Looking in the Mirror of Dharma: Understanding how negativity functions in our mind

Many people make New Year’s resolutions, but it is not long before their good intentions are forgotten or overwhelmed by their negative tendencies. On the surface, it may appear that our mind is relatively free from negativity and for the most part we lead a morally healthy life, but we should not fool ourselves. When we lift the surface rock, we discover underneath all sorts of mental cockroaches or other disgusting creatures bustling about. Our normal reaction is to quickly put the rock back down and run away, but this just leaves the negativity to fester. We cannot bring impurity with us into the pure land, and we must eventually leave all negativity behind. If we are to once and for all root out the negativity from our mind, we need to have the courage to stare into the abyss of our mind and understand clearly how our negativity functions.

The heart of the matter is we are desire realm beings, which means we have no choice but to do what we desire. At present, we still have negative desires, so it is inevitable we will eventually act upon them. The solution is not will power, because if we still desire negativity and simply use will power to hold ourselves back, eventually our defenses will be worn down and we will succumb. Someone once said, “it’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done so at least a dozen times.” The only lasting solution is to change our desires, where we genuinely do not want to engage in negativity and we want to engage in virtue. If this is our desire, our actions will naturally follow. The main function of the Lamrim is to change our desires from negative to positive, from ordinary to spiritual. But this takes time. The question is how do we manage the transition when we have mixed desires – some negative and some virtuous? To answer this, we must have a clear and honest understanding of how negativity functions in our mind. Only then can we dismantle the mechanisms of negativity within our mind.

Gaining the ability to look in the Mirror of Dharma

Why do we find it so hard to look objectively at our negativity? It seems there are three main reasons. First, we don’t think what we are doing is negative, so we don’t find a problem with our behavior. Second, our pride refuses to acknowledge our mistakes because doing so would challenge our exalted view of ourselves. And third, for a variety of cultural reasons, we have internalized an ethic of guilt that beats ourselves up when we make mistakes, and being beat up hurts (even when we do it to ourselves).

To overcome these three obstacles, we need to engage in this investigation like a scientist. We need to objectively investigate any discrepancies between what the Dharma explains as negative and what we think is negative. We need to check if we are right and under what circumstances we are wrong. If we don’t know a behavior as negative, we won’t abandon it. We also need to objectively examine our own behavior and see how it stacks up against what is prescribed in the Dharma. Sometimes our downfalls are obvious – even epic – sometimes, they are very subtle. We need to be honest with ourselves, not exaggerating our negativity, but also not rationalizing it away as nothing. Perhaps most importantly, we need to stop blaming ourselves or judging ourselves for our mistakes. When we beat ourselves up with guilt, we reduce our confidence berating ourselves as an idiot for having engaged in the negativity, etc., or we feed a self-perception of being a failure, which undermines our ability to succeed next time. Just because we are not perfect doesn’t mean that we are bad. In the Dharma there is no bad, there is only good and even better. Just because there is something even better doesn’t mean we are failing, it simply means we have further room to grow.

Pride and guilt in particular are a dangerous combination. Our pride causes us to expect perfection from ourselves, or at the very least, it expects us to already be better than we are; but our guilt then beats ourselves up for any deviation from these expectations for ourselves. Trapped between pride and guilt, we cannot win and are never good enough – we are not as good as our pride expects us to already be and then our guilt makes us feel like a horrible person for not living up to these unrealistic expectations. This can get so bad, even looking at the negative tendencies in our mind can trigger some sort of breakdown. Because all delusions exaggerate, our pride exaggerates how good we should already be, and our guilt exaggerates our departures from our self-imposed expectations. We then see the negativity, feel we “should” already not be like that, and our guilt then judges us as a total incompetent failure incapable of confronting, much less overcoming our negative tendencies. We then see only our total incapacity in front of a monumental problem, leaving us with the feeling we are hopelessly doomed.

The solution to this trap is we need to have compassion for ourselves (otherwise known as renunciation). We have inherited aeons worth of negative tendencies, and swimming upstream against them is not easy. We do not need to already be better than we are, rather we are where we are at and we simply take the next right step. Negative tendencies will arise in our mind and mistakes will be made, but we never give up, and with persistent effort, step by step, we will definitely get there in the end. This is the mind of definite emergence – a deep feeling of joy knowing we are definitively on our way out and all of our suffering will soon come to a final end. We will emerge on the other side into an infinite expanse of permanent inner freedom from all suffering. The mind of definite emergence knows if we never give up, we will inevitably succeed.

Renunciation, I believe, is one of the hardest minds for Westerners to generate because we instantly interpret it through the lens of aesthetic-style deprivation of any joy and self-flagellating judgment and guilt. In truth, renunciation means self-care or true self-love. The difference between the self-love of the narcissist and the self-love of renunciation is the former loves our non-existent self of our ignorance and the later loves our true self or our pure potential. My wife once got sick with pneumonia, and she was beating herself up over it because she wasn’t able to take care of her five children at home that needed her. We wrote Geshe-la requesting his prayers, and he wrote back telling her, “you should take care of your self so that you can get better.” What a perfect description of the balanced mind of renunciation.

Stages of the path to negative actions

Having hopefully gained the ability to look honestly (and happily) at the negative tendencies in our mind, we can now examine how they function.

Downfalls almost always begin with an impulse to engage in negativity. We have within our mind countless negative tendencies from our past lives to think, speak, or act in negative ways. We have spent the vast majority of our eternity in the lower realms where we engaged in almost exclusively negative actions. It is said it is easier to attain enlightenment once born human than to be born human once we have taken rebirth in the lower realms. Why? Because while we are there, virtually all of our actions are negative. These tendencies tempt us now to once again engage in negativity. If left unchecked, these desires grow and grow until they become unstoppable.

As they grow, we first rationalize why our negative desire isn’t really that negative. We might come up with some sort of justification for why we “deserve” to engage in the negativity, as if it was some sort of reward for our good behavior or as compensation for some past injustice we have experienced. To paraphrase Shantideva, we run towards negativity as if it were a pleasure garden and avoid virtue as if it were the plague. Why? Because we are still fundamentally confused about what are the causes of our happiness and suffering. In Request to the Lord of All Lineages, Geshe-la says, “the cause of suffering is non-virtuous actions and the cause of happiness is virtuous actions. Since this is completely true, I will definitely abandon the first and practice the second.”

While the negative desire is building in our mind, we will also find ways of minimizing the consequences of the negativity. “It’s not really that bad,” we convince ourself. Typically, we will only consider the immediate consequences, such as the contaminated happiness we might get from engaging in the negativity against the likelihood of getting caught or others finding out what we have done. There will definitely be times when we can “get away with” our negativity and nobody will ever know, so we think, “why not?” But we can never escape our karma – its laws are definite. We might think to ourselves, “who am I hurting?” Finding nobody, we then think it is OK, but we are forgetting about how it is hurting ourselves. Is the short-lived pleasure or benefit we are likely to get from our negative action worth it when we consider the long-run karmic consequences? Surely not, but we don’t really believe in karma that much anyways, and besides, we wrongly think, we can always engage in purification afterwards, so once again, “why not?” If we don’t think our action was wrong, we can’t generate genuine regret; and without regret, we cannot actually purify. Purification is not complete without the power of the promise, but if we think we can always purify later so it doesn’t matter if we engage in negativity, our “promises” lack any power and no purification will actually take place.

As our negative desires continue to build, at some point, we make the decision that we will engage in the negativity, but we will then try find ways of minimizing how negative it will be. “I’ll just do it this once,” or “I’ll only do this, but not that.” We then start rationalizing how that would be OK and not so bad, and eventually we execute on our negative plan. Whether this process from the initial impulse to the final deed is a matter of weeks, hours, or mere seconds, we almost always go through these stages.

Post-negativity self-deceptions

Once we engage in the negative action, it almost never works out in the way we hoped. We didn’t get the reward or benefit we were hoping for. At this point, usually one of two things happens. Either, we start to beat ourselves up about what a terrible, stupid person we are for having engaged in the negativity, and we go down the path of guilt thinking our punishing ourselves will somehow deter us from engaging in negativity in the future. But guilt never works because it erodes our capacity and confidence. Or we start to identify why we didn’t get the reward we were hoping for, and we start to plot how we can be more skilled in our negativity next time so that we do. We think, “I have already started down this path and got nothing, I want to at least get something out of it,” so we double-down on our negativity and start planning for next time. In this way, we start to chase the rainbow of our negativity until we eventually fall off a cliff into the lower realms. This is actually the most dangerous aspect of engaging in negative actions – each time we do so, we create the tendencies to do so again. Our checks on our behavior grow weaker and weaker until eventually there are no checks at all.

After we have engaged in the negativity, we will start to get flashbacks recalling what we have done. Our negative actions are often like ghosts that haunt us by reminding us of our transgressions. At such times, we engage in all sorts of evasive tactics. For example, we will just look the other way and shove it back under the carpet pretending it isn’t there. Or we will rationalize to ourselves why the negative action wasn’t that bad and it is no big deal. Or we start to beat ourselves up with guilt. Or we give in to hopelessness, thinking we will never be able to get out of our negativity, so why bother trying anymore. We might as well enjoy ourselves with our negativity since we can’t escape it. Or we revert to “will power” trying to consolidate our iron-clad determination to not do that negative action again, even though we still “want” to do so. All of these tactics inevitably fail. The worst of these is giving in to hopelessness, because then, quite obviously, we have no hope.

