Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Talking with Christians about God

Another potential source of anger about what others say is when we discuss religion with our Christian friends and family.

This can also come up in our daily lives, especially if we are practicing Buddhism in predominantly Christian societies or families.  Geshe-la once gave some advice about engaging with our Christian friends.  He said, there will appear to others, including Christians, to be differences between their teachings and the Kadampa teachings.  And they will possibly want our opinion on those differences. He said we must be very skillful in what we say and what we teach in such circumstances.  Some people may feel threatened thinking we disbelieve the existence of God, and we could be asked our view on the existence of God.  He said of course we shouldn’t answer “God doesn’t exist.” We can answer that different people have different conceptions of God, even Christian scholars have different thoughts.

But the Kadampa teachings are very clear in saying “there is no creator other than mind,” and many Christians and others say God is the creator of the world.  What should we say when somebody asks this?  Geshe-la was very clear, he said we should say, “in reality, I believe there’s no contradiction.”  How can we understand this?

Many years ago at a festival, Geshe-la talked about the Dharmakaya being creator of all – God.  Usually the objection to the conception of God is there is a contradiction between all powerful and perfectly good.  If God is all powerful, then why is there suffering?  It is true for an inherently existent God, this is an impossible contradiction.  But when you understand the emptiness of God – his actual mode of existence – this contradiction falls away.  The Dharmakaya is all knowing, perfectly good and all powerful in that the mind is the creator of all. When our own mind is fully purified it will be all knowing, all powerful and perfectly good.  The Dharmakaya does not exist from its own side, but is our own mind fully purified.  It is something we need to make manifest within our mind.  We need to bring God to everything by viewing everything as inseparable from the Dharmakaya.  The kingdom of heaven is not something that exists from its own side, but something each one of us has to create.

When we understand the emptiness of the creator, Buddhism and Christianity merge perfectly.  In Buddhism, because we understand emptiness, we understand that we are uniquely responsible for everything that happens because our mind is its creator.  Our job is to become a good God for our karmic creation.

If Kadam Dharma is to flourish within predominantly Christian societies, we must now be very skillful in what we teach, especially in relation to Christian principles.  We need to try to show people that in reality there is no contradiction so that their interest in Buddhist teachings grows. Over time they may become more influenced by Buddha’s teachings, or maybe not.  Either way, the choice is theirs. Geshe-la is encouraging us a little to think about what we say and what we teach in the future if the Kadam Dharma is to grow in Western society. We need to think carefully about the answers that we will give.  There are many many different levels to this, and it is worth considering and discussing.  If individually we practice in this way, seeing the non-contradiction between Dharma and Christianity, then the obstacles coming from Christian corners or our families will gradually fade away and this will become a society in which Kadampas are a natural part of the fabric.  This is quite a special way of practicing.

There are three things I find useful to contemplate when thinking about the relationship between the Kadam dharma and Christianity.  First, Mike Garside said that Christ prepared the west perfectly for the arrival of Kadampa Buddhism.  It is as if Christ took the people of the West up a certain distance of the mountain, and then from there Kadampa Buddhism can take them the rest of the way.  Perhaps we can say that Kadampa Buddhism is like ‘enhanced Christianity.’  Christian principles are part of our common path, we just move beyond these principles to a deeper level without being contradictory.  Kadampa Buddhism explains many of the deep inner mechanisms as to how Christianity works, such as blessings, taking and giving, etc.  Kadampa Buddhism introduces a Mahayana element, we seek to become God ourselves so that we can care for our creation.  Kadampa Buddhism eliminates all remaining obstacles to uniting with God by realizing his lack of inherent existence.  Then there is no separation between him and us.  We become inseparably one with him.  We become one and the same.

Second, there is a parallel between when the Dharma came to Tibet and when the Dharma came to the West.  When the Dharma came to Tibet, the local culture and religion was Bon.  Spiritually things were degenerate, but culturally people were Bon.  Out of culturally Bon and spiritually Buddhist emerged ‘Tibetan Buddhism.’  When the Dharma came to the West, the local culture and religion is largely Christian.  Spiritually things are degenerating, but culturally people are primarily Christian.  Out of a culturally Christian and spiritually Buddhist context emerged ‘Modern Kadampa Buddhism’.  One of my teachers once said that one of the uncommon characteristics of Kadampa Buddhism that separates us from Tibetan Buddhism is we do not reject our Christian background, but we take it as a starting point.  Just as Tibetan Buddhism took ‘Bon’ as its starting point, Kadampa Buddhism in many ways takes Christianity as its starting point.

Third, I believe that Kadampa Buddhism has an important role to play in the revival of Christianity as well.  It seems to me that Christianity fell on the rocks for two principal reasons:  First, most people have difficulties with Christianity because it comes down to ‘believe me because God said so.’  This just doesn’t work in modern times with highly educated people.  Second, it got mixed with politics – especially anti-LGBT politics.  There is considerable evidence that Jesus taught a Mahayana path, but when the state hijacked the church, such teachings were removed or reinterpreted for political ends.  Mixing religion and politics destroys the religion as it gets coopted for worldly aims.  My experience has been that the more I study Dharma, the more I understand how Christianity works, and I can explain to my Christian friends our understanding and this helps them improve their faith in their Christianity.  As Kadampa thought infiltrates into Christian culture, effectively becoming a Kadampa society, it will provide Christians with powerful reasons demonstrating why their religion is valid, and this will help them increase their faith in it.  So we have an important role to play not just in the flourishing of Dharma but also the revival of Christianity.

Happy Je Tsongkhapa Day: I rejoice in the great wave of your deeds

In many ways, October 25th, or Je Tsongkhapa Day, is my favorite day of the Kadampa calendar.  Why?  Because he is the founder of our tradition, our living spiritual guide, and the source of all good.  On Je Tsongkhapa Day, we can remember his great kindness, strive to emulate his example, and ultimately decide to mix our mind inseparably with his.  I pray that all those who read this develop unchanging faith in Guru Tsongkhapa, and in dependence upon this faith, effortlessly follow his joyful path.

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 like 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.

Je Tsongkhapa is the Founder of the New Kadampa Tradition

Buddha Shakyamuni is the founder of Buddhism in this world, and all of the different types of Buddhism (Zen, Theravadin, Kadampa, etc.) are all different presentations of his teachings.  Buddha gave 84,000 different instructions, but different traditions will place different emphasis on different aspects to correspond with the karmic dispositions of those who follow that tradition.  We cannot say one tradition is better than another in some absolute sense, rather we can say, “this tradition is better for me,” and “that tradition is better for her,” etc.  In this way, we can each cherish our own traditions while respecting all others.

Atisha is the founder of the Kadampa tradition.  ‘Kadam’ means a special presentation of Buddha’s 84,000 teachings called the “Lamrim,” which the Buddhist Master Atisha introduced when he went from India to Tibet in 1042 AD.  ‘Pa’ means somebody who puts into practice.  A Kadampa, therefore, means somebody who takes Atisha’s Lamrim as their main practice.  Atisha is primarily known for uniting the vast and profound paths together.  The vast path refers to the accumulation of merit, the principal cause of a Buddha’s body; and the profound path refers to the accumulation of wisdom, the principal cause of a Buddha’s mind.  By practicing the union of the two, our practices of the vast and profound paths reinforce each other and we create the causes to attain a Buddha’s body and mind simultaneously.  His path is generally presented as the Three Principal Aspects of the Path, namely renunciation, bodhichitta, and the correct view of emptiness.  Renunciation is the wish to escape from samsara ourselves, bodhichitta is the wish to become a Buddha to lead others to liberation, and the correct view of emptiness eradicates the root of samsara, self-grasping ignorance.

Je Tsongkhapa (1357 to 1419 AD) is the founder of the New Kadampa Tradition. Just as Atisha presented the union of the vast and profound path, Je Tsongkhapa introduced the union of Sutra and Tantra. Like the old Kadampas, practitioners of the New Kadampa Tradition also take Atisha’s Lamrim as their main practice. The difference is New Kadampas can practice the Lamrim at the gross level (Sutra) and the subtle level (Tantra) as completely non-contradictory. Sutra is how we practice Buddha’s instructions with our gross mind, Tantra is how we do so with our subtle and very subtle minds, but both are methods of practicing Lamrim.

Ultimately, Tantra is much quicker than Sutra because our gross minds arise from our subtle and very subtle mind. If we pull weeds but fail to take out the roots, the weeds will grow back; in the same way, if we pacify our gross minds but fail to purify our subtle minds, the delusions will keep coming back. Tantra is a special spiritual technology for purifying our root mind, or our very subtle mind, of all of our delusions and their karmic imprints, thus eradicating samsara at its root. We purify our very subtle mind by meditating on its emptiness. This one meditation functions to simultaneously uproot all of the contaminated karma we have accumulated since beginningless time. Je Tsongkhapa showed how the paths of Sutra and Tantra are not only completely non-contradictory, but are mutually reinforcing, and by practicing them together in the context of Atisha’s Lamrim, we can quickly attain enlightenment.

The New Kadampa Tradition has five main aspects of the path: renunciation, bodhichitta, the correct view of emptiness, generation stage, and completion stage. These can be understood as there is one action on the path: changing the basis of imputation of our I from our ordinary samsaric body and mind to the completely pure body and mind of a Buddha. There are two reasons why we do it, renunciation (for ourselves) and bodhichitta (for others). And there are two levels at which we do it, the gross body and mind of a Buddha (generation stage) and the subtle body and mind of a Buddha (completion stage). Je Tsonkghapa is the founder of this way of practicing.

Since Je Tsongkhapa, there has been an unbroken lineage of his teachings down to our present-day lineage gurus, including Je Phabongkhapa, Trijang Rinpoche, and our very own Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.  There is no difference in meaning between the Dharma Je Tsongkhapa taught and what we currently practice, the only difference is the cultural presentation, analogies, and languages used to express that meaning.  Everything we practice, directly or indirectly, comes from Je Tsongkhapa.  We are Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition.  The New Kadampa Tradition – International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT-IKBU) was founded by Geshe-la to present Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings to the modern world. 

