Vows, commitments and modern life: Refuge vows, part 3

To regard anyone who wears the robes of an ordained person as an actual Sangha Jewel. 

In general, this vow means we need to pay respect to ordained Sangha because they are keeping moral discipline, and this is something very rare and precious.  It is almost a miracle that there is such a thing as ordained Sangha in this world.  Ordination is commonly understood to be like a spiritual marriage, where the ordained person makes a life-long commitment to a certain way of life.  But it is actually much much more than this.  If we think deeply about it, ordination is the voluntary leaving behind of one’s ordinary self so that one can quite literally take rebirth as a new person, a fortunate one (Kelsang means fortunate one). 

We should not underestimate how hard it is to be ordained.  Sometimes we think, “it must be so easy for ordained people, they don’t have all the responsibilities I do and they don’t have to deal with all the obnoxious people I do.”  But this is a completely mistaken notion.  Even at a superficial level, ordained people have tremendous responsibility.  In fact, they have assumed personal responsibility to work until the end of time doing whatever it takes to free each and every living being, including ourselves.  They also have to deal with all sorts of obnoxious people, and I don’t just mean all of the people who stare at them funny when they go out in public.  I am talking about all of us! 

But at a more profound level, whether we are ordained or not, it is our mind that creates our feeling of being over-burdened with responsibility and it is our own mind that creates all of these “obnoxious” people.  If we have a stressed out mind, we will project that stress onto whatever is our daily life, even the least demanding one.  If we have a playful, open mind, we will project that child-like wonder onto whatever is our daily life, even the most demanding one.  If we have an obnoxious mind, we will project that obnoxiousness onto whoever we come into contact with, even if they are all prostrating at our feet.  If we have a loving mind, we will project a world filled with delightful people, even if they are constantly abusing us. 

I find it very helpful to consider the example of ex-Gen-la Samden.  The person that he was before ordination died and he was reborn as Samden Gyatso.  Through pure deeds and a sincere motivation Samden Gyatso died and became Gen Samden.  Through pure reliance and a vast motivation Gen Samden died and became Gen-la Samden.  Gen-la Samden gave some of the most powerful and pure teachings I have ever received, in particular his teachings on patient acceptance.  But how hard it must be to be a Gen-la!  Such a mind, the courageous mind to become a lineage guru dedicated to passing on the Ganden Oral Lineage to future generations, has to be one of the most daunting spiritual minds a living being can generate.  It runs directly counter to virtually every single delusion in our mind, and every day is a constant struggle to simply be such a being. 

Our delusions are very tricky.  They are extremely skilled at kidnapping our Dharma understanding and using it to rationalize behavior that is, in the end, completely at odds with the Dharma.  Some people can’t understand how somebody so realized can succumb to such base delusions, but this is only because we don’t understand the raw power of some of the deluded seeds on our mind.  Small spiritual motivations like we have kick up small deluded seeds on our mind that we struggle to work through.  Huge spiritual motivations like the mind that strives to be a Gen-la kick up huge deluded seeds on our mind that they struggle to work through.  Sometimes these seeds are so strong and so tricky that they deceive us literally to our death.  They trick us into committing spiritual suicide, often in ways we don’t even realize we are doing so.  Losing one’s ordination is literally dying.  The spiritual being that was Kelsang whomever or somebody Gyatso quite literally dies, and they are reborn an ordinary being.  Sometimes this death process can be incredibly psychologically traumatic.  To fall from being a Gen-la to being an ordinary being must be no different than falling from the highest god realm to the deepest hell while preserving complete memories of what it was like before.  The regret must be so overwhelming at times it becomes easier to live in total denial, but such denial is merely a fig leaf covering up deep inner pain.  And this for a being who has helped us all in so many ways.

Now just to be clear, I am not in any way condoning what he did.  What he did was wrong, and Geshe-la openly and unequivocally called him on his behavior.  But what I am saying is even his greatest mistake can be, for us, his greatest teaching.  This doesn’t make what he did right from the side of his action, but it does make what happened beneficial in our own mind.  In fact, we can say our viewing his action as a teaching is a compassionate act on our part because it helps us protect him from accumulating even worse negative karma by it undermining our own faith, etc.

