Happy Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day: Taking our Place in the Lineage

Today is Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day when we celebrate and remember Buddha’s kindness in teaching Dharma to the beings of this world.  Today is a particularly blessed day when the karma we create is multiplied by ten million times, so it is a good idea to make every second count.  As Kadampas, June 4th is also Venerable Geshe-la’s birthday.  Of course it is, what other day would he be born on?  To mark this day, I would like to share my thoughts on why it is important to pray for Geshe-la’s long life, how we can appreciate Buddha’s kindness in turning the Wheel of Dharma, what it means to turn the Wheel of Dharma over time, and the many different ways we can choose to take our place in the lineage.

Understanding How Holy Days Work

There are certain days of the year which are karmically more powerful than others, and the karmic effect of our actions on these days is multiplied by a factor of ten million!  These are called “ten million multiplying days.”  In practice, what this means is every action we engage in on these special days is karmically equivalent to us engaging in that same action ten million times.  This is true for both our virtuous and non-virtuous actions, so not only is it a particularly incredible opportunity for creating vast merit, but it is also an extremely dangerous time for engaging in negative actions.  There are four of these days every year:  Buddha’s Englightenment Day (April 15), Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day (June 4), Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day (September 22), and Je Tsongkhapa Day (October 25).  Heruka and Vajrayogini Month (January 3-31), NKT Day (1st Saturday of April), and International Temple’s Day (first Saturday of November) are the other major Days that complete the Kadampa calendar. 

A question may arise, why are the karmic effect of our actions greater on certain days than others?  We can think of these days as a spiritual pulsar that at periodic intervals sends out an incredibly powerful burst of spiritual energy or wind.  On such days, if we lift the sails of our practice, these gushes of spiritual winds push us a great spiritual distance.  Why are these specific days so powerful?  Because in the past on these days particularly spiritually significant events occurred which altered the fundamental trajectory of the karma of the people of this world.  Just as calling out in a valley reverberates back to us, so too these days are like the karmic echoes of those past events.  Another way of understanding this is by considering the different types of ocean tides.  Normally, high and low tide on any given day occurs due to the gravity of the moon pulling water towards it as the earth rotates.  But a “Spring tide” occurs when the earth, moon, and Sun are all in alignment, pulling the water not just towards the moon as normal, but also towards the much more massive sun.  Our holy days are like spiritual Spring tides.

Why it is Important to Pray for Geshe-la’s Long Life

Not only is today important because it is Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day, but also because today is Geshe-la’s birthday.  At Kadampa Festivals, special events, and perhaps also in our daily practice, we frequently pray for the long life of our precious spiritual guide, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.  Sometimes, if we are honest with ourselves, we are tired towards the end of these long teaching or meditation sessions, and so we internally groan a bit at the thought of doing the long-life prayers because we want the session to end, etc.  There is nothing wrong with admitting these thoughts arise in our mind, what matters is that when they do, we recognize them as deceptive and recall why it is important to pray for Geshe-la’s long life.

The Spiritual Guide plays an indispensable role in our spiritual life.  It is helpful to consider why different realms appear to different beings.  Generally speaking, with the exception of humans, animals, and some gods, beings of one realm can’t see beings of other realms.  Why is this?  Because the world that appears to any one being depends upon that person’s karma.  Hell beings don’t see other realms because their minds are so impure they only see impurity.  We do not see god realms for the same reason.  The world of the Buddhas is completely pure, and so utterly beyond our scope of appearance.  As a result, even though pure lands pervade everywhere, we are completely blind to them and the teachings and enlightened actions of the Buddhas are essentially beyond our reach.  But the spiritual guide bridges the pure world of the Buddhas and our impure human world.  Despite their mind being in the pure land, they are nonetheless able to appear in our world and to our minds.  Through developing a relationship with the spiritual guide, we are able to learn about and ultimately gain access to the pure lands and all the blessings of the Buddhas.  Without the spiritual guide appearing in our world, and more specifically in our lives, we would have no idea about the existence of pure worlds, much less the paths for reaching them. 

In Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe-la says:

“It is very important to keep a pure view of our Spiritual Guide’s outer aspect and not to be misled into thinking that just because he appears as an ordinary being he is an ordinary being. We must always remember that his apparent ordinariness is itself a manifestation of his enlightened qualities. If he were to display extraordinary qualities and miracle powers these would not benefit us in the least, but by appearing in a form to which we can relate and giving us unmistaken advice he gives us immeasurable help. Indeed, it is this very ability to appear in an ordinary form while performing the actions of a Buddha that reveals his real miracle powers and skilful means.”

