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.

A Pure Life: How to Skillfully Train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts

This is part two 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.

Most of us know the teachings Geshe-la has given on the correct attitude to have towards our vows and commitments, but sadly we sometimes don’t really believe him when he explains it.  We still tend to think of them in absolutist, black and white terms, when in reality each vow has many, many different levels at which we can keep it.  We think in terms of our ability to “keep” our vows instead of viewing them as trainings we engage in. 

When we go to the gym, there are all sorts of different exercise machines.  Each one works out a different muscle, and each person who uses the machine uses it at a different level (different amounts of weight, different number of repetitions, etc.).  But everyone in the gym uses the same equipment.  It is exactly the same with our vows.  Each vow is something we train in, not something we are already expected to be able to do perfectly at the maximum.  Each vow focus on strengthening different mental muscles, but doing all of them strengthens the whole of our mind.  We each train in the vow at different levels according to our capacity, but we know the more we train, the more our capacity will grow.  Everyone in the spiritual gym trains with the same vows regardless of our level.  In almost every way, the correct attitude towards a physical exercise regimen is exactly the same attitude we should cultivate towards our spiritual exercise regimen of the Eight Mahayana Precepts, and indeed all of our vows.  I often find it helpful to read the sports training literature, especially that of long-distance tri-athletes.  Our journey is very long and will require almost unthinkable stamina, but we must recall every Iron Man Champion was once a baby who couldn’t even lift their head. 

Geshe-la explains there are four main causes of the degeneration of our vows and commitments.  These are known as the ‘four doors of receiving downfalls’.  He says to close these doors we should practice as follows:

  1. Closing the door of not knowing what the downfalls are.  We should learn what the downfalls are by committing them to memory.  We should learn how they are incurred.  We should make plans to avoid such situations.  In this series of posts, I will try explain all of these things for each of the Eight Mahayana Precepts.
  1. Closing the door of lack of respect for Buddha’s instructions.  We can protect ourselves from this primarily by training in the refuge vows.  Refuge is not a difficult concept.  When we have a toothache, what do we do?  We turn to the dentist.  When we have a legal problem, what do we do?  We turn to a lawyer.  When we have an internal problem with our mind, what do we do?  We turn to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.  Dentists can fix our teeth and lawyers can solve our legal problems, but only the three jewels can help us with our inner mental problems.  In particular, we need to contemplate the benefits of each of the Eight Mahayana Precepts.  We need to think about how much better our life would be and all the karmic fruit that flows from training in them.  When we see the value of keeping the Precepts, we will naturally have respect for them.  Geshe-la said we should contemplate as follows:

Since Buddha is omniscient, knowing all past, present, and future phenomena simultaneously and directly, and since he has great compassion for all living beings without exception, there is no valid reason for developing disrespect towards his teachings.  It is only due to ignorance that I sometimes disbelieve them.”

  1. Closing the third door of strong delusions. The reason why we engage in non-virtuous actions is we are currently slaves to our delusions.  They take control of our mind and then compel us to engage in harmful actions.  We may voluntarily participate in the process, but that is only because our delusions have so deceived us, we actually believe their lies.  Largely, the Eight Mahayana Precepts oppose our delusion of attachment.  Our attachment does not want to keep the precepts, and frankly views them as standing in the way of our fun.  We cannot keep our vows through will power alone.  Perhaps we can for Precepts Day itself, but if in our heart we still want to engage in these behaviors, what we will really do is simply do slightly more negativity before and after Precepts Day, so for the month as a whole, it is exactly the same amount of negativity.  That’s obviously not the point!  Our goal should be to train in the Precepts and gradually expand the scope of keeping their meaning throughout the month and indeed throughout our whole life.  To do this, we need to want to keep them more than we want the objects of attachment they oppose.  We are desire realm beings, which means we have no choice but to do whatever we desire.  The only way to sustainably train in moral discipline is to change our desires away from delusions and towards virtue.  This is primarily accomplished through a sincre and consistent practice of Lamrim.  Lamrim is a systematic method for changing our desires from worldly ones to spiritual ones. 
  1. Closing the fourth door of non-conscientiousness.  We should repeatedly bring to mind the disadvantages of incurring downfalls, and the advantages of pure moral discipline.  These have been explained in the previous post, and the specific karmic benefits of each Precept will be explained in the explanation of each Precept.