Je Tsongkhapa is our Living Spiritual Guide

One of the hardest parts of the Buddhist path for modern people is relying upon a “guru.”  At first, it all seems very “cult-like.”  I remember telling my first teacher Gen Lekma once, “I’m down with all of the Dharma teachings except this whole reliance upon the spiritual guide thing!”  When I told her this, she was in the middle of swallowing some tea, and she nearly spit it out in a laugh.  After collecting herself, she looked at me and said, “I have found that the things we struggle the most with at first later become the things that have the biggest transformative impact on our mind.”  Truer words have never been spoken. 

To understand why reliance upon the spiritual guide is the root of the path, we have to back up a bit.  Why do we need teachers in general?  Because we are ignorant and don’t know.  Why do we need spiritual teachers?  Because we are ignorant of the spiritual path, not knowing its destinations nor how to follow the path to these destinations.  Why do we need a root guru or root spiritual guide?  Because we need somebody who has completed the path and can guide our mind to the same state.  It takes humility to learn from any teacher, it takes great humility to rely upon a Spiritual Guide. 

Normally, we say Geshe-la is the root guru, or Spiritual Guide, of the NKT.  It is true everything we study and practice comes from him, and he has created for us all of the conditions we now enjoy for our practice, such as temples, centers, teachers, sangha friends, books, sadhanas, and so forth.  But what does he say?  He says don’t look at me, rather look at Je Tsongkhapa at my heart.  We view Geshe-la as an emanation of Je Tsongkhapa, but Je Tsongkhapa is our actual Spiritual Guide.  What does Je Tsongkhapa say?  He says don’t look at me, rather look at Buddha Shakyamuni at my heart.  What does Buddha Shakyamuni say?  Don’t look at me, rather look at Heruka at my heart.  Guru Heruka is our actual spiritual guide.  He appeared as Buddha Shakyamuni to introduce the Dharma to the people of this world.  He later appeared as Je Tsongkhapa, who in turn is now appearing as Geshe-la.  From one perspective, it is the same person – the same mental continuum – appearing at different points in time according to the karmic dispositions of the people of this world.

But from another perspective, Je Tsongkhapa is still our Spiritual Guide today. His emanation bodies may change, but the jewel in the lotus remains the same person. When Buddhas attain enlightenment, they become deathless beings. Their emanation bodies may pass away, but they do not, they continue to live. We can continue to develop a living relationship with these holy beings because they are still with us today. He is still here, guiding us, teaching us, blessing us, and so forth. Geshe-la, the Gen-la’s, and all of our other spiritual teachers are essentially spiritual telephones which connect the pure world of Je Tsongkhapa with our present samsaric reality. When we rely upon our outer spiritual teachers they explain to us how to develop a relationship with our inner spiritual teachers who then take us to enlightenment. The outer teachers and the inner teachers are not separate beings, but different layers of the same being appearing to different levels of purity of mind.

Whenever we engage in any Guru Yoga practice, our main job is to feel we are in the living presence of our spiritual guide – seeing all of the Buddhas as inseparable from our guru and our guru as inseparable from all the Buddhas.  Every practice we engage in is about creating a close karmic relationship with our spiritual guide in his different karmic aspects.  In dependence upon this karmic relationship, we gain greater and greater access to our spiritual guide’s blessings, until eventually, it is almost as if we gain the ability to download their enlightenment into our own mind.  In the end, we mix our mind with our guru’s mind, where we make no distinction between our mind and his enlightened mind.  From one perspective, it is like a mind transplant where his mind becomes ours; from another perspective, it is like removing the obstructions to our own root mind and discovering that our actual mind was his enlightened mind all along. 

Because Je Tsongkhapa is the embodiment of his Dharma, by mixing our mind with his, we mix our mind with his special union of Sutra and Tantra and eventually come to see ourselves as a wave inseparable from the ocean of his omniscient mind.  We view all phenomena as arising from emptiness, all emptinesses as the nature of our mind of great bliss, and the union of our realization of great bliss and emptiness as inseparable from our guru’s Truth Body, or Dharmakaya. 

Je Tsongkhapa is the Source of all Good

This is somewhat harder to understand.  All good things come from good karma.  All good karma comes from virtuous actions.  All virtuous actions arise due to receiving blessings from the holy beings.  Je Tsongkhapa is the synthesis of all the Buddhas, therefore he is the source of all blessings, virtuous actions, good karma, and ultimately good results. 

Sometimes, we like to take credit for our good deeds, therefore we think Je Tsongkhapa is not the source of all good, we are. Or maybe it is a mixed affair, where he helps us with his blessings, but mostly it comes from our own effort. This doubt comes from grasping at a duality between ourselves and our ultimate nature. Our good deeds arise from our good intentions, but where do they arise from? They pour into our mind when we open it up to the sun of our pure potential. Just as the sun pours in whenever the blinds are opened, so too virtuous intentions come into our mind when cracks in the layers of the karmic obstructions on our mind appear. But what is our pure potential? By nature, it is Guru Tsongkhapa. All Buddhas impute their I onto the truth body or Dharmakaya. What is this? It is a mind of great bliss that realizes directly and simultaneously the emptiness of all phenomena. A Buddha’s body and mind are the same entity, the same nature, which means their truth body pervades all phenomena. Because we too are empty, we have a pure potential. This pure potential fully realized is Je Tsongkhapa. Every time we access or ripen this potential, we are releasing some of Je Tsongkhapa into our mind. Thus, he is inseparable from all of our good intentions – he is our good intentions manifesting in our mind.

There are many prayers to Je Tsongkhapa, but the most famous is the Migtsema prayer, which explains that Je Tsongkhapa is the synthesis of Buddha Shakyamuni, Vajradhara, Avaolokitehsvara, Manjushri, and Vajrapaini. There is also the single-pointed request which explains he is the guru, he is the yidam, he is the daka, and the Dharma protector. If all of the goodness in all of the universe were gathered together, it would produce the appearance of Je Tsongkhapa. Put another way, Je Tsongkhapa is a holy being who has managed to successfully impute his I onto the synthesis of all goodness. Thus it is perfectly correct to say he is the source of all good because he is all goodness itself.

But how can we understand he is the source of all good, including that of non-Buddhists?  Everything we perceive is ultimately created by our mind, arising from our mind.  There is no creator other than mind, and there is nothing that exists outside of our mind (if it did, that thing would be inherently existent).  This means that everything is part of our karmic dream. Any good we perceive in the world is a reflection of the goodness in our mind.  We created the karma for that goodness to appear.  We already established that all goodness that arises in our mind comes from Je Tsongkhapa, thus any goodness that arises in our karmic dream also arises from him. 

Remembering Je Tsongkhapa’s Kindness

On Je Tsongkhapa Day, our main practice should be to remember his kindness.  We can do this by contemplating what Geshe-la said about Je Tsongkhapa Day.  I find it particularly helpful to remember his kindness in my own life.  He has given me my spiritual life.  Without my Dharma practice, I don’t know how I would have turned out in the wake of my mother’s suicide on my wedding day or all of the other challenges I have faced in my life.  Je Tsongkhapa’s way of thinking has come to dominate my way of thinking, and I am much happier for it.  It suffices to ask myself what my life would be like if I had never met his Dharma to see the profound impact it has had. 

More importantly, he has provided me with the spiritual tools I need to close the door on ever taking lower rebirth again through purification and refuge practice.  Through his kindness, I have found the door to liberation that will enable me to once and for all cease the samsaric nightmare I have been trapped in since beginningless time.  He has shown me not only that I can attain enlightenment and thereby be in a position to help all those I love who are also drowning in samsara, but he has provided me with incredibly simple step-by-step instructions for how to do it.  In what can only be described as a miracle, I have found qualified tantric teachings of generation and completion stage through which it is possible to attain enlightenment in one life or barring that, at least getting to the pure land where I can complete my spiritual training.  His blessings flow into me day and night, even while I sleep, holding me back from quite literally going insane.  Without him, I would be lost.  With him, I have been found.  By relying upon him, I can fulfill all my own and other’s pure wishes.  He is a true wish-fulfilling jewel who has kept alive the holy Kadam Dharma in this world, and it is my job to do all that I can to internalize it and then pass it on to future generations.

Emulating his Example

If I were trapped on a desert island and only allowed one book, it would be Great Treasury of Merit. Normally we say Joyful Path of Good Fortune is like the hub of the wheel of Dharma, and all of the other books are like spokes of that wheel. But the axis around which Joyful Path turns is Great Treasury of Merit which presents the very synthesis of Je Tsongkhapa’s Dharma by showing how all the essential meanings of his teachings fit together with exactly the right proportionalities of how important each teaching is. In truth, the book is about 70% how to rely upon the Spiritual Guide and 30% everything else, which is exactly correct. The sections on visualizing the spiritual guide explain the meaning of his holy form. Buddhas can manifest their inner realizations as outer forms, and Je Tsongkhapa’s body is quite literally all of his realizations as form. By generating faith in his holy form, we mix our mind with all of his realizations. The sections on prostrations, praises, and making requests explain his many good qualities and special functions in our life. Reading these with faith, one cannot help but be amazed.

There are two aspects of his example which appeal to me most.  The first is how he demonstrates the practice of moral discipline and the second is the great wave of his deeds. 

His outer form is of a fully ordained monk, revealing the practices of the vows of individual liberation. His inner form is Buddha Shakyamuni, revealing the moral discipline of a Bodhisattva. And his secret form is Vajradhara, demonstrating the moral discipline of a tantric master. At my very first Kadampa festival, when Geshe-la first opened the temple in Manjushri, he gave a three-day teaching on essentially one subject – overcoming distractions. He explained that we have everything we need to attain enlightenment, the only thing that is missing is our practicing these instructions without distraction. The practices of moral discipline are how we overcome our gross distractions by letting go of each object of abandonment. Moral discipline is not wishing to engage in negativity, but holding ourselves back from doing so. Rather, it is realizing we no longer wish to do so, and so we “let go” of wanting the objects of our transgressions. Normally, we think moral discipline is a list of ‘don’ts’ that deprives us of our freedom. We have everything backward. The practice of moral discipline is a profound shift in our mind that is experienced as a “release” into greater and greater levels of inner freedom by leaving behind the chains of samsara.

