Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Abandoning meaningless activities

We continue with an explanation of the bodhisattva downfalls related to the perfection of effort. 

Indulging in senseless conversation out of attachment

Here the main point is the following:  Do you seek your enjoyment in the meaningless activities of samsara or do you seek your enjoyment in creating good spiritual causes?  Senseless conversation is just an example.  Our training in effort is learning how to derive all of our enjoyment from creating good causes and not from samsaric effects. 

One of the most common expressions in the Dharma is “meaningful” and “meaningless.” We use this in all sorts of contexts, from activities to our whole life.  In the beginning, when we hear these terms, because we are still grasping at external activities as being inherently “meaningful” or “meaningless” we can quickly feel judged by the Dharma that it is calling our life and our activities meaningless.  Because we have very little experience of transforming daily appearance into the path, when we grasp at inherently existent meaningful or meaningless activities, we can fall into despair thinking “to practice Dharma” means going to all the teachings and festivals, getting ordained, moving into the center, working for the center, etc., and everything else is somehow “meaningless.”  Since most teachers and center administrators are people who have done exactly that, their own language choices can unwittingly reinforce this view, creating all sorts of anxiety for people in the center.  They start to think, “my wife, my job, my kids, these are all ‘obstacles’ to me practicing Dharma…”  Ridiculous!  But quite a common view. 

What makes an activity meaningless is our intention, not the activity itself.  Any ordinary activity can be in reality a pure spiritual practice, and any spiritual practice can be a mundane activity depending on our motivation.  The test is:  what do you consider to be your job – rearranging the furniture on the Titanic of Samsara or training your mind (overcoming your delusions and cultivating virtues)? 

To help us generate the wish to overcome our laziness, we can consider that since all things are empty, in fact we are the creator of this world of suffering, so if we do not exert effort, we leave the beings in this world of suffering to suffer and drown.  Since this world is our creation, if we don’t fix it, it will never be fixed.  A powerful request we can make to Dorje Shugden would be, “Please don’t let me not attain enlightenment in this life time.”  If we can make this request with sincerity and faith, it is certain we are keeping our bodhisattva vow here.

This has to come from within, not imposed from the outside.  Our vows and commitments are not things imposed on us from the outside, and we are not externally accountable to anybody if we break our vows.  They are internal promises we make to ourself because we see the value of such behavior and the faults of opposite behavior.  We make the promises in front of the Buddhas (or preceptors) to show to ourselves the sincerity of our commitment and to have them bear witness, much in the same way we get married in front of others who rejoice in our commitments.  We need to ask ourselves:  “what am I doing with my life?” “Why am I doing this?”  We need to realize ourselves how we are completely wasting our precious human life.  Then, from our own side, we will make the most of it.  If it comes from the outside, we just become defensive and engage in self-justification for our meaningless activities and develop resentment because we feel judged.

We should not motivate ourselves by guilt or others by shaming them – this is a type of laziness.  Motivating ourselves by guilt or others by shaming them does not give rise to effort because there is no joy – we or they are engaging in virtue to avoid feeling bad, which is a worldly concern.  I originally started in Dharma centers in the United States, but then later went to France, and finally Switzerland.  It is interesting to see how different cultures react to vows, commitments, and center responsibilities.  In the U.S., if you made vows, commitments, FP commitments, center responsibilities, etc., obligatory, you would have a riot on your hands, and everybody would reject them just because they were made obligatory.  In instead, you left people free to make their own choices and gave people the opportunity to assume responsibility if they competed in an election for it, then everyone naturally stepped up.  France was the exact opposite.  If something was not obligatory, the conclusion was “it doesn’t matter” and could be ignored completely.  If you held an election for center officers, nobody would run and everybody would try to avoid having to assume the responsibility, so a more heavy hand was necessary to get people to do anything.  Not because they were any more lazy, it was just different cultural contexts.  Switzerland was about halfway in between these two.  You couldn’t make anything obligatory for fear of rebellion, but you did need to provide a good deal of structure and clear expectations (without emotional penalty).  That seemed like a good balance, frankly.  The point is, every culture is different and will relate to these things in different ways.  What matters for us as practitioners, though, is regardless of what culture we are in we view our vows, commitments, and responsibilities as personally adopted based upon our own wisdom. 

Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day: We can do it too

Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day everyone!  April 15th of every year we celebrate and remember Buddha’s enlightenment.  It is one of the most special days on the Kadampa calendar and provides us an excellent opportunity to deepen our understanding of what enlightenment is, recall Buddha’s kindness in attaining it, and make a clear determination to attain enlightenment ourselves.

Understanding How Holy Days Work

There are certain days of the year which are karmically more powerful than others, and the karmic effect of our actions on these days is multiplied by a factor of ten million!  These are called “ten million multiplying days.”  In practice, what this means is every action we engage in on these special days is karmically equivalent to us engaging in that same action ten million times.  This is true for both our virtuous and non-virtuous actions, so not only is it a particularly incredible opportunity for creating vast merit, but it is also an extremely dangerous time for engaging in negative actions.  There are four of these days every year:  Buddha’s Englightenment Day (April 15), Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day (June 4), Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day (September 22), and Je Tsongkhapa Day (October 25).  Heruka and Vajrayogini Month (January 3-31), NKT Day (1st Saturday of April), and International Temple’s Day (first Saturday of November) are the other major Days that complete the Kadampa calendar. 

A question may arise, why are the karmic effect of our actions greater on certain days than others?  We can think of these days as a spiritual pulsar that at periodic intervals sends out an incredibly powerful burst of spiritual energy, or wind.  On such days, if we lift the sails of our practice, these gushes of spiritual winds push us a great spiritual distance.  Why are these specific days so powerful?  Because in the past on these days particularly spiritually significant events occurred which altered the fundamental trajectory of the karma of the people of this world.  Just as calling out in a valley reverberates back to us, so too these days are like the karmic echoes of those past events.  Another way of understanding this is by considering the different types of ocean tides.  Normally, high and low tide on any given day occurs due to the gravity of the moon pulling water towards it as the earth rotates.  But a “Spring tide” occurs when the earth, moon, and Sun are all in alignment, pulling the water not just towards the moon as normal, but also towards the much more massive sun.  Our holy days are like spiritual Spring tides.

What is Enlightenment?

Fundamentally, the entire Buddhist path is about attaining enlightenment.  This is a word that is used in many different contexts, even in modern society, but sometimes we lack a clear understanding of what exactly it means.  Geshe-la provides several different definitions or explanations to help us understand.

According to Sutra, Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path, “any being who has become completely free from the two obstructions, which are the roots of all faults, has attained enlightenment.”  The two obstructions are the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience.  Delusion obstructions are the presence of delusions in our mind.  The root delusion is self-grasping ignorance, which thinks we are the body and mind that we normally see.  From this comes self-cherishing, which thinks this self is supremely important and is willing to neglect or sacrifice others for its sake.  From these two, which are sometimes referred to collectively as our self-centered mind, come attachment and aversion.  Attachment mistakenly thinks some external objects are a cause of our happiness and aversion thinks other external objects are a cause of our suffering.  These four delusions together are the root of all of our other delusions, such as anger, pride, jealousy, deluded doubt, and so forth.  The obstructions to omniscience are the karmic imprints from our previous delusions and their corresponding actions.  Every time we engage in an action, it creates karma that gets planted on our very subtle mind.  Actions motivated by delusion create contaminated karma – karma that ripens in the form of samsaric experience.  These contaminated karmic imprints on our very subtle mind prevent the omniscient mind of a Buddha from arising.  When we remove the two obstructions from our mind, our pure potential, or Buddha nature, becomes completely unobstructed and we become a Buddha.  From this perspective, we are all Buddhas in waiting, we merely need to remove all that obstructs such a state from arising.  When we permanently overcome our delusion obstructions, we attain liberation; and when we permanently overcome our obstructions to omniscience, we attain full enlightenment.

According to Tantra, a Buddha is someone who has completely overcome ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions.  Ordinary appearances are all of the things we normally see – our bodies, minds, enjoyments, others, worlds, etc.  These are the samsaric appearances that arise from our past contaminated actions.  Samsara is nothing more than a contaminated karmic dream.  When we purify our ordinary appearances so that they never arise again, samsara simply ceases to appear.  It dis-appears because, in fact, it never was.  Ordinary conceptions occur when we grasp at ordinary appearances as being true.  All ordinary appearances appear to exist from their own side, as being completely real and existing independently of our mind.  Things exist “out there” waiting to be experienced or observed, and it appears to us as if our mind has absolutely nothing to do with bringing these objects into existence.  Ordinary conceptions think things actually exist in the way that they appear – they really do exist out there, independently of our mind.  When we overcome our ordinary conceptions, we attain liberation; and when we overcome our ordinary appearances, we attain full enlightenment.  For somebody who has overcome their ordinary conceptions but not yet overcome their ordinary appearances, things will still appear to their mind in the way that they normally do, but the very appearance of these things will remind the person that such inherently existent things do not exist at all.  For example, if we look at a picture of the New York City skyline before 9/11, the very appearance of the World Trade Center will remind us that it no longer exists.

