Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Avoiding the Extreme of Nihilism

(9.7d) (Proponent of things) “Then it is incorrect to say that things exist even conventionally.”

(9.8) No, there is no fault, because things exist by conventional valid cognizers.
From the point of view of worldly people, seeing things is seeing reality;
But worldly people never actually see reality
Because the real nature of things is their emptiness.

Throughout Shantideva’s guide, there are a series of debates between the different philosophical schools. To indicate the views of the Prasangikas, Shantideva puts in italics the views that he is refuting.  Since it is not always obvious which school of thought the different parts in italics refer to, I will indicate in parentheses which school of thought the particular doubt comes from. In this context, the last line of verse 7 represents the views of the proponents of things.

As we go through the debates in Shantideva’s guide, we can sometimes feel tempted to just jump straight to the Prasangikas refutation because we know that is the final view that we are after. This is a big mistake. The debates between the Prasangikas and the other schools of thought only have power to move our mind if we first realize how we ourselves have the same doubt or objection that the other schools of thought are raising.  Each time we see italics in Shantideva’s guide, we should first spend some time to generate and identify how we ourselves have the different doubts or objections referred to by the lower schools. We almost need to first convince ourselves of the doubt of the other view, thinking, “yeah, that’s right.”  Only when we actually think in the way that the other schools think will Shantideva’s dismantling of that view move our mind. If we fail to realize how we ourselves are still holders of the views of the lower schools, Shantideva’s refutations will not function to move our mind.  But if we first identify how we are holders of these other views, then Shantideva’s refutation will actually move our mind and change our mind. We will realize, “oh yeah, I see, I was wrong.”  In this way, going through the debates itself is a method for arriving at the correct view of emptiness. We gradually chip away at all of our wrong understandings until we are left with the correct view of the Prasangikas.

Here, the objection of the proponents of things is that if things do not truly exist then they do not exist at all. This is known as the extreme of non-existence. They say if things are only mere appearances to mind, like in a dream, then nothing is real and nothing exists. If nothing exists, then nothing exists conventionally either. Nothing exists at all. We fall into the extreme of nihilism.  In truth, we all think this way.  For example, when a child has a nightmare, we say don’t worry it’s not real, it does not exist. Whereas we think that if a monster was actually in the child’s room, then it would exist, it would be real, and therefore it would be appropriate to be afraid. If we are saying that the monster in the room is also just a mere appearance to mind, not real, then why should we fear it?  But if we do not fear it, it will eat us and harm us. Therefore, it is appropriate for us to be afraid. Similarly, we think if the things we normally see do not exist at all then why bother generating compassion for others who appear to be suffering. They are not really suffering. There is no one there suffering at all. So why care?  

So how do we answer this doubt?  Geshe-la once said, ‘that which is conceived by ignorance, we believe to be the truth.’  In other words, things appear to us to exist independent of mind, and we assent to that appearance as if it were true, objectively true.  For example, somebody who is paranoid will project a world full of threats, and the person relates to these appearances as if they were objectively true.  They do not even put into question whether they are just projections of their mind because these appearances appear so vividly.  We are exactly the same.  This whole world is appearing to us and it appears as if we have nothing to do with its creation.  It is there functioning on its own and we are just observing what is taking place.

Geshe-la has said many times, ‘the things we normally see do not exist at all.’  This is because what we normally see are inherently existent things.  These things do not exist at all.  It is worth walking around the town repeating this like a mantra to gain some experience of it.

To understand the Prasangika view, it is worth it to understand a little more clearly what is meant by illusion-like things.  With respect to an illusion, it looks like there is something, but there is not actually.  What appears to be, does not actually exist.  It just appears that way.  So too it is with all things.  It looks like there is a table, for example, but there is not actually one there.  The table does not actually exist, it just appears to.  It appears that way.  When certain causes and conditions are assembled together, it creates an illusion-like appearance of something actually being there, like a rainbow or a Mexican salad.  Everything is like this, illusion-like effects from the assemblage of causes and conditions.  When we assent to that appearance, and engage in actions on that basis, we plant contaminated karma on our mind which ripens later as the appearance of objects that exist from their own side.  Thus, the cycle becomes self-perpetuating.

So how do things exist? They exist by convention. We all agree to call something the same thing if it has the same nature, aspect, and function. For example, something that is made of metal, has four wheels and an engine, and functions to take us places, we all agree by convention to call it a car. It’s “carness” does not exist on the side of the car, rather conventionally everyone agrees to call that thing a car. If last night we dreamt of a car, it does not exist as anything more than a mere appearance to our mind, but it still can function to take us from one dream place to another dream place. It functions within the dream. In exactly the same way the car of our waking state is a mere projection of our mind, a label we impute upon a collection of wheels and an engine, but it still functions to take us from one place to another.  Both of the places that it is taking us to and from are likewise just mere appearances to our mind as is the car that takes us between them. But the places still accomplish the function of being a place and the car still accomplishes the function of taking us to places, therefore even though these things do not exist as anything more than mere imputation to our mind, they still function and exist conventionally.

Here Geshe-la introduces the term “conventional valid cognizer.”  A cognizer is a mind that knows an object. A valid cognizer is a mind that knows something correctly.  A conventional valid cognizer is a mind that knows something correctly according to convention. For example, if I call a tennis racquet a spaghetti strainer, that is not a conventional valid cognizer.  But if I call a tennis racket a tennis racket and a spaghetti strainer a spaghetti strainer, then my mind has conventional valid cognizers.  

But it is useful to recall the first verse of Chapter 9 in which it said that conventional appearances are mistaken appearances. We might wonder how it is possible for a conventional valid cognizer to be a valid cognizer yet at the same time a mistaken appearance. It is a mistaken appearance in the sense that the way in which it exists does not correspond with the way that it appears. But it is still a conventional valid cognizer in the sense that conventionally we all agree this is a car. According to worldly people that is a car, and Prasangikas have no disagreement with worldly people.

But this then raises the question of do Buddhas see the car?  If the car is a mistaken appearance and Buddhas only know truth, how can they possibly know the car?  The answer is when a Buddha sees a car, what they are actually seeing is emptiness appearing in the aspect of a car. The car that a Buddha sees is emptiness appearing as car. The car that we normally see is a conventional valid cognizer, a conventional appearance, but a mistaken appearance. The car that we normally see does not exist at all. It still continues to function in our non-existent world that we inhabit, but it doesn’t actually exist at all. The car that a Buddha sees does exist, but it exists as a manifestation of emptiness. And it still functions in an all-empty world.

A Pure Life: Putting the “Mahayana” in Precepts Days

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

This practice is called training in the eight mahayana precepts. The eight precepts themselves are specific moral disciplines that we train in. What makes them mahayana precepts is we train in this moral discipline with a bodhicitta motivation. Any virtuous activity can become a bodhisattva’s perfection by engaging in that virtue with a bodhichitta motivation.

