The Binding Factors of Transgressing Tantric Vows and How to Repent

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro Rinpoche
HITS( 116)

As mentioned already, the advantage of tantric vows is that the vows can be restored repeatedly after they are broken. And it is not necessary to have a master present to restore the vows; it can be done simply through visualization.


We will first discuss the binding factors of transgressing the root vows before explaining ways to restore them. This is because certain factors must be present to commit a root downfall of a pratimoksha, bodhisattva, or tantric vow; without these factors, the vow is not considered broken.

The binding factors of the fourteen tantric root downfalls have already been elucidated in the chapter on tantric vows. As for the five root samayas of the Guhyagarbha Tantra, the binding factors for the corresponding samayas of the fourteen root vows are the same; the discrepancies between the two have also been explained in our discussion on the five root samayas. Here, we will discuss further the common factors of transgressing both.

The scriptures list both four and seven binding factors, which will be explained separately.

Four Binding Factors

  1. Object

The object for almost every downfall is different; for example, the object of rejecting the master is the master, the object of showing animosity toward a Dharma brother or sister is the Dharma brother or sister, and so on.

Who or what does not qualify as an object of a downfall? Take the example of harboring antipathy toward fellow Dharma followers. If two people are fighting out of strong aversion, and if both have received tantric vows and the vows are intact while they are fighting each other, the object of downfall is established; if one of them has never had empowerment, or has received empowerment but broken the samaya and not yet restored it before the fight, in this case the object of downfall is not established because he or she is just the same as any ordinary person who is not a tantric practitioner. Vajrayana followers who fight with this kind of person may violate certain branch vows that are quite serious, but not a root tantric vow.

Likewise, if the master one rejects is not one of the six types of gurus or a good spiritual friend, one will not commit a root downfall. The same rule can be applied to evaluating the objects of other downfalls.

  1. Motivation

First of all, the critical point about motivation here is whether one is mentally fit. It is said in both sutra and tantra that a person who is deemed to have broken any of the pratimoksha, bodhisattva, and tantric vows must be of sound mind. If a person is mentally incompetent, unable to distinguish between right and wrong, he or she cannot violate the vows by any means. As such a person has no control over his or her mind, having no idea what a vow downfall means, the violation is not deliberate.

Secondly, the criterion is whether there is intention. In the case of a person who is not mentally unstable but commits a downfall due to mistaken perception or misunderstanding, this too is not a violation since it is not the person’s intention to do so. All violations of vows must be done out of deliberate intention; if the violation is committed inadvertently, it is not deemed a downfall even if the person’s mental condition is sound.

Hence we can see even if a mentally unstable person hits or verbally abuses his vajra brothers and sisters out of anger, and the accusations are heard by the parties involved, a vow is not broken because the person’s mind is already disturbed.

  1. Action

Here “action” refers to those of body and speech, not the mind (most precepts stipulate actions of body and speech, but a few can also be broken with just a thought). The differences are presented in the discussions on the fourteen root downfalls and the five root samayas.

Take the example of abusing vajra brothers or sisters out of anger. If one harbors great anger toward fellow practitioners but does not take actions of body or speech against them, a root vow is not broken. Similarly, some of the fourteen root vows require physical or verbal action as a condition for committing a root downfall; without this condition, a transgression is wrong but it is not counted as a root downfall just yet.

But some downfalls are not premised on physical and verbal actions, such as the fourth of the fourteen root downfalls— abandoning loving-kindness for sentient beings, and the fifth—abandoning bodhicitta. In these cases, no action is called for, a thought is enough to warrant a downfall. For instance, if you think “never again will I aspire to attain buddhahood for the sake of sentient beings”; or if upon seeing someone suffer, you either gloat over that person’s misfortune or swear silently to yourself “no matter how badly that person is suffering, even if I have the means to help, I will not offer my help,” you have already broken the root vow without saying a word or doing anything

However, downfalls such as criticizing the view or practices of other traditions, or denigrating women, must be premised on spoken words. That is, one must express these sentiments in words in order for them to be considered root downfalls.

