Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  What is it that dwells within me?

(4.26) Having found, by some very slight chance,
This beneficial state, so rare to find,
If, while I am endowed with such good fortune,
I am once again led to the hells, 

(4.27) It is as if I am confused by a spell
And my mind has been reduced to nothing!
Even I do not know what causes this confusion –
What is it that dwells within me?

What dwells within me?  A spiritually lazy bum.  I understand, yet I remain indolent.  If we die this way, our mind will be full of regret.  At the time of our death, we will see our whole life flash before us and all the times we could have practiced but didn’t.  We will realize that we did not use the chance we had to practice and now it is too late and we will fall.  We will realize that our doubts have deceived us.  Our doubts told us to not fully engage in the practice in case they are not true, but at the time of death we will realize they are true and it will be too late.  We will realize where we are headed and we will panic.  This will activate negative seeds on our mind, and we will fall.  We need to realize that this is our future.  This will happen if we don’t practice right now.  It is better to be freaked out about this now while there is something we can do about it than at the time of death when it is too late.

What dwells within me?  An inner coward that causes me to look the other way when hard questions are asked.  What’s going on in my mind?  Why can’t I see what lies ahead?  Am I afraid to look?  Am I stupid?  What is it?   Is it merely that we distract ourselves with samsaric life and its endless possibilities of enjoyment because we cannot face the truth?

What dwells within me?  The “devil” of delusion.  It has almost total power over us.  One of the most interesting experiences one can have is to listen to the sermon of a good Baptist preacher when they talk about the temptations of the devil.  Every time you hear devil, think delusion, and you’re there.  The devil’s principal means of ensnaring us is through his deceptions.  Geshe-la says, “all delusions are deceptive.”  They trick us into following their mistaken advice, and lead us onto the road of hell.  It is only by choosing to not listen to our delusions, but instead to rely upon the wisdom of the holy beings that we can find our way.  Before we found the Dharma, we were complete slaves to our delusion’s every word.  Even with the Dharma, again and again we are deceived into giving into our attachment, lashing out at our loved ones with anger, becoming jealous of those who enjoy a few crumbs of happiness.  The Baptist preacher is completely correct that the devil of delusion’s only purpose is to cast us into hell where we can never escape.  He is correct that only faith and the word of holy beings can guide us to light.  He is correct that we at war with this devil, and only one of us can emerge victorious.  He is simply wrong about who the enemy is.  The enemy is not gays, government, Facebook, the liberal educational establishment, there is only one enemy:  delusions themselves.  Geshe-la says there are no external enemies, but Shantideva is clear there are internal ones.  So take the passion of a Baptist preacher and direct it against the inner enemy of delusions and you have found Shantideva.

What dwells within me?  An inner demon that we must exorcise from our mind.  It is not an actual being tormenting us, but delusions are so clever at adapting and manipulating us into following their wrong advice that it is as if our delusions were actual demons dwelling within.  What has the power to cast out delusion?  The sword of wisdom.  Wisdom cuts through the lies of delusions and lays them bear so that they have no power over us and we are no longer fooled.  Only wisdom can do this.  On our own, we are weak and unskilled at wielding the sword of wisdom.  But the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri in the aspect of Dorje Shugden is a master swordsman, who, activated with our faith, can cut down all of our inner foes.  He is not just our Protector, he is also our Spiritual Champion we can send into battle against our delusions.  To enlist his support, all we need is faith and a good motivation and he will do the rest.

What dwells within me?  An inner cancer of delusion that if left unchecked will gradually devour us.  Cancer left untreated grows, mutates, and metastasizes.  But cancer can only kill us in this life, the inner cancer of delusions will follow us in life after life, eating away at our good heart.  If even one cell of cancer goes untreated, it will reassert itself until eventually it has taken over our body.  It takes just one seed of delusion to gradually take over the rest of our mind.  Only the truth of Dharma can destroy this cancer.

The question is not, therefore, what dwells within me.  The question is what am I going to do to get it out?

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Don’t be choked with unimaginable terror

(4.24) Having understood this,
If out of ignorance I remain indolent,
Then, when the time comes for me to die,
I shall be choked with unimaginable terror.

