Though one takes the Vinaya (monks and nuns vows) until the end of life and the Bodhisattva and Vajrayana vows until one attains enlightenment, the Buddha gave permission to offer back the monastic (Vinaya) vows if one is not able to keep them or in extraordinary circumstances.
To do it one must say to a person of sound mind who understands the meaning of the words that one is offering or giving back the vows, then they cease in the mind stream of the person who had it. Though it is seen as a fault to give back the Vinaya vows, because one promised to keep the vows until the end of life, it is not a grave fault as it would be a breach of one of the four root vows (defeat): (1) killing a human being, (2) stealing something of value, (3) sexual misconduct through one of the three doors, (4) a great lie (which is to lie about supernatural attainments—this can be done also non-verbally, like with a gesture or even silence). If one had to give back the vows one still has the merits of having kept them for a certain period and one should rejoice in having kept the vows up to the point where one gave them back.
Through offering back the trainings, death,
The two signs occurring,
The cutting of the roots, and the passing of the night,
The discipline of individual liberation is relinquished. [4.38]
Gendun Drup, the First Dalai Lama, comments this stanza¹:
When in front of a human being who knows how to speak and comprehends meanings, with a sincere thought one offers back the trainings, the discipline of individual liberation is relinquished because one generates a revelatory [form] incompatible with the perfect taking of the trainings. It is also relinquished at the time of death because its support becomes nonexistent.
It is also relinquished through the two signs occurring simultaneously because the support degenerates. The discipline of individual liberation is also relinquished through the cutting of the roots of virtue because the roots of the vows are cut.
In addition, the vows of the one-day precepts are relinquished with the passing of the night because the projection that was projected for that long is complete.
The Pratimoksha vows are of eight types if one includes the one day (fasting) vows.
If one broke a Pratimoksha vow, the other Vinaya vows – according to Kashmiri Vaibashikas – are still intact. Therefore if one broke one of the four root vows—though one lost ordination!—one didn’t loose all the other vows which were not broken.
Some say that it is through a downfall.
Others that it is through the holy Dharma vanishing.
The Kashmiris assert that those in whom it has occurred,
Like one who has debts and wealth, have the two. [4.39]
Some, the Aparantikas, say that all the vows are relinquished through any one of the root downfalls occurring. Others, the Tamrashateyas (Red-robed Set) who write the three scriptural baskets on copper plates say that through the holy Dharma vanishing the individual liberation vows are relinquished because at that time there will be no demarcation of the trainings and no action rituals.
The Kashmiris assert that those in whom a root downfall has occurred have the two, immorality and morality, in that they assert it to be like a single human being who has both debts and wealth. They assert that one who acquires [the state of] foe-destroyer through confessing downfalls has only morality, like, for example, when one who had debts pays them back whereby he only has wealth.
If one breaks the Bodhisattva or Vajrayana vows then all the vows are lost and the vows can be taken anew with the respective ceremony. But who broke one of the four root Vinaya vows (Parajika in Pali), cannot take ordination again in this life. The breach of any non-Parajika vow can be purified in the Sojong (Uposatha in Pali, purification / restoring ritual) which is held bimonthly and requires at least four fully ordained monks/nuns.
A person having lost the Vinaya ordination by having committed one of the four (root) defeats (Parajika) is not an ordained person any more but has still the other vows which are not broken. That person must consider how to deal with this situation because there is great danger that the person also breaks another vow which becomes more and more heavy for him or her. The scenario could be: first having committed sexual misconduct and having lost ordination, then giving back the robes but not the vows. In this case the person has still the other vows in the mind stream which were not broken, if that person then steals something of value, he or she is committing another major offence! That’s why in general it is recommended to give the vows back by the ritual mentioned above if one has committed a Parajika and lost ordination.
It is also possible to give back the full ordination vows and to keep the getsul (novice) vows or the lay vows—if the vows were not broken—and one can retake them later again. So there is—to say it simple—a downgrade and upgrade possible but one should not take it too light, however, there is space.
What was new to me is what our Tantra teacher in Italy, Geshe Jampa Gelek who studied the Buddhist Tantras in India, said some weeks ago: you can also give back the Bodhisattva and the Vajrayana vows.
There is another thing to be aware: if one has one of the seven types of Pratikmoksha vows (these are the Vinaya vows for lay or ordained persons) one should not take them again. These vows are taken only once. If one has monk’s or nun’s vows and is present during a ceremony where the master confers the lay vows and one follows the ritual, then one looses the ordination vows and becomes a lay person with lay vows.
While ordination vows have to be taken in the respective “full package” lay vows can be taken individually, so there is no need to take all five lay follower vows. Not only this, if you promised to keep the five lay precepts but you realize you can—for instance–not uphold the vow of not drinking alcohol due to your wife’s or husband’s trouble making or so, then you can give back this single vow, and you can keep the other four (or three, two, one). But also here you must say that you give back this single vow to a person of sound mind who understands the meaning of the words. However, it is by far better to consider all possible situations before taking lay follower vows and to take only those vows where one is sure to be able to keep until the end of life.
¹ TREASURY OF MANIFEST KNOWLEDGE’ by Vasubandhu & CLARIFYING THE PATH TO LIBERATION: AN EXPLANATION OF THE ‘TREASURY OF MANIFEST KNOWLEDGE’ by the First Dalai Lama, Gedun Drub Translated from the Tibetan by Joan Nicell, pp. 247–249
Note: This post was different times revised. Last revision on October 3, 2013 at 3:21 pm
Update 29 June 2012
His Holiness the Dalai Lama said at the 28th June 2012 in Milano (Italy) during a Chenrezig empowerment when he bestowed the lay vows to many people that lay followers can take the lay vows again in order to strengthen them and to repair faults.
Update 6 August 2012
Status after a Root Downfall
If there is a root downfall, the question is whether the remaining vows remain, whether somebody is still a monk, whether the person still has morality and so on.
The Apparantikas say that somebody who commits a root downfall loses all remaining vows as well. In this case the status of a monk would be gone.
The Kashmiris – and it seems the Tibetan tradition as well – say that when one breaks a root vow then it is not even the case that that vow is completely gone. The person would still be a monk or nun as long as the person has no concealment. However, the person would then have to sit at the back of the community rather than wherever their ordination status entitled them to sit before and they would have to do work for the community. In this life their vows would not bring great benefit just like one can’t write on oily paper, but they can still remain monks.
Geshe Tenzin Tenphel explained however that this is only possible if there is not even an instance of wanting to conceal the transgression. The Kashmiris say that there can be monks with immorality since the Buddha himself mentioned them.
Question: Didn’t Geshe Tenphel say that after breaking the vow one constantly accumulates the respective non-virtue?
Answer: This is only if one thinks that the vow has disappeared and that therefore one can now act how one wants in relation to it. (Since the vow has not completely disappeared as long as it is not offered back, the attitude of not feeling restricted by the vow would lead to constant non-virtue.)
from the Abhidharmakosha Class with Ven. Birgit, ILTK, 08/11/2011, transcript pp 6-7