The Fourteen Root-less and Disarrayed Infractions - A Critique of Tsongkhapa’s “The Exposition of the Fourteen Tantric Root Infractions” (Part 1)

Published:2014/07/24     08:00

(Reported by the True Heart News interviewing team in Taipei)

The origin and interpretation of the fourteen tantric root infractions purveyed in Lamaism have always been mysterious and unavailable for scrutiny from the outside world. Internally, the four major Tibetan “Buddhist” sects constantly herald the importance of these precepts. For instance, in one of their online teaching forum, they claim that,

"The fourteen root infractions, also known as the fourteen root downfalls, are recognized as the fundamental and major precepts by the four main sects of the Tantra-vehicle (Tantrayana). The learning of precepts is most fundamental to the practice of Tantra. If we break the precepts, our root of Tantra practice is cut off, and we will not be able to come to accomplishment in this life. We will also be cursed with ominous signs during this current lifetime and will fall into the Vajra hell after death.”

This is the kind of threat Tibetan “Buddhism” uses to control their fellow learners. The Vajra hell is concocted by Tantric gurus themselves, just as the bliss and emptiness achieved during the Couple-Practice within the Highest Yoga Tantra (Anuttara-yoga-tantra) have nothing to do with any attainment in the Buddha Dharma. But even if we leave these facts aside, given the self-imposed weightiness of these fourteen injunctions and the phobia created by their possible violations, it would definite be worthwhile to pry into them and understand exactly what they mean.

Tsongkhapa’s exposition of the fourteen root infractions in his book Fruit Clusters of Siddhis has recently been translated into Chinese by Tshangyang Dorje (昌央多傑) and posted on the Internet. This relatively comprehensive and consistent translation provides a complete picture of the fourteen tantric root downfalls, making it possible to examine, comment, and analyze each of them. In order to develop a comprehensive and thorough analysis of these fourteen precepts, we will comment on each paragraph of the Tshangyang Dorje’s translation starting from the preface, using referenced citations when necessary. This will help the readers, and even the general public, to unfold and expand on the mystery of the fourteen precepts.

The following is the title of the book and the excerpts posted and reviewed:

Title from the original version:

The Exposition of the Fourteen Tantric Root Infractions, a chapter in the Fruit Clusters of Siddhis

            - Tsongkhapa

Original Preface:

For the majority of Chinese Buddhist disciples, the origin, proliferation and teachings of the fourteen root infractions of the Tantric Sect have been shrouded by a mysterious veil and therefore difficult to understand. We have now Tshangyang Dorje translation of the chapter in Tsongkhapa’s Fruit Clusters of Siddhis regarding the exegesis of the fourteen root infractions into Chinese. It is available to the public providing references and information for further research into Tantric precepts.”

The preface is perfectly right: in regards to either the origin or the proliferation of the fourteen root infractions of the Tibetan Tantric Sect, the information has been cryptic and difficult to understand ever since its inception.  Its origin is highly conjectural, an issue that will be revisited later. At the same time, its “propagation and instruction” come in so many versions that their interpretations are highly inconsistent. Before getting into the content of the precepts, let’s first take a brief look at the assorted literary styles used in their articulation.

The eighth infraction, for instance, is translated in casual colloquial prose - “Cherish the body and do not subject health to harm’s way” - as well as in a seven-character verse - “Contempt of the skandhas is an insult to the Buddha body.” Another version inserts more words to this seven-character verse and becomes: “Contempt of the skandhas is an insult to the Buddha body, this is considered as the eighth root downfall.” Still others simplify it into short authoritative, military-style exclamations, such as “Contempt of all skandhas!” and “Divulgence of Tantric practice!” These are merely a few of the many forms and styles used.

As for the contents of the infractions, they are interpreted differently depending on literature and individuals. Not only is there no uniformity in meaning if they are compared side by side, some of them are even incomprehensible. Take the second infraction as an example, one reading presents it as “One must obey the guru’s order with no violation,” while another “Violating the precepts and words taught by the Well Gone One (Sugata).” The former forbids against violation of the order of one’s guru; the latter the precepts set up by the Buddha. One simple translation renders it as “Violating the words of the Buddha!” An intentionally vague interpretation phrased it as “Violation of the precepts and deportments stipulated by the Exoteric Buddhism and the Tantric Sect.” There seems to be no consensus as to whether the second downfall concerns the precepts of the Buddha, the orders of the guru, or the precepts and conducts of both the Exoteric and Tantric Sect.

The thirteenth root infraction is another case in point. The two interpretations “Failing to observe and act in compliance with the samaya objects” or “Not observing the samaya pledges” are more of a sacred and solemn demonstration. However, there are also versions that deliberately mince the words to obscure the meaning - “Failing to rely on those objects (offerings) that can join us intimately with the Tantric Sect”- in comparison to a more spelled-out one: “One should not regard the Tantric food offerings as impure and refuse to consume them, but should treat everything as pure blessing.” It makes one wonder what kind of samaya offerings would possibly be considered impure? What does complying or not to the samaya pledges has to do with the refusal to consume them? We will decode the cryptic meanings behind these interpretations when we discuss each infraction in detail. The above examples are to illustrate the wide range of variations in the wording and interpretations of these Tantric precepts.

Insomuch that the fourteen root infractions are “recognized as the fundamental, major precepts by the four main sects of the Tantra-vehicle (Tantrayana),” their wording and interpretations presumably should be precise and rigorous, with no word changes and variations permitted. Yet, as we have shown above, their renderings by the many gurus in Lamaism are disparate and incongruous and their phrasing can be ambiguous and obfuscating. Fraught with problems, they confuse readers and frustrate practitioners, making it hard for anyone to develop faith in the tantric practice they are associated with.

The presence of widely inconsistent versions of the “fourteen root downfalls” evidences their dubious origin, a point to be discussed in full detail in an upcoming article. At best, they should be described as the title indicated: root-less and disarrayed. Fortunately, Tshangyang Dorje has furnished us with a complete translation of the writing of Tsongkhapa, the Gelug patriarch of the Dalai Lama, who had unified and consolidated the Tibetan theocracy many centuries ago. This authoritative translation should definitely be used to be “available to the public providing references and information for further research into Tantric precepts,” as the translator himself wishes. Our analysis and critique of it shall settle controversies and facilitate extensive discourse, thereby unveil the shroud that has enshrined these mystical infractions for so long. This will give the public an intelligent insight into the precepts, and to this point, we should pay the highest homage to the translator at this juncture.

Editor’s Note:

This article is an English version of the Chinese edition published on

April 15, 2014.

Quote 2: The original cited article has been closed.