What is bodhichitta? Bodhichitta is a mind that spontaneously wishes to attain enlightenment for the sake of protecting all living beings from their suffering. It observes that all living beings are suffering, drowning in the ocean of samsara, and wishes to do something to help them. But it recognizes that at present we currently lack the ability to help living beings. We ourselves remain trapped within samsara, controlled by our delusions, and limited in our capacity to do much good to help people over a sustained period of time. We also frequently have no idea how to actually help people, and all we can do is perhaps offer them a shoulder that they could cry on. Observing this, we conclude it is not enough to simply wish others did not suffer, but we must ourselves do something to free them from their suffering.

If a mother saw her child drowning in a river, she would not merely wish the child not drown but would actively dive in to try save her. But the problem is at present we do not know how to swim. So even though we would want to help others, we lack the ability to actually do so. We then ask ourselves, who does have the ability to help all living beings and lead them out of the ocean of samsara onto the island of enlightenment? Only a Buddha does. A Buddha possesses the omniscient wisdom that always knows how to help others and is able to continue to help others life after life without interruption unimpeded by their own death or the death of those they are trying to help. A Buddha is also able to emanate countless forms for each and every living being trapped within samsara. They are not limited by simply one body and one voice, but can emanate as many forms as living beings need to always be there with them 24/7 life after life. Buddhas also possessed the skillful means necessary to guide complicated samsaric beings how to enter, progress along, and eventually complete the path. Let us face it, most people reject the advice that they receive even if it’s exactly what they need to hear. Having skillful means knowing how to encourage people to engage in spiritual practices makes the bodhisattva’s task possible.

Understanding that only a Buddha has the ability to actually fulfill the compassionate wish to protect others from their suffering, we then make the firm determination that we ourselves must become a Buddha in order to help all other living beings. The primary wish of bodhichitta is the wish to help others, and the wish to attain enlightenment is the secondary wish we need to do in order to fulfill our primary wish. Geshe-la gives the analogy of wanting a cup of tea. If we generate the intention that we would like to have a cup of tea, we naturally get a cup, a tea bag, and hot water. This happens almost automatically and is a natural consequence of our primary wish to have a cup of tea. In the same way, when we wish to protect all living beings from their suffering, we then naturally get the body, speech, and mind of a Buddha that enable us to fulfill our primary wish. This happens almost automatically and without our having to give it much thought, we are simply driven by the desire to protect others and we naturally do what is necessary in order to fulfill that wish.

Each of the eight precepts by itself is a practice of moral discipline. What makes it a mahayana practice of moral discipline is we engage in them with a bodhicitta motivation. When we explore each of the eight precepts themselves, I will attempt to explain how our observing that precept specifically helps us gain the ability to protect others from their suffering. But generally speaking, how does our practice of moral discipline help us attain enlightenment? 

To attain enlightenment, we need to purify our very subtle mind of the two obstructions. The two obstructions are the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience. Delusion obstructions are simply the delusions of our mind, and the obstructions to omniscience are the imprints of our past delusions and past deluded actions. Once we have purified our very subtle mind of the two obstructions, we will naturally attain enlightenment. In other words, enlightenment is essentially already within us, we simply need to uncover it.

How do we purify our mind of the two obstructions? We do so by meditating on the emptiness of our very subtle mind where all of our delusions and their imprints are stored. When we directly realize the emptiness of our very subtle mind, it functions to uproot directly and simultaneously all of the contaminated karma we have accumulated since beginningless time.

How do we then gain a direct realization of emptiness? That depends upon our ability to concentrate our mind. In the Sutra teachings on tranquil abiding, we learn how to concentrate our gross mind. And in the tantric teachings regarding controlling our inner winds, we learn how to concentrate our very subtle mind. It is impossible to concentrate with our very subtle mind if we are incapable of concentrating with our gross mind.

Concentration is primarily a training in overcoming distractions. Distractions cause our mind to move away from our chosen object of meditation towards something else. If we do not mix our mind with the Dharma, it will have no power to transform our mind. Distractions are the thief that robs us of our spiritual life.  Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path of Good Fortune that distractions are of three types: mental excitement, mental wandering, and mental sinking. Mental excitement is when our mind moves to an object of attachment. Mental wandering is when our mind moves to another object of Dharma other than our chosen object of meditation. Mental sinking is when we lose the clarity or grip of our mind on our chosen object, but our mind has not necessarily gone to something else. In the beginning, our primary obstacle is mental excitement.

Why does our mind go to objects of attachment instead of our object of meditation? The reason why is our mind is naturally more interested in objects of attachment because we still believe them to be causes of our happiness and we have not yet realized that our objects of meditation are causes of happiness, rather we find them to be quite distant or perhaps even boring. Our mind will naturally go to wherever it feels it will be happiest. Why does our mind believe objects of attachment are causes of happiness? Simply habit. The habit of believing the lies of our attachment that external objects are indeed causes of our happiness. We are so accustomed to these lies that we do not even call them into question. If we are to overcome our mental excitement, we must stop being fooled by our attachment.

A good example is spam. We have all received the emails from the Nigerian Prince who promises to transfer us a bunch of money for safekeeping if only we give him our bank account numbers. When we first receive this email, we wonder maybe it is true, and we are tempted to send our bank information. But when we know clearly that this is a scam and a lie, we are no longer fooled and do not feel tempted to send our information. In fact, simply receiving such an email reminds us of the need to be careful to not be fooled by the many scams that exist out there. We may not be able to prevent such spam from arriving in our inbox, but we can cut the power or the danger of such messages by seeing them as the lies that they are. In the same way, our minds of attachment are like spam. They promise us all sorts of happiness if only we follow their advice. When we first encounter such lies, we are tempted and often do follow their advice. When we fail to find the happiness that they promised, our attachment then lies to us again and says we did not experience it because we did not do it well enough. So once again we believe the lie and follow it. We start to do this again and again, until eventually we have no choice and we follow such lies blindly believing them to be the truth.

But with Dharma wisdom, we can recognize attachment for the lie that it is. It is the spam of our mind. When the thoughts of attachment arise in her mind, we then see them for the lies that they are. The more they come, the more we strengthen our determination to not be fooled. Like with our spam, we might not be able to prevent such thoughts from arriving in our mind, but with wisdom we can cut the power of such thoughts over us in terms of controlling our behavior.

How do we game such wisdom and such power? Through training in moral discipline. The practice of moral discipline is quite simply seeing the dangers of engaging in negative behavior and then making the determination to not do so. It is a wisdom that is no longer fooled by the lies of our attachments. It sees through these lies and recognizes them as deceptive, trying to trick us into engaging in negative behavior thinking it will bring us happiness when in fact it only brings us more suffering.

So how then do we train in moral discipline? When the temptation to break our moral discipline arises in our mind, we remind ourselves of the wisdom that caused us to take the vow or precept in the first place. We recall how the minds of attachment encouraging us to break our moral discipline are in fact deceptive, promising us happiness but simply guaranteeing more suffering. The practice of moral discipline is not an exercise in willpower. If in our heart we still want to engage in the negativity, we may for a short period of time be able to refrain, but all we will actually be doing is repressing our attachment wanting to do the opposite until eventually our attachment grows in strength and it overwhelms our willpower.

