Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Nothing to hold on to


We continue with our discussion of generating regret.  As a reminder, regret is the mind which says, ‘I did X, so if I don’t purify, I will experience Y in the future.  Therefore, I need to purify to avoid these consequences.’  The next few verses talk about how the realization of death informs our regret.

(2.33) Since the untrustworthy Lord of Death
Will not wait while I purify my evils,
Regardless of whether I am sick or not,
This momentary life is unreliable.

We have enormous arrogance thinking that we have time to purify because we will die later.  But there is a great danger that we may die before we have purified.  If this takes place, it is almost certain that we will fall.  This is especially true given the fact that we are doing almost nothing to purify right now.  We could very easily see our entire life slip away without ever getting down to serious purification.  Negative karma is like time bombs within our mind that can go off at any time and throw us into the lower realms where we will remain for aeons.  Allowing such negative karma to remain is simply too big of a risk.  Even if we don’t die, we could have a big delusion ripen which opens the door to us losing everything through abandoning the path or even committing suicide.

The point is this:  by some miracle, right now we have found the Dharma and have an interest in practicing it.  But we don’t know when we are going to die.  We quite literally may die today, tomorrow or in a week’s time.  Venerable Tharchin once said if we can’t get a feeling for “I may die today,” then think, “I will die sometime around the end of next week.”  We live our life as if that was the case.  What would we be doing differently?  If we make it to the end of next week, then maybe it will be at the end of the week after that.  But if we don’t make it, then at least we won’t have wasted it.  At some point, it will be true; in the meantime we live our life informed by wisdom.

(2.34) I shall have to leave everything and depart alone
But, through failing to understand this,
I have committed many kinds of evil action
With respect to my friends and others.

(2.35) And yet my friends will become nothing
And others will also become nothing.
Even I shall become nothing;
Likewise, everything will become nothing.

We commit negative actions against our enemies or for our friends thinking that what happens in this life matters.  The meditation on death helps us realize that the only thing that matters are the causes we create for ourselves.  What happens in this life is very temporary and ultimately makes little to no difference, whereas the causes we create have the potential to affect our eternity.  They are much more important.

There is no safety to be found anywhere in samsara.  There is nothing to hold on to that can protect us.  We are in karmic quick sand.  Our friends cannot help us, our family cannot help us, our wealth, position and reputation cannot help us.  Everything we have worked for in this life will have to be left behind.  We are merely a traveler passing through this world.  Some people stay in one place their whole life wishing they could get out; others are constantly on the move and wish they could plant their roots somewhere.  But in the end, both equally die.

If we have enough merit and enough worldly wisdom, we may be able to create a comfortable life for ourselves, but if we grow attached to it, when death comes it will feel as if everything is being ripped away from us.  We will then grasp more tightly, respond negatively and fall into the lower realms.  We need to stop seeking our stability and security in the things of this life, and instead focus all of our efforts on closing the door to the lower realms by engaging in sincere purification.

When we die, our family, friends, home, wealth, job, reputation, everything will simply vanish.  They were actually never there to begin with.  There is no point in trying to hold onto these things or relying upon them for our stability because they will all be for naught in the end.  This does not mean we abandon them or become indifferent to them, rather it means we don’t seek refuge in them.  When death comes, the only thing that can protect us is our faith in the three jewels, the purification we have already done and the merit we have stored on our mind.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  We repay kindness with harm…

(2.30) Whatever harmful actions of body, speech, or mind
I have done under the influence of delusion
Towards the Three Precious Jewels,
My father and mother, my Spiritual Guide, and others –

(2.31) All the extremely unbearable evil actions
Committed by me, an evil person
Polluted by many faults –
I confess before the Deliverers, the enlightened beings.

Negative actions directed towards those that have shown us particular kindness are especially negative.  Sadly, we do this all the time.  It is sad truth that we often treat those who are kindest to us worse than we do strangers or even those who seek to harm us.  We take their kindness for granted, and we abuse it by getting angry at them when they don’t live up to our expectations.  We do this with our parents, with our Spiritual Guides and with our closest friends.