(4.25) If my body will burn for a very long time
In the unbearable fires of hell,
Then, without doubt, my mind will be consumed
By the raging fires of regret.

In Buddhism, the time of our death is the most important moment of our lives.  In many ways, we can say that all of our trainings in life are really preparations for the moment of death.  The reason why the moment of death is so important is the quality of mind we have at the time of our death determines the quality of our next rebirth.  The reason for this is simple:  each mind we generate activates a karmic seed which ripens in the next moment.  The karma activated at the time of death ripens in the first moment of our next life, indeed it determines what that next life will be.  Due to the total absorption of the inner winds during the death process, the mind of death activates what is called “throwing karma.”  This is also known as the “ripened effect” of our actions.  If we die with a negative mind, it will activate negative throwing karma throwing us into a lower rebirth.  We can say that throwing karma is the substantial cause of our life, and the other types of karmic effects are the circumstances we will experience in a given life.

We have received Dharma teachings.  We have received sacred spiritual vows on our mental continuum.  We have received many empowerments into the precious tantric teachings.  We have been given everything we need to enter, progress along and complete the spiritual path.  Those who choose to take full advantage of this spiritual opportunity will approach death in the same way we do when embarking upon a long vacation.  We are excited about the adventure that awaits and we know we have prepared everything well.  Those who waste their life following their delusions and squandering the spiritual opportunities they have been given will realize – too late – that their time is now up and they have little to nothing to show from their time here on earth.  Such people die full of regrets.

When Dharma teachings refer to “dying full of regrets” the meaning here is not the regret we generate in  purification practice, but rather a deluded form of self-guilt of having completely wasted our precious spiritual opportunity and now we realize, too late, that we are bound for the lower realms and there is nothing we can do to stop it.  Our mind is seized by self-hatred and panic, activating negative throwing karma, casting us down into the lower realms.

In popular culture and movies, we are told when we die our “life flashes before our eyes.”  This is actually true, from a certain point of view.  The teachings on the 12 dependent related links explain that at the time of our death we will experience two death-specific delusions, namely dependent-related craving and dependent-related grasping.  Practically speaking, dependent-related craving is at the time of death we will feel a sudden surge of craving for all of our strongest objects of attachment in life.  Essentially all of our unresolved attachments – be it or chocolate, sex, a good reputation, whatever – will come flaring up in a sudden blast.  If we have not worked to let go of our attachments in life, we will develop a strong desire for these things combined with a knowledge that we will never have them again.  If in life we respond to our frustrated attachments with delusion and negativity, odds are we will do the same at the time of death. Deluded, negative minds activate deluded, negative karma.

Practically speaking, dependent-related grasping is a strong grasping at our self and body at the time of death.  We realize our life and body are about to be ripped away from us permanently, and we grasp desperately trying to hold on to them.  Think of the panic people feel when they have trouble breathing.  Now imagine it really is the end and you can no longer breathe.  Think of the grasping we feel when we fear our life is in danger from some criminal or terrorist.  Now imagine it is the actual time of death and you know there is no turning back.  If in life we respond with delusions and negativity when things are taken away from us, odds are we will do the same at the time of death.  Deluded, negative minds activate deluded negative karma.

In many ways, I think the regret experienced by Dharma practitioners at having wasted their life must be far worse than that of non-practitioners.  Most people are completely ignorant of what is spiritually achievable in this life, but we know exactly what is possible.  Most people know nothing about the lower realms, but we know they are waiting for us.  We might then wrongly conclude, “well maybe it is better to not know then,” but being an ostrich is no strategy for avoiding lower rebirth.  It is not easy to confront the horror of samsaric existence.  It all seems so exaggerated or so far removed from our daily experience, that we kid ourselves into thinking it’s all just a bunch of superstition, or in any case it is too depressing to think about so better to change the subject.  But we’ve done the contemplations, we know it’s all a karmic dream, we know it is all empty, we know how karma works, we know the arguments establishing past and future lives.  In short, we know better.

