A Mahayanist should not needlessly diminish his or her capacity to help others by shunning wealth, reputation, or involvement with other people. If we do this without a special altruistic motivation, we incur a secondary downfall. This also advises that if we have a bodhichitta motivation we can use these things providing we use them solely to bring increased benefit to sentient beings.
I think this vow is very important for the future of the tradition in this world. Geshe-la has made it clear that the main mission of the tradition at this time is to attain the union of Kadam Dharma and modern life. Geshe-la has passed on to us the complete Kadam Dharma and he has re-presented it in a way that is optimally suited to integrate it into modern life. Now it is our turn. If we are to carry the lineage forward into future generations we need to complete the task he has given us – namely attaining this union. He gave us the Dharma, we already have modern lives, now what we need to do is attain the union of the two. This union is what we are to pass on to the next generation of Kadampas. There is nothing more important we can do with our life than this.
The development of the tradition takes place on two different, non-contradictory and mutually reinforcing planes: namely, internally and externally. Historically, this tradition has been a monastic one. In the East, there is a strong grasping at a difference between one’s spiritual life and one’s worldly life. There is a strong grasping at normal life as being somehow inherently worldly and therefore if we wish to live a spiritual life we need to abandon normal life and society and join a monastery, etc. The residual of this cultural legacy came to the West when the Dharma came. As a result, Western practitioners have likewise struggled with this apparent tension. We too tend to view our jobs, our families and our modern problems as somehow obstacles to our spiritual life and we develop aversion to them and attachment to some fantasy of somehow “escaping from it all” and living a quiet life of contemplation in some comfy corner of nowhere. Or we fantasize about moving into some Dharma center and spending our day and night doing pujas and giving Dharma teachings. The more we grasp at such visions, the more we start to view everything in our modern life that prevents us from living such a life as “obstacles to our practice.” We then grow increasingly unhappy, tension builds, we start having more conflict with our families about our practice, etc.
There is sometimes a pride that develops in some Dharma practitioners who do live the more traditional Dharma life thinking that those who do not do so are somehow inferior or less serious about their practice. Such practitioners think they are the real tradition, the real practitioners, and the only reason why people live a different mode of life is because they are too attached to samsara to let go of it, etc. Such practitioners then unskillfully make others feel like they are somehow doing something wrong if they live a normal modern life, if they don’t make it to every festival, etc.
Or, we think that the only way to practice Dharma is by doing the above things, we realize that we can’t (or don’t want to) live such a life, so we never fully commit to the Dharma. It remains a background hobby, or something we turn to occasionally when our life is particularly difficult. We can sometimes think being a Kadampa is an all or nothing venture, and since I can’t do it all, I will do nothing (or next to nothing). So there winds up being this big chasm between those who are “in” and those who are “out.” Those who are “in” judge those who are “out” as somehow being impure, as not real Kadampas, etc. Those who are “out” judge those who are “in” as being crazed and cult-like, or they think those who are “in” are only in because they couldn’t succeed in the real world and so they have run away, and they are in fact just a bunch of losers.
All of the above completely wrong attitudes and problems have a common origin: namely grasping at some sort of inherent duality between modern life and the Kadam Dharma. Realizing the union of modern life and the Kadam Dharma will solve all of these problems, naturally and effortlessly. When these problems are solved, then there is literally nothing stopping the Kadam Dharma from flourishing like a wild fire in the modern world. The modern world is thirsting for the answers the Kadam Dharma provides. The time is ripe, and unfortunately it is our own grasping at a duality between modern life and the Kadam Dharma that is the biggest obstacle to it flourishing in this way.
Of course, the real flourishing of the tradition cannot be measured by the number of temples and external manifestations. We could be materially rich but spiritually bankrupt. The internal development of the tradition is the primary development of the tradition and our real goal, but this requires external development as well. External development supports internal development, and internal development motivates external development.
Things like money, resources, power, a good reputation, fame, and extensive personal relationships are all, in and of themselves, neutral. They are tools, nothing more. It is our motivation that determines their value. If we want these things for virtuous reasons, they are positive tools; if we want these things for deluded reasons, they are negative tools. If we have the karma to have a lot of money, power, reputation, etc., and we shun it because we ignorantly grasp at these things as being somehow inherently worldly, we deny ourselves the ability to use these tools for virtuous purposes. Of course we shouldn’t pursue these things at the expense of internal development, but we can unashamedly pursue these things if by doing so we can then use them for good purposes. Bill Gates is a billionaire, but he uses all of his wealth to bring benefit to others.
Additionally, if we let go of grasping at these things as being somehow inherently worldly, then we help the people of this modern world let go of their own wrong understandings that they have to abandon these things if they want to live a spiritual life. They can keep their entirely modern life with all of its external manifestations (family, jobs, money, etc.) and still be a 100% pure Kadampa, viewing every moment of their normal modern life as part of their spiritual training. The only thing we need to give up to become a Kadampa is our delusions and contaminated karma. They are the only objects of abandonment.
In particular, what is most important is the nexus of personal relationships we have with other living beings. Venerable Tharchin tells the story of how when he was on long retreat, towards the end he was feeling like he was very close to attaining enlightenment. He went to Venerable Geshe-la and he said, “if I stay on retreat just a little bit longer, I think I can complete the path.” Much to Venerable Tharchin’s surprise, Geshe-la then said, “then it is time for you to end your retreat. It is true, if you stay up here, you will likely soon attain enlightenment, but if you do you will be a ‘worthless Buddha’ because you will not have any karmic connections with living beings.” He then set Tharchin loose on the world. He went to Canada where he formed a cadre of some of the greatest teachers in the tradition today, they have then gone out into the world and founded and made flourish centers throughout the world. He then was sent back to Tharpaland where he established a model for what it means to have a Kadampa retreat center. The people of Tharpaland were then fanned out to the retreat centers around the world where they are spreading his model. Venerable Tharchin’s example and teachings have touched almost all of us, either directly or indirectly through one of his students. Tharchin at one point said his biggest desire is to be reborn in a hell realm. When asked why, he said, “because that is where all the living beings are.” I bow down.
Each one of us has a different set of karmic connections with living beings. Collectively, though, we touch almost the entire world. We know people who know people who know people, and our every action ripples through humanity on the ocean of the karmic web of our relationships. Just as we need wealth, power and resources, we likewise especially need vast karmic relationships which will serve as karmic conduits through which the blessings of the Buddhas, the wisdom of the teachings and the purity of our example may reach every corner of the world. This is our mission.