Towards our parents, we have nearly limitless expectations.  No matter how much they do for us, it is never enough.  We focus all of our attention on all of the things they haven’t done for us and are oblivious to all of the things they have done.  Like adolescent children, we rebel against their every advice and we spend our time cataloging all of the different ways in which they are wrong and we are right.  When they fail to show us the love we feel we deserve, we lash out at them and make them feel bad.  We yell at them, make nasty comments, and expect them to serve us.  We forget their birthdays, but can’t forgive when they forget ours.  We feel constantly judged by them, and we resent them for it.  We expect them to be perfect, and feel completely let down when they are not.  We covet their money, become jealous when they appear to love our siblings more, and find fault in most everything they do.  We become embarrassed by them in front of our friends or colleagues, and we talk behind their backs after they have left. We take completely for granted all of the kindnesses they have shown us, and we blame them for all our problems.  When they get older, we either neglect them completely or feel put upon when they need our help.  If we check, there is probably nobody else in our life who we have been systematically more cruel to than our parents.  It is often only when we become a parent ourself that we realize all that our parents do for us and how cruel kids can be in the face of a parent’s kindness.

Towards our Spiritual Guides, in this and in our countless past lives we have committed all sorts of negative deeds, including stealing from them, criticizing them, shunning their advice, creating division within their Sangha, failing to keep our commitments to them, taking their kindness for granted, making no effort to repay their kindness, thinking we know better than them, resenting them for seemingly judging us when we do something wrong, mistreating the sacred objects they have given us, such as our Dharma books, misusing their teachings for our own worldly purposes, lying to them to cover up what we have done wrong, the list goes on and on.

Towards our closest friends, we have talked behind their backs, abandoned them when they need us most, gotten mad at them when they don’t return our calls or text us back quickly enough, we neglect them when they are not around, and forget them when we find new friends.  It doesn’t matter how much past kindness they have shown, we find it hard to forgive even the slightest offense against us.  We become jealous when they hang out with somebody else, unfriend them on social media, and we enter into all sorts of bitter fights with them.  People who used to be our best friends or romantic partners become our worst enemies who we can’t see any good in.  We say all manner of divisive or hurtful speech and create no end of unnecessary dramas between us.  We use them as an object of attachment and expect them to be there to meet our needs.

It is important that we take the time to really look in the mirror and see how we treat those who have been kindest to us.

(2.32) But I might die before I purify
All my negativities;
O Please protect me so that I
May surely and swiftly be freed from them.

It is particularly important to purify the negative karma that we have with respect to the Spiritual Guide and the three jewels.  In fact, there is no karma more important to purify because by doing so we clear the way to receive powerful blessings – they can then easily bestow enlightenment upon us and help us without obstruction.  To purify this negative karma in particular, we need to generate a profound fear of losing the path.  We don’t know what negative karma we have created with respect to our Spiritual Guide, and if this ripens we can easily find ourselves abandoning the path.  If we lose the path, we have all of samsara to fear.  If we stay on the path, we have nothing to fear.

For me, my biggest fear is losing the path.  I have been practicing long enough now to realize it is going to take some time before I turn around this ship of delusion called Ryan.  If I lose the path, either in this life or at the time of my death, what will I do then?  It’s so easy to gradually and unknowingly get sucked back into samsara until pretty soon there is almost nothing left of the spiritual life we used to have.  If we die before we have purified our negative karma, we will almost certainly lose the path.  Falling into the lower realms is certainly painful, but the worst consequence of it is our losing the path.  We will then wander for countless aeons committing all sorts of deluded and negative action before we stumble on the path again.  Gen Lhamo once said, “we must choose:  hold on to our negative habits or go to the pure land.  We can’t have both.”  Either we leave our negative habits behind or we cannot enter the pure land.  If we remain in samsara, we will never know safety.  We take for granted the relative calm and stability we currently enjoy, but it will not last.  The end may not be near for the world, but it is for us.  We should take this to heart.


Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Confessing to the holy beings

(2.27) With my palms pressed together, I make requests
To those endowed with great compassion –
The perfect Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas,
Who abide throughout the ten directions.

When we engage in purification practice, there is a tendency to focus on the power of regret and the power of the opponent force, but to forget about the power of reliance.