Every day in our Heart Jewel practice, we rejoice in the great wave of Je Tsongkhapa’s deeds. What exactly is this great wave? We can say it is his special method for eventually liberating all beings. He attained enlightenment. What did he do with his enlightenment? He formed new spiritual guides for carrying forward the tradition. What did those spiritual guides do? Create more spiritual guides still. In this way, his virtuous deeds multiple exponentially until eventually the wave of his kind actions will carry every single living being to the state of full enlightenment. He has set in motion a spiritual self-perpetuating machine whose function is to liberate all beings from all suffering forever. In one short life, he initiated a wave that will never stop until all of his pure wishes are fulfilled.

We have the incredible good fortune to not only receive benefit from him but to become ourselves part of his great wave. He has laid at our feet exactly the same Dharma he taught and realized. By picking up the Dharma he has given us and bringing it into our mind, we too can become a fully qualified spiritual guide able to carry forward this great lineage for the benefit of all those we have a close karmic relationship with. If we do not do this for those we love, who will? It may be aeons before his wave comes around again to these beings, but we can carry them with us right now. Venerable Tharchin says the beings who we generate bodhichitta towards as bodhisattvas are among the first we lead to enlightenment when we attain the final goal. Look around at everyone you love, see how they are drowning, and now remember Je Tsongkhapa has given you the means to do something about it by becoming part of his great wave.

Deciding to Mix our Mind with His

In the final analysis, attaining enlightenment is very simple:  all we need to do is mix our mind inseparably with somebody who has already attained enlightenment.  In this way, the duality between their mind and our mind vanishes, and their enlightened mind becomes our mind and our mind becomes their enlightened mind.  Everything else in the Dharma is why we should do this and how to do it.  As practitioners of the New Kadampa Tradition, whose mind do we mix ours with?  Lama Tsongkhapa’s.  It’s as simple as that.

Every object of meditation is an aspect of his mind.  Every instruction we practice comes from his mind.  Every realization we gain is an infusion of his mind into our own.  Every practice we do is changing the basis of imputation of our I from our ordinary contaminated body and mind to his completely pure body and mind.  Every deity we rely upon is like a facet on the diamond of his mind.  Every phenomenon we see is a wave on the ocean of his mind.  He is everything.  Our job is so simple:  just mix our mind with his.  Whatever we mix our mind with, we become.  Since he is the synthesis of all the Buddhas, all Dharmas, and all Sanghas, by mixing our mind with his, we too become the source of all good.

The only thing that is missing is deciding to dedicate our lives to this goal.  There are so many things we do in life, but how many of them do us any good?  Only deciding to mix our mind with his will free us.  We can reach the point where our every thought, word, and deed is him working through us.  We need not struggle in our spiritual practice, we merely need to request his blessings.  We need not invent the path, we can simply follow the one he has laid out for us.  We need not ever doubt, we can internally request his wisdom.  There is nothing he cannot provide us, all we need to do is decide to rely upon him.

Today is Je Tsongkhapa Day.  Every decision we make today is karmically equivalent to making that same decision ten million times.  What better way to mark this holy day than making the firm internal decision to dedicate our life to mixing our mind with Lama Tsongkhapa’s, our living Spiritual Guide.  I pray that everyone who reads this transforms their life in this way.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Not getting angry at those who attack our tradition and Dorje Shugden practice

(6.62) “At least you should retaliate when people speak ill of you
And cause others to lose their faith in you.”
In that case, why do I not get angry
When people speak ill of others?

(6.63) If, mind, you can forbear such loss of faith
When it is related to others,
Why are you not patient when others speak ill of you,
For that is related to the arising of delusions?

(6.64) Even if someone were to insult or destroy the Dharma,
The holy images, or the stupas,
It would still not be appropriate to get angry with them,
For how could the Three Jewels ever be harmed?

(6.65) We should also prevent anger arising towards anyone
Who might harm our Spiritual Guide, our friends, or our relatives
By seeing that such harm also occurs in dependence upon conditions
In the way that was just explained.

It is very easy to think it is justifiable to get angry against people who seek to harm the three jewels.  Even if we don’t think it is justifiable to get angry, it is easy to actually get angry when we feel others are attacking us, our tradition, Geshe-la, or our faith.  We receive a lot of criticism from a lot of different directions, and even the most secure in their faith can easily become discouraged or angry at those who keep falsely accusing us or unfairly criticizing us.  This is part of our karma, no doubt because we did this to others in the past.

I have actually spent a good amount of time “defending the tradition” against those who would attack it.  This started for me way back in the mid-1990s when the Dalai Lama started to aggressively attack Dorje Shugden practice and practitioners.  What was being said didn’t jive at all with my experience of Dorje Shugden practice, teachings, or our tradition, but I was still relatively new.  I wrote Geshe-la about what I had read/heard expressing concern, and he wrote back saying, “Dorje Shugden could never have anybody.  Investigate for yourself.”  So that’s what I did.  I read through everything that was written on the web at the time, including all of the speeches by the Dalai Lama, statements made by the Tibetan parliament, and others.  The more I looked, the more it made no sense.  Each of the arguments lodged fell apart upon investigation.  By investigating myself and comparing it with what I had learned, it became very clear to me that the Dalai Lama’s position was full of contradictions.  I helped Venerable Tharchin prepare a book to try answer some of the arguments lodged against us.  It never got published, but it did clarify my own thinking. 

It was very easy for me to get angry about all of the criticism against Dorje Shugden and the NKT because my in-laws, who were already skeptical about my involvement with Buddhism thinking I had joined some cult, found all of this stuff and it created all sorts of obstacles.  I had had obstacles with them before and also had written Geshe-la about how to deal with this.  He replied that “they might have a problem with external manifestations of Dharma practice, but everyone appreciates a good heart and a good example.  You will need to be skillful.” 

A second wave of this happened about 10 years later when the criticisms started up again, and so did our protests in response.  I spent the entire summer at TTP writing a website that answered every single argument made against us.  My goal was to enter into a debate against all those who opposed us.  I invited all of our main critics to engage in the debate, line by line, with the agreement of whoever loses the debate has the intellectual integrity to at least admit it.  Unfortunately, nobody took me up on my offer.  But the website still exists, and I believe it can be a useful resource for somebody new encountering these questions to help them work through the arguments made on both sides.  You can visit this site at:  https://dorjeshugdendebate.wordpress.com/  But I also remember discussing with these people on a variety of different on-line forums, and while I was strong in my faith, it really wore on me (and others), and I eventually had to step away because it was just so negative.

A third wave happened about 5 years ago.  The criticisms started up again, and so did our protests.  I was in China at the time, and found it so absurd how those accusing us used my presence in China as proof that we were working for the Chinese.  No, actually, I was working in the American embassy, but facts didn’t matter.  One of our chief critics then published a manifesto of why we are so bad and why Dorje Shugden is so bad, so I decided to try once again and debate with them – this time on their medium.  It turned into this absolutely massive discussion.  I tried to be fair and objective in my arguments, admitting it when we were wrong.  My hope was by being reasonable I could at least soften things up a bit.  I tried to move people – on both sides – towards agreeing the resolution to the conflict was for everybody to practice their bodhisattva vows.  In the end, my efforts failed.  But I can say that I tried.

These same folks, 20 years later after their original dispute with the NKT, are still at it.  My theory is they are unable to let go and get on with their lives because somewhere inside of them, they know they are wrong.  So they are battling within themselves and keep coming back.  Of course they would howl in protest at such a characterization, but the core question remains – why haven’t you moved on with your life yet?  If the NKT isn’t for you, fine, it doesn’t need to be.  You have your bread, we have ours.  Why decades of relentless attack?  Why are they so threatened by us thinking what we do?  I’m fine with them thinking whatever they want.  But it still functions to activate anger and defensiveness in me when I see their attacks.  I try accept this as purification.

Many people have their own story with all of this.  It’s not easy for people to work through.  But working through it is a fantastic way to become solid in our own Dharma understandings and confidence in our path. 

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Will it matter on my deathbed?

Shantideva continues with the various objections our mind comes up with for why we are justified in retaliating when others speak to us harshly.

(6.55) “If people dislike you, that might prevent you
From acquiring wealth or status.”
But I shall lose all my worldly acquisitions when I die –
The only thing to remain will be the non-virtue I create.

(6.56) It would be better for me to die today
Than to live a long life filled with non-virtue;
And, even if I have a long life,
I shall still have to face the suffering of death.

(6.57) If one person were to awake from a dream
In which he had experienced a hundred years of happiness,
And another were to awake from a dream
In which he had experienced but a brief moment of happiness,

(6.58) Once awake, the situation would be the same for both
Because neither could ever return to that happiness.
In the same way, whether our life is long or short,
At the time of death everything ends just the same.

(6.59) Even if I live happily for a long time
And acquire great wealth and possessions,
I shall still have to leave this life empty-handed and naked,
As if I had been robbed by a thief.

As our merit and influence in the world grows, we stand to gain a lot of wealth and high status. Over the years our wealth will increase as will our status. And we wouldn’t want anything to get in the way of that, would we? Are we interested in money, respect, status?  Should we be interested in such things?  If so, for what reasons?  Once again, there are valid reasons for wanting these things, but the main point Shantideva is making is “I shall still have to leave this life empty-handed and naked” no matter how much wealth and status I have achieved. Atisha himself says we have to leave behind everything we have, so do not be attached to anything. 

The death test is a powerful tool of wisdom to identify what is and what is not important.  If we can take something with us beyond death, such as our mind and karma, then it is important; if we can’t take it with us beyond death, in the cosmic scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter, so why make a big deal out of it?

(6.60) “Even so, acquiring wealth will support your life
So that you can purify non-virtue and accumulate merit.”
But if in acquiring that wealth I generate non-virtues such as anger,
It will be my non-virtue that increases and my merit that declines.

(6.61) What is the point of a life
In which we commit only non-virtue?
Non-virtues are the main cause of our suffering,
And suffering is the main object to be abandoned!