In the Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, Geshe-la provides a functional definition of enlightenment when he says, “Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and whose function is to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day.”  This definition not only explains what enlightenment is but also provides us with the definitive reason why we should attain it.  Since Mahamudra is a Tantric instruction, it too says enlightenment is permanent freedom from all mistaken appearance.  But this definition also describes what unique abilities we gain when we attain enlightenment, namely the ability to use our blessings to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day.  Happiness is a state of mind, therefore its cause must come from within the mind.  We can observe from our own experience that when our mind is peaceful, we are happy even if our external circumstance is terrible; whereas if our mind is not peaceful, we are unhappy even if our external circumstance is terrific.  Therefore, inner peace is the cause of happiness.  Buddhas are sometimes referred to as “inner beings,” or beings who live within the mind.  As inner beings, they have the power to directly touch the minds of other living beings (since despite all appearances our minds are not actually separate from each other) in such a way that their minds become more peaceful.  And they are able to do this directly to each and every living being every day forever.  Just as the sun shines equally upon all things, Buddha’s blessings shine forth into the minds of all living beings directly and simultaneously.  We attain enlightenment to gain that ability.

Buddha is So Kind Because He Teaches the Truth of Suffering

One of the hardest things for people to come to accept is that happiness cannot be found in samsara.  We are convinced that it can be, and we resist thinking that it can’t be.  There are two main causes of this resistance.  First, our attachment has been duping us since time without beginning that external objects are a cause of our happiness.  There are all sorts of pleasant things like a beautiful sunset, a delicious pizza, or great sex.  We have seen countless TV shows or movies, and almost without exception, they all have happy endings; so we think samsara must be the same.  When we hear that samsara is the nature of suffering and happiness and freedom are impossible to find in it, we think, “that’s just not true.”  The second reason we resist this is it seems to be an incredibly depressing thought.  It seems so pessimistic and negative to always talk about suffering and how terrible everything is – how about a little optimism here so we can retain some hope?  Things may be bad, but better to not think about it too much, otherwise, we will become overwhelmed by sadness and despair. 

When people first hear the teachings on suffering they think, “how can this possibly be a ‘Joyful Path,’ and how can thinking about so much suffering ever lead to happiness?”  We might think Buddhists are all “Debby Downers,” and Buddha’s teachings are actually preventing us from enjoying even the very modest happiness we are able to find in life by pointing out how such pleasures are not real happiness.  So we are left with nothing.  Buddha does not seem kind, he seems like the ultimate ‘buzz kill.’ 

How can we happily understand the teachings on the truth of suffering?  First, we have to be clear on their meaning.  Buddha is not saying there is no happiness, he is simply pointing out that we can’t find it in external things.  Ultimately, happiness comes from within the mind, namely through inner peace.  He further explains what destroys inner peace (delusions and negativity) and what causes inner peace (wisdom and virtue).  So he does not deprive us of happiness, he simply points out what works and what doesn’t – very useful knowledge!  Second, these teachings save us from wasting our time looking for happiness where we will never find it.  If we lost our keys, we might spend hours and hours looking all over our house to find them.  But if our daughter sent us a text message saying she accidentally walked off with them, we would not waste our time looking for them because we would know she has them.  We have been looking for the keys of happiness in samsara since beginningless time – searching, searching, but never finding.  Buddha comes along and tells us, “you’ll never find them in samsara, but you can find them by getting them from me,” we are incredibly relieved.  Third, he is not saying we can’t enjoy the sunset, pizza, or sex, he is saying from their own side they have no power to bring us happiness, but if we relate to them in a pure way, we can come to enjoy a far greater pleasure than we ever could have through ordinary means alone. 

But for me, his greatest kindness is he has provided us with a permanent solution to aging, sickness, death, and uncontrolled rebirth.  In the life story of Buddha Shakyamuni, Prince Siddhartha is given everything he could possibly want – riches, enjoyments, loving parents, a beautiful family, and adoration from all of his subjects.  Yet he realized that none of these things can provide him (or any of us) from the seemingly inescapable sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, and death.  Seeking a solution, he wanted to leave the palace and go attain enlightenment.  His father tried to stop him, and the Prince said, “if you can provide me with a solution to these problems, I will remain in the palace,” but his father had to admit, he could not.  The Prince then said he would leave the palace and return with a solution so that he could help his parents, his subjects, and indeed all living beings with a permanent method to escape such sufferings forever.  He then began his spiritual journey, and eventually attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.  He conquered the cycle of death itself.  Instead of being reborn in samsara, he discovered methods to permanently wake up from it into the pure lands of the Buddhas.  The practices we have today are those that he taught, and if we sincerely put them into practice, we too can attain the same state.

Deciding to Become a Buddha Ourselves

Compassion is said to be the mother of all Buddhas since all enlightened beings are born from it.  Buddha attained enlightenment out of compassion for us – he wanted to help us also permanently escape the sufferings of samsara, the two obstructions, and ordinary appearances and conceptions.  Without his compassion for us, he would not have been able to purify his own mind to attain enlightenment and he never would have begun turning the Wheel of Dharma for us. 

But our ability to attain enlightenment depends upon ourselves generating compassion for others, just as Buddha did.  How do we generate compassion?  We first generate love for others, then we consider how they suffer.  It is said if we do this, compassion will naturally arise, but this is not entirely correct.  If we lack faith in a solution, then when we consider the suffering of those we love we will become overwhelmed with grief and sadness.  But if we realize there is a solution, then when we consider the suffering of those we love we will find their suffering difficult to bear because we will realize none of it need be.  They could be completely free. 

To transform this powerful mind of compassion into the personal determination to attain enlightenment ourselves, we need to add three things.  First, a feeling of personal responsibility for leading others to everlasting freedom ourselves.  We generate this mind by thinking, “if I don’t do it, who will?”  We might think, “well, Buddha will.”  But Buddha attained enlightenment so that we could do the same so that we could help these people who are karmically close to us. 

Second, we need to add confidence that we ourselves can attain enlightenment just like Buddha did.  Sometimes we think attaining enlightenment is just too difficult and we are too incapable to ever even contemplate beginning such an undertaking.  But as explained above, we all have a Buddha nature, we simply need to remove the two obstructions or ordinary appearances and conceptions from our mind, and our enlightened state will naturally be unveiled.  We each have enlightenment within us, we just need to remove all that obstructs it.  Further, we all have experience of being able to remove our faults somewhat and replace them with similitudes of inner qualities.  If we can do this a little bit, there is no reason why we cannot do so completely.  The methods we have are the exact same ones Buddha taught and have been practiced by millions of practitioners since.  Geshe-la calls them “scientific methods,” meaning everybody who investigates for themselves by sincerely putting the instructions into practice will likewise enjoy the exact same results – he guarantees it!  There is nothing we can’t do without persistent effort.  Our delusions are just bad habits of mind, but with effort, we can change our habits and thereby change our karma. 

Finally, we need to add an understanding of the special abilities of a Buddha to help others so that we see our becoming one is the only way we can rescue all living beings from their suffering.  Buddhas are fearless in helping others.  We tend to hold ourselves back for fear of what others might think or lack of confidence in our abilities, but Buddhas have overcome all delusions and all fear.  He fearlessly teaches the truth of suffering and worries not what others might think.  Buddha is also a deathless being.  In our present state, we can at best help a limited number of people in this one life, but a Buddha has transcended death, and so is able to continue to help living beings in life after life, gradually guiding each and every one of them to the enlightened state.  Buddha possesses omniscient wisdom.  We are quite ignorant and often have no idea how to help others.  We don’t understand karma, delusions, nor the causes of happiness or suffering.  But Buddhas see all three times directly and simultaneously, so they know exactly why people are experiencing the suffering they are and they know exactly what others need to do to make their way to the city of enlightenment.  Buddhas also have perfected their skillful means of helping others.  It is not enough to simply know everything if we are not able to actually skillfully help people come to realize the same things.  Buddhas know how to present the Dharma to others in a way that they can easily understand and practically put into practice, thus opening the door to liberation for them.  They know how to gradually guide people to enter, progress along, and ultimately complete the path to enlightenment.  If we become a Buddha ourselves, we too will develop the fearlessness, deathlessness, omniscient wisdom, and skillful means necessary to gradually lead everyone we love to the same state. 

When we combine our compassion which cannot bear the suffering of others with a feeling of personal responsibility, the confidence we can do it, and a firm understanding of the many qualities of a Buddha, we will naturally develop a strong determination to attain enlightenment ourselves for their sake.  This mind is called “bodhichitta,” or the mind of enlightenment.  It is the most virtuous mind a living being can generate.  In Joyful Path, Geshe-la says:

“Bodhichitta is the best method for bestowing happiness, the best method for eliminating suffering, and the best method for dispelling confusion. There is no virtue equal to it, no better friend, no greater merit. Bodhichitta is the very essence of all eighty-four thousand instructions of Buddha. In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life Shantideva says: It is the quintessential butter that arises when the milk of Dharma is churned. Just as by stirring milk, butter emerges as its essence, so by stirring the entire collection of Buddha’s scriptures, bodhichitta emerges as its essence. For aeons Buddhas have been investigating what is the most beneficial thing for us. They have seen that it is bodhichitta because bodhichitta brings every living being to the supreme bliss of full enlightenment.”

Today is Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, which means if we strongly develop this supreme mind of Bodhichitta today – making the firm decision to work for as long as it takes to attain enlightenment ourselves – it will be the same as doing so ten million times.  Such a pure mind has the potential to permanently redirect the trajectory of our mental continuum and powerfully propel us towards the City of Enlightenment.  From there, we will be able to help everyone attain permanent freedom from all of their suffering for all of their lives.  What could be more meaningful than this?