When I first started practicing, I much preferred the term “purification” to the term “confession.”  I could relate to and understand neutralizing our negative karmic seeds by applying opponents, but I couldn’t see nor understand how confession to the holy beings worked.  Now, I find the biggest obstacle to engaging in sincere purification is our inability to admit the actions we engage in are actually negative.  Instead, we rationalize why what we do is not that bad.  This is why it is not enough to just admit to ourselves our negative actions, but instead we go before the omniscient holy beings who know our hearts and see through our self-deceptions, and we confess our wrong deeds.  When we are in their presence, our rationalizations are exposed for the flimsy pretexts that they are.  There is something far more definitive about admitting our mistakes in the presence of holy beings than doing so to ourself quietly in our room.

When we confess in front of the holy beings, we are going to them for help.  We are saying, “I have made many mistakes, I need your help to change my ways.”  Such a mind is ready to purify and sincerely engage in the power of the promise to not commit such actions again.  Without this, we are often just going through the motions of purification or mistakenly thinking that purification practice somehow lets us get away with our negative actions and avoid their karmic consequences.

(2.28) Since beginningless time in samsara,
Throughout this and all my previous lives,
Out of ignorance I have committed evil,
Ordered it to be committed,

(2.29) And, overwhelmed by deceptive ignorance,
Rejoiced in its being committed by others.
Seeing all these to be grave mistakes,
From the depths of my heart I confess them to the holy beings.

The key point here is not all that we have done wrong, but rather the understanding that we have committed these wrong deeds driven by ignorance and delusions.  Almost nobody, even the worst dictators, view themselves as willfully a bad person.  Everyone tries to be a good person and nobody wants to be a “bad guy.”  Nonetheless, our delusions take ahold of us and trick us into doing all sorts of negative and harmful things.  It’s not our fault, it is the fault of our delusions.

Geshe-la says that all delusions are deceptive.  They literally trick us or deceive us into doing things that are ultimately self-defeating.  When we engage in negative actions, we don’t do them thinking we will harm ourselves by doing so, rather we think such actions will bring us the happiness we seek.  Why do we think this?  Because our delusions have fooled us into thinking this way.

Blaming our delusions for our negative actions has two main benefits.  First, it protects us against guilt.  Guilt is a form of anger directed against ourselves.  It is quite different than genuine regret.  When we feel guilty, we beat ourselves up and chastise ourselves for how awful and how stupid we are.  We think beating ourselves up in this way will somehow deter us from engaging in negative actions again in the future (“punishing ourselves”), but it never works that way.  We don’t engage in negative actions knowing they are wrong, we engage in them believing it is not really bad to do them.  Beating ourselves up doesn’t change our assessment of what is smart and what is not, it just adds a layer of punishment onto the karma we will have created for ourselves anyways.

Second, it shows us the way forward for eliminating future negativities.  We need to see through the lies of our delusions.  We might gladly drink a glass of clear liquid thinking it is water, but we wouldn’t touch it if we knew it was poison.  If we see clearly negative as harmful to ourself and to others, it is actually not that difficult to generate regret realizing we have made mistakes and then abandoning our negative actions.

Once we are aware of our negativities as being negative, we then go before the holy beings and confess them openly and honestly.  We admit we messed up.  We admit our delusions fooled us once again.  We admit that our delusions are sometimes stronger than us and they overwhelm us even when we know better.  We then turn to them for help, that they bless our mind to purify our negative actions and to help us have the wisdom to see through the lies of our delusions.


Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of life:  The greatest gift of the Dharma

We now enter the section of purification, the main subject of this chapter – how we actually purify our negative karma.  I am first going to say a few words about negative karma in general, then about purification in general.  In future posts we will go into the actual practice of purification.

In science, we divide causes into necessary and sufficient causes.  In the Dharma, we divide causes into substantial and circumstantial causes.  The substantial cause is the thing that transforms into the next thing, such as an acorn that becomes an oak tree.  The circumstantial causes are the causes and conditions which facilitate the transformation, such as the water, soil and sunlight which ripen the seed.

Negative karma is the substantial cause of all our problems, everything else is the circumstantial cause.  We often think and blame the circumstantial cause, for example somebody interfering with our wishes, but the real cause is our negative karma.  If we have a problem with somebody in our life, then the main cause is our negative karma and the troublesome person is just a circumstantial cause.  If we don’t get rid of the substantial cause giving rise to the problem, then the problems will keep coming back.  Normally we turn to all sorts of things to eliminate our suffering, but these are just rearranging the samsaric furniture, and don’t really deal with the real cause of the problem which is our negative karma.  Understanding that the real cause of our problems is negative karma, we then naturally focus our efforts on purification.