In brief, Geshe-la explains, we prevent our vows from degenerating by practicing the Dharma of renunciation, bodhichitta, correct view, generation stage, and completion stage. 

It is important to be skillful in our approach to all of our vows, including the Eight Mahayana Precepts.  We should not have unrealistic expectations or make promises we cannot keep.  It will happen to all of us in the early stages of our Dharma practice that when we are at some festival and feeling very inspired, we make these outlandish vows that we (at the time) intend to keep our whole life.  Then we get home, try at first, but eventually are forced to abandon the vow.  Venerable Tharchin says when making promises, we should ask ourselves, “what can I do on my absolute worst day?”  We promise only to do that.  On any given day we will most likely do better than our promise, but then we will not actually break it.  It is a bad habit to make spiritual promises which we later break.  We will all make all sorts of what I call “beginner’s errors” with this one.  It does not matter.  When you break the promise, realize your mistake, recalibrate your promise and try again.  Eventually you will get the right balance. 

We should adopt our vows gradually, as each can be kept on many levels.  In this way, we can gradually deepen the level we are able to keep the vows.  If we are a teacher, we should explain the vows well and not encourage our students to promise to keep them all perfectly from the beginning.  Getting the correct attitude towards our vows is well over half the battle.  But keeping the vows gradually does not mean that we can temporarily put to one side the vows that we do not like.  We have to work with all the vows, gradually improving the way we observe them.

Finally, Geshe-la says we should begin to practice all the vows as soon as we have taken them.  Then we practice them to the best of our ability.  Geshe-la says we should never lose the determination to keep our vows perfectly in the future.  He says by keeping the intention to keep them purely in the future we keep our commitments, even if along the way we repeatedly fall short.  I can’t remember who, but some wise person once said, “the day you can keep all of your vows and commitments perfectly is the day you will no longer need them.  It is because we can’t keep our vows and commitments perfectly that we do need them.”  This is useful to always keep in mind.

All of that being said, the Eight Mahayana Precepts are unique in our training in moral discipline because on Precepts Days we do strive to keep them perfectly. On Precepts Days we make a point of emphasizing the practice of moral discipline and we strive our best to observe the the vows as purely as we can. The literal meaning of many of the precepts is quite black and white, we either keep the vow or we do not. In this sense, we can say it is an exception to the otherwise gradual approach we take to our practice of moral discipline. But if we look beyond the literal meaning of the precept, we realize that they all also have many different levels at which they can be kept. Further, we can gradually expand the scope with which we engage in our precepts practice by observing their essential meaning throughout the month, not just on Precepts Days. In any case, we should not worry but always simply try our best. If we break our precepts, we can learn our lesson, retake them, and try again.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Overview of Chapter 9 as a Whole

Preparation 6:  Big picture overview of the whole chapter

As we go through the verses, I will add in where we are within the overall outline of Shantideva’s chapter.  Without this, it is easy to get lost as to what is the main point of each verse.  Each verse is building towards a main argument or point, which is indicated by the outline heading.  It is helpful to look at the outline as a whole.  This is like first looking at a map of the whole city before we look at the specific streets in any given neighborhood.  Having an overall understanding of how the city is laid out gives us an appreciation of how each neighborhood fits within a larger mosaic.

Shantideva’s presentation of the perfection of wisdom has five main parts. The first, the third, and the fifth are all exhortations encouraging people to develop this wisdom. And the second and the fourth part of his presentation actually explain the teachings on emptiness. It is not enough for us to know what emptiness is, we have to be actually motivated to try realize it ourselves. It is our motivation which determines the karmic effect of our wisdom, not the wisdom itself. For our meditation on emptiness to lead to liberation and enlightenment, our practice needs to be motivated by renunciation and bodhichitta.

