I had a dream last night after the empowerment where I was just going about my way, and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this giant rat came lunging out towards my head. To evade it, I jerked my head fast and then accidentally banged it hard against a wall. My non-dreaming body also lunged and I woke up, and I could feel pain on my waking head briefly before I realized it was a dream and then it went away. The message that then came into my mind from this was, “significant negative karma can ripen quickly and out of nowhere, and even if we succeed in evading it, the quick rection of doing so often comes with its own pain. Karma that ripens at the subtle level can spill over into our waking state, even though it was never anything more than mere appearance to mind. But realizing it is all a dream makes the pain of what appeared go away. This is true for all of samsara.” Then I fell back asleep. When I awoke again this morning, I remembered the dream again and the thought that came was, “even when we purify our negative karma, we sometimes don’t get it all. We avoid the main consequence, but a residual of the negative karma nonetheless ripens (me banging my head). We should accept this residual as ‘catastrophe averted,’ and be happy.” I then thought this whole dream is a metaphor for the pandemic and our individual experience within it.
I just had a very strange, but notable dream. I suspect it is due to the Vajrapani empowerment tomorrow kicking things up. When this happens, I try always write them down before I forget.
The dream started out with me feeling very strong, teenager style love for this beautiful, very kind girl. She wasn’t particularly interested in me, but there did seem to be something between us. We were then in this bed in a hotel room engaging in foreplay, and then it mentally shifted where she had some sort of boyfriend and I was somehow related to her, like a cousin or something. I knew that was really messed up, but I was still attracted to her and we were still in bed. But now her boyfriend was also in bed with us, and she was interested in him, but still allowing me there, but I felt unloved or not worthy of wonderful people being attracted to me. I then stuck my finger in her, but it hurt her, and I was like, “oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” (sorry for the graphic nature, I’m trying to record the dream). Then, her father came into the hotel room with a gun having caught us all into the act. The boyfriend ran away, and for some reason the father went into the bathroom to prepare to come after me. I then got up and started to head towards where I had a gun myself, but then I thought, “no, I need to try resolve this peacefully and assume the consequences of my bad choices that got me into that situation.” I then put my hands up and surrendered myself to him. I believe the meaning is I need to accept the consequences of and seek to purify all sorts of negative karma that I have on my mind that moves in the direction of wanting girls to like me and sexual misconduct.
The dream then shifted to me at a big party in a very wealthy area. If I’m honest, I have never really fit in or had a lot of friends. Even among Kadampas, I have always felt on the outside. This huge party was filled with young, beautiful people, all of whom were having a good time together but nobody had any interest whatsoever in talking to me. I then started to make my way out to escape from the party, and as I got close to the exit, I ran into my old debate partner – who himself is quite the social outsider – who was similarly trying to escape. I then started crying from deep within my heart from a profound hurt associated with a lifetime of feeling socially excluded. Intellectually, and even to a certain degree practically, in the dream, I recalled all of the different Dharma wisdoms I normally use to just repress my hurt, such as this is coming from my mind and how to transform it, etc. But I saw and felt just how much hurt I have inside over this and that, to a large extent, my total investment in debate and even Dharma in my life has been driven by this hurt of being excluded from normal social life.
Once I had gotten out of the party, some much larger power started tearing everything down with bulldozers and people started scrambling. I was like, “why are they doing that, destroying everything?” When all of the walls were finally down, the party complex was in this desert like area outside of some Hunger Games style capital city and I understood the entire party was just one temporary distraction put on by the authorities, and it was all basically an illusion of social control to prevent us from resisting, but they were demonstrating they are in change and can take it away at a moment’s notice. In the dream, I then somewhat realized I was dreaming and that this was a metaphor for China’s social control mechanisms over their population. I will be going to China for my next posting. Then, I woke up and realized it was a metaphor for samsara.
Abiding in a world without suffering right now
There is no doubt the world is hurting right now. Many of us very much want to do something to help, but are at a loss for what to do besides stay at home and perhaps say a few Tara or Medicine Buddha mantras. I would say our job right now is to quite literally construct and abide in a new world, free from all suffering. We can do this through our correct imagination. We can do this through our Tantric practice – not as some future attainment, but right here and right now. If we want to end the virus, we must end samsara.
Believing is Seeing
Sometimes people object, “yeah, it’s nice to dance with the Dakinis for a while in my mind, but when I come out of meditation, I’m right back in it. It was all a nice imagination, but the world continues to suffer and the virus continues to rage. Nothing has really changed, it’s not that much different from me watching some internal Netflix show.” This objection is completely wrong.
To understand why we first need to understand – precisely – how correct imagination works at the karmic level. Everything we perceive is a mere karmic appearance to mind. There is no samsara and there is no pure land, both are just different karmic appearances – one mistaken, one pure. But both arise from karma.
We create the karma for samsara by grasping at things existing from their own side, independently of our mind, and then living and acting as if that was true. When we do this, ALL of the karma we create is contaminated, and when that karma ripens in the future, it will manifest in the form of things that appear vividly to be existing from their own side. Then, through the force of mental habit, we will assent to these appearances believing they do in fact exist from their own side, and the cycle starts all over.
We create the karma for the pure land through believing our correct imagination. All of us are capable of generating correct imagination. We can go through the visualizations of the sadhana, and imagine all sorts of beautiful things, but we don’t really believe what we are doing, so it lacks any power. We think it is just a mental light show, and not real, and that nothing is really changing. We imagine, but we don’t believe our imagination. And we are right, if we don’t believe our imagination, then it is true, nothing is really changing.
But, if we do believe our imagination, then everything not only comes alive in our meditation, it actually works to karmically create pure worlds right here and right now. The key point is understanding that believing our correct imaginations is how we complete the karma of our mental action. If we accidentally squashed a bug, we did not complete the karma of killing because we didn’t have the intention to kill it. Our deluded intention is necessary to complete the karmic action. In the same way, believing our imaginations to be true (not inherently true, but union of the two truths true) functions to complete the karma. The same is true for the practice of taking and giving, which is really Sutra’s version of Tantra.