Or perhaps we genuinely do feel regret for our negative action, realize it was a mistake, understand its karmic consequences, and really don’t want to engage in the negative action again. But we grasp at our negative actions and karma as being inherently existent and immune from purification. We think our actions are so bad and our purification practice so weak and insincere, that it won’t ever be purified. We have total faith in the laws of negative karma, but none in the power of purification. This can then quickly lead to despair, hopelessness, and guilt. Worse, it can lead to us not even trying to purify, because “what’s the point, it won’t work anyways.”

Seeing all of our negativity and how it functions in our mind can very easily lead to us feeling discouraged, thinking it is simply too hard to overcome our delusions and negative habits. We then can conclude the spiritual path is just too hard, and we settle for some vague self-commitment to generally be a good person. Or perhaps we give up on the path altogether or find another spiritual path which seems less demanding. When we are at this stage, it is easy to develop negative views towards the three jewels, thinking they are judging us or punishing us or rejecting us. At such times, all of the hypocrisies and shortcomings of our Sangha friends and teachers become quite vivid. They are judging me, but look at what they are doing! What they are doing is far worse, yet nothing ever happens to them. This whole tradition is a big sham full of spiritual phonies. It’s not enough for me to just leave this evil tradition, I need to tear it down to “protect” others from being ensnared by it.

Let me spare everyone the surprise: we are all the same. We are all hypocrites and we are all making one mistake after another. But that is not a reason to abandon the path, that is a valid reason for redoubling our efforts to practice it purely and skillfully. The teachings themselves are flawless, it is our ability to practice them that is flawed. But that is entirely normal! We are practitioners, not Buddhas. Of course we are making mistakes. It doesn’t matter what mistakes others are making, it doesn’t even matter what mistakes we are making. All that matters is that we are learning from every mistake that appears to our mind. If we do, then no matter what appears, we will learn and grow. Our job is not to change others or expose their hypocrisies, our job is to change ourselves and overcome our own. But we need to be patient with ourselves, understanding this will take time. When we are patient with ourselves, then we will learn to be patient with others’ imperfections as well. But here too lies a potential trap. We think, “slowly, slowly, try my best,” but we understand this to mean I don’t really have to change, I can just keep telling myself I am trying my best when in reality I’m not really doing anything.

Cutting the power of negativity in our mind

So how do we escape all of the above? What is the solution to all of this? In the end, each wrong turn described above comes from believing our delusions. Our delusions tempt us, rationalize, beat us up, or leave us discouraged. But they are all lies. The solution here is simple: see through the lies of our deluded tendencies. We need to make a clear distinction between the arising of a deluded tendency in our mind and the mental action of a delusion. A deluded tendency is the ripening of a past karma in our mind that causes us to think in a particular way. A new mental action of a delusion only occurs when we assent to or believe the lies of the deluded tendency. In other words, deluded tendency + belief = delusion. If instead when our deluded tendencies arise we use our wisdom to see through their lies and we identify clearly their deception, then the power of that deluded tendency over us is cut. The deluded tendency is still there, but it has no power. In other words, deluded tendency + disbelief = moral discipline. Slowly but surely we break the hold our deluded tendencies have over us until eventually we are no longer their puppet. They flail about, but we remain not just unmoved, but un-fooled. Christians say the “devil” works through deception. He tricks us into believing that following him will lead to some happiness. We break his hold over us by no longer being fooled by his deceptions. This is exactly correct, we merely need to replace “devil” with “delusion” and the meaning is the same.

When we find ourselves being haunted by our negative actions in the way explained above, view it as an opportunity to once again engage in purification for the negative action. We generate a sincere regret, we rely upon the three jewels, we engage in some virtuous action as an antidote, and we renew our promise to not go down that road again recognizing it as – quite literally – the highway to hell. Our particularly strong negative actions may haunt us for many years, but that’s OK, each time they do, we again engage in purification practice. Eventually, they will haunt us no more.

It takes great courage to honestly admit our negativity. We don’t have to go around and publicly declare everything we have ever done wrong, but we do have to be honest with ourselves and with our spiritual guide in our heart. Purification practice is sometimes called confession practice. Confession is not just stating (even internally) our negative actions, rather it is done with a wisdom acknowledgement that they are indeed negative conjoined with a sincere promise to not repeat such actions. Again, the Christians are very close, they just sometimes get side-tracked in guilt or thinking some external God is determining their fate, when it simply comes down to the internal laws of physics, otherwise known as the laws of karma.

Staring into the abyss of our own negativity can be daunting, but it is worth the effort. We need to work gradually to dismantle the obstacles of ignorance, pride, and guilt which prevent us from doing so. We need to request wisdom blessings to be able to see how negativity functions in our own mind in a way that we can gradually disarm and deconstruct it. Our negativity is not an intrinsic part of our mind, it is rather merely a current of bad habits and their karmic waste. Ultimately, it is just a question of changing our desires, and Lamrim is the tried and tested method for doing so. With persistent effort, we can eventually clean up our mind completely. Then, we will know a freedom and happiness beyond all others.

New Year’s for a Kadampa

New Year’s Day is of course preceded by New Year’s Eve.  The evening before is usually when friends get together to celebrate the coming of the new year.  Sometimes Kadampas become a social cynic, looking down on parties like this, finding them meaningless and inherently samsaric.  They mistakenly think it is somehow a fault to enjoy life and enjoy cultural traditions.  This is wrong.

If we are invited to a New Year’s party, we should go without thinking it is inherently meaningless.  Geshe-la wants us to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.  New Year’s Eve parties are part of modern life, so our job is to bring the Dharma into them.  Venerable Tharchin said that our ability to help others depends upon two things:  the depth of our Dharma realizations and the strength of our karmic connections with living beings.  Doing things with friends as friends helps build those karmic bonds.  Even if we are unable to discuss any Dharma, at the very least, we can view such evenings as the time to cultivate our close karmic bonds with people.  Later, in dependence upon these bonds, we will be able to help them.

One question that often comes up at most New Year’s Eve parties is what to do about the fact that most everyone else is drinking or consuming other intoxicants.  Most of us have Pratimoksha vows, so this can create a problem or some awkward moments for ourself or for the person who is throwing the party.  Best, of course, is if you have an open and accepting relationship with your friends where you can say, “you can do whatever you want, but I am not going to.”  It’s important that we don’t adopt a judgmental attitude towards others who might drink, etc.  We each make our own choices and it is not up to us to judge anyone else.  We might even make ourselves the annual “designated driver.”  Somebody has to be, so it might as well be the Buddhist!

If we are at a party where we can’t be open about being a Buddhist, which can happen depending upon our karmic circumstance, what I usually do is drink orange juice or coke for most of the night, but then at midnight when they pass around the glasses of Champagne I just take one, and without a fuss when it comes time, I just put it to my lips like I am drinking but I am not actually doing so.  If we don’t make an issue out of it, nobody will notice.  Why is this important?  Because when we say we don’t drink, they will ask why.  Then we say because we are a Buddhist.  Implicitly, others can take our answer to mean we are saying we think it is immoral to drink, so others might feel judged. When they do, they then reject Buddhism, and create the karma of doing so. We may feel “right,” but we have in fact harmed those around us. What is the most moral thing to do depends largely upon our circumstance. It goes without saying that others are far more likely to feel judged by us if in fact we are judging everyone around us! We all need to get off our high horse and just love others with an accepting attitude.

Fortunately, most Kadampa centers now host a New Year’s Eve party.  This is ideal.  If our center doesn’t, then ask to host one yourself at the center.  This gives our Sangha friends an alternative to the usual New Year’s parties.  We can get together at the center, have a meal together, do a puja together and just hang out together as friends.  We are people too, not just Dharma practitioners, so it is important to be “exactly as normal.”  If our New Year’s party is a lot of fun, then people will want to come again and again; and perhaps even invite their friends along.  It is not uncommon to do either a Tara practice or an Amitayus practice.   Sometimes centers organize a retreat weekend course over New Year’s weekend.  For several years in Geneva, we would do Tara practice in six sessions at the house of a Sangha member.  The point is, try make it time together with your Sangha family.  Christmas is often with our regular family, New Year’s can be with our spiritual family.

But it is equally worth pointing out there is absolutely nothing wrong with spending a quiet evening at home alone, or with a few friends or members of your family. Just because everybody else is making a big deal out of it and going to parties doesn’t mean we should feel any pressure to do the same. I personally have never enjoyed them party scene, even when others are not getting drunk, etc. I much prefer a quiet evening or a solitary retreat. There is nothing wrong with this, and if that is how we prefer to bring in the New Year, we should do so without guilt or hesitation.

What I used to do (and really should start doing again), is around New Years I would take the time to go through all the 250+ vows and commitments of Kadampa Buddhism and reflect upon how I was doing.  I would try look back on the past year and identify the different ways I broke each vow, and I would try make plans for doing better next year.  If you are really enthusiastic about this, you can make a chart in Excel where you rank on a scale of 1 to 10 how well you did on each vow, and then keep track of this over the years.  Geshe-la advises that we work gradually with our vows over a long period of time, slowly improving the quality with which we keep them.  Keeping track with a self-graded score is a very effective way of doing this.  New Years is a perfect time for reflecting on this.

Ultimately, New Year’s Day itself is no different than any other.  It is very easy to see how its meaning is merely imputed by mind.  But that doesn’t mean it is not meaningful, ultimately everything is imputed by mind.  The good thing about New Year’s Day is everyone agrees it marks the possibility for a new beginning.  It is customary for people to make New Year’s Resolutions, things they plan on doing differently in the coming year.  Unfortunately, it is also quite common for people’s New Year’s Resolutions to not last very long.

