Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Finding others’ suffering unbearable doesn’t mean we suffer

(8.103) “There is no need to dispel everyone else’s suffering!”
This is not a valid argument.
If my suffering should be dispelled, so should everyone else’s;
And if others’ suffering should not be dispelled, neither should mine.

It is useful to also recall what we discussed in an earlier post.  If there is suffering in my world, then it is my suffering because it is taking place within my world/my mind.  Since we are not separate from our world, if there is suffering taking place anywhere within our world, it is our suffering.  This is especially true when we understand the emptiness of everything that takes place in our world.  It is all coming from our own mind. 

(8.104) “But such compassion will bring me suffering,
So why should I strive to develop it?”
How can compassion bring suffering?
It is the very nature of a peaceful mind!

We discussed this in an earlier post, but it is worth recalling the reasoning so we have no confusion or hesitation about generating compassion.  Our suffering is painful because we have body consciousness or mental consciousness with respect to these aggregates.  It is unbearable because we cherish our own well-being as important.  The suffering of others is not painful to us because we do not have body or mental consciousness with respect to their aggregates.  If we do not cherish them, then their suffering won’t harm us and we won’t care.  But we will then conventionally be a jerk, and ultimately we will be letting the cancer of suffering metastasize in the body of all living beings (which exists and is created by our own mind).  If we cherish them, then their suffering is not painful, but it is unbearable.  If there is attachment to others not suffering in our mind – in other words, we mistakenly think that our own happiness depends upon others not suffering – then when they suffer, we will suffer too.  We don’t suffer from their suffering, we suffer from the attachment in our mind.  But if our mind is free from attachment to them not suffering, we will find their suffering unbearable, but it won’t be suffering for us.  What will it be?  It will be a powerful energy to do something to help – a selfless mind wishing to help.  Such a mind is full of energy, but virtuous, so our mind will remain peaceful.  If we also then have wisdom knowing what can actually help to permanently free others from suffering, then we will be filled with powerful energy to do that thing.  What is that thing?  Attain enlightenment ourself so we can lead others to the same state.  The strength of our unbearability then drives us with great power to attain enlightenment.  It is what powers our bodhichitta.  Unbearability + wisdom knowing how to help = bodhichitta.  Bodhichitta is the most virtuous mind possible a living being can generate. 

The suffering of others cannot harm us because it is taking place within their body.  We do not suffer from their suffering.  If we cherish them, it is true we will find their suffering unbearable, but this is not a suffering for us.  Finding their suffering unbearable will induce within our mind love and compassion, which are virtuous minds that are the nature of inner peace.  Compassion also leads us to bodhichitta and enlightenment.  Finding their suffering unbearable also induces us to engage in virtuous actions, which is the cause of our future happiness.  Being clear about all of this will remove the residual doubt we have about generating compassion for all living beings and fearing that we will be crushed by all of the suffering we see in the world.   

(8.105) If, through one person experiencing relatively little suffering,
The infinite sufferings of living beings can be eliminated,
A kind-hearted Bodhisattva will gladly endure it
And delight in working for others.

(8.106) Thus, although the Bodhisattva Supushpachandra understood
That he would suffer at the hands of the king,
He did not seek to avoid his own death
But instead released many others from their suffering.

And even if we do need to endure a little bit more suffering as a result of our working for others, what is more important, the suffering of one or the freedom of countless?  The story of Supushpachandra is he knew he would be killed by the king if he went to an area and taught Dharma, but he also knew that he would lead thousands to liberation.  If we view the suffering and happiness of all beings as equally important, regardless of who is experiencing this, then it is perfectly logical to do this.

The story of Jesus also illustrates this perfectly.  He knew if he went to Jerusalem, he would be crucified, but in so doing, he would become a source of inspiration and refuge for billions in the future.  He underwent terrible suffering, but in so doing created a path for countless others.  He did so willingly because he valued the happiness of others as more important than his own.  Soldiers do the same when they go off to war to protect their homeland and firefighters do this when they jump into the blazes to save the family trapped inside.  We can happily be the same, willing to undergo any hardship in order to help others.

But let’s get real – what hardships do we really need to endure to travel the path?  The only things we actually need to abandon are the inner diseases of our delusions, which harm our inner peace anyways.  We travel a joyful path.  Sure, it might be easier in the short-run to abandon living beings when they grow too troublesome or problematic.  We do that, don’t we?  We are happy to be around others when they are happy, but as soon as they have problems, are down, depressed, or troubled, we say, “sorry you are feeling that way,” and we find our way out as quicky as we can.  My mom would call such people “fair weather friends.”  As kind-hearted bodhisattvas, we are the opposite of that.  We actively seek out those who everyone else has abandoned.  We seek to be the friend of the friendless, the one who is there for others in their hour of greatest need.  Does this involve some sacrifice?  Only of our selfish wishes, but as we already looked at before, our self-cherishing is the root of all our suffering.  What is bad for our self-cherishing is good for us. 

Happy Protector Day: Protector of the Bodhisattva’s Path

The 29th of every month is Protector Day.  This is part 6 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.

And on his head he wears a round and yellow hat.

This symbolizes his ability to help us gain the correct view of emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality.  We can understand how all things are like a dream, and how if we change our actions, we can change our karma and that will change the dream that appears to our mind.  In this way, we can become the architect of our own destiny, and cause this world of suffering to cease and the pure world of the Buddhas to arise.  If ever we have difficulty understanding emptiness, we can recall his hat and request that he bless our mind to be able to gain a correct understanding of emptiness.  We then imagine we receive his blessings and return to our Dharma book (or the teaching we are receiving) and try again.  If we still do not understand, we once again request blessings and repeat the cycle.  We can continue like this for as long as it takes.  Eventually, through the power of his blessings, we will understand. 

His hands hold a sword and a heart of compassion.

This symbolizes his ability to help us engage in Lamrim meditation, in particular the union of the vast and profound path.  The vast path is all of the Lamrim meditations for developing a good heart, leading up to bodhichitta, the wish to lead all beings to enlightenment.  The profound path refers to the wisdom realizing emptiness, that everything is like a dream.  Just as we did with trying to understand emptiness, when we are having difficulty with our Lamrim practice, we can recall this function of Dorje Shugden, request his blessings, receive his blessings and then try again.  Practicing in this way dramatically increases the power of our Lamrim meditation. 

To his followers he shows an expression of delight, but to demons and obstructors he displays a wrathful manner.

This symbolizes Dorje Shugden’s ability to love and care for us while destroying our delusions.  We need to make a distinction between ourselves and our delusions.  Just as a cancer patient is not his cancer, we are not the cancer of our delusions.  Many people fear Dorje Shugden because they know he can be quite wrathful, but this fear only arises because they identify with their delusions.  So when their delusions are challenged, they feel like they are challenged.  Whenever we have a delusion arise strongly in our mind, we can immediately remember Dorje Shugden and request his blessings to be able to happily accept our difficult circumstances understanding that what is bad for our delusions is good for us. 

He is surrounded by a vast, assembled retinue,

Such as Kache Marpo and so forth.

Dorje Shugden is like the general of a vast army of Dharma protectors, each of whom accomplishes a different function.  These can be understood from the explanation of the nature and function of Dorje Shugden in the book Heart Jewel and the Praise to the five lineages of Dorje Shugden explained in the extensive Dorje Shugden sadhana Melodious Drum Victorious in All Directions.  It is customary for large Dharma Centers around the world to practice Melodious Drum on every Protector Day, or at least once a year.  We can do so on our own at any time, including every Protector Day.

The five lineages of Dorje Shugden refer to the five principal deities of his mandala.  Each one corresponds with one of the five Buddha families, the five completely purified aggregates of a Buddha, and the five omniscient wisdoms.  Each of the principal deities is like a specific protector for each one of the five Buddha families, and through relying upon them we will be led to attain the five purified aggregates and the corresponding five omniscient wisdoms.