In the second part on the presentation of the two truths, there are essentially two main parts. The first simply introduces what are the two truths. And the second refutes the arguments made by those who say we do not actually need to realize emptiness. This is important because we might begin to become discouraged during our study of emptiness and ask ourselves whether it is worth it. But if we recognize that we will never end our suffering until we realize emptiness, then we will be extremely motivated to gain this realization understanding it is not only the panacea for all our problems it is the only solution to all our problems.

The fourth part of Shantideva’s explanation is also primarily divided into two parts:  the explanation of the emptiness or selflessness of persons and an explanation of the emptiness or selflessness of phenomena. Because all things can be divided into persons or phenomena, if we realized the emptiness of both of these, then we realize the emptiness of everything. In particular, Shantideva goes into an extensive explanation of the emptiness of phenomena. He does so first through looking at the four close placements of mindfulness, namely close placement of mindfulness of the body, of feelings, of the mind, and of phenomena. Second, he looks at the relationship between the production of phenomena and their emptiness. Normally we think if things are empty they cannot produce anything, but actually if anything is produced it reveals that it is empty.  

Happy Tsog Day: Motivation for doing series

In Guide to Dakini Land, Geshe-la explains Heruka said, “Practitioners who sincerely practise the tsog offering without missing the two ‘tenth’ days of each month will definitely be reborn in Dakini Land.” A tsog offering is, in effect, an enlightened party. When ordinary beings throw a party, they gather their friends and enjoy objects of delight. In a tsog offering, we generate ourself and others as the Guru-deity, gather together, and collectively accumulate vast merit that is in turn dedicated to gaining Dharma realizations and accomplishing spiritual goals for the sake of all living beings.

Once we take rebirth in the pure land, we will be able to receive teachings and empowerments directly from Heruka and Vajrayogini and be able to swiftly complete our spiritual training. A pure land is like a bodhisattva’s training camp, and once reborn there we will never again take an uncontrolled samsaric rebirth. If we wish to help those we love, we can send emanations – almost like drones or avatars in a video game – into the realms of samsara, but from our perspective, we remain safe in the pure land. Once we reach the pure land, our eventual enlightenment is guaranteed. Geshe-la explains many different ways to guarantee that we attain the pure land, such as reaching tranquil abiding on the generation stage object, reaching the fourth mental abiding on the Mahamudra, or dying with a pure mind of compassion. But the easiest and most certain way of reaching the pure land is to maintain our commitment to practice the tsog offering without missing the two tenth days of each month. Heruka himself explained this. Thus, practicing the tsog offering is like an insurance policy for attaining the pure land. What could possibly be more important than this?

The “tenth” days here refers to the 10th and 25th of every month when Kadampa practitioners traditionally engage in a “tsog” offering in the context of the practice Offering to the Spiritual Guide. If we miss a tsog day, we can just make it up on the weekend. If we cannot do it at the center, we can just do it at home on our own. If we cannot do it with physical offerings, we can just do it with imagined ones. If we do not have time to do it and our other daily commitments, we can just imagine our tsog puja indirectly fulfils our other commitments. If we do not have time to do it, we can just do it more quickly. If we cannot do any of that, Venerable Geshe-la says we can just double our normal daily mantra commitment. The point is, we should try find a way to remember tsog days.

To help mark the tsog days myself, and hopefully help others do the same, I am writing this 44-part series of blog posts which I will post on every tenth day over the next two years. During January, which is Heruka and Vajrayogini month, I will post separately on the 10th and 25th since they are Vajrayogini and Heruka day respectively, hence 44 parts instead of 48 parts.  This series will share my personal thoughts and reflections on engaging in the Offering to the Spiritual Guide sadhana with tsog. Geshe-la encourages us to “make our own commentary” to our practices to try deepen our understanding of them. When Shantideva wrote Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, he said his purpose in doing so was to consolidate his own thinking about the bodhisattva’s path, and if others received benefit from his explanations, then all the better. In the same way, I do not pretend that this explanation is in any way definitive – for that, we have the book Great Treasury of Merit – rather, I will share what my current understanding is of the practice. I write it to help consolidate my own experience and understanding of the practice, and if others also find benefit, then all the better.

