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 regularly engage in the Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide Geshe Kelsang Gyatso from his Faithful Disciples, 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 that 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 Enlightenment 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 effects of our actions greater on certain days than others? We can think of these days as like 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.
Why it is Important to Regularly Make the Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso from his Faithful Disciples
Not only is today important because it is Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day, but also because today is Geshe-la’s birthday. Even though he has passed, his birthday for us is like the birth of Buddha Shakyamuni in our lives. Quite literally it is because Venerable Geshe-la is Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka. That’s who Geshe-la always was and that’s how he wants us to remember him. The Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide is like having the direct private Skype of our holy spiritual guide, Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche, and Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka. In short, it is a magical method for how we invoke his presence in our life.
When Geshe-la passed, he requested that the entire global Kadampa community do a retreat of Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka. I think it is safe to say that the nearly universal experience of those who engaged in this retreat – regardless of where you were in the world – was that they felt even closer to Venerable Geshe-la after his death as if the supernova of his purity was released from the shackles of our narrow conception of him in a human body and we started to get a sense of just how enormous of a being he is. These were Geshe-la’s specific instructions for what he wanted us to do.
The spiritual realization everyone came to when he died and we all did this retreat was that Geshe-la is Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka. Like literally, not just a view we hold because it is beneficial. When I first came into the Dharma, Geshe-la had not yet introduced Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka. We had Lama Losang Tubwang Dorjechang, which was the Tibetan name of Guru Tsongkhapa. Lama meant Guru, Losang meant Je Tsongkhapa. Tubwang meant Buddha Shakyamuni. And Dorjechang meant Vajradhara, who from a conventional point of view Buddha appeared as when he taught the tantras, but from an uncommon view Buddha Shakyamuni himself was an emanation of Vajradhara. Vajradhara is the real Spiritual Guide who manifests Buddha, who manifests Je Tsongkhapa, who manifests our present root Guru. Geshe-la’s principal project in life was re-presenting the pure Kadam Dharma of Sutra and Tantra of Je Tsongkhapa into a presentation that works for the people of the modern world. In other words, he took what was a cultural presentation for 14th century Tibetan feudal society and translated the meaning of the Dharma in a way that modern people could easily understand and relate to in their modern lives. He said our main mission, then, is to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life. This is our homework from him. He has given us a completely pure – 100% pure without being mixed with anything that is not Kadampa – meaning of the Ganden Oral Lineage instructions through which we can attain union of no more learning – or Buddhahood – in one life. Through the Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide, our main request is that he bestow union in this life. This means that we request him to bestow enlightenment in this life, which can actually be done with the Ganden Oral Lineage. This is the main request Geshe-la wants his faithful disciples to make of him. This is WHY he appeared in our life, to be able to make this request of him. Through his blessings, we will realize how his teachings lead exactly to that attainment.
At this point, the doubt often arrives as to whether we can actually attain enlightenment in this life. That seems farcical, almost, especially when we make an honest assessment of the state of our mind. But Geshe-la is telling us that, no, we actually can attain enlightenment in one lifetime if we follow the instructions he has given us purely and sincerely. Purely means for the sake of our future lives and sincerely means without laziness. But then we think, I don’t know anybody within the tradition who seems even close to that state. The Gen-la’s are great and all, but they also still appear to be normal people, sincere and dedicated and realized practitioners, but they don’t appear to have attained enlightenment. If they haven’t done it, then what chance do we have? It is very easy to start assenting to these sorts of views and get discouraged. When we don’t think it is possible, we don’t really go for it, we often don’t even really believe it. This is either some hype or only true for like a superhero Kadampa who does anything perfectly. But that’s not me, so we accept just kinda plodding along, pretending (even to ourselves) to practice for future lives, but really being mostly interested just trying to stay more or less happy through our very difficult lives.
With the Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide, Geshe-la smashes this sort of discouragement and puts front and center that our primary request to him – who will remain the one and only Spiritual Guide of this tradition forever – is, you Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka, please bestow union in this life. This is what Geshe-la did everything for – to give us everything we need to be able to attain enlightenment in this life. We just have to be willing to totally go for it. What better day for making this determination to really go for it than today.
