Happy Tsog Day: Remembering What it is all For

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 14 of a 44-part series.

Requesting the spiritual guide not to pass away

Though your vajra body has no birth or death,
We request the vessel of the great King of Union
To remain unchanging according to our wishes,
Without passing away until samsara ends.

Technically, our spiritual guide never dies because he identifies with his deathless vajra body. Our indestructible wind and mind go with us from life to life and is our actual body and mind. Samsaric beings mistakenly identify with their contaminated aggregates (such as the body and mind of a human or an animal), and as a result, when these die, the person feels like they die too. But an enlightened being is somebody who has completely purified their indestructible wind and mind of all delusions and their karmic obstructions, and then they identify with this completely purified body and mind as themselves; thus, attaining immortality.

The problem is living beings still trapped in the hallucinations of samsara cannot see directly vajra bodies. They are too pure and too subtle for our contaminated, gross minds to perceive. In order to help those of us trapped in samsara’s nightmare, Buddhas and spiritual guides emanate forms which appear to us in our samsaric dream. They themselves never leave their vajra body, but they are able to project themselves into our karmic dream. When they do so, these emanations appear as normal samsaric beings who are born, get old, get sick, and die. They appear this way because we do not have the karma to see things any differently.

In order for these emanations to appear, we need to create the karmic causes for them to do so. There are two principal methods for doing this. First, we can view everything as an emanation with a mind of faith. This mental action is not only true, since the ultimate nature of all things is the Truth Body of all the Buddhas, but it also creates the karma for emanations to appear to our mind as emanations. Second, we request that the spiritual guide remain in this world until samsara ceases. This mental action, especially when motivated by great compassion or bodhichitta, creates the karmic causes for emanations of Buddhas to appear in this world, guiding beings along the path.

Dedication

I dedicate all the pure white virtues I have gathered here, so that in all my lives
I shall never be separated from the venerable Guru who is kind in three ways;
May I always come under his loving care,
And attain the Union of Vajradhara.

As explained in one of the first posts of this series, Geshe Chekhawa said there are two activities, one at the beginning and one at the end. In the beginning, we generate a bodhichitta motivation wishing to engage in the practice for the sake of all living beings; and in the end, we dedicate any merit we accumulated through the practice towards the same goal. Intellectually, we know this, but we can sometimes not appreciate what is happening in our heart, and our practice and dedication seem flat.

To give us some feeling, I find it helpful to consider some analogies of things we do in life that are similar to dedication. The most obvious example is saving our money for some future use. We make the conscious decision to put our money in the bank or in some investment so that it can work towards providing at some future date. Another example is saving pictures or other nik naks around the house that remind us of somebody special. We lovingly place these things in our home for a long duration so that we can be reminded of them again and again in the future. We also save all sorts of information in our files so that we can find it again in the future when we need it. In the same way, we should feel as if we investing our merit, saving our karmic appearances, or storing away our “I”mportant karma for the future.

The merit we dedicate will continue to work towards the goal of our dedication until it is eventually realized. If we dedicate our merit towards something in this life, it will continue to work until that thing ripens. But if we dedicate it towards the attainment of enlightenment of all beings, it will not stop bringing benefit until that goal is realized. Further, dedication is the best method for ensuring that our past virtues are not subsequently destroyed by our anger. Anger functions to burn up undedicated merit, with the end result being it is as if we had never engaged in the virtue in the first place. But once we dedicate our merit, it is safe and protected, even if we later get angry. Understanding the value of dedication, we dedicate all our merit to the goals explained in the dedication verse.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Become whatever others need us to be

With respect to self-confidence, we can think, “I’m going to try, I’m going to try in my Dharma practice, my Dharma activities and so forth, for the sake of others. I will do these things because I want to help others, because I want to free others from their suffering.”  This thought will definitely give power to our actions.  We think, “no matter what I’m doing, I’m going ahead with my Dharma practice, I’m going ahead to overcome my delusions because sentient beings need me.”

