Happy Protector Day: The nature and function of Dorje Shugden

The 29th of every month is Protector Day.  This is part 5 of a 12-part series aimed at helping us remember our Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden and increase our faith in him on these special days.

In this post, I will explain the nature and function of Dorje Shugden.  In the subsequent posts I will explain how to rely upon him outside of formal meditation and then I will explain how to rely upon him during the formal meditation session. 

What is the nature and function of Dorje Shugden?  In short, his nature is the same as our Spiritual Guide, but in particular he is by nature the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri.  Manjushri assumes two forms, Je Tsongkhapa to lead us along the path and Dorje Shugden to arrange the conditions for our practice of the path.  His function is to arrange all the outer, inner and secret conditions necessary for our swiftest possible enlightenment.

To understand this in more detail, we can consider the meaning of the invitation prayer to Dorje Shugden that we recite every day in the context of our Heart Jewel practice.  The Sadhana beings by saying,

HUM, I have the clarity of the Yidam.

With HUM we dissolve everything into the clear light Dharmakaya and recall that the definitive nature of Dorje Shugden is the Truth Body of our Spiritual Guide.  ‘I have the clarity of the Yidam’ means we engage in our Dorje Shugden practice self-generated as our personal deity.  We do this for two reasons.  First, it is more effective.  Heruka is much closer to Dorje Shugden than we are, so by requesting Dorje Shugden as Heruka we tap into their close karmic connection.  It is similar to knowing somebody who knows somebody very powerful.  We may not know the powerful person ourselves, but if we know somebody who does know them, if they ask the powerful person to fulfill our wishes on our behalf, it is far more likely we will get the response we want.  The second reason why we do this is the practice of Dorje Shugden can be engaged in for the sake of ourself or for the sake of others.  When we eventually become Buddha Heruka our work is not finished – we will still need to lead all other beings to enlightenment.  At that time, we will need powerful allies who can help living beings, such as Dorje Shugden.  Training in the practice of Dorje Shugden while maintaining divine pride of being the deity is a very powerful method for having Dorje Shugden accomplish his function for all those that we love.

Before me in the center of red and black fire and wind.

Here, we imagine that encircling all the living beings we are visualizing around us is a large proection circle of Dorje Shugden made out of five-colored wisdom fires.  It is like a giant sphere which completely envelopes all of these beings and the entire universe.  I like to imagine that all living beings are now inside of the protection circle and everything that happens to them is perfect for their swiftest possible enlightenment. 

On a lotus and sun trampeling demons and obstructors is a terrifying lion powerful and alert.

The function of Dorje Shugden’s lion is to dispel all fear.  It is a bit like in the movie Narnia, when people were in the presence of Aslan, they knew they were safe and they had nothing to fear.  If ever we are in a situation where we are afraid, we can remember the protection circle of Dorje Shugden and we can remember his lion and strongly believe that we are protected and that we receive his blessings which pacify all of our fear. 

Upon this sits the Great King Dorje Shugden, the supreme heart jewel of Dharma protectors.

Dorje Shugden is the principal deity of the visualization.  There are a couple of different analogies we can consider to get a feeling for who he is.  He is our karma manager.  Rich people give their money to money managers to manage their money in an optimal way.  In the same way, Dorje Shugden is the supreme karma manager.  He will manage our karma in an optimal way for our swiftest possible enlightenment.  He is also our personal spiritual trainer.  When people want to get their bodies in shape, they go to a personal physical trainer who gives them the specific exercises they need to get in the peak of physical health.  In the same way, Dorje Shugden is our personal spiritual trainer who gives us the specific exercises we need to put ourselves in the peak of spiritual health, full enlightenment.  He is our spiritual father.  Our father protects us from danger and provides us with everything we need.  In the same way, Dorje Shugden is our spiritual father, who will protect us from all danger and provide for us everything we need to accomplish our spiritual goals.  He is the director of our spiritual life.  When people make movies or plays, there is a director who organizes and puts together all the appearances.  In the same way, Dorje Shugden is the director of our spiritual life, who will create a play of appearances around us for the rest of our life that are perfect for our spiritual path.  In a future post, I will explain how he has the power to help us not just in this life and right now, but in all our past and future lives as well.  Yes, we can go back within our past and transform what happened into a cause of our enlightenment!

His body is clothed in the garments of a monk.

This symbolizes his power to assist us with our practice of moral discipline.  We all have bad habits we are trying to abandon, such as smoking, getting angry at people, and so forth; and vows we are trying to keep, such as our refuge, pratimoksha, bodhisattva, and tantric vows, but we are not very successful in doing so.  Dorje Shugden can give us the strength and wisdom we need to abandon these bad habits.  Whenever we feel tempted to break our moral discipline, we can recall Dorje Shugden in front of us dressed in the garments of a monk and request his special blessings to give us the strength to keep our moral discipline. 

My Thoughts Before the Digital Spring Festival Starts

Spreading the pure Kadam Dharma now makes the pure Kadam Dharma appear in our future. This is how we find each other again and again in our future lives.

The conversations we have and the bonds we create with each other here on Facebook are the threads pulling the Kadampa world together into the emerging digital society.

Our friendships matter for future of the living beings in our world. The whole world is moving increasingly into a digital society where people spend more and more of their lives inside the worlds created by technology.

Geshe-la said we need to go to where the people are. The people are moving digital, so as Kadampas we need to go there too. That’s why I think the Kadampa digital presence is so important. We need to make it feel like a Kadampa community. We are a digital community of Kadampas.