In particular, all of our difficulties in Dharma come from negative karma.  If we want to succeed easily in our Dharma practices the main thing we need to do is practice purification.  If we clear away all the obstacles, then our practices will become effortless and we will accomplish great results.

Venerable Tharchin says the greatest gift of Dharma is the teachings on how to purify.  Where else can we find such things?  He said that we should take purification as the leading edge of our practice, and then everything else follows in its wake.  He said that purification is like a great plow which clears the way for the rest of our Dharma practice.  We need to establish as a reflex every time we have the slightest difficulty in accomplishing anything spiritually we immediately start doing purification.  Normally our focus is on changing the circumstantial causes, but if we don’t change the substantial cause nothing really changes.  It is like trying to clean the movie screen when the mark is on the projector.

Sometimes when we contemplate our infinite negative karma we can grow despondent thinking we are hopeless and it is impossible for us to purify our negativity.  Our alternatives are clear:  either we proactively purify our negative karma or it will eventually ripen.  There is no third alternative.  But the power of the purification practices are FAR greater than the power of our negativity.  For example, Geshe-la says with the 35 confession Buddhas, we can purify aeons worth of negative karma with a single prostration.  Venerable Tharchin says we can purify all the negative karma ever accumulated with a fully qualified 3 month Vajrasattva retreat.  Purification can be likened to defusing a bomb.  It is relatively easy to defuse even extremely powerful explosives, but after they explode (our negative karma ripens), then it is very difficult to put back together the billions of pieces.

It is said if we do strong purification, we can purify all our negative karma and close the door on the lower realms forever; if we do middling purification, we can reduce our negative karma; if we do weak purification, we can prevent our negative karma from increasing; and if we do no purification, our negative karma will increase even if we don’t commit any new negative actions.

The practice of purification takes place through the application of the four opponent powers.  The actual effectiveness of our purification practices is a function of how well we generate the four opponent powers. The four opponent powers are:  the power of regret, the power of reliance, the power of the opponent force and the power of the promise.  We will discuss each of these in detail in the coming verses.


Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Seeking ultimate refuge 

(2.26) Until I attain the essence of great enlightenment,
I will go for refuge to the Buddhas;
Likewise, I will go for refuge to Dharma
And to the assembly of Bodhisattvas.

At first, refuge practice seems very religions, which we don’t like.  It seems cult like.  But if we check, we see that we go for refuge all the time.  To go for refuge means to turn to something as a solution to your problems.  When we have a bad tooth, we go for refuge to the Dentist, when we have a legal problem, we go for refuge to a lawyer, etc.  There are two parts to the mind that goes for refuge – an awareness of the problem and a confidence in the object of refuge as the solution.

It is exactly the same thing with spiritual refuge.  The point of departure on the spiritual path is a redefinition of the problem.  A samsaric being thinks that the problem is the external situation.  A spiritual being understand that the problem is in fact how our mind relates to that external situation.

We have four types of spiritual problem.  The first is worldly problems in this life – things go wrong in this life and we are unhappy about them.  The second is the risk we face of falling into the lower realms – we have negative karma on our mind, and if we die with a negative mind we will fall into the lower realms.  The third is the risk of taking uncontrolled rebirth – we have an uncontrolled mind, and so uncontrolledly we will take rebirth into contaminated aggregates.  Finally, there is the risk of others we love taking uncontrolled rebirth – others have uncontrolled minds, and unless we save them they will take uncontrolled rebirths into contaminated aggregates.  The first type of problem we know very well, but the remaining three we are largely oblivious to.  We have no idea that we stand on a mountain of negative karma supported by nothing more than a water bubble of this human life which can pop at any time.  If truth be told, our real home is the lower realms, yet we go about our day as if we are on permanent holiday completely oblivious to what is but one missed breath away.  Samsara is nothing short of a slaughterhouse that is so cruel it revives us only to slaughter us once more.  Our parents, partners, children and friends are all relentlessly recycled though the samsaric meat grinder and nothing we are taught in this world (except the Dharma) can help.  Until we have deeply internalized these larger spiritual problems, we will lack staying power in our practice.  We will reach a point where we are usually happy with our present life, and we will become satisfied with that attainment alone.  The need to push further will seem remote.  But there is nothing like death to bring home the truth of Dharma.