But at Kadampas, we can be different.  The teachings on impermanence remind us that “nothing remains for even a moment” and that the entire world is completely recreated anew every moment.  New Year’s Day is a good day for recalling impermanence.  Everything that happened in the previous year, we can just let it go and realize we are moving into a new year and a new beginning.  We should make our New Year’s resolutions spiritual ones.  It is best, though, to make small changes that you make a real effort to keep than large ones that you know won’t last long.  Pick one or two things you are going to do differently this year.  Make it concrete and make sure it is doable.  A former student of mine would pick one thing that she said she was going to make her priority for the coming year, and then throughout the year she would focus on that practice. I think this is perfect. Another Sangha friend of mine would every year ask for special advice about what they should work on in the coming year. This is also perfect.

When you make a determination, make sure you know why you are doing it and the wisdom reasons in favor of the change are solid in your mind.  On that basis, you will be able to keep them.  Making promises that you later break creates terrible karma for ourselves which makes it harder and harder to make promises in the future. We create the habit of never following through, and that makes the practice of moral discipline harder and harder.

Just because we are a Kadampa does not mean we can’t have fun like everyone else on New Year’s Eve.  It is an opportunity to build close karmic bonds with others, especially our spiritual family.  We can reflect upon our behavior over the previous year and make determinations about how we will do better in the year to come.

I pray that all of your pure wishes in the coming year be fulfilled, and that all of the suffering you experience become a powerful cause of your enlightenment.  I pray that all beings may find a qualified spiritual path and thereby find meaning in their life.  I also pray that nobody die tonight from drunk driving, but everyone makes it home safe.  Since that is unlikely to come true, I pray that Avalokiteshvara swiftly take all those who die to the pure land where they may enjoy everlasting joy.

Christmas for a Kadampa

For those of us who live in the West, or come from Western families, Christmas is often considered the most important holiday of the year.  Ostensibly, Christmas is about the birth of Christ, and for some it is.  For most, however, it is about exchanging gifts, spending time with family and watching football.  Or it’s just about out of control consumerism, depending on your view.  Kadampas can sometimes feel a bit confused during Christmas time.  It used to be our favorite holiday as kids, but now we are Buddhists, so how are we supposed to relate to it?

It’s true, Christmas time has degenerated into a frenzy of buying things we don’t need.  It is easy to criticize Christmas on such grounds.  Of course, as Kadampas, we can be aware of this and realize its meaninglessness.  We can correctly identify the attachment and realize it’s wrong.  But certainly being a Kadampa means more than being a cynic and a scrooge.  Instead, we should rejoice in all the acts of giving.  Giving is a virtue, even if what people are giving is not very meaningful.  There is more giving that occurs in the Christmas season than any other time of the year.  Yes, the motivations for giving might be mixed with worldly concerns, but we can still rejoice in the giving part.  Rejoice in all of it, don’t be a cynic.

Likewise, I think we should celebrate with all our heart the birth of Christ into this world.  Why not?  Our heart commitment is to follow one tradition purely while appreciating and respecting all other traditions.  Instead of getting on our arrogant high horse mocking those who believe in an inherently existent God, why don’t we celebrate the birth of arguably the greatest practitioner of taking and giving to have ever walked the face of the earth?  The entire basis of Christianity is Christ took on all of the sins of all living beings, and by generating faith in him, believing he did so to save us, we open our mind to receive his special blessings which function to take our sins upon him.  He is, in this respect, quite similar to a Buddha of purification.  By generating faith in him, his followers can purify all of their negative karma.

Further, he is a doorway to heaven (his pure land).  If his followers remember him with faith at the time of their death, they will receive his powerful blessings and be transported to the pure land.  In this sense, he is very similar to Avalokiteshvara.  Christ taught extensively on being humble, working for the sake of the poor, and reaching out to those in the greatest of need.  Think of all the people he has inspired with his example.  Sure, there are some people who distort his teachings for political purposes, but that doesn’t make his original intent and meaning wrong.  In many ways, one can say he gave tantric teachings on maintaining pure view, and bringing the Kingdom of Heaven into this world.  Who can read the Sermon on the Mount and not be moved?  Who can read the prayers of his later followers, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, and not be inspired?  Think of Pope Francis.  You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate his positive effect on this world and the church.  All of these things we can rejoice in and be inspired by.  A Bodhisattva seeks to practice all virtue, and there is much in Jesus’ example worth emulating.  Trying to be more “Christ-like” in our behavior is not mixing.  If we can see somebody in our daily lives engaging in virtue and be inspired to be more like them, then why can we not also do so for one of the greatest Saints in the history of the world?  Rejoicing in and copying virtue is an essential component of the Kadampa path.

Geshe-la has said on many occasions that Buddhas appear in this world in Buddhist and non-Buddhist form.  Is it that hard to imagine that Christ too was a Buddha who appeared in a particular form in a particular place in human history for the sake of billions?  Surely all the holy beings get along just fine with one another, since they are ultimately of one nature.  It is only humans who create divisions and problems.  Geshe-la said we do believe in “God,” it is just different people have a different understanding of what that means.  Christians have their understanding, we have ours, but we can all respect and appreciate one another.

Besides celebrating Christ, Christmas is an excellent time for ourself to practice virtue.  Not just giving, but also patience with our loved ones, cherishing others, training in love and so forth.  It is not always easy to spend time with our families.  The members of our family have their fair share of delusions, and it is easy to develop judgmental attitudes towards them for it.  It is not uncommon for some of the worst family fights to happen during the holiday season.  Christmas time gives us an opportunity to counter all of these delusions and bad attitudes, and learn to accept and love everyone just as they are.

When I was a boy, Christmas was both my favorite time of year and my worst time of year.  My favorite time of year because I loved the lights, the songs and of course the presents.  It was the worst time of the year because my mother had an unrealistic expectation that just because it was Christmas, everything was supposed to work out perfectly and nothing was supposed to go wrong.  This created tremendous pressure on everyone in the house, and when the slightest thing would go wrong, she would become very upset and ruin the day for everyone.  This is not uncommon at all.  People’s expectations shoot through the roof during the Christmas season, and especially on Christmas day.  These higher expectations then cause us to be more judgmental, to more easily feel slighted, and to be quicker to anger.  We can view this time as an excellent opportunity to understand the nature of samsara is for things to go wrong, and the best answer to that fact is patient acceptance and a good laugh.

As I have grown older, Christmas has given rise to new delusions for me to overcome.  When I was little, I used to get lots of presents.  Now, I get a tie.  Not the same, and it always leaves me feeling a bit let down.  I give presents to everyone, yet nobody seems to give me any.  As a parent, I cannot help but have hopes and expectations that my kids will like their presents, but then when they don’t I realize my attachment to gratitude and recognition.  During Christmas, even though I am supposed to be giving, I find myself worrying about money and feeling miserly.  I find myself quick to judge my in-laws or other members of my family if they don’t act in the way I want them to.  Since I live abroad, far away from any family, I start to feel jealous of the pictures I see on Facebook of my other family members all together and seeming to have a good time while we are alone and forgotten on the other side of the planet.  When kids open presents, they are often like rabid dogs, going from one thing to the next without appreciating anything and I can’t help but feel I have failed as a parent.  Trying to get good pictures is always a nightmare, and getting the kids to express gratitude to the aunts and grandmas is always a struggle.  The more time we spend with our family, the more we become frustrated with them and secretly we can’t wait until school starts again and we can go back to work.  None of these are uncommon reactions, and these sorts of situations give rise to a pantheon of delusions.  But all of them give us a chance to practice training our mind and cultivating new, more virtuous, habits of mind.

Christmas is also a time in which we can reach out to those who are alone.  Suicide and depression rates are the highest during the holiday season.  People see everyone else happy, but they find themselves alone and unloved.  Why can we not invite these people to our home and let them know we care?  Make them feel part of our family.  There are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer to help out the poor and the needy, such as giving our time at or clothes to homeless shelters.  People in hospitals, especially the old and dying, suffer from great loneliness and sadness during the Christmas season.  We can go spend time with them, hear their stories, and give them our love.

Culturally, many of us are Christian.  People in the West, by and large, live in a Christian culture.  Geshe-la has gone to great lengths to present the Dharma in such a way that we do not have to abandon our culture to understand the Dharma.  Externally, culturally, we can remain Christian; while internally, spiritually we are 100% Kadampa.  There is no contradiction between these two.  On the whole, Christmas time gives us ample opportunities to create virtue, rejoice in goodness and battle our delusions.  For a Kadampa, this is perfect.

Accepting our limits

It’s very easy to become neurotic. It’s even easier to disappoint others. We want to be a good person and our heart is bursting with compassion wanting to help in every way we can, but we are still incredibly limited in what we can actually do. Our attachment, pride, guilt, and misplaced sense of responsibility prevent us from patiently accepting our current limitations. The result is anxiety, burnout, and depression for ourselves and dependency, disappointment, and resentment for others. If we can learn how to accept our limits and communicate them to others, we can avoid all of these problems and transform our good heart into a qualified bodhichitta.

All of us want to be a good person. We want to help. We see those we love suffer and we want to rescue them. Our meditations on the faults of selfishness, the benefits of selflessness, and compassion drive us to want to commit our lives to serving others. We may even fashion ourselves as a bodhisattva dedicated to freeing all living beings from the ocean of samsara and leading them all to the everlasting joy of the Buddha lands. We read time and again that virtuous intentions such as these are supposed to lead to inner peace and happiness, but if we are honest we are miserable on the inside, useless on the outside and we seem inexorably headed towards some sort of dramatic crash. Perhaps that reckoning has already come. I would say much of this comes from an inability to accept and to communicate our current limitations.