Of course we need good conditions to support our spiritual life, our Dharma practice, our functioning successfully as teachers, parents, etc.  But how much do we need? How much do we need to support our life as a Dharma practitioner?  Sometimes those who depend upon others’ sponsorship to sustain their practice can become frustrated with their benefactors, thinking, “don’t they realize I am trying to become a Buddha for their benefit?  Why do they leave me in such poverty?”  There are several flaws with such thinking.  First, perhaps we want more than we actually need.  Second, either we have faith Dorje Shugden is arranging the conditions we need or we don’t.  If we are in poverty, perhaps it is what we need.  Third, the cause of our poverty is our lack of past giving, so we have nobody to blame but our own past delusions.  Fourth, perhaps our poverty is a good thing because it means we are not burning up our merit. 

Atisha says since you will definitely have to depart without the wealth you have accumulated, do not accumulate negativity for the sake of wealth.  Much of the modern economy is based upon seeking profit through information asymmetries.  Bankers and others take advantage of people who don’t know any better.  Such theft and manipulation creates terrible karma for the perpetrators.  Finally, if we are bodhisattvas and we have accumulated merit thanks to our practice, what rights do we have to use it for ourselves?  Haven’t we already given it all away to others?

Touched by Grace: Dream with Venerable Tharchin

I had a dream two nights ago where I met Venerable Tharchin. He was very, very old, and with the help of about 4-5 assistants holding up each limb, he was doing Tai Chi with what I understood to be him fine tuning his very last last inner winds before his death. I spontaneously went to hug him and did so for several seconds, which I can still feel now like a direct lived experience. Then, in the dream, I thought I had woken up and I ran into a dear Sangha friend who was also very close to Tharchin. I told her that I had just had a dream with Venerable Tharchin and, surprised, she said that she too just had one. I asked her what she had dreamt, and she was about to tell me, but then I woke up from that dream into my normal waking state.

I was then left with a clear feeling that Venerable Tharchin might be near his death (how near, very hard to say) and that I should contact my Sangha friend about this dream. She replied that at almost that exact time of my dream, somebody was falsely accusing her of something, and instead of retaliating as she normally would have done, she felt touched by grace and responded with wisdom instead. Around that time, she also for some reason thought of me and was feeling warm and close (we haven’t seen each other in years and have had little contact).

What does this dream mean for me? Clearly some sort of karmic convergence occurred.

In my dream, I was left with the feeling that he might be near the end, but he was just in the final stages of fine tuning his mind and his winds before he does. With Thich Nhat Han dying and everything else happening in 2020, it wouldn’t surprise me if he soon passed. I’m left thinking perhaps everything happening in the world is actually just pre-purification of them practicing taking and giving in the world before they do. I remember Venerable Tharchin once saying it only takes a handful of truly holy beings in this world to create a safety net preventing the world from completely sinking into samsara. Them dying doesn’t mean this protection will disappear any more than Jesus dying did; in fact, it might be when their protection rises to the next level.

I’m also reminded of what Venerable Tharchin once said about Sangha. He said the inner Dharma center is the realizations of the people who attend the center bound together by the love they feel for each other and the closeness of the karma they have together. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Kadampas have been deeply touched by Venerable Tharchin’s presence in this world. I have always for very inexplicable reasons had a very close connection with many of his former students, especially the Sangha friend of my dream. Tharchin lives on in this world through us and our connections with each other. I think his former students have a responsibility to stay close to one another, even if life takes us apart. We have special bonds.

I’m also reminded of the story of the last time I saw Ven. Tharchin. It was 2 years ago at the Summer Festival. He has terrible Parkinson’s right now. I walked into his room, he was lying on his bed shaking uncontrolledly, drool running down his mouth, he could barely speak above a whisper, etc. We started talking, this went on for a while, and then I asked him, “so how are YOU?” He then said without missing a beat, “despite all appearances, I’m doing quite well thanks.” He had always spoken of, advocated for, and taught extensively retreat. He was on a long retreat once and he felt like he was close to attaining enlightenment, and he went to Geshe-la and said if he could stay in retreat a little bit longer, he could do it. Geshe-la told him, “if you stay in retreat, you could attain enlightenment, but you would become a ‘useless Buddha’ because you have no karmic connections with others.” Geshe-la then asked him to leave his retreat and go teach. From that, many of our most Senior teachers have emerged. I’m guessing in his mind, he was going to spend his twilight years in deep retreat, or at least that is what I had always imagined. Then he got Parkinson’s. But after speaking with him, I felt that learning how to transform his Parkinson’s was his final retreat, just in a different form. Such is the power of his mind and example for us all.

I’m reminded that Venerable Tharchin stayed at my friend in the dream’s house when he visited Geneva for teachings and empowerments, and we all had lunch together once on her patio. My wife was pregnant at the time with our third child, and he blessed the baby. Shortly before my wife became pregnant, a nun and former student of Tharchin’s died of cancer, and after my child was born, another Sangha friend – also a close student of Tharchin’s – said she had a strong feeling our child was this nun reborn. My wife did her Vajrayogini close retreat while pregnant with this child, and literally not 20 minutes after she finished her retreat, she went into labor.

I’m sharing all of this first to record it so I don’t forget, but also I know many people have a close connection with Tharchin and might want to know. My friend in the dream concluded her reply message to me by saying “a dream within a dream.” So many layers of truth in so few words.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: It doesn’t matter what others think or say

Much of our anger in life comes from people thinking or saying bad things about us.  Shantideva now explores how we can avoid such anger.

(6.52) Since my mind is not a bodily form,
There is no one who can destroy it;
But, because I am strongly attached to my body,
I feel hurt when it is suffering.

(6.53) Contempt, harsh words,
And unpleasant speech
Do not harm the body;
So why, mind, do you become so angry?

Why do we feel the need to retaliate when harsh, slanderous words are spoken?  When people attack us, we become very defensive and filled with pride thinking, talking to us in such a way is definitely not something we will allow.  “No one speaks to us in such ways!”  Generally speaking, we do not tolerate such unpleasant speech.  We take what is spoken to us directly or indirectly so personally. We become so defensive when we hear such words.  Instinctively, quite instinctively, we retaliate. We become angry and we retaliate.  There are many reasons for our retaliation. The main reason, though, is pride and our attachment to our reputation.  I believe one of the most important jobs we have, one of our greatest responsibilities, is to remove all worldly Dharmas and thereby be able to show others the example of being a pure Kadampa.  Such examples are needed in this world, especially now.

(6.54) “Such slanderous words may cause others to dislike you.”
Their dislike will not cause me any harm
In this or future lives;
So why should I not want it?

Such slanderous words may cause others to dislike us.  We may feel as a result of harsh words people will dislike us, and we want people to like us, don’t we? We want people to think well of us. We don’t want people to feel that we are in any way how others seem to think about us, do we? We don’t want that. We don’t want people to dislike us, we want them to love us.  But what difference does it make whether people like us or not?

Should, for example, we want people to like us or even love us? Is it important? Is it important that people do not dislike us? Is it important that people do not have bad feeling towards us? If we want to maintain the purity of our tradition, help Kadam Dharma flourish, then it is important that people not dislike us. It is, isn’t it? Should we then be concerned, and stop people uttering such words? What do we do? Do we act, or not? If we do act, why? With what motivation?

These are not easy questions, and it is very easy for our attachment and selfish motivations to hijack our wisdom to try rationalize why we should care.  In the end, the test is very simple:  do we feel our happiness depends upon what other people think of us?  If yes, then that is attachment.  If no, then it opens up all sorts of valid reasons why we should want people to think good things of us, such as our ability to help them depends upon them having faith in us.

But how do we control what others think of us so that they think good things?  Of course if somebody misunderstands us, we can attempt to clarify if the other person is open to hearing our explanation.  But ultimately, what others think of us is nothing more than a karmic echo of how we have thought about others.  If we want to change what others think about us, we need to change what we think about others.  This will change our karma, and thus change – over time – what others think of us.  From the point of view of emptiness, there is in fact nobody there thinking anything about us.  It is just the karmic appearance of that happening.  So why be bothered when people think ill of us?

I think a lot of our present difficulties with worrying about what others think of us comes from PTSD of our Middle School years.  For me at least, that was hell – but a hell that revolved around obsessive concern over what people thought of us.  If, for whatever reason, we found ourselves on the outside of the group, we were ostracized and it emotionally hurt – badly.  Fortunately, people largely grow out of Middle School, but the trauma remains within us, and so we carry this concern with us well into our adulthood.  Some people never grow out of it.  But we don’t need to judge ourselves for this, we need compassion for ourselves.  We need to look back on those years and request Dorje Shugden, “please bless me to transform all of that hurt into powerful causes of my enlightenment.”  Healing this past hurt will go a long ways to letting go of our obsessive concern with what others think about us now.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: We are harming them by serving as their object of anger

Now is when Shantideva starts to get very radical.

(6.47) Although those who harm me
Are provoked into doing so by my own karma,
It is they who will take rebirth in hell as a result;
So, is it not I who harm them?

(6.48) By depending upon them as my objects of patience,
I can purify many non-virtues;
But by depending upon me as their object of anger,
They will fall for a long time into hellish states of suffering.

(6.49) Thus, since it is I who inflict harm on them
And they who benefit me,
Why, unruly mind, do you distort things so
By becoming angry with them?

Here, Shantideva explains that when we look closely, we see it is not we who are being harmed when somebody tries to harm us – we are purifying our negative karma; rather, it is the other person who is being harmed because they are creating negative karma for themselves.  Seen in this way, we are actually the one receiving benefit and they are the ones being harmed.  Why are they harmed?  Because we have not yet purified the negative karma on our mind to serve as an object of anger for them.  Our unpurified negative karma compels them to harms us.  Besides not retaliating (more on that below), two conclusions can be drawn from this.  First, we must purify our negative karma so that we no longer serve as an object of anger for others; and second, if we can get out of a harmful/abusive situation, we must do so because for us to remain means we are harming the person by continuing to be the object of their anger when we could otherwise escape.

