September 22 is Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day, one of the special holy days on the Kadampa calendar in which all of our virtuous actions are multiplied by ten million. After Buddha Shakyamuni attained enlightenment, he went to the Land of 33 Heavens where his mother had taken rebirth, gave teachings to the beings of that realm, and then returned to this world to turn the wheel of Dharma here. On this day, we can generate compassion for beings in the upper realms and generate the wish to return to this world as Buddha did so that the Dharma may flourish forevermore.
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.
Generating Compassion for Beings in the Upper Realms
The vast majority of beings in samsara are in the lower realms. In this world, we talk often about the 1% and the other 99% of the wealth distribution. Samsara’s demographics are quite similar. The Wheel of Life image sometimes gives a distorted perception that the six realms of samsara (gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings) are roughly equally distributed, but in reality, roughly 99% of the beings in samsara are in the lower realms, whereas only about 1% are in the upper realms. We know this to be true because roughly 99% of the actions of living beings in samsara are negative, and only about 1% are virtuous – meaning a cause for upper rebirth. We might object that our actions are at least 50% positive – we are a good person after all – but the actions of beings in the lower realms are almost universally negative, so they remain trapped.
When we talk about the 1%, we usually do so from a position of jealousy, resentment, and condemnation. We are jealous of their wealth and power, resent the control they have over our lives, and condemn the many selfish and negative actions they engage in that harm the rest of us. Wars, climate change, nuclear weapons, pollution, structural inequality, etc., are all caused by the decisions of the 1%, but the rest of us have to suffer the consequences. Our natural instinct is to dislike or even hate the 1%. Considering all the harm they do, generating compassion for them seems misplaced at best and twisted at worst.
One of Buddha’s first acts was to go to the Land of 33 Heavens to give teachings, not just to his mother, but to all of the beings who had taken rebirth there. In other words, he showed the example that we should also have compassion for the 1% – both in this world and in samsara.
The method for generating compassion is the same for all beings – first, we generate a mind of love, considering their happiness to be important; and then we consider how they suffer. The beings of the upper realms are also our mothers and so they are equally objects of our love. Why should we resent them for whatever happiness and pleasant conditions they enjoy? They created the karmic causes for such experiences, did they not? They are also “living beings” and so are worthy of our love. If Buddha loves them, why can’t we also?
How can we understand the sufferings of beings in the upper realms? First, it is important to recall that we ourselves are among that elite group since we are human, and the human realm is considered an upper realm. We are part of the 1%. Human sufferings are quite manifest – we all get sick, if we are lucky we get old, and we all will die. All of us already took rebirth. All of these sufferings are inescapable and traumatic. We also frequently encounter things we do not like, are separated from things we do like, and experience pervasive uncertainty about what happens next. We all know these teachings, but we need to personalize them. My mother in law had a terrible stroke that nobody wanted to encounter, much less her. I have been separated from my family due to working in another country. The whole world experienced pervasive uncertainty due to the Coronavirus. All humans are experiencing these sufferings, regardless of how rich or powerful they might be.
Geshe-la explains in Modern Buddhism that demigods experience more mental pain than humans do. We can see and understand how by considering the 1% of this world. The 1% are extremely jealous of the 0.01%, and no matter how much they have, it is never enough. My kids have had the good fortune to attend these amazing international schools around the world, but the vast majority of the families who put their kids in these schools are miserable. They are constantly competing against one another, obnoxiously bragging about their kids in an effort to feel better than others, and worrying about their husbands running off with somebody younger and more attractive. They work insanely long hours, experience tremendous stress at work, face constant criticism from others when the majority of them don’t do anything wrong, and they live in constant fear of losing it all. I know hundreds of these people from all over the world, and I quite literally can’t think of one who is genuinely happy, and certainly nowhere near as happy as Aunt Paulette who doesn’t have a penny to her name, lives alone after her husband of 40 years died in a small apartment with little heat and faulty plumbing, in a tiny village in France. When you travel the world and see people of different levels of wealth, you can’t help but notice there seems to be an inverse relationship between having and being happy.
The gods are no better off. Venerable Tharchin explains that Greek Mythology is not myth, but rather a fairly accurate description of god realm society. They are in constant conflict with each other, and their actions have terrible repercussions on millions in the other realms – creating horrific karma in the process. There is a saying when an American sneezes, somebody in the developing world gets a cold. Americans have tremendous power in this world and everything they do has spillover effects on the rest of the world. The instability we create with our economic policy, wars, and negligence in controlling pandemics have echo effects around the world. We are like the Hunger Games, living blithely in the capital while much of the world struggles to get by supplying our excesses.
From a karmic perspective, those in the upper realms are quite unfortunate. Sure, the karma that is ripening might be nice, but they are burning it all up and later will have nothing. We get complacent when things are good and it is only when we suffer do we feel any motivation to practice Dharma, now try to imagine being a demigod or a god. Bonfire of the vanities. And even those who do take rebirth in the upper realms still have on their mental continuum all of the negative karma from when they were in the lower realms, and if they die with a negative mind, it will activate this negative karma and they will fall. We respond to even mild adversities in life with negative minds, so it goes without saying that many people in the upper realms will likewise generate negative minds when they face the greatest adversity of all – their own death. It is said gods can see their next rebirth. Imagine the horror of reaching your death and knowing how far you will fall.