And this is why the Festivals are so important. Geshe-la has said that gathering together at the Festivals is the method for maintaining the tradition for generations to come. This is what he asked us to do – to make a commitment to attend every Festival. In this sense, I’m so grateful for COVID because it enabled the NKT to make the decision to make the Festivals available digitally from our homes. I have VERY difficult karma when it comes to being able to attend the festivals. So being able to attend them digitally was like a huge gush of fresh air to be able to attend all the Festivals as I had done for the years I was in Geneva. I was worried that they wouldn’t continue with the policy after COVID, but I think they realized there are just many people who don’t have the karma to be able to physically make it to the festivals but in their speech and minds they really wanted to be there, and it is possible to transform our personal environment of our room or home into the festival experience. So now they are letting it continue. I honestly think I would have tried to lead a mass petition making the case to continue to allow us to attend the festivals digitally!! But fortunately, that protest moment may be put off to another day!!! Haha.

Regardless, I’m really excited to have a festival dedicated to the Liberating Prayer and our International Refuge Ceremony. Just think about that – we do Liberating Prayer before every group puja, and then we do a refuge ceremony all together simultaneously. Think of the power of that. I can’t ever remember doing an international refuge ceremony of this scale. Gen Tharchin said when we do puja together, we create the karma to refind the same people doing the same practice again in the future.

Think about this, we are about to do an international refuge ceremony – the entire global Kadampa community getting together at the same time to go for refuge TOGETHER as a community. That’s AMAZING. Think about the karma that creates for us – to find each other again in the future engaging in the same practice, namely an international refuge ceremony, which will again launch the same karmic cycle forever until we and all living beings are freed from samsara!!!

And the Librerating Prayer is our primary prayer to Buddha Shakyamuni. When you think about it, we don’t pay a lot of attention to our Spiritual Guide in the aspect of Buddha Shaykamuni, we are usually focused on his Je Tsongkhapa form or his Heruka form. But here, we are paying particular tribute to the Buddha Shakyamuni part of Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka. Buddha Shakyamuni was the founder in this world, he then later appeared as Lama Tsongkhapa and our other lineage gurus, but deeper down, it is Buddha Shakyamuni.

Deeper down than Buddha Skakyamuni is Heruka, and inside Heruka is the HUM, and inside that is the Dharmakaya – our definitive Spirtual Guide. The Spiritual Guide is OUR karmic bridge between where we are now and the minds of all the Buddhas. Indeed, he is the minds of all the Buddhas appearing in forms that can be seen by living beings according to their karmic dispositions. For us, our Spiritual Guide who has emanated everything for us in the so-called ‘modern’ world is Venerable Geshe-la. He has made the Kadampa world available to us without losing a drop of it’s purity in making the cultural transition from Feudal Tibet to the modern world.

We are pure, 100% Kadampa teachings, without being mixed with ANYTHING. We are the pure deal, the undilluted form, or rather we are a distinct flavor. The Kadampa teachings include the Ganden Oral Lineage, through which we can attain enlightenment in one lifetime, even three years! That’s what we are! That is our instruction. That is our uncommon characteristic. Geshe-la has presented the Ganden Oral Lineage appears directly to millions and eventually billions in the modern world. He has made this precious gem from the heart of Je Tsonkghapa available to the people of the modern world.

And who protects our tradition? Dorje Shugden! Our Dharma Protector. How can we know without the slightest doubt that those who misunderstand Dorje Shugden are wrong? Because we know what Dorje Shugden protects us so pure. Only a completely pure being could protect a completely pure Dharma jewel.

And now that Venerable Geshe-la has passed, how does he continue to appear in this world? As the teacher of every Festival. Some people in the future may lament wishing they were able to attend teachings directly with Geshe-la, but I say we all have this opportunity every year for the Spring, Summer, and Fall international festivals. What appears to our eyes may be this Gen-la or that one, but for us we see it is Venerable Geshe-la teaching the festival through everyone and everything related to the festival (not just the teachings).

So even though those of us in the digital world are only getting the recordings 48 hours later, there is nothing preventing us from believing we are at the festival right now. It is happening right now, just appearing to us as whatever is our daily appearance. That’s our festival.

This is what I’m thinking when the festival has already started, but I’m not yet able to attend the teachings. For us in the digital world, this means our festival actually winds up being longer. We get to go until the videos are no longer available. I think this is why they make the vidoes only available for a limited period of time – to ‘force’ us to come together in time.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Building Our Spiritual Reliquary

The doubt can arise how can realizing emptiness bestow upon us the abilities of a Buddha to help each and every living being? It seems that if we simply realized that we are empty, then we are no longer able to actually do anything. Further, we can have the doubt that if we no longer have any conceptual minds, then we can no longer think anything so therefore buddhas cannot do anything. How, then, can Buddhas help once anyone has achieved this resultant state, how is it possible to help living beings?  How can living beings benefit from those who have achieved this state if all conceptuality has ceased and there are no longer any conceptual thoughts?  Shantideva goes on to say:

(9.35) Just as wish-fulfilling jewels and wish-granting trees fulfil the hopes of humans and gods
Even though they have no conceptual mind,
So, through the force of the prayers they previously made and the merit accumulated by fortunate beings,
Buddhas manifest physical forms in this world.

(9.36) For example, although the Brahmin who consecrated
The substance in the reliquary known as the “Garuda”
Has long since passed away,
The reliquary continues to alleviate poisons and so forth.

(9.37) In a similar fashion, a Bodhisattva, while training on the path,
Creates the “reliquary” of a Buddha through his collections of merit and wisdom;
And, although he eventually passes beyond sorrow,
He continues to bestow both temporary and ultimate benefits upon all living beings.

This is absolutely one of my favorite analogies in the Dharma. Gen Tharchin explains that we design our own enlightenment on the basis of the pure wishes we generate as bodhisattvas. For example, Avalokiteshvara generated the special wish to help living beings generate compassion. Tara generated the specific wish to help practitioners of lamrim. Manjushri generated specific wish wishes to help people develop their wisdom, and so forth.