(7.50) Unlike me, worldly beings are powerless.
Being under the control of delusion and karma,
They are unable to make their lives meaningful.
Therefore, I will practise virtue for their sake.

(7.51) How can I sit and do nothing
While others waste their lives on meaningless tasks?
Although it might seem like self-importance,
I should act out of self-confidence, which is quite different from self-importance.

Worldly beings are powerless, they are helpless, being under the control of delusion and karma.   Therefore, we have to take responsibility for them because we have been given all the tools we need, both externally and internally.  We know how to take responsibility for others who have no power – we can provide encouragement, we can set a good example, and we can pray.  If we do these three things for long enough, they will eventually be enough to liberate all beings. 

I like to recall that everyone I see is a being of my karmic dream.  If I am not responsible for them, who is?  Venerable Tharchin said we need to take responsibility for removing the faults we perceive in others.  Normally we think it is their responsibility to remove their faults, but it is our mind projecting them, so it is our responsibility.  Why are they helpless?  Because I have been neglecting them.  I have not given them the power.  They are just karmic appearance, they do what we have karmically created the causes for them to appear to do.  How do we remove the faults from their mind?  By removing them from our own.  Since they are a reflection of our own mind, if we purify our own mind of the faults we perceive in others, they will gradually – almost like magic – disappear in others. 

We need to find the right balance between waiting for them to come to us and going out to help them.  It is an extreme to just wait for them to come to us.  We do not wait for a drowning person to come to us, we just dive in and help.  What hope do others have other than us?  It is also an extreme to force our help on others – I am here to save you, I am here to help you.  Because if people are not asking for help and we give it, they will reject our help and this creates the tendencies for them to reject the solution of Dharma. 

The middle way is to become whatever others need us to be – not necessarily what they want us to be, but what they need us to be.  We look back at ourself from their perspective and ask what we need from that person (ourself).  Then we give them whatever they need, according to their needs and wishes.  In the beginning, we will help them with a lot of ordinary things, but this is OK, because in this way we become part of their lives.  Gradually we are able to help them with higher and higher spiritual objectives because they seek it from us.  What they really need us to be is a Buddha.  When we see that, bodhichitta will become effortless.

We should follow the example of our fellow Sangha, teachers, and Geshe-la.  We should have admiring faith for what others do.  As a result of this admiring faith, we will naturally develop the wish to do the same.  Then we can follow their example.  When we see that it works because we have good examples, then we can have confidence that if we try, we can do the same thing.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Practice without doubt

(7.49) I should maintain self-confidence in three things:
My Dharma practice, my Dharma activities, and overcoming my own delusions.
I should encourage myself by thinking, “I alone will lead all living beings to the happiness of enlightenment”,
And in this way sustain my self-confidence in these three things.

Perhaps we lack confidence in one, two, or possibly all three things. Our Dharma practice, our Dharma activities, and overcoming our delusions are all difficult.  Actually we need to cultivate each of these in turn.  We should also actively discuss with our Sangha friends how to overcome our lack of self-confidence in these three and how to improve our self-confidence for each of them.  If we have self-confidence in these three, we will accomplish everything; if we doubt we can do it, we will accomplish nothing.  There is little more important than cultivating these three types of self-confidence.

With respect to the first, our Dharma practice, in Guide to Dakini Land Venerable Geshe-la, in general whenever we practice Dharma, we should first overcome all doubts about the instructions we have received and reach a clear conclusion about them.  There is no doubt that if we do, we will become a lot more confident in our Dharma practice.  With a faithful mind, we need to apply the instructions we have received.  Through applying them, both our understanding and our familiarity with them will grow. And as they do, we will become more and more confident.  A good example is our practice of generation stage.  At first, it seems overwhelming, but with familiarity, it becomes much easier, even natural.  Many people receive the empowerments.  Those who have tried their best are now starting to get it and their confidence is growing.  Those who thought it was too difficult and did not even try are still stuck, and may have even abandoned their practice completely out of discouragement. 