For the most part we try to bring out good things in others.  But we have to acknowledge that we sometimes bring out bad things too. When we bring out these bad things, we can’t get angry with them. Why are those bad things coming out? Why are they acting in the ways that they do, such as getting angry with us, criticizing us, disagreeing with us, not accepting what we want them to do, shouting at us, and so forth?  Perhaps it’s something to do with us. Perhaps we’ve got something to sort out. We cannot get angry with them, if things come out of their mind and they behave in the way that they do, in perhaps harmful or negative ways. We must be patient and help them, really try to help them to change their karma and try to change our own karma.  Especially those with whom we have a strong connection, we must try to help.

We don’t want them to create the cause for even more suffering by getting angry at them through retaliation, making matters worse for them.  If we do, then they will become more upset and more angry, and even develop bad thoughts towards other people.  We need to remind ourselves it is in dependence upon the karma we have created to be their object of harm that they create the cause of suffering.  In this sense, we’re harming them.  We’re harming them simply by being the object of their anger. We harm them by serving as their object of anger.  They benefit us by serving as the object of our patience.  Why on earth do we become angry with them? Surely, we must take the opportunity to practice patience, to be considerate, kind … and return their kindness by patiently helping them.

Thinking in this way naturally gives rise to a series of objections.  Shantideva now explores them.

(6.50) If I maintain this positive view,
I shall not create the cause to be reborn in hell;
But, although I protect myself through the practice of patience,
The same effect will not ripen on others.

From a karmic point of view, when we practice in this way, when others harm us we receive benefit, but they still accumulate negative karma.

(6.51) “Then would it not be better to return their harm?”
No! Retaliation would not protect them;
It would just cause my Bodhisattva vow to degenerate
And destroy my practice of patience.

Perhaps we should be the object of their patience, after all they need to practice patience. We will give them the opportunity. It does happen!  Perhaps we tell someone off because we feel they need to learn patience. This is just our anger hijacking our Dharma to try rationalize getting angry at others.  If we follow this way of doing things, the other person will just get angry back.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: If you don’t like your karma, change it

Kadam Bjorn used to say, “if you don’t like your karma, change it.”  But we have to know how to change it.  We believe that we can change our karma simply or merely by manipulating external circumstance.  That may change what karma ripens, but it does not actually change our karma itself.  Sometimes, in an effort to change our external circumstance, we might create new negative karma.  Even if we don’t, the karma to experience such suffering remains on our mind, and it is just a question of time before we experience it.  Rather than bringing about any change, we often just create the causes for worse things to happen.  If we do, in reality we’re not improving, we’re making things worse for ourselves.  In the short term, in the immediate, we feel there has been some improvement.  But when we think about it from a karmic perspective, we realize that the opposite is the case. There’s been no improvement. We’ve made things worse for ourselves.

If we had deep conviction in karma we’d behave a lot differently. We’d stop getting angry and behaving out of anger.  We’d stop altogether because we understand the consequences of such actions.  First, there is the effect similar to the cause – when we yell at others, from a karmic point of view, we are yelling at ourselves, making ourselves afraid in the future, harming ourselves.  Second, there is the environmental effect – we live in a hostile environment of war, conflict, where anger is the norm and only way to survive.  Third, there is also the ripened effect – we take rebirth in a realm that is the same nature as our anger.  Sometimes we have a hot, firey anger (hot hells); other times it is a cold, icy anger (cold hells); sometimes it is a conflictual anger (Reviving hells).  Finally, there is the tendency similar to the cause – in the future, we will get angry very easily, so we plant all these seeds again and again.  This effect doesn’t just ripen in this life, but will ripen in future lives when we don’t have Dharma and we will have nothing to hold us back.

For example, sometimes we are abused in some way – someone throws verbal abuse at us, criticizes us, shouts at us, engages in some hurtful or harmful speech.  If this happens, we must not react by abusing the other person back.  We must not abuse that person and react to abuse with abuse.  We definitely have imprints to be abused and imprints to abuse.   

What should we do when somebody abuses us?  Of course, if we have a means of stopping them from doing so, we should.  Allowing others to abuse us does not help them, but instead allows them to create all sorts of negative karma for themselves.  If we can’t stop them, but we can get away, then we should get away for exactly the same reasons.  However, sometimes, there is nothing we can do about the abuse we receive.  We can’t stop it and we can’t get away.  In such a situation, we must mentally accept that abuse as a practice of purification of our negative karma. If we don’t accept it, then it’s possible, probable even, that the second type of imprint will ripen – namely the tendency for us to abuse – and so we’ll abuse the other person back.  We’ll criticize that person, retaliate, and shout at that person. And in this way create the cause for receiving more of the same in the future. And so it goes on and on and on.

When we are harmed, at such times patient acceptance will function as a very powerful purifying effect.  We normally think purification practice is primarily doing prostrations, reciting Vajrasattva mantras, and so forth.  But a powerful type of purification we can practice almost every day is to practice patient acceptance, especially at the times when we feel that we’re being harmed in some way.  If we do practice patient acceptance, then we’re allowing virtuous imprints to ripen in our mind. And at the same time we’re creating the cause for good fortune in the future, both internally and externally.  But if we don’t accept and we react angrily, then non-virtuous imprints will ripen in such a mental environment.  Non-virtue will ripen, and we create the cause for bad results, misfortune in the future, both internally and externally.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Looking squarely at our karma

Now Shantideva describes another method for overcoming our wish to retaliate – seeing how undesirable situations are a result of our karma.

(6.42) In such situations, we should think,
“In the past, I harmed others in a similar manner.
Therefore, it is fitting that I, who caused harm to others,
Should now be experiencing such harm myself.”

(6.43) The physical suffering I experience
Is caused by both the stick and my body;
But, since the stick comes from my assailant and the body from me,
With which of these should I get angry?

(6.44) Blinded by craving and ignorance,
I have taken this form, the basis of human suffering,
Which can hardly bear to be touched;
So with whom should I get angry when it is hurt?

(6.45) Although we childish beings have no wish for suffering,
We are greatly attached to its causes.
Thus, the harm we receive is entirely our fault;
What reason is there to blame it on others?

(6.46) Just as with the guardians of hell,
The forest of razor-sharp leaves, and so forth,
My sufferings in this life result from my actions –
So with whom should I be angry?

Generally we blame other people for the harm, any harm, we receive, directly or indirectly. We are convinced it’s always others’ fault. But any harm we receive we have to say is just karma ripening, our karma ripening. And we can either accept that happily or not.  It’s our choice. Some karma is ripening for us, bringing suffering upon us – we can either accept that happily or not. The second is usually the case.

We’re not prepared generally to happily accept our suffering. Even though we may recognize what is happening as a ripening of our karma, we still try to get some different karma ripening for us. How?  By changing conditions. If we change conditions, different karma will ripen, of course. There is nothing wrong with trying to do so, but when we are not successful, we must accept our suffering patiently.

Why do we experience any harm, mental or physical?  The harm we receive is entirely our fault.  When we receive harm we should identify this so that we stop blaming others.  What reason is there to blame it on others?  We can see this by considering the four different main karmic effects.

The harm we receive is a result of the ripened effect of karma. The ripened effect of our action is rebirth, rebirth in the human realm with contaminated aggregates – a body and mind that naturally give rise to suffering. Our present basis, our human body and mind, is the basis of all our human problems. It is the basis of all our suffering, mental and physical. Without such a basis, how could we be harmed? We could not be harmed by anyone or anything.  Whose fault is it that we have a body and mind that can be hurt so easily?  We are easily hurt mentally and physically. Why is it that we have a body and a mind that can be hurt so easily? We created the cause for such aggregates by engaging in deluded actions.

It is the result of our environmental effects.  If we live in a place where people are unfriendly or even hostile to us, like guardians of hell, it’s because we created the causes for such an environment.

It is the result of an effect similar to the cause.  We did similar things to others, and now it has simply come back to us.  When we harm others, we are actually harming ourselves in the future.  The harm we receive now comes from our past actions of having harmed somebody else – we are the future self of our past self.

It is the result of our tendencies similar to the cause.  Because we had tendencies similar to the cause, we created all of this karma and so the tendency is the deep cause of the other effects.  Also, when we are harmed now and we react negatively due to tendencies, this negative mind activates new negative karma which makes our situation worse because negative minds activate negative karma. 

How to overcome loneliness

Loneliness is a modern epidemic. COVID-19 has forced the world into isolation – closing centers of human bonding, trapping us in our homes, and leaving loved ones to die alone in hospitals.  While social media has in some ways made us more connected than ever, it has simultaneously left us feeling never more alone. The aftershock of the baby boom of the 1940s and 1950s is a gray tsunami of loneliness today. Our individualistic societies offer the promise of self-actualization, but they also erode all sense of solidarity and human connection. We live in an age of extreme loneliness, and humanity’s heart is aching.

Diagnosis matters.  If we don’t identify what exactly is the problem, we will waste our energy chasing after the wrong solutions.  Loneliness is not being alone.  Being alone is a physical state whereas loneliness is a mental feeling of isolation – a state of mind.  Being physically alone is neither a cause of suffering nor a cause of happiness.  In and of itself, it is neutral – indeed it is nothing.  Loneliness, in contrast, is a mental feeling or reaction to being alone.  It can arise – and often does – even when we are surrounded by others.  Loneliness is a form of deep inner suffering.  But it is perfectly possible to be alone without feeling lonely, indeed it is possible to be alone but feel inseparably one with all living things. In this post, I will try explain how.  I pray that all those who read this find relief from their inner sorrow.

The Suffering of Loneliness

Loneliness is a feeling of deep inner sadness and wanting. We feel as if everyone else is off with each other while we are left alone to suffer.  Merely seeing others together reminds us just how alone we are, and instead of being happy for them, we become jealous or depressed. We feel that we lack something we need – namely companionship or human support – and we can’t be happy without them.

Loneliness makes us feel helpless, burdened by problems we cannot overcome on our own. Life’s struggles are endless, and we are left to confront them on our own.  People who we think normally should be there to help us in our hour of need are too absorbed into their own lives to pay us any bother, much less offer a shoulder to cry on. Worse still, they become frustrated with all our tears and judge us for our pitiful state. We then can sometimes lash out at those around us in a misguided cry for help, only to find those closest to us avoiding our presence even more.  We feel like a failure because nobody wants to be our friend and our sadness is so heavy we struggle to even get out of bed. 