In my mind, writing and posting this series of posts is my tsog offering to my spiritual guide. By writing it, I offer my practice, my faith, and my effort to try help the Kadam flourish in this world. I pray that those who read this will be inspired to always engage in tsog offerings every tenth day for the rest of their life, and thereby guarantee that they take rebirth in Keajra Pure Land. Once there, may they quickly complete their spiritual training and begin liberating all living beings from the vast, terrible ocean of samsara’s sufferings. 

Happy Tara Day: Why we turn to Tara

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

Going for refuge

I and all sentient beings, until we achieve enlightenment,
Go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.   (3x)

Je Tsongkhapa explains the primary causes of going for refuge are fear and faith.  Fear of lower rebirth, samsaric rebirth, or solitary peace; and faith in the three jewels to provide us protection from these fears.  When we engage in Tara practice, even though the refuge prayer we recite is the same as in so many of our other practices, we should mentally generate a specific faith in Tara, understanding her function.  In particular, Tara promised Atisha that in the future she would provide special care for all of his followers.  Atisha is the founder of the Kadampa tradition, and all Kadampas take his Lamrim as our main practice.  Tara is, in many ways, the Buddha of Lamrim.  Her mantra reveals that her main function is to bestow upon our mind the realizations of the initial, intermediate, and great scope of Lamrim, thus protectingus from lower rebirth, samsaric rebirth, and solitary peace.  Viewing her as our spiritual mother and the Buddha of Lamrim, we go for refuge to her with deep faith.

Generating bodhichitta

Through the virtues I collect by giving and other perfections,
May I become a Buddha for the benefit of all.   (3x)

The way we generate bodhichitta is different for each practice we engage in, even if the words we recite are exactly the same.  Of course, our compassionate wish to become a Buddha for the sake of all living beings is the same, but the specific flavor of the bodhichitta we generate will depend upon the practice we are doing.  The difference is identified in how the practice we are about to engage in contributes to our enlightenment based on its uncommon function.  Tara helps us in ways that are different than say Manjushri or Avalokiteshvara, and so generating bodhichitta for Tara practice is different because it is informed by how she helps us.  The more clearly we understand her function, the more precisely we will understand how reliance upon her will help move us towards enlightenment, giving our bodhichitta prayers a unique Tara-like flavor.  What is Tara’s function?  She is our spiritual mother, she helps us gain Lamrim realizations, and she swiftly helps us dispel all fears.  We need a spiritual mother, the lamrim realizations, and fearlessness in order to progress swiftly towards enlightenment.  Wanting these things and understanding her power to help us attain them, we generate bodhichitta.

Generating the four immeasurables

May all sentient beings possess happiness and its causes,
May they be free from suffering and its causes,
May they never be separated from the happiness that is without suffering,
May they abide in equanimity, without feeling close to some out of attachment or distant from others out of hatred.

As with bodhichitta practice, our practice of the four immeasurables should also have a Tara-like flavor when we recite them.  To do so, we should not just generate the four immeasurable wishes in a generic sense, but we should try align ourselves with Tara’s four immeasurable wishes for all living beings.  How Tara feels and experiences these four immeasurable wishes will be informed by her own understanding of her function and how she helps people realize these four wishes.  If we are to align ourselves with Tara’s blessings, we need to not only generate faith in her, but we need to align our motivation with hers.

When Tara thinks may all sentient beings possess happiness and its causes, she does so as a spiritual mother would.  When she thinks may they be free from suffering and its causes, she does so as somebody who has the power to dispel all fears would.  When she wishes everyone never be separated from the happiness without suffering, she does so as somebody who has the power to bestow the lamrim realizations of freedom from lower rebirth, samsaric rebirth, and solitary peace would.  When she wishes everyone abide in equanimity, she does so as a mother would who loves equally all her children and wishes only that they also love each other.  As you engage in the four immeasurables, ask yourself, “how would Tara feel these wishes,” and then try to feel them in the same way she would.  This will make your practice particularly powerful and align your mind more precisely with her blessings.

