Dispelling wrong views about spiritual life when access to a center is difficult
It goes without saying that regular access to a Dharma center is good thing. Geshe-la would not have worked so hard to establish Dharma centers around the world, nor implore us to help contribute to their development, if they were not supremely sacred objects in this world. When explaining how one can nonetheless make spiritual progress without regular access to a center, there is a danger that some will misunderstand what is being said to mean Dharma centers are not important and we don’t need to make effort to make them part of our life. Some people who do have regular access to a center think it is good if people think it is “bad” to not have regular access because then they will be motivated to overcome their “obstacles.” Sometimes this is motivated by a genuine belief that regular access to a center is a necessary condition for spiritual progress, sometimes it is motivated by a perhaps unacknowledged attachment to people coming to the center. Regardless of the reasons, some people are reluctant to explain how one can still make progress without regular access to a center. I would say if one truly is compassionately motivated to help people gain regular access to a center they need to help people transform life without such access. Why? Because transforming our life in this way creates the karmic causes to one day have regular access. And in the meantime, it enables people to get on with their spiritual life without grasping at “phantom obstacles” to their practice.
The first and most important thing to realize is all lives are equally empty, so they are all equally transformable into the quick path to enlightenment. It is perfectly possible for somebody to have regular access to a Dharma center and teachings, yet make no spiritual progress at all; and likewise it is possible for somebody to never set foot in a Dharma center and make rapid progress to enlightenment. To go one step further, all Dharma centers are equally empty. Externally, all the trappings of a Dharma center may be present, but the members of the community lack, in Venerable Tharchin’s words, “realizations bound together by mutual love for one another;” and it is likewise possible that none of the external trappings of a center be present, but one nonetheless feels like they live every day in a Dharma center. Some people, for example, are unable to make it to a Dharma festival. But if during the time of the festival, the practitioner adopts “a festival mind” then everything that happens to them during festival time will be, for them, their “festival.” Whether we have regular access to a Dharma center is, in the final analysis, a state of mind. As soon as we adopt this state of mind, regardless of where we externally might find ourselves, we can validly experience ourselves as “being in a Dharma center.”
The difference between a qualified Dharma practitioner and a qualified Dharma teacher is similar to the difference between somebody who drives to work every day and a taxi driver. Somebody who drives themselves around might know very well how to get from their home to their work in the city center, and they may even know a few short cuts which enable them to avoid most of the traffic. But if you ask them how to get to their work starting from someplace else, they wouldn’t know. An experienced taxi driver, however, knows all of the different routes one can take to get to the city center, regardless of where somebody started out. They know all the routes, and indeed shortcuts, starting from anywhere to anywhere. In the same way, a qualified Dharma practitioner will know how to transform the life they have led into the quick path to the City of Enlightenment, and they may even know a few shortcuts along the way; but they do not necessarily know how to transform a life other than their own into the quick path. A qualified Dharma teacher, in contrast, is like a taxi driver that understands we all have our own unique karmic starting point on the spiritual path and so the route we each take to enlightenment will necessarily be different. Understanding this, over the span of many years working with a wide variety of different practitioners, they become like a skilled taxi driver who knows how to get from anywhere to the enlightened city center.
Problems arise, though, when a practitioner first makes the transition to becoming a teacher and they mistakenly grasp at there being only one way – the way they just took. As a result, the advice they give might be perfectly appropriate for somebody who is travelling the path as they have; but perfectly wrong for somebody who is beginning their trip from a different karmic starting point. It is possible, for example, that abandoning our kids, jobs and families is the right thing to do for one person; this does not mean, however, it is the right thing to do for everybody else. I have found that most of the Dharma advice people give is, if we check, the rationalizations we ourselves have used to make the spiritual decisions we have made. Such thinking may be right for us, but we should be careful in assuming it is equally right for everybody else. In a similar way, when we receive Dharma advice from our teachers or spiritual friends, we should always keep in mind that just because a certain way of doing things worked for others doesn’t necessarily mean that same way will work for us. It is easy to become attached to what our teachers and spiritual friends think of us, and when we feel they are judging us for making what they consider to be wrong spiritual choices it hurts. When this happens, people usually fall into one of two extremes, either they assume the teacher is right and start making choices that might not make sense given their individual context; or they assume the teacher is wrong, wind up losing faith and abandoning everything. The middle way is to understand what the teacher is saying was right for them, but we need to check and see if what they are saying is right for us as well.
In the end, our job is very simple. We need to do our best to make it to Dharma centers or Dharma teachings when we can, but accept our karma when we can’t. We need to surrender our life and our karma to Dorje Shugden, our Dharma Protector, requesting that he transform our life into our Dharma teachings and wherever we are into our Dharma center. Dorje Shugden’s job is to arrange the perfect outer and inner conditions necessary for our swiftest possible enlightenment. Some people mistakenly believe he can only do so with our virtuous karma, but in reality he is especially skilled at transforming the ripening of our “negative karma” into our most transformative Dharma teachings. If he can transform our worst negative karma into the path, then certainly he has the power to transform whatever happens in our life into a “Dharma teaching” and wherever we might find ourselves into our “Dharma center.”
Many of us grasp onto a fixed notion of what it means to lead a spiritual life, namely somebody who leaves behind the worlds of work and family to dedicate themselves to a life of meditation, retreat and working for the center. It is true, this is one way to lead one’s spiritual life, one that we should deeply rejoice in; but by no means is it the only way. After the publication of Modern Buddhism, Geshe-la said our mission now is to “attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.” Modern lives are incredibly diverse in nature, and all of them have equal potential to be quick paths. Due to karma accumulated over countless previous lives, we find ourselves with some form of modern life – whatever form that might be. Our job is to bring the Kadam Dharma into our life and realize the union of the two. Time and time again, Geshe-la has said, “everyone needs Kadam Dharma.” This does not mean everyone needs to become Buddhist, it means everyone can beneficially bring Kadampa wisdom into their lives. The only way they will be able to do so is if we, the Kadampa practitioners of this world, learn how to do the same. If we grasp at the Kadam Dharma only being practicable in a single type of life, its reach in this world will be extremely limited. If instead we learn how to bring the Kadam Dharma into any life, we will help fulfill Geshe-la’s vision of bringing into everyone’s life. In short, as Venerable Tharchin says, we each need to “assume our place in the mandala.” We each have a role to play, and that role is to show how whatever life we may have (including one that does not have regular access to a Dharma center) can be a quick path to enlightenment.