In exactly the same way, we need to design our future enlightenment. What kind of Buddha do we want to become? What are the specific skills and abilities we want to have as a Buddha to be able to help others in the future? For example, Gen Samten has epilepsy. As a result, he generated the wish to become a Buddha who has the ability to help others with neurological diseases in the future. When he becomes a Buddha, his blessings will specifically function to help people with such problems.

In a similar way, the specific beings with whom we have a close karmic relationship while we are bodhisattvas will be the beings with whom we have a special karmic connection to be able to lead to enlightenment. For example, Gen Tharchin was on retreat and he told Geshe-la that if he remained on retreat he would soon attain enlightenment. Geshe-la then told him it was time for him to leave his retreat because if he attained enlightenment he would become a “useless Buddha” because he had very few karmic connections with other living beings. He then sent Tharchin out to go teach, which he did in many different countries developing karmic connections with thousands of Kadampas. We now have close karma with him, and as a result we will be able to receive his special blessings when he attains enlightenment. In this way, through the pure intentions we generate as a bodhisattva and the karmic connections we create with other living beings while we are on the path, we shape the type of Buddha we will become and who we will be able to help. This is our spiritual reliquary.

We have all had many examples where we wished for something, and that wish later ripened once all of the other causes and conditions came together. In the same way, if we generate the wish to be able to help living beings in certain ways, when all of the other causes and conditions come together, we will become a Buddha who has this specific ability. The pure wishes we previously generated planted karma on our mind which then ripened in the form of us having these abilities.

The easiest way to understand the reliquary of a Buddha is to consider spaceships. There is no friction in outer space.  If you set an object in motion in outer space it will keep going forever because there is no friction to slow it down. A short period of thrust will then cause the spaceship to remain in motion forever. In exactly the same way, contaminated karma is like friction for the mind. If we purify our mind of all contaminated karma, we eliminate all of the friction within our mind. Then any thought that we put in motion can remain in motion forever. For example if Gen Samten puts the thought that he wants to be able to become a Buddha to help all of those with neurological diseases attain enlightenment in his mind, and he purifies his mind of all karmic friction, then that pure thought of becoming a Buddha with those special abilities will remain in motion forever. Then any and all beings who have neurological diseases will eventually come into contact with him and he will spontaneously emanate and appear in whatever forms are necessary to help those beings overcome their particular problems. All Buddhas work in exactly the same way.

But this does not answer the question of how a Buddha is able to continue to help living beings after they attain enlightenment if they have only non-conceptual minds?  Can buddhas create new karma? Or do they gradually become increasingly irrelevant overtime as the beings with whom they have a close karmic connection either attain enlightenment or become more karmically distant?  If becoming a Buddha means we can no longer generate new karma with living beings and we eventually become impotent because the karma we previously created exhausts itself, then it would make sense to not become a Buddha because that would limit our ability to help others. It would be better to remain forever a bodhisattva. So clearly that could not be the case.

Buddhas can create new karma, they simply cannot create contaminated karma. Because their minds are free from delusions, they can no longer create contaminated karma with living beings. But that does not them from prevent them from creating pure karma with living beings. They do not need conceptual minds to do that because they can use their non-conceptual minds to do so.  

It is really worth considering how the reliquary works.  We make intentions to perpetually become ourselves whatever living beings need.  When this fully ripens, we spontaneously give to others without having to generate anew the conceptual intention to do it.  We can understand this with pure view.  We practice pure view at 50%, then 75%, then 99%, then 100%.  From that point forward, our view and our action collapse into one and we become like a spaceship sent into space without gravity that continues perpetually without new fuel being needed.  Our inner realizations dedicated to others are our real reliquary, and it is this we need to construct within our own mind.

Happy Tsog Day: Offering the outer offerings

In order to remember and mark our tsog days, holy days on the Kadampa calendar, I am sharing my understanding of the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide with tsog.  This is part 8 of a 44-part series.

O Guru, Refuge, and Protector, together with your retinue,
I offer you these vast clouds of various offerings:

When I first started practicing Dharma, I had a big problem with making offerings. There were several layers of resistance. First, I grew up in Oregon at the time of the Bhagwan Rajneesh. He taught love and all the right things, but he was systematically duping his followers, using money to buy Rolls Royces, engaging in secret orgies, mass poisonings, attempted assassinations, you name it – everything that one worries about in a cult. When I encountered making extensive outer offerings in the Dharma, I was like, “no way!” Second, one of the biggest fears Westerners have about Eastern spiritual guides is they are conning us out of our money. There are many examples of so-called spiritual teachers doing exactly that, so the fear is not irrational. Third, it made no sense to me why we should make such offerings – if the Buddhas had already attained everything, why offer to them and not to people in need? And fourth, I have deep imprints of miserliness and the way I was raised reinforced this. My father had millions, but mentally felt himself a pauper and was extremely miserly with how he spent his money; my mother was a single mom working two low-paying jobs just to pay the rent and we grew up on second-hand clothes and Value Village canned food. To this day, I tend to be very miserly as a result. All these obstacles together created many obstacles to embracing the practice of making outer offerings. If I am honest, I still have reluctance on this front.

So how can we overcome these objections? First, these offerings are just imagined, we are not physically giving our spiritual guide these things. Second, anything we do physically give our spiritual guide, he immediately turns around and gives it to somebody else (regifting is a virtue!). Third, we do not make offerings because the Buddhas need these things, but rather we need the merit or good karma of making these offerings. Each type of offering has a different karmic function, and we can want the karmic fruits of these offerings for selfless reasons. Fourth, Geshe-la is very clear that the offering that pleases him the most is an offering of our spiritual practice, showing his real intention is not to scam us. Fifth, it is normal to want to check these things, but after we have conducted a thorough investigation and found nothing to justify our fears, we need to leave them behind and not hold on tightly to baseless doubts. And sixth, it is precisely because I have tendencies for miserliness that I need to train in giving, lest I know the poverty I so fear.