Loneliness robs us of any feeling of purpose in our life.  We wonder what is the point of even trying when we have nobody to enjoy things with and nobody really cares what happens to us?  Even when people do reach out to us or we are with others, it never feels enough to fill the seemingly bottomless void in our heart.  Lacking motivation, we feel ourselves sinking ever deeper into despair, worried we might not ever get back to feeling normal.

When we are plagued by loneliness, we can easily become trapped in feelings of self-pity. We exhaust our mental energy feeling sorry for ourselves and feeding our hopelessness that no matter what we do, it will never work.  We see no end in sight to our solitude and convince ourselves we will never make it through. The more lonely we feel, the more despondent we become when even the slightest thing that before we could have taken in stride occurs.  The more lonely we feel, the more tightly we grasp at ourselves as being separated from others. All of this then reinforces our feeling of loneliness in a vicious spiral.

Those who are lonely will often turn to negativity in an attempt to fit in with others.  This can take many forms, such as joining others in criticizing and indeed developing hatred for some other social group.  Or we can start to drink, take drugs, or “hook up” with others as a way of creating a feeling of belonging.  But in the process, we lose any sense self-respect and deep down we know such bonds with others are shallow and toxic to our soul.  Later, after we become addicted to these things, we will face the terrible choice between leaving our so-called “friends” or remaining incapable of escaping our life-destroying addictions or hatreds.

Loneliness often ends in death.  Researchers have found that loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.  Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than the non-lonely.  More people die from deaths of despair – suicides or self-poisoning – than nearly any other cause of death.  But this can also take more subtle forms, such as those consumed by loneliness simply giving up trying to get better, leading to slow-motion decline.  Such pain is often invisible precisely because those experiencing it are either doing so away from others or inside their broken hearts.  Loneliness is even one of the primary causes of extremist violence, from terrorism to school shootings. From a Buddhist perspective, loneliness – or grasping at ourself as being separate from others – is actually the cause of all death because it is the very motor of samsara.

The Many Forms of Loneliness

Loneliness has many forms.  There is the loneliness of feeling unloved and abandoned.  Some children are neglected by their parents or made to feel no matter what they do, it is never good enough.  Middle school children the world over obsess over what others think about them and feel that nobody likes them, which for many is a fate worse than death.  In part due to social media and photo filters, millions are growing up today feeling un-“liked” and unattractive on their own.  Whereas before, people would get together with their friends, now we are all glued to our phones even when we are physically together. 

Teens and young adults now have the lowest rates of romantic relationships with others than any generation before them.  Marriage rates are falling, divorce rates are rising, lasting and deep relationships are fast becoming a thing of the past.  Because all of society tells us we are not good enough, we no longer feel good about ourselves, and without that we can never feel loved even if the whole world did love us.  Friends we used to have never call, and if they do reach out we rarely get more than a superficial text message or comment on our social media posts. 

There is also the feeling of loneliness in the face of our struggles.  Life is one endless series of difficulties.  Children with learning differences are made to feel dumb and nobody wants to be in groups with them.  Going off to college or leaving home for the first time feels as if we are thrown out into the world alone and unsure.  New parents are often shocked to find out just how isolating it can be to care for young children without adult companionship.  When financial difficulty strikes, no one is there to help.  When our parents become incapable of caring for themselves, we face the burden alone and, even when we have time to get away from such responsibilities, we have nothing to talk to others about besides our burdens which they don’t want to hear.  When our parents die, we feel truly on our own without anybody we can unconditionally fall back on. 

Many also suffer from the loneliness of physical isolation.  Social distancing related to COVID-19 has massively increased the amount of physical isolation in the world.  Some people find themselves alone because they have no friends, others find themselves alone sick in bed or in the hospital, incapable of doing anything except enduring their discomfort.  Our partners are sometimes called away from home due to work, leaving us alone looking after the kids and other family responsibilities on our own.  Sometimes we are alone because our partner leaves us for somebody else, and many old people return to an empty home after the death of their lifetime partner.

We can even feel alone while surrounded by others, such as going to a new school, beginning a new job, or being at a party where we don’t know anybody.  We can even feel alone when we are surrounded by people we know and who love us, but we cannot feel their love because of the want in our hearts. 

Getting old is a frequent source of loneliness.  We are no longer able to get out and do the things we enjoy and nobody wants to come see us because all we can do is sit in a chair or talk about the past.  And when death comes, we must face it alone. Our friends and relatives cannot help us. We all march to our death alone.

The Inner Causes of Loneliness

As discussed above, being alone is a physical state, but loneliness is a state of mind.  We might think the solution to loneliness is not being alone, but if we still have the mind of loneliness, we will feel just as alone no matter how many people we are with.  In Transform your Life, Geshe-la makes the distinction between out outer problem and our inner problem.  Our car breaking down is our outer problem, but our actual problem is our deluded mental reaction to this occurring.  We need a mechanic to fix our car, but we need to change our deluded way of responding to fix our mind.  If we solve our inner problem, outer situations will no longer be a problem for us.  Thus, the only real solution to our problems is doing the inner work necessary to change our mind.

This is equally true with loneliness.  When we understand our loneliness is an inner state of mind, we will realize the only solution to it is to change our mind.  Correctly diagnosing the problem is the essential first step to any treatment.  A failure to correctly diagnose the exact nature of our problem will mean we never actually find a solution.  We just continue to grasp forever at the wrong belief that because we are alone, we must suffer.  We might not be able to change the fact that we are alone, but we can definitely remove the feelings of loneliness from our mind.

From a Buddhist perspective, loneliness arises from a toxic brew of the ignorance of grasping at ourself as being somehow separate from others, a false belief that we need others to be happy, an obsessive concern thinking what we feel is supremely important, and a lack of self-confidence in our ability to transform our aloneness into something spiritually useful.  Let’s unpack this.

In Buddhism, we say the root of all of our suffering is our self-grasping ignorance.  What does that mean?  It means we think the self we normally see – our present body and mind – is actually us.  We think we are this and not that.  We impute our “I” onto this very narrow, isolated thing failing to realize that we are in fact inseparably one with everything.  In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says we are like a cell in the body of living beings.  We are inextricably linked in a web of kindness providing everything needed to support our life.  Ultimately, everything is a dream like creation of mind, so everything is equally part of our mind – part of us.  We currently feel as if there is this giant chasm separating us from everything else, but this feeling is an illusion, a mistaken perception.  In truth, all things share the same ultimate nature, like different waves on a single ocean.  When we realize the ultimate nature of things, there is no basis for feeling alone because all feeling of distance between ourselves and others simply vanishes.

Loneliness hurts because we have attachment to others, thinking we need them to be happy.  What precisely does this mean?  Attachment is a mental mistake that thinks our happiness depends upon some external condition.  We convince ourselves we can’t be happy without this external condition.  We don’t even want to call this belief into question, and reject anybody who tells us otherwise. We then dedicate all our energies to bringing about the external change we seek as a solution to our mental pain.  If we are unsuccessful, we feel we have no choice but to be miserable.  And even if we are successful in obtaining what we desire, it doesn’t actually ever satisfy our inner want because the problem is actually coming from inside.  As explained above, loneliness is a feeling of sadness and wanting.  Attachment is what creates the feeling of wanting – a feeling of needing, but not finding.  Specifically, loneliness is pervaded by an attachment to others.  We convince ourselves we need companionship, a partner, a lover, a friend, or a shoulder to cry on to be happy.  And without these things, it is impossible for us to be happy.  Sometimes we will have no prospect of ever being re-united with others – or at least not for a long time – and then fall into despair that there is no end in sight to our sorrows.  But all of this is completely wrong.  Just because we think it is true and we have always believed it is true doesn’t mean it is, in fact, true.  Being alone, in and of itself, is neither a cause of happiness nor a cause of suffering.  It is just a condition, a state of affairs.  It is our mental reaction to this state that is the real cause of our suffering.  Whether we are happy or not depends not upon our external circumstance, but upon the peace within our mind.  Inner peace is a dependent-related phenomena.  In other words, if we create the causes for inner peace, our mind will be peaceful, and we will be happy.  If we don’t create these causes, our mind will never become peaceful, and we will never be happy no matter what our external circumstance.  We must be clear about this otherwise we will never get better.

Loneliness hurts because of our attachment to others.  How much it hurts depends upon our degree of what in Buddhism we call “self-cherishing.”  Attachment is the mistake creating the feeling of loneliness, and our self-cherishing is like the volume knob that amplifies how much our loneliness hurts.  Self-cherishing is an exaggerated sense of importance of our own feelings and well-being.  When we feel bad, we think it is a very big deal.  Why?  Because we think our own happiness is supremely important.  In the grand scheme of things, we are just one person and what we feel really doesn’t matter that much.  Yet to us, it is of utmost concern.  Why?  Because we have been fooled since beginningless time by the inner demon of self-cherishing.  When others are unhappy, we don’t think it is that big of a deal because to us, their happiness doesn’t matter.  Self-cherishing causes us to be obsessively concerned with our own wishes, and so when they are not fulfilled, we simply cannot bear it. But if we reduce our exaggerated sense of how much our own well-being matters, we will proportionately reduce how much it hurts to feel lonely.  If how we feel doesn’t matter, then it won’t matter that we are lonely.  Yes, we are lonely.  So what?  What’s the big deal?  Every time we feel the hurt of loneliness, we should view this as a powerful reminder of the need to reduce our self-cherishing.