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Practicing the Bodhisattva Vows of Effort

We now turn to Chapter 7 of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, the Perfection of Effort.  To introduce the chapter, I will first provide some commentary on each of the bodhisattva vows associated with effort.  There are three downfalls in particular:  Gathering a circle of followers out of desire for profit and respect, not trying to overcome laziness, and indulging in senseless conversation out of attachment.  These will each now be discussed in turn.

Gathering a circle of followers our of desire for profit and respect

The main idea of this downfall is the following:  Do you pursue your relationships with others on the basis of what you can get from them or on the basis of what you can give to them?  Are you a consumer of others or are you a benefactor of others?  This vow basically says you should not seek friends and relationships for selfish reasons.  This advice is not just for Dharma teachers, but for all of us, including our on-line selves with our Twitter “followers” and Facebook “friends.”  We need to ask ourself the question:  ‘why do I want a relationship with this person?  What is my motivation?’  Is my goal something they can bring to me or something I can bring to them.  A selfish relationship is when you are trying to get something from others – them liking you, giving your something, somehow being a cause of your happiness, etc.

Sometimes we are very clever and kiss other people’s butts and we are all nice to them because we want something from them.  Other people see this – they always do, even if sub-consciously.  As a result, they do not trust us and we cannot help them.  It creates the tendency for us to do the same in the future, so we will more likely abuse our power and never be able to help others.  It is not sincere or honest, and if they believe us the effect is in the future for us to be duped by somebody who is trying to manipulate us.

The correct frame of mind is to view all people as our future disciples who it our responsibility to lead to enlightenment.  This is the organizing principal of all our relationships – I need to lead this person to enlightenment.  A useful recognition in this regard, when you see other people you should think, “I am responsible for this person.”  Any other principle creates the causes for when you meet these people again in the future you will have an ordinary, meaningless relationship with them instead of a spiritual one where you can help them.

Not trying to overcome laziness

The main point here is the following:  Do you organize your life around your practice or do you organize your practice around your life?  We need to make effort to overcome the reasons why we don’t do this.  Another easy way to make the distinction – We train in learning to enjoy doing what is good for us and to become dis-interested in doing what is bad for us.  This is an incredibly vast practice.

From my experience, it seems our practice goes through two phases.  In the beginning, or phase 1, we are generally a crisis Dharma practitioner.  Our  principal motivation for practicing Dharma tends to be using it to resolve whatever crisis we are facing at the moment, whether it be with our family, at work, with our health, or in the world.  There is nothing wrong with using the Dharma to be able to emotionally survive the trials and tribulations of this life.  In fact, we should do so, understanding how Dharma enables us to be happy regardless of our external circumstance.  The realizations we gain as a crisis Dharma practitioner can be useful in overcoming all sorts of delusions, not only for this life, but for our countless future lives.  Phase 2 occurs when, in dependence upon our sincere practice in Phase 1, we don’t really have many problems in this life that we can’t handle with the Dharma wisdom we already have.  The danger here is we settle into a low-level equilibrium with our practice – happy enough to have a happy life, but not suffering enough that we don’t start preparing for our future lives.  In short, we become complacent with our spiritual progress.  This is good, but not good enough.  At such times, we need to renew our meditations on death, lower rebirth, renunciation, and great compassion to find reasons to practice that transcend this life.  We need to keep going until we have secured controlled rebirth and enlightenment.  It is primarily in Phase 2 where we work on our laziness of attachment. The question is whether our practice is reactive to problems or it is proactive in our attempt to attain enlightenment.  It is not enough to just not do bad, we need to actively construct something good.  We need to identify each of the different types of laziness within our mind, and make effort to overcome it.  As we work our way through Chapter 7, we will go over the different types of laziness, but for now the point is you need to decide to actively overcome the laziness in your mind.

It is important to note that Phase 1 and Phase 2 are not discreet in time, like passing from one year to the next, but it can shift multiple times in any given day.  The cycle is usually we get confronted with some difficulty, delusions arise, we see the value of practicing, we practice, our delusions subside somewhat, we feel better, we then lose interest in practicing when things are good; and then we wait until something bad happens and we start the whole cycle over again.  Likewise, this dynamic plays out over many years where in the beginning we are very motivated to practice, we solve the majority of our daily problems and gain the ability to do so with regularity, and we then just content ourselves with using the Dharma for a happy life. 

Happy Tsog Day: Visualizing the Field of Merit

In order to remember and mark our tsog days, holy days on the Kadampa calendar, I am sharing my understanding of the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide with tsog.  This is part 5 of a 44-part series.

Within the vast space of indivisible bliss and emptiness, amidst billowing clouds of Samantabhadra’s offerings, fully adorned with leaves, flowers, and fruits, is a wishfulfilling tree that grants whatever is wished for. At its crest, on a lion throne ablaze with jewels, on a lotus, moon, and sun seat, sits my root Guru who is kind in three ways, the very essence of all the Buddhas. He is in the aspect of a fully-ordained monk, with one face, two hands, and a radiant smile. His right hand is in the mudra of expounding Dharma, and his left hand, in the mudra of meditative equipoise, holds a bowl filled with nectar. He wears three robes of resplendent saffron, and his head is graced with a golden Pandit is hat. At his heart are Buddha Shakyamuni and Vajradhara, who has a blue-coloured body, one face, and two hands. Holding vajra and bell, he embraces Yingchugma and delights in the play of spontaneous bliss and emptiness. He is adorned with many different types of jewelled ornament and wears garments of heavenly silk. Endowed with the major signs and minor indications, and ablaze with a thousand rays of light, my Guru sits in the centre of an aura of five-coloured rainbows. Sitting in the vajra posture, his completely pure aggregates are the five Sugatas, his four elements are the four Mothers, and his sources, veins, and joints are in reality Bodhisattvas. His pores are the twenty-one thousand Foe Destroyers, and his limbs are the wrathful Deities. His light rays are directional guardians such as givers of harm and smell-eaters, and beneath his throne are the worldly beings. Surrounding him in sequence is a vast assembly of lineage Gurus, Yidams, hosts of mandala Deities, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Heroes, Dakinis, and Dharma Protectors. Their three doors are marked by the three vajras. Hooking light rays radiate from the letter HUM and invite the wisdom beings from their natural abodes to remain inseparable.

Buddhas can manifest their inner realizations as outer forms. Each aspect of the visualization of any deity in any sadhana reflects this. Our job when we perform visualizations of Buddhas is to recall the spiritual symbolism of each aspect of the visualization and recognize the visual form as the deity’s realizations in the aspect of form. In Great Treasury of Merit, we can read about the symbolism of each aspect of this visualization. Our training is to generate a mind of faith as we visualize the deity, recognizing each aspect as their realizations.

The most important part of any visualization of a Buddha is to strongly believe we are in the living presence of the deity. If we think the Buddhas are not in front of us, and this is “just our imagination,” our visualizations will lack power to move our mind. We will feel like we are pretending, and that it is just us in our meditation room. But if we strongly believe we are in the presence of the enlightened beings, our mind will naturally be blessed. If we saw a picture of a famous person, we might think about how great the person is, but we would be truly excited to meet them in person. In truth, both the picture and the person in the flesh are both just mere karmic appearances to mind, but we would experience the two very differently. In exactly the same way, if we think it is just a picture in our mind, we might not generate much feeling, but if we felt we are in the living presence of the deity, our mind will be powerfully moved.

How can we generate conviction that we are in the living presence of the deity? Venerable Tharchin explains wherever you imagine a Buddha, a Buddha goes; and wherever a Buddha goes, they perform their function, which is to bestow blessings. Geshe-la explains why this is so. For us, our body and mind are different natures; but for a Buddha, their body and mind are the same nature, like gold and the coin it is in the shape of. Since a Buddha’s mind pervades all phenomena, it is correct to say Buddhas are likewise everywhere. There is nowhere that is not an emanation of a Buddha – they are inside everything. When we imagine a Buddha with faith, we open the aperture of our mind enabling these Buddhas which are everywhere to directly enter into our mind, just like opening the blinds allows the sunlight to enter our room. Thus, when we visualize the deities in the space in front of us, we can develop conviction we are in their presence. We should maintain this awareness throughout the rest of the sadhana and feel like we are making offerings, praises, and requests to them and that they receive our offerings and hear our prayers. It should feel like a personal daily meeting with our Guru – what a great way to start the day!