Practically speaking, for each of the outer offerings, we should imagine ourself as Heruka emanates countless offering goddesses from our heart filling the universe with the corresponding offering, which our spiritual guide receives and generates great bliss. We should recall the specific karmic benefits of the specific type of offering with a bodhichitta motivation. Then we reabsorb the offering goddesses and make the next offering. Therefore, what will follow is an explanation of the specific karmic benefits of each type of offering.

The purifying nectars of the four waters gently flowing
From expansive and radiant jewelled vessels perfectly arrayed;

Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path that if we make water offerings, we attain eight special benefits:

“(1) Offering cool water causes us to develop pure moral discipline.
(2) Offering delicious water ensures that we shall always find delicious food and drink in future lives.
(3) Offering light water causes us to experience the bliss of physical suppleness.
(4) Offering soft water makes our mind calm and gentle.
(5) Offering clear water makes our mind clear and alert.
(6) Offering sweet-smelling water brings easy and powerful purification of negative karma.
(7) Offering water that is good for the digestion reduces our illnesses.
(8) Offering water that soothes the throat makes our speech beautiful and powerful.

When we offer water to Buddha we should regard it as pure nectar because that is how it is perceived by Buddha. We can also arrange many sets of seven offering bowls filled with pure water, symbolizing our future attainment of the seven pre-eminent qualities of embrace of a Buddha.”

All these things are qualities we would want to attain. Sometimes we develop some resistance to thinking about the karmic benefits we will receive from our spiritual actions, thinking it is self-cherishing. But we can want all these good qualities for the sake of others. We need moral discipline to attain upper rebirth so we can continue with our spiritual practice, we want to find delicious food and drink so we can stay healthy and engage in the yoga of eating. We want a calm and clear mind so we can help others attain a similar state, etc.

When we make these offerings, we should imagine that we are Heruka and countless offering goddesses fill the entire universe making extensive water offerings while recalling the karmic benefits of making such offerings with a bodhichitta motivation.

Beautiful flowers, petals, and garlands finely arranged,
Covering the ground and filling the sky;

When we make flower offerings, it creates the karmic causes for everything and everyone to appear to us as beautiful and pleasing. This enables three main benefits. First, we are able to keep a balanced mind of equanimity because everything appears to us as beautiful and pleasing, so we are free from strong attachment and aversion. Second, we can easily develop affectionate love towards all beings because they all appear to us as beautiful and pleasing, like they would to a loving grandma. And third, we will easily generate great bliss for our tantric practice; thus, accelerating our quick path.

The lapis-coloured smoke of fragrant incense
Billowing in the heavens like blue summer clouds;

Geshe-la explains in Great Treasury of Merit that offering incense enables us to always encounter pleasant smells and to always be reborn in pleasant places. The value of pleasant smells can be understood from the above explanation on flowers. We want to be reborn in pleasant places so we can focus on our spiritual practice and not basic survival and also because those who are likewise born into pleasant places will be more receptive to spiritual practice.

The playful light of the sun and the moon, glittering jewels, and a vast array of lamps
Dispelling the darkness of the three thousand worlds;

Light offerings temporarily make our mind sharp; thus, making contemplation and meditation easier. Ultimately, light offerings create the cause for great wisdom to dawn in our mind, dispelling the darkness of ignorance. We need both of these things for our bodhisattva training.

Exquisite perfume scented with camphor, sandalwood, and saffron,
In a vast swirling ocean stretching as far as the eye can see;

Perfume offerings create the causes to attain pure moral discipline. Pure moral discipline is the primary cause of fortunate rebirth. If we fall into the lower realms, it will be impossible for us to continue our spiritual training until we are lucky enough to take another upper rebirth, and only then if we refind the Dharma. But the practice of moral discipline ensures that we maintain an uninterrupted continuum of precious human rebirths between now and our eventual enlightenment. We need never attain lower rebirth again.

Nutritious food and drink endowed with a hundred flavours
And delicacies of gods and men heaped as high as a mountain;

Food offerings have two main benefits. First, in the future we will always easily find nutritious food, which we will need to remain healthy and sustain our precious human life. The truth is nutritious food is a luxury good in the modern world. It is expensive and difficult to find, whereas junk food is cheap and plentiful. Second, food offerings create the causes for us to attain pure concentration. Concentration on virtue is like healthy food for the mind. At the beginning of virtually every Dharma book and at the beginning of virtually every introductory course, we explain the cause of happiness is inner peace. Inner peace comes from mixing our mind with virtue. Mixing our mind with virtue depends upon concentration. Without concentration, our mind and virtue will not mix; but with concentration, they will mix inseparably like water mixed with water. The more they mix, the more we create the causes for inner peace, and the happier we will be – in this life and in all our future lives.

From an endless variety of musical instruments,
Melodious tunes filling all three worlds;

By making music offerings we create the causes to only hear pleasant sounds, never hear bad news, and always hear Dharma. The value of only hearing pleasant sounds can be understood from the explanation on flower offerings above. Never hearing bad news has two aspects – external and internal. The external aspect is things simply do not go wrong in the world we inhabit because we have so much merit, so there is not a lot of bad news to hear. Internally, it is a special wisdom that can hear any news as good news because we see how it teaches us the truth of Dharma or gives us an opportunity to train in Dharma. Always hearing the sound of Dharma is essential if we are to continue with our spiritual practice in the future. We have found the Dharma in this life, but there is no guarantee we will find it again in our future lives. Being born human is not enough, we need to be born human where we can hear the sound of pure Dharma. There is no guarantee we will attain enlightenment in this life, so we need to make sure we find the path again in our future lives. Further, there is no guarantee we will continue to hear the sound of Dharma even in this life. Many people come to teachings, even for many years, but then they fade away and gradually lose their practice. They then come to inhabit a private world in which they do not hear the sound of Dharma, which then reinforces their separation from the path until eventually their previous spiritual life they were so enthusiastic about becomes nothing but a fond memory of their past.

