as a description of the vow itself. Everthing that you need to know about bodhichitta can be found in these two great treatises.

Lama Zopa Tarchin, the author of this post, offers a kata to Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche during Rinpoche’s conferral of the Bodhisattva Vow on June 14, 2015. Photo by Stephanie Colvey.