With this visualization, we imagine we are in the living presence of Lama Losang Tubwang Dorjechang. Lama means we see the deity as our spiritual guide in the aspect of the deity, making the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide a Guru yoga practice. Losang means the outer aspect of our spiritual guide is Losang Dragpa, or Je Tsongkhapa. Je Tsongkhapa is the founder of the New Kadampa Tradition and everything we practice is his instructions. By developing a close connection with Je Tsongkhapa, we draw closer to him, enabling us to receive his blessings to realize his teachings. We should strongly believe that Lama Tsongkhapa is our living spiritual guide – the same being who taught in the 14th century and who now appears as our present spiritual guide. Tubwang refers to our spiritual guide’s inner aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni. At Je Tsongkhapa’s heart is Buddha Shakyamuni, indicating that Buddha Shakyamuni and Je Tsongkhapa are also the same being, appearing at different times and different aspects. This also symbolizes how Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings are just a special presentation of Buddha’s 84,000 teachings. The lineage of every instruction can be traced back to Buddha Shakyamuni. Dorjechang means Buddha Vajradhara, who appears at the heart of Buddha Shakyamuni. When Buddha gave tantric teachings, he appeared as Buddha Vajradhara, who is our definitive tantric spiritual guide. Visualizing him at the heart of Buddha Shakyamuni indicates that Buddha Vajradhara, Buddha Shakyamuni, Je Tsongkhapa, and our present spiritual guide are all the same being, the same mental continuum, just appearing at different times according to the dispositions of different disciples. Sometimes we think that Je Tsongkhapa, Buddha Shakyamuni, and Buddha Vajradhara somehow no longer exist after they died, but this visualization helps us realize that they still live. They attained enlightenment to become an immortal being and our eternal spiritual guide. We are not staring into the past; we are interacting with a deathless holy being.

Geshe-la also explains in Great Treasury of Merit that there are three principal deities of Highest Yoga Tantra – Yamantaka, Guhyasamaja, and Heruka, symbolizing respectively the spiritual power, wisdom, and compassion of all the Buddhas according to Highest Yoga Tantra. Lama Tsongkhapa’s outer aspect is one with Yamantaka, his inner aspect is the body mandala of Guhyasamaja symbolized by the five Sugatas, four mothers, bodhisattvas, and wrathful deities. And we ourself are self-generated as Heruka. In this way, with one single concentration of ourself generated as Heruka visualizing Lama Losang Tubwang Dorjechang we are mixing our mind with the essential realizations of spiritual power, wisdom, and compassion of all the Buddhas.

Inviting the wisdom beings

You who are the source of all happiness and goodness,
The root and lineage Gurus of the three times, the Yidams, and Three Precious Jewels,
Together with the assembly of Heroes, Dakinis, Dharmapalas, and Protectors,
Out of your great compassion please come to this place and remain firm.

Even though phenomena are by nature completely free from coming and going,
You appear in accordance with the dispositions of various disciples
And perform enlightened deeds out of wisdom and compassion;
O Holy Refuge and Protector, please come to this place together with your retinue.

OM GURU BUDDHA BODHISATTÖ DHARMAPALA SAPARIWARA EH HAYE HI: DZA HUM BAM HO

The wisdom beings become inseparable from the commitment beings.

With the first verse, we recall that we are in the living presence of the deities as explained above. The second verse helps us recall their emptiness. Our “I”gnorance of self-grasping makes us think that we and the Buddhas are somehow separate from each other, like there is this giant chasm that separates them from us. When we recall the emptiness of ourself and the deities, this chasm is bridged and we feel as if not only we are in the presence of the holy beings, but the duality between ourselves and them has faded away. It feels like we are one wave, they are another wave, but we are all equally part of the same ocean, inseparable from one another. Their enlightened state is an aspect of our own mind.

With the third and fourth verses, we dissolve the wisdom beings into the commitment beings. The commitment beings are so-called because we have a commitment to visualize them, and the wisdom beings are the actual Buddhas who enter into our visualization. By dissolving the wisdom beings into the commitment beings, we imagine our visualization becomes inseparably one with the actual deities and we strengthen our conviction that we are in the living presence of the holy beings all while recalling that they are inseparable from our mind.

Happy Tara Day: How to ignite Tara’s fierce and raging fire in our life

This is the fourth installment of the 12-part series sharing my understanding of the practice Liberation from Sorrow.

Praising Tara by her destroying opponents

Homage to you who by saying TRÄ and PHAT
Completely destroy the obstructions of enemies.
You suppress with your right leg drawn in and your left extended,
And blaze with a fierce and raging fire.

I think there are two ways we can understand this.  First, her wisdom blessings act like a fierce and raging fire that radiate out in all directions like a protection circle, dispelling all obstructions of enemies, keeping them at bay.  Second, because she is a Buddha she has universal compassion even for those who would oppose the Dharma.  To destroy the obstructions of enemies means she has the power to destroy the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience of her would-be enemies.  Geshe-la once famously said in Toronto that “Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys all enemies.”  In the same way, Tara completely destroys opponents by destroying the obstructions to enlightenment on their minds.  This shows her skill in loving living beings while directing wrathful energy against their delusions.

Praising Tara by her purifying demons and the two obstructions

Homage to TURE, extremely fearsome one,
Who completely destroy the chief of demons.
With the wrathful expression on your lotus face
You vanquish all foes without exception.

Where do demons come from?  They are mere karmic appearances to mind, ripening from our negative karma.  The way to actually destroy all demons is to purify the negative karma that sees or appears anybody as a demon.  Nobody is a demon from their own side, they only become such when we view them with a deluded, contaminated mind.  This is how she purifies all demons.  It also says she vanquishes all foes without exception.  In Buddhism, there are no outer enemies, only inner enemies.  To vanquish all foes without exception, therefore, refers to her ability to vanquish the inner enemies of the two obstructions – delusions and their imprints.

Praising Tara by the objects she holds in her right and left hands

Homage to you whose fingers perfectly adorn your heart
With the mudra symbolizing the Three Precious Jewels.
Adorned with a wheel of all directions
Whose radiant light outshines all.

Buddhas hold different implements in their hands to symbolize their inner qualities and abilities.  Her hand in the mudra symbolizing the Three Precious Jewels indicates that she is the synthesis of all three jewels, and that she also performs the function of all three jewels.  She blesses our mind like a Buddha, she teaches and protects the Kadam Dharma, and she helps us like loving Sangha.  I’m assuming the wheel here refers to the Wheel of Dharma which outshines all because it enables us to escape from samsara.

Praising Tara by her crown ornament and the sound of her laughter

Homage to you whose very joyful and shining crown ornament
Radiates a garland of light;
Who, with your mirthful laughter of TUTTARE,
Subdue the demons and worldly gods.

Here, we can imagine that infinite light rays radiate out from Tara’s crown ornament, bestowing blessings and peace on all living beings.  We can then rejoice in her enlightened actions, wishing to gain the ability to do the same ourselves.  Mirthful laughter means a merry or amused laugh.  We should never underestimate the power of laughter.  More often than not, we take everything too seriously.  This makes us tight and our grasping stronger.  But when we can laugh at the absurdity of samsara, then it takes the sting out of it.  Samsara makes me laugh!  In particular, it is important to be able to laugh at ourselves and our delusions.  This is one of the most powerful ways of cutting the power of our delusions over us because we are able to view them from a distance and laugh at how ridiculous they are.  Being able to laugh at others in a way that also enables them to stop taking themselves or their samsara too seriously is a whole other level of skill at mirthful laughter.  Normally, people can take it wrong that we are laughing at them or their plight, and they can become quickly offended.  But Tara has the ability to use skillful mirthful laughter to even subdue demons and worldly gods, disarming their ill intent or pretension. 

Praising Tara by her accomplishing divine actions through the ten directional guardians

Homage to you who are able to summon
All the directional guardians and their retinues.
Frowning and shaking, with the letter HUM,
You rescue all from their misfortune.

In the Tsog offerings, we invite the directional guardians, evil spirits, zombies, givers of harm, smell-eaters and other such beings from the charnel grounds, offer them Torma and Tsog offerings, bless their mind, and effectively “enlist them” to help Dharma practitioners and flourish the Dharma instead of oppose them.  From a deeper point of view, we imagine that all of these beings are actually emanations of the principal deity sent into the realms of samsara to help the beings in every terrifying corner of the six realms.  From the letter HUM at the heart of the principal deity, light rays radiate out and invite these beings to come before the deity to then work on the deity’s behalf.  When we recite this verse, we can imagine Tara does the same, inviting all such beings from the charnel grounds who come before her, and then commit to working on her behalf to rescue all beings from their misfortune.  In this way, she also rescues these beings themselves from their misfortune by inspiring them to engage in virtuous actions of protecting practitioners.

Praising Tara by her crown ornament

Homage to you with a crescent moon adorning your crown,
And all your ornaments shining brightly;
With Amitabha in your top-knot
Eternally radiating light.

Here we can imagine different details of Tara’s form, recognizing them all as manifestations of her inner realizations.  Buddhas have the ability to manifest their mind as form.  When we engage in checking meditations of different deities, we focus on different aspects of their form recalling the inner realization it represents.  A moon in Buddhism symbolizes the realization of emptiness.  The ornaments of a Buddha’s body typically symbolize their inner realizations of the six perfections.  Amitabha in her top-knot indicates Amitabha is her spiritual guide.  Amitabha is the Vajra Speech of all the Buddhas, and is the same nature as Geshe Langri Tangpa, the author of Eight Verses of Training the Mind, our root text for Lojong practice.  Recalling this, we can generate faith that through our reliance on Tara we will be able to realize emptiness, complete the six perfections, and train in transforming adverse conditions into the path.

Praising Tara by her wrathful posture

Homage to you who dwell amidst a garland of flames
Like the fire at the end of the aeon.
With your right leg extended and left drawn in,
You destroy the hosts of obstructions of those who delight in the Dharma Wheel.