The principal deity is Dorje Shugden himself, who is the protector of the Akshobhya family, will guide us to completely purify our aggregate of consciousness and attain the wisdom of the Dharmadhatu.  The wisdom of the Dharmadhatu is an aggregate of consciousness completely purified of all our past contaminated karmic potentialities (also known as the two obstructions) and that knows directly and simultaneously all phenomena as manifestations of bliss and emptiness.  Vairochana Shugden is the protector of the Vairochana family.  Through relying upon him, we will completely purify our aggregate of form and gain mirror-like wisdom, which sees directly all phenomena as manifestation of bliss and emptiness.  Pema Shugden is the protector of the Amitabha family.  Through relying upon her, we will purify completely our aggregate of discrimination and attain the wisdom of individual realization, which is able to discriminate all objects individually as manifestations of bliss and emptiness.  Ratna Shugden is the protector of the Ratnasambhava family.  Through relying upon Ratna Shugden, we will purify completely our aggregate of feeling and attain the wisdom of equality, which experiences all phenomena equally as bliss and emptiness.  Karma Shugden is the protector of the Amoghasiddhi family.  Through relying upon Karma Shugden, we will purify completely our aggregate of compositional factors and attain the wisdom of accomplishing activities, which enables us to use a Buddha’s completely purified and developed mental factors as if they were are own.  For a more in depth understanding of the five aggregates, see How to Understand the Mind.

Dorje Shugden is also surrounded by the nine Great Mothers, the eight fully ordained monks, and the ten wrathful deities.  The nine mothers arrange the secret conditions necessary for our Dharma practice.  They are comprised of Lochanna, Mamaki, Benzharahi, and Tara which arrange the earth, water, fire, and air elements respectively for our practice; and the five offering goddesses who transform all of the various forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile objects into conditions for our practice.  The eight fully ordained monks arrange the inner conditions necessary for our practice.  They are the eight main bodhisattvas, including Vajrapani, Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Maitreya.  They manifest whatever is needed to tame disciples and protect those with commitments like their only child.  The ten wrathful deities arrange all of the outer conditions for our Dharma practice.  They subjugate the malevolent and guard all directions with various guises.  Kache Marpo is like the commander of the Dharma protector special forces who directs all the oath-bound attendents (spirit kings, wealth gods, nagas, celestial spirits, and so forth) who perform a host of actions to help arrange the mundane conditions for our Dharma practice. 

Light rays from my heart

Instantly invite the wisdom beings
From the sphere of nature
And from all the different palaces where they abide.
They become inseparable from the commitment beings.

We visualize a vast array of mundane and supermundane Dharma protectors filling the whole of space, all working tirelessly under the direction of Dorje Shugden to arrange all the outer, inner, and secret conditions for our Dharma practice.  As Heruka, we then imagine that light rays radiate from our heart and invite the wisdom beings – the actual deities of Dorje Shugden’s mandala – to enter into the commitment beings (those we have visualized). We then strongly believe that all of these protector deities are actually in the space in front of us and filling the universe accomplishing their special function.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Viewing all suffering as our own (without it hurting)

(8.97) But why should I protect others
If their suffering does me no harm?
If we cherish only others, we find their suffering hard to bear;
So we definitely need to protect them.

(8.98) It is not a wrong conception to think
That it will be I who experiences the future suffering,
Because it will not be another person who dies
And yet another who is reborn.

Why then do or should we protect others if their suffering does me no harm?  Why?  Why protect ourselves from future suffering, since likewise that presently does me no harm?  If we do not protect others from their suffering because it does not harm us, then likewise we should not protect ourself from future suffering because it does not harm ‘us’ either.  It will be the ‘self’ of the future.  Everything is impermanent.  If we do seek to protect ourselves from future suffering, then likewise we should protect others from their suffering.  There is no difference.

But we do feel the need to protect ourself from future suffering, even though it is a different self.  We are grateful to our past selves that created the karma for us to refind the Dharma in this life and generally speaking enjoy a good life.  If our past self had not been so considerate, we would have a difficult life right now.  Likewise, we go to school to have a good job later, we save our money to have enough during retirement.  These sorts of actions involve us working for somebody in the future who is not us now.  Why do we do that?  Because we see the relationship between ourself now and ourself then.  In exactly the same way, when we let go of the grasping at self and others and come to see all living beings as one body of living beings, when we see the inseparability and dependent relationship between ourself and others, then of course it makes sense to free others from suffering.  The hand removes the thorn from the foot. 

At a deeper level, from the perspective of exchanging self with others according to tantra where we impute our I onto all living beings, in the same way that it makes sense for this present self to protect that different self, the self of the future from their suffering, then so too it makes sense to protect a different self that is others’, the self of others, from their suffering.

(8.99) “Surely, whenever there is suffering,
It should be dispelled by whoever is experiencing it.”
Then, since the suffering of the foot is not the hand’s,
Why should the hand help to alleviate it?

(8.100) We alleviate the suffering of the foot with the hand
Because it is a specific method to relieve this pain.
It is also incorrect to grasp at an independent self and others –
Such grasping should be completely abandoned.

(8.101) Things that we call “continuums” or “collections”,
Such as rosaries or armies, are falsely existent.
Thus, there is no independent possessor of suffering,
For who is there who has control over it?

(8.102) Since there is no independent possessor of suffering,
There is no real difference between my own and others’ suffering.
Thus, we should dispel all suffering simply because it is painful –
Why cling to false distinctions with such certainty?

I love this line of reasoning.  It is so powerful.  We make a difference between overcoming our own suffering and that of others because we make a difference between ourself and others.  As the analogy we discussed in the last post, if each being is a separate part of the same whole, then just as the hand removes the suffering of the foot, we should remove the suffering of somebody else.  If we were paralyzed in our legs and did not feel them, but they nonetheless had gangrene, we would certainly deal with it even though we don’t feel that pain.  Why?  Because it is part of us.

Here Shantideva goes even further. We feel like we are suffering because we falsely grasp at there being an ‘us’ who is suffering.  We think we do not feel the suffering of others because we believe that they are inherently different, they are inherently different to us.  The suffering is that of others who are inherently other. That is what we feel, isn’t it? It is the suffering of others. Other being inherently other. How can it possibly be my suffering? There is no relationship between the two at all.  As Shantideva points out, there is no independent possessor of suffering. 

There is just suffering in the mind inside ‘this body.’  Likewise there is no independent possessor of others’ suffering.  There is just suffering in the mind inside ‘that body.’  Since there is no possessor of suffering anywhere, there is just suffering in the mind, and it is equally that of everybody.  The suffering of anybody is the suffering of everybody.  For this reason, we need to overcome all suffering, simply because it is suffering taking place within our mind.  We should not cling to false distinctions with such certainty.

What about the argument that there is still a difference because the suffering that takes place within my mental continuum is ‘mine’ and that that takes place within the continuum of others is ‘theirs?’  Shantideva answers this too in that there is no continuum either.  Continuum is just what we impute on the series of subject-object pairs.  Other than this, there is no continuum.  When we understand subtle impermanence, the self of this moment is different than the self of the last moment – different, but not separate.  Different, but not independent.  Conventionally the two are completely different.  They are just as different as self and other.  There is no difference between the other of our future mental continuum and others, so if we care for one we should care for the other.

If we find ourselves confused now and have no idea about who actually possesses or experiences suffering, then that is a good thing.  Because before we found that there was no confusion — my suffering is mine and everybody else’s is theirs. And that belief binds us to a life of suffering, keeps us in a world of suffering, doesn’t it?  What perhaps begins with certainty becomes doubt, and then eventually we will get a correct belief, then a valid cognizer, and ultimately a yogic direct perceiver.  It doesn’t matter if we do not have a perfect understanding straightaway.  We have to read these verses over and over and over again, contemplate and meditate on them until they make sense to us. It is worth the effort.