What makes loneliness particularly difficult to bear is the feeling of hopelessness that often accompanies it.  Where does this hopelessness come from?  It comes from our lack of self-confidence in our ability to transform our present circumstance into something spiritually useful.  We think the problem is bigger than us, and we tell ourselves, “I can’t handle this.  I won’t be able to make it.”  Such thoughts are not only self-defeating, they are simply wrong.  If we believe we can’t handle it, then when we try to heal our mind of its pain, we lack power and we wind up self-sabotaging our efforts.  We think it won’t work anyways, so we don’t ever really try, and as a result, we continue to suffering.  We then use the failure of have any results to confirm our initial belief that nothing will work anyways.  No matter what we do, we always judge our efforts as not being good enough.  We constantly find fault in what we didn’t do right instead of rejoice in our progress, however small it might be.  We would never talk to others the way we talk to ourselves, constantly criticizing ourselves as such a failure and finding fault with everything we do.  So why should we talk to ourself in this way?  Thinking we won’t be able to make it is simply incorrect.  Because we have a pure potential, there is nothing we can’t do.  With our Guru’s blessings, we can accomplish anything.  Because emptiness is possible, everything is possible.  If we never give up trying, our eventual success is guaranteed.  There is no valid reason to believe we “can’t” do it.  Sure, it may be hard, but that doesn’t mean it is impossibly so.  In truth, we are simply our own worst enemy.  But we don’t need to be.  We can also be our best ally. 

How to overcome loneliness.

Having clearly understood the suffering of loneliness, the different forms of loneliness, and the inner causes of loneliness, we can now turn to how to actually overcome our feelings of loneliness.  These explanations for how to overcome our loneliness will lack power if we don’t clearly and accurately understand what exactly is our problem.  But if we are clear on the problem, we will appreciate and be motivated to train ourselves in the solution.  I will present nine different practices for reducing and finally eliminating our inner pain of loneliness.  All of the Buddhas guarantee if we patiently train in these practices, we will find the inner peace and contentment that we seek.

Accepting patiently what we cannot change

Shantideva explains when we are confronted with some difficulty, there are two possibilities:  either we can change the situation or we can’t.  If we can change the situation, then change it.  If we can’t, then we must learn to patiently accept it.  We need to make a distinction between unpleasant feelings and suffering.  Unpleasant feelings arise in the mind when delusions are present or negative karma is ripening.  This only becomes “suffering” if we don’t mentally accept these unpleasant feelings.  As long as we are still trying to push them away, we will suffer from them.  If instead, we can learn to wholeheartedly welcome them, we create the space within our mind to suffer.  Yes, we are suffering.  OK.  And…?  If we can accept them, our unpleasant feelings cease to be a “problem” and as a result, we no longer suffer from them.

How can we accept unpleasant feelings?  There are two main ways.  First, we can accept them as purification of our past negative karma.  Since beginningless time, we have engaged in countless negative actions.  These actions have placed innumerable negative karmic potentialities on our mind which will, sooner or later, ripen if we do not purify them.  Once negative karma has ripened, not even Buddha can stop its effects.  The karma will have to run its course until it eventually exhausts itself.  When we mentally accept our unpleasant feelings as purification, it not only exhausts the presently activated negative karma, but we can purify all of the karma similar in nature to what is ripening.  We can think to ourselves, “through my patiently accepting my present difficulties, may I purify all of the negative karma of loneliness on my mind.”  Second, we can transform our suffering into an opportunity to train our mind in spiritual paths.  Shantideva explains suffering has many good qualities, but all of them are the opportunity suffering provides us to abandon our delusions and train in virtues.  Just as a beggar is not an obstacle to somebody wishing to practice giving, so too the arising of suffering or delusions in our mind is not an obstacle to somebody wishing to train their mind.  We feel bad, but it is not only not a problem, it is rocket fuel for our spiritual path.

Additionally, we can put our faith in Dorje Shugden.  Dorje Shugden is a specialized Buddha whose job it is to give us all of the outer and inner conditions we need for our swiftest possible enlightenment.  His job is not to fulfill all of our worldly wishes, but he can fulfill all of our pure spiritual wishes.  If what we want is an easy life, it will be impossible to accept that which we cannot change.  But if what we want is to make spiritual progress, then anything can be transformed into the path.  Dorje Shugden provides us with the wisdom blessings necessary to see how whatever arises is perfect for our spiritual training.  With regards to our being alone, we can request Dorje Shugden, “please arrange whatever is best.”  If our aloneness stops, then great; if it doesn’t, then we can know without a doubt that our being alone is exactly what we need to take the next step on our spiritual journey.

Learning to appreciate our alone time

All delusions function in the same way.  They mistakenly grasp at some mistaken notion (such as attachment or self-cherishing), then exaggerate that notion, relating to that exaggeration as if it were somehow true.  When it comes to loneliness, we mistakenly grasp at being alone as being inherently a bad thing, inherently a source of our suffering.  We convince ourselves we can’t be happy while alone.  We then exaggerate this wrong belief by dwelling on it again and again, convincing ourselves that it is true.  We think again and again, “I’m all alone, nobody is around to help,” and “I can’t enjoy anything while alone” or “it is so awful having to confront this on my own.”  Why are any of these things true?  They only become true if we believe them to be true. 

First of all, there are people around, we have just decided what we have is not good enough. Maybe we lack the physical presence of some people, but that does not mean we are actually alone.  And who says the people we do have around are not good enough?  Why is the support we have not good enough?  What specifically do we think we need from others?  What is wrong with doing things on our own?  Sure it is perhaps more fun to share a good movie or dinner with somebody, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the movie or dinner or walk on our own.  Why is it bad to have to solve our daily problems on our own?  Children resist learning how to sleep or walk on their own, but is there any denying they are better off for learning how to do so?  The same is true for our life challenges.  By learning how to work through our challenges on our own, we will grow in strength and confidence and will be able to take those qualities with us everywhere we go for the rest of our life.  Would we rather remain weak and dependent forever? 

Further, being alone has amazing good qualities.  We can do what we want – watch what we want, read books we never otherwise have time to read, and most importantly, engage in spiritual practices such as listening to, contemplating, or meditating on the Dharma.  Even from an ordinary perspective, getting away from others is often a huge relief because they are constantly placing so many unreasonable demands on us or otherwise act in such annoying ways.  How wonderful it would be to simply sit and relax, enjoying a little peace and quite from our otherwise hectic lives.  There are things that being alone enable us to do that we otherwise are never able to do.  So instead of looking at what we are missing, we need to appreciate the unique opportunities our aloneness affords us.

Abandoning attachment to others

As explained above, attachment to others is a mistaken belief that we need others to be happy.  It is true, we need to generate love and compassion for others to be happy, but we do not actually need to be with others to be happy.  We need to make a distinction between “nice to haves” and “necessities.”  Having companionship, somebody we can share our burdens with, or a shoulder to cry on are all nice to have, but we don’t actually need any of these things to be happy. 

Many people become fixated on having a partner, thinking they can’t be happy without one.  Or they become obsessed with having a baby, feeling their life has no meaning without one.  Some find a partner, but then feel lost and empty without them.  A very common form of attachment is needing others to help us carry our burdens or even just listen to us express the challenges we are going through.  None of these things are true.  They only become our lived experience because we think they are true.  With modern technology, such as social media, video calls, and the like, we are never really alone.  We might lack the physical presence of others, but besides being able to hold their hand or give them a hug, what difference does physical presence really make?  There are plenty of people who remain single their whole life or never have children and are perfectly happy.  Not having our partner around gives us a chance to stand on our own two feet and gain self-sufficiency and inner strength.  Being forced to solve our problems for ourselves enables us to grow and develop self-confidence. 

The hard truth is we were all born alone and we will all die alone. Even if they wanted to, others can’t solve our inner problems for us, only we can do that for ourselves.  Even if we had them around, they couldn’t really make any difference because the changes that need to be made are all internal.  Even the Buddhas can only show us the way, we have to travel the path ourselves.  Accepting our aloneness is in fact a huge part of growing up.  Some people go their whole lives without ever truly assuming responsibility for their own experience of life.  Do we want to remain forever like this?  Our aloneness gives us our unique chance to finally change.  Once we gain this inner strength, we can then become a source of wisdom, support, and emotional stability for others.  Our positive example will inspire others to develop their own emotional independence as well, protecting them from becoming trapped in abusive or co-dependent relationships.  The truth is most human problems would be solved if we could just abandon our attachment to others.

Cultivate a true self-confidence

As explained above, loneliness comes with hopelessness.  It makes us feel there is nothing we can do to change our plight.  But this is just wrong.  Most of all we just need to stop believing our self-defeating talk.

Geshe-la explains in How to Understand The Mind we need to develop three types of self-confidence:  confidence with respect to our potential, confidence in our actions, and confidence in thinking we can destroy our delusions.  

All of us have what is called our “pure potential” or our “Buddha nature.”  This potential is our true self.  It cannot be defiled nor destroyed, and once ripened, we too will enjoy the enlightened state.  Ripening this potential is simply a question of having the correct methods and persistent effort that never gives up, no matter how hard it gets.  Our pure potential is like the sky, and our present delusions are like clouds in the sky.  No matter how dark or violent the clouds, the sky always remains equally untouched.  Our loneliness is not us, it is just a cloud in our mind.  We can dissolve this cloud and feel the infinite expanse of the sky day and night.

Buddha said that eventually all living beings will attain full enlightenment, the only question is when we ourselves decide to start on the path.  The practical instructions he has given us for healing our mind are scientific methods for finding inner happiness.  Everyone who has sincerely and correctly put them into practice has discovered for themselves that they work.  Atisha explains the laws of karma are definite.  If we change our actions, we will change our experience.  This is guaranteed.  Just as there are laws of nature, so too there are laws of our mind; and if we learn how to work with them, we too will come to enjoy lasting inner peace. 

Finally, we need confidence that we can destroy our delusions.  Our delusions are not us, they are like mud in water, they are not an intrinsic part of our mind.  Our delusions are nothing more than bad habits of mind, and like all habits, with effort we can break them and create new, more healthy ones.  Great canyons are forged one drop of water at a time, and even iron blocks can be cut in two with a feather if we never give up trying.  If our delusions can be reduced – which we know they can – they can eventually be eliminated entirely. 

Abandoning self-cherishing

We often say, “I fell bad, I feel bad, I am not well,” but we never bother to ask ourselves, “why does that matter?”  As explained above, the extent of our self-cherishing is like a volume knob amplifying the hurt of our loneliness.  If we find ourselves experiencing unbearable pain, it is because we have out of control self-cherishing.  There is no other reason.  The more we reduce our self-cherishing, the less it will hurt.  It is as simple as that. 