Creating Temporary Pure Lands
Now we might object, “OK, believing our imagination to be true functions to complete the karma, but the fruit of that karma won’t ripen until the future (otherwise effect and cause would be simultaneous) so I still haven’t actually transformed the world – everyone is still suffering.” There are three answers to this objection. First, if we have this doubt, we are not actually believing our imaginations – we are still hanging on to our doubts, so we are still not completing the karma. Second, this is still grasping at there being a world out there that exists independently of our mind. And third – and this point is subtle – if we are fully believing our correct imaginations, from the point of view of our experience, we quite literally abide in a world without suffering. Geshe-la sometimes talks about temporary emanations, such as when Lama Tsongkhapa enters into our teachers during teachings. In the same way, believing this correct imagination creates a temporary pure land.
Next, we might object, “OK, for me it creates a temporary pure land, but for everybody else, they remain stuck in samsara and the virus is still infecting people. So it is no different than you creating some happy place for yourself inside your mind, like being in a glass box while the war still ravages around us.” While it is true each one of us creates our own karma, and if others are not creating similar karma they will remain in their own karmically created samsara, this objection misses the point. First, it doesn’t matter if its “objectively true” (because nothing is), the point is the only way we can complete the karma is by fully believing it to be true without doubts. Holding onto the doubts means the karma is not completed, and so it produces few good results. Second, this objection still grasps at others’ minds as existing independently of our own. If we dreamt of somebody in a wheel chair, who put them there? Our mind. In the same way, if in our waking state, we “dream” of a world filled with disease and suffering, who put everyone there? Our mind. Others’ minds are also empty of inherent existence. The others that we normally see are the beings of our contaminated karmic dream. We can intentionally dream a different world, one in which there is quite literally zero suffering, we are the deity, and everyone else are Dakas and Dakinis.
Pulling our Head out of the Sand of Samsara
To this, we might object, “yeah, but isn’t this just burying my head in the sand, pretending there is no suffering? I will then do nothing to compassionately help those experiencing mental and physical pain.” Answering this objection is where we get to the punch line: from the point of view of tantra, pure view is compassionate action and our compassionate action is maintaining pure view. Wherever we imagine a Buddha, a Buddha actually goes. Wherever a Buddha goes, they accomplish their function, which is to bless the minds of others. When we believe our pure view, fully and completely believe it, all of the Buddhas enter into the other person (who is just a being of our karmic dream) and transform them into a temporary pure being. We should not doubt that they are not experiencing themselves in this way because doing so is still grasping on to some part of them existing from their own side independently of our mind and depriving them of receiving Buddhas into that part of them. We should also believe that they are experiencing themselves in that way. This is the most compassionate thing we can do because through this correct imagination, the Buddhas enter into every aspect of them without residual, thus maximizing the blessings we can bestow upon them and thus the benefit they receive from our pure view.
In truth, we currently are burying our head in the sand of samsara, and Buddha is trying to pull our head out into the pure lands.
But what if they still appear to our mind to be suffering? Shouldn’t we tend to that? Yes, of course we should. This appearance of them still suffering is our residual ordinary appearance which has not yet exhausted itself. With our residual ordinary appearance of ourself we compassionately tend to the residual ordinary appearance of the other person, exactly as normal; while at the same time, with our believing ourselves to be the deity, we believe our correct imagination of them being a Daka or a Dakini. We practice the union of sutra and tantra. When we are in the meditation session, we have dissolved everything we normally see into emptiness, and every appearance is a pure one – there is no residual ordinary appearance. In the meditation break, when residual ordinary appearances arise again, we practice this layered approach of sutra and tantra simultaneously. Doing so creates the experience that we are quite literally purifying all of samsara in real time, gradually dissolving it into our pure world.
Gaining Experience in the Meditation Session
To help us gain some experience with this, it is vital that we infuse emptiness into every aspect of our Tantric sadhana practice. Sometimes we can feel like, “I never seem to practice emptiness in my tantric practice, I’m so busy with all these complex visualizations that I don’t get any deep experience of emptiness.”
We should think of the sadhana like a spiritual buffet. Different people will take different items in different portion sizes at a buffet depending upon what they hunger for and what their body needs. In the same way, different practitioners will emphasize different parts of the sadhana depending upon their needs and desires. Each time, we do all of the sadhana, but we can pause wherever we’d like for as long as we’d like to emphasize those parts that move our mind the most. Our problem is usually just an issue of not having the time to pause for long because we have to get to work, but with the present lockdowns from the virus, this is not our problem.
It seems there are two places within the sadhana where we can do a nice, long emptiness meditation to get a good feel for it: In the very beginning before we start, we can dissolve everything into emptiness, bathe in the clear light for a while, and then out of emptiness generate the appearances of the sadhana. The second, of course, is bringing death into the path to the truth body where the final object of meditation is emptiness.
We need to be careful to not confuse nothingness with emptiness. It should not feel as if nothing is arising in our mind, rather it should feel like a shocking reminder that everything we thought existed – the virus in all its horrible glory – in fact does not. As Geshe-la says all the time, “the things we normally see do not exist.” We are so convinced there is an actual reality around us, when in fact, there is nothing actually there. It has always been nothing more than mistaken appearance. This awareness protects us once again from thinking our generation stage practice is like retreating into a “safe space” within our mind like a glass box while the war ravages around us. Instead, we bring about a deep transformation of reality itself, creating a world quite literally free from all suffering.
We should view the non-emptiness meditation parts of the sadhana as training in the union of the two truths. We should see each appearance of the visualization as the dance of bliss and emptiness – never losing that feeling of emptiness we got at the beginning and at the death meditation. The union of conventional and ultimate truth is actually deeper than emptiness itself. I sometimes think of it as I looked so deep into emptiness, I found mere appearance. Each appearance is a mere karmic appearance of mind, generated through the force of my compassion, to liberate all beings.
Faith is Emptiness in Action
From my perspective, “faith is emptiness in action.” Faith, actually, makes no sense without emptiness. How could we take refuge in something that is independent of us and exists outside of us? When children blow air into soap, it creates beautiful bubbles that they take great delight in. In the same way, when we blow the pure winds of our faith into the space of emptiness, we get the pure appearances of the sadhana visualizations. When we experience it this way, every word of the sadhana comes alive as an expression of our faith.