Happy Tsog Day: Transforming Adverse Conditions into the Path (part 1)

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 32 of a 44-part series.

The third to the seventh points of training the mind

Though the world and its beings, filled with the effects of evil,
Pour down unwanted suffering like rain,
This is a chance to exhaust the effects of negative actions;
Seeing this, I seek your blessings to transform adverse conditions into the path.

Sometimes people do not like the teachings on the sufferings of samsara because they think it is a very pessimistic way of thinking. And we believe that being an optimist is how to be happy. The solution to this dilemma is to be pessimist with respect to expecting samsara to ever deliver happiness, but an optimist with respect to our pure potential to become an enlightened being. Usually we do the opposite. We expect samsara to work and are then frustrated and disappointed when it does not.  We likewise do not believe that we are capable of accomplishing any of the spiritual grounds and paths and therefore, we do not commit ourselves to training in them. We need to reverse this. The truth is samsara is the nature of suffering. Just as it is the nature of fire to burn, so too it is the nature of samsara to always go wrong. It is exceedingly rare that things go right, and when they do it does not last very long and never works out in the way we had hoped.

Why is this not a pessimistic way of thinking? It all comes down to managing our own expectations. We all know the logic of managing others’ expectations. If someone asks us how long it will take to complete a report, we think to ourselves it will probably take one week, but we tell the other person it will take two weeks. Why do we do this? Because if we told them it will take one week, and it takes one week, they will just simply accept it. But if we tell them it will take two weeks, and then we deliver it in one week, they will think we did an outstanding job. In both cases, the job itself was still done in only one week, the difference is what people’s expectations were determined how they experienced what happens. In exactly the same way, if we always expect things to go wrong, and it does, then we just accept it. But if it winds up being better than we expected, then we are pleasantly surprised. Either way, we are happy. Gen-la Losang said we should expect nothing from samsara – absolutely zero. If we do, then we will never be disappointed and will sometimes be pleasantly surprised. Thus, if we wish to be optimistic in terms of effect, in other words being happy with what happens in life, then we need to be pessimistic with respect to what we expect will happen.

There are two types of experience in samsara – pleasant experiences and unpleasant experiences. We can transform pleasant experiences into the path through the tantric teachings, as explained before during the tsog offering. And we can transform unpleasant experiences into the path through the Lojong teachings. In this way, no matter what we experience, it serves as fuel for our spiritual development, and therefore is not a problem.

What are some ways that we can transform adverse conditions into the path? Geshe-la explains in Universal Compassion that we can do so by means of method and by means of wisdom. By means of method means we use the adverse circumstance to increase our renunciation or bodhicitta. When something bad happens to us, we can view it as a reminder that if we wish to escape from suffering permanently, we must escape from samsara. When something bad happens to others, we can view it as a reminder that we must become a Buddha so that we can free all other living beings from samsara. Further, patiently accepting when bad things happen functions to purify the negative karma that is ripening. In this way we can gradually exhaust the effects of our negative actions. If we also refrain from engaging in new negative actions, it is just a question of time for our karma changes. To transform adverse conditions by means of wisdom means to recall that our self, the suffering, and whatever gave rise to suffering, are all equally empty of inherent existence. They are all mere karmic appearances to mind. Instead of grasping at some things as being good and other things as being bad, we can experience all things equally as the dance of bliss and emptiness.

Father’s Day for a Kadampa

As Kadampas, we often talk about the kindness of our mothers; but I think on Father’s Day it is equally important that we reflect on fathers.  Just as all living beings have been our mother, so too all living beings have been our father.  It is equally valid to view all living beings as our kind fathers.  Fathers, especially modern ones, often help us in many of the same ways as described in the meditations on the kindness of our mothers.  They could have insisted our mother had an abortion, but instead they chose to keep us.  They provided us with a roof over our head, food on our plate and clothes on our body.  They changed our diapers, taught us to walk, run and so forth.  As we grow older, fathers give us our sense of values, teach us about a solid work ethic, encourage us to push ourselves and reach for the stars.  By expecting so much of us, we rise to the occasion.  We each have different relationships with our fathers, so we should take the time to reflect on all of the different ways our father has helped us and generate a genuine feeling of gratitude.

Most of the time we take what our parents, especially our father, does for granted.  In fact, usually we feel no matter how much our father does for us, it is never enough.  We always expect more and then become upset that they didn’t provide it.  We feel it is our parent’s job to do everything for us, and when they don’t we become angry with them.  Actually, our parent’s job is to teach us how to do things for ourselves – and that necessarily means many instances of “helping us most by not helping us.”  Not helping us is sometimes the best way our parents can help us because it forces us to develop our own abilities and experience with life.  So instead of being angry at our fathers for what they didn’t do for us, we should be grateful for what they did do.  We should especially be grateful for what they didn’t do, because this is what helped us become independent, functioning adults.  We should look deep into our mind, identify the delusions and resentments we have towards our father, and make a concerted effort to remove them.  There is no greater Father’s Day gift we can provide than healing our mind of all delusions towards him.

There is no denying it, our fathers appear to have a great number of delusions.  Whether they actually have these delusions or are just Buddhas putting on a good show for us, there is no way to tell.  But the point is the same:  they conventionally appear to have delusions, and they tend to pass those delusions on to us.  Part of our job as a child is to identify the delusions of our father, then find those same delusions within ourselves, and then root them out fully and completely.  That way we don’t pass on these delusions down to future generations.  We should also encourage our own kids to identify our delusions and to remove them from their own mind.  We have trouble seeing our own delusions, but fortunately our kids can see them quite clearly!  In Confucian societies, they place a lot of emphasis on their relationship with their ancestors.  We need to recall the good qualities and values of our ancestors and pass those along; but we also need to identify their delusions and put an end to their lineage.  Doing this is actually an act of kindness towards our father because we limit the negative karma they accumulate (remember, the power of karma increases over time, largely due to these karmic aftershocks) by preventing the ripple effects of their negativity from going any further.

But I believe for a Kadampa, Father’s Day is about so much more than just remembering the kindness of our physical father.  I believe it is even more important to recall the kindness of our spiritual father, our Spiritual Guide.  My regular father gave birth to me as a person, but it is my spiritual father who gave birth to the person I want to become.  All the meaning I have in my life comes through the kindness of my spiritual father.  He has provided me with perfectly reliable teachings, empowerments into Highest Yoga Tantra practices, constant blessings, a worldwide spiritual family, and Dharma centers where I can learn and accumulate vast merit.  He believes in me and helps me believe in my own spiritual potential.  He has given me the wisdom to navigate through some of the hardest moments of my life, and he has promised to be with me, helping me, until the end of time.  There is no one kinder than my spiritual father.  I owe him everything.  Like my regular father, I have taken his kindness for granted.  I fail to appreciate what he has provided, and I have been negligent when it comes to praying for his long life – something I know I will regret deeply when it is already too late.

My spiritual father also emanates himself in the form of Lama Tsongkhapa, who reveals the paths of Lamrim, Lojong and Vajrayana Mahamudra.  Lama Tsongkhapa resides at my heart and guides me through every day.  If only I can learn to surrender myself completely to him, he promises to work through me to ripen and liberate all those I love.  My spiritual father also emanates himself in the form of my Dharma protector, Dorje Shugden.  Dorje Shugden is my best friend.  Ever since the first day I started relying upon him, the conditions for my practice – both outer and inner – have gotten better and better.  This does not mean he has made my life comfortable, far from it!  He has pushed me to my limits, and sometimes beyond, but always in such a way that I am spiritually better off for having gone through the challenge.  Dorje Shugden’s wisdom blessings help me overcome my attachment, my anger and my ignorance.  I quite literally resolve 95% of my delusions simply by requesting Dorje Shugden arrange whatever is best for my spiritual development, and then trusting that he is doing so.  Geshe-la is my father.  Je Tsongkhapa is my father.  Dorje Shugden is my father.  My spiritual father also provides for me my Yidam.  A Yidam is the deity we try become ourselves, in my case Guru Father Heruka.  He provides me the ideal I strive to become like.