Buddhas engage in four types of enlightened action – pacifying, increasing, controlling, and wrathful actions.  Wrathful actions are forceful actions that skillfully differentiate between the person and their delusions or faults.  They are able to be ruthless with delusions while being loving with the person.  They are like a wisdom anger against the inner objects to be abandoned along the path.  If we fail to make the distinction between the person and their delusions, our wrathful actions are just ordinary anger and usually wind up harming living beings.  Pacifying and increasing actions are relatively easy to do without delusions, controlling actions can be done if we are free from attachment to the other person doing what we want, and wrathful actions can only be performed with compassionate wisdom differentiating clearly the person from their faults.  They also typically require the other person to have faith in us to receive well our wrathful actions, but this isn’t always necessary.  Buddhas are often surrounded by blazing wisdom fires indicating their ability to burn through negativities and protect others with great power.  When we recite this version, we imagine Tara radiates such powerful energy around her like the fire at the end of the aeon.  Her right leg extended symbolizes her ability to swiftly come to the aid of living beings.  Because she is the completely purified wind element, she can move as fast as mind to any object.  If we think of the moon, our mind is instantly there.  But how does it get there?  By being mounted upon winds.  Tara is the wind all virtue is mounted upon.  Her right leg extended shows her swift ability.

Happy NKT Day: Why we are encouraged to follow one tradition purely without mixing

The first Saturday of every April is New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) day.  Normally, on this day we generate a mind cherishing our tradition.  I’m sure there are many other people who will write about all of the different reasons why they cherish this tradition, and I rejoice in all of that.  But here, I am going to intentionally stir the hornet’s nest a bit by talking about a particular type of cherishing of the NKT, namely generating the mind that wishes to follow one tradition purely without mixing. 

One of the core principles of the NKT is while respecting all other traditions, to follow one tradition purely without mixing.  This is an extremely vast subject.  Venerable Geshe-la (VGL) explains in Ocean of Nectar that we need to be careful when introducing the subject of emptiness to those who are not ready because doing so can lead to great confusion.  I would say even more so, we need to be careful when introducting the subject of following one tradition purely without mixing, as this is a special spiritual instruction that can easily give rise to much confusion and doubt, including thinking that such an approach is closed-minded, anti-intellectual, and sectarian.  To many, this instruction can seem very strange, even cultish.  Many people might even wind up rejecting the NKT precisely because this is something taught within the NKT. 

This post (and the linked, more extensive document) attempts to explain the rationale behind this instruction so that people can be happy with putting it into practice.

What is the advice?

This is probably best summarized in Understanding the Mind, where Geshe-la says:

“We must be careful not to misunderstand the effort of non-satisfaction. Practising this effort does not mean that we should become dissatisfied with our tradition or with our main practice, and try to follow many different traditions or mix together many different practices. Every Teacher and every tradition has a slightly different approach and employs different methods. The practices taught by one Teacher will differ from those taught by another, and if we try to combine them we shall become confused, develop doubts, and lose direction. If we try to create a synthesis of different traditions we shall destroy the special power of each and be left only with a mishmash of our own making that will be a source of confusion and doubt. Having chosen our tradition and our daily practices we should rely upon them single-pointedly, never allowing dissatisfaction to arise. At the same time as cherishing our own tradition we should respect all other traditions and the right of each individual to follow the tradition of their choosing. This approach leads to harmony and tolerance. It is mixing different religious traditions that causes sectarianism. This is why it is said that studying non-religious subjects is less of an obstacle to our spiritual progress than studying religions of different traditions.”

Geshe-la also elaborated during the Dorje Shugden empowerment in 1995 when he said:

“Sincere practitioners of the Kadampa Buddhism of Je Tsongkhapa’s doctrine should understake as their heart commitment to cherish the Kadam Dharma, the doctrine of Je Tsongkhapa, and to practice and teach this to others without mixing it with other traditions.  We must take some responsibility to enable pure Buddhadharma to flourish throughout the world.  If we make the commitment to accomplish this aim, then this is called our heart commitment.  Keeping this heart commitment is the basic foundation for receiving Dorje Shugdan’s protection, blessings and special care continually.  Because Dorje Shugden is an enlightened being, he has compassion for all beings and is ready to to give his protection, blessings, and special care, but from our side we also need some necessary conditions.  These are to cherish Kadam Dharma, to practice Kadam Dharma purely without mixing it with other traditions, to teach Kadam Dharma without mixing it with other traditions and to take some responsibility to help pure Dharma flourish throughout the world.  Doing this as our commitment is the best method for receiving Dorje Shugden’s protection, blessings and special care continually.”

Following one tradition purely is spiritual advice, not a rule

Throughout all of VGL’s books, he gives countless pieces of advice about how to transform our mind into the enlightened state.  This instruction on following one tradition purely without mixing is likewise spiritual advice given to us by our Spiritual Guide.  Like all instructions, we are free to follow it or not.  It is our choice.  VGL explains in Transform Your Life that if we do not at present understand a given instruction, or do not see its utility, we should avoid various extremes.  To put the instruction into practice when we do not understand it or when we disagree with it would be one extreme (leading to a wide variety of problems).  To reject the instruction would be another extreme.  The middle way he teaches is to not reject it outright, but to put it aside for later when it does seem to be important or useful for our spiritual practice.  Once we see the instruction as something that is important, if we still have doubts we should follow his advice in Clear Light of Bliss when he quotes Buddha Shakyamuni as saying ‘do not believe me because I am called Buddha, instead verify for yourself.’  We should examine all the arguments with an open mind, contemplating deeply their meaning without any preconceptions or attachments to our view, and then only decide to put this instruction into practice when we ‘want to’ and we ‘see its value’ for our spiritual development.  This approach should likewise be used when it comes to the spiritual advice to follow one tradition purely without mixing. 

If we relate to this instruction like a rule imposed upon us from the outside, but we do not ‘want’ to follow it, then the result will be we generate resentment towards the rule and towards those who make it.  This then undermines our faith, we can generate all sorts of negative minds, and eventually this can destroy our spiritual practice. 

So, in short, when should this instruction be practiced ?  When we want to put it into practice.  Who does it apply to ?  Only those who wish to apply it to themselves.  All moral discipline is self-imposed.  We apply it to ourseleves because we see the benefit of doing so and the harm of not doing so.  We take refuge vows because we wish to center ourselves within Buddha’s teachings.  We take Bodhisattva vows because we wish to center ourselves within the Mahayana.  We take Tantric vows, because we wish to center ourselves within the part of the Mahayana that is the Vajrayana.  Specifically, our Tantric vows entail a commitment as to whom is our Spiritual Guide, our teacher.  We do all of these things from our own side because we want to and see the value of doing so.  We place limits on the sources of our spiritual understanding and practice (Buddha’s Hinayana teachings for those who have taken refuge and Pratimoksha vows ; Mahayana teachings for those who have taken Bodhisattva vows ; our Spiritual Guide’s teachings for those who have taken Tantric vows). 

VGL has added a fourth layer of vows for those who wish to be NKT teachers and officers, namely the internal rules of the NKT, which he has correctly labeled as A Moral Discipline Guide.  VGL said that for us, these vows are more important than even our Tantric vows.  It is our choice whether we wish to assume these guidelines as part of our moral discipline or not.  Nobody can force us to do so, nobody is requiring us to do so.  We do so because we wish to.  If we wish to do so, then we are authorized by VGL to teach NKT Dharma and be an officer in an NKT center.  If we do not wish to do so, then we are not authorized by VGL to do these things.  We may still consider him our Spiritual Guide, appreciate his good qualities, put his teachings into practice, etc., but we do not have these special authorizations to teach or be an officer.  The internal rules have many layers of meaning.  It is not up to anybody outside of us to say whether we have the intention of keeping the moral discipline of the internal rules.  Only we can say.  So if internally we wish to take on the internal rules as part of our moral discipline, unless there is a gross violation of these rules that requires action, it is up to us to use our own wisdom to decide how to put these instructions into practice.

What is mixing traditions? 

In order to understand this instruction, we must understand what it means (and what it does not mean) to mix traditions.  To understand this, we must first understand what it means to mix in general.  To mix means to combine two or more things in some way. 

What does it mean to mix our mind with teachings in general ?  To mix our mind with teachings means to familiarize our mind with the meaning of a teaching.  It is to gain an intellectual understanding of the meaning of a teaching and to believe (or appreciate) that meaning to be true for your mind and practice.  In Understanding the Mind, VGL states :  “Basically Dharma practice is quite simple because all we need to do is to receive correct Dharma teachings by listening to qualified Teachers or by reading authentic books, and then mix our mind with these teachings by meditating on them.”  In Joyful Path, VGL explains that we mix our mind with teachings (meditate upon them) in three different ways :  through listening to (or reading) Dharma instructions, through contemplating their meaning (analytical meditation) and through placement meditation on them. 

To mix spiritual traditions, therefore, means to do this process of mixing our mind with teachings in general with the teachings from more than one spiritual tradition.  If one is an NKT practitioner, to mix traditions would mean to mix one’s mind with teachings from the NKT and from a tradition other than the NKT.  The internal rules of the NKT state that the NKT will always be an entirely independent spiritual organization.  What distinguishes the NKT from other traditions is its three study programmes.  In the definition of the three study programmes, all three programmes state clearly that their content is derived exclusively from the teachings and commentaries of VGL.  Therefore, any teaching that does not come from VGL (either directly from him or indirectly through an authorized NKT teacher) would be considered as belonging to another tradition.  A clear test as to whether something is part of the NKT or not is whether it has been published by Tharpa Publications.  Any book or source published by something other than Tharpa Publications is necessarily from another tradition.   Any teaching received by a spiritual teacher other than one who is an authorized NKT teacher would necessarily be a teaching from another tradition. 