Why do we struggle to accept our limitations?

First, we fail to make the distinction between attachment to others not suffering and compassion wishing others are free from their suffering. Attachment to others not suffering mistakenly thinks our happiness depends upon others not suffering, so when they go down, we go down with them. Our own well-being then depends on them doing well, and so we then feel others need to change or their problems need to stop for us to be happy. We then push ourselves to solve their problems out of personal necessity. Because we feel our happiness depends upon theirs, to accept we can’t solve their problems is to condemn ourselves to misery.

Second, our pride convinces us we are better than we actually are. We think we are this amazing high bodhisattva who can save everyone and we don’t want to admit – even to ourselves – that we are still just a beginner and are still quite limited in what we can do. This is especially a problem for teachers and parents and caregivers. Others are looking up to us and relying upon us, we don’t want to let them down (or have them realize we are a fraud), so we pretend we are more capable than we really are. Perhaps we have a unique opportunity to help others and make a difference, and so we keep taking on more and more responsibility, not considering whether we have the capacity to handle it all. Perhaps our own sense of self-worth is very much tied up with being the stable one who is there for others, and we feel if we admitted our limitations we would come crashing down.

Third, our guilt pushes us unhealthily beyond our limits. We know we are not supposed to be selfish, and we think we should be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others. They are suffering, they are struggling, and we can make a difference. To not do so is to be selfish, and so we beat ourselves up to push beyond what is sustainable. How can we just let them suffer when there is one more thing we can do? We generate this long list of things we “should be doing” if we were perfect, and then we judge ourselves against this, viewing ourselves as a failure if we don’t do it all.

Fourth, we have a misplaced sense of responsibility that it is up to us to solve others problems for them. Doesn’t superior intention tell us that we need to assume personal responsibility for the welfare of all? Doesn’t emptiness explain that ultimately we are responsible for everything that happens in our karmically created dream? Surely, it is up to us. If we don’t do it, who will? Because we think we are responsible for relieving others from their suffering, they then start to think the same thing about us, so they look to us to solve their problems for them, and then get mad at us when we don’t. They then make us feel guilty for not being there for them, setting in motion vicious spirals within our mind.

What is the result of all of this non-acceptance of our limitations?

In the beginning it leads to great stress and anxiety. There is so much we need to do, and we don’t have time or the capacity to do it all, so we become stressed. We fear the consequences of what will happen if we don’t do it all, and so we become anxious. Others place enormous demands on us that we feel it is our responsibility to fulfill, and so we become pulled in ten directions at once but find ourselves falling short on every front. We then push harder and harder to try meet all of these demands. The sustained stress on our system eventually leads to some form of burnout. Our system simply can’t take anymore and we crash. The slightest thing seems like an insurmountable challenge to our fried system. As our capacity to do things declines, the list of our perceived failures grows as we are no longer able to do things that before we could. Our pride tells us we “should” be able to do these things and can’t admit that we are burned out. Our guilt beats us up for being so incapable and supposedly letting down everyone around us. Eventually, we start to fall into a depression about our reduced capacity, which lowers our capacity further in a vicious spiral. We then think we need to push ourselves to get out of our depression, but our burned out system can’t handle that, feeding our sense of hopelessness, failure, and guilt.

And what happens to others when we fail to accept our limitations? In the beginning, it creates a dependency of others on us. Because we have constructed ourselves as responsible for solving their problems, they think it is up to us to solve their problems for them. We don’t want to let them down and we want (need!) them to be happy, so we make all sorts of promises that we will do things for them. They then think their happiness depends on us doing these things for us. We have in effect disempowered them to assume responsibility for their own experience. Their dependency on us creates a terrible dilemma for us. If we solve their problems for them or do their work for them, then we feed their dependency. If we don’t do these things for them, then they will sink or fail, which is something we can’t tolerate or accept. But inevitably, we commit to more than we can actually do, leaving others feeling disappointed by us. We didn’t live up to our promises to them, and now they are suffering the consequences. Their disappointment then feeds our guilt, and perhaps they even manipulate us through our guilt to get us to do more for them. Since they think their happiness and well-being depends upon us doing things for them, when we fail to do so, they feel like their suffering is our fault, so they become resentful that we didn’t do what they think we should have. This resentment then poisons our relationship with the person we so dearly love. They think we are not doing enough, and we alternate between feeling guilty or resentful ourselves at their lack of gratitude for all that we did do for them.

Genuine acceptance of our limitations is the answer

What does it mean to accept our limitations? To accept something in a Dharma context does not mean to simply acknowledge something as a fact. We could acknowledge our limitations, and still be miserable about them. Likewise, it does not mean we don’t try do anything about them, thinking it is somehow a fault to grow beyond them. To accept something means to be at peace with it. We can humbly acknowledge the fact of our current limitations without falling into the extremes of either guilt or complacency. Our mind, quite simply, is not disturbed, but is rather energized. What enables us to accept anything is our ability to transform it into the spiritual path. A difficult situation, for example, gives us an opportunity to train in patience. A needy person give us an opportunity to train in giving, and so forth. Helping other’s through their suffering gives us an opportunity to train in skillful means. Accepting our limitations gives us an opportunity to train in bodhichitta.

Like with so many things, Yoda said it best when he told Luke, “Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” Seeing our limitations is our greatest teacher because it shows us what we must work on to take the next step on the spiritual path. We would want to do more, but we accept that we currently can’t. We don’t expect ourselves to already be able to be perfect and do everything perfectly. We don’t beat ourselves up for not already being better than we are or for having limitations. Rather, we use this awareness to encourage us to improve our wisdom, skills, and capacity so that we can eventually not be constrained in these ways. Superior intention is beyond compassion because it takes personal responsibility for freeing all beings from their suffering, but it is only humbly accepting our limitations that transforms our superior intention into a qualified bodhichitta. A failure to do so causes Dharma teachings to make us neurotic in all the ways explained above; but doing so is the last major step to becoming a bodhisattva. Then there is no contradiction whatsoever between complete humility and soaring spiritual aspiration. Accepting our limitations is the difference between developing a Jesus complex and becoming a qualified bodhisattva. It is the difference between the miserable path of self-flagellation and the Joyful Path of good fortune.

We can accept we can’t save others now because we know their present suffering is fuel for our eventual becoming of a Buddha for their sake. One day, we will lead them to freedom. We don’t need to pretend to be better than we are because that blocks spiritual growth and prevents us from being the best possible teacher for them. Long before Yoda said “we are what they grow beyond,” Kadam Morten said the best teacher is not the one who shows the example of being perfect, but rather the one who shows the example of happily improving. The best parent is the one who helps their kids learn from the parents’ failures. We don’t need to feel guilty about our limitations because they are normal. Dharma doesn’t tell us how we should already be, but rather explains the methods for how we can do better. While ultimately, our mind is the creator of all, the same is true for everybody else and the laws of karma are definite, so no matter how much we might wish others not suffer, fundamentally it is up to them to assume responsibility for their own future. We can’t do it for them. A genuine acceptance of our limitations is the answer to attachment to them not suffering, pride, guilt, and misplaced responsibility. In short, accepting our limitations helps protect us from pushing too far beyond them.

Learning to communicate effectively our current limitations to others likewise avoids dependency, disappointment, and resentment for others. If we are at peace with our own limitations, then we will be able to communicate them to others in a way where they are at peace with them too. And even if they are not at peace with them, we will be at peace with that, and so our mind will remain undisturbed. We can tell people, “I would want to help, but currently I can’t because of this limitation. But once this constraint is lifted, I can help.” Or we can say, “it doesn’t help you for me to solve your problems for you or to protect you from the consequences of your bad choices.” They may protest, but because we see it is best for them for us to not help, we will have the inner strength to compassionately say no. Being honest with others about our limitations also helps break down their attachment, pride, guilt, and misplaced responsibility, thus setting a helpful example. Because we are not over-promising, they are not left disappointed. Because we are empowering them to solve their own problems, there is no basis for resentment. And again, even if there is, it is a short-term problem until eventually they accept our role and their own responsibilities. And even if they don’t, we recognize that is not our responsibility, and all we can do is find within ourself how we are making the same mistake and stop doing so.

It is not easy to dedicate one’s life to helping others. Sometimes we may miss the old days when we could be selfish without guilt. But such nostalgia is a dead end. As Shantideva says, “the childish are concerned only for themselves, and the Buddhas work for others. Just look at the difference between them.” Once we see this difference, the final hurdle for transforming our compassion into a qualified bodhichitta is learning to accept our own limitations. I pray that all those who read this may one day be able to do so.

Helping Others Who Struggle with Addiction

We live in an age of addiction. Porn, vaping, alcohol, marijuana, Facebook, video games, our phones, hard drugs, not to mention opioids which kill more than 30,000 people every year. Addiction devastates lives, but on a much more widespread level, it saps regular people of confidence and deprives us of any ability to gain control over our lives. More fundamentally, at a spiritual level, we can say all of us are addicted to samsaric life, and it is only this addiction which keeps us bound up in its endless sufferings. Virtually all of us know personally somebody struggling with addiction. The question is, how can we help? To answer this, I will first explain how addiction works and then offer some things we can do to help.

How does Addiction Work?