Rather, moral discipline is the practice of changing our desires. By contemplating again and again how are delusions are deceptive and how our wisdom and virtues are non-deceptive, we gradually change our desires to no longer want to chase the objects of our attachment and be fooled by their lies, and rather we want to train in the opposite virtues which we know are reliable methods for bringing us the happiness that we seek.  It is easy to take the Eight Mahayana Precepts, but the actual training is keeping them in the face of our deluded temptations to break them.

When the temptations arise in our mind, we then recall the disadvantages of breaking our moral discipline, the deceptiveness of the attachments lying to us, and the benefits of observing our moral discipline and following pure conduct. Through engaging in these contemplations again and again and again, we gradually change our desires. We no longer want to follow attachments, we instead want to follow our wisdom and virtues. By gaining experience with these contemplations and in keeping our vows, we gradually build up tendencies similar to the cause within our mind that are familiar with this way of thinking. Then, when we are in meditation itself and objects of distraction, or objects of mental excitement, arise in our mind, we are not tempted to go follow them but rather we see them as deceptive. We are then able to more easily renew our determination to not follow our distractions and instead to keep our mind focused on our object of meditation.

It is for this reason that Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path of Good Fortune that the practice of moral discipline overcomes gross distractions and the practice of concentration overcomes our subtle distractions. We first need to overcome our gross distractions through the training in moral discipline and then we can overcome our subtle distractions through our training and concentration. By training in concentration, we can gradually gain control over our gross mind, which then creates the space for us to gradually gain control over our subtle mind through the trainings of learning to control our inner winds. Once we can control our inner winds, we will eventually be able to make manifest our very subtle mind of clear light. Once this mind is manifest, we can then engage in the meditation on the emptiness of our very subtle mind and purify our mind of the two obstructions and thereby attain enlightenment.

In this way, we can see the very clear connection between our training in the practice of the Eight Mahayana Precepts and our eventual attainment of enlightenment. When we see this connection, we can easily generate the bodhicitta motivation to take the Mahayana precepts. In this way, our practice of the eight precepts becomes training in the eight Mahayana precepts.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: What Exactly are Mere Appearances to Mind?

(9.5) When you proponents of things see things,
You do not recognize their illusion-like character
But assert them to be inherently existent.
This is where we Madhyamika-Prasangikas disagree with you.

In our earlier preparations for this chapter, I offered a series of analogies to help us understand the correct view of emptiness. One of those analogies is that all things are like an illusion. What do all illusions have in common? They appear in one way but they exist in another. For example, the illusory tiger appears to the audience to be an actual tiger, but in fact it is just an illusion created by the magician. There is no tiger actually there. Inherent existence and true existence are synonymous. True existence says that objects exist in the way that they appear. Prasangikas refute true existence. They say objects do not exist in the way that they appear. Objects appear to exist from their own side independent of the mind, whereas in fact objects are mere projections created by the mind, like in a dream. In this sense, they do not exist in the way that they appear and are therefore like illusions. All proponents of things believe objects do truly exist. This is the fundamental difference between the Prasangikas and all of the other philosophical schools.

(9.6) Forms that we see directly are just mere appearance to mind.
They exist falsely because the way they appear
Does not correspond to the way they exist,
Just as a human body is conventionally accepted as clean when in reality it is impure.

‘True’ in a Dharma context means to exist in the way it appears.  Truly existent means to exist in the way that it appears. Things appear to exist from their own side, but they do not exist that way, so they are falsely existent.  In reality, there is nothing other than the mere appearance of mind.

What is a mere appearance to mind? An appearance to mind means something that appears to our mind. For example, there are objects that appear to our eyes, objects that appear to our ears, and so forth.  There are also objects that appear to our mind, for example remembering the face of our mother. Normally we think there is a big difference between objects that appear to our senses and objects that appear to our mind. We understand that the objects that appear to our mind are simply mental projections, but we believe that the objects that appear to our senses actually exist out there independent of our mind. Shantideva is saying that all objects are equally appearances to mind. The memory of our mother and the car that we see with our eyes are equally just mere appearances to mind.  There is no difference in their fundamental nature. Mere in this context means that there is nothing to objects that is somehow more than just an appearance to mind.  Mere here means that the objects we perceive are nothing more than a simple appearance to mind. If we look for something that exists behind the appearance or something that the appearance refers to, we find nothing.

(9.7abc) Buddha taught the impermanence of things
To lead people gradually to a realization of emptiness –
The lack of inherent existence of things.

How does impermanence lead us to a realization of emptiness? Impermanence means that all things are constantly changing. They are all temporary in their existence.  To be permanent means to not change.  It means to never change. Something that is permanent never changes. When we look at objects, we typically are grasping at two different things. First, we grasp at the objects as being permanent, in other words unchanging. And second, we grasp at those things as existing from their own side.  For example, when we look at a car, we might say that is the same car that I have had for the last 10 years. As if the car has not changed at all. It is permanent. If we think about it, we of course recognize that the car has changed a lot over the years.  We may have changed the tires, changed the brakes, and so forth. But in our mind, we still think it is the same car. This thinking it is the same car is our grasping at the permanence of the car.

When we grasp at the inherent existence of the car, we think that the car exists independently of all other phenomena.  It exist out there, inside the car somewhere. For something to exist independently, it must also be permanent. If something changes, then it does not exist independently because it has to come into contact with causes and conditions which cause the object to change.  In this way, we can see that permanence is actually an aspect of inherent existence.  It is somewhat easy to understand how things are impermanent or changing. It is more difficult to understand how things lack inherent existence. For this reason, Buddha taught that objects are impermanent to weaken or to cut away at our overall grasping at things existing inherently.

Happy Tsog Day: How to Generate Aspiring Bodhichitta

In order to remember and mark our tsog days, holy days on the Kadampa calendar, I am sharing my understanding of the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide with tsog.  This is part 3 of a 44-part series.

For the sake of all mother sentient beings,
I shall become the Guru-Deity,
And then lead every sentient being
To the Guru-Deity’s supreme state.  (3x)

Aspiring bodhichitta is the wish to become a Buddha for the sake of all living beings. It differs from engaging bodhichitta, which embarks upon the path. Aspiring bodhichitta is like wishing to go to some destination, and engaging bodhichitta is making the trip. Bodhichitta is generated by first generating compassion for all living beings who are also trapped in a circle of fire, wishing to protect them from such suffering, and then considering how we currently lack the ability to do so. We then consider if we become a Buddha, then we will be able to help each and every living being every day until eventually every last one of them is led to the final goal of full enlightenment.

It is important at this stage to remove any doubts we have about our ability to become a Buddha ourselves. Gen Tharchin explains if we understand how the path will take us to the final goal of enlightenment, then effort becomes effortless. But if we do not think attaining enlightenment is possible, then our bodhichitta will be intellectual and lack any power to move our mind. We see this in our daily life all the time. We think, “yeah, that would be great, but there is no way I will ever be able to do that.” We discourage ourself into paralysis, and think it would be better if we adopted a more reasonable, achievable goal. But when we think it is possible to accomplish our goals and we know exactly what we need to do to attain them, then we become filled with burning energy to take the necessary steps to accomplish our goal.