Father’s Day for me is also more than remembering the kindness of my spiritual father, but it is also appreciating the opportunity I have to be a father myself.  I have always been way too intellectual and have found it difficult to have heart-felt feelings.  Before I got married, I went to the Protector Gompa at Manjushri and asked for a sign whether I should get married or not.  I then had a very clear vision of a Buddha approach me and hand me a baby saying, “this is where you will find your heart.”  Being a father has taught me what it means to love another person, to be willing to do anything to help another person.  I use the love I feel for my children as my example of how I should feel towards everyone else.  Father’s Day is a celebration of that and an appreciation of the opportunity to be a father.  More often than not, fathers mistakenly believe Father’s Day is about their children showing (for once!) some appreciation for all that a father does, then when the gratitude doesn’t come they feel let down.  I think a Kadampa father should have exactly the opposite outlook.  Father’s Day is not about receiving gratitude, it is the day where we should try live up fully to be the father we want to become.  It is about us giving love, not receiving gratitude.

Many people are not yet fathers, or maybe they never will be in this life.  But just as everyone has been our father, so too we have been a father to everyone.  We can correctly view each and every living being as our child, and we should love them as a good father would.  The beating heart of bodhichitta is the mind of superior intention, which takes personal responsibility for the welfare of others.  That is what being a father is all about.  We need to adopt the mind that views all beings as our children, and assume personal responsibility for their welfare, both in this life and in all their future lives.  The father we seek to become like is our spiritual father.  What is a Buddha if not a father of all?  This, to me, is the real meaning of Father’s Day.

A Pure Life: Do not Steal

This is part six of a 12-part series on how to skillfully train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts.  The 15th of every month is Precepts Day, when Kadampa practitioners around the world typically take and observe the Precepts.

The object of stealing is anything that someone else regards as their own.  This includes other living beings.  If we take something that no one claims to possess, the action of stealing is not complete.  Like with killing, the intention must include a correct identification of the object of stealing, a determination to steal, and our mind must be influenced by delusion, usually desirous attachment, but sometimes out of hatred of wishing to harm our enemy.  It can also sometimes be out of ignorance thinking such stealing is justified such as not paying taxes or fines, or stealing from our employer, downloading pirated music or videos, etc.  Stealing also requires preparation.  It may be done secretly or openly, using methods such as bribery, blackmail, or emotional manipulation.  Finally, it must also include completion.  The action is complete when we think to ourself ‘this object is now mine.’

In modern life we have countless opportunities to steal and we often take advantage of most of them.  Common examples include not giving money back when we have been given too much change at the store, accidentally walking out with some good we didn’t purchase and not making an effort to go back and pay for it, stealing work supplies from work for our personal use, stealing our employers time by doing personal things on company time beyond what is conventionally acceptable in your work place (most work environments allow you a limited amount of personal administrative time.  The point is do not go beyond what is intended by your employer).  Another very common form of stealing is lying on our taxes so that we pay less arguing our government is wasteful.  We come up with all sorts of justifications for why this is OK, but it is still stealing. 

Stealing can also include saying certain clever things to cause something to come to us when it would otherwise normally go to somebody else.  One of the most common forms of stealing these days is downloading pirated music or videos, or copying and using software we didn’t pay for.  Again, our rationalizations for such behavior know no limits, but it is still stealing.  The test for whether we are stealing or not is very simple:  if we asked the other person would they say its legitimately ours?  If not, it was stealing.

Stealing is incredibly short-sighted.  Anybody who feels tempted to steal should take a few hours driving through a really poor neighborhood or they should go visit a very poor country or watch a documentary on global poverty.  You can find plenty of material just on YouTube.  When we see these things, we should remind ourselves that this is our future if we steal.  When we steal, we create the causes to have nothing in the future.  Giving is the cause of wealth, taking is the cause of poverty.  It is as simple as that.  Why are Bill Gates and Warren Buffet so rich?  Because they have the mental habits on their mind to give away everything.  Because they did this in the past, they became incredibly rich in this life.  Because they are again giving away all of their wealth, in future lives they will again be incredibly rich.  Just as they are external philanthropists, a Bodhisattva is an inner philanthropist.  We seek vast inner wealth so that we can have even more to give away.

There are also many subtle forms of stealing that occur due to the way we have structured our economy. As many of you know I am in economist by training. I very much believe in free markets as the least bad way of organizing an economy. However, the optimal effects of the market only occur when there is what is called perfect competition. When there is perfect competition, excess profits are competed away and both consumers and producers are as good off as they could possibly be on the aggregate. But when markets are not perfectly competitive, markets do not produce optimal results. For example, if a company has a monopoly on the sale of a certain good that everybody needs, it can charge extraordinarily high prices and people will be forced to pay. The company intentionally restricts production to drive the prices higher than would otherwise exist in a perfectly competitive market. As a result, they extract a surplus in profit not due to the quality of their product, but rather by virtue of their market power. Extracting this surplus profit is a form of stealing from the consumers and also from society as a whole because not as much of the good is produced as would otherwise be the case.  It is beyond the scope of this blog to outline them, but there are many examples of market power being used for selfish purposes. 

At a personal level, the point is we need to be aware of the situations in which we have some form of market power over others and to not take advantage of our more powerful position to extract greater profits then we are justifiably due. If we fail to do this, it is a form of stealing. Likewise, if we live in a society in which corporations have disproportionate power and enjoy political protection for their monopolistic behavior, if we vote for or lend political support for such policy knowing that it is a form of stealing, then we are also engaged in a subtle form of stealing. The point is this, we live in a society and we have a say in how that society is run. If we use our political power for selfish purposes or to support those who do so, then are these not karmic actions that have karmic effects? This is not mixing Dharma with politics; this is understanding that the actions we engage in have effects on those around us and we must take that into account when choosing our actions.  I would not say that all of this is a violation of our Mahayana precept to abandon stealing, but it is once again a directional question. Are our actions moving in the direction of stealing or are they moving in the direction of not stealing. That is the question.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Why compassion doesn’t hurt

Shantideva goes on to say:

(8.92) The suffering I experience
Does not harm others,
But I find it hard to bear
Because I cherish myself.

(8.93) Likewise, the suffering of others
Does not harm me,
But, if I cherish others,
I shall find their suffering hard to bear.

This is a very clever line of reasoning.  To understand it, we need to make a clear distinction between “being harmed” and “finding something unbearable.”  Sometimes people think compassion means we are equally harmed by the suffering of others, and to find their suffering unbearable means we find it equally painful.  If this was the case, who would ever want to generate compassion since it would be a cause of infinite suffering.  Surely it would be better to remain in different to the suffering of others than to experience all suffering.  Therefore, making this distinction is crucial.

From a conventional point of view, if I break my arm, it harms me and not others.  If find this harm both painful and unbearable.  It is painful because it was my arm that was broken.  It is unbearable because I cherish my own happiness and well-being as being important.  It is perfectly possible for me to find this experience painful (since it is my arm that was broken), but perfectly bearable because I don’t consider my well-being to be particularly important. 

Now imagine somebody else breaks their arm.  From a conventionally point of view, this does not harm me, but it does harm others.  It is harmful to them because it is painful to them.  Their pain is not my pain.  Their pain does not harm me.  Everyone knows this.  If I do not care about their well-being, then their pain will also be perfectly bearable for me.  It is not my problem.  For them, however, this experience is definitely painful because it is their arm that is broken.  It may or may not be bearable for them depending on whether they cherish themselves or not.  If I do care about their well-being, and I consider it to be important, then their pain will not be harmful to me, but it will be unbearable. 