Just as we need external objects to solve our external problems, so too we need Buddha, Dharma and Sangha to solve our internal, spiritual problems.  Dharma is the actual refuge, it is the supreme medicine.  Buddha is like the supreme doctor and Sangha are like the supreme nurses.

Dharma can help us solve our four types of problem.  Dharma helps us deal with our worldly problems of this life by helping us relate to our lives in non-deluded ways – then we are always happy.  With Dharma wisdom, if things go well, good; if things go badly, even better!  Dharma helps us deal with the risk of taking lower rebirth by explaining how to purify all our negative karma, how to accumulate positive karma and how to activate these seeds at the time of our death.  Dharma helps us deal with the problem of samsaric rebirth by giving us methods for purifying all of our deluded tendencies similar to the cause so that we never again activate contaminated karma and attain liberation.  Dharma helps us deal with the problem of others taking samsaric rebirth by giving us methods to purify all our contaminated karma and thereby remove the two obstructions and become a Buddha – a being capable of leading all beings to enlightenment.

At the Southern England Dharma Celebration many years ago, the teacher gave a very simple formula for how we build Dharma within our mind.  He said, “intellectual understanding plus believing faith equals realization.”  We can improve our intellectual understanding of Dharma through attending classes at our local centers, reading Dharma books, and discussing Dharma with our spiritual friends.  Believing faith is faith based on a valid reason.  Valid reasons can include conclusions reached through logical reasoning, but more often than not the valid reasons that truly move our minds are the ones born from personal experience of the Dharma working in our life or through having received powerful blessings.  Geshe-la likes the Dharma to supreme inner science.  The heart of the scientific method is experimentation.  We perform experiments to test the validity of our hypotheses.  When we do so, we either confirm or deny them.  It is the same with the Dharma.  When we sincerely put the instructions into practice in our daily life, we gain personal experience of their truth and transformative power.  This gives us believing faith.  When we combine these two – intellectual understanding and believing faith – authentic Dharma realizations naturally spawn within our mind.  This is our actual refuge.


How to attend a festival even if you can’t physically go

It’s festival time.  Perhaps in the past we were able to go to the festivals, but for whatever reason this year we are not able to make it.  Fortunately, even if we can’t physically make it to the festival, we can still attend it.

First, we need to dispel the guilt of not being able to go.  In the past (perhaps even sometimes now), our Resident Teachers and fellow Sangha would sometimes apply a good deal of pressure to try get people to go to festivals, and then make people feel guilty if they were not able to do so.  Such hard-pressure tactics are ultimately counter-productive in the long-run, and slowly people are abandoning them.  But even when they do happen, the person using them is usually well-intended.  Our teachers and Sangha friends know the value of going to the festival and they want us to experience the same thing.  They just sometimes use less than skillful means to try encourage us to do so.  That’s OK, nobody is perfect.

But ultimately, we each have different karma.  For some, it is money problems.  For others, it is inability to get off of work or family obligations.  It could be due to sickness or old age.  It could be due to inner obstructions.  If somebody else misunderstands our karma and makes us feel guilty about not being able to go, that is their problem, not ours.  Guilt closes our mind to be able to receive blessings.  It ignorantly grasps at the view that just because we can’t physically make it to the festival we can’t still participate in the Summer Festival.  We then feel bad about ourselves, give up and don’t even try connect.  This is completely wrong.  Sometimes we really want to go, but for whatever karmic reason we are not able to do so.  We need to accept that this will happen.  Mentally, we should always maintain the wish to go, never thinking it is unimportant.  If we have a sincere wish, but karmicly it is not possible, then we can accept not going with a clear conscience even if all of our Sangha friends and teachers misunderstand.