  1. Result

Take the example of stealing. If someone has stolen something but does not think the stolen objects belong to him or her completely, it is a transgression, but not a root downfall. The same rule applies to all other vows, that is, if the transgression is not taken to its conclusion or the process of committing the transgression is not complete, the transgression is not a root downfall.

The requirements for each of the fourteen root downfalls and the five root samayas are all different. When all the factors for breaking a vow are met, one loses the samaya.

Seven Binding Factors

  1. Whether a downfall can be established depends on how the transgression occurs, if it is acted out of strong desire or fierce aversion. In Mahayana, as long as actions such as stealing, killing, telling lies, and sexual misconduct are not driven by desire and anger, a vow is not broken. What the bodhisattvas want to abstain from the most is selfishness. If the transgression is primarily motivated by selfishness, it will break the vow; if instead the motivation is for the sake of sentient beings, the transgression may not necessarily break the vow. To be more specific, if the actions are completely motivated by compassion for the benefit of others, with no selfish intent whatsoever, they not only do not break any vows, but are also deemed meritorious. Such cases are aplenty in the sutras. I am sure you can all name a few, so no further elaboration is necessary here.
  2. Whether a downfall is established at the end depends on whether the person acted consciously, knowing clearly the object of his or her action. This factor is the same as that mentioned above, so it is not repeated.
  3. If breaking a vow requires taking physical action as a premise, in the case of showing animosity toward vajra brothers or sisters, the moment the assault is carried out, the vow is broken; if the requirement asks for verbal action, then the criterion is the other party must hear the words spoken, and upon hearing those words, the vow is broken.
  4. If the violation entails just mental action, it is subject to certain boundaries. Assuming the twenty-four hours of a day are divided into six intervals, each containing four hours, if in one interval or within four hours of the transgression, the person concerned regrets the wrongdoing and vows to amend his or her ways, the precept will not be broken completely; however, if after four hours, the person shows no signs of regret, regards the whole thing as a game, even take pride in the action, the samaya will be lost.
  5. All downfalls must be committed by persons who are mentally sound and consciously intent on carrying out the transgression.
  6. At the time of the transgression, if the perpetrator not only feels no regret but rejoices in his or her action, and all the other factors are also present, the vow will be broken for sure.

Please note that here when we talk about a sense of contrition, it does not mean feeling penitent after the fact but right at the moment when one is engaged in the wrong action. For example, the moment the sense of regret arises, one immediately gives up the action that results in a root downfall.

  1. Every vow has its own specific time limit for repentance; beyond this limit, there is no way to reverse the fact that the vow has been broken. In that case, all one can do is to make the best effort to restore the vow, or end up having to regret it over countless future lives.

Unlike the four binding factors, it is not necessary for all these seven factors to be present to break a vow. For instance, the third factor that requires actions of body and speech and the fourth factor that pertains to actions of the mind cannot possibly be satisfied at the same time. While the demarcations in the four factors and seven factors are different, their meaning and significance are about the same. If all the conditions are met, the violation is very serious.

In sum, each vow of the three types of precepts has specific binding factors of its own; if the factors are not all present, the transgression may qualify as a fault but not a root downfall. If we can firmly grasp all the binding factors for each vow and measure the extent of the transgression accurately, we can more easily choose our actions so as not to make grave mistakes out of ignorance.


There are four ways to purify and restore broken vows: to purify with realization of emptiness; to purify with the power of meditation; to purify with relative bodhicitta; to purify with noble deeds.

To Purify with Realization of Emptiness

This is the most sublime purification. By way of practicing emptiness, one who has attained realization of emptiness can not only completely purify all negative karma resulting from violations of the three types of precepts but also obliterate the habitual tendencies and seed of such karma.

However, this method is beyond the capability of ordinary people like us. Of course, I am in no position to judge your state of realization. The Buddha prohibited followers from passing judgment on others without basis; for all I know, some of you may have already attained a high level of realization. In any case, I am referring to a situation in general; to a person in the early stages of practice, this method is not helpful even if it is very sacred.