How do we reduce our self-cherishing?  We have to see clearly that it is the root cause of all of our suffering.  There are two main ways of understanding this.  First, how we “feel” matters only because we think we matter.  Other than that, there is no reason.  The reality is the more we think it matters, the more intolerant we become to feeling anything bad, and this makes us hurt even more in a vicious spiral.  When our self-cherishing is strong, we cannot tolerate even the slightest thing going wrong.  Because our wishes matter “so much” we think everything that happens is a really big deal and we feel as if we are being violently buffeted by the waves of life. 

Second, all of our suffering comes from the ripening of our negative karma.  All of our negative karma comes from our past self-cherishing thinking we were more important than others.  Why do people currently neglect us?  Because we neglected others in the past.  Why are they currently frustrated with us while we suffer?  Because we were frustrated with others in the past when they were suffering.  Why do we feel so alone?  Because we abandoned others when they needed us most.  Why do we have to bear our burdens alone?  Because we failed to help others in their hour of need.  It is sometimes hard to admit to ourselves these karmic truths.  We feel like we are blaming ourselves, saying it is our own dumb fault that we are suffering now.  No, it is the fault of our past delusions, not us.  Delusions take over our mind and make it uncontrolled, and then compelled by them we engage in all sorts of negative actions.  We can feel like our present suffering is some sort of punishment that we deserve for being so bad, but this is just our guilt mistaking karmic gravity for divine punishment. 

Seeing how our present suffering is coming entirely from our self-cherishing, we can use our feelings of loneliness and abandonment as a powerful reminder that we must completely and utterly abandon our self-cherishing.  If we want to never go through this suffering again, we have no choice but to abandon our self-cherishing now.  Further, by abandoning it now, our unpleasant feelings will simply “not matter as much.”  Yes, we may feel bad, but we will think, “it doesn’t matter.”  This wisdom mind makes everything more tolerable.

Cherishing others

Geshe-la explains in Eight Steps to Happiness, “Cherishing others also protects us from the problems caused by desirous attachment. We often become strongly attached to another person who we feel will help us to overcome our loneliness by providing the comfort, security or excitement we crave. However, if we have a loving mind toward everyone, we do not feel lonely. Instead of clinging onto others to fulfill our desires we will want to help them fulfill their needs and wishes.” 

In truth, we are only alone if we are only thinking about ourselves.  If we are thinking about others, we are not alone.  They are with us in our thoughts.  If we are engaging in actions to cherish them, we feel close to them and never feel alone.  We can mentally imagine we are surrounded by all living beings and send them love and blessings.  If we have lost a loved one, we can remember that they have not disappeared, they are simply somewhere else.  We can still have a relationship with them, pray for them, and commit ourselves to becoming a Buddha for their sake.  Even doing simple things like writing letters or drawing pictures for others can make us feel close to others in our heart, and our feelings of loneliness go away. 

As long as we are looking to others to fill our empty voids, we will never overcome our feelings of loneliness even if we are surrounded by the whole world sending us love; but if we instead are working in our mind to cherish others and giving to others whatever it is we feel we need, we will feel ourselves being filled from within and will lack nothing.  As Saint Francis said:

O Divine Master, grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
And it’s in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to Eternal Life

Abandoning self-grasping

As explained above, the root of samsara is our self-grasping ignorance – the mind that grasps at ourselves as being this small, limited body and mind somehow distinct from everything else.  This view is factually just wrong.  We can see there is not a thing about us that actually does not come from others, and there is nothing we do that does not affect all other living beings.  This feeling of separateness between ourselves and others is a completely false fabrication of our mind that, regrettably, we have believed without question since beginningless time. 

The ultimate nature of all things is emptiness.  What does that mean?  It means that everything is a dream like creation of mind, with no more reality than last night’s dream.  What does this mean for our loneliness?  First, it means all of our feelings of loneliness are actually coming from a mistaken conception of who we are.  A wave cannot exist without its underlying ocean.  We think we are a wave somehow existing independently of the ocean of our mind.  Second, it means it is actually impossible for us to be alone because everyone and everything is necessarily a part of our mind.  Every living being is inside our mind, inseparable from our mind, and part of our mind – so how could we possibly be alone?  Third, if we realize the emptiness of all things, we will feel the false chasms between us and all phenomena fall away and we will merge with all things like water mixing with water.  Being alone itself is impossible and the feeling of loneliness has no basis in ultimate truth.  Fourth, and perhaps more immediately, if everything is created by mental imputation, that includes thinking being “alone” is “bad.”  It is not inherently bad, we can mentally reconstruct it as “good” or even “pure.” 

Realizing emptiness of ourself and all other phenomena is the definitive antidote to all feelings of loneliness.  It may take a long time to realize emptiness, but every step we take towards its realization will reduce our underlying feelings of loneliness.

Remembering we are always in the Presence of all the Buddhas

Normally, when people say they are lonely, people will tell them, “you are not alone, you have this person and that person in your life, etc.”  But this sort of thinking is really just a band aid because the underlying assumption is being alone is still a “bad” thing.  So I intentionally did not put much emphasis above on “you are not alone” because I wanted to show a deeper solution.  It is better to stare aloneness straight in the eye and get to the point where it is no longer a problem, instead of just rush to fill our aloneness with somebody.

However, from a spiritual point of view, we are not alone and never have been.  All of the Buddhas attained enlightenment for the express purpose of being able to be with each and every living being every day, with the ability to bestow blessings directly on the minds of all those they love (which is everyone).  All around us there are countless Buddhas.  It is only our ignorance and lack of faith that fails to see them and feel their presence.  The sun is always shining, even if we can’t see it due to the clouds.  If we removed the clouds, the sun would naturally and spontaneously shine forth. 

A literally translation of a “Buddha” is an “inner being.”  It is a being that lives in the realm of mind.  From one point of view, all living beings share the same ultimate nature, like the ocean to the myriad of waves.  A Buddha is somebody who has realized directly they are the ocean, and so they are necessarily present in every wave.  Another way of thinking about it is we all share the same pure potential of omniscient bliss realizing the emptiness of all phenomena directly and simultaneously.  Imagine a universal hub that all living beings are connected to like spokes.  If you shine a light in the hub itself, it illuminates all of the spokes simultaneously.  This is a Buddha’s experience and how they are able to be with each and every living being every day, bestowing blessings directly on the minds of all.  They have found their way to the center, from where they can benefit all.  And all Buddhas have done the same, meaning all of the Buddhas are with us every moment every day.

When we realize this, we understand we are actually never alone.  All we need do is remember that all of the Buddhas, especially our Spiritual Guide, are with us and stand ready to bless our mind and help us along.  Unlike our ordinary friends, who cannot directly touch our mind, a Buddha can.  Buddhas blessings are like subtle infusions of their mind and realizations into our own.  When we generate faith and request their blessings, we will feel their love pour into us filling our mind with their eternal presence.

Go for refuge

Everything I describe above is not easy, but it is doable.  At present, the winds of our mind all blow in deluded directions and the wind is quite strong.  On our own, it is very hard to bring about the inner changes needed to reverse the current of our mind to flow in a better direction.  We need help.  Fortunately, we have help.

A foundational practice is “going for refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”  What does that mean?  When our car breaks down, we go for refuge to a mechanic; when our tooth has a cavity, we go for refuge to a dentist.  In the same way, when our mind is plagued by the sickness of delusions, we go for refuge to the three precious jewels.  Practically speaking, what does this mean? 

It means we need to apply effort to request blessings from the Buddhas.  It was explained above that the Buddhas are always with us, but if we do not open the blinds of our mind, their sunlight cannot enter.  When we request their blessings, we open up our mind for their loving energy to enter into our hearts, giving us the wisdom and strength we need to overcome our loneliness by training in the practices above. 

It also means we need to apply effort to receiving help from the Sangha, or our pure spiritual friends.  There are Dharma centers all over the world and Facebook groups filled with people doing their best to put Buddha’s instructions into practice.  They know the struggles we are going through and have some experience they have gained from their prior practice.  They can share their experience with us and provide us with encouragement when we are feeling down.  But they cannot do the work for us – only we can do that for ourselves.

It finally means putting effort into practicing the Dharma.  Practicing Dharma means to apply effort to change the way we think to be slightly less deluded and slight more virtuous.  Drop by drop, the bucket is filled.  Step by step, the journey is made.  The practices described above will all work if we diligently train in them over a long period of time.  There are no quick fixes on the Buddhist path.  It takes work.  But the difference is our ordinary solutions to loneliness will never work no matter how long we try practice them.  The inner solution may take time, but its results are guaranteed.  And the reality is if we train sincerely, we will start to notice some results – we will feel slightly less lonely, or the loneliness we feel will be slightly more tolerable.  These early results will give us confidence that if we keep at it, eventually we will know permanent freedom. 

Conclusion

Loneliness is a terrible thing.  Millions around the world are experiencing great sorrow from it.  But fundamentally, it is just a state of mind.  If we change our mind, we can remove the debilitating feeling of loneliness, even if physically we remain alone for the rest of our life.  The practices described above are scientific methods that will work for whoever tries them.  What we do with this information, though, is up to us.  We have to decide to put in the effort to accept our situation and create new mental habits.  These sorts of inner changes will never happen on their own.  One day or another, perhaps after we have tried all other methods, we will come to accept if we want to feel better, we must do the inner work required.  There is no point blaming our being alone for our loneliness, the two have almost nothing to do with each other.  But if we correctly diagnose the problem in our mind and sincerely train in these more positive ways of thinking, I guarantee we will overcome all loneliness – not only now, but forever more.

I pray that all those who feel lonely find this post and that their minds are blessed to find something useful within it. I pray that all feelings of loneliness quickly cease and we all come to realize we are inseparably one in a web of kindness. May all beings feel the living presence of the Buddhas in their lives and turn towards them with faith. May everyone be filled with the courage necessary to embrace being alone as their opportunity to progress swiftly along the spiritual path.