Inviting Arya Tara

From the supreme abode of Potala,
Born from the green letter TAM,
You who liberate migrators with the light of the letter TAM,
O Tara, please come here together with your retinue.

Potala is her Pure Land.  Definitive Potala is the clear light Dharmakaya of all the Buddhas.  An enlightened mind is the union of the completely purified wind and mind.  The completely purified very subtle wind is the vajra body of the Buddha, and the completely purified very subtle mind is the vajra mind of the Buddha.  When bodhisattvas are progressing along the Tantric grounds, they imagine that out of the Dharmakaya their vajra body (or illusory body) emerges out of the Dharmakaya.  Their very subtle wind takes the form of a seed letter of the future Buddha they are to become.  For Tara, her seed letter is the green letter TAM.  Once a Buddha attains enlightenment, they send out countless emanations and blessings to help all living beings – these are their emanation bodies.  Taken together, this verse means from her inner pure land of Dharmakaya Potala, she emerges as her enjoyment body in the aspect of a letter TAM, which then sends out infinite light rays in all directions ripening and liberating all living beings, who then appear in the aspect of countless Taras surrounding her and the twenty one Taras.


Gods and demi-gods bow their crowns
At your lotus feet;
O Liberator from all misfortune,
To you, Mother Tara, I prostrate.

Typically, gods and demi-gods bow to nobody thinking themselves superior to all, but when they are in Tara’s presence, they spontaneously bow their crowns out of respect a her lotus feet.  They do not do so out of fear or political loyalty, but deep respect understanding her to be the Holy Mother of all the Buddhas.  When we recite that she is the Liberator from all misfortune, we understand that she has the power to liberate all beings who are now around us in the aspect of Taras, and we imagine that all beings spontaneously bow down to her out of love and respect to her as our spiritual mother. 

The feeling this evokes for me is like in Game of Thrones with Daenerys Stormborn liberated countless slaves from their masters, and tens of thousands of them spontaneously started calling out to her as Mhysa, their liberating mother.  Tara is our Mhysa, and we imagine all living beings surrounding us feel the same loving respect. 

Dream with Geshe-la Explaining the Eight Dissolutions

I just had a dream in which Geshe-la explained to me how the eight dissolutions work. I write my dreams down so I don’t forget and in case they prove beneficial to others. When we die or during completion stage meditations, our inner winds gather into our central channel at our heart. As they gradually do so, we perceive eight different appearances.

In the dream, Geshe-la was quietly seated off on the side while all sorts of other activities were going on and there was lots of noise as people were talking or doing whatever. I was seated there paying attention to all these other activities and didn’t really notice Geshe-la there. But then somehow he got my attention and was asking when something happened during the eight dissolutions, so I started speaking with him about it and I would guess thinking I knew the answer to his question but not sure, “during the smoke-like appearance?” and he would say, “no, no,” and then I would guess feeling like I was getting closer to an answer, “during the sparkling fire-flies like appearance?” And he said, “no, no,” but he was getting more excited. And then I said, “when the wind element wind dissolves?” And he said, “almost!” And then it clicked, “ah, during the transition between the candle-flame like appearance and the white appearance, and he said all excited, “YES!”

He then called me over to him so he could show me. He then was showing me these very tiny boxes like Russian dolls, with one inside the other. They were floating in space going downwards, and he showed how when we transitioned from one appearance to another as the winds dissolved, it was like a rocket shedding its booster rocket where it left behind one of the bigger boxes and one of the smaller boxes emerged out from within it (but it was moving downwards at an angle, not upwards). When one of the smaller boxes emerged out from within a larger box, it would release a new powerful appearance as the next appearance. It was understood that a new smaller box would be released when all of the previous wind was absorbed, and as the new box (which was felt to be ourself at increasingly subtle levels) emerged, it would release the appearance.