To Purify with the Power of Meditation

This is a simple and effective method that ordinary people like us may use to succeed. In Vajrayana, there are many practices for purification, but we don’t need to seek those complicated practices; just the Vajrasattva practice, the most classic and sublime meditation practice for contrition, is enough. Visualize the main deity Vajrasattva and the hundred-syllable mantra from which the nectar drops and washes down one’s body so that one’s negative karma is completely purified. These are all done with visualization, which is also the best kind of meditation to purify obscurations.

The Venerable Atisa said that tantric vows are more stringent and relatively easy to break, but there are also very specific, uncommon, directly pertinent, and extremely effective methods to repent the transgressions of vows in Vajrayana.

There are broad, medium, and concise versions of the Vajrasattva practice: H.H. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok taught a concise practice and Mipham Rinpoche had an even shorter version of the practice; the more complex version is the one in the inner preliminaries. We can choose any of these based on our own situation.

All purification practices must contain the four opponent powers.

The first is the power of refuge, that is, the object that one relies on for support when undertaking the purification practice. For the Vajrasattva practice, the deity Vajrasattva is the power of refuge; when practicing bodhicitta, bodhicitta is the power of refuge; if practicing emptiness, emptiness is the power of refuge.

The second is the power of regret, that is, a strong sense of remorse over past wrongdoings. This is critically important. Without this sense of regret, negative karma can be diminished to a certain degree by reciting the hundred-syllable mantra, but it would be very difficult to have it purified completely.

The third is the power of resolution, which is vowing to change one’s ways right away and not repeat previous misdeeds. Absent this resolution, and any change in one’s speech or action, negative karma can only be lessened but not totally eliminated. This is also very crucial.

The fourth is the power of remedy, which is any antidote one can apply to purify negative karma, such as recitation of the heart mantra of Vajrasattva, prostration, life release, and so on.

It does not matter what kind of method one uses for purification; the method must include the four opponent powers. Although we are not capable of applying other kinds of meditation for purification, all Vajrasattva practices in broad, medium, and concise versions are easy to do; they are also the best meditation for purification. On the premise that the four opponent powers are applied, reciting the hundred-syllable mantra 100,000 times will ensure all negative karma we have accumulated since beginningless time is purified. This is what the Buddha said in the Vajrayana tantras; it is the ultimate of the real meaning of his words, not stated only as an expedient to guide or to free certain sentient beings from suffering.

The Buddha also said in the tantras that just reciting the heart mantra of Vajrasattva Om Benza Satva Hum 100,000 times can also purify all negative karma, including the transgressions of root samayas. During the time of the Buddha, people did not suffer as much from afflictions, so reciting this mantra 100,000 times was sufficient; now in this degenerate time of confusion and intense suffering, people must recite the mantra 400,000 times, that is, four times as much, in order to completely purify negative karma. As this is not too hard to do, H.H. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok used to ask everyone to recite the heart mantra of Vajrasattva 400,000 times during the annual puja of Vajrasattva.

By inference, people in this period of declining Dharma should also recite the hundred-syllable mantra 400,000 times. But the hundred-syllable mantra is relatively long and takes more time to complete; to recite the mantra 400,000 times entails some difficulty, thus we are not asked to meet this more stringent requirement. Even so, as long as one can recite the hundred-syllable mantra sincerely 100,000 times, all negative karma, including wrong actions such as killing, stealing, telling lies, etc. committed before taking the vows and any transgression of tantric samaya after taking the vows, can surely be purified.

The seriousness of breaking the pratimoksa vows is like an itchy skin rash compared with breaking the bodhisattva vows; damage from transgressing the bodhisattva vows is only skin-deep versus that from losing the tantric samayas. A violation of the tantric vows is much more serious than a violation of the pratimoksa vows. But even breaking a samaya can be thoroughly purified with this method, let alone a transgression of the pratimoksa and bodhisattva vows. This is not a casual remark by me but a statement the Buddha made personally in the tantras. We have substantial evidence from the texts to support this point.

So, there is no need to despair if we do break a vow. Instead, we should have confidence all negative karma can be purified completely through the Vajrasattva practice.