It is also important to remember that the spiritual guide appearing in our life is a dependent-arising.  If we do not create the causes for him to appear in our life, he simply won’t.  There are billions of people on earth who have no idea who Geshe-la is, much less having him appear directly in their lives.  The difference is we have created the karma for him to appear in our lives and others have not.

I once asked Geshe-la, “I realize that if I continue to find you in all of my future lives without interruption, my eventual enlightenment is guaranteed.  Please give me a method to 100% guarantee that I meet you in all of my future lives without interruption.”  He replied, “concentrate on practicing Dharma and always keep faith.”  The Dharma we practice comes from his instructions.  When we put it into practice, we do two things.  First, we create a closer karmic relationship with him because every instruction functions to take us closer to its origin.  Second, we actually mix our mind with his.  His instructions are not separate from his mind but are rather aspects of his mind.  When we put his instructions into practice, we quite literally are bringing his mind into our mind, or more precisely, we are making his mind manifest in our own.  Geshe-la’s answer also says we need to keep faith.  It is not enough to meet him again in our future lives, but we also need to continue to have faith in him.  Keeping faith now creates the tendencies in our mind to continue to have faith in him when we meet him again in our future lives.

But the supreme method for having him appear in our life is to pray for his long life.  Why?  When we pray for his long life, we are requesting him to continue to appear in this world and that he continues to turn the wheel of Dharma for ourselves and all others.  This mental action directly creates the cause for him to appear in our life.  There are two levels at which we can engage in the long-life prayers – for ourselves and for others. 

For ourselves, we can consider without him appearing in our life, we would have no spiritual life at all.  We wish for that to continue and so we pray that he remains in this world forever.  We might think, “Geshe-la is already appearing in my life and he isn’t teaching any more, so it really doesn’t make much difference whether he continues to live a long life – he is not teaching anyways!”  Such a way of thinking is completely wrong.  Many people enter the path, but then their enthusiasm for practicing wanes until eventually what was the passion of their life becomes a hobby and eventually becomes something they did before.  Some people even generate negative minds towards Geshe-la or the NKT and then lose everything.  In this way, he ceases to appear in their lives and they lose all faith.  Sincerely praying for his long life is like a spiritual insurance policy against such an outcome.  Further, even if we continue to have deep faith in him, our praying for him to remain in this world forever creates the causes for him to be reborn in this world and for us to find him again in our future lives so we can pick up where we left off. 

For others, we can think, “it is not enough for him to appear in my life, but he needs to remain forever in this world for the sake of others.”  We have already found him and we know what a difference that has made in our lives, we wish him to continue to appear in this world so he can bring similar benefit to others.  Look at how many hundreds of thousands of people Geshe-la has touched in just his time in the West.  Now imagine him remaining until samsara ends.  As long as he remains in this world, he will tirelessly work to lead others to enter into, progress along, and complete the path to enlightenment.  This is how they can escape their samsaric suffering.  Not only do such prayers help others, but by praying that he appears for them, we also create the karma for him to appear in all of our future lives because whatever we pray for others, we create the causes to obtain also for ourselves. 

I encourage everyone to take advantage of this holy day by engaging sincerely in Geshe-la’s long-life prayers.  If we don’t have them or we don’t know them, we can download them for free.  We can also download for free a special prayer called Request to the Holy Spiritual Guide Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche from his Faithful Disciples that accomplishes similar functions.  What better way to mark his birthday than to pray for him to remain in this world forever turning the Wheel of Dharma?

Appreciating Buddha’s Kindness in Turning the Wheel of Dharma

When Prince Siddhartha left the palace, he promised his parents that he would return to share with them what he learned for how to overcome birth, aging, sickness, and death.  He could have just attained liberation for himself and enjoyed eternal peace, but instead, he decided to attain full enlightenment so he could lead all living beings – including ourselves – to the same state.  In other words, he had us specifically in mind when he attained enlightenment.  He did so for us.  It is for us that he came out of meditative equipoise and began teaching.

If Buddha hadn’t turned the Wheel of Dharma, nobody in this world would have ever even heard of Buddhism, much less had the opportunity to practice it.  How many billions of people over thousands of years have been beneficially touched by his decision to come out of meditation and teach for the rest of us. 