How can we generate a strong conviction that we can attain enlightenment? The key for me is recognizing that we all have a Buddha nature. This means our actual nature is enlightenment, but it is covered or obstructed by our delusions and their karmic imprints. If we can purify completely our mind of these two obstructions, then our enlightened state will naturally arise. Our problem is we identify with our contaminated karma (and its effects) and not our pure potential. We are, quite simply, confused about who we are. When we identify clearly who and what we are, then we start to see our contaminated karma and its effects as crusty mud on the clear light diamond that is our true self. On the basis of this understanding, we then quite naturally generate the wish to clean ourselves. How? According to Sutra, this can take aeons, and for most of us that seems to be too long, and so we give up trying. But Tantra provides a special technology for almost instantly cleaning our Buddha nature of its two obstructions. The key is understanding that all our contaminated karma is stored on our very subtle mind. If we realize the emptiness of our very subtle mind directly, then we can directly and simultaneously purify all our contaminated karma we have accumulated since beginningless time. For me, it helps to imagine that my very subtle mind is like a sphere and all my contaminated karma is stored on the surface of that sphere. If I can get into the center of the sphere (realize the emptiness of my very subtle mind), the fire of this wisdom will burn away the roots of all my contaminated karma stored on the sphere directly and simultaneously. It is said that if we can attain a direct realization of the emptiness of our very subtle mind, also known as meaning clear light, we can attain enlightenment in a matter of just a few months!

Thus, to access this special spiritual technological method, we first need to make manifest our very subtle mind and then meditate on its emptiness. How do we make our very subtle mind of great bliss manifest? First, we need to generate a pure bodhichitta motivation. Then, through the power of completion stage meditations, we cause our inner energy winds to enter, abide, and dissolve into our central channel at our heart. When we do, we will naturally experience the eight signs of dissolution, the last of which is the clear light of our very subtle mind. Once we have made manifest this clear light mind, we then meditate on its emptiness using the exact same emptiness meditations we use in Sutra – namely, we identify our mind as it normally appears, differentiate its constituent parts, and then recognize that our very subtle mind is neither one of the individual parts, the collection of the parts, or separate from the parts. Seeing this, we then “see” the emptiness of our very subtle mind. We continue to meditate on this emptiness until eventually it becomes a direct vision. When we have this, we have attained meaning clear light, and enlightenment is very close.

The challenge, then, is simply causing our inner energy winds to gather and dissolve into our central channel motivated by bodhichitta. This is not hard, actually. Wherever we direct our mind, our winds naturally gather. Through training in the various completion stage meditations, we direct our mind inside our central channel at various points. With enough familiarity, our mind gets inside our central channel and our winds naturally gather. Through single-pointed concentration over an extended period of time, our winds begin to enter, abide, and dissolve into our central channel, we will perceive the eight signs, and our very subtle mind of the Clear Light of Bliss will become manifest. Geshe-la explains it is not hard to engage in completion stage meditations – visualizing our channels, drops, and winds and imagining our mind enters into them is certainly much easier than the elaborate generation stage meditations we engage in. Many ordinary people have familiarity with penetrating the central channel, such as those who do hatha yoga and kundalini practices. But their meditations do not lead to enlightenment because their motivation for engaging in them is often worldly. It is only when we engage in completion stage meditations with a motivation of bodhichitta and faith that our indestructible wind at our heart is one with our Guru that we can generate enough power to generate the clear light mind. Thus, we can see the union of Sutra and Tantra. The precious minds of faith and bodhichitta are the quintessential butter that come from mixing the instructions of Sutra; and entering, abiding, and dissolving our winds into our central channel is the quintessential essence of Highest Yoga Tantra practice. The two together quickly lead us to enlightenment.

With this explanation, we can understand precisely what we need to do to attain enlightenment and see that it is something entirely doable. Maybe we doubt that we can complete our training in this life, but there is no doubt it will not take that long compared to beginningless time. We are, if truth be told, just a whisker away from enlightenment. We have never been closer to attaining enlightenment than we are right now. If we commit ourselves to this path, there is no doubt we will progress swiftly to the final goal, if not in this life, within a few short lives. If we engage in this practice sincerely, we will definitely be able to take rebirth in the pure land at the end of this life, where we will be able to complete our training without ever having to fear taking an uncontrolled samsaric rebirth again. Our good fortune is beyond imagination – almost incomprehensible. Understanding all this, we will know attaining enlightenment is possible, and feel a powerful motivation in our heart to engage in the necessary trainings to reach our spiritual goal. This is the mind of aspiring bodhichitta.

Happy Tara Day: How to increase our faith in Tara

This is the third installment of the 12-part series sharing my understanding of the practice Liberation from Sorrow.

Homage to the Twenty-one Taras

OM Homage to Venerable Arya Tara

The main purpose of reciting the twenty-one homages is to generate faith in Arya Tara.  Faith is what gives Buddhas power to help us.  It is not they hold back their help waiting for our faith and respect, rather when we generate faith we open the blinds of our mind to allow the sunlight of their blessings to pour in.  There are three types of faith:  believing faith, admiring faith, and wishing faith.  Believing faith believes in the qualities and abilities of holy beings.  Admiring faith generates a feeling of wonder, amazed at their incredible good qualities.  Wishing faith wishes to be the beneficiary of such power, and superior wishing faith wishes to gain these good qualities ourselves so we can do for others what the holy beings can do for us.  The more faith we have, the more powerfully we will receive the blessings of the given Buddha.  To paraphrase Lord Acton, faith empowers and absolute faith empowers absolutely. 

When we recite the twenty-one homages, we can train in increasing our faith.  Typically, we recite the twenty-one homages three times.  With the first recitation, we can primarily train in believing faith; with the second recitation, we can focus on admiring faith; and with the final recitation, we can emphasize wishing faith.  In this way, we will build up powerful potential energy in our mind for the remainder of the practice.

Praising Tara by her life story

Homage to Tara, the Swift One, the Heroine,
Whose eyes are like a flash of lightning,
Who arose from the opening of a lotus,
Born from the tears of the Protector of the Three Worlds.

Each time we receive a Tara empowerment, we hear Tara’s life story.  She has both a common and an uncommon life story.  Her common life story is as a bodhisattva, some sexist monk said if she continues in this way, she can pray to be reborn as a man so she can become a Buddha.  Upon hearing this, she vowed to always take rebirth in a female form and ultimately attain enlightenment in a female form.  She was the first feminist.  Her uncommon life story is Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, wept as he looked at how many beings remained to be liberated.  His tears fell into the clear light emptiness, and Arya Tara arose telling him to not worry, she would help him free all living beings.  When we recite this verse, it is important to make this personal – she became Tara for us, and so we should generate a feeling of closeness and gratitude.

Praising Tara by the brightness and radiance of her face

Homage to you with a face like a hundred full moons in autumn
Gathered together into one;
Blazing with brilliant light
Like a thousand constellations.

Sometimes people wonder how it is Buddhas can help all living beings directly and simultaneously.  There are so many living beings, how exactly can we understand their emanations pervading all worlds?  For me, there are two analogies that help, both of which are illustrated by this verse.  First, while there is only one moon in the sky, it nonetheless spontaneously reflects on the surface of every body of water in the world without its light being diminished in the process.  In the same way, the wisdom moon of Mother Tara shines in the sky of our mind, and spontaneously appears on the surface of every mind of faith in the world.  Second, imagine a wheel with countless straw-like spokes.  If you shined a light inside any one spoke, it would illuminate just that spoke, but if you moved the light into the hub of the wheel, it would illuminate all of the spokes directly and simultaneously.  In the same way, Tara’s brilliant light shines into the spokes of our minds like a thousand constellations.