Although there are many ways to purify negative karma with the power of meditation, only a brief introduction to the importance and the sublime significance of the Vajrasattva practice is given here. For the specific practice itself, you should refer to the relevant sadhana texts.

To Purify with Bodhicitta

Bodhicitta is all-powerful. As long as bodhicitta is aroused, one can easily accomplish any aspiration, whether it is to gather merit, purify negative karma, or take the path to liberation; on the other hand, when there is no bodhicitta, one can do everything possible for accumulation and purification, and wreck one’s brain to seek liberation, the effort will still be too weak to yield any result.

It is said in The Way of the Bodhisattva, “Bodhicitta is like the inferno at the end of time that can destroy all serious negative karma in an instant.” This means once there is relative bodhicitta, all negative karma can be purified completely at once.

So, one who has genuine bodhicitta but has violated the tantric vows should not despair but instead encourage oneself this way: even if I have broken the tantric vows, I must not give up my goal because I have pledged to free sentient beings from suffering. I will resolutely continue to fulfill my aspiration, no matter what difficulties lie ahead or what karmic results I have to bear. With this, all negative karma including that of losing samaya can be naturally purified even without having to undertake any specific purification practice. Bodhicitta, the all-powerful weapon that can subdue any adversary, the wonder drug that can cure all afflictions and make life anew, should be applied whenever possible; it’s not meant to be stored. Of course, it would be even better to practice purification on the basis of this aspiration.

As for the bodhicitta practice, it is elucidated in both The Words of My Perfect Teacher and Finding Rest in the Nature of Mind by Longchenpa; the practice adopted by all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism is also presented rather clearly in the Luminous Wisdom Series. In summary, bodhicitta is the most effective antidote. We do not rule out purification practices such as the practice of Vajrasattva, but bodhicitta alone is powerful enough to replace all purification practices. This is absolutely true.

To Purify with Noble Deeds

Noble deeds are primarily actions taken courageously and wholeheartedly to deliver sentient beings from suffering without concern for one’s own ability. Even as ordinary people, if we exert real effort to do what we can little by little, our own karma can be purified at the same time we strive to benefit other beings.

For example, to cultivate unconditional giving is a very good purification practice; any form of giving, whether it is giving of material things, of Dharma, or of protection to those in distress or danger, can purify the negative karma of breaking tantric vows. Although many Buddhists are not qualified to transmit the Dharma, reciting mantras or the names of the buddhas to beings during life release is also a form of giving of Dharma. This act of generosity is very pure because it is selfless; we recite the mantras only to benefit these beings, not to gain anything in return. The Buddha said in the sutras the supreme and most sublime form of giving is giving of protection; the most precious and highest level of discipline is not harming any sentient beings. Therefore, performing life release to give protection to beings is truly a meaningful act.

Apart from this, there are four other noble deeds. That is, on the basis of not serving self-interest or obtaining commercial gains, to build hospitals and treat the sick; to build schools to spread the Dharma or teach the original language of the Buddhadharma; to establish the venues for Dharma activities or group practice for the public; to provide places for others to do retreat, or food and other necessities for practitioners in retreat. These four are all considered noble deeds that can purify negative karma.

In addition, to construct stupas, make tsa-tsas (figurines of stupa or buddhas), perform fire offering, prostration, the seven-branch prayer, and so on are also noble deeds. But we need to pay attention to one thing. The requirement for conducting fire offering or tsok (feast offering) is quite high; the practitioner must have achieved certain stability in meditation as well as accomplishment in the generation and completion stages. It is true the practice of fire offering and tsok can purify many obscurations if all the preconditions are met. However, nowadays in many places, it is more popular to do fire offering by just piling up lots of foodstuff and throwing them into the fire. This is not an authentic fire offering or tsok practice, merely a formality devoid of its original spirit.

The sutras also mention life release specifically, which attests to its importance as a purification practice. However, when we undertake this activity, our aim should never be to purify our own negative karma, but to resolve the temporary suffering (the purpose of giving of protection) and ultimate peace and happiness (the purpose of giving of Dharma) of beings. If we only act for our own sake, despite having certain merit, we will not fully benefit from undertaking the virtuous action because our motivation is not pure.