Second, we need to develop self-confidence in our Dharma activities.  I have spent roughly 20 years of my life in the United States, 20 years in Europe, and 8 years in Asia.  In the United States, the cultural tendency is to dive in to things even if they are beyond our capacity, so sometimes we get in over our head, and then give up trying things we once failed at.  In Asia, people are generally afraid of trying anything unless they can do it perfectly.  They would rather do nothing than publicly try and fail.  In Europe, people often see how things can be done better than what they can do, and so they conclude if they cannot do it perfectly, they are somehow doing it badly.  They would rather do nothing than risk somebody pointing out their mistakes trying.  The point is, pretty much all of us have an unhealthy relationship with trying and failing.  Our job is to develop a healthy relationship.

The key to gaining confidence in our Dharma activities is to let go of attachment to results and realize that trying itself is succeeding.  It is the mental factor intention that creates karma, so even if we do not succeed in accomplishing specific results, we will succeed in planting seeds.  Because we have faith in karma, we know if the cause is created, the future effect is guaranteed.  We are just happy to be constructing a good future.  The definition of maturity is when we use today for the future.  Spiritual maturity is when we use this life for future lives.  There is a special satisfaction that comes from building for the future.

One thing we can do to increase our confidence in our Dharma activities is to rely more on our spiritual guide.  We need to feel the presence of our spiritual guide at our heart with everything you do.  The Spiritual Guide can do anything.  We simply need to realize the relationship between him and us.  He is our own pure potential fully developed.  When we realize this, everything he can do, we can do.  To develop faith in him is to develop confidence in ourselves.  If we try to develop confidence in our contaminated aggregates, it is just deluded pride and everything falls apart.  If we invest the time to learn how to rely upon the spiritual guide for all our activities, then we will realize everything is possible.  When we are involving our spiritual guide in this way, there is every reason to be confident.

And then the third, we need to develop self-confidence in our ability to overcome our delusions.  Again, we find it difficult because it seems our delusions are a lot stronger than we are. What can we do?  What I find helpful is to remind myself simply:  delusions and seeds of delusions are not an intrinsic part of my mind and they can be destroyed, my Buddha nature cannot be. We can also consider that Buddhas – like Vajrapani who has infinite spiritual power – are actually aspects of our own pure potential, so whatever they can do, we can do. 

Happy Tsog Day: Rejoicing In and Requesting the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma

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 13 of a 44-part series.

Rejoicing

Though phenomena have no sign of inherent existence,
From the depths of our hearts we rejoice
In all the dream-like happiness and pure white virtue
That arise for ordinary and Superior beings.

Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path that rejoicing is the easiest of all the virtues. We simply need to be happy for others, both when they experience good fortune and when they create the cause for it by engaging in virtuous actions. Normally, we get jealous of others when good things happen to them, thinking it is not fair that everything goes well for them, but we always have to suffer and struggle. We would rather nobody experience good fortune than others experience it and we are not. Similarly, when others are praised for some good quality they possess, we immediately become jealous and find fault in the other person or we feel like that person being praised is in fact an indirect criticism of ourselves, and so we become defensive.

Rejoicing in other’s virtue is quite simply the easiest way to create good karma for ourselves. All we need to do is consider the virtuous actions of others and think how wonderful it is for them and for the beneficiaries of their virtuous actions. Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path that the amount of merit we create by rejoicing is a function of our relative spiritual development. When we rejoice in the virtues of those more spiritually developed than ourselves, such as the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, we accumulate a fraction of the virtues they accumulated in the process of engaging in their virtuous actions. When we rejoice in the virtues of those of equivalent spiritual development as ourselves, we accumulate exactly the same amount of merit they do for engaging in the virtuous actions. And when we rejoice in the virtues of those spiritually less developed than us, we accumulate more virtue from our rejoicing than they do from the virtuous action itself.