If we are unable to go, we have to keep in mind “being at a festival,” like all things, depends upon our mind.  It is perfectly possible to be physically at the festival, but mentally not; likewise it is possible to mentally be there while physically not being able to go.  Attending a festival is a state of mind, it is a mental recognition.  If we adopt the state of mind of “being at the festival” then we will experience whatever happens to us during festival time as “our festival.”  Anybody who has been to a festival knows that everyone’s experience is highly personalized.  If we adopt the mental recognition of being at a festival, then our daily life during this time will become our festival.  The only difference between those who are physically there and those who are not will be what appears.  They will see Manjushri, we will see wherever we are at, but both will be receiving constant teachings through whatever is appearing.  Different things will happen to us during festival time, and these will be our special, personalized teachings.  Different delusions will arise, different lessons will be learned.  This is the content of our teachings.  Dakas and Dakinis can enter into the bodies of all those around us, and we can find ourselves surrounded by Sangha.  Each thing everyone does will become part of our teachings.  Buddhas can teach through anything.  If we view everything as our teachings, everything will teach us.  In this way, we can all attend festival teachings no matter where we are in the world.

To help strengthen this recognition, every day we should do our Heart Jewel practice and make special requests and dedications that Dorje Shugden arrange everything that happens to us during festival time, transforming whatever does happen to us into our personal festival.  His job is to arrange all the outer and inner conditions for our practice; of these two, inner conditions are by far the most important.  He can help protect our inner “festival mind,” and enter into whatever appears so that it becomes our powerful teachings.  I like to imagine vast protection circles around me and everywhere I go, strongly believing that everything that happens inside the protection circle is part of my festival.

Ultimately, the festival is not happening in England, rather it is happening in the pure land.  Venerable Tharchin explains that the location of the mind is at the object of cognition.  If we think of the moon, our mind goes to the moon.  In the same way, if we think of the pure land, our mind actually goes there.  Since the festival is happening in the pure land anyways, we can mentally imagine (both in and out of meditation) that we are in the pure land with all of our vajra brothers and sisters.  If we maintain this recognition, we will go there and be with them.  Why are festivals spiritually powerful?  If each one of us is a candle, we each have a little bit of light.  But if we all put our candles together, then we make a blazing sun that we all benefit from.  When we come together at festival time, it is like the entire Kadampa family bringing their candles together into a single light.  We don’t have to physically be in England to add our candle.  Since the festival is actually taking place in the pure land, we can join them all there.  Quite simply:  mentally believe and it will be true.

In particular, Geshe-la once explained that during the empowerment time we can “tune in” regardless of where we find ourselves in the world.  If we do the practice of the empowerment (for example, we do Tara practice during a Tara empowerment) at the same time as the empowerment, then we can correctly believe that we too are receiving the empowerment directly from the guru.  When we are physically at the empowerment, the teacher always encourages us to develop the recognitions that we are in the pure land receiving the empowerment directly from the guru deity.  We can do this from anywhere, including in our imagination.  The same is true during the teachings.  We can “tune in” from anywhere in the world.  We can do our practice, dissolve the guru into our heart, and request him to reveal to us what we need to learn as personal advice.  If we have faith and a good motivation, it is definite our mind will be blessed with special understandings.

Sometimes, though, we might forget the recognition that we are “at a festival.”  When this happens, we can recall all the thousands of people who are there, and rejoice in their incredible good fortune for being able to be there.  Sometimes if we can’t go to the festival we try rationalize it by saying it is not that important.  We should never think like this because it functions to destroy the karma to have the opportunity to go in the future.  Instead, we should recall how incredibly important it is to go (without generating attachment of being able to go) and rejoice for those who are there.  This rejoicing will not only create a vast amount of merit, it will also help create the karmic causes for us to be able to go ourselves again in the future.  At a practical level, this rejoicing will remind us to maintain the “mind of being at a festival,” thus bringing us back to this important recognition.

At a more conventional level, there are many different ways we can participate in the festival while it is going on.  First, we can ask a friend to dissolve us into their heart and bring us into the temple with them.  Part of us will actually be there.  When they maintain this recognition, there will be points in the teaching where they think, “ah, this is for my friend back home.”  This is your special advice.  We can also ask them to write us, telling us what is happening and what they are learning, and what messages, if any, they are specifically receiving for us.  Even if they are not able to do so each day during the festival, we can take them to lunch or coffee upon their return and ask them about what they learned.