Praising Tara by her colour, what she holds and her causes

Homage to you who are bluish gold,
Your hand perfectly adorned with a lotus flower;
Who arose from practising giving, moral discipline,
Patience, effort, concentration and wisdom.

Blue generally represents Buddha Akshobya, the completely purified aggregate of consciousness of all the Buddhas; and gold (yellow) represents Buddha Ratnasambhava, the completely purified aggregate of feeling of all the Buddhas.  A purified aggregate of consciousness is one that is free from the two obstructions, and a purified aggregate of feeling experiences all phenomena equally as manifestions of bliss and emptiness.  By praising Tara as being bluish gold, we recall her purified consciousness and feeling and generate faith.  A lotus flower generally symbolizes how an object of complete beauty and purity (a lotus flower) emerges from a contaminated source (the mud in the pond).  In the same way, our eventual enlightenment will emerge despite our origin being contaminated.  Tara holding a lotus flower symbolizes her power to lead contaminated beings such as ourselves to enlightenment.  All Buddhas attain enlightenment in exactly the same way – through training in the six perfections of giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom.  We sometimes think Buddhas were always enlightened and they are somehow different than the rest of us, but they were suffering sentient beings once as well just like us, and through their practice of the six perfections they attained enlightenment.  If we do the same, we too will attain the same results.  Recalling Tara’s causes reminds us of that and shows her power to help us train in the six perfections ourselves. 

Praising Tara by her being honoured by the Conquerors and the Bodhisattvas

Homage to you who surmount the Tathagatas’ ushnishas,
Whose victorious actions are limitless;
Who are greatly honoured by the Sons of the Conquerors,
Who have attained every perfection.

The primary purpose of this verse is to increase our faith in Tara as an enlightened being.  Normally, we view our spiritual guide on our crown.  Tara being on the crown of all the Tathagatas indicates that she is the spiritual guide of all the Tathagatas.  Victorious actions refer to her victory over the four maras, delusions, and all other objects of abandonment along the path.  She is honoured by all the Bodhisattvas (Sons of the Conquerors) because she is their mother, and she has attained every perfection.  Considering these qualities, we generate deep faith in her.

Praising Tara by her subduing unfavourable conditions

Homage to you who with the letters TUTTARA and HUM
Fill the realms of desire, direction and space.
With the seven classes of evil spirits beneath your feet,
You are able to draw all beings to bliss.

Here, we imagine that from the mantra rosary at her heart, countless light rays radiate out in all directions, filling the entire universe and dispelling all unfavorable conditions and obstructions to our practice of Dharma.  We imagine she is doing this for the benefit of ourself and all living beings.  There are countless evil spirits (all empty) who wish to obstruct our Dharma practice, but she is able to overcome them all single-handedly.  Through her powerful actions, we then imagine she draws all living beings into the bliss of her Dharmakaya where they are perfectly freed from all unfavorable conditions.

Praising Tara by her being worshipped by the great worldly gods

Homage to you who are worshipped by Indra, Agni,
Brahma, Vayu, and the other mighty gods;
And before whom the host of evil spirits,
Zombies, smell-eaters and givers of harm respectfully offer praise.

Normally living beings look up to the worldly gods, but worldly gods worship Tara.  If we bow to them and they bow to her, then we certainly should also bow to her.  Normally we fear evil spirits, but they too offer praise and respect to Tara.  We would think evil spirits would also fear Tara since she is the opposite of evil and has the power to overcome them, but she is so loving and skillful, even her would-be enemies respectfully offer her praise.  By relying upon her, we too can gain the ability to earn the respect of those who oppose our virtuous wishes.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: It’s Prasangikas vs. Proponents of Things

(9.3) Of those who assert the two truths, two types of person can be distinguished:
Madhyamika-Prasangika Yogis and proponents of things.
The views held by the proponents of things, who assert that things are truly existent,
Are refuted by the logical reasonings of the Prasangika Yogis.

There are many different philosophical schools of emptiness.   The highest view of emptiness is the Madhyamika-Prasangika view.  As a shorthand, usually we just refer to this as the Prasangika view.  Shantideva is a Prasangika.  From a Prasangika point of view, there are two types of being:  proponents of things and Prasangikas. A proponent of things believes that objects do truly exist. There is something that is a car, a computer, and so forth that exists independent of the mind within the object.

A Prasangika, or a proponent of no thing, says that nothing truly exists. There is no object that exists from the side of the object. If we look, we cannot find something that is the computer, something that is the car, and so forth. A proponent of things believes that we can find something that is the object.  A Prasangika says when we look with wisdom, we cannot find anything. Amongst the proponents of things, there are many different philosophical schools about where exactly we can find the object that truly exists. Some say the object exists in the material substance, some say it exists as the collection, some say it exists inside the mind, but that the mind itself truly exists, and so forth. All proponents of things believe that the object itself can be found upon investigation. The Prasangikas refute all of these views. 

The table for example is a thing.  According to Madhyamika-Prasangikas, there is no-thing that is the table.  There is nothing that is the table. Madhyamika-Prasangikas are proponents of no thing.  Unlike us, proponents of things believe that there exists something that is a table. There can be found something that is table.  Different schools believe it is a different thing that is the table.  The Prasangikas refute all of these views. 

(9.4) Moreover, among the Prasangika Yogis, there are different levels of insight –
Those with greater understanding surpassing those with lesser understanding.
All establish their view through valid analytical reasons.
Giving and so forth are practised without investigation for the sake of achieving resultant Buddhahood.

The first line that there are different levels of insight amongst the Prasangikas does not mean that they are realizing a different emptiness. For a Prasangika, all emptinesses are the lack of inherent existence. The different levels of insight correspond with the different degrees to which the Prasangika realizes directly not all phenomena lack inherent existence.

Another way of understanding the different levels amongst Prasangikas is the motivation with which we realize emptiness. In general, we can say there are two levels of philosophical tenants:  Hinayana and Mahayana. Normally when we talked about Hinayana and Mahayana we are talking about the motivation of the practitioner. A Hinayana practitioner seeks individual liberation, and a Mahayana practitioner seeks full enlightenment. The Hinayana schools of emptiness are the Vaibhashikas and the Sautrantikas.  And the Mahayana schools of emptiness are the Chittamatrins and the Madhyamikas.  We will get to know the tenets of these four schools of emptiness as we progress through Shantideva’s explanation. At this point, we can note that it is possible to hold Hinayana philosophical tenants yet possess a Mahayana spiritual motivation. Likewise, it is possible to be a holder of Mahayana philosophical tenets yet possess a Hinayana spiritual motivation.

We also need to be very clear on our motivation for meditating on emptiness.  It is not enough to just gain an intellectual understanding of emptiness within our mind, we need to firmly establish that things are actually this way.  When this is established within our mind, the more things appear different than the way we know they are the more it will confirm for us that things are empty.  It is like when Neo went back into the Matrix after he found out what it really was – the Matrix still appeared vividly, but he knew it was just a simulation.

