Vows, commitments and modern life: Root downfalls of the Bodhisattva Vows, explaining emptiness and causing others to abandon the Mahayana

Explaining emptiness to those who are likely to misunderstand. 

We incur a root downfall if we teach emptiness in an unskillful way and cause those who are listening to develop serious and harmful misunderstandings.  Emptiness is very easily misunderstood, and it is not difficult to unintentionally explain a nihilistic view.  We normally remain on the extreme of existence, but it does not take much to swing to the other side and become overzealous in our explanations. 

As a general rule, we should make sure that our wisdom understanding emptiness does not outstrip our compassion.  This will protect us from falling into the extreme of non-existence, or falling into the extreme of solitary peace.  The only thing emptiness negates is the mode of existence of the world.  Being still exist, the world still exists, suffering is still experienced.  We go places, things happen, etc.  But it is all taking place in a dream and none of it is any more real than last night’s dream.  But just because it is a dream does not mean it doesn’t matter what happens in it.  For as long as beings grasp at the dream as being real, they suffer terribly within it.  Just as it is appropriate to come to the aid of somebody we think is real, so too if we are in a dream it is appropriate to come to the aid of somebody in the dream.  They suffer, we can help, so we do so. 

In fact, it is impossible to fully unwind the dream of samsara without a measure of compassion because if others are empty, then their minds and indeed their very lives are part of our dream.  An ocean cannot be tamed by calming a single wave.  The sign that our understanding of emptiness is incorrect is we feel there is no harm done by negativity and we think it doesn’t matter what happens to others because they are not real.  The sign that our understanding of emptiness is correct is we feel an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility for whatever happens to anybody because it is all taking place in our dream.  Just as we would expect a good God to care for and protect his creation, so too when we understand emptiness it is a given we must care for everything and everyone because it is all part of the fabric of our mind.  The duality between self and others completely dissolves where it becomes absurd to even think to free oneself without freeing all others.  In fact, for a mind that understands emptiness correctly, such a thought could not even arise.

Causing others to abandon the Mahayana. 

If we cause a Mahayana practitioner to give up their bodhichitta by telling them they will never become a Buddha, and advise them to enter the less demanding Hinayana path, we incur a downfall.

Venerable Tharchin explains that the secret to developing unstoppable effort is to understand that all of the goals of the spiritual path are indeed eminently doable.  At present we give lip service to the idea of attaining enlightenment, but deep in our heart we think it is an impossible goal far beyond our reach.  When we read the teachings on Tranquil Abiding, much less all the grounds and paths of a bodhisattva, we realize we have barely even begun our training, even if we have been applying full effort for many many years.  Not seeing how it is possible, we may think it would be nice to be a Buddha but besides the words which fall from our lips about it, there is no fire in our belly to really go for it. 

The deep truth of emptiness is if we cannot keep the flame of Dharma alive in our own mind, it will become extinguished from the world we perceive, and all hope of escape for ourself or others in our dream will be lost.  But if we can become like an immovable vajra and the flame of Dharma is never extinguished from our own mind, it is just a question of time before we free everyone.  The bitter cruelty of samsara is also its greatest weakness – it is a self-imposed prison.  There is literally nothing which can stop us from walking straight out its door other than our failure to make the decision to do so.  Once we decide to leave and we have seen through its lies, nothing can stop us.  It still may take a very long time, but nothing can stop us. 

We may love our children, for example, very much and be willing to do anything for them.  But if we die without having secured our spiritual future, who will look after them?  Can we trust the task to anybody else?  But if we can place our mind on the firm grounding of the clear light, death for us will be no different than falling asleep at night knowing we will awake the next day to continue our work.  We do not recognize all of the beings around us as our past mothers or our past children, but as we become firm in our wisdom we will see and recall our past time with them, we will understand the long arc of their history with us and we will know no matter what karmic disguises they or ourselves may assume, it is still them and it is still us, and we are still with them gradually guiding them to freedom. 

Discouragement is the killer of more spiritual lives than anything else.  It is our discouragement which enables our attachments to overcome us.  If we do not believe our freedom is possible, we won’t fight for it with all our being, and we will settle for the most comfortable situation we can arrange in samsara.  But if a man’s child or wife were captured, he would not rest – ever – until they were freed.  This is our very situation, and we have the potential to free all of them – literally in one go.  The only thing stopping us is nothing. 


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