The NKT now is also posting videos each day during the festival on their YouTube channel.  You can subscribe to their channel and watch the videos as they are released.  Take the time to meditate and reflect on what is said.  If possible, you can even do preparatory practices before watching the video just like you would if you were there.  If there are other Sangha friends who are unable to go, you can organize a “viewing” at your local center.  Everyone can get together, do preparatory practices, watch the video, meditate on its meaning, and then discuss it afterwards – just like you would if you were at the festival itself.  Every year the Mormons have a “General Council,” which is like their Summer Festival.  There are tens of millions of Mormons around the world now, and obviously not all of them are able to make the pilgrimage to Salt Lake City.  As a result, in Mormon temples and prayer halls around the world, they organize “viewing parties” where they watch the videos of the spiritual gathering.  There is no reason why we can’t do the same.  The NKT now has hundreds of videos in their library.  We can watch several of them.  There is also no reason why we can’t watch the same videos more than once.  I would suspect in the future, as we grow in number, we will increasingly do things as the Mormons do.  Another thing we can do is listen to our old audio recordings of when we were able to attend past festivals.  If we can, take a few days off work during festival time and do a special meditation retreat.  If you can’t take off work, make the weekends or your days off special retreat time.

Attending festivals is one of the most important things we can do for our spiritual life.  The benefits of being at a festival are truly limitless.  But the karma is not always there for us to physically go.  We need to accept this and make the most of it.  By making the most of it, while always maintaining the wish to be able to go again in the future, we create the karmic causes to be able to attend later.  Karma is not complicated:  if we take full advantage of the opportunities we have, we create the cause for better opportunities in the future; if we fail to take full advantage of our opportunities, we burn up the karma which gave rise to them and it will be even more difficult in the future.  Festival time is a special time regardless of whether we can physically make it to England.  Fortunately, through the power of faith and emptiness, no matter where we may find ourselves in the world, we can all attend the festival with our vajra brothers and sisters every year – just in a different way.

How to get the most out of being at a festival

Every Spring and Summer in England, Manjushri center, the mother center of the NKT, holds its international Dharma festivals.  These events are, for those who are fortunate enough to attend, the spiritual highlight of their year, and sometimes their entire lives.  The main function of festivals is to put our practice squarely back on the rails.  It realigns our spiritual sails so that we all move forward as a tradition, blown forward by the pure winds of our Guru’s blessings.  For a period of about 15 years, I was able to attend every major festival, including ITTP for five years.  I would like to share my personal lessons learned for how to get the most out of our festival experience.  In a later post, I will share my understanding of how to make the most of festival time, even when we are not able to attend physically.

First, we must realize just how lucky we are to be able to attend a Dharma festival.  We know from the Lamrim teachings that the odds of attaining a precious human life are the same as the blind turtle putting its head through that golden yoke.  But of those who have a precious human life, how many actually seize it?  And of those who seize it, how many are able to make it to the festival?  Of those who make it to festivals, how many are able to make it year after year?  I used to be able to, but then, for a variety of reasons beyond my control, my karma suddenly shifted.  In the last five years, I have only been able to physically get to one.  We don’t know our karma and we don’t know when the karma to be able to attend festivals might exhaust itself.  Therefore, it is best to assume – each and every festival that you attend – that this may be the last festival you are able to attend for the rest of your life.  A festival is the closest we get in this world to the pure land.  Quite literally, a festival is taking place in the pure land, it is only our ordinary view which prevents us from seeing it.  When we approach the gates of Manjushri, we are quite literally approaching the gates of heaven.  Never forget this, and make the strong determination to make the most of every moment while you are there.  But we should never have attachment to results at a festival.  We should be content just to create as many good causes as we can while we there.  We should not be in a hurry to harvest the Dharma, we should rather focus on planting as many seeds as we can.

The main purpose of the festivals, of course, is to attend the teachings.  At the festival we can receive teachings directly from Venerable Geshe-la’s principal representatives in this world.  He enters into their hearts and teaches us directly.  We should always imagine the teacher is really just a speaker connected to the stereo system of our Guru.  When you hear the teachings, remember you are hearing personal advice for how to solve your specific problems.  We sometimes might wonder how that can be when there are thousands of people in the audience.  The answer is while the words coming out of the teacher’s mouth might be the same, what we  understand them to mean within our own mind is different and personalized.  How?  Through the power of blessings.  All Dharma understanding that dawns in our mind actually arises through the power of blessings; and the specific understanding of Dharma we gain, in particular how we might put it into practice in our lives, is highly personalized.  The more faith you have in this process, the more personalized the taught advice will be.  It is very important to recall again and again the teachings on “how to listen to Dharma” and we should make a special point to put them into practice during the festival teachings.  The quality of our listening determines the quality of the teachings we receive.  Like everything else, it depends entirely upon our own mind.