Mixing is not a black or white thing, but actually has many many levels of subtlety.  Just as there are many different levels of ignorance, so too there are many different levels of mixing.  It is impossible for us to be completely free from any mixing until we are a Buddha, so the question is not whether something ‘is’ mixing or not, the question is whether somebody has within their mind the intention and the desire to go in the direction of completely abandoning every last trace of mixing within their spiritual understanding and practice.  If one has this intention, then over time we gradually gain a deeper and deeper understanding of what it means to mix, and in this way we can gradually improve the purity with which we practice.  Wanting to do this is part of cherishing the NKT.

In short, the nature of the inputs into our spiritual understanding determines the nature of the outputs of that spiritual understanding (unless we have perfect discriminating wisdom, which none of us have, or at least I do not).  If we have only NKT inputs, then it guarrantees we will have only NKT outputs (internal realizations, teachings, etc.).  If we have NKT and non-NKT inputs, then our spiritual understanding will be a mix of multiple sources, which will result in a mixed output (or at least a great danger of this).  Therefore, unless we can claim we have a perfect discriminating wisdom and experience of NKT teachings, even if we do not want to mix, we will not be able to not mix on some subtle level if we read other tradition’s teachings.  This is especially true for those spiritual teachings that are quite similar to NKT teachings.  There seems less risk of mixing by reading Christian books than there is in reading books on Tibetan Buddhism, especially those books written by diciples of Trijang Rinpoche, even if they are also Dorje Shugden practitioners.

If we understand that the way in which we attain enlightenment is by mixing our mind inseparably with that of our Spiritual Guide, it is clear that if we mix our mind with the teachings of a different Spiritual Guide we will be mixing.  Our mind will be a ‘mishmash’ (as VGL calls it) of our Spiritual Guide’s teachings, of the other Spiritual Guide’s teachings and of our own thinking of how to combine these two.  It is possible for us to take VGL as our Spiritual Guide and continue to mix his teachings with those of similar (or dissimilar) traditions, especially when we are at the beginning of our practice and our discriminating wisdom and experience are undeveloped.  However, he still advises us against doing this.  But there are many pieces of advice he has given us that we are not yet ready to put into practice and he encourages us to put those aside for later.  The instruction on following one tradition purely without mixing is no exception.  However, there definitely comes a time in our practice where we want to start leaving these other sources behind and instead mix our mind completely and exclusively with the teachings of our Spiritual Guide.  By doing so, we can mix our mind more thoroughly with his mind, draw closer to him and his blessings, and eventually attain enlightenment.  It is clear that we cannot fully mix our mind with his if we are still partially mixing our mind with teachings from other traditions. 

I understand this is challenging for some

I understand that this instruction is challenging for many people because it seems contrary to our normal way of thinking about things.  My first teacher told me, “The things we find the most difficult at first later wind up being the teachings that bring about the greatest transformations in our mind.”  So I encourage everyone to investigate for themselves with an open mind.  In the early 2000s, I wrote the attached document in answer to questions some of my students were asking about this topic.  I try address every angle of the question.  If you still have some doubts or hesitations about this topic, I encourage you to look through the arguments presented, in particular work through the answers to the objections that arise.  If you still have questions about it, I’m happy to try provide my thoughts. 

Here is the table of contents of what is contained in the larger document.

This document is organized as follows :

  1. References within VGL’s teachings on this advice
    1. On following one tradition purely without mixing
      • From Understanding the Mind
      • From Great Treasury of Merit
      • From Meaningful to Behold
      • From the Commentary to the Dorje Shugden empowerment, Spring Festival 1995
      • From the NKT internal rules
  2. On sectarianism
    • From Joyful Path
    • From Clear Light of Bliss
  1. The mind with which we examine this question
  2. How to understand this instruction
    • Following one tradition purely is spiritual advice, not a rule
    • What is mixing traditions ?
    • What are the causes of mixing ?  Why do people mix ?
  3. Rationale for the spiritual advice to follow one tradition purely without mixing
    1. Considering valid reasons
      • Advantages of not mixing
      • Disadvantages of mixing
      • Disadvantages of even slight mixing.
    2. Contemplating useful analogies
      • Analogy of the burning room
      • Analogy of climbing a mountain
      • Analogy of a Formula 1 racing car
      • Analogy of commitment to a partner
      • Analogy of specialization
  4. Refutation of objections to not mixing
  • Objection 1.  We can gain a better understanding of a subject when explored from multiple perspectives
  • Objection 2:  We can gain a higher and deeper understanding of universal truth through synthesizing multiple systems of thought.
  • Objection 3 :  All religions say the same thing, just with different metaphors and means.  So what is the problem with me studying and reading other traditions.  Does that not also take me in the direction of enlightenment ?
  • Objection 4:  OK, I agree we should not mix traditions.  I am 100% committed to VGL, I know what we are all about and I don’t want to mix.  So what is the problem with me reading other sources ?
  • Objection 5:  But I do not have freedom because I cannot be an NKT teacher or officer of an NKT center if I still want to go to other things.  So I am not free to choose.
  • Objection 6:  But it can be argued that just because one is in a relationship with somebody else does not mean that they cease to be friends with other people and other women.  In the same way, it is not mixing or violating my commitment to my spiritual path by reading other books, etc., as long as I am clear as to who is my Spiritual Guide.
  • Objection 7: But we are Buddhist, so everything depends upon the mind.  Reading other sources is not from its own side mixing, it depends upon the mind with which we do it. 
  • Objection 8:  Come on !  Certainly you are exaggerating to say it is a fault to even read or be exposed to teachings from other traditions.  Don’t be so paranoid !
  • Objection 9:  It still seems very closed-minded to be so categorical in shunning anything that is non-NKT.
  • Objection 10:  OK, even if I agree with all of the above, certainly it is more skilful to say nothing, since people will misunderstand and leave the Dharma as a result of this misunderstanding.
  • Objection 11:  OK, I agree, something needs to be said.  But why do you have to do it in such a foreceful way. 
  • Objection 12:  OK, point taken.  But what makes an action skilful is whether the action does not undermine the faith of the other person when you engage in it.
  • Objection 13:  OK, fine !  Just tell me what I can and cannot do.
  • Objection 14:  If that is the case, then why do different teachers have different policies and standards on this one ?
  • Objection 15:  But how does your standard compare to that of the NKT as a whole ?  Are you more strict ?
  • Objection 16:  Wait a minute !  I can understand why there would be an issue with Tibetan Buddhism in general, but certainly it is not a problem with Mt. Pellerin.  After all, their teacher was also a student of Trijang Rinpoche, he is friends with VGL, and they are Dorje Shugden practitioners.  Are they not basically a Tibetan version of us, and we are a Western version of them ?  So their teachings can help improve our understanding of VGL’s teachings.  We are all talking about the same thing, so there is no mixing going on.  So it should be OK.  It seems we should at least make an exception with them.
  • Question 17:  OK, I understand all of this and it makes sense.  How practically then are we to implement all of this at the center given the sensitivities involved ?
  • Conclusion

Dedication

I dedicate any merit I may have accumulated from writing this that all beings may find the spiritual tradition that speaks to their heart, and that all beings may joyfully follow one tradition purely without mixing, regardless of what tradiction speaks to them.  I pray that those reading this do so with an open mind and understand that advice such as this is offered by Geshe-la out of his infinite compassion for us understanding what is spiritually the most effective way of progressing along the path.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Patience is the foundation of Renunciation

Now we reach the concluding verses in which Shantideva gives some final encouragement in practicing patience:

(6.127) Practising in this way pleases all the Buddhas,
Is a perfect method for accumulating good fortune,
And gives me the ability to dispel the sufferings of the world.
Therefore, I should always practise the three types of patience.

(6.128) If, for example, a king’s minister
Were to cause harm to many people,
Far-sighted people would not retaliate
Even if they were able to do so

(6.129) Because they would see that he was not alone
But was supported by the might of the king.
In the same way, we should not retaliate
To those who cause us a little harm,

(6.130) Because they are supported by the compassionate Buddhas –
And by the guardians of hell!
Therefore, we should be like the subjects of a powerful king
And try to please other living beings.

(6.131) Even if such a king were to get angry,
He would not be able to subject me to the sufferings of hell,
Which is what I shall experience
If I harm other beings.

(6.132) And, no matter how benevolent that king might be,
He could not bestow upon me the attainment of Buddhahood,
Which is what I shall experience
If I please other beings.

The choice finally is a simple one: To serve or to harm others.  We can think of the compassionate Buddhas supporting all living beings. And we can join them in their Buddha lands by practicing patience and pleasing and serving living beings.  We can think of the guardians of hell harming all living beings. Our alternative is we can be with them in the hell realms by getting angry and harming living beings. It is our choice, we can please or we can harm.

(6.133) Why can I not see that my eventual attainment of Buddhahood,
And my success, good reputation,
And prosperity in this life,
All come from pleasing other living beings?

(6.134) Even while I remain in samsara,
Through patience I shall attain beautiful forms,
Good health, reputation, very long lives,
And even the extensive happiness of a chakravatin king!

We have now had a very extensive discussion of patience.  I would now like to explain how this mind of patience is the foundation for two key stages of the path:  renunciation and the perfection of effort.