Pain, or harm, is a function of whether we are imputing our I onto an aggregate of feeling of something that is harmed.  Bearability is function of whether we consider the happiness and well-being of that person to be important. 

But unbearability does not necessarily mean we suffer from it.  Whether we suffer from the unbearability of other’s suffering depends upon whether we have attachment to others well being or whether we are free from such attachment.  To be attached to others’ well-being means we think our own happiness depends upon them not suffering.  That’s what attachment to anything means – we think our happiness depends upon some external factor.  If we have attachment to this person not suffering, their breaking their arm will be both unbearable to us AND it will be experienced by us as suffering.

Therefore, for compassion – finding others suffering to be unbearable – to NOT be suffering for us, our mind must be free from attachment to other people suffering.  If we have attachment, we will suffer from their suffering.  If our mind is free from such attachment, we will still find their suffering unbearable (because we consider their happiness and well being to be important), but we won’t experience that unbearability as suffering.  How will we experience it, then?  To be unbearable means we can’t just sit there and do nothing about it.  We feel compelled to do something because it is unbearable. 

This is where our wisdom comes in.  What do we feel compelled to do?  If we lack wisdom, we might get mad at the other person for whatever it is they did to break their arm, hoping that our anger will deter them from making similar mistakes again in the future.  Maybe that will help, but most likely not.  But what will help?  Us becoming a Buddha.  If we become a Buddha, then we can gradually help others change the basis of imputation of their I onto an enlightened being whose arms never break.  We see the only lasting solution to their suffering is for them to attain liberation and enlightenment themselves.  How can we bring that about?  By we ourselves first attaining enlightenment for their benefit – we attain enlightenment with the express purpose of being able to in the future lead these people to freedom.  The strong feeling of unbearability, that is free from attachment to them not suffering, and that possesses the wisdom that actually knows what is beneficial to others is the pure mind of compassion that is the substantial cause of a qualified bodhichitta.  This unbearability will push us to become a Buddha.  If we have attachment or we lack wisdom knowing what can actually help, this unbearability could lead to ourself suffering at best and us feeling the need to control others at worst. 

The key here is understanding we don’t have to be harmed by suffering to find suffering unbearable. We are harmed by suffering, we find suffering then unbearable, but we do not have to be harmed by suffering in order to find suffering unbearable.  If we have wisdom and are free from attachment to others not suffering, finding the suffering of others unbearable naturally leads to love, compassion and virtuous actions, which creates the causes for our future happiness. 

But what do we do about our own suffering?  We may still be harmed because we are in samsara, but if we do not cherish ourself at all, then we will find the suffering we experience to be entirely bearable.  It will not be important, just as the suffering of others is unimportant to us now.  Indeed, when we let go of thinking that our own experience is important, we find whatever pain we are experiencing to be eminently more bearable, and this creates the space within our mind to actually be able to transform our suffering into something useful for the spiritual path.  Then, not only will it be bearable, we will start to understand Shantideva when he says “suffering has many good qualities.”  For us, it will still be painful, but so beneficial.  Then, others suffering will not be our problem.  Our suffering won’t be our problem.  Others’ suffering will be a cause of our enlightenment.  Our suffering will be a cause of our enlightenment.  Perfect!

But if we cherish only others, won’t we suffer from the suffering of everybody?  No, because we do not experience their suffering.  So by cherishing others, we do not experience their suffering, but we find it unbearable and so we are lead into spiriutal paths.  And by not cherishing ourselves, we find our own suffering entirely bearable, so it is not a problem for us at all.  In short, we put our cherishing where it can’t be harmed – others.  Shantideva’s wisdom is unparalleled.

Happy Tsog Day: Putting Others First in Thought and Deed

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 31 of a 44-part series.

Exchanging self with others

In short, since the childish are concerned for themselves alone,
Whereas Buddhas work solely for the sake of others,
I seek your blessings to distinguish the faults and benefits,
And Thus, be able to exchange myself with others.

Since cherishing myself is the door to all faults
And cherishing mother beings is the foundation of all good qualities,
I seek your blessings to take as my essential practice
The yoga of exchanging self with others.

To exchange our self with others means to cherish only other living beings. This mind is the natural conclusion of the previous contemplations. If there is no advantage and only suffering that comes from cherishing ourselves and only advantages and happiness that comes from cherishing others, it follows that we should not cherish ourselves at all and cherish only others.

We might object, “if we do not cherish ourselves at all then who will take care of us?” The answer is we do not need to cherish ourselves to take care of ourselves. It is perfectly possible to take care of ourselves – feed our body, get adequate rest, and meet all our other needs – for the sake of cherishing others. For example, if we starve or become sick because we are not caring for ourselves, then we are not able to help others. Indeed, the mind of bodhichitta, which we will discuss later, seeks to acquire every good quality for the sake of others. There is no contradiction whatsoever between improving ourselves, taking care of ourselves, and cherishing only others.

How can we generate the mind of exchanging self with others? As with abandoning self-cherishing and cherishing others, it suffices for us to contemplate the advantages of doing so and then make the determination to cherish only others. The more familiarity we gain with this determination, the more our behavior will become consistent with it. Fundamentally it is simply a question of familiarity. We need to make effort every day, month after month, life after life, to come to cherish only others. With familiarity this mind will come. Once it does, as explained before, enlightenment will naturally follow.

In chapter eight of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva explains a special method for generating the mind of exchanging self with others. He encourages us to identify with people who we normally generate pride, competitiveness, or jealousy towards. We put ourselves in their shoes and look back upon our old self. For example, we usually generate pride towards someone who we think is inferior to us in some way. When we put ourselves in their shoes and look back at our arrogant old self, we can see very clearly our selfish and deluded behavior and can realize what the other the person needs from us. Seeing ourselves from the perspective of others is a powerful way for undermining and ultimately destroying our self-cherishing attitude.

According to Highest Yoga Tantra, we can exchange self with others by simply imputing our “I” onto all living beings thinking that we are now them. And then we can impute “other” onto our old self. On the basis of these new imputations, we cherish our new self and can completely neglect our old self. All these practices can give rise to misinterpretations of what it means, but if we put the instructions into practice sincerely and try approach it in the way it was intended, we can naturally overcome these doubts and hesitations.

Taking and giving

Therefore, O Compassionate, Venerable Guru, I seek your blessings
So that all the suffering, negativities, and obstructions of mother sentient beings
Will ripen upon me right now;
And through my giving my happiness and virtue to others,
May all migrating beings be happy.  (3x)

This is the only verse in the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide that has five lines. Geshe-la explains in Great Treasury of Merit this is to indicate the special importance of this practice. In Universal Compassion, Geshe-la explains that the practice of taking and giving is the synthesis of our Lojong trainings. All the previous meditations on exchanging self with others, great compassion, and wishing love all find their final conclusion in the practice of taking and giving.

The practice here is quite simple: first we generate a mind of compassion for all living beings, and then we generate the superior intention to ourselves protect others from their suffering. With this mind, we then imagine we take on all the suffering of others in the form of black smoke which comes to our heart and destroys our self-cherishing mind completely. We then generate a mind of wishing love, wishing that others experience only pure happiness, and we once again generate a superior intention to assume personal responsibility to help others be happy. We then imagine that from our heart infinite light rays radiate out in all directions bestowing upon all living beings pure and everlasting happiness. Imagining that we have taken away all their suffering and bestowed upon them perfect happiness, we then generate a mind of joy strongly believing that we have done so.