To emphasize this point I will read what Geshe-la says in Eight Steps to Happiness in the chapter on ultimate Bodhichitta.  We can remind ourselves of this as we study Shantideva’s verses.  Right at the very end of the chapter he says:

“When we study emptiness it is important we do so with the right motivation. There is little benefit in studying emptiness if we just approach it as an intellectual exercise. Emptiness is difficult enough to understand, but if we approach it with an incorrect motivation this will obscure the meaning even further. However, if we study with a good motivation, faith in Buddha’s teachings, and the understanding that a knowledge of emptiness can solve all our problems and enable us to help everyone else solve theirs, we shall receive Buddha’s wisdom blessings and understand emptiness with greater ease. Even if we cannot understand all the technical reasoning, we shall get a feeling for emptiness, and we shall be able to subdue our delusions and solve our daily problems through contemplation and meditation on emptiness. Gradually our wisdom will increase until it transforms into the wisdom of superior seeing and finally into a direct realization of emptiness.”

The last line of this verse refers to the apparent contradiction between realizing that everything is empty and engaging in virtuous actions towards other living beings. If the beings we normally see do not exist, then why bother engaging in virtuous actions towards them. Shantideva says we can overcome this objection by simply engaging in virtuous actions without investigating more closely the exact nature of the existence of living beings. The main point here is we do not practicing giving, moral discipline, etc., because there are really other beings there, but because by doing so it functions to create the result of enlightenment within our mind.  For example, when we do taking and giving practice, we strongly believe that we have actually liberated all living beings from their suffering.  We do this not because we actually have liberated all beings, but by believing we have we complete the karmic action we are after which will ripen later in the appearance of our dream filled with beings free from all suffering.

Happy Protector Day: Removing the Faults We Perceive in Others

The 29th of every month is Protector Day.  This is part 2 of a 12-part series aimed at helping us remember our Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden and increase our faith in him on these special days.

We can learn to be happy all the time, regardless of our external circumstances.  Normally, we are happy when things go well, but unhappy when things go badly.  When we are a spiritual being, all situations, good or bad, equally provide us with an opportunity to train our mind and create good causes for the future, so we are equally happy with whatever happens.  In this way, we can develop a real equanimity with respect to whatever happens in our life.

We have the power to free all the beings we know and love from this world of suffering.  We have the opportunity to become a fully enlightened Buddha who has the power to lead each and every living being to full enlightenment.  So eventually we can save everyone we know and love.  We can understand this at a deeper level by understanding that we are dreaming a world of suffering.  By purifying our own mind, we dream a different dream, a pure dream, and thereby free all these beings.

With this background in mind, in this series of posts I will explain a special practice we can do to make the most out of our precious human life, namely surrendering our life completely to the protection and guidance of the Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden. 

Normally we explain what to do in the meditation session first, but I wanted to explain how we rely upon Dorje Shugden in the meditation break first because this is where we first gain experience of him and see how useful he is.  Then, we naturally want to deepen our practice of him in the meditation session.

I would like to explain two key practices for the meditation break:  taking personal responsibility to remove the faults we perceive in others and viewing our life as a training ground for becoming the Buddha we need to become.  I will explain these over the next two posts.

Taking personal responsibility for removing the faults you perceive in others

Normally, we think it is the responsibility of others to remove the faults we perceive in them, but if we think about this carefully, we will realize that actually we are uniquely responsible for all the faults we perceive in others.  At a simple level, we can say that the world we experience is the world we pay attention to.  If we pay 90% of our attention on the 10% of faults in the other person, then it will seem to us that the person is 90% faulty.  This is how we will experience the other person.  This is how we make ‘enemies,’ ‘friends,’ ‘sangha,’ and even ‘Buddhas.’  In the same way, we ‘make’ faulty people. 

We can also understand this by considering emptiness.  If we consider emptiness according to Sutra, we understand that everything is just a dream-like projection of our mind. Where does this faulty person come from?  Our own projections of mind.  There is no other person other than emptiness. Are we responsible for the appearance of faults in the people of our dreams?  If yes, then we are likewise responsible for the faults in the people of the dream of our gross mind.  If we consider karma and emptiness together, we realize that others are mere appearances arising from our own karma. We engaged in actions in the past which are now creating the appearance of a ‘faulty’ person.  So it is our own past faulty actions which created this appearance of a faulty person. 

If we consider emptiness according to Tantra, we understand that these faulty people are actually different aspects, or parts, of our own mind.  We consider our right and left hands to be aspects or parts of our body.  In the same way, when we understand emptiness according to Tantra, we realize that others are merely aspects or parts of our mind.  Just as I am an appearance in my mind, so too is the ‘faulty’ person.  Both are equally appearances to my mind inside my mind.  They are different aspects of my mind.  So this is the ‘me’ part of me and that is the ‘faulty’ part of me.  When we meditate deeply on these things, we will come to the clear realization that there is no ‘other person’ other than the one created by my mind, so we are uniquely responsible for all the faults we perceive in others.

Given this, how do we actually remove the faults we perceive in others?  There are several things we can do.  First, we should make a distinction between the person and their delusion.  Just as a cancer patient is not their cancer, so too somebody sick with delusions is not their delusions. By making a separation between the person and their delusions, we no longer see faulty people, rather we see pure people sick with delusions.  We see faulty delusions, but pure beings.

Second, we need to develop a mind of patient acceptance that can transform everything.  The mind of patient acceptance is a special wisdom that has the power to transform anything into the spiritual path.  This wisdom enables practitioners to ‘accept’ everything without resistance because the bodhisattva can ‘use’ everything.  When we have this mind, what would otherwise be a fault is considered to us to be perfect because it gives us a great opportunity to further train our mind.  If we can learn to use whatever others do for our spiritual development, then their otherwise ‘faulty’ actions for us will be perfect.

Third, it is also very helpful to create a space of 100% freedom and non-judgment of others, and in that space, set a good example.  A bodhisattva does not try or need to change others.  When people feel controlled or judged, they become defensive.  If they are defensive, then it blocks them from changing because they are engaging in a process of self-justification.  For change to take place, it has to take place from the side of the person.  Internal change can only come from the inside.  Therefore, in the space of not controlling or judging others, we set a good example.  This will naturally inspire people to change from their own side.

Fourth, Venerable Tharchin once explained to me that we need to “own other’s faults as our own.”  Since the faults of others are projections of our own mind, the only reason why others appear to have any faults is because we possess those faults ourself.  Our job then is to find these faults in ourselves and purge them like bad blood.  We take the time to find where we have these same faults, and then we use the Dharma to eliminate them from ourself with a bodhichitta intention to be able to help the other person, and anyone else, who appears to have this fault.  If we practice like this, there are many different benefits.  We will gain the realizations we need to be able to help the other person overcome their problem because we have personal experience of having done that ourselves.  We will show the perfect example for the other person of somebody striving to overcome and eventually becoming free from what troubles them the most.  Our example often helps much more than our words.  More profoundly, the problem will actually disappear in the other person because it is coming from our own mind anyways.  And at the very least, we ourselves will have one less fault.  