Yes, the world we normally see is currently hurting. The question is what can we do about it? Through believing our correct imagination in this way, we can quite literally karmically reconstruct this world of sickness and suffering into a pure land in real time. Because we fully believe our pure imagination, we experience the world right now as a pure land; and through the karma we create engaging in this practice, eventually everything will directly appear to us and everyone else as completely pure. But if we are doing the practice correctly, we won’t even notice that happening because, from our perspective, we will already have been abiding in the pure lands for some time, the same as everybody else.
The outbreak of the Coronavirus has the potential to be the most devastating event since World War II. The toll in human life and economic and social collapse risks being beyond a scale of anything we have seen in our lifetimes. This quite naturally gives rise to a host of delusions within our mind. The outbreak is hard enough to deal with; adding uncontrolled, unpeaceful minds into the mix will only make coping with it that much harder.
The Lamrim, directly or indirectly, is the antidote to all delusions. If we can learn how to respond to the outbreak with Lamrim minds, then instead of generating delusions, we will gain Dharma wisdom. Then, instead of it just being suffering, the outbreak will become a powerful cause of our enlightenment. Only by attaining enlightenment can we free both ourselves and others permanently from all sickness. There is no lasting solution to the sufferings of sickness and disease other than Dharma.
What follows are my thoughts on how we can use the Lamrim to overcome the delusions that arise due to the outbreak, and how the outbreak teaches us the truth of Dharma. The goal here is simple: when we think of the outbreak, we want it to lead us to some conclusion of Lamrim. Then, instead of generating delusions, the outbreak causes us to generate Lamrim minds. These are simply my personal reflections. If you have your own thoughts, please share them so we can all learn from each other.
Precious Human Life: Throughout the entire world, others are terrified of this virus, many will become extremely sick or die. They have nowhere to turn and no means to transform this into something useful. I, however, through unbelievable good fortune, have found the Kadam Dharma. I have a precious opportunity to find permanent freedom from all sickness and disease, and be able to lead others to similar freedom. I must seize this precious opportunity while I still have the chance. I may never get such an opportunity again for aeons.
Death: This outbreak came out of nowhere, and in a few short months will change the world forever. Millions may die, and I could be one of them. And even if I am not, I could die from one of countless other diseases, or even in a car accident on the way to the hospital. There is no certainty in life, and we could lose this precious opportunity to escape from samsara at any moment. I must practice Dharma right now and not waste a single moment.
Lower realms: The outbreak is giving us a glimpse of the infinite sufferings of the lower realms. The world is about to descend into a resembling hell for potentially 6 months or longer. We are being shown, first hand, what samara is really all about. If I die today, I would quite likely fall into the lower realms and experience far worse sufferings than this. I am on the precipice, and could fall at any point. I must seek refuge and purify my negative karma while I still can.
Refuge: I have infinite negative karma on my mind, any of which could cause me to get the coronavirus and fall into the lower realms. The only lasting solution to this problem is to purify my negative karma and to attain liberation and enlightenment. If I don’t, it is just a question of time before the suffering I read about becomes my own. The Dharma of Lamrim is my ultimate refuge. Only it can provide lasting protection. To prevent my mind from becoming negative, thus activating my negative karma, I need a continuous stream of Buddha’s blessings. During these dark times, it is easy to grow despondent or fearful. But my spiritual family, my Sangha friends, can help show a good example and lift me up. I must make effort to transform this outbreak into powerful lessons of Lamrim, to receive Buddha’s blessings to stay positive, and to turn to my spiritual friends for inspiration. Through reliance on the three jewels, we will not only make it through this outbreak, we will spiritually grow from it.
Karma: All suffering arises from negative karma. In my countless previous lives – and in this life – I have engaged in terrible actions which have hurt others, deceived them, and sacrificed them for my own selfish purposes. In particular, being surrounded by disease is the environmental effect of sexual misconduct. Because I have killed, I may die. Because I have stolen from others, I may not have what I need if I get sick. Because I have neglected others, I may not get proper access to medical care. I have the karma to experience all of this and more. This karma is like millions of time bombs which could explode at any point. I am careful to wash my hands, but am I even more careful about not engaging in negativity? If I don’t purify my negative karma, it is 100% guaranteed I will get the coronavirus, and far worse, in this or my future lives. It is just a question of time. If I continue to engage in negative actions, I guarantee endless future misery. Once my negative karma ripens, not even Buddha can reverse it – I’ll have no choice but to ride it out. Therefore, I must purify my negative karma before it ripens while I still can. I must stop engaging in negative actions, but instead engage in virtuous ones that will lead to happiness in this and all my future lives. Karma makes exceptions for no one.
Renunciation: Samsara is the nature of sickness. For as long as I remain in it, it is inevitable I will get the coronavirus and much worse, again and again and again. For as long as I impute my “I” onto a samsaric body, I will be subject to its sufferings, including terrible sickness. I am very afraid of getting the Coronavirus, but I should be much more afraid of remaining in contaminated aggregates, the foundation of all sickness. Even if I avoid getting the coronavirus now, it is just a question of time before I get some other sickness, which might be far worse. The only way I will find lasting freedom from all sickness is to once and for all escape from samsara. There is no other way.
Equanimity: The Coronavirus is showing me just how biased my mind is. When I think of my own family getting the virus, I become very concerned and there is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect them. Yet, when I read about others getting the virus, it is just a statistic I am tracking on the Johns Hopkins map. When I read about people within the Trump administration or certain political leaders I dislike possibly getting the virus, there is this ugly part of my mind that thinks they are getting what they deserve. How horrible! Yet, that is the honest truth of how unbalanced and biased my mind is. We are all equal in not wanting to suffer. These biased minds disturb my inner balance and prevent me from truly being of service to others by transforming this outbreak into a cause of enlightenment. I must develop a balanced mind, caring equally for all without partiality.