When we consider these things, we need to make it personal.  We need to take the time to imagine what our life would be like if we had never met the Dharma – if Buddha hadn’t turned the Wheel of Dharma.  For me personally, life has been one extremely difficult episode after another, but because I have met the Dharma, I have been able to transform all of these experiences into a rewarding spiritual journey.  When we see how our own lives have been transformed, and how those who are close to us have benefited from our having found the Dharma, we can begin to personally internalize Buddha’s great kindness.  With a feeling of personal appreciation, we can then consider we are just one being, he has done the same for billions.

What does it Mean to Turn the Wheel of Dharma Over Time?

Conventionally speaking, we say there were four turnings of the Wheel of Dharma by Buddha.  As it explains on the Kadampa website

“Forty-nine days after Buddha attained enlightenment, as a result of requests he rose from meditation and taught the first Wheel of Dharma. These teachings, which include the Sutra of the Four Noble Truths and other discourses, are the principal source of the Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, of Buddhism.  Later, Buddha taught the second and third Wheels of Dharma, which include the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and the Sutra Discriminating the Intention, respectively. These teachings are the source of the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, of Buddhism.”

In the Kadampa Play, which takes place at the end of the Summer Festival every year, we are shown that there was a fourth turning of the Wheel of Dharma when Buddha taught the Vajrayana teachings or the Tantric quick path to enlightenment.  These four turnings of the Wheel of Dharma set Buddhism in motion in this world.

But the turning of the Wheel of Dharma is not limited to just Buddha’s lifetime.  We can also understand the turning of the Wheel of Dharma from a most cosmic scale.  Each founder Buddha engages in the Twelve Deeds of a Buddha, from descent from a pure land, through birth, attaining enlightenment, turning the Wheel of Dharma, and eventually dying.  Our world is just one world and Buddha Shakyamuni was just one founder Buddha.  There are countless worlds and countless founder Buddhas doing the same thing.  It is said in this fortunate aeon, there will be 1,000 founder Buddhas who come in cycles to reestablish the Dharma after it fades from the previous founder Buddha.  All of these are different turnings of the Wheel of Dharma.  On this day, we can rejoice in all of this and create literally infinite merit.

Within just this current cycle of the Dharma of Buddha Shakyamuni in this world, we can also identify very clear major re-turnings of the Wheel of Dharma.  These are special times when new energy and new momentum was created to push the Dharma forward into future generations.  For example, Atisha (980-1054 AD) was viewed by many as the Second Buddha, and his teaching of the Lamrim reignited the Dharma in this world by founding the Kadampa tradition.  Later Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419 AD) united the Dharma of Sutra and Tantra and founded the New Kadampa Tradition.  And most recently, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (1931 – present) represented the teachings of Je Tsongkhapa for the modern world.  These great masters also engaged in major turnings of the Wheel of Dharma, each in their own way.  And this is just within the Kadampa lineage – there are countless other Buddhist lineages, such as Theravada, Zen, and so forth.  No doubt each of these lineages has its own major turning points.  We can rejoice in all of these major turnings of the Wheel of Dharma.

But the turning of the Wheel of Dharma is not limited to these seminal masters, but to each and every lineage guru along the way.  Since Je Tsongkhapa alone, there has been an unbroken lineage of 37 different lineage gurus, who each kept the lineage alive – turning the Wheel of Dharma for future generations.  Why is lineage important?  Buddha’s blessings only transmit through lived experience, not mere intellectual understanding of his teachings.  A lineage is considered a “living lineage” if there is an unbroken series of gurus who have personally realized all of the teachings of that lineage.  When we are part of a living lineage, the lineage gurus serve as an intact pipeline for the unobstructed flow of blessings from Buddha Shakyamuni straight into our heart.  Through the immeasurable kindness of Venerable Geshe-la, the Kadampa lineage remains intact and alive in this world.  This means we can gain direct access to the lineage blessings of our precious instructions, making realizing them infinitely easier. 

Taking Our Place in the Lineage

It is good to rejoice in all of the past turnings of the Wheel of Dharma, but it is not good enough to stop there.  We ourselves need to realize we have a personal responsibility to carry forward the Kadampa lineage for future generations.  If we do not do so, who will?  If we do not do so, this precious lineage that has been kept alive for thousands of years will die in this world.  It is our personal responsibility to carry this lineage forward.  In short, we must each assume our personal place in the lineage.