So we have a choice:  face the horror now, and do what it takes to avoid it.  Or face the horror at the time of death and fall in utter panic.  Time to choose.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  There can be no greater folly

(4.23) If, having found the freedom and endowment of a human life,
I do not strive to practise Dharma,
There can be no greater self-deception,
There can be no greater folly.

This is definitely worth memorizing.  We have much work to do, purifying and transforming our mind.  Yet we do nothing.  We have fallen into a hole, and it is only by digging ourselves out that we will be able to get out.  We have to stop fooling ourselves that everything is going to be alright.  Then we will stop taking this human rebirth like a holiday.  We will actually work to progress.  It’s not fair to say we do nothing.  We do try, we do some.  But the question is “do we do enough?”  We say, “don’t worry, be happy, just try” to counter our discouragement not as an excuse to do even less when we are already being lazy doing little.  Sometimes we need to be knocked out of our comfort zone.  Sometimes we need to be told, “it’s time to step it up.”

Our usual excuse for why we don’t is we are just too busy.  We have too many other commitments and engagements.  Besides the fact that these commitments and engagements will amount to little or nothing on our death bed, this excuse completely misses the point.  All situations are equally empty, so all situations are equally transformable into the path.  Whether we spend all of our time on retreat, working for a Dharma center or changing diapers while working full time, it’s all the same.  There is absolutely nothing about our busy, modern lives that prevents us from dedicating every second of every day to training our mind, purifying our negative karma, cherishing others and striving to attain enlightenment.  We actually hide behind our busy lives as an excuse for our mental laziness.

The truly ridiculous thing about such laziness is it is self-defeating.  Going through life enslaved by our delusions is exhausting, stressful, and miserable.  We worry, fight, grasp and then collapse at the end of the day.  Even when we try enjoy ourselves, we find it difficult to let go of our worries without the assistance of some form of intoxicant.  Because we listen faithfully to the bad advice of our delusions, our every action only serves to make our problems even worse.  The bottom line is wisdom works not just to escape from samsara but also to navigate through it.  The bottom line is virtuous, peaceful minds are happy minds, so if we want a happy life we should constantly strive to mix our mind with virtue.  It is not like we need to choose between happiness in this life and happiness in our future lives.  Our actual choice is between being miserable in this life and worse in the next versus being happy in this life and happier in the next.  Why choose the former?

Are we intentionally deceiving ourselves?  It’s a big step to take to admit to ourselves that we’re deceiving ourselves.  We have heard the instructions, but why are we not checking them out to see if they are in fact true?  Certainly it would be good to know, in case they are true.  Why do we not look?  There is a step we have to take from knowledge to acceptance.  Even once we have intellectual knowledge, we still haven’t accepted it as truth.  So it is not moving our mind.  We need to meditate on this information again and again until our mind moves and we realize we need to act.  If we are not acting now, we need to do this.  If we are acting now, we still need to do this so that we never stop.

Venerable Tharchin says, “if you do not seize the opportunities you have, the karma creating them will gradually exhaust itself and it will be nearly impossible for find such opportunities again.  But if you seize the opportunities you have, you will create the causes to have even better opportunities in the future.”  It is time we stopped making excuses.  It is time we stop fooling ourselves that our spiritual training is just some hobby.  Normally we take something seriously when our life depends on it.  All of our future lives depend upon whether we seize our spiritual opportunity.  What are we waiting for?

Perhaps we think it is all too hard.  The Dharma just asks too much of us.  But what is the alternative?  Do we honestly think remaining in samsara forever will be any easier?  It is far harder to remain in samsara than it is to get out of it once and for all.  And once again, what is harder, constantly dealing with all of the problems our delusions create for us or enjoying the good fortune that our wisdom and virtue creates for us?  Even in this life, wisdom and virtue are simply easier because they work whereas delusions never do.

If security came to us and said, “terrorists have put a bomb in the building, we have to get out now,” would we hesitate?  Would we say we can’t be bothered, or maybe later?  The Buddhas are telling us there are countless karmic bombs in our mind, and we have to get them out right now.  Why do we hesitate?  A bomb can only kill us in this one life, but our negative karma will kill us again and again until we say “enough is enough.”