The teachings are not limited to the time in which we are in the temple.  In fact, we can view every single encounter we have with every single person as emanated by our Guru to teach us something.  The person we happen to sit down next to at meal time, the person singing terribly but with a full heart three rows behind us, and even the people snoring in the tent next to us – all of them are emanated.  You will overhear conversations between people and be amazed how they are saying exactly what you need to hear.  You will suddenly “bump into” people at just the right time, or fail to find the friend you were looking for but meet somebody new.  What I used to do was I would walk around reciting Dorje Shugden’s mantra, requesting he take me to where I needed to go.  Then I would just walk and see what happened.  Even the rain and muddy grounds are all teachings.  If you view them as such, you will learn from them as such.  Some of our most precious teachings will come during our conversations with our Sangha friends.  While many people make this mistake, festivals are not the time for pretending we are always happy and that we are perfect Dharma practitioners.  Instead, festivals are the time to find that dear friend or former teacher who we have faith in and open our heart explaining our struggles in life and in our practice.  True friends are the ones who are there for you when you are in the greatest of need.  If you bring your problems to the festival, with faith that you will find the solutions, it is guaranteed you will find what you are looking for.

A festival truly is a family reunion, especially for those who have the good fortune to attend many of them.  A friend is simply somebody we hang out with for a time.  Family is for life.  Sangha is forever.  The global Kadampa family gets together essentially once a year, and going to Manjushri is, in a very real sense, going home.  View it that way.  Remember, everyone around you is your vajra brother and sister.  We are all part of the same family with a single mission, and we will be reunited together again and again in life after life working towards a common goal.  At festivals, many people have had the experience of meeting somebody for the first time, but the karma is such that it feels like we are meeting a long lost best friend.  We are.  When I am at a festival, of course I catch up with my close Sangha friends, but I always try make a point of sitting with people I don’t know at meals and I try do things I otherwise wouldn’t do.  You never know who you are going to meet.

One of the most important aspects of the festival experience is volunteering.  The entire festival runs on volunteers scurrying about, often unseen, making everything happen and creating the conditions in which we can enjoy the festival.  I think a good rule of thumb is you should volunteer for at least one task every day.  When I was in Paris, Gen Lhamo was the teacher.  She had a very interesting way of helping people with their problems.  Somebody would come to her with some worry, and instead of giving the person advice on how to solve it she would often give them some task to do for the center, such as distribute flyers, change the offering bowls, vacuum the gompa, etc.  Why would she do this?  Because the reason why we have problems is we either haven’t purified our karma or we lack sufficient merit.  Working for a Dharma center accomplishes both in abundance.  After the task is done, suddenly the problem is less severe or we have a wisdom which knows how to view the situation differently.  Of all the volunteer tasks one can do, I think volunteering to clean the toilets is supreme.  Why?  Because it is the worst job, and therefore by doing it we confront the most delusions, purify the most negative karma and accumulate the most merit.

Finally, don’t forget to give yourself some “alone with your thoughts” time.  During the breaks between sessions, I would often go to the North Wing gompa, where I could do some practice, work on my journal writing down what I was learning, or just sit and look at the statues and rejoice in the practice of those around me.  It is a quiet place you can go and be with your own thoughts and reflect deeply on the experiences you are having.  In the same way, you can go for walks in the woods or on the beach.  The point is, take the time to reflect – just you and your guru.  The last thing I do at the end of each festival is I try synthesize everything I have learned down into 3-4 new dedication prayers that I will make every day after the festival.  Sometimes people leave festivals with large ambitions on how they are going to change anything, only to get back home and be unable to act on a fraction of what they hoped.  Instead, make a few small commitments, small changes, but ones you plan on maintaining forever.  The dedication prayers should reflect these small commitments, and then every day when you recite them you are able to remind yourself of what you learned at the festival.

Festivals truly are a magical time – but this magic does not exist from its own side.  It depends on you having deep faith, the right view, a good motivation and a positive attitude.  Don’t expect anything special, just relate to everything in a special way.  Your guru is speaking to you through everything around you.  All you need do is learn how to listen and love.  I am so happy for all those who have the good fortune to attend festivals.  I pray that all beings may be able to have the opportunity.