We use this prayer at the beginning and end of every Festival now as part of the basic ritual for creating the conditions necessary for a Festival. We invoke Geshe-la to come and teach the Festival to us through the different teachers and through everything that appears and arises to us during the festival, whether we are at Manjushri, our local center, or our homes.
We also use these prayers twice a month on Tsog days. Prior to Venerable Geshe-la’s passing, we would alternate between long-life pujas and requesting blessings for the realizations of the stages of the path pujas. But after his passing we just do requesting blessings for the realizations of the stages of the path puja with the Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide.
We should do the same in our personal practice. Whenever we do Tsog days on our own, we should make a point of doing them with the Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide understanding this is our special method for bringing Geshe-la’s direct presence in our life. We can also do so at anytime when we want a one-on-one meeting or communion with Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka, who is none other than our holy Spiritual Guide, Venerable Geshe-la. We engage in the request, through reciting the mantra, then we generate a pure motivation, remember his emptiness, and make personal requests to him, ask him questions, seek clarification of Dharma topics, receive blessings, etc. This prayer brings us back to the source of our spiritual life – Venerable Geshe-la as Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka.
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 anyone 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.” We might think this no longer applies to us because Geshe-la has passed, but Geshe-la’s body still appears in this world – it is the bodily actions of everything done by Kadampas for the sake of fulfilling Venerable Geshe-la’s vision for flourishing the Kadam Dharma in this world. His speech is all our speech towards this aim. His thoughts are all our thoughts towards this aim. All of his teachings, all of the teachings given within our tradition, lead towards us becoming his emanations in this world. He even told us as much in Portugal when he gave the teaching about temporary emanations and how he will always be with us. Geshe-la’s body, speech, and mind will continue to appear and operate in this world for as long as the NKT exists. He said many times, I am the NKT. He has imputed his I onto all of us fulfilling his vision. If we allow him to, he can continue to guide us in all of our actions of body, speech, and mind. Indeed, that should be our wish to make all our actions of body, speech, and mind him working through us.
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. If we do create the causes, we will see him directly as the NKT in this world. He comes together especially at the Festivals, which are the special method for preserving this tradition for generation after generation. There are billions of people on earth who have no idea who Geshe-la is, much less having him appear directly in their lives in the form of the NKT. 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 continue to be present in our life is to engage regularly in the Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide. Why? When we engage in this practice, we are requesting him to continue to be present in this world and that he continue to turn the wheel of Dharma for ourselves and all others through us. This mental action directly creates the cause for him to be present in our life.
There are two levels at which we can engage in the Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide – for ourselves and for others.
For ourselves, we can consider without him being present in our life, we would have no spiritual life at all. We wish for that to continue and so we pray that he remains present in this world forever. Sincerely engaging in the Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide is like a spiritual insurance policy against our faith decaying and losing the path. Further, even if we continue to have deep faith in him, our praying for him to remain present 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 be present 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 his modern incarnation as the totality of the NKT to continue to be present 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 Modern world. Now imagine him remaining until samsara ends. As long as Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka 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 Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka 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 the Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide. We can download it here for free: Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche from his Faithful Disciples. What better way to mark his birthday than to pray for Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka 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 is shown 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, Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche re-presented 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. I would say that just as Atisha founded the Kadampa Tradition, Je Tsongkhapa Founded the New Kadampa Tradition, we can say Venerable Geshe-la founded the Modern Kadampa Tradition. 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.
Gen 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 Gen 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. Gen 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 has now passed who wanted to become a deity in Dorje Shugden’s mandala. Gen 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 once said she 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. A senior teacher once 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 flow primarily through the one who had personal experience, and so those listening would receive infinitely more benefit from the teaching. Ultimately, this teacher said, teachings are only as powerful as the blessings passing through the person delivering them. 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 in 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 the much broader understanding of our Spritual Guide’s body, speech, and mind discussed above. 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 Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka, 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 thanked us every time he saw us and said without us helping him fulfill his vision, he would be 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.