Venerable Tharchin said when somebody new comes into the Dharma center, he views them as “a future holder of the lineage,” and cherishes and respects them accordingly.  When we consider the “great wave” of Je Tsongkhapa’s deeds, we realize that his basic strategy for eventually liberating all living beings is to form new spiritual guides, who in turn form the next generation of spiritual guides, and so forth until eventually every living being has been touched by them.  We are currently on the receiving end of Venerable Geshe-la’s turning of the Wheel of Dharma.  But we ourselves need to assume our place in the lineage.

At first, we might think this is not our job – we have Gen-la Dekyong, Gen-la Khyenrab, Gen-la Jampa, and Gen-la Thubten for that.  We are not going to become a lineage guru ourselves, so this doesn’t mean anything for us personally.  We can rejoice in their deeds, but we have no personal responsibility to carry forward the lineage ourselves.  This way of thinking is completely wrong.  Geshe-la said in one of his last teachings before he retired that, “you are all lineage gurus now.”  How can we understand this? 

At one level, we can say even if we are not likely to be a lineage guru in this life (though, we never know…), at some point in our future lives it will be our turn to assume our place in the lineage.  Just as Venerable Tharchin views us, so too we should view ourselves as future holders of the lineage and orient the trajectory of our mental continuum towards assuming that role.  Venerable Tharchin also says we have the ability to design our own enlightenment by virtue of the type of bodhichitta we develop as bodhisattvas.  Why is Avalokiteshvara the Buddha of Compassion and Manjushri the Buddha of Wisdom?  Because as bodhisattvas they generated the specific intention to become that type of Buddha.  I have a dear friend who wants to become a deity in Dorje Shugden’s mandala.  Venerable Tharchin said he wants to be a Buddha specifically capable of helping the beings in the hell realms because that is where most living beings reside.  My wife wishes to become the Buddha of Joy.  We should think about what sort of Buddha we want to become, and begin our long march to assuming our place in the lineage with those special abilities.

At another level, we can say we have internalized a degree of the lineage even if we haven’t realized all of it.  Therefore, we do have the ability to pass on what we have personally realized.  Kadam Bjorn said if two teachers gave the exact same teaching – word for word with exactly the same intonation and everything – but one of the teachers had personal experience of their truth and the other did not, the lineage blessings would only flow through the one who had personal experience, and so those listening would receive infinitely more benefit from the teaching.  Ultimately, he said, teachings are only as powerful as the blessings passing through the person delivering it.  How many blessings pass depends primarily upon the pure view of those listening, but also on the degree of personal experience of the person transmitting the wisdom.  We see this same phenomenon in daily life – those who “speak from experience” are so much more powerful than those who do not.  Each one of us has a degree of personal experience, which means we have the ability to pass on at least those portions of the lineage to the next generation.  Passing on the lineage can occur through many forms, not just formal teachings.  Merely setting a good example is a method for passing on the lineage.

At a much deeper level, we can consider a much broader understanding of a Buddha’s body, speech, and mind.  Normally, we think these are limited to the individual human being who was Buddha or to a specific deity or lineage guru.  Geshe-la once said, “I am the NKT.”  His meaning of course is not Louis XIV-style “l’etat c’est moi,” but that his actual body is not just the cute little Tibetan we all know and love, but all of our bodies.  His speech is not just the words that come out of his mouth or written in his books, but all of our Dharma speech in this world.  His mind is not just the thoughts within him, but all of our Dharma thoughts in our minds.  The spiritual guide is so much more vast than one Tibetan monk, but he is working through all of us every day.  He is turning the Wheel of Dharma through our every Dharma action of body, speech, and mind.  When we see our body, speech, and mind as an extension of his in this world, then we can start to see how we are – at this very moment – assuming our place in the lineage.  The closer we draw towards him, the more we emulate him, the more we come into alignment with his enlightened actions in this world.  His impact in turning the Wheel of Dharma depends, fundamentally, on us.  This is why he thanks us every time he sees us and says without us helping him fulfill his vision, he is almost nothing. 

Buddha’s turning the Wheel of Dharma Day is our opportunity to not only celebrate Geshe-la’s birthday, recall Buddha’s kindness, or even that of the lineage gurus, but an opportunity to also see ourselves as an indispensable part of the lineage, and see our spiritual lives as part of the turning of the Wheel of Dharma, not only in this life but for generations to come.  In this way, we ourselves become part of the very Wheel of Dharma the enlightened beings turn. 

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