Whereas Sakyamuni Buddha, from the time of generating his initial aspiration to benefit sentient beings to the time of attaining enlightenment, never considered his own interest, only that of others. Nevertheless, he transcended cyclic existence for himself while devoting his life to benefitting other beings.

On the contrary, from time immemorial until now, we have not paid attention to the interest of others; whatever we say or do has been to secure our own happiness. But to date we have gained nothing for ourselves, not even the right to control our own destiny. Obviously, there is no value in all the effort made toward satisfying self-interest. It is only when we endeavor purely for the sake of other beings that our own interest can be taken care of satisfactorily.

Additionally, to hear the Dharma teachings is also considered one of the great deeds. Whether one understands the teaching or not, as long as one makes the effort to attend and hear the profound teachings, it is always meritorious.

Similarly, to provide places to gather, living quarters, copies of texts, food and other necessities for people who come to hear the teachings is also a great deed as well. Here, the texts refer to all the sutras of the Great and Lesser Vehicles, as well as expositions of Buddhist philosophy on the Four Noble Truths, the Middle Way, and the likes.

The aforementioned methods of purification were compiled from related contents in the tantras by the great Nyingma master Rongzom Pandita. I have only introduced the parts that are easy to understand and apply. There are many other methods which require the practice of generation and completion stages as the foundation. They are beyond what beginners can handle and are thus excluded from the discussion here for the time being.

Among the methods mentioned above, the bodhicitta and Vajrasattva practices are rather easy to grasp. Whether one can purify negative karma primarily depends on one’s own diligence. The practice of emptiness is still somewhat beyond our ability at the moment, but we can try to ease into it after completion of the preliminary practices. As for the great deeds, some require certain financial capability to accomplish but some don’t, so money is not the issue. Whether one can purify negative karma really depends on one’s spiritual practice rather than material wealth. Especially with life release events which we have many opportunities to participate every year, and which people actively attend; if only we can modify our motivations for joining these activities, all negative karma accumulated from beginningless time can certainly be purified.

It would be best if we can execute all the virtuous actions above for purification, but it is not necessary to do all. To practice just one perfectly is enough to achieve full purification. On the other hand, with virtuous deeds, it’s always the more we do the better, so we should make every effort to do as much as possible.


The Buddha once said there are two types of people that deserve praise: those who keep vows completely pure, that is, who never break a vow; those who break vows but repent immediately and do everything they can to restore their vows.

Atisha once said, “I have never violated the pratimoksha vows, but I have violated the bodhisattva vows on occasion and the tantric vows many times.” As Atisha is the embodiment of the Buddha, he could not possibly have committed such downfalls, so the purpose of his statement was to emphasize the hierarchical significance of the three types of precepts and remind followers to take caution before making tantric commitments. We should receive tantric vows only when we have sufficient confidence in upholding them; if keeping the tantric vows pure is difficult, we should receive the less stringent precepts first and wait for conditions to mature before taking the tantric vows.

However, Atisha continued to say, “Although I have broken vows, I have never allowed a transgression to go uncorrected overnight.” That means no matter which vow was violated, Atisha always made a point of repenting his fault thoroughly within twenty four hours.

It is hard not to break any vow, but a broken vow can be restored if we take all incidents of transgression seriously and proceed to offer penitence with due respect. Therefore, both types of people praised by the Buddha can attain liberation. Of course, in terms of the speed of attaining liberation, there is a marked difference between those who never break a vow and those who commit violations but repent afterwards. Therefore, we should still place ourselves on high alert to identify and destroy any cause that might possibly lead to vow downfalls before it even has a chance to materialize.

In case a vow is broken, repent immediately. Even if we cannot be sure of keeping our vows completely pure, we must at least not refuse to repent. If we allow negative karma to grow unimpeded, there may not be any remedy left to turn things around at the end. The bodhicitta and Vajrasattva practices are both easy and powerful methods of purification through which our negative karma can be purified. I believe all wise people know best what to do. The decision is actually in our own hands.