Ordained people deserve our respect.  When we consider what they go through for us, we owe them nothing less.  I still keep a picture of Gen-la Samden on my shrine to remind me of his story.  His dramatic fall is, in my view, his most powerful teaching to us all.  The holy being that was Gen-la Samden was killed by his delusions.  He was, for me, a holy being; but he, like other holy beings before him, was killed – not by a bullet, but by something far more deadly – by delusion.  Just as we honor the memory of our fallen soldiers, so too I think it is important that we honor the memory of all the different fallen Kelsangs.  We need to understand the unique struggles of the ordained and the ex-ordained and we should thank them from the bottom of our heart because they are going through it all for us.  What kindness!

8 thoughts on “Vows, commitments and modern life: Refuge vows, part 3

  1. Beautifully put – and voicing something that sometimes can feel like a bit of a dirty NKT secret than a wonderful compassionate teaching.

  2. Thanks for the article, just to be precise and maybe a bit pedantic Samdens name was Samden Gyatso, not Kelsang Samden

  3. Thankyou so much for your compassionate insight. Gen-la Samden gave to us in so many ways. Even in his departure there were many teachings on many different levels for everyone. Helping us to grow & mature within the NKT.
    For me, he made me look at my reliance on my Spiritual Guide, checking to see that he was the very rock & centre of my spiritual path & life. & also pure appearances & conceptions. He made me think of Tilopa frying fish.

  4. Ordained Sangha do not exist outside the mind, we can choose to view them in any way we wish. They appear as human beings in robes. Like other human beings they will display all sorts of feelings, behaviours and thoughts.

    They are to be cherished, but what is it we are really cherishing? When we cherish them or show respect we create causes to become a Sangha Jewel, a superior being has inner realizations of emptiness and so on. They remind us to be inner beings, forget what I look like or wear. These robes show you that I am changing my mind, always learning, I can do it and so can you. Whether they are superior or not is not the question. My job is to work on my mind. I need those inner realisations but it’s not always easy. They are reminders of empowerment, willingness, acceptance, inspiration and to not give up.

    I’ve seen many scores of practitioners disrobe or fall. But this is not the same as failure. I still regard the monk you mentioned in the same way. Pure view should definitely be taught to the younger generations of Kadampas. Too many expectations of how the ordain should be perfect.

    I see many young practitioners give too much power in their mind to such beings also. This is unhelpful. They are to be respected from the inside not to be given power as if from outside oneself, this creates an unstable relationship between Sangha and lay and only serves to give power to delusion which ignites disharmony. A practitoner must rely upon Sangha in a way that is conducive to their development. For example, to start believing that they can ‘read my mind’ or know everything about the person is fabrication. But, I have seen this happen.

    To bombard the OS as if they are psychologists, therapists, marriage councellors or enlightened and have all the answeers, again, is a recipe for confusion. I choose to view them as having certain realization to that I can improve my own mental state, I choose to view them this way to encourage myself to inspire myself.

    All practitioners need to feel empowered on a basic level so for me, pure view is a choice of mind. I choose to learn and I choose to benefit from the behaviour of others. What does it teach me about Dharma? How can I apply the Dharma from what I see in my experience. If the main goal is to attain enlightenment, we must be reminded and uplifted by knowing that it can be done, there are others who are trying. The ordained are a great reminder of our inner choices we must make and inner realisations we must gain in order to attain the enlightened state. I prostrate to this.

    From a more subtle angle, ordained Sangha are my self. I see no difference or contradiction whatsoever. Everyone to me is a Sangha jewel. I am constantly surrounded by those who inspire me and encourage me to practice moral discipline for I know that I will, in time, experience the fruit of my actions.

  5. It can be difficult to know how to keep this commitment when someone in robes appears to be breaking their moral discipline. Something that seems to happen is people see them behave in questionable ways but allow them to carry on, breaking their own vows and damaging other’s faith. Pure view and acting to stop this are not contradictory. Geshe-La has told us if you see somebody doing something wrong we must act on this. My own teacher advises us to develop correct discrimination in this case. My understanding of this means to question with respect, i.e. not in an accusatory or judgemental way but in order to understand the motives behind that action. If we are not satisfied with the answer we can take our questions to the NKT office. Our internal constitution prevents any one person from being able to engage in damaging actions that would lead to a degeneration of the tradition. That was an amazing outcome of Gen-La Samden’s actions. We now know what not to do in similar situations and that we must learn to (and how to) question.

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