“Geshe-la is Teaching this Spring Festival”

I just had a dream with Geshe-la that began where I heard Geshe-la is teaching this Spring Festival. We were late in arriving at the temple and things had already begun. They let us in the back and I had to quietly make my way to an open seat in the back. I passed by somebody who I didn’t know and they looked at me and said, “you look good, what are you on?” I said, “nothing,” but felt like I was lying about it despite actually not being on anything. I then found my seat, it was like an old couch cushion thrown on the floor and then I fell asleep.

When I arose, everybody was arising to do the prostrations after the teacher sits on the throne and then, even though I knew he had passed, I saw directly Geshe-la up there on the throne. He looked old, but was very much right there. When I arose, my wife was right next to me. We haven’t been at a festival together in a very, very long time and I was surprised that she was next to me. I was surprised at how few people were at the Festival and thought about how I missed the last Festival Geshe-la taught at.

We then sat down, and the music for Liberating Prayer started. We then all sang “O Blessed One, Shakyamuni Buddha…” and then Geshe-la interjected and said, “Ohh, happy.” The music then somehow continued and was a long pause without words, just different melodies, and at first I thought something was wrong with the recording, then that perhaps they changed and simplified the Liberating Prayer since Geshe-la was teaching the festival. Then during this time, I started feeling powerful waves of blessings and understood why the pause. Geshe-la was sending out healing blessings to everyone. As they started to fill me, I couldn’t help myself, I just started crying and all my pain that I have been carrying around started coming out. It was painfully deep, wounded crying, but was simultaneously good to be getting it out. I worried about my wife seeing me cry, about how she would take it because I feared she rejected the Dharma and my practice of it. But I then thought I should let go of such worries and allow myself to have whatever reaction I had. I was reminded of how I cried so much when I first saw the Buddha Shakyamuni play at the festival. I cried almost the whole way through. I then thought, faith in Buddha Shakyamuni has this healing, expelling of deep wounds and sorrow effect. Then I woke up.

Normally, when I do blog posts of my dreams I then write what it meant to me. But here, I don’t think that is necessary.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Emptiness Uproots All Delusions

(9.32) By developing acquaintance with the view of emptiness,
We shall eventually abandon grasping at true existence;
And especially by meditating on the emptiness of emptiness,
We shall come to abandon grasping at emptiness itself as being truly existent.

Like all things in the Dharma it is just a question of familiarity. The more we acquaint our mind with the view of emptiness, realizing that the things that we normally see do not exist, then the hold appearances have over us will weaken and weaken until eventually they no longer trigger delusions within us.

True existence here refers to objects existing in the way in which they appear. Objects appear to exist from their own side independent of our mind as something that is real and actually there. The view of emptiness directly counters this by establishing that objects are in fact mirror projections of our mind. There is nothing actually there, there is simply an appearance of something being there. It is like in the Wizard of Oz when Toto pulled back the curtain and revealed that the wizard was nothing more than a frumpy old man. Even though the appearances of the great and powerful oz were still appearing, Dorothy understood that it was all just an illusion, and her fear, which was palpable before, completely disappeared. She saw through the illusion. Even though it appears, it no longer triggered fear in her mind. In exactly the same way, when we understand that the things we normally see do not exist, even though they will still appear to us they will no longer have any power to generate delusions in our mind.

Here, Shantideva also points out the importance of realizing the emptiness of emptiness itself. Sometimes, we realize that phenomena are just like illusions but we still think the emptiness we realize truly exists, somehow independently of all phenomena. This is of course ludicrous. Emptiness does not exist on its own, independent of the objects that are empty. We cannot speak of emptiness on its own, rather we can only speak of the emptiness of something. For example the emptiness of our body, the emptiness of our car, and so forth.

If we grasp at emptiness as existing on its own, independent of or somehow behind all phenomena, then realizing emptiness will not completely uproot all of our innate delusions. It will help, but it won’t be enough. The reason for this is because our mind will still have a gap between our mind and the object we are trying to realize, emptiness. The emptiness we will realize still seems to be something separate from us, and therefore our mind does not mix with it completely.

This is why the Tantra Prasangika view is so powerful. The Tantra Prasangika view is the union of the Chittamatrin view and the Prasangika view. The Chittamatrins say that all phenomena are the nature of mind. The Prasangikas then say that the mind itself is empty. By realizing the emptiness of the mind directly, we realize the emptiness of all phenomena indirectly since all phenomena are aspects of the mind.

Since all of our contaminated karma is stored on our very subtle mind, by realizing the emptiness of our very subtle mind we uproot all of the contaminated karma stored on it. With one single concentration, we therefore purify all of the contaminated karma we have accumulated since beginningless time. If we had to go through and realize the emptiness of each and every phenomena individually, it would take forever because there are countless different phenomena that could appear to our mind. But if we realize the emptiness of our mind and we realize that all phenomena are aspects of our mind, then we can realize the emptiness of all phenomena indirectly by realizing the emptiness of our mind directly.

(9.33) When it is said that “No thing exists”,
This means that truly existent things do not exist;
So how could a mind grasping at the true existence of that emptiness remain
When the basis for such a misconception – grasping at true existence – has been removed?

(9.34) Eventually, when the true existence of things and the true existence of emptiness
No longer appear to the mind,
Since there is no other aspect of true existence,
The mind will abide in the resultant pacified state in which all conceptuality has ceased.

When we gain the realization by meditating on the emptiness of emptiness, there will no longer be any dualistic appearance and we will experience the union of bliss and emptiness that is the resultant pacified state in which all conceptuality has ceased.  We will realize directly our own mind – both its conventional and its ultimate nature.  In Mahamudra Tantra, the instructions lead us to this realization.  In Mahamudra Tantra the very first stage in which we identify our mind, our own mind is actually our root mind, our very subtle mind, in the first stage we identify our mind as having the nature of clarity, just as we meditated previously. 