Mothers: Every single person in lockdown is my mother. So is every person who gets sick, loses their job, is working the medical front lines, is stocking my grocery store or delivering my food. So too is every person who is dying.
Remembering the kindesss of others: These people have cared for me countless times in the past when I have been sick. They have stayed up to take care of me, blown my nose, cleaned up my vomit, and exposed themselves to my illness all to take care of me. If those still working would stop, I would starve, society would collapse into roving gangs, and quite literally all hell would break loose. They are risking their lives so this does not happen. I must repay everyone’s kindness by caring for them in every way I can.
Equalizing self with others. I am extremely concerned about myself getting the virus. Because I have diabetes, I am particularly at risk of having a severe reaction. Apparently also, if there was some sort of triage where they couldn’t care for everybody, I would likely be left to die. This scares me. I am doing everything I reasonably can to avoid that happening. Yet, there is nothing about me that makes me any more important than anybody else. If there were limited hospital capacity, I would want it to go to me. Why? I’m no more important than anybody else. I should cherish each and every living being as I do for myself. We are all different cells in the body of life, and the entire body of life is being attacked by this virus. What affects one of us, impacts us all.
Dangers of self-cherishing. The only reason why I am in danger of the outbreak is because in the past, motivated by selfishness, I engaged in the negative karma that would give rise to such suffering. If medical supplies or food or other basic necessities become scarce, I feel the need to hoard what I’ve got so I don’t run out, even though it is hoarding behavior that will trigger exactly the sort of shortages I fear. But because everybody else is hoarding, if I don’t, I will have nothing. If society breaks down, it will be because everyone resorted to an “every one fend for themselves” mentality. If this gets really ugly, that is exactly what might happen. The true root cause of this outbreak and all of the negative economic, social, and political consequences the flow from it, is selfishness. Thinking only of themselves, there are people going out and risking spreading the disease to others. I must abandon completely this evil mind.
Advantages of cherishing others. As a planet, as a nation, as a community, and as a family, the only way we are going to get through all of this is if we cherish each other. This outbreak could unleash the worst of humanity, or it could give rise to the best of it. I suspect it will do a lot of both. The common denominator of the worst will be selfishness, but the common denominator of the best will be those people, families, communities, and nations that cherished others, cared for others, and protected others. In these crazy times, the best way we can cherish others is to stay in our homes and place no demands on the system unless we absolutely have to. If somebody is there for me when I need them, it will be because I cherished others in the past. If others care for me, it will be because I cared for others. All the good there is in the world today struggling to pierce through the clouds of suffering come from cherishing others. When they write the history of my mental continuum, let them say at this moment of great peril, I stood on the side of cherishing others. Even if doing so costs me my life.
Exchanging self with others. It’s simple really: I need to impute my “I” onto all others, and impute “others” onto myself. Only then will my actions become correct, only then will I stop my selfish attitudes and walk through this crisis as the enlightened beings would. Look at me, then look at them. I remain trapped in samsara, fearing for my life and perhaps that of my family, preoccupied with what is happening in this world and in different countries. I’ve been getting mad at my family, at my colleagues at work, at political leaders, looking for somebody to blame for my struggles. Yet the Buddhas remain like the sun, shining the light of their blessings into the minds of each and every living being, emanating whatever they need, encouraging us to pray, and guiding us on how to transform this pandemic into the spiritual path. What is the core difference between them and me? I am seized by selfishness and they are driven by selflessness. I must become like them and cherish only others.
Great compassion. When I think of my own suffering, I naturally generate the wish to free myself, both temporarily and permanently from all sickness and suffering. Why? Because I love and cherish myself (even my true self, my Buddha nature), I wish to free my pure potential from all suffering. On the basis of exchanging self with others, wishing all beings could enjoy everlasting freedom from all sickness, I merely need look at the world today, and compassion will naturally arise. Everyone is gripped by fear, people are struggling to breathe, many are dying. Doctors and nurses are putting their own lives on the line to save others. They are being put in impossible situations of having to decide who will live and who will die. Millions are losing their jobs, companies are going bankrupt, people’s life savings are being wiped out. And this is just the beginning of what potentially could last months or a year or more if we are unable to get this under control. In all my life, I have never felt so close to the apocalypse. Perhaps it won’t come to that, perhaps it will all blow over. But perhaps it won’t, and we stand on the brink of a truly global calamity. The truth of the matter is this is only a taste of samsara’s sufferings. Everyone we see will suffer from this and far more for as long as they remain in samsara. Doctors can help us in this life, but they cannot protect us from having to experience the sicknesses of samsara again and again and again, for time without end. I wish everyone were free from their fears, sicknesses, and sufferings. The suffering of samsara is simply too great to even imagine, and we are seeing only a glimpse of its horrors.
Taking. It is not enough for me to merely wish others were free from the sufferings of the coronavirus outbreak (and all of the other sufferings of samsara), I must do something about it. I look around me, and many people simply don’t know how to mentally process all of this, and they become gripped by fear and paralyzed by worry, feeling there is no escape. It is up to me to assume personal responsibility to be the emotional anchor for those around me. If they can’t handle it, then I need to handle it because somebody has to. This is too serious. I look out into the world and see it becoming terribly sick. Most people don’t have the experience with Dharma that I have been blessed to have. I have been given Dharma tools that enable me to transform whatever arises into the path. I might struggle at first, but I know through blessings, I will be able to do so. I’m in a much better position to take on suffering and sickness than others are, so it only makes sense that all sickness ripen on me and not them. Please, I pray from the depths of my heart, may everyone’s Coronavirus ripen on me so that no one else need suffer from it ever again. May I alone suffer all of the economic and social consequences of this outbreak so others may live in freedom and community. May all of the fear and sickness of countless beings throughout samsara ripen upon me right now so that they may know respite. May I make this prayer in all sincerity.
Wishing love. It is not enough for others to be free from sickness and suffering, they need to enjoy good health, a sense of community, and an abundance of resources and care. They need to feel that their governments and their communities will come together, protect them during the storm, and then help them rebuild afterwards. They need to find the spiritual path that leads to everlasting freedom and joy. They need to know a life free from even the name sickness. They need to experience the bliss of wisdom bodies that have the power to emanate whatever living beings require. I wish all beings could enjoy such things.