The doubt may arise that we have not actually taken on the suffering of others or given them happiness. This doubt then prevents us from generating joy, feeling that we have not engaged in the practice. There are several lines of thought we can use to overcome this doubt. First, others do not inherently exist. They are not inherently suffering, nor are they inherently unhappy. That is simply how they are appearing to us based upon our past karma with them. The practice of taking and giving is similar to our tantric practices of bringing the result into the path. Engaging in the practice of taking and giving creates a new karma which causes the beings of our karmic dream to appear to be free from suffering and experiencing everlasting happiness. This is a way of karmically reconstructing the empty beings of our dream. Second, we do not generate joy believing others have been freed from their suffering and so forth because we believe they inherently have, rather we generate joy because strongly believing we have done this is how we complete the mental action of taking and giving. In other words, generating the mind of joy believing we have taken on their suffering and bestowed upon them happiness is how we complete the mental action of taking and giving, which then gives us all the karmic benefits of the practice.

We can engage in the practice of taking and giving at any time. One powerful way of doing this is to mount the practice of taking giving upon the breath. As we inhale, we imagine that we take on all the suffering of living beings. And as we exhale, we imagine that we bestow upon others everlasting happiness. There is a close relationship between our breath and our mind. If we mount the virtuous practice of taking giving upon our breath, it will function to purify our inner energy winds. If our inner energy winds are purified, then our mind will naturally also become purified.

Happy Tara Day: Tara can dispel all outer and inner obstacles

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

Praising Tara by her divine actions of dispelling conflicts and bad dreams

Homage to you who are honoured by the kings of the hosts of gods,
And the gods and the kinnaras.
Through your joyful and shining pervasive armour
All conflicts and bad dreams are dispelled.

These are particularly practical ways we can rely upon Tara.  We all, from time to time, experience conflict and bad dreams in our life.  Every time we find ourself in some sort of conflict, we can recall Tara’s swift ability to dispel conflicts, and recite her mantra with strong faith requesting that she do so.  Ultimately, all conflict is sustained by anger, attachment, and self-grasping – in either ourself of those we are in a conflict with (usually both).  When we recite her mantra, we should request that she dispel the inner causes of our conflict from all concerned.  For myself, much of my work revolves around the U.S.-China relationship, which is obviously plagued by different types of conflict.  To help dispel this conflict, I try generate pure view of the Consulate I work for and my boss as emanations of Tara and request that through them both, all conflict between China and the United States can be dispelled. 

Tara is also helpful for dispelling bad dreams.  When I was very young, I had a few particularly scary bad dreams, and became terrified of having more.  Every night when I would go to sleep, I would pray, “please please please please (repeated millions of times) protect me from bad dreams.”  It actually worked, and after I started praying like this when I went to bed, I had very few bad dreams.  Later, when I became a father myself, my kids started having bad dreams, and I taught them Tara’s mantra and gave them small Tara statues to hold in their hand as they went to sleep to protect them against bad dreams.  Their bad dreams became much less afterwards, almost without fail.

Praising Tara by her divine actions of dispelling diseases

Homage to you whose two eyes, like the sun or the full moon,
Radiate a pure, clear light.
Saying HARA twice and TUTTARA,
You dispel the most violent, infectious diseases.

When the Coronavirus first broke out, Geshe-la advised Kadampas around the world to do Tara practice due to her power to dispel violent, infectious diseases.  Some centers did 24-hour Tara pujas on Tara day every month for some time.  The way these work is every four hours, one engages in the Liberation from Sorrow sadhana, and recites the praises to the twenty-one Taras seven times each session.  While it is true the coronavirus still spread all over the world, but we cannot say it would not have spread worse if such actions were not performed.  If we have faith in Tara, there is no doubt that such actions help and perhaps saved many, many lives. 

Praising Tara by her divine actions of subduing evil spirits and zombies

Homage to you who have the perfect power of pacifying
Through your blessing of the three thatnesses;
Subduer of the hosts of evil spirits, zombies and givers of harm,
O TURE, most excellent and supreme!

In many ways, this verse is like the summary of all of the previous verses.  It refers to her power to pacify, bestow blessings (in particular of the wisdom realizing emptiness, or thatness), and subdue outer and inner obstructions.  She truly is most excellent and supreme!

This concludes the praise of the root mantra
And the twenty-one homages.

Normally, we talk of these praises as to the twenthy-one Taras, but here we are also reminded that these are also praises of Tara’s mantra.  In Buddhism, we often describe things as existing at gross, subtle, and very subtle levels.  Green Tara is the gross deity, her mantra is like a subtle emanation of Tara, and the Dharmakaya is the very subtle version of Tara.  In this way, we can understand the mantra as like a bridge between the Tara we normally know and definitive Tara.  With sufficient faith in and understanding the nature of the mantra, reciting the mantra has exactly the same function and power as reciting the twenty-one homages. 

Benefits of recitation of this Sutra

The wise who recite this with strong faith
And perfect devotion to the Goddess,
In the evening and upon arising at dawn,
Will be granted complete fearlessness by remembering her.

A qualified mind of refuge has two main parts, fear of samsara and faith in the three jewels.  Normally, we don’t have much difficulty generating faith, but for our faith to have any meaning, it must be informed by an appropriate fear of samsara.  Without this, our Dharma practice just becomes feel-goodism.  But with healthy wisdom fears of samsara and faith in the three jewels, we are pushed to engage in Dharma practices, such as replying upon Mother Tara.  Through this we attain fearlessness in two ways.  First, because we will have a powerful protector at our side; and second, because we will gain inner Dharma realizations, which provide us with permanent protection from all suffering.  In particular, we need the wisdom that knows how to transform adversity into the path to enlightenment.  Normally we fear things that can harm us.  Most of samsara’s sufferings can harm us only because we don’t know how to transform experiencing them into causes of our enlightenment.  But through relying upon Tara, we can gain this wisdom, and then we will have nothing to fear.  We receive this protection merely “by remembering her” because wherever you imagine a Buddha, a Buddha actually goes; and wherever a Buddha goes, they perform their function, which is to bestow blessings.  In other words, by merely remembering Tara, she comes swiftly to our side and then blesses our mind to gain wisdom realizations.  The sadhana says we need to rely upon her with perfect devotion.  What does that mean practically?  It means we move beyond simply having faith in her to actively working to accomplish her wishes in the world.  Somebody who is devoted moves beyond inner faith to practical action.  Tara’s main wish is for the pure Kadam Lamrim of Atisha flourish throughout the world, both externally and internally.  If we are to enjoy complete fearlessness, we need to not only rely upon her, but to actively devote ourselves to realizing her pure wishes.

Through the complete purification of all negativity
They will destroy all paths to the lower realms.
They will swiftly be granted empowerment
By the seventy million Conquerors.

The cause of lower rebirth is negative karma on our mind.  The quality of mind we generate at the moment of our death determines the quality of our next rebirth – a negative mind will activate negative karma resulting in a lower rebirth, a positive mind will active virtuous karma resulting in an upper rebirth, and a pure mind will active pure karma resulting in a rebirth outside of samsara.  Avoiding a negative mind at the time of death will help protect us from a lower rebirth, but the only way to destroy all paths to the lower realms is through the complete purification of all our negative karma.  If we have no negative karma remaining on our mind, even if we generate a negative mind at the time of death, there will be no negative throwing karma to activate and it will be impossible for us to take lower rebirth.  Tara’s blessings can help us purify swiftly all of our negative karma, and we can recite her mantra as a practice of purification similar to Vajrasattva practice. 

Relying upon Tara also creates the causes for us to receive the empowerments of all the Buddhas.  What is an empowerment?  During an empowerment, our Spiritual Guide places within our mental continuum a personalized emanation of the deity who will remain with us between now and our eventual attainment of that deity.  This emanation is our personal yidam, or personal deity.  By virtue of this emanation, we can gradually learn to identify with the pure body and mind of the deity and gain the ability to use these as if they were our own.  Tara is the mother of all Buddhas, and all Buddhas respect and are devoted to their mother.  When we rely upon Tara, all of her children – the Buddhas – then come into action to help fulfill their mother’s wish for us.  They do so by granting us empowerment.