But then we go on to identify the subtle mind as having the nature of the cessation of all gross minds. The nature of the cessation of all gross minds, such as our present conceptual minds.  Then finally we identify our very subtle mind as having the nature of bliss.  Then, with this mind, we meditate on emptiness.  Bliss is the conventional nature of our mind, emptiness is its ultimate nature, and we see these two as the same nature, one entity. 

A Pure Life: Please Don’t Kill

This is part five of a 12-part series on how to skillfully train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts.  The 15th of every month is Precepts Day, when Kadampa practitioners around the world typically take and observe the Precepts.

The first precept is to abandon killing.  Geshe-la explains the object of killing is any other being from the smallest insect to a Buddha.  In the chapter on karma in Joyful Path, four factors must be present for the action to be complete.  First, for our intention, we must have the correct identification of the person we intend to kill.  We also need a determination to kill the person we have correctly identified.  Killing by accident is not a complete action, though this doesn’t mean there are not negative consequences of accidental killing.  Our mind must also be influenced by delusion, specifically anger, attachment, or ignorance.  It is possible to kill out of compassion to save the lives of others, but this requires great wisdom and courage.  Killing out of compassion is not a downfall since compassion is not a delusion.  The action also requires preparation, namely we prepare the means to engage in the action.  This includes having others do the action for us or engaging in the action as a group.  Finally, it requires the completion – the action must be completed, the person actually is killed and dies before we do.

The reality is we are killing all of the time.  Every time we scratch our arm, we are no doubt killing thousands of tiny bacteria or microbes.  Even if we do not eat meat, we are indirectly killing thousands of insects who died in the rice paddies or to the pesticides sprayed on our food.  Samsara is a slaughterhouse, and everything we do essentially kills.  This doesn’t mean we are doomed and it also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother trying to not kill because it is unavoidable.  What it means is we need to do our best to lead as low impact of a life as we can.  We should work gradually to kill less and less while working within our capacity and the karmic conditions we find ourselves in.

There are also many forms of negative actions that are adjacent to kill it that we should also try avoiding. For example, rejoicing in negative actions is karmically similar to engaging in those actions ourselves. Virtually every day on the news there are reports of people being killed in some form of military conflict. The United States, for example, has been at war nonstop for essentially the last 25 years. Our soldiers are killing people on an almost daily basis and the news is typically reported as a success story of having killed some “terrorists” or some other perceived enemy. These reports are designed to generate a mind of rejoicing in such killing. While this is not us killing ourselves, when we rejoice in such activities, we create karma similar to killing others.

There are also many subtle forms of killing that we may not even be aware of nor our role in perpetuating the systems that engage in such killing. Social scientists have coined the term structural violence to refer to societal structures that function to shorten the lives of particular groups of people. For example, due to structural racism in the United states, people of color tend to have worse access to health care, higher rates of poverty, lower rates of education, suffer from higher rates of crime, and so forth all of which contribute to shortened life spans compared to most white people. One study estimates that 8,000,000 African Americans are missing compared to what should be if structural racism did not exist. These are the victims of a form of unintentional slow-motion genocide.

Once we are aware that such structures exist and inflict violence, even if a subtle form of violence, against certain populations and then we do nothing to correct for it or we even seek to rationalize away such effects by denying it is occurring or it is justified based upon some arbitrary criteria, then we are participating in or enabling a subtle form of killing.  We may even be voting for such policies.  Even simply benefiting from such structures and not using our surplus privilege associated with being at the top of such structures to dismantle them, is a form of perpetuating them. These things would not be a violation of our Mahayana precepts per se, but they do move in a direction similar to the action of killing.  As Mahayana practitioners, we should be striving to move in the direction of not killing. And we should cast the net wide to avoid even subtle forms.

Mother’s Day for a Kadampa

As Kadampas who practice the Lamrim, every 21 days is Mother’s Day.  We are all quite familiar with the various contemplations of how all living beings are our mother and how kind they were to us as our mother, therefore we should develop a profound feeling of gratitude towards our mother of this life and all our mothers of our past lives.  Very often though, primarily because we make our meditations intellectual exercises of recalling certain points as opposed to exercises of the heart where we change our feelings, these contemplations on the kindness of our mother no longer really move our mind.  We might recall them, but we don’t internalize them and let them touch our heart.  On actual Mother’s Day, we should take the time to reflect deeply and sincerely upon them so that our heart moves and we genuinely feel gratitude and a wish to repay our mother’s kindness.

Have we always neglected our mothers?

I sometimes wonder if ancient Tibetan culture was the same as our modern culture.  In modern culture, particularly in modern psychology, the trend is to blame our mother for all of our problems.  We are encouraged to go back into our childhood and find all the different ways our mother made mistakes and how that is “the underlying cause” of why we are the way we are today.  We likewise completely take for granted everything our mother has done for us.  As kids, we are completely blind to it. 

We think it is “normal” that our mothers do everything for us, and we feel “justified” in getting angry with them when they don’t do it perfectly.  In truth, our mother could have just abandoned us on the street.  She owes us nothing.  Nobody owes us anything.  It is our expectation that they do that actually prevents us from appreciating all that she did for us.  It is the very nature of modern motherhood to give everything you have to your kids only to have them take your kindness for granted, blame you for all of their problems, and want to have nothing to do with you because you are such an embarrassment.  Perhaps it has always been such, which is why the meditation on the kindness of our mothers has always been taught.

It’s time to apologize for being such a jerk

On Mother’s Day, I think it is important to not just express our gratefulness, but to sincerely apologize for what a jerk we have been to her over the years.  Explain that when you were a kid, you didn’t understand, and now it is only as an adult (and perhaps a parent yourself) that you are beginning to realize all she did for you.  Apologize for yelling, apologize for disobeying, apologize for being embarrassed by her, apologize for ignoring her, and apologize most of all for taking for granted all that she has done for you.  Explain to her that all of your good qualities now come from her. 