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  We need to purify

(4.21) Since just one moment of evil
Can lead to an aeon in the deepest hell,
If I do not purify all the evil I have collected since beginningless time,
It goes without saying that I shall not take a human rebirth.

In Christianity, people are often taught if you are 51% good in life, you can go to heaven.  People come into the Dharma and learn we basically need to be 99% good in life to have a chance just at another human rebirth!  In Christianity, people are told that God will judge them at the Pearly Gates, and weigh the balance of their actions in life.  People come into the Dharma and learn it all comes down to how we respond to the most traumatic and challenging moment of our life, namely the time of our death.  Then they think, better go back to being a Christian!

In its easiest to understand form, samsara is uncontrolled death and rebirth.  It is a game of karmic Russian Roulette we play at the end of each lifetime that then throws us into our next rebirth.  The quality of mind we have at the time of death determines the quality of the karmic seed that gets activated.  If we die with a negative mind, a negative karmic seed will be activated and we will be cast into the lower realms.  If we die with a positive mind, a positive karmic seed will be activated and will be rise to the upper realms.  If we die with a pure mind, a pure karmic seed will be activated and we will escape from samsara to the pure land, liberation or even full enlightenment.

The fundamental question, then, is how do we know what mind will we have at the time of death.  Most people go through life completely oblivious to the fact that we have a choice regarding how our mind responds to what happens.  Karmically speaking, we more resemble a leaf in the wind than a conscious sentient being.  Misfortune strikes, we become angry, depressed and self-absorbed.  Good fortune ripens, we become attached, overly elated and we feel self-important.  When asked why we feel the way we do, we come up with a long list of external conditions as our explanation, as if it were self-evident that our external circumstance dictates our internal experience.

If we check, we see that in virtually all circumstances, when misfortune strikes we respond with a deluded, often negative mind.  If this is our habit in life when minor adversity occurs, what chance do we have at the time of death when we will lose everything?  When something is taken away from us in life, we grasp tightly onto the thing for fear of losing it.  How are we likely to respond at the time of death when our body is ripped away from us?  When our body experiences even the slightest discomfort of illness, we become moody and despondent.  How are we likely to respond when the cancer seeps into our bones and our body is racked with pain?  We feel tired and incapable of virtue after a hard days work, and when we go to sleep we collapse without giving Dharma another thought.  How likely are we to generate compassion and faith after a lifetime’s worth of toil and our inner winds are collapsing in on themselves?  We all fantasize of passing away quietly in our sleep, but how often do we dream we are in the pure land?

If we don’t make responding to adversity with virtue our habit in life, we won’t stand a chance at the time of death.  This is our reality.  Denial won’t make it go away.  We should be afraid.  We should be very afraid.

(4.22) Simply experiencing the effects of my non-virtue
Will not lead to my being released from the lower realms,
For, while I am experiencing those effects,
I shall be generating yet more non-virtue.

Sometimes people mistakenly think that simply experiencing suffering is a form of purification.  While it is true that one singular negative seed might be exhausting itself, if we respond to our suffering with further negativity and delusion, our experience of suffering will not be an occasion of purification, rather it will be tragic spike in our quantity of negative karma.  Usually when things go badly we respond with angry, non-accepting minds.  We respond with more negativity and keep the cycle going.  If we don’t break this cycle, it will go on forever.

The experience of suffering only results in purification if we mentally accept the suffering as purification.  To actually purify, we must generate the four opponent powers:  the power of regret, the power of reliance, the power of the opponent force and the power of the promise.  To mentally accept suffering as purification, all four powers must be present.  The mere presence of suffering is not purification, the acceptance of it with the four powers is.  When suffering strikes, we recognize it as the ripening of our past negative karma.  We then consider how we have countless other similar seeds on our mind and if we don’t purify them, it is just a question of time before we are condemned to experience their effects.  We then turn to the Buddhas, requesting them to bless our mind with the strength to patiently accept our suffering as purification.  The power of the opponent force is any virtuous action motivated by regret.  In this instance, our virtuous action is patiently accepting our suffering.  Patient acceptance is a type of virtuous action we can practice when misfortune occurs.  We then use our suffering as a fuel for the promise to in the future stop engaging in actions which cause such suffering, making effort to examine our behavior to identify instances where our moral discipline is less than perfect in ways consistent with the particular suffering we are experiencing.