Then he drew me really close looking at the boxes and he showed me what happened when we made the transition from candle-flame like appearance to white appearance: no new box came out, but we nonetheless emerged like a phantom box that had no form whatsoever and when we did it released the white appearance, and then Geshe-la said almost like some cool teen would, “it’s A-MAZING!!!” And then he started laughing all happy. (Note, it is when we make this transition that we enter what is called “the four empties” of white appearance, red increase, black near attainment, and then clear light).

He then said, “it is like this,” and he folded some scripture he was writing in half to write on the back what he wanted to explain, but he didn’t have something hard to write on. So I said, “oh, I’ll go get something hard to write on,” and I went and found some coffee table picture book and brought it over to him, he put the scripture paper on the book and was about to write, and then I woke up.

I then thought, “woah, I need to go write that down in my blog,” but I then fell back asleep.

I was then in the dorm at a festival and I had to go take a shower. I went into the shower room, which was in this wood cabin type place, and I turned the water on and at first it came out strong, but then only a trickle. I then looked for something to hook the shower head on, but it wasn’t the right fit, but finally I got it to hold, but then the water basically dried up. I then put on my towel to go tell somebody and I ran into some friends who were in an adjacent room in the cabin. They had also just showered and were in their towels.

One of the friends then offering to help out, “do you all need another night?” And I said, “oh, that would be great, our single room just ran out” accepting their offer, and then she said in all sincerity, “here, you can use this ring to secure another night,” and she gave me this really ugly, gaudy, gold speckled ring that I could use like something somebody could hold as collateral securing the room for the night. She then showed me her whole collection of similarly gaudy ostentatious jewelry. I remember looking at the ring and thinking, “nobody is going to want this, this is worthless,” even though financially it was no doubt worth a lot, I couldn’t imagine anybody who could offer me a room would want this.

I then woke up again and realized the two dreams were connected, so I came to write this.

What does this all mean to me? In the first dream, I was paying attention to all the noise and clammer of activities in the room and not Geshe-la off to the side in the corner quietly writing scriptures, a metaphor of my life paying attention to the noise of appearance and not the quiet of my guru writing Dharma. My guessing was me thinking I know things and blurting out answers as if I knew, and while my answers I was blurting out were wrong, they were gradually moving in the right direction. This is like me and my social media presence and blog, writing things like I know what I am saying, and what I am saying is not quite right, but nonetheless gradually moving in the right direction.

Geshe-la was trying to explain to me how the eight dissolutions work, a subject that I have really been focusing on trying to understand for about 18 months now. Geshe-la showed me the mechanism where when one wind element dissolved completely, it would release the next box of us at a smaller, more subtle level, and when the box was released, it would release this powerful light of the next appearance. But in particular, the most important one I needed to understand was when the wind supporting the candle-flame like appearance dissolved and I made the transition to white appearance – entering the four empties. Here, there was no form that emerged, just the sky-like empty formlessness. I understood this to mean formless in the sense of the mind is clarity, without form. It is also at this stage that we transition from gross to subtle minds, leaving our gross minds completely behind.

Geshe-la then wanted to write something down for me of what the next thing I needed to understand, but there was no foundation in my mind to understand it (symbolized by the search for something hard to write on), meaning I lacked the experience to understand the next level. My then showing up at a festival indicated to me that I need more teachings, in particular at festivals – something I haven’t been able to physically for a long time. My going for a shower meant to me I needed to purify, but the lack of water coming out was understood to mean a lack of merit. It was my last day at the festival and my friends offered me another night. The fact that we were all basically naked bud didn’t care indicated for me I need to basically almost completely leave behind my sexual attachment to understand what comes next. But they did so offering me some really expensive piece of jewelry from their vast collection of similar jewelry, but this was understood to be worthless. This meant to me how I have been using up my merit on worthless external things which is of no value to those who can enable me to stay another night to receive the teachings I need.

All of these are powerful teachings for me.