My father once said about his mother, “everything good in our family comes from Grandma.  That’s the truth.”  This is a perfect attitude.  It is the truth.  The truth is mother’s really struggle with the fact that everything they do is taken for granted and that they are blamed for everything.  Yes, it is good for them in terms of being able to learn how to give love unconditionally, but it is hard.  All it takes is one honest conversation where you admit you were a real butt with her, and where you express sincere gratitude for everything you previously took for granted.  Such a conversation can heal decades of grief.

No, our mothers aren’t perfect, but why should we expect them to be?

Sometimes when we encounter the meditation on the kindness of our mothers we develop all sorts of objections because it is true, our mother did make a lot of mistakes.  My mother had all sorts of serious mental health issues, we had an off and on terrible relationship until eventually she likely killed herself on my wedding day.  I had all sorts of resentments towards her for years, then I had guilt after her suicide, and now I find it difficult to think anything good about her.  All I see is her many faults and delusions.  Most of us have problems of one kind or another with our mothers.  I personally feel it is vital that we identify the delusions we have towards our parents, in particular our mother, and work through them.  We need to get to the point where our mind is completely healed of all delusions towards them.  This is not only a way of repaying the kindness of our mother, it is a way of healing our own mind.

Our mothers were not perfect, they made many mistakes, and they were full of delusions.  This is also true, and acknowledging that fact is not a denial of their kindness.  We can hold the view that they were emanations of Buddhas who appeared to make the mistakes that they did to give us a chance to grow.  Every child grows up cataloging the many mistakes their parents make and resolves when they are parents they won’t do the same thing; only to find when they do become parents they wind up making many of the same mistakes.  The power of osmosis with our parents is the most powerful force shaping our lives and shaping our mind.  It is not enough that we heal our mind of all the delusions we have towards our mother, we also need to look into our mind and identify all the delusions we received from her. 

Venerable Tharchin once told me the only reason why the people in our life appear to have delusions is because we ourselves possess the same delusions within our own mind and we therefore project beings who have the same faults.  Our task, therefore, is to identify within ourselves the delusions that appear in others and then root them out completely.  When we do so, he said, several amazing things will happen.  First, our relationship with the person will improve.  Second, we will have less delusions in our own mind.  And third, the faults we see in the other person will gradually “disappear.”  Why?  Because they were never coming from the other person in the first place.  He concluded by saying, this is how Bodhisattva’s ripen and liberate all beings.  When we attain Buddhahood, he said, it appears to us as if everybody attains Buddhahood at the same time with us.  In fact, we see that they have always been so.  If we love our mother, this is essential work.

Tara is our eternal mother

Mother’s Day, though, is about much more than just our relationship with our own mother of this life, or even recalling the kindness of all our past mothers.  I think on Mother’s Day we need to recall the kindness of our Spiritual Mother, Guru Arya Tara.  Tara promised Atisha long ago that she would care for all Kadampas in the future.  The fact that we have a spiritual life today is due to her kindness.  She gave birth to our spiritual life.  Like all mothers’ kindnesses, we don’t even see it.  She operates unseen, and we take it for granted.  But there is no doubt, it is thanks to her that we have a spiritual life.  She gave birth to it, she has nurtured it, and she cares for us now even if we never think of her.  For some, she appears herself as Vajrayogini, and therefore serves as our Highest Yoga Tantra Yidam.  Tara is one of the Buddhas who often appears early in our spiritual life.  Almost everybody has a very positive experience with encountering her.  But then, over time, we tend to forget about her as we move on to other practices.  But like any mother, she never forgets her spiritual children.  We should remember this, and generate our thanks to her for it.

Viewing all living beings as our children

Finally, I think it is worth recalling that just as all living beings have been our mother, so too we have been the mother of all living beings.  We can correctly view all living beings as our children, and love them as a good mother would.  The contemplations on the kindness a mother shows to her child are not there just to help us develop gratitude towards our mothers, they are also examples of the attitude we should have towards all of our children.  How many of us would be willing to remove the mucus from a stranger’s nose?  Our mother did that for us.  We should love others so much that we would gladly, and without hesitation do the same for others.  Of course, we shouldn’t go around offering to others to do so, but training in the mind that is willing to help any living being in any way we can is the real meaning of Mother’s Day.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Why we Cry at Movies when we Know it is Not Real

(9.30) (Chittamatrin) “How does realizing that all phenomena are like illusions
Eliminate delusions?
After all, a magician who creates an illusion of a woman
Can still develop attachment for that illusory woman.”

The Prasangikas say that realizing all phenomena are illusory functions to eliminate our delusions which bind us in samsara. Here the Chittamatrins are asking how does that work? Just realizing something is an illusion does not eliminate the delusions that arise in our mind. The Chittamatrins use the example of an illusory woman created by a magician. They say that even though the magician knows the woman is an illusion he still develops attachment with respect to the appearance. Therefore, simply knowing that something is an illusion does not actually function to eliminate the delusions of attachment and so forth. A more modern example would be computer generated porn.  Everyone knows that such images are generated by a computer and there is not actually a woman there, but nonetheless people generate attachment for it, including likely the people who make it. A modern day Chittamatrin would say if we generate attachment for these things that we know are not real, then knowing that all phenomena are illusions will not eliminate our attachment.  

(9.31) This is because the magician has not abandoned
The deluded tendency to grasp at true existence.
Thus, when he beholds the illusory woman,
His tendency to perceive her emptiness is very weak.

We are like a child that keeps being fooled by the same magician’s trick again and again.    The illusion is of something that looks like a non-illusion – it is an illusion that appears real.  We then relate to this illusion as if it were real, and create contaminated karma, which ripens in the future in more similar illusions.  We are then told that it is just an illusion, but we get fooled again, like a child with a magic trick.  This happens because we have many tendencies of being gullible with respect to samsara.