Practically speaking, we have many opportunities to train in rejoicing – every time somebody has something good happen, rejoice. Every time somebody else is praised, rejoice. Every time you see somebody help somebody else, rejoice. Just be happy every time anything good happens. It is not hard to change this habit if we apply a little bit of effort.

Here, Geshe-la highlights the relationship between rejoicing and the wisdom realizing emptiness. When we grasp at others existing separately from us, we think their virtue has nothing to do with us. But when we realize the emptiness of ourself, the other person, and their virtuous deed, we realize that all this goodness is happening inside our karmic dream. Any good that happens or ripens inside our karma dream is ripening inside our own mind; thus, we can be thrilled that it is happening because the environment of our mind is becoming purer and purer.

Requesting the turning of the Wheel of Dharma

From the myriads of billowing clouds of your sublime wisdom and compassion,
Please send down a rain of vast and profound Dharma,
So that in the jasmine garden of benefit and happiness
There may be growth, sustenance, and increase for all these living beings.

The appearance of Dharma teachings is a dependent arising. In other words, if we do not create the karma for the Dharma to appear, it will not. Right now, we have found the Dharma and as a result, we can practice it. But there is no guarantee we will attain enlightenment in this life nor find the Dharma again in our future lives. If we do not find it again, how can we possibly continue with our practice?

There are three principal methods for ensuring we find the Dharam again in all our future lives. The first is to put the Dharma we have received into practice. I once asked Geshe-la for a guaranteed method to meet him in all my future lives without interruption, and he said, “concentrate on practicing Dharma and always keep faith.” The second is to work to cause the Dharma to flourish in this world, such as giving teachings, working for our Dharma centers, or even discussing the Dharma on social media. And the third is to request the turning of the Wheel of Dharma. All three create the karma for it to appear in our world, both now and in the future for ourselves and for all living beings.

Happy Tara Day: Bringing our seven-limb prayer to life

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

Prayer of seven limbs

To Venerable Arya Tara
And all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
Residing in the ten directions and the three times,
I prostrate with sincere faith.

Actual prostration is an inner wish to become just like whatever we are prostrating to.  When we prostrate to the good qualities of Buddhas, we are not trying to flatter them, rather we are humbly acknowledging that they have qualities we aspire towards, and our prostration is a commitment that we will rely upon them until we gain these same qualities ourself.  When we recite this verse, we should imagine that all of the countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of all three times are joining us in prostrating towards Arya Tara, our common spiritual mother.  Every Buddha and every bodhisattva is different, but we all share a common respect for our kind spiritual mother, and we pay respect to her wishing to become just like her.  We might wonder why Buddhas need to prostrate to other Buddhas since they have already attained every good quality.  They do so for two reasons, as a sign of respect recognizing all of the good that Tara does and to show a good example to everybody else by reaffirming that she is the spiritual mother of us all. 

I offer you flowers, incense, lights,
Perfumes, foods, music and other offerings,
Both actually set out and mentally imagined;
Please accept these, O Assembly of Aryas.

Buddhas do not need offerings from their own side since they already have everything they need.  We, however, need to make offerings because we need the merit, or good karma.  Gaining Dharma realizations depends primarily upon three conditions:  a mind free from negative karma, an abundance of merit, and a steady flow of blessings.  This can be likened to sea lanes free from obstacles, good sails, and plenty of wind.  When we recite this verse, we should imagine that ourself and all living beings surrounding us all fill the entire universe with countless breathtaking offerings.  We should imagine that the assembly of Taras accepts our offerings out of delight, knowing that we are now karmically closer to her and our minds our rich with merit she can subsequently bless.

I confess all negative actions,
The five heinous actions and the ten non-virtues,
That I have committed since beginningless time
Through my mind being overcome by delusions.