If we accept our suffering with such a mind, we purify our negative karma.  Otherwise, we just suffer with no meaning to it at all.

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.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  How to have nothing to fear

(4.20) It is for these reasons that Buddha, the Blessed One, said
That it is extremely difficult to obtain a precious human life;
Just as it is rare for a turtle to insert its neck
Into a yoke adrift on a vast ocean.

It was discussed in an earlier post how we only attain a precious human life once every 637 quadrillion lifetimes.  But we can change these odds through the practice of moral discipline.

Moral discipline in general creates the cause for a fortunate rebirth.  Moral discipline engaged in with a spiritual motivation creates the causes for another precious human life.  The way it works is as follows:  first we contemplate the valid reasons for voluntarily adopting certain vows and commitments until we develop a wisdom desire to do so.  We actively choose to practice moral discipline because we want to and we see the value of doing so.  We then formally take the vows, making the decision to live our life in a way consistent with them.  Later, deluded tendencies that move in the opposite direction of our vows arises within our mind.  Our job at that time is to recall the disadvantages of following our delusions and the advantages of keeping our vows.  We try see through the lies of our delusions and reconnect with the wisdom that lead us to take the vows in the first place.  Once we have rediscovered that clarity of mind, we then voluntarily choose to not follow the deluded tendency, but instead we reaffirm our moral commitments.

This mental action is the moral discipline of restraint, and since it is motivated by spiritual concerns, it creates the causes not just for another upper rebirth, but a precious human life in which we re-find the Dharma.  If 50 deluded tendencies ripen in a single hour (which can sometimes happen when our delusions are really flaring up), and we engage in this process of reconnecting with our wisdom that lead us to take the vows until we no simply do not want to follow our deluded tendencies, then we created the causes for 50 precious human rebirths in that hour!  Not bad for an hour’s worth of spiritual work.

What distinguishes the mere practice of moral discipline from training in actual vows and commitments, such as the Pratimoksha or Bodhisattva vows, is when we train in vows we not only create the causes for another precious human life, but more importantly we create the causes to maintain the continuum of our spiritual practice until enlightenment is reached.  This is a qualitative difference in effect.  If we have countless trillion negative seeds on our mind, and we create a few dozen good ones, the odds of these good ones ripening is still microscopically low.  If, however, we train in our sets of vows, it creates a different karma altogether, one that maintains the continuum of our practice in life after life.  Geshe-la said when we die, we should try do so with fresh vows on our mind.

Why the different effect between individual moral discipline and keeping the sets of vows?  Because when we practice an individual act of moral discipline, we are throwing our future selves a spiritual life-line.  When we practice a set of vows, we are karmically weaving for ourself a spiritual safety net.  Each vow strengthens and reinforces all of the others in an interactive way that creates for us this minimum spiritual flooring.  Geshe-la explains in Essence of Vajrayana that practicing Tantra is like climbing a high mountain, but doing so on the foundation of our Tantric vows is like adding the necessary safety equipment so that even if we slip, we do not fall.

Different types of vows will create different types of precious human rebirths.  Keeping our refuge vows creates the causes to maintain the continuum of our Buddhist practice between now and our eventual enlightenment.  Keeping our Pratimoksha vows creates the causes for us to maintain the continuum of our practice of a path that leads to liberation from samsara.  Keeping bodhisattva vows maintains the continuum of our Mahayana trainings to enlightenment.  Keeping Tantric vows maintains the continuum of our Vajrayana trainings; and keeping our mother Tantra vows maintains the continuum of our Heruka and Vajrayogini practice.  We invest in insurance for all sorts of things in life; how much more important is it to invest effort in the spiritual insurance provided by our practice of the sets of vows?