The reason for this is not difficult to understand. There are two types of delusion, intellectually formed delusions and innate delusions. Having knowledge that things are illusions or computer generated might reduce our attachment somewhat because it counters the intellectually formed delusion. But simply the intellectual knowledge that it is an illusory woman or a computer generated image does not counter our innate delusions. For example, when people watch scary movies they have emotional reactions even though they know that it is just a movie. Why does this happen? Because while their conscious mind knows that it is just a movie, their subconscious mind (their innate delusions essentially) still believe that the images are real and part of their mind reacts as if they are.

To overcome this, we need to realize emptiness with increasingly subtle levels of our mind. Our innate delusions are located deeper within our subconscious and they can only be countered by placing the Dharma underneath the level of our delusion. Ultimately, we need to realize emptiness with our very subtle mind which is underneath all of our subtle minds. By realizing emptiness with our very subtle mind, we can uproot all of our innate delusions and then such appearances will no longer generate delusions in us because we realize at a deeper level that they are not real.  

Through reminding ourselves of emptiness again and again, we can gradually come to see the trick, and then we are no longer fooled by it.  If we think what appears to our mind is real, we can get sucked into it and we can quickly become schizophrenic – believing hallucinations are real.  If we remind ourselves that it is just appearances projected by our mind, but that none of them are real, then even those these things will appear, we won’t worry about it and won’t react to the appearances as if they were real.  Through training consistently with this, eventually we cut the power of the appearances over us.

Happy Tsog Day: Prostrating to the Spiritual Guide’s Pervasive Nature

In order to remember and mark our tsog days, holy days on the Kadampa calendar, I am sharing my understanding of the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide with tsog.  This is part 7 of a 44-part series.

Prostrating to the spiritual guide as the Truth Body

Abandonment of all faults together with their imprints,
Precious treasury of countless good qualities,
And sole gateway to all benefit and happiness,
O Venerable spiritual guide I prostrate at your lotus feet.

Our spiritual guide’s Truth Body is the ultimate nature of all phenomena. All things are equally empty. From the point of view of their lacking inherent existence, all emptinesses are the same nature. There is no object that is any more or less empty than all the others. Our spiritual guide imputes their I onto the emptiness of all things, which is why we can correctly say that he is the ultimate nature of everything. Everything that we see or perceive, including whatever device we are reading this post on, is ultimately our spiritual guide. With this understanding, when we look at any object, we can see our spiritual guide looking back at us. What appears is a form, but this form is by nature emptiness – it is the emptiness of our spiritual guide appearing as form. With this verse, we prostrate to our spiritual guide as the Truth Body of all the Buddhas. With the first line, we prostrate to both the cause and function of the Truth Body. The way we attain enlightenment is by meditating on the emptiness of our very subtle mind. This concentration functions to purify our very subtle mind of all contaminated karmic imprints. When our mind is free from them all, it naturally transforms into the omniscient clear light mind of a Buddha. The second line explains that all good qualities emerge from the Truth Body, just as all waves arise from an ocean. The third line indicates that the realization of the Truth Body is the gateway to all happiness for ourself and all living beings. By realizing it, both ourself and all living beings can enjoy eternal joy. And the last line reminds us that even though the Truth Body is very subtle and does not assume any particular form, we should remember it is our spiritual guide. Sometimes we can think of emptiness as a “state” and forget that the Truth Body is a person.

Prostrating to the spiritual guides as the synthesis of all Three Jewels

Essence of all Guru-Buddhas and Deities,

Source of all eighty-four thousand classes of holy Dharma,

Foremost amongst the entire Superior Assembly,

O Kind spiritual guides I prostrate at your lotus feet.

There are two ways we can understand that our spiritual guide is the synthesis of all three jewels. The first is to understand that he is the source of all three jewels, they are all his emanations. He emanates all Buddhas, all Dharma teachings, and all Sangha, like limbs of his body. The second way is to understand that our spiritual guide is an “I” imputed upon all the Buddhas, all the Dharmas, and all the Sanghas. Geshe-la has said on numerous occasions that “I am the NKT.” His meaning is that he imputes his “I” onto all the Buddhas in the NKT, all the Dharma in the NKT, and all the Sangha of the NKT. When we look at any of these, it is our spiritual guide. Practically, this means our bodies are Geshe-la’s bodies in this world, our speech is Geshe-la’s speech in this world, and our Dharma realizations are his wisdom in this world. Where does his body, speech, and mind come from? Lama Tsongkhapa’s. In exactly the same way, in the first line of this verse, we recognize that our spiritual guide is all the Buddhas and deities. The second and third lines reveals he is the source of all Dharmas and all Sangha. Recognizing our spiritual guide in this way, we prostrate to him.

Prostrating to the lineage Gurus and Three Jewels

To the Gurus who abide in the three times and the ten directions,
The Three Supreme Jewels, and all other objects of prostration,
I prostrate with faith and respect, a melodious chorus of praise,
And emanated bodies as numerous as atoms in the world.

Our spiritual guide, who we have been prostrating to, did not emerge out of nowhere, but arose out of an unbroken lineage of realized masters all the way back to Buddha Shakyamuni. To be a lineage Guru means to have attained all the realizations that are taught within that lineage – to have personal experience of the truth of the instructions. Within the Kadampa Lineage, the principal lineage Gurus are Buddha Shakyamuni, Atisha, Je Tsongkhapa, Je Phabongkapa, Trijang Rinpoche, and our own Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Each lineage Guru taught the Dharma and had Sangha followers. Towards this great ocean of three jewels moving through the three times, we prostrate. This verse also indicates that when we engage in this practice of prostration, we should imagine that every one of our hair pores emanates bodies, and each one of those bodies emanates countless more, filling the entire universe. All these countless bodies prostrate.