The strength of our purification depends upon the extent to which we generate the four opponent powers.  The power of regret is admitting that we have made mistakes and recognizing that if we do not purify, we will suffer the karmic consequences – not as a punishment, but more an issue of spiritual gravity.  This primarily purifies the effects similar to the cause.  The power of reliance means we turn to the three jewels for purification of our negative karma and to seek their help so that we can change our ways.  This primarily purifies the environmental effect of our negative karma.  The power of the opponent force is some virtuous action we engage in to counteract or oppose the negative karma we previously created.  Venerable Tharchin explains that negative karma is like tiny vibrations on our very subtle mind, but if we send an opposite wave towards it, we can neutralize our past negative deeds.  This primarily purifies the ripened effect, or the substantial cause of future lower rebirth.  The power of the promise is a personal commitment that we will not repeat our past mistakes, but instead do something positive.  This primarily purifies the tendency to engage again in negative actions.  If all four powers are assembled, we can quickly purify all of our negative karma, but if we fail to generate these four causes, then our purification will be incomplete.  Any virtuous action can be an opponent force if performed motivated by regret. 

To purification in this context, we should first generate regret for all the negative karma that remains in our mind which can result in lower rebirth, create obstacles to our practice of Lamrim, and interfere with our ability to generate pure faith in Arya Tara.  We then recall the assembly of Taras in front of us and generate faith and reliance in them.  When we engage in the opponent action of confession, we are coming clean with our mistakes acknowledging them as mistakes, without our typical rationalization or minimization for why they don’t matter.  Understanding them clearly as the wrong way to go, we then commit to both ourself and Guru Tara that we will change our ways.  We can then imagine that countless purifying nectars stream down from Tara’s heart, filling our heart and purifying all of our negative karma.

 We can sometimes confuse Buddhist confession with Catholic confession.  In Christian traditions, we confess our wrong deeds in the hopes that God will forgive us.  In Buddhism, we do not need some outside power to forgive us, but we do need to receive purifying blessings.  Receiving Tara’s purifying blessings does not depend upon her forgiving us, rather they will spontaneously come down every time the conditions for them to occur arise, just like sunlight will flood in each time we open the blinds without the Sun having to decide to fill our room with light.

I rejoice in the merit of all the virtues
Collected throughout the three times
By Bodhisattvas, Solitary Conquerors,
Hearers, ordinary beings and others.

When we rejoice in virtue we create a similitude of the virtuous karma we are rejoicing in, as if we engaged in the virtuous action ourself.  Since Tara is the Lamrim Buddha and she has committed herself to protecting the followers of Atisha, when we engage in this practice, we should particularly rejoice in all of the virtue of the Kadam lineage gurus and the millions of old and new Kadampa practitioners.  All of these virtuous deeds are inspired by Tara and rejoicing in these Kadampa virtues aligns us with not only her blessings, but the karmic current of the Kadampas.  We can then ride the “great wave” of their deeds all the way to enlightenment.

Please turn the Wheel of Dharma
Of the great, small and common vehicles,
According to the different wishes
And capacities of living beings.

Buddhas appear in countless Buddhist and non-Buddhist form depending upon the karmic dispositions of different disciples around the world.  We don’t in any way need more Buddhists per se, we are content with anybody moving in virtuous directions depending upon wherever they are starting from.  But here, since this is a practice of Tara, in particular we request the turning of the wheel of Kadam Dharma, the Kadam Lamrim.  Geshe-la says everyone needs Lamrim, whether we are Buddhist or not.  Lamrim is inseparable from living with wisdom.  If we look at the world and social media, we can find countless examples of Lamrim-like wisdom appearing in a variety of different forms that are acceptable to different audiences.  This is a wonderful thing, and is the direct result of Kadampa practitioners praying for the turning of the wheel of Kadam Dharma.  Likewise, Milarepa said he does not need Dharma books because everything reveals to him the truth of Dharma.  Part of the Buddhas turning the Wheel of Dharma includes blessing the minds of living beings to learn Dharma lessons from whatever arises in the world.  When we recite this verse, we should strongly request Tara continue to pour down the wisdom of the Kadam Lamrim in this world in whatever form living beings can accept – which usually means Facebook quotes or funny memes!