The reality is this:  if we keep finding the path and have the wish to practice it, our samsara will slowly but surely come to an end.  If we lose the path, we lose everything and it might be countless aeons later before we can rebegin our practice.  While we have found the way out, we should do whatever is required to stay on the path.  In short, if we lose the path, we have everything to fear; if we fear only losing the path, we will have nothing to fear.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  We shall not even hear the words “fortunate rebirth.”

(4.17) If I engage in non-virtuous actions,
I shall not obtain a human body again;
And if I do not attain a human form,
There will be no virtue, only negativity.

(4.18) If I do not practise virtue now
While I have the good fortune to do so,
What virtue shall I be able to practise
When I am suffering and confused in the lower realms?

(4.19) For if I do not practise virtue
But accumulate only evil,
I shall not even hear the words “fortunate rebirth”
For a hundred million aeons.

At present, the vast majority of our actions are neutral, but if we are honest negativity comes easily and virtue comes only with great effort.  This clearly shows the natural tendencies on our mind.  As Gen-la Losang says, what is natural is simply what is familiar.  The fact that negativity comes naturally to us shows that it is what our mind is most familiar with.  When we do engage in virtuous actions, it is rare and our virtues are weak.  Often we simply show up to Dharma centers or festivals or place our bottoms on our meditation cushion, but fail to bring our mind along too.  During daily life, when difficulties arise, our first instinct is to lie, cheat, steal, avoid, retaliate, criticize, judge, and blame others.

If we do not engage in virtuous actions, we will not take another fortunate rebirth.  Moral discipline is the principal cause of upper rebirth, and upon that we have scantly relied.  If we fall into the lower realms, we will engage almost exclusively in non-virtue.  Look at a day in the life of an animal, a hungry spirit and a hell being.  How much virtue do they accumulate?  How much non-virtue?  What causes do they create for their future lives?

If we think about it, when we suffer there’s no space in our mind for any virtue to arise because we are completely preoccupied with the situation. We know when we don’t feel good, even some physical discomfort, our Dharma practice becomes worse, it becomes more difficult to generate and maintain virtue.  What will it be like when we return to the lower realms experiencing far more suffering than we are now?  Even an animal, where is the space for virtue?  We engage in only non-virtue.   In the upper realms, our experiences will be so pleasant that we will feel no real motivation to practice.  Instead, we will be consumed by jealousy, competitiveness and self-indulgence.  Once the merit creating the causes for such a rebirth is exhausted, we will have no choice but to fall once again in the lower realms.  From this perspective, an upper or lower rebirth are essentially equally dangerous.

But right now, as a human being, we can create space in our mind for virtue.  This is our chance.  We have just enough suffering to be motivated to do something about it, and just enough good fortune to have everything we need to be able to do so.  It is perfect.

I look at how hard it is for me to just try be a good person, much less an enlightened being.  I see how hard it is to not give into my deluded tendencies, much less eradicate them completely.  I see how easy it is to become despondent, discouraged or lazy with our practice.  Attaining enlightenment seems almost impossibly hard that if I am honest, I mostly don’t even believe it is possible.  But Buddha says it is easier to attain enlightenment once reborn as a human than it is to attain rebirth as a human once we have fallen into the lower realms.  It is, for all practical purposes, impossible.  Again the Christian view is an almost entirely accurate approximation of reality – what awaits us is eternal damnation.  Buddhists like to quibble with the eternal part, triumphantly thinking, “oh, those naïve Christians, don’t they understand there are countless lives and nothing is permanent about lower rebirth.”  But their naïve view grasping at an eternal fall is far closer to the truth than our wishful thinking that our time in the lower realms will be short-lived.

Once we fall, we will know only terror.  There will be no Dharma, no Dharma centers, no spiritual friends, no wisdom.  Every day will be a constant struggle, where our only chance at survival will be to engage in actions that condemn us to remain trapped in the lower realms.  Our minds will be dark, clouded, full of ignorance, miserliness and rage.  Even we who have heard of such things as liberation and enlightenment continue to neglect our spiritual trainings; what chance will we have when we live in a world that knows even not of fortune rebirth, but only torment.  Our time is coming.  This is no game.