If we don’t understand addiction, we won’t be able to help those struggling with it. The best way to understand addiction is to identify it within ourselves. Addiction is a mental sickness, like depression, PTSD, burnout, bipolar disorder, etc. Addiction is fundamentally nothing more than a self-destructive habit of mind enforced, often, by physiological discomfort. It arises from a toxic combination of the delusions of strong attachment, pride, and lack of self-worth. Delusions are distorted ways of seeing things that we nonetheless believe to be true. Addiction persists because of an inability to keep the promises we make to ourselves, which then reinforces our sense of being a failure and of hopelessness. Let’s try unpack this.

Strong attachment. From a Buddhist perspective, attachment is a mind which mistakenly believes some external object is a cause of our happiness. We believe the object of our addiction – pick your poison – has the power from its side to make us happy. Attachment exaggerates this power and induces in us a desire to partake. We are “desire realm beings,” which means we actually have no choice but to pursue whatever we desire. If we desire to indulge in our our object of attachment more than to not, we will do so. Addiction is a particularly strong form of attachment that has reached uncontrolled proportions – in other words, even if we want to stop, and often part of us does want to – we feel like we can’t.

Pride. Practically speaking, pride is an exaggerated sense of ourself. Pride makes us feel like we are better than our lot in life, and makes us feel like we deserve better than what we have; but then feels slighted that we don’t have it. This sets us up for wanting a high. Our pride tells us we won’t get addicted, that we are better than others who have gotten addicted and we will be able to keep it under control. Then our pride prevents us from admitting we are addicted, telling ourselves all sorts of rationalizations and that we could quit if we wanted to, we just don’t really want to. Then our pride prevents us from seeking help when we need it. We have told everyone we don’t have a problem, and we don’t want to admit to them that we need help – we think we can break our addiction on our own. Then our pride feels attacked when others are just trying to help us by staging an intervention. At some point, our loved ones step in to try help us, but we then feel they don’t get it (we know better…), or that they are unfairly attacking us and we get defensive, thus grasping even more tightly to the rationalizations we have been telling ourself.

Lack of self-worth. The underbelly of pride is insecurity. Deep down, part of us knows we are not as good as our pride makes us out to be. But our sense of self-worth is bound up in our inflated view of ourself, so when it gets threatened, we feel attacked. Part of us knows we are addicted and that we have a problem. Part of us wants to stop, and perhaps we have tried many times, but we don’t feel we are strong enough. Knowing we have a problem we can’t fix makes us feel like a loser, and this grows into a feeling of hopelessness, which in turn makes us say, “screw it, my life sucks anyways, I might as well have at least some happiness from my addiction,” causing us to give in despite our earlier promise to not. Our indulging then fails to give us the joy we were after, and then we feel like a total loser and we beat ourselves up about how bad we are, thus feeding our lack of self-worth in a vicious spiral. The end of this path is a death of despair, either metaphorically by giving up on our life and ambitions or physically through overdose or suicide.

Inability to keep promises to ourself. The great Buddhist master Shantideva said fundamentally our ability to become a better person depends upon keeping the promises we make to ourself. Moral discipline is not something imposed from the outside, but something chosen from our own side. We decide for ourselves what behavior we want, and then make promises or vows to act in certain ways. Keeping those promises is how we grow internally. But, he cautions, if we make promises to ourself that we then break, we will lose confidence in ourself and our ability to keep our promises, and then they will become internally meaningless to us. Someone once famously said, “it’s easy to quit smoking. I have done so at least a dozen times.” When people start to try quit, they realize just how addicted they are. When they quit, but subsequently “fall off the wagon” and give in to their addiction, they lose confidence in themselves and make breaking their promises to themselves a habit. This makes it even harder to successfully quit next time because we know when we make the promise to ourself, we are likely to break it. Eventually, we don’t even try anymore, knowing our addiction is stronger than us until it eventually takes over our life.

Enforced by discomfort. Virtually all addictions are enforced by some form of discomfort, either mental or physical. In Buddhist terms, we call this “changing suffering.” We say there are three types of suffering – manifest suffering, changing suffering, and pervasive suffering. Manifest suffering is actual pain, such as a broken leg, cancer, or mental grief, etc. Pervasive suffering is suffering that is the nature of the body and mind we have taken rebirth into. For example, an animal experiences animal suffering because it has taken rebirth in the body and mind of an animal. The same is true for humans, hungry ghosts, hell beings, and everyone else in samsara. Changing suffering is what we normally think of as happiness. Drinking a cool glass of water is a temporary reduction in our suffering of being thirsty. The relief of sitting is a temporary reduction of our suffering of standing for too long. Indulging in our object of addiction is a temporary reduction in our suffering of withdrawal. We think indulging brings us happiness, but in truth it is just temporarily reducing some other suffering in our life – be it loneliness, helplessness, dissatisfaction, or even physical withdrawal symptoms because our body has grown dependent. Our inability to patiently accept these sufferings and discomforts makes us chase after some form of relief.

How to Help Those we Love

Ultimately, we can’t help those who don’t want to be helped. We need to accept this, and know it is not our fault. There is a fundamental difference between compassion, wishing others were free from their suffering, and attachment to others not suffering, thinking our own happiness depends upon them making the right choices. Making this distinction is one of the hardest parts of helping others, but it is vital. Why? If we are attached to others making the right choices, then when they don’t, we fall with them, rendering us useless. Further, the other person senses that we have a selfish desire for them to quit, and so they don’t trust our intentions trying to help them. This causes them to reject our advice, even if it is exactly what they need to hear. When we are attached to them making the right choices, we will begin all sorts of manipulation tactics to get them to change, which will just cause them to resist us and grasp even more tightly onto their wrong views because nobody likes being manipulated and we all know when we are being manipulated. Ultimately, they need to make the right choices from their own side or it won’t stick. As long as our pressure is in place, they might make the right choice; but then as soon as our pressure is no longer present, they will let loose. That’s not sustainable. Us thinking it is our responsibility to get them to break their addiction actually serves to disempower them to take responsibility for themselves, thus denying them of agency and causing them to become dependent upon us to get better. Then, when they don’t, they will blame us, feeding our guilt and misplaced sense of responsibility. This will then create a vicious spiral of dysfunction between us and the person we are trying to help adding yet another obstacle to the person getting better. We need to accept we can’t control the choices they make. We need to accept that they will make wrong choices and suffer the consequences of those wrong choices. We need to accept that they might need to hit “rock bottom” before they decide to dig themselves out. We need to accept we are not responsible for the choices they make. We need to accept that we might not ourselves be capable of helping them navigate out of their addiction, and perhaps they need professional help. We also have to accept we can’t make them admit they have a problem or to want to get help. Accepting all of these things is a prerequisite for our ability to help them. It is also a prerequisite for our own sanity and emotional balance in dealing with the situation.

One of the first things we need to do is stop enabling their wrong choices. Sometimes we are so attached to preserving a relationship with the person that we don’t tell them what they need to hear, and so we go along with their addiction, pretending that nothing is wrong. This can especially happen in the context of parents with their children or between spouses. There is no contradiction between speaking hard truths and wanting a good relationship. In fact, a lasting relationship can only be built on a healthy foundation, and a failure to speak truth inevitably dooms the relationship anyways. It is because we love them and want the relationship to work that we can’t enable them any longer. Along the same lines, we need to draw a clear line in the sand that we will not accept them making us involuntarily complicit in their wrong choices. This takes many forms, such as us protecting them from the consequences of their wrong choices or them doing things we don’t approve of with our money or in our house, or them asking us to lie or cover for them, etc. We can tell them, “I can’t control what choices you make, but I can control whether I am complicit.” We are under no obligation to make their addiction easier for them.

At the same time, we need to make it clear we are always there for them if and when they need help. Because we understand addiction is a sickness, not a failure, we don’t judge them for their addiction any more than we judge somebody who gets cancer. We need to communicate clearly we stand ready to help with open arms anytime. But we need to often wait until they ask for help, because if they don’t want our help and we “offer it,” they will just push it away, creating even more obstacles. It is possible that they want our help, but are afraid to ask. At such times, we can try skillfully just be there for them and show we are open to listening. Sometimes, they just need somebody who will listen, and them talking helps them come to some conclusions within themselves. If they see we listen with an open heart and without judgment, they might ask us for help or advice. Then, we can offer it. If they storm off on their own to go make wrong choices, as they go out the door, tell them, “Just know, I’m always here for you if you need me.” It may take many years before they come back, but knowing we are there for them provides a constant reassurance, and when they are in the dark parts of their addiction, they will remember us.

When we do ask for our help, we should begin by addressing whatever it is they perceive to be the problem, not what we think is the deeper problem. Oftentimes, they won’t be seeking our help on the addiction directly, but likely the consequences of some wrong choice they have made. Help them ethically navigate through those consequences while making it clear that they own them, but use these times to also address the deeper issue of why they got themselves into trouble to begin with. Don’t focus on the act of indulging in their addiction, dig deeper into the why they are addicted in the first place and what habits of mind lead them down such roads. If we address the deeper issues without directly saying “stop using XYZ,” then we are helping address the root causes while still leaving it up to them to make the choice to quit or not.