For as long as samsara has not ceased,
Please do not pass beyond sorrow;
But with compassion care for all living beings
Drowning in the ocean of suffering.

A Buddha is a deathless being.  They have quite literally conquered death and have the ability to remain in this world, life after life, gradually guiding living beings along the path to enlightenment.  They can do so without ever being subject to samsara’s sufferings.  Their emanation bodies will be born, age, get sick, and eventually pass away, but the actual Buddha remains in this world forever.  When we recite this verse, we pray that Buddhas emanations continue to appear forever.  Buddhas are everywhere, but whether they can help living beings depends upon whether they appear or not.  Them appearing helping living beings is a dependent arising, dependent upon our creating the karma for them to appear.  When we recite this verse, we create the karmic causes for them to continue to appear.  It is important that when we recite this verse we do so for the sake of others.  We can sometimes think, “well I’ve already found the Dharma, so why do I need to pray for this?”  The answer is (1) other living beings matter too, and (2) by praying that emanations continue to appear for others we create the karmic causes for them to continue to appear to us in all of our future lives.

May all the merit I have collected
Become the cause of enlightenment;
And before too long may I become
The Glorious Guide of migrators.

Dedicating our merit is like investing our money.  We put it away in for a particular cause and then it continues to work towards the fulfillment of that cause.  There is a big difference between investing our money and spending it on our present needs.  Here, we dedicate all our merit to our swiftest possible enlightenment so we can then help others attain the same state.  In this way, we ourselves become part of the great wave of Tara’s family.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Once you make a commitment, keep it

We must set ourselves goals or targets towards which we direct our mind and our activities.  We are quite used to doing this for worldly goals.  We also need to set ourselves meaningful spiritual goals. Some for a day, some for our life.  All Dharma goals are ‘do’ goals, not ‘result’ goals.  We cannot make a commitment, “I will attain spontaneous bodhichitta by the end of this year.”  We can’t control when the results will ripen.  But we can say, “I will focus my spiritual practice on training in bodhichitta this year.”  That is something we can do.  We can also commit, “I will keep training and never give up until I attain spontaneous bodhichitta.”  Once again, that is a “do” goal – something we commit to doing. 

Once we make a commitment, we then commit ourselves to keeping it. We commit ourselves to striving towards and eventually achieving or accomplishing these goals.  Our spiritual progress very much depends upon keeping our commitments.  We can look at parents.  Parents make huge commitments to take responsibility for the lives of their children.  We need to do the same for our spiritual children – all the beings in our karmic dream.   

But generally, if we are honest we don’t like to commit ourselves, do we. We think commitments limit our freedom, when in reality it is our delusions that limit our freedom, and keeping commitments is what sets us free.

There is no doubt by setting ourselves goals, and committing ourselves to reach those goals, we increase our capacity, don’t we?  Our spiritual guide is trying to help us do this. He is always trying to get us to increase our capacity until we possess the capacity of an actual Bodhisattva, finally an actual Buddha.  But we must be realistic right about what we are able to accomplish. What we feel we are able to accomplish. We must be honest with ourselves.

It is difficult to know sometimes what we can accomplish.  This is one reason we need reliance on our spiritual guide. One good reason why we need to be of service to him is because he knows what we are capable of.  Perhaps what he feels we are capable of and what we feel are going to be different which is why we need to trust our spiritual guide.  We offer ourself to him – please do with me whatever you want.  We don’t need to move to a Dharma center or receive detailed instructions from him about what we should do with our time, it is a mental attitude.  We offer ourself to him.  We commit ourselves to the fulfillment of his wishes in our own little karmic world.  All he wants of us is that we practice Dharma, so we commit to doing so at our work, in our homes, and with our families and friend. 