On renunciation, the idea is simple:  In every moment, either you are moving deeper into samsara or you are moving out.  From an ordinary perspective, regardless of whether things go well or badly, externally or internally, our current deluded reactions move us deeper into samsara.  When things go well externally, we develop attachment to these external effects which causes us to think that samsara isn’t so bad and undermines our desire to wake up, and we decide to turn towards samsara for our happiness.  This moves us deeper into samsara.  When things go badly externally, we develop anger against these external things which causes us to try push them away or engage in negative actions towards them.  This also moves us deeper into samsara.  When things go well internally, we become complacent and develop attachment to the good feelings we are having.  This stops our progress and causes us to think we can find happiness within our ordinary mind.  When things go badly internally, such as us developing delusions, we respond with guilt and discouragement and we give in to our delusions, which also draws us deeper into samsara.  So in all the cases, no matter what happens externally or internally, our current reactions pull us deeper into samsara.

When we have the mind of patient acceptance, it is the exact opposite.  Regardless of whether things go well or badly, externally or internally, everything functions to push us out of samsara.  When things go well externally, we accept it as the result of our past actions of virtue but we are not fooled by it.  Such rewards remind us that samsara is deceptive, that these things are tempting us to remain in samsara, and so it reinforces our renunciation.  When things go badly externally, we accept that just as it is the nature of fire to burn, it is the nature of samsara to go wrong.  Seeing yet another example, our renunciation is increased and we realize the only solution to such problems is to wake up.  When things go well internally, we accept it as the result of our past virtue, which reminds us to take refuge in virtuous and pure minds, not in external things.  When things go badly internally, we accept that just as it is the nature of the body to fart, it is the nature of the ordinary mind to fart delusions.  We see that this will continue for as long as we identify with an ordinary mind, so it increases our determination to get out of contaminated aggregates.  So no matter what happens, externally or internally, instead of being dragged down into samsara by what happens, we are pushed out, literally shoved out of samsara.  Everything becomes a cause of our enlightenment.  In this way, we can see how the mind of patient acceptance accomplishes the same function as Dorje Shugden.

Some people wonder why Geshe-la’s book “How to Solve our Human Problems” is supposed to be about the 4 noble truths, but in reality it only has a few pages on the four noble truths and the rest is an explanation of how to overcome our anger.  The main subject of the four noble truths is developing the mind of renunciation – the wish to escape from samsara.  Gen-la Dekyong explained that in reality the mind of patient acceptance is the foundation for developing renunciation – if we accept things the way they are, that samsara is broken, only then can we develop the wish to actually leave.  But if we are still holding our hope that samsara is different than it actually is, it is impossible for us to develop renunciation.

This concludes the sixth chapter of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, entitled “Relying upon Patience”.

Happy Protector Day: Viewing Our life as a Training Ground

The 29th of every month is Protector Day.  This is part 3 of a 12-part series aimed at helping us remember our Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden and increase our faith in him on these special days.

We are continuing with our discussion of how to rely upon Dorje Shugden during the meditation break.  In the last post we discussed how we can take personal responsibility for removing the faults we perceive in others.  In this post we will discuss how to view our life as a training ground for becoming the Buddha we need to become.

How can we understand this?  Dorje Shugden knows who we have karma with to be their Spiritual Guide.  We each have the karma to be the spiritual guide of certain beings.  Dorje Shugden knows this and he knows what karma we have with them.  If we ask him to do so, Dorje Shugden can manage our karma in such a way that he forges us into the Buddha we need to become.  Primarily Dorje Shugden provides us with favorable conditions and arranges everything to be perfect for our practice. 

But he is so powerful, he is also able to ‘use’ our negative karma and ‘transform’ it into the spiritual path.  We can adopt the wisdom view that he “gives” us now the problems that our future students will have so that we can learn how to use the Dharma to overcome these problems.  We have the negative karma on our mind to experience anything and everything.  Dorje Shugden is able to manage the flow of the ripening of our negative karma so that the negative karma which does ripen is that of our future students and it ripens in a context where we will be able to transform it into the path.

What are the benefits of relying upon Dorje Shugden in this way?  It will create indestructible karmic links between ourselves and our future students that will ripen in the form of us being their spiritual guide in the future.  We will gain the realizations we need to be able to help the beings with whom we have the closest spiritual karmic connections.  It will enable us to find great meaning in all of our inevitable difficulties in life.  Life will still be difficult, but these difficulties will be part of a larger project to forge us into the Buddha we need to become. 

Practically speaking, how do we view our life in this way?  The key lies in viewing everyone as an emanation of Dorje Shugden for our practice.  The view we adopt of others determines the qualities we draw out.  This is so because view itself is a creative action, it is not a passive observation.  We do not view others in a particular way because they ‘are’ that way (they are not any way), rather we view others in a particular way because it is most beneficial to them for us to do so.

The view we adopt is to view others as emanations of the Spiritual Guide.  We can maintain pure view of others.  We consider them to be Buddhas appearing in the aspect of ordinary beings so we can act normally with them.  By acting normally with them, we gain the realizations we need to attain enlightenment.  We can maintain pure view of their actions by considering all of their actions to be the supremely skillful actions of a Buddha.  For example, if they make some big mistake, we can view it as they make mistakes to teach us things.  If we assent to the appearance of others as being ordinary, engaging in ordinary actions, we will simply plant the karma which will give rise to the appearance of ordinary beings engaging in ordinary actions.   In this way, we re-imprison others into contaminated aggregates engaging in non-Dharma actions and us into a world of ordinary appearances.

If instead we imagine that others are by nature emanations of Dorje Shugden engaging in supremely skillful actions to lead us to our swiftest possible enlightenment we plant karma which will give rise to the appearance of others as emanations engaging in the actions of a Buddha.  In this way, we free others from contaminated aggregates and we create the causes for them to engage in the actions necessary to lead themselves to enlightenment. 

But how do we do this, especially when we see others acting in deluded and unskillful ways.  There are two key questions we can ask ourselves to be able to maintain this view:  First, what do their actions teach me?  Second, what do their actions give me in terms of an opportunity to practice?  Our answers to these questions point us to the wisdom that is able to receive perfectly reliable Dharma instructions and opportunities to practice from whatever others do. 

We can even do this same practice with our own body and mind.  If we assent to ourselves as being an ordinary being engaging in ordinary actions, it will creates the karma for the recreation of that appearance.  But if we view our ordinary body and mind as emanated for us to practice overcoming in order to forge us into the Buddha we need to become, it will plant the karma for that appearance to arise in the future.  For example, if we get sick, it is for us to practice with.  If we have a delusion, it is for giving us an opportunity to practice the opponents, and so forth.

This view is extremely beneficial for both ourselves and for others.  We are able to transform whatever happens to us into the path to enlightenment and we are able to receive the blessings of the spiritual guide through everyone.  It also karmically reconstructs others and ourselves into pure being.  By imagining that they are Buddhas engaging in a Buddha’s actions, it karmically reconstructs them so that they will later actually engage in enlightened actions and become a Buddha. 

In sum, the practice of Dorje Shugden can be reduced down into four simple ideas:

  1. Renew our spiritual motivation, that what matters to us is creating good causes for spiritual progress.
  2. Request with infinite faith that whatever happens to us (or others) is perfect for our swiftest possible enlightenment.
  3. Accept with infinite faith whatever subsequently arises as the perfect conditions we requested.
  4. In those perfect conditions, practice to the best of our ability.  To practice means to try to send our mind in the direction of enlightenment by striving to abandon our delusions and by cultivating virtuous minds.  It does not matter whether we succeed in actually doing so, what matters is that we try.  If we try, we create good causes which will ripen in the future in our ability to do it. 

We can use our reliance on Dorje Shugden to overcome all our delusions.  This practice was explained to me by the great Gen Togden many years ago.  He said we can overcome our anger through relying on Dorje Shugden by considering that anger wishes things to be other than they are.  When we rely on Dorje Shugden, we know they are perfect, so there is no basis for wishing they are otherwise, thus there is no basis for anger.  He also said we can overcome our attachment through relying on Dorje Shugden.  We think we need something for our happiness, but we do not know.  So we make requests to Dorje Shugden that if this is what is best, then please arrange it; if not, then we request him to please sabotage it.  Finally, he explained we can overcome our ignorance through relying on Dorje Shugden.  Dorje Shugden is a wisdom Buddha, so we can request him to bestow his blessings so we will always know what to do in all situations.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Becoming a servant of all

(6.124) Therefore, since I have caused harm to living beings,
Which has displeased the compassionate Buddhas,
Today I confess individually all these non-virtues –
Please, O Compassionate Ones, forgive me for offending you so.

(6.125) From now on, to delight the Tathagatas,
I will definitely become like a servant to all living beings.
Even if people kick me and humiliate me,
I will please the Buddhas by not retaliating.

On the one hand we must have regret for having caused harm to other living beings previously. On the other hand we must try and promise not to cause harm to them in the future. It’s a refuge commitment, isn’t it?  No matter what others may say, no matter what they may do, we must not retaliate. Rather, we try, try to accept any harm, patiently accept any harm, and try to fulfill their wishes, just like a servant.