Happy Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day: Taking our Place in the Lineage

Today is Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day when we celebrate and remember Buddha’s kindness in teaching Dharma to the beings of this world.  Today is a particularly blessed day when the karma we create is multiplied by ten million times, so it is a good idea to make every second count.  As Kadampas, June 4th is also Venerable Geshe-la’s birthday.  Of course it is, what other day would he be born on?  To mark this day, I would like to share my thoughts on why it is important to pray for Geshe-la’s long life, how we can appreciate Buddha’s kindness in turning the Wheel of Dharma, what it means to turn the Wheel of Dharma over time, and the many different ways we can choose to take our place in the lineage.

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.

Why it is Important to Pray for Geshe-la’s Long Life

Not only is today important because it is Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day, but also because today is Geshe-la’s birthday.  At Kadampa Festivals, special events, and perhaps also in our daily practice, we frequently pray for the long life of our precious spiritual guide, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.  Sometimes, if we are honest with ourselves, we are tired towards the end of these long teaching or meditation sessions, and so we internally groan a bit at the thought of doing the long-life prayers because we want the session to end, etc.  There is nothing wrong with admitting these thoughts arise in our mind, what matters is that when they do, we recognize them as deceptive and recall why it is important to pray for Geshe-la’s long life.

The Spiritual Guide plays an indispensable role in our spiritual life.  It is helpful to consider why different realms appear to different beings.  Generally speaking, with the exception of humans, animals, and some gods, beings of one realm can’t see beings of other realms.  Why is this?  Because the world that appears to any one being depends upon that person’s karma.  Hell beings don’t see other realms because their minds are so impure they only see impurity.  We do not see god realms for the same reason.  The world of the Buddhas is completely pure, and so utterly beyond our scope of appearance.  As a result, even though pure lands pervade everywhere, we are completely blind to them and the teachings and enlightened actions of the Buddhas are essentially beyond our reach.  But the spiritual guide bridges the pure world of the Buddhas and our impure human world.  Despite their mind being in the pure land, they are nonetheless able to appear in our world and to our minds.  Through developing a relationship with the spiritual guide, we are able to learn about and ultimately gain access to the pure lands and all the blessings of the Buddhas.  Without the spiritual guide appearing in our world, and more specifically in our lives, we would have no idea about the existence of pure worlds, much less the paths for reaching them. 

In Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe-la says:

“It is very important to keep a pure view of our Spiritual Guide’s outer aspect and not to be misled into thinking that just because he appears as an ordinary being he is an ordinary being. We must always remember that his apparent ordinariness is itself a manifestation of his enlightened qualities. If he were to display extraordinary qualities and miracle powers these would not benefit us in the least, but by appearing in a form to which we can relate and giving us unmistaken advice he gives us immeasurable help. Indeed, it is this very ability to appear in an ordinary form while performing the actions of a Buddha that reveals his real miracle powers and skilful means.”

It is also important to remember that the spiritual guide appearing in our life is a dependent-arising.  If we do not create the causes for him to appear in our life, he simply won’t.  There are billions of people on earth who have no idea who Geshe-la is, much less having him appear directly in their lives.  The difference is we have created the karma for him to appear in our lives and others have not.

I once asked Geshe-la, “I realize that if I continue to find you in all of my future lives without interruption, my eventual enlightenment is guaranteed.  Please give me a method to 100% guarantee that I meet you in all of my future lives without interruption.”  He replied, “concentrate on practicing Dharma and always keep faith.”  The Dharma we practice comes from his instructions.  When we put it into practice, we do two things.  First, we create a closer karmic relationship with him because every instruction functions to take us closer to its origin.  Second, we actually mix our mind with his.  His instructions are not separate from his mind but are rather aspects of his mind.  When we put his instructions into practice, we quite literally are bringing his mind into our mind, or more precisely, we are making his mind manifest in our own.  Geshe-la’s answer also says we need to keep faith.  It is not enough to meet him again in our future lives, but we also need to continue to have faith in him.  Keeping faith now creates the tendencies in our mind to continue to have faith in him when we meet him again in our future lives.

But the supreme method for having him appear in our life is to pray for his long life.  Why?  When we pray for his long life, we are requesting him to continue to appear in this world and that he continues to turn the wheel of Dharma for ourselves and all others.  This mental action directly creates the cause for him to appear in our life.  There are two levels at which we can engage in the long-life prayers – for ourselves and for others. 

For ourselves, we can consider without him appearing in our life, we would have no spiritual life at all.  We wish for that to continue and so we pray that he remains in this world forever.  We might think, “Geshe-la is already appearing in my life and he isn’t teaching any more, so it really doesn’t make much difference whether he continues to live a long life – he is not teaching anyways!”  Such a way of thinking is completely wrong.  Many people enter the path, but then their enthusiasm for practicing wanes until eventually what was the passion of their life becomes a hobby and eventually becomes something they did before.  Some people even generate negative minds towards Geshe-la or the NKT and then lose everything.  In this way, he ceases to appear in their lives and they lose all faith.  Sincerely praying for his long life is like a spiritual insurance policy against such an outcome.  Further, even if we continue to have deep faith in him, our praying for him to remain in this world forever creates the causes for him to be reborn in this world and for us to find him again in our future lives so we can pick up where we left off. 

For others, we can think, “it is not enough for him to appear in my life, but he needs to remain forever in this world for the sake of others.”  We have already found him and we know what a difference that has made in our lives, we wish him to continue to appear in this world so he can bring similar benefit to others.  Look at how many hundreds of thousands of people Geshe-la has touched in just his time in the West.  Now imagine him remaining until samsara ends.  As long as he remains in this world, he will tirelessly work to lead others to enter into, progress along, and complete the path to enlightenment.  This is how they can escape their samsaric suffering.  Not only do such prayers help others, but by praying that he appears for them, we also create the karma for him to appear in all of our future lives because whatever we pray for others, we create the causes to obtain also for ourselves. 

I encourage everyone to take advantage of this holy day by engaging sincerely in Geshe-la’s long-life prayers.  If we don’t have them or we don’t know them, we can download them for free.  We can also download for free a special prayer called Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche from his Faithful Disciples that accomplishes similar functions.  What better way to mark his birthday than to pray for him to remain in this world forever turning the Wheel of Dharma?

Appreciating Buddha’s Kindness in Turning the Wheel of Dharma

When Prince Siddhartha left the palace, he promised his parents that he would return to share with them what he learned for how to overcome birth, aging, sickness, and death.  He could have just attained liberation for himself and enjoyed eternal peace, but instead, he decided to attain full enlightenment so he could lead all living beings – including ourselves – to the same state.  In other words, he had us specifically in mind when he attained enlightenment.  He did so for us.  It is for us that he came out of meditative equipoise and began teaching.

If Buddha hadn’t turned the Wheel of Dharma, nobody in this world would have ever even heard of Buddhism, much less had the opportunity to practice it.  How many billions of people over thousands of years have been beneficially touched by his decision to come out of meditation and teach for the rest of us. 

When we consider these things, we need to make it personal.  We need to take the time to imagine what our life would be like if we had never met the Dharma – if Buddha hadn’t turned the Wheel of Dharma.  For me personally, life has been one extremely difficult episode after another, but because I have met the Dharma, I have been able to transform all of these experiences into a rewarding spiritual journey.  When we see how our own lives have been transformed, and how those who are close to us have benefited from our having found the Dharma, we can begin to personally internalize Buddha’s great kindness.  With a feeling of personal appreciation, we can then consider we are just one being, he has done the same for billions.

What does it Mean to Turn the Wheel of Dharma Over Time?

Conventionally speaking, we say there were four turnings of the Wheel of Dharma by Buddha.  As it explains on the Kadampa website

“Forty-nine days after Buddha attained enlightenment, as a result of requests he rose from meditation and taught the first Wheel of Dharma. These teachings, which include the Sutra of the Four Noble Truths and other discourses, are the principal source of the Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, of Buddhism.  Later, Buddha taught the second and third Wheels of Dharma, which include the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and the Sutra Discriminating the Intention, respectively. These teachings are the source of the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, of Buddhism.”