On addressing the addiction itself, help them identify for themselves how addiction works per the above. Fundamentally, all delusions are by nature deceptive. They promise one thing, but deliver the opposite. As explained, we are desire realm beings so overcoming addiction is NOT an issue of “will power,” rather it is an issue of changing our desires. If in our heart, we still want the object of our addiction, we might be able to use will power to stop for a little while, but we will just be repressing our attachment until eventually it grows in strength and overwhelms our will power. That is not a sustainable solution. Instead, we need to change our desires. There are two levels to this: not wanting the object of our addiction and not wanting to be addicted to anything. Both levels are addressed by “seeing through the deception of our delusions.” If we receive an email from a Nigerian Prince who wants to transfer $10 million to our bank account for safe keeping if only we send him our account numbers, it is dangerous only if we believe the lie. If we know it is a scam, we will correctly recognize the email as spam, and it will have no power over us. We simply hit delete and move on with our day. We can’t control whether the email arrives in our inbox, but we can completely cut its power over us by realizing it is deceptive. In exactly the same way, our delusions are the spam of our mind. These deceptive thoughts of attachment, pride, lack of self-worth, etc., arise in our mind, but they only have power over us if we believe their lies. We need to help the other person realize how their delusions are deceiving them. Mostly, you should just ask them questions which make them check their own experience to realize they have been burned by these lies again and again in the past, and they will continue to be burned for as long as they believe them. If they see them as deceptive, the thoughts will lose their power. In particular, all delusions exaggerate, so helping the other person break down the exaggeration in their mind will also reduce the power.

Oftentimes, reframing the choice of use or don’t use is helpful. If we are bored and think it is no big deal, indulging in our object of addiction seems like a good idea. But if we see that doing so strengthens the habits in our mind that sends us down the road of addiction, saps our self-confidence, causes us to eventually lose everything we hold dear, and makes us a puppet of their desires then it is a different choice. This is especially true when they are trying to quit. Let’s say they successfully go 10 days, but then are struggling. The pain of withdrawal seems so much more miserable than the relief they can get by indulging again. At such times help them realize that if they indulge now, all of the pain and misery they have accepted for the last 10 days will have been for nothing, and next time they quit they will have to go through all of this misery again to get to the other side. Help them realize if they make promises to quit, but then give in, then their inner promises will start to be meaningless, and if that happens, change becomes almost impossible – at a minimum, they will have to first reestablish the credibility of their inner promises before they start to get traction, and that will definitely mean they will need to go longer than 10 days next time. Help them see how these same habits of giving up show up in other aspects of their life, but if they learn to overcome it here, they will receive great benefit on many dimensions of their life. If they are spiritual, help them see the longer-term consequences of their choices. Help them understand it is not a question of will power, but of changing desires, and help them generate a larger, stronger desire that says no than the impulse to say yes.

One of the most important things is to stress the importance of keeping the promises we make to ourselves. First, help them realize that they have to decide from their own side to stop, not because of some pressure we apply. It is up to them. But that when they make a promise to themselves, they should keep it, come hell or high water. If we keep our promises, we can rejoice and our self-confidence grows. If we break our promises, we lose self-confidence as described above, until eventually our promises become meaningless and change impossible. Help them realize it is better to make small promises that they know they can keep than large promises that they know they will break. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say, “one day at a time.” We make a promise to ourself, “I will not drink today.” And then they keep it. And then they repeat that promise tomorrow. And the tomorrow after that, until eventually they are sustainably sober. Making promises is easy, keeping them is the practice. While we have made a promise, thoughts and impulses will arise encouraging us to break our promises. When these arise, we need to “see the deception” to cut their power. We need to remind ourselves of our wisdom desires to quit, knowing real freedom and confidence waits on the other side. We need to rejoice when we succeed in keeping our promise, and then make the promise again.

When those we love do fall off the wagon, help them not become plagued by guilt and beating themselves up. Instead, help them view it like learning to walk. You identify what mistakes you made, learn your lesson, then get back up and try again. If we want to quit, we can if we are willing to persevere and keep trying again and again until we eventually succeed. Sometimes people can succeed on the first try, for others, it may take years. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, we remain determined to one day win the war. One of the main reasons why we fall off the wagon is our inability to patiently accept the discomfort associated with withdrawal. What enables us to patiently accept our suffering is our ability to transform it into the path of personal growth. When we see working through our suffering helps us become a better person, then we have a valid reason to accept it. It is fuel for our spiritual development. Accepting this short term pain will result in long-term freedom, so it’s worth it.

Ultimately, from a Buddhist perspective, the world we inhabit and all the beings within it are nothing more than mere karmic appearances to mind, like a dream. If last night, we dreamt of somebody in a wheelchair, who put them there? Ultimately we did because they are part of our dream. In exactly the same way, if we are surrounded by appearances of people who are addicted, it is because our mind is dreaming them that way. They are a reflection of the addiction within our own mind. Venerable Tharchin once told me, “when you see faults in others, find them within yourself, and then purge them like bad blood. When you do, like magic, they will gradually disappear from those around you because ultimately they are projections of your own mind.” If we look at the world through an orange balloon, we might mistakenly think the world actually is orange. But when we remove the balloon, we then understand where the orange was coming from. In the same way, when we look at the world through the lens of our own addiction, we will see a world filled with addicts and think that they are actually there. When we remove the addiction from our own mind, then eventually people who are addicted will gradually disappear. This may take some time as the karma giving rise to these appearances gradually exhausts itself, but it will come. This may be hard for us to understand if we don’t have a lot of prior experience or understanding of the wisdom realizing emptiness, but fundamentally, as Geshe-la says, an impure mind experiences an impure world, and a pure mind experiences a pure world.

At a minimum, if we want to help others overcome their own addiction, we need to take the time to identify the addictions we ourselves have and overcome those within us. When we do, we will set a good example of somebody overcoming their addictions, and in the process we will gain the wisdom others need to be able to help them overcome their own addictions. Venerable Tharchin also says that when we gain wisdom realization, those who need that wisdom will begin to appear in our life so that we can share it with them. It is not a coincidence that the most effective addiction counselors were themselves once addicts. They know how addiction works, and they are sharing their experience with others who similarly suffer.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, never underestimate the power of prayer. Buddhas accomplish almost all of their virtuous deeds through the power of their prayer. We often lack the ability to resist our delusions on our own, but the blessings of holy beings can fill our mind with the compassion, strength, and wisdom we need. The effectiveness of our prayers for others depends upon the purity of our compassion for them free from attachment, the closeness of our karmic connection to them, the strength of our faith in the Buddhas, and the depth of our realization of emptiness understanding they are not separate from us. Prayer works if done for long enough. Don’t expect immediate results, just keep improving how qualified your prayers are and keep praying. Results may not even come in this lifetime, but as Buddhist, we have a long-term view. Eventually, we will become a Buddha, and eventually we will guide all those we love out of their suffering and to everlasting peace and happiness.

I pray that all those who read this are able to help those they love, and that all beings eventually become free from all addiction.

Celebrating Thanksgiving as a Kadampa

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States.  Thanksgiving is part of modern life and one of the most important days on the American calendar.  Therefore, it is our job to figure out how to celebrate it in a Kadampa way.

Traditionally on Thanksgiving, extended families get together and have a big feast and give thanks for the things and people in their life.  Even if people live far away, they travel to reunite with their family.  It is really only at Thanksgiving and Christmas that most Americans make a point of coming together as a family.  But that is often where the trouble starts!  We all have our uncle Bob or Grandpa John who just can’t help themselves saying offensive things.  Because it is supposed to be a “special day,” Mom and others get all stressed out that everything has to be “perfect,” but it is their anxiety about perfection that ruins it for everybody else.  Then of course, there is always the cynic – the person who is “too good” for Thanksgiving and feels the need to lambaste everyone else for their hypocrisy, fake friendliness, and consumerism come tomorrow.  Or perhaps we are Uncle Bob, the Nervous Nellie, or the cynic ruining the holiday for everyone else.  So the first things a Kadampa needs to do on Thanksgiving is to (1) fully accept and love our obnoxious relatives for who they are without feeling the need to change them in any way, and (2) make sure we are not the one ruining the holiday for everyone else.  As a cultural tradition, getting together with your family to give thanks is something to be rejoiced in, so we should throw ourselves into it and do what we can to make it good for everybody else.

Next, of course, comes the question about being vegetarian – or even more difficult, a vegan – on Thanksgiving.  What’s a good Kadampa to do with a giant Turkey carcass on the table, butter on the bread and mashed potatoes, and a hungry hoard ready to dig in?  Here, it entirely depends upon circumstance.  If your family is accepting of your vegetarianism, then make a vegetarian dish that you can share with everybody, and you eat what you can.  If your family does not understand and will feel offended or judged by your dietary choices, then I would advise to not make a stink out of it.  Take a small piece, eat a few bites without commentary to be polite and not hurt the cook’s feelings who prepared this big elaborate meal, and get on with your day.  But under no circumstances should you get on your soap box and make everybody else feel judged or guilty about their choices.  It is not our place to tell other people what dietary choices they should make.  Say some prayers for all the turkeys slaughtered on Thanksgiving, then transform everything into a giant Tsog offering and imagine you are offering up completely purified nectar to all the heroes and dakinis gathered around the table.

Usually during Thanksgiving, often during the meal, there comes a time where everyone explains what they are grateful for.  If your family is not accepting of your Buddhist path, now is not the time to profess your gratitude for your guru and the three precious jewels!  Internally, you should of course generate such gratitude.  But externally, you should express gratitude for things everyone else at the table can likewise generate gratitude for.  Why is this important?  If you express gratitude for something others are not grateful for, they may politely smile while you say your thanks, but in their heart they will be generating a critical mind towards your object of thanks.  You may feel like you have made your point, but they will have accumulated negative karma of holding on tightly to wrong views.  If you focus your thanks on things that everyone can be grateful for, then it is like you are leading a guided meditation in gratitude for all our kind mothers.