Finally, we can adopt a pure view of others as emanations of Dorje Shugden.  I will explain this is greater detail in the next post.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: What are the Two Truths?

(9.2ab) The two truths are explained as conventional truths and ultimate truths.
Ultimate truth, emptiness, is a non-affirming negative phenomenon

Shantideva says emptiness is a non-affirming negative phenomena.  This explains the nature of the realization of emptiness itself. Here we need to use some technical terms, but I will try explain them in a simple and easy to understand way. The technical term is emptiness is a non-affirming negative phenomena. What does that mean? A negative phenomena is a phenomena that is realized by negating something else. For example, if I see the lack of money in my wallet, I realize that I am poor. The object of negation is money, I see it’s lack, and I realize that I am poor.  The lack of money is a negative phenomena.

A non-affirming negative phenomena is best understood by understanding what is an affirming phenomena. For example, if we say the fat man does not eat at night, then he must eat during the day. If someone grasps at gender binaries, and I say this person is not female, then we understand that the person is male. If I say in a coin toss it is not heads, then it implies that it is tails. These sorts of binaries are all examples of affirming negative phenomena. By negating one possibility, it necessarily implies the other possibility.

Emptiness, however, is a non-affirming negative. By negating its object, it does not affirm any other positive phenomena. It is simply the mere lack of something. The example that is traditionally given is space. Space is the lack of obstructive contact. The lack of obstructive contact does not imply or affirm any other phenomena. It is simply a mere lack of obstructive contact. This mere lack can have great meaning. For example, if I remember parking my car in space 24, and I then go to that space and see the mere lack of my car, this mere absence has great meaning. But it does not affirm any other positive phenomena. In the same way, emptiness is the mere lack of inherent existence, mere lack of existence from its own side, mere lack of independent existence, and so forth, but realizing this mere lack does not affirm any other phenomena. Nonetheless, it has great meaning. The meaning of emptiness is there is nothing to worry about, there is no one criticizing us, there is no death, no birth, and so forth. All of these things do not actually exist.

(9.2cd) That cannot be realized directly by a mind that has dualistic appearance,
For such minds are conventional, and thus mistaken awareness.

Once again Shantideva gives us some technical terms that we need to understand in order to grasp the meaning of emptiness that is presented. The first term is dualistic appearance. Dualistic appearance is when an object appears to be one with its inherent existence. Inherent existence is when we fail to see the difference between the basis of imputation and the imputation itself. We see the object itself as its basis. Dualistic appearance is when we see an object, we simultaneously see it as inherently existing or existing from its own side. Two things are appearing to our mind – the object itself and its inherent existence. This is dualistic appearance. The opposite of dualistic appearance is the union of appearance and emptiness. Here instead of the object appearing to be one with its inherent existence it appears to be one with its underlying emptiness. What we see is emptiness, but it appears as a form.

The second key term Shantideva refers to here is conventional appearance. A conventional appearance is something that we normally see, for example a car, a computer, or our best friend.  They are called conventional appearances because we all agree on the name to call these different objects. For example, when we see something with four wheels, a chassis, a motor, and seats, we call it a car. When we see a screen, a keyboard, and microchips, we call it a computer. The names car, computer, and so forth are the names we all agree by convention to call these specific objects with these particular functions. 

But fundamentally, conventional appearances are mistaken appearances. The things that we normally see appear to exist from their own side, independent of mind.  So while they appear, they do not in fact exist. Hence, they are mistaken. This can give rise to the question of whether Buddhas see conventional appearances. Does a Buddha see a car or a computer? If they don’t, how can we say they are omniscient? The answer is no, a Buddha does not see conventional appearances because conventional appearances are mistaken appearances and Buddhas only know truth.  Only emptiness is the truth. How can a Buddha see something that is not true?  So does that mean a Buddha only sees the clear light emptiness like a vast empty space? No, a Buddha does not just see the clear light emptiness. They do just see emptiness, but emptiness can appear in myriad different ways. Sometimes emptiness appears as a computer, sometimes it appears as a car, sometimes it appears as the clear light. Buddha sees only the infinite space of emptiness, but that emptiness appears in countless different ways. Therefore, Buddhas do see computers, cars, and so forth, they just don’t see the conventional appearances of computers, cars, and so forth that we normally see.  The things we normally see do not exist at all.

This can also give rise to the question of whether Buddhas see us seeing conventional appearances. The short answer is no, they do not. They see us as Buddhas seeing everything purely. They do not see us in this way because we objectively are Buddhas seeing things purely.  In fact, we are not objectively anything. Buddha’s see us seeing everything purely because this view functions to ripen us so that we are ourselves able to view things in this way. For ordinary beings they see suffering, and then engage in virtuous actions. For a Buddha, their pure view of us is their compassionate action. The duality between view an action has dissolved.

To keep it simple:  Ultimate truth is emptiness – that there is no thing that exists from its own side.  Conventional truth is things are nothing more than dream-like projections of mind.  If you look for something more than just a projection of mind, you find nothing.  Truth is relative.  Relative to conventional reality, a schizophrenic’s world is a mistaken appearance.  Relative to ultimate reality, conventional reality is a mistaken appearance.  Only emptiness is truth, but it can appear in countless ways.

Happy Tsog Day: How to Go for refuge

In order to remember and mark our tsog days, holy days on the Kadampa calendar, I am sharing my understanding of the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide with tsog.  This is part 2 of a 44-part series.

Before we engage in any Dharma practice, we must first prepare our mind. We first prepare a shrine and our meditation seat, and then sit in the traditional posture. The most important thing is to maintain a straight back. We then turn our mind inwards. Since normally our mind is completely absorbed in the things we normally see and perceive, we need to first dispel all distractions. First, we can engage in some gentle breathing meditation, imagining that all our distractions and delusions are expelled from our mind in the form of black smoke, and we breathe in the blessings of our spiritual guide in the form of five-coloured wisdom lights representing the five omniscient wisdoms.

Once we have done this for a few breaths, we can then engage in a brief Mahamudra meditation on the nature of our mind. Geshe-la explains that our mind is by nature clarity and cognizing. Clarity means that our mind itself is formless. Because it is formless, it can cognize – or know – any form. If our mind had a form, then all objects known to our mind would also possess that form. Practically speaking, when we meditate on the conventional nature of our mind, we feel as if all our normal, ordinary thoughts dissolve away, like clouds back into the sky, and we are left with an infinite expanse of clear light that is a universal field of knowing. Nothing appears but the clear light, but we see this clear light as an all-pervasive field of knowing. It is like a three-dimensional blank canvas upon which any thought can be generated and known. We should feel as if our gross conceptual thoughts have completely ceased and our mind becomes completely still. We then rest in this inner stillness where everything is completely calm.