In the Kadampa Play, which takes place at the end of the Summer Festival every year, we are shown that there was a fourth turning of the Wheel of Dharma when Buddha taught the Vajrayana teachings or the Tantric quick path to enlightenment.  These four turnings of the Wheel of Dharma set Buddhism in motion in this world.

But the turning of the Wheel of Dharma is not limited to just Buddha’s lifetime.  We can also understand the turning of the Wheel of Dharma from a most cosmic scale.  Each founder Buddha engages in the Twelve Deeds of a Buddha, from descent from a pure land, through birth, attaining enlightenment, turning the Wheel of Dharma, and eventually dying.  Our world is just one world and Buddha Shakyamuni was just one founder Buddha.  There are countless worlds and countless founder Buddhas doing the same thing.  It is said in this fortunate aeon, there will be 1,000 founder Buddhas who come in cycles to reestablish the Dharma after it fades from the previous founder Buddha.  All of these are different turnings of the Wheel of Dharma.  On this day, we can rejoice in all of this and create literally infinite merit.

Within just this current cycle of the Dharma of Buddha Shakyamuni in this world, we can also identify very clear major re-turnings of the Wheel of Dharma.  These are special times when new energy and new momentum was created to push the Dharma forward into future generations.  For example, Atisha (980-1054 AD) was viewed by many as the Second Buddha, and his teaching of the Lamrim reignited the Dharma in this world by founding the Kadampa tradition.  Later Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419 AD) united the Dharma of Sutra and Tantra and founded the New Kadampa Tradition.  And most recently, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (1931 – present) represented the teachings of Je Tsongkhapa for the modern world.  These great masters also engaged in major turnings of the Wheel of Dharma, each in their own way.  And this is just within the Kadampa lineage – there are countless other Buddhist lineages, such as Theravada, Zen, and so forth.  No doubt each of these lineages has its own major turning points.  We can rejoice in all of these major turnings of the Wheel of Dharma.

But the turning of the Wheel of Dharma is not limited to these seminal masters, but to each and every lineage guru along the way.  Since Je Tsongkhapa alone, there has been an unbroken lineage of 37 different lineage gurus, who each kept the lineage alive – turning the Wheel of Dharma for future generations.  Why is lineage important?  Buddha’s blessings only transmit through lived experience, not mere intellectual understanding of his teachings.  A lineage is considered a “living lineage” if there is an unbroken series of gurus who have personally realized all of the teachings of that lineage.  When we are part of a living lineage, the lineage gurus serve as an intact pipeline for the unobstructed flow of blessings from Buddha Shakyamuni straight into our heart.  Through the immeasurable kindness of Venerable Geshe-la, the Kadampa lineage remains intact and alive in this world.  This means we can gain direct access to the lineage blessings of our precious instructions, making realizing them infinitely easier. 

Taking Our Place in the Lineage

It is good to rejoice in all of the past turnings of the Wheel of Dharma, but it is not good enough to stop there.  We ourselves need to realize we have a personal responsibility to carry forward the Kadampa lineage for future generations.  If we do not do so, who will?  If we do not do so, this precious lineage that has been kept alive for thousands of years will die in this world.  It is our personal responsibility to carry this lineage forward.  In short, we must each assume our personal place in the lineage.

Venerable Tharchin said when somebody new comes into the Dharma center, he views them as “a future holder of the lineage,” and cherishes and respects them accordingly.  When we consider the “great wave” of Je Tsongkhapa’s deeds, we realize that his basic strategy for eventually liberating all living beings is to form new spiritual guides, who in turn form the next generation of spiritual guides, and so forth until eventually every living being has been touched by them.  We are currently on the receiving end of Venerable Geshe-la’s turning of the Wheel of Dharma.  But we ourselves need to assume our place in the lineage.

At first, we might think this is not our job – we have Gen-la Dekyong, Gen-la Khyenrab, Gen-la Jampa, and Gen-la Thubten for that.  We are not going to become a lineage guru ourselves, so this doesn’t mean anything for us personally.  We can rejoice in their deeds, but we have no personal responsibility to carry forward the lineage ourselves.  This way of thinking is completely wrong.  Geshe-la said in one of his last teachings before he retired that, “you are all lineage gurus now.”  How can we understand this? 

At one level, we can say even if we are not likely to be a lineage guru in this life (though, we never know…), at some point in our future lives it will be our turn to assume our place in the lineage.  Just as Venerable Tharchin views us, so too we should view ourselves as future holders of the lineage and orient the trajectory of our mental continuum towards assuming that role.  Venerable Tharchin also says we have the ability to design our own enlightenment by virtue of the type of bodhichitta we develop as bodhisattvas.  Why is Avalokiteshvara the Buddha of Compassion and Manjushri the Buddha of Wisdom?  Because as bodhisattvas they generated the specific intention to become that type of Buddha.  I have a dear friend who wants to become a deity in Dorje Shugden’s mandala.  Venerable Tharchin said he wants to be a Buddha specifically capable of helping the beings in the hell realms because that is where most living beings reside.  My wife wishes to become the Buddha of Joy.  We should think about what sort of Buddha we want to become, and begin our long march to assuming our place in the lineage with those special abilities.

At another level, we can say we have internalized a degree of the lineage even if we haven’t realized all of it.  Therefore, we do have the ability to pass on what we have personally realized.  Kadam Bjorn said if two teachers gave the exact same teaching – word for word with exactly the same intonation and everything – but one of the teachers had personal experience of their truth and the other did not, the lineage blessings would only flow through the one who had personal experience, and so those listening would receive infinitely more benefit from the teaching.  Ultimately, he said, teachings are only as powerful as the blessings passing through the person delivering it.  How many blessings pass depends primarily upon the pure view of those listening, but also on the degree of personal experience of the person transmitting the wisdom.  We see this same phenomenon in daily life – those who “speak from experience” are so much more powerful than those who do not.  Each one of us has a degree of personal experience, which means we have the ability to pass on at least those portions of the lineage to the next generation.  Passing on the lineage can occur through many forms, not just formal teachings.  Merely setting a good example is a method for passing on the lineage.

At a much deeper level, we can consider a much broader understanding of a Buddha’s body, speech, and mind.  Normally, we think these are limited to the individual human being who was Buddha or to a specific deity or lineage guru.  Geshe-la once said, “I am the NKT.”  His meaning of course is not Louis XIV-style “l’etat c’est moi,” but that his actual body is not just the cute little Tibetan we all know and love, but all of our bodies.  His speech is not just the words that come out of his mouth or written in his books, but all of our Dharma speech in this world.  His mind is not just the thoughts within him, but all of our Dharma thoughts in our minds.  The spiritual guide is so much more vast than one Tibetan monk, but he is working through all of us every day.  He is turning the Wheel of Dharma through our every Dharma action of body, speech, and mind.  When we see our body, speech, and mind as an extension of his in this world, then we can start to see how we are – at this very moment – assuming our place in the lineage.  The closer we draw towards him, the more we emulate him, the more we come into alignment with his enlightened actions in this world.  His impact in turning the Wheel of Dharma depends, fundamentally, on us.  This is why he thanks us every time he sees us and says without us helping him fulfill his vision, he is almost nothing. 

Buddha’s turning the Wheel of Dharma Day is our opportunity to not only celebrate Geshe-la’s birthday, recall Buddha’s kindness, or even that of the lineage gurus, but an opportunity to also see ourselves as an indispensable part of the lineage, and see our spiritual lives as part of the turning of the Wheel of Dharma, not only in this life but for generations to come.  In this way, we ourselves become part of the very Wheel of Dharma the enlightened beings turn.