We may have studied these sorts of teachings many times in the past, but have we let them touch our heart? We still, deep within our desires, wish for even a similitude of what the demigods and gods have. We chase after these dreams, wasting our precious time, only to arrive at death and realize it was all for nothing. We feel resentment or jealousy towards those whose good karma is burning up faster than ours. How ridiculous. What we need is compassion – just like Buddha had when he went to the 33 Heavens in the first place.
Returning to this World to Spread the Dharma
Buddha did not just go to the upper realms, he returned to help us. Think about that. How many of those who are in positions of great wealth, pleasure, or power return to help those less fortunate than they are? The vast majority just wall themselves off from the unclean masses and try to turn a blind eye to the suffering around them, often while looking down on all those who are not as lucky as they are. But Buddha returned. Many people escape from poverty and enter into the middle or even upper classes; many people get out of their small towns and move to the big city where they enjoy great success; many people are the first in their communities to get a good education and go on to enjoy a life beyond the wildest dreams of those they grew up with; many people leave their country and move to rich countries; but very few of these return for the sake of those who were left behind. The entire nationalist populist movement in the world today is a backlash against those who have enjoyed the fruits of globalization by those who were left behind. Of all people, it was Trump who bothered to look back and even see these people. Of course, he did so just to con them, but still – at least he looked back. The rest of us… But Buddha, he returned.
One of the best aspects of Jesus’ example is he made a point of seeking out those society had left behind, judged, and condemned. He renounced the hypocrisy of those with wealth and power and lifted up the spirits of the downtrodden. Despite being the Son of God, he returned and dedicated his life and his teachings to those less fortunate, those on the receiving end of oppression. He returned.
And so should we. For us as Kadampas, it is an increasing time. We are better off now than we were before. There are many who we grew up with who have been left behind. Maybe not in material terms, but certainly in spiritual terms. When we are at our Dharma centers or festivals, we happily rejoin our friends, but think little of those who might feel alone or lost in the crowd. When we start to gain some mental peace and stability, we start to become frustrated with “deluded people,” even using the Dharma to judge them in a sub-conscious effort to feel superior. We start cocooning ourselves into smaller and smaller circles of like-minded people and view it as a chore to have to return to our families on the holidays. The root of all negativity is self-cherishing, which is not just a mind that puts ourselves first but also neglects to bother caring for others. We sometimes forget that latter part and content ourselves with not directly harming others. Our failure to help when we otherwise could do so is a subtle form of harming others. For somebody who travels Mahayana paths, they equally fear samsara and solitary peace, the latter being content to be absorbed in our own liberation while neglecting everybody else. Buddha returned.
If we are honest, it is terribly easy to call ourselves Mahayanists, but actually just be interested in our own freedom and happiness. We generate ourselves as the deity in the pure land, but do we remember our compassionate reasons why we are bothering to emanate pure forms? We may even be able to bring our winds into our central channel, but is our motivation bodhichitta or a wish for the bliss of mental suppleness? Buddha returned.
On Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day, we should honestly examine our own behavior and see all of the different ways we neglect others. We may not harm anybody, but we neglect almost everyone just in different ways. We should ask ourselves, how can we return? Who should we be returning to? How can we emulate Buddha’s example? We might think we will return when we become a Buddha, but if we never develop the habit of returning as a budding Bodhisattva, how will we want to return when we attain liberation?
Returning doesn’t have to imply any physical action even, it is a mental attitude. Do we give back? Do we engage in our practices genuinely for the sake of others? Do we say prayers? Do we do powa for others? Do we put others first in our daily actions? All of these are returning. Buddha returned, and so should we.
Returning to Spread the Dharma
The most important way in which we return is by dedicating ourselves to ensuring the Dharma flourishes forevermore. Buddha did not just return to help people in worldly samsaric ways, he returned to help people escape from samsara as well. Most people who escape from prison will not return to the prison to help everybody else escape as well. Buddha does not seek for us merely that we enjoy a more privileged position in samsara, but he returned to tell us there is no happiness to be found anywhere within it. He trains us to become qualified spiritual guides so we can help others likewise escape. While we may leave samsara behind, like a good soldier, we leave nobody behind.
Venerable Tharchin says we should each assume our place in the lineage. The responsibility is on us to internalize the Dharma, then “return” to pass it on to the next generation. We may not all do that as Dharma teachers, but we can do so as center administrators or even the person who secretly cleans all the toilets without anybody knowing. Even if we do nothing physically to help others, through the power of our inner spiritual actions, we can bless the minds of everyone and pray for their well-being. Some people think such actions are meaningless compared to “practical” (meaning physical) help, but Geshe-la explains that our mental actions are thousands of times more beneficial to others than anything we can do with our body or speech.
At the end of every spiritual practice we do, we recite the prayers for the virtuous tradition. Aligning our life with the meaning of this prayer is the actual meaning of Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day. As Geshe-la explains, Je Tsongkhapa represented Buddha’s teachings, and his Dharma is Buddha’s Dharma. Geshe-la has done the same for the modern world. He returned. This is the deeper, spiritual meaning of returning.
So that the tradition of Je Tsongkhapa, the King of the Dharma may flourish, may all obstacles be pacified and may all favorable conditions abound. Through the two collections of myself and others, gathered throughout the three times, may the doctrine of Losang Dragpa flourish forever more.