Giving. Once again, it is not enough for me to simply wish others enjoyed this sort of happiness. I can’t just wait around for somebody else to help others, I need to assume personal responsibility for the welfare of all. I have been blessed with abundance, so it is up to me to give these things to others. May whatever resources I have flow to others. May whatever love I receive fall upon others. May whatever wisdom I have gained ripen in others’ minds. May whatever opportunities I have to practice Dharma manifest in the life of others. May whatever fearlessness I experience wash over others like a refreshing wind. May I send out countless emanations into the world, spontaneously manifesting for others whatever they require. May all of their food become medicine nectars, bestowing upon them immortal vajra bodies. May the light of my love shine like an eternal sun bringing joy to all.
Bodhichitta. As much as I would want to, I currently lack the ability to take on the suffering of the outbreak and give others back eternal good health. In truth, I can barely make it through my day without getting upset at somebody because I too am worried about what is to come. My diabetes makes me extremely limited in what I can do without exposing myself and potentially risking my precious human life. In truth, for as long as I remain in samsara, I am basically useless to others. If I want to help others, take on their suffering, give them back enlightenment, then I myself need to do whatever it takes to become a Buddha. I need to dedicate my life sincerely to the spiritual path because only it provides a lasting solution for those I love. Otherwise, I will just be swept away like everyone else, and they will have no hope. But if I become a Buddha, I will become untouchable by sickness. Even if my emanations appear to die from such sicknesses, in truth, I will never have left the pure land and can emanate some more. By becoming a Buddha, I can emanate pure lands where beings can take rebirth in safety, receive Dharma instructions, purify their subtle bodies, and themselves become Buddhas. Slowly but surely, we can empty samsara. I must do this. What other choice do I have?
Tranquil Abiding. My mind is completely distracted by the outbreak. Throughout the day, I am reading articles, checking up on the statistics, going through my facebook feed, and other things. If I am not careful, the more I consume information about the impending suffering of the world, the more distraught I may become, and the more irritable and useless I will become. Something is a distraction only if it is not thinking about Dharma. If every time I think about the outbreak it gives rise to a Dharma mind, then learning about the outbreak won’t be a distraction, instead it will be a fuel for my practice. While fantastic, even that is not good enough. If I am to realize my bodhichitta wish, I need to bring my mind completely under control. When I sit down to meditate, I need to fully absorb myself in my prayers and self-generation practice. If I don’t, I will never make the progress I need to make; but if I do, I can swiftly move along the path and put myself in a position to help others. They say time is of the essence in addressing the pandemic, that actions now have huge implications down the road by cutting down the exponential rate of growth. The same is true with us attaining enlightenment. The longer we take, the more living beings will suffer. The more distracted we allow ourselves to become, the longer it will take for us to accomplish our spiritual goals. We owe it to others to concentrate fully, without any distractions.
Superior seeing. Ultimately, this outbreak and the world in which it is happening is just a contaminated appearance to mind. It is a bad dream, but one we are trapped in. There is no permanent escape from the virus in the dream, the only lasting solution is to wake up from it. None of this is real, but we nonetheless suffer from it because we believe it is. When we connect with the emptiness of a phenomena, we purify the contaminated karma giving rise to its appearance. In ultimate truth, there is no coronavirus, there is no pandemic, there is no economic collapse, there is no political upheaval, none of it. Just emptiness – all of one equal taste in great bliss. We may not be doctors or nurses on the front lines, but all of us can meditate on the emptiness of all of this for the sake of the whole world, and thereby help purify the contaminated karma giving rise to it all. By realizing emptiness, we will be able to ourselves escape from samsara, build our pure land, and then be in a position to provide lasting refuge for all living beings. With emptiness, everything is possible.
Reliance upon the Spiritual Guide. If it were not for my spiritual guide, I would not even know of these Lamrim minds, much less have the opportunity to realize them. I, like everyone else, would be a leaf blown around from one suffering to another by the winds of karma. But with my guru’s blessings, I can accomplish anything. I can transform the arising of the coronavirus into a powerful cause of my enlightenment. Through his blessings, even if I get the virus myself and ultimately die from it, I will be able to transform that experience into the path. All around me, people are scared and suffering in different ways. I am completely incapable of helping them, I don’t know what to say to help, and am sometimes barely able to hold things together myself. Yet, by bringing my guru into my heart, he can act through me. His words and become my words. His thoughts can become my thoughts. I can completely get out of the way and let him work through me in this world. Geshe-la is in all of us, and he wants to help this world in its hour of need. How can he do so? Through all of us. We can become an extension of his body, speech, and mind in this world. Through practicing his Dharma, we can move our mind into his pure land from where we can help all being forever. Geshe-la, I beg you, please remain in my heart forever. Guide me through this. Help me know how I can be of service. Reveal to me the paths I should follow. Bestow upon me the wisdom I need. Touch my heart with your love for all beings.
Dedication. May all those who read this become free form all fear, sickness, suffering, and death. May all of the suffering in the world ripen solely on me, and may all others enjoy the bliss of Keajra. May every time we think of the outbreak and its aftermath remind us all of the truth of Dharma and the wisdom of the Lamrim. In this way, may all beings find eternal health.
“Milarepa said that he regarded everything that appeared to his mind as a Dharma book. All things confirmed the truth of Buddha’s teachings and increased his spiritual experience.” – Joyful Path of Good Fortune
For the last several months, China and much of East Asia have been dealing with the Coronavirus outbreak. There was hope, at first, that the virus could be contained, but most public health experts now believe that is impossible. It is now breaking out in Europe, North America, and most significantly in developing countries that lack sufficient public health infrastructure or administrative means to contain it. Some have said the spring and summer heat will kill it, but they forget there is a Southern Hemisphere, where our summer is their winter. While nobody has a crystal ball, all reliable sources point to one conclusion – the Coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it is technically called, is now and will remain for the foreseeable future a fact of modern life.