We can then generate the causes of going for refuge – namely fear and faith. Geshe-la explains in Oral Instructions of Mahamudra that we should generate a fear of samsaric rebirth like we would if we were trapped in a circle of fire. Normally we do not like generating fear and we jump straight to faith, but this is a mistake. It is primarily because we do not have a genuine, heart-felt fear that our refuge – even after so many years of dedicated practice – remains superficial and intellectual. Only when we are truly gripped by genuine fear will our refuge be qualified. Geshe-la explains that the root cause of samsara is we identify with our ordinary body and mind as if it were ourselves. In short, we remain in samsara because we identify with it as ourselves. We are like a fly on flypaper – stuck to samsara. I imagine that I am standing on top of small island surrounded by a vast molten ocean of lava and fires, in which countless hell beings are drowning. I am quite literally trapped in a circle of fire. On this island are those close to me – such as my family and work colleagues – and all living beings in this world in the aspect of human beings. The island is made of crumbling sand that is rapidly sinking into the molten ocean of samsara, gradually taking everyone I know and love into the fires of hell. Inside the ocean of fire, we can occasionally see sea monsters of the Lord of Death rising up, capturing those who have fallen off of the island, dragging them down into the depths of hell below. Myself, my family, my work colleagues, and everyone else is similarly stuck onto samsara, like flies on flypaper, and we are all sinking. It is important to remember that this is not a metaphor, this is our actual situation. We are stuck on to the island of our human bodies, sinking rapidly into the circle of fire surrounding us, swallowed up by the sea monsters of the Lord of Death, dragged down into the abyss where we may not re-emerge for countless aeons. We should let this fear touch our heart.

Then, to generate faith, we can imagine our root Guru in the aspect of Lama Losang Tubwang Dorjechang appears in the space in front of us, surrounded by all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the three times. They have come, like helicopters, to rescue us before we sink into the fires of hell. All we need to do is let go of our grasping at samsara and grab onto the hook of our Guru’s compassion, and he will bring us to the pure land. How do we let go of samsara? Through the practice of the three higher trainings – moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom. With moral discipline, we let go of all behaviour inconsistent with the Dharma. With concentration, we let go of distractions thinking about samsara. And with wisdom, we let go of grasping at identifying with samsara. Why do we let go of samsara? Because we do not want to sink ourselves and because we want to become a helicopter-like Buddha ourselves so we can extend the hook of our compassion to those we love just as our spiritual guide has done for us. With this mind of fear and faith, we then go for refuge according to the Sadhana.

With a perfectly pure mind of great virtue,
I and all mother sentient beings as extensive as space,
From now until we reach the essence of enlightenment,
Go for refuge to the Guru and Three Precious Jewels.

Namo Gurubhä
Namo Buddhaya
Namo Dharmaya
Namo Sanghaya  (3x)

A perfectly pure mind of great virtue refers to our minds of fear and faith as described above. With the second line, we recall ourselves and all living beings trapped in the circle of fire, sinking into samsara. With the third line we recall the final destination of our spiritual training is to bring ourself and all living beings into the clear light Dharmakaya, or Truth Body, of all the Buddhas. To go for refuge – the fourth line – we promise to make effort to receive Buddha’s blessings, turn to Sangha for help, and practice Dharma. For our refuge practice to be qualified, we need to have a very clear understanding of what, exactly, is our problem. Normally, we blame our external circumstances for our problems, but when we go for refuge, we recall the difference between our outer problem and our inner problem. Our outer problem, such as having to pay taxes, is solved through outer means; but our inner problem, our actual problem, is our deluded reaction to our external circumstance. The Three Jewels cannot help us pay our taxes, but they can help us mentally relate to doing so as an act of giving to all living beings, for example. The Three Jewels can help us change our mind towards our outer circumstance, so that everything becomes a cause of our enlightenment instead of a cause of suffering.

Unlike other practices, in Offering to the Spiritual Guide our refuge practice has two uncommon characteristics. First, we explicitly go for refuge to the Guru, recognizing him as the synthesis and source of all the other Three Jewels. Second, we recite the refuge prayer in Sanskrit to recall the original language Buddha taught in. This makes us feel more closely connected to the origin of these instructions.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Method Practices are Preparations for Realizing Emptiness

(9.1) Buddha taught all the method practices explained above
To enable us to complete the training in wisdom realizing emptiness.
Therefore, those who wish to liberate themselves and others from suffering
Should strive to develop this wisdom.

This is an important point:  the purpose of all the method practices is to help us gain the realization of emptiness, because only that can end samsara.  If we think samsara is created by something other than our mind, we can never become free of it.  When we realize everything is empty, we realize all that needs to change is our own mind.  Liberation is possible because it is entirely within our control.

Love and compassion alone are not enough, because they still grasp at beings existing outside of us.  It will take us a long way, but it will leave the roots in tact.  Only by realizing emptiness can we bring an end to all the suffering of all living beings because we stop projecting it.

At the end of the day, samsara is a dream created by delusions.  As long as its creator exists, samsara will continually be re-created.  If we can replace its creator – delusions – with its opposite – wisdom – then samsara will quite simply cease to be created.  If we stop creating new contaminated karmic seeds, the ones already on our mind will gradually exhaust themselves, either through purification or ripening.  Deluded minds activate contaminated karma.  If we eliminate all of our delusions from our mind, we will stop activating contaminated karma, and samsara will cease to appear. 

A Buddha is a being that has removed the two obstructions – the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience.  Just as all waves are the nature of water, so too all delusions are the nature of the ignorance of self-grasping.  If we remove the water, waves cannot arise – ever.  The wisdom realizing emptiness opposes self-grasping directly, and in so doing, opposes all other delusions indirectly, thereby removing the delusion obstructions.  Once we have removed the delusion obstructions, we attain individual liberation. This is also sometimes known as Nirvana. It is a permanent state in the sense that if we never generate delusion it is impossible for us to activate any contaminated karma potentialities that remain in our mind, so we never fall back into samsara, even though the karmic potentials to do so remain on our mind.

The obstructions to omniscience are the contaminated karmic potentialities on our mind from our past actions motivated by delusion.  Each one of these seeds, if ripened, would create a samsaric experience.  In order to purify the obstructions to omniscience we need to purify our very subtle mind of all of these contaminated karmic potentialities. The method for doing so is realizing the emptiness of our very subtle mind. When we connect with the emptiness of our very subtle mind it functions to uproot all of our contaminated karmic potentialities directly and simultaneously. In this way we gradually purify our very subtle mind of the obstructions to omniscience and attain enlightenment. From this perspective it is easy to see how the wisdom realizing emptiness overcomes both the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience.  Therefore, if we want to attain liberation or enlightenment we must gain the wisdom realizing emptiness.

It is useful to re-examine each of our method practices from the perspective of how it helps us to realize emptiness.  The method practices help us create the mental environment for realizing emptiness.  By seeing the connection between wisdom and our method practices, we will understand the deep meaning of the method practices.  All of our method practices are made more powerful when they are conjoined with an understanding of emptiness.   For example, dedication.  If things existed outside of the mind, our dedication is useless.  But because things are coming from our mind, our dedications can and have worked miracles. 

Back in 2013, I did an extensive series of posts where I looked at all of the stages of the path of lamrim, lojong, and Mahamudra from the perspective of emptiness.  We can do the same, meditating on the union of emptiness and each of the 21 lamrim meditations, the six perfections, and the two tantric stages.  When we build these connections within our mind, we realize that everything we have been taught has a deeper meaning – one informed by ultimate truth emptiness.