One of the hardest parts about Thanksgiving is, if we are honest, we don’t necessarily like our family very much.  Of course this isn’t true for everybody, but it is true for many people.  We are all just so different – different views and different priorities in life.  The members of our family have unique abilities to say all the wrong things which upset us in so many different ways, whether it is the irresponsible brother, controlling mother, judging father, obnoxious uncle, or embarrassing aunt, we find something we don’t like in all those closest to us.  One thing I have seen quite frequently among Kadampas is a very pure love for all the living beings they have never met, but general aversion for those closest to them in their life.  It’s easy to love all living beings in the abstract, loving actual deluded and annoying people is a different thing altogether.  Geshe-la tells us in all of his books we should start by learning how to love our family and those closest to us, and then gradually expand the scope of our love outwards until it encompasses all living beings.  Thanksgiving is a good day to start doing it right.  Love them, accept them, stop judging them.

Some people, though, find themselves alone on Thanksgiving.  Perhaps there is so much conflict in their family that they just don’t get together anymore.  Perhaps they would like to be with their family, but they lack the financial resources to join them.  Perhaps their whole family has already passed away.  Depression and suicide rates are often highest during the holidays.  We attach so much importance to these holidays, and then when people find themselves alone or unloved, they fall into despair.  When we were little, my mom was a single mother and the holidays were very important to her.  Fortunately, some kind person always found a place at their table for us.  It was annoying for me and my brother because we had to spend Thanksgiving with people we didn’t know nor particularly get along with, but it made a big difference for my emotionally fragile mother.  If we know somebody who is alone on Thanksgiving, we should invite them to join us.  There are so many people hurting out there, and most people just want to feel loved.  So create a space at your table for them as my mother’s friends did for her.  Don’t underestimate the difference such a gesture can make.

I also think it would be wonderful if every Dharma center in America had a Thanksgiving party in which everyone was welcome.  Geshe-la often talks about Dharma centers as belonging to the community.  Why can’t a Dharma center have a Thanksgiving celebration?  This could be a private affair for the people of the center, or it could even be an open house community celebration for anybody to come.  In addition to a great meal and quality friends, discussions can be had about the kindness of all our mothers.  It doesn’t matter if the people who come never come back, or perhaps they only come on Thanksgiving because they have nowhere else to go.  We are grateful for all living beings, so Thanksgiving is our chance to give some love and kindness back.  Gen-la Losang once asked who is more important, the people who come to the center and stay or the people who come and never come back?  If we look at how most centers are run, it seems our answer is the people who come and stay.  But he said the correct answer is those who never come back for the simple reason they are more numerous.  If somebody comes once, but walks away thinking, “hey, those Buddhists ain’t bad,” then they have just created the karma to find the path again in the future.  If our centers belong to the community, there is no reason why our centers can’t start doing community service.  Perhaps this isn’t currently the tradition at our center, but there is no reason why it can’t become a tradition next year.

Internally, for me, Thanksgiving is a reminder that for the most part I am an extremely ungrateful individual and I take for granted the kindness of everyone around me.  As those who have been following my blog for a long time know, I have had lots of difficulties with my father over the years.  At the core of it, he simply finds me ungrateful for all that he has done for me.  Historically, I have disagreed and protested, but if I’m honest, he is right. I take for granted all of the kindness others have shown me, and I feel as if I am entitled to him showing me kindness. No matter how much kindness he or my mother have ever showed me, my general view has been “not good enough.” I might even conventionally have been right that he should have done more, but what good does such an attitude do. If others find me ungrateful, then instead of becoming defensive, I should use that as a reminder that I need to be more grateful.  How could that be a bad thing?  

If we think about it, a feeling of gratitude is really the foundation of the entire Mahayana path.  It is not enough to just generate a feeling of gratitude once a year on Thanksgiving, nor is it enough to generate such a feeling once every 21 days when we come around to it on our Lamrim cycle.  Rather, gratitude should be a way of life.  Venerable Tharchin says that the definition of a realization of Dharma is when all of our actions are consistent with that realization and none of our actions are in contradiction with it.  A feeling of gratitude towards everyone is a stage of the path, and one we should carry with us every day of the year.

But Thanksgiving is about more than just feeling grateful, it is also about “giving” back.  Giving is one of our basic virtues, and one of our perfections  which will take us to enlightenment.  Venerable Tharchin says the thought “mine” is the opposite of the mind of giving, so the way to perfect our giving is to stop imputing “mine” on anything, instead we should mentally give everything we have to others.  We mentally think everything, including our very body and mind, belong to others.  We give them to others.  Of course we may still retain control over certain things, but we should have no sense of ownership over anything.  We are custodians of things for others, but our intention is to use them all for their benefit.  We offer our body, our mind, our money, our time, our family, our careers, everything, to others.  We commit that we will use everything we have for their sake.  At the very least, we can offer a good meal and a warm heart.  In the end, what most people want is to feel loved.  This is something we can give if we put a little effort into it.

Most of all, on Thanksgiving, I try give thanks to those closest to me.  Before I got married, I had a vision where Tara came to me and handed to me a child.  As she did so, she said, “this is where you will find your love.”  My children may be a lot of work, insanely expensive, and they may be maddening at times, but I love them with all my heart.  There is nothing I wouldn’t do for them.  If they were not in my life, I wouldn’t know what it means to really love another person and put their interests first.  The path would remain quite abstract.  I am also extremely grateful for my wife.  I have to work all the time, but she takes care of our kids and she takes care of our home.  She is my best friend.  Before I received highest yoga tantra empowerments for the first time, I met with Venerable Tharchin for the first time.  I explained to him all of the troubles I was having with my then girlfriend, and he told me two things.  First, view all of her apparent faults as reflections of the faults within your own mind, and then purge those faults like bad blood.  When you do, they will “magically” disappear from her because they aren’t coming from her side anyways.  Second, he said, “never forget she is an emanation of Vajrayogini sent to bring you in this life to the pure land.”  Of course, at the time, I didn’t understand emptiness enough to understand that my now wife is or isn’t anything from her own side, but thinking she was an emanation saved our relationship and enabled me to transform my relationship with her into the path.  Later, when I came to understand emptiness a bit more, I realized it didn’t matter what she was, it was beneficial for me to believe she is an emanation.  Now, after more than 20 years of marriage, I’m starting to come back to Venerable Tharchin’s words – she is an emanation, not in an inherently existent sense, but in the same sense that any emanation is an emanation. Every day, her every action and her every word, functions to ripen me on the path. Externally, she appears to act entirely normally, gets angry or sad like everybody else, but her normal is now my blessing. All of us can get to the same point with our partners no matter how they act or what they might do. Our partners have come to get us and take us to pure Dakini land, even if they don’t know it! Be grateful for them entering into your life in this way.

I think it is very important that we also learn to be genuinely grateful for our suffering. If we are honest about our spiritual practice, we usually only really get serious when we are experiencing some type of suffering. Then, when the difficult period in our life has passed, we go back to enjoying samsara and going through the motions with our practice. The solution to this problem is to “know suffering,” not just intellectually, but with our heart. We need to actually see our samsaric happiness as nothing more than a temporary reprieve from the endless slaughterhouse of samsara. We need to know our ordinary body and mind – our contaminated aggregates – as a cage that will torment us until the day we die, only to be thrown into a new prison cell which is likely to be far worse. We need to know our delusions are like devils duping us to follow paths that all end only in the fires of the deepest hell. We need to know all of the negative karma on our mind that we have not yet purified is like time bombs that can explode at any moment, shattering our lives and everything we hold dear. Such suffering is inevitable unless we end it as a possibility. It will never end on its own. When we actually “know” our suffering in our heart, then we will be motivated to practice sincerely, day and night, from this day until we are finally out. When we are grateful for our suffering, we are able to “accept” it. When we accept our suffering, it is no longer a “problem” for us. It may still be unpleasant, but it is not a problem, and so in many ways, we no longer “suffer” from it. Suffering comes primarily from non-acceptance of unpleasant feelings. But if we can develop an attitude of gratitude towards our difficulties, we will be able to accept them and realize that they are actually our most important fuel for our spiritual life.

Most of all, I am thankful for Geshe-la entering into my life.  He found me at my darkest hour, pulled me up, gave me a purpose, taught me what my real problem was (my own deluded, unpeaceful mind), gave me methods that work to heal my mind, provided me with perfectly reliable outer and inner advice, opened up my heart, revealed to me the magic of faith, provided teachers and centers who could help me bring the Dharma into my life, gave me the opportunity to teach the Dharma, and has been with me when I have felt otherwise alone.  He has created for me a vajra family of Sangha Brothers and Sisters who are some of the dearest people in my life, even though I rarely am able to see them.  He has shown me the root of my suffering and a doorway out.  He has provided me with everything I need to enter, progress along, and complete the path.  He has blessed my mind with countless empowerments, and has promised to remain in my heart helping me along until I attain the final goal.  Most of all, he has introduced me to Dorje Shugden and defended him when anybody and everybody else would have abandoned him.  Dorje Shugden is my guru, yidam and protector who helps me in this life and will be with me when I need him most – at the time of my death.

On Thanksgiving, I am grateful for all of this.  And I offer myself as a servant to my guru and to all living beings.  Please keep me in your service for as long as space exists.

Faith is emptiness in action

In the old days, the Lamrim cycle started with faith and ended with emptiness, but with the New Meditation Handbook, Geshe-la put faith as the last meditation after emptiness. Most people assumed this was done primarily to make it easier for newer practitioners who find faith hard, but I actually think there was a much more profound meaning in this change. Namely, that faith is emptiness in action. Technically, the final meditation is Reliance upon the Spiritual Guide, but we accomplish that primarily through faith. All of the paths of tantra are, fundamentally, practices of reliance upon the Spiritual Guide on the foundation of realizing emptiness.