The question we must ask ourselves is how can we transform this into the spiritual path Milarepa-style? As Kadampa’s, we may not be able to stop the spread of the virus (though we need to do our part), but we can use the Dharma wisdom we have been taught to help stop the spread of delusions associated with this outbreak. The nurses and doctors who are heroically on the front lines of the virus outbreak should be our role models. The difference is we as spiritual practitioners need to be the first-responders to the arguably more dangerous outbreak – mass delusions. At worst, the virus can kill us only in this life, but the delusions people are generating towards this virus will harm us in this and in all of our future lives. Delusions are the true pandemic.
Countering Mass Delusions
Transforming this outbreak into the spiritual path for ourselves is vital – more on that below. But let’s first talk about how to help others swept away by mass delusions – specifically irrational fear and racism. All delusions function in the same way – they mentally project a mistaken reality, and then we relate to that mistake projection as if it were actually true. Countering delusions – others’ or our own – is the essence of the Bodhisattva’s way of life. The outbreak is triggering mass delusions, delusions only function is to harm, and we need to become part of the solution.
Planet-wide, it is no exaggeration to say people are freaking out. Human psychology is not individual rational actors, but rather the mentality of a herd. It is very easy to be swept away by the herd. Fear can be divided into two types – rational and irrational. It is perfectly rational to fear delusions, negative karma, samsaric rebirth, and even solitary peace. These things can genuinely hurt us and others and are the deep causes of all of our suffering. Irrational fears are misplaced fears – fear of something we don’t need to fear. The reality is on the aggregate, the total human suffering from delusions about the Coronavirus FAR EXCEEDS the suffering from the virus itself. Delusions are the real virus.
Let me be clear in my meaning here. I’m not saying we should not fear the virus or take the necessary precautions advised by experts. This virus has the potential to be a global catastrophe. Experts are now estimating that if we do nothing, somewhere between 30%-70% of the global population will get the virus. Globally, that’s between two and five billion people, with between 200 and 500 million deaths worldwide. This has the potential to be as devastating as a major war. But humanity is not doing nothing, people are acting to minimize the spread, and we should encourage everybody to do everything experts are advising. Externally, we need to act exactly as normal and take this thing as seriously as we would a mobilization for a major war. Before a hurricane, it is calm and skies are clear. That is when we need to prepare. Once the storm hits, it’s too late. If we all do what we are supposed to do externally, we can mitigate enormously the impacts of all of this, and possibly escape with relatively minimal overall impacts.
What I’m saying is the bigger pandemic is the delusions humanity generates in response to this crisis. Doing what is externally required of us is good, but not good enough. As Kadampas, we need to deal with the inner outbreak of delusions.
The short version is while we should externally do what we can to avoid getting the virus, internally we should not fear it. We can take precautions without delusions. Aversion mentally projects some external thing to be a cause of our suffering, exaggerates its harmfulness, and then relates to that exaggerated projection as if it were true. Typically, aversions can be countered by rational explanations, deflating the exaggeration, and presenting a more balanced view of the situation. Here, the analogy of the toy snake is particularly useful. If it is dark and we are not looking too closely, it is possible we can see a snake on the path, and be seized by strong fear. But then, when we look more closely, we realize it is a toy snake, and our fear subsides. Even though in fact there was not ever an actual snake there, one nonetheless appeared vividly to our mind and we generated real emotional fear. The truth of the situation didn’t matter. But when presented with new information realizing it was just a toy snake, our fear went away. Right now, when people think about the prospects of getting the virus, they see a real snake; when we know we can transform it into the path, we realize it is a toy snake. The virus is still the virus, but our fear of it goes away.
In the early stages of the Coronavirus outbreak, especially when we consider some transmission occurs even if the person does not have a fever or other symptoms, we start to mentally project everyone around us is infected and every surface we touch is covered with the virus. It can get to the point where we feel like going outside is just dangerous, like the whole world is filled with gaseous disease. Every time we see somebody wearing a mask, it then reinforces our fear that the virus is everywhere. This is our toy snake. In actual fact, statistically speaking, very few people actually have the virus – at present at least, this could change very quickly if people do not take the necessary precautions – and almost none of the surfaces we encounter are dangerous. But danger appears vividly to our mind, and we relate to these projections as if they were actually true and become seized by fear.
This is not to say nobody is infected and no surfaces are dangerous, just that what appears to our mind is not reliable and much of our fear is exaggerated and irrational. As we become aware of these facts, just like realizing it is a toy snake, the majority of our exaggerated fears will subside and we can deal with the situation in a balanced way. What is a balanced way? Externally, we take every precaution experts advise; internally, we learn to patiently accept whatever arises.
But what if we get sick? Shouldn’t we fear that? First of all, not all sickness is the Coronavirus. We have gotten colds and flus our whole life, and it could be just that – a cold or a flu. No big deal. Second, not all infections of the Coronavirus are fatal – experts put the mortality rate at between 0.025% and 1.5%. Young people seem to not be too affected, but older people are dying at much higher rates. The overwhelming majority of cases will be no different than any other flu people get. Not pleasant, but perfectly endurable and survivable. Some people have been infected and showed no symptoms whatsoever – it simply passed through them with barely a blip. But for vulnerable populations, it is a real risk. Regardless, whatever happens, our job is to transform it into the path by responding to it with wisdom and compassion.
Samsara is the nature of sickness. It is an unavoidable part of human life. We transform it into the spiritual path like we do any other sickness we might get. Diabetes, heart disease, and cancer strike people all of the time. We will inevitably get sick many times in our life, and likely die of some sickness. It is just a question of when and which sickness. Sickness itself is a fact of samsara, whether it is a problem for us or a blessing depends upon whether we transform its arising into the path.
In many respects, it’s almost better to just assume now we will get the virus. That way we can mentally begin to accept it and start thinking about how we will transform it into the path. When we see how we will do so, our fear will subside. This does not mean we should not still take all the normal precautions to avoid getting it, it just means we accept even if we do get it – even if we die from it – it will not be a problem because spiritually we will grow from it. By staring into the worst case scenario and realizing it need not be a problem for us, our fears will subside. Wisdom brings fearlessness. We only fear that which harms us, but if we can transform everything into something that spiritually helps us, we have nothing to fear.