We need to make a commitment to others to be their servant.  I think with respect to other living beings we should have this attitude of mind.  We think, “I would like to give you whatever you want, whatever you feel you need.”  We can think, “you can have me any time you want. … all of the time, I am your servant, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”  But of course at present there are many factors preventing us from giving each and every being in our life all of my time.  Often, when people place demands on our time that we can’t fulfill, we quickly become frustrated with them for being so demanding and needy, and how inconsiderate they are to keep asking when they know how busy we are. 

This is exactly opposite of the correct attitude.  Yes, there are many living beings and we have lots of responsibilities, but in our heart we should have the thought, “I would want to give you all my time, be with you all the time, helping you in every way that I can.  I feel myself to be your servant.”  We can explain to others who place demands on us we cannot fulfill, “I would want to help you, but unfortunately I can’t right now.”  We then use these times when we confront our limitations in being able to be there for everyone all of the time to strengthen our bodhichitta wishing to become a Buddha where we will have the ability to be with each and every living being every day, 24/7.  In the future when I am a Buddha I will be able to give you all of my time. That attitude of mind is what is important, and is the essence of the spontaneous bodhichitta of a Bodhisattva.  We want to help everyone in every way, but we keep bumping up into our limitations.  Each time we confront these limitations, we are reminded why we must become a Buddha.

(6.126) There is no doubt that the compassionate Buddhas
Have completed exchanging self with all living beings.
Thus, the nature of living beings is the very nature of the Buddhas,
So we should afford them the same respect.

This is quite profound. We can look in detail at the practice of exchanging self with others when we get to Chapter 8. But for the moment with respect to the advice here in this verse, we can believe simply where there is any living being, even one who has a harmful intention towards us, there is Buddha. Or where there is any living being there is my spiritual guide, the essence of all Buddhas.  Since they have exchanged self with others perfectly, completely, Buddhas are not separate from any living being, therefore the very nature of any living being is the nature of all the Buddhas. For this reason we can respect other living beings like we respect Buddhas.

Happy Tsog Day: How to Train in Engaging Bodhichitta

In order to remember and mark our tsog days, holy days on the Kadampa calendar, I am sharing my understanding of the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide with tsog.  This is part 4 of a 44-part series.

For the sake of all mother sentient beings I shall attain as quickly as possible in this very life the state of the Guru-Deity, the primordial Buddha.

I shall free all mother sentient beings from their suffering and lead them to the great bliss of the Buddha grounds. Therefore I shall practise the profound path of the yoga of the Guru-Deity.

At this point we can perform brief self-generation as our personal Deity.

With the first line, we recall our aspiring bodhichitta generated above and we channel it towards the determination to do whatever it takes to attain enlightenment. When we recite “in this very life,” we can sometimes develop a doubt that it is not possible for us to attain enlightenment in this life, and so these words lack power. The explanation above explains how we can attain enlightenment and gives us a sense of how it can be done relatively quickly, but then we look at our present mind and think we are still a long way away and it seems unlikely we will attain the goal in this life. This doubt can sometimes deflate our engaging bodhichitta because we do not really think it is possible.

How can we overcome this doubt? First, we should never underestimate the power of the practices we have been given. Thousands of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples attained enlightenment in one short life, and the instructions we have are exactly the same as he taught. If they can do it, why cannot we? In fact, Geshe-la has said on numerous occasions that we have it easier than Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples due to the relative total ease of daily life compared to practitioners of the past and the fact that Heruka and Vajrayogini’s blessings grow stronger the more times become spiritually degenerate. Geshe-la once told Venerable Tharchin that “if you would only just completely believe me for even one moment, you would attain enlightenment.” Our biggest problem is doubt. To paraphrase Lord Acton, “faith enlightens, and absolute faith enlightens absolutely.” Second, concern over whether we can attain enlightenment in this life or not only holds us back if we have attachment to results. Our attachment to results in this life makes us think, “well, if I cannot attain the goal in this life, I will not bother really trying.” That makes absolutely no sense. The bottom line is if we believe we can attain enlightenment in this life, we will wholeheartedly go for it. If we do, we may attain enlightenment in this life or we may not do so. But by wholeheartedly going for it, we will definitely attain enlightenment quicker than not going for it. So there is no valid reason to hold ourselves back at all. Doing so just slows down our eventual attainment of enlightenment. The longer we take to attain enlightenment, the longer we will remain trapped in a cycle of suffering and the longer those we would otherwise help if we had attained enlightenment will be made to suffer. Indeed, it is precisely because we are not certain we can attain enlightenment in this lifetime when we have found the Dharma that we need to apply ourselves wholeheartedly. We need to make as much progress as we can while we still have the opportunity.

We may think delaying our enlightenment will enable us to enjoy samsara longer, but that just belies our “I”gnorance thinking anything in samsara is a cause of happiness. There is a story of a Tibetan who really liked his butter tea, and as he was approaching death, he suddenly had a doubt about whether he wanted to attain the pure land because they might not have butter tea. His spiritual guide assured him the butter tea is even better in the pure land, and with his doubt reassured, he then restored his wish to get to the pure land. While such a story seems absurd that anybody would have such doubts, the truth is we each have our own butter tea – a thing that keeps us wanting to remain in samsara. But we can be certain, whatever it is we desire, it is better in the pure land, so there should be nothing holding us back.

With a strong desire to attain enlightenment, we then strongly believe we are going to die now and we train as if we were on our death bed. We generate a strong compassionate wish to attain the pure land, generate faith that we are in the presence of our holy spiritual guide, and then we dissolve everything into the clear light emptiness just like we will at the time of our death. We imagine all phenomena dissolve into their ultimate nature and we emerge into the clear light. On this basis, we recognize the clear light as inseparable from both our Buddha nature and our spiritual guide’s enlightened mind. On this basis, we then impute our ‘I,’ thinking we are Truth Body Heruka. We then hold this divine pride with a pure motivation, strong faith, and single-pointed concentration for awhile. We then think, “only other Buddhas can see me in this form. If I am to help others, I must appear in form that they can see and relate to. Therefore, I must generate myself as both Enjoyment Body and Emanation Body Heruka.

Self-generation as the Deity

From the state of great bliss I arise as the Guru-Deity.
Purifying the environment and its inhabitants
Light rays radiate from my body,
Blessing all worlds and beings in the ten directions.
Everything becomes an exquisite array
Of immaculately pure good qualities.

While Truth Body Heruka, we first briefly imagine that our indestructible wind arises in the aspect of a nada. We then generate divine pride thinking we are Enjoyment Body Heruka. We then think only other tantric bodhisattvas can perceive us in this form, and we need to assume an Emanation Body so that we can relate to ordinary living beings. We then imagine we see below us the four continents, Mount Meru, the sun, and the moon lotus form. We see the sun and moon as the union of the red and white bodhichittas of Heruka and Vajrayogini, imagining it is like a fertilized ovum of our future enlightenment. Strongly wishing to become Heruka, we imagine the nada descends into the sun and moon, where it assumes the form of a HUM, which then radiates lights in all directions purifying the universe according to the words of the sadhana, and then we arise as Emanation Body Heruka, with one face and two hands, embracing Vajravarahi. We then develop the divine pride of being Emanation Body Heruka. For more details on how to engage in generation practice, we can read the section on the three bringings in Essence of Vajrayana.

Blessing the offerings

OM AH HUM  (3x)

By nature exalted wisdom, having the aspect of the inner offering and the individual offering substances, and functioning as objects of enjoyment of the six senses to generate a special exalted wisdom of bliss and emptiness, inconceivable clouds of outer, inner, and secret offerings, commitment substances, and attractive offerings cover all the ground and fill the whole of space.

Following the words of the sadhana, we image all the different types of offerings appear in front us, exquisitely arranged and ready to be offered to the field of merit. We should strongly believe these offerings are present in front of us within our mind. There are six different types of consciousness and six different types of objects. The first five consciousnesses are the sense consciousnesses, and their objects are the objects of the senses. The sixth consciousness is our mental consciousness, and its objects are imagined objects – or objects that appear to our mental consciousness. These are also called “phenomena sources.” I was once in a modern art museum in Germany, and in one of the exhibits what appeared to the eye consciousnesses was a pristine beach in a tropical island with beautiful clear blue skies; but what appeared to the ear consciousness was the sounds of a terrible typhoon storm raging all around. The point of the exhibit was to show the duality of tropical islands, but the spiritual point is quite profound. Different worlds can appear to different consciousnesses. When we engage in our spiritual practices, we try to practice non-ascertaining perceivers with respect to our sense consciousnesses and focus all our attention on our pure imagination in our mental consciousness. The world that appears to our sense consciousness may be samsara, but the world that appears to our mental consciousness is the pure land.

Venerable Tharchin explains the location of mind is at the object of cognition. For example, if we think of the moon, our mind goes to the moon. He also explained wherever our mind goes, our “I” naturally follows since we instinctively identify with our mind. Thus, we can say part of ourself is at the moon. Applying this logic to our practice of generation stage, if we direct our mind to the pure land, our mind will naturally go there. Wherever our mind goes, our “I” naturally follows. Thus, we can also say part of ourself is in the pure land. If we are able to direct 100% of our mind without distraction to the pure land, 100% of our mind will follow; and since we naturally impute our “I” onto our mind, we will literally feel ourselves and be in the pure land. If we can do this 100% of the time, we will have attained outer Dakini Land. With this understanding, we should strongly believe that we are in the pure land and the pure offerings are in front of us.