If we have offered ourself to be of service to him, then we can expect sometimes to be stretched.  Sometimes we mistakenly think if we start practicing Dharma, life will somehow get easier.  We will somehow be protected from samsara’s sufferings.  Ha!  If only.  The truth is, it never gets any easier.  It is always equally hard, we just start dealing with more and more responsibilities as our capacity grows.  Maybe sometimes we feel we cannot accomplish the results that our spiritual guide is asking us to accomplish. We think we cannot reach the goals, even the short-term goals that he is asking us to reach.  But we need to trust, to have faith and trust, and then apply ourselves without hesitation to reaching those goals, accomplishing those results.  He believes we can do it, we do not.  Who do we trust? Even if sometimes we do not manage to reach those goals, from our side is there any fault in doing our best to try?  Perhaps trying our best and failing is how we learn the spiritual lesson we need to learn.

This is why we need patience, we need patient acceptance.  We need to be able to accept our weaknesses as well as our strengths. Our inabilities as well as our abilities. It is so important.  Perhaps sometimes we all feel we just cannot do it. We think of some goal we would really like to set ourselves, some practice perhaps that we would like to engage in, and we feel we are not ready, that we can’t do that yet.  If we are not accepting of where we are at, we then set unrealistic goals and set ourselves up for failure.  Then how can we ever develop our confidence?  If there is no acceptance, then how can we be confident, and then how can we ever improve? If we strive for a goal and fail, we also need to accept that.  It is OK to fail as long as we are learning.  We accept we didn’t make it, but we just pick ourselves back up and try again.  When we accept ourselves, we can also accept our failures.  Then, we never fail, we only learn.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Developing a sense of spiritual honor

We now start the second of the four powers, the power of self-confidence:

As mentioned in Vajradotsa Sutra,
Whatever Dharma practice I study, I should complete it with strong confidence.

(7.47) First, I should examine what is to be done,
To see whether I can do it or not.
If I am unable to do it, I should not start it;
But, once I start something, I should never turn back.

(7.48) Otherwise this habit will carry into my future lives
And my non-virtue and suffering will continue to increase.
Moreover, other virtuous actions will take a long time to accomplish
And will yield only meagre results.

This is incredibly important and practical advice.  Very often we swing from the extreme of making huge commitments we have no means of keeping or completely giving up trying to do anything.  Both function to destroy our self-confidence.  Instead, we need to consider carefully what we can actually accomplish (and that we want to accomplish), and then we make a very defined commitment to accomplish that no matter what.  For example, in Alcoholics Anonymous, people are advised to take things “one day at a time.”  We make a commitment, “I will not drink today.”  This is a small, doable commitment.  When we make this commitment, then we keep it.  When we keep it, our confidence and our capacity grows, and we can start the cycle over again.  Eventually, we will gain the ability to commit for two days, then a week, then a month, and eventually for the rest of our life.  In this way, we work skillfully with all of our spiritual vows and commitments until we are eventually able to keep them all perfectly all the time.  But if we make an unrealistic commitment we can’t keep, then we will break it.  When we do, our confidence and capacity will wither.  Then, in the future, when we make commitments to ourselves, they will have no meaning and no power because we know we will not be able to keep them.

It is the same with making commitments to others.  We want to help others and be there for them.  But sometimes we overpromise and then later have to under-deliver.  We aren’t able to do everything we committed to, and so we leave people disappointed.  This causes them to not trust us and it becomes a habit for us where we fail to live up to our commitments to others.  As bodhisattva’s, we are making the commitment to lead each and every living being to the ultimate state of full enlightenment.  If we start breaking our smaller commitments to others, then it becomes a habit and we will never be able to keep our ultimate commitment to others.  It is this commitment that gives our bodhisattva vows power.  If we know our commitment is meaningless in our own mind, then so too will our bodhisattva vows.  The point is we need to “right size” our commitments to something that is actually doable.  Not too great that we can’t keep them, and not too small that they are meaningless. 

Whether we are making commitments to ourself