First some definitions. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe-la explains, “Faith is a naturally virtuous mind that functions mainly to oppose the perception of faults in its observed object.” There are three types of faith: believing faith, admiring faith, and wishing faith. Believing faith is essentially believing an object to be true without knowing it directly ourselves. Admiring faith is admiring the good qualities of holy objects, such as the three jewels. Wishing faith is wishing to have those good qualities ourselves. Emptiness is the way things are, as opposed to the way they appear. Fundamentally, emptiness explains that despite things appearing to exist independently of the mind, in fact they are all nothing more than mere karmic appearances to mind, like a dream, with not even the slightest trace of anything existing from its own side – in other words, everything is created by mind. According to Sutra, we say emptiness appears as conventional objects; and according to Tantra we say the emptiness of the very subtle mind of great bliss appears as conventional objects.

On the basis of these definitions, how can we understand faith is emptiness in action? Believing faith is a correct belief in any object that is conducive to our spiritual development. A lot of people have great difficulty with faith because they still have doubts whether what they are believing in is actually true, and since they cannot be sure, they err on the side of not believing the object. But if we understand everything is empty – in other words, nothing is objectively true (by this I mean truth being established on the side of the object) – then there is no basis for this hesitation, since nothing is “actually” true in the sense we mean it. But if there is no objective truth, how then do we establish truth in the Dharma? Technically, we say things are conventionally true if they are known to be true by superior beings. Practically, though, because there is no objective truth we establish truth by examining what is most beneficial to believe. Venerable Tharchin and Gen Losang frequently have said, “what is true or not true is not the point, the question is what is most beneficial to believe.” If believing in a certain way is beneficial, then we can “choose” to believe it to be true because doing so is “conducive to our spiritual development.”

But the relationship between believing faith and emptiness is much deeper – what is in fact true IS what is most beneficial to believe because what is most beneficial to believe is consistent with how things truly are, namely empty. The implication is profound – it means not only can we confidently believe in things that are beneficial to believe, but the North Star for being able to discern what is true is examining what is most beneficial to believe. This protects us from falling into the extremes of nihilism or relativism thinking because nothing is objectively true then either nothing is true or everything is equally true if people believe it to be. Practically, this enables us to let go of our crippling doubts about whether our objects of faith are true or not and allows our mind to play with the dance of beneficial belief. It is enough for us to see the benefits of believing in a certain way, and then we choose to do so on that basis. This is why in our Dharma books every meditation begins with an explanation of the benefits of that particular meditation.

Admiring faith is the ability to see and appreciate the good qualities of the three jewels. Admiring faith makes us marvel at the wonders of virtuous objects, which naturally leads to wishing faith to acquire those good qualities ourselves. But the teachings on admiring faith and pure view can sometimes lead to a great deal of confusion for people, especially when they see “Sangha Jewels” engaging in inappropriate action or they hear their teachers giving “wrong teachings.” Many people wind up abandoning the path as a result, and many centers or their administrators will try deflect blame away from their mistakes by saying the people at the center don’t have sufficiently pure view. Are we supposed to just look the other way and pretend we didn’t see the inappropriate actions or hear the wrong teachings? No, that would be repression of our doubts and the quick path to becoming cult-like in our relation to the Dharma. Are we then supposed to say what is incorrect is somehow correct because we are supposed to be maintaining pure view? No, because then we are believing things that are not beneficial to believe and we are following wrong understandings.

How does understanding the relationship between faith and emptiness enable us to escape these problems? The functional definition of delusion is our mind projects something mistaken onto an object, and then we mistakenly believe that projection to actually be true from the side of the object. The wisdom realizing emptiness completely undermines the premise of all delusions by showing nothing exists on the side of the object, it’s all just projection of our mind. So if we see fault in a holy object, the fault is necessarily coming from our own mind and not the holy object. Admiring faith uses the wisdom realizing emptiness to differentiate the perception of fault in the holy object from the holy object itself, which is without faults. The more we differentiate the two, the more we can appreciate the good qualities of the holy object and not be obstructed by the perception of some fault inherent in the holy object despite it appearing vividly to our mind. In short, we are able to say, “the fault I am perceiving is coming from my mind and not the holy object itself.” In other words, the faulty thing I am seeing is not the holy object, but my misunderstanding of it. To actually “find” the holy object, I need to find a way to see it without fault.

Sometimes when we hear a Dharma teaching, our understanding of its meaning leaves our mind feeling disturbed. This is a perfect sign we have misunderstood the teaching because all Dharma, if understood correctly, functions to make our mind peaceful and happy. So we can correctly say to ourselves, “I must be misunderstanding what is being said because this is making me disturbed,” and then we ask questions until we can understand the subject in a way that leaves our mind peaceful and happy. When somebody in the Sangha does something inappropriate, we can do the same thing. Obviously we don’t say what is inappropriate is somehow appropriate, but we can ask ourselves, “what is this inappropriate behavior teaching me?” Since it is teaching us what is appropriate, we are receiving a perfectly beneficial teaching from the appearance of the inappropriate behavior. This enables us to call out wrong behavior for what it is without it undermining our faith. Then, no matter what scandal befalls what teacher, our faith and conviction in the Dharma just grows stronger and stronger.

But there is a deeper level still to the relationship between admiring faith and emptiness. Sangha, by definition, is somebody who shows us a good example and inspires us to follow the path. So what do we do when they show a bad example? Emptiness is the answer – when they are showing a bad example, they are no longer “Sangha.” The label Sangha can only validly be imputed onto somebody showing a good example. When they are not showing a good example, they are no longer “Sangha.” Nobody is inherently Sangha, and there is no Sangha that exists from its own side. It is perfectly possible for the same person to sometimes show a good example, at which point they are Sangha; and at other times show a bad example, at which point they are not Sangha. Just as somebody can be a temporary emanation, so too somebody can temporarily be Sangha. In a similar way, when we hear faulty Dharma teachings, even from the throne, it can sometimes lead to great confusion. Should we believe the wrong thing to be correct? Or if we see the mistake, do we lose faith in the teacher as no longer being reliable because they made a mistake in their teaching? Of course not. We can either say, “the wrong thing they just said reminds me of the correct thing,” thus enabling us to receive perfectly reliable understandings even though what is being said is incorrect; or we can say, this wrong thing is not ‘Dharma,’ so I don’t have to take it on board and instead I should listen to and focus on what is Dharma in the other things they are saying. Temporary Dharma teachings. Emptiness enables us to differentiate what is to be relied upon and what is not, thus freeing us from grasping at inherently existent three jewels that somehow need to appear to be perfect from their own side. With emptiness, we understand the three jewels become perfect when we view them in a perfect way.

What is the relationship between wishing faith and emptiness? Wishing faith is wishing to acquire ourselves the good qualities our admiring faith appreciated. Wishing faith then induces effort, and effort leads to attainments. But, if we grasp at ourselves and our faults as being inherently existent and unchangeable, then we develop doubts about our ability to actually change, acquire these good qualities, and become a Buddha. Our grasping at ourself as being ordinary keeps us ordinary. When we realize the emptiness of ourself, we realize we become infinitely (and effortlessly) changeable. Ignorance grasping at ourself is like friction on the spiritual path, letting go of that ignorance creates a frictionless progression along the path.

But again, it goes much deeper. All of Generation Stage and Completion Stage of highest yoga tantra is essentially a giant exercise in the relationship between faith and emptiness. Fundamentally, Tantra is quite simple: we change the basis of imputation of our I from our ordinary samsaric aggregates to the completely pure aggregates of the Guru Deity. We mentally generate these pure aggregates, and then identify with them as ourselves. Our faith in our Spiritual Guide makes the aggregates imputedly “pure” and our wisdom realizing emptiness enables us to identify with them without any residual of our ordinary self. It is said all we need to practice Tantra is faith and imagination. We imagine pure worlds, then believe in them as being true. Because they are correct beliefs, with familiarity of believing in our pure imaginations, they become our living reality. Often times people get hung up on self-generation meditations saying, “this is just fantasy land, I’m not really Heruka.” This completely misses the point and comes from a grasping at us actually being one thing or another. To escape this doubt we need to understand the relationship between karma and emptiness. Karma is mental action. We don’t believe we are Heruka because we actually already are, rather we engage in the mental action of believing we are Heruka because doing so creates the karma for us to later appear to ourself directly as being Heruka. Again, what is true or not true is not the point, what matters is what is beneficial to believe. The correct belief of divine pride is a mental action that creates a karma which will ripen in the future of ourselves being Heruka. So we can believe in it fully and without reservation, even though we know we are not yet Heruka.

Further, we are not saying that our ordinary aggregates are Heruka, that would be a wrong conception. Our ordinary aggregates are a valid basis for imputing our ordinary self, but not Heruka. So if in our generation stage meditation, it is our ordinary aggregates appearing, we don’t say they are Heruka, they are the cloud-like obstructions obscuring the mentally generated Heruka we are trying to identify with. We again use emptiness to differentiate the completely pure object we are seeking to identify with and the self that we normally see. As Geshe-la says, without faith we could practice Tantra for a thousand years and never experience any results; but with faith, Tantra becomes the quick path.

For me, Geshe-la moving Reliance upon the Spiritual Guide to the last meditation of the Lamrim cycle is a profound teaching on the critical relationship between emptiness and faith. On the basis of realizing emptiness, we set our faith free to dance.