Exotic diseases that start out in foreign places leads to a natural fear of unknown others. In today’s political climate, so-called political “leaders” are none too happy to stoke racist fears of immigrants and others for their own narrow political gain. “We need to ‘keep them out’ because they are all ridden with disease,” is a popular refrain. As long as we allow irrational fear to remain in our mind, we make ourselves susceptible to becoming ensnared in racist tropes. We may even begin propagating them ourselves, thinking we are keeping people safe. Long after the Coronavirus has left the front pages, the racism will remain. It is far more destructive to human society than the virus itself, and if we are not careful, we too can become part of the problem. There is no wall strong enough to keep out microscopic germs. The germs themselves don’t care what race anybody is. We have a responsibility to push back against racist exploitation of human illness.
How to Transform the Outbreak for Ourselves
Having looked carefully at the mass delusions of irrational fear and racism, how can we ourselves transform the outbreak into the spiritual path? Transforming some difficulty into the path does not make the difficulty go away, it just makes it spiritually useful. If the difficulty can become a powerful cause of our own or others’ enlightenment, then on-net from a spiritual point of view, the difficulty becomes a good thing, it becomes rocket fuel for spiritual growth.
How would Milarepa look at all of this?
First, and most obviously, the outbreak is a good lesson in karma. Some people get it and others don’t. Of those who get it, some die and others don’t. Why the difference? It’s the same as why some people die in a plane crash and others don’t – it’s a question of what karma do we have and what karma is ripening. We all have the karma to get the Coronavirus and countless other diseases. Karma is the deep cause. If you don’t want to get the virus or any other sickness, then apply effort to purify your negative karma. Further, negative minds activate negative karma, positive minds activate positive karma, and pure minds activate pure karma. So just as we are careful to wash our hands and not touch our face, so too we should be careful to not let our mind become negative, because that is how we activate the karma of ourselves possibly getting sick.
Second, use the outbreak to strengthen your renunciation. The only reason why we get sick is because we are still identifying with contaminated samsaric aggregates that get sick. Humans experience human suffering because they identify with human bodies and minds. We might be able to avoid catching the Coronavirus, but for as long as we remain in contaminated aggregates, we will inevitably get and possibly die from some sickness. The only long-term sustainable solution to sickness is to escape from samsara once and for all.
Third, we can use this as an opportunity to practice cherishing others. Even if we ourselves are not likely to die from this because we are not part of a vulnerable population, we can still become a carrier of the disease and inadvertently infect somebody else who is vulnerable. So we should all be careful as an act of cherishing others. We can help people who are afraid by presenting things in a balanced way and showing them how they can transform it into the path if they ever did get sick, or we can teach them about the nature of samsara. If we come to know people who have gotten sick, we can care for them and help them (while of course protecting ourselves from getting sick as well). The possibilities for cherishing others are limitless when surrounded by suffering.
Fourth, we can use the outbreak to increase our compassion. Look at how much suffering there is – both physically from the virus and mentally from the anxiety – in the world as a result of the outbreak. Think of all of the other sicknesses there are circulating throughout the world. All samsaric beings are, in effect, being cooked in a giant stew of disease. None of us can escape it for as long as we remain in samsara. And this will go on and on and on for eternity until we stop it. Sometimes considering such a state of affairs can make us extremely sad and depressed. But this only happens because we lack sufficient faith that there is a solution. Through reliance on the three jewels, we can eventually help all beings escape once and for all from all sickness. Seeing their suffering will still be unbearable, but instead of dragging us down, it will energize us to realize the solution. This is not a game. Outbreaks such as this can help shatter our complacency in our Dharma practice, and become the forcing action to start to actually get serious about progressing along the spiritual path. What other solution is there? In this way, the outbreak becomes a powerful cause of our bodhichitta, and through that, we will eventually gain the ability to help each and every living being find everlasting freedom from all sickness. If only one practitioner generates a qualified bodhichitta as a result of this outbreak, and that bodhichitta eventually leads to their enlightenment, then on the aggregate we can say the outbreak will have resulted in more good than harm. Now imagine thousands of Kadampas develop such a bodhichitta. This outbreak could mark the turning point in the spiriutal fate of millions. Whether it does depends entirely upon us.
In Universal Compassion, Geshe-la explains the practice of taking and giving is the essence of transforming adverse conditions into the path, or Lojong practice. If we ourselves discover irrational fear or racism in our mind, we can imagine that we are taking on all the irrational fear and racism of everyone in this world and the fear and racism in our own mind is that which we have taken on. Then, we use our Dharma wisdom to overcome it within our own mind, and then give back our fearlessness and universal love. Taking on our own future or others’ suffering is one of the most powerful methods for overcoming our fears. This courageous mind willing to take on others suffering so they don’t have to experience it eradicates our selfishness and, paradoxically, actually purifies the negative karma that could possibly cause us to get sick in the first place. Likewise, we can mentally imagine we take on everyone’s Coronavirus and give them back immortal vajra bodies free from all sickness. We need not fear practicing taking, we should fear not practicing it and remaining burdened by our negative karma.
The outbreak is also an excellent opportunity to train in Tantra. Tantric practice, fundamentally, is a method for creating pure worlds. It is not enough to just wish to escape from samsara and sickness, Tantra is our spiritual method for constructing alternative pure realities. Heruka and Vajrayogini never get sick because their bodies are made of wisdom light. There is no sickness in Keajraland because there is no karmic basis for it to arise. China may be able to build a new hospital in 10 days, but once built, people still die from sickness within it. Through our Tantric practice, we can generate spiritual field hospitals where all of the doctors are emanations of Medicine Buddha and all of the medicine is pure healing nectar. We can purify the deep contaminated karma giving rise to worlds of sickness and replace them with charnel grounds in which all appearances teach the truth of Dharma. The body mandala deities of Heruka and Vajrayogini are the supreme nurses who can purify the subtle bodies and minds of all beings, resulting in a permanent healing of all sickness. Such results might not be instantaneous, but if we are persistent with our effort, they are guaranteed. There is no need to give in to hopelessness and despair, the solutions lay at our feet. We need merely pick them up and use them and never give up until all beings know everlasting freedom.
Whether this outbreak is a cause of mass delusion and pernicious racism depends, fundamentally, upon all of us. We each have a responsibility to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Dharma wisdom shows us how. We cannot control how others think, but we can control how we react to the outbreak. If we do the right things for long enough, this world will get better. Ultimately, this outbreak is a powerful lesson in the truth of Dharma and a unique opportunity for us to supercharge our spiritual life. If we succeed in transforming the outbreak into the spiritual path, all of the suffering associated with it will not have been for naught. We can make it meaningful, and indeed spiritually beneficial for the world. Now, the ball is in our court. The only question that remains is what will we do with our opportunity?
Depression is not fun. But it need not be a “problem.” Mental illness in general arises when our deluded mental habits become chronic, often leading to our mind – and even our body or nervous system – becoming injured. Often, there is some external trigger, such as an abusive childhood or some extreme emotional trauma from life events. Some people, for a variety of karmic reasons, carry even a genetic legacy making them more prone to mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, and so forth. In any case, it is not our fault that our mind reacts to adverse life events in deluded, negative ways. Nobody intentionally becomes deluded, rather delusions just arise uncontrolledly as our habitual response to difficult circumstances. The good news is we can learn to change our mental habits, and our current mental state gives us a great opportunity to train in doing so. But we will not be able to do so unless we first learn to patiently accept our current situation. To “accept” in Dharma terms means “to be at peace with how things are.” Things are as they are, and from a spiritual point of view, this is not a “problem” for us.
Unfortunately, there is tremendous mental stigma associated with mental illness. Society seems to accept physical illness, such as the flu, a broken leg, or cancer; but it judges mental illness as some sort of personal failure. We then internalize this stigma, and begin to judge ourselves, viewing ourself as a failure because we are not well. Excuse my French, but this is just bullish*t! Samsara is the nature of sickness, and if truth be told, all physical sickness actually arises from mental sickness from either this or previous lives. Mental sickness happens, just as physical sickness does. It is not our fault, and it is not a personal failure. Society is simply wrong, and we should ignore the views of the ignorant.
Before we get to how to accept our depression, anxiety, or other mental illness, first two words about medications: take them! Geshe-la is very clear about a Kadampa practitioner’s relationship with traditional medicine, doctors, etc. If we have a headache, we take an aspirin just like everybody else, and then we practice patient acceptance while we wait for it to take effect. When we suffer from strong depression, etc., we are sometimes so impacted we are simply unable to “practice Dharma.” Medications help put us back into a zone where we can once again train our mind, and then we use the Dharma we have learned to work through the rest. We should view our medications as karmic emanations of Medicine Buddha and strongly believe they have the power to heal our mind. If we are to transform our ordinary food into medicine nectar, then surely we should transform our medications in the same way. Similarly, we should see our doctors, talk with our psychologist, and take the time to rest exactly as normal.
Healing our mind from depression and anxiety takes time. It is during this time that we need to practice patient acceptance. I find there are three main obstacles to accepting our current state: hopelessness, fear, and impatience wanting it all to be over.
Hopelessness primarily arises because either we assume our current state will last forever or we lack confidence in our capacity to make it to the other side. Hopelessness causes us to think our efforts to get better will fail no matter what, so we give up even trying. Hopelessness quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. First of all, nothing is permanent. Everything is constantly changing, and as they say, “this too shall pass.” Second, the laws of karma are definite. If we create good causes for long enough, we will get better. Finally, all of us are destined to eventually reach enlightenment, the only question is when. So whether it is soon or in a future life, it is definite we will make it to the other side. Giving in to hopelessness is not only self-defeating, it is factually wrong.
Being mentally ill can give rise to all sorts of fear. It can be very scary when, as a result of depression or other mental illness, we lose our normal mental capacities. We fear it might be permanent or we fear something going wrong and not being able to deal with it. This can then lead to anxiety, which can become generalized, leading to a further erosion of our mental capacities in a vicious cycle. How can we overcome this? First, we need to remember our pure potential is indestructible. It is our Buddha nature, and it lies within all of us. No matter how terrifying the storm clouds, the sky always remains untouched. Second, our mind being ill gives us countless opportunities to apply effort to heal it, so our current illness is rocket fuel for our spiritual development and karma. Third, we can use our temporary state to develop compassion for those going through aging, whose loss of capacity is irreversible, at least in this life. Fourth, we can use our current state as an opportunity to practice taking – either taking on our own future suffering now, or taking on others’ suffering similar to what we are going through. The practice of taking is one of the most powerful means of purifying the negative karma giving rise to our current difficulties.
Sometimes when we have been mentally ill for a long time, we can become impatient wishing it was all over. People who suffer form physical sickness or injury often develop similar impatience. If we indulge this mind and allow ourselves to become impatient with our recovery, we will not speed up our getting better, we will simply make ourselves more miserable along the way. The bottom line is we have no way of knowing if our current state will last only a couple of weeks or a couple of years. This too, we must learn to accept. How? Faith in Dorje Shugden. Dorje Shugden is a wisdom Buddha who blesses our mind with the ability to see how our situation is in fact perfect for our swiftest possible enlightenment. In this way, nothing is an obstacle and everything is helpful to our spiritual development. We can think of our convalescence period as a special form of spiritual retreat where we can work on our mind. We don’t know how long it will last, but we do know it is exactly what we need and we are protected. Anybody who has done long retreat knows it is not bliss, rainbows, and unicorns; rather it is more like hard work cleaning out the grime in the deepest recesses of our mind. It can be quite unpleasant, but we know it is only by doing a deep cleaning that we will be able to enjoy a lasting freshness and purity.
In conclusion, while depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses may be “unpleasant to go through,” from a spiritual perspective, they are a good thing. We need to embrace them in this way. If we accept our circumstance, we will no longer experience it as “suffering.” It will still be there, we will just experience it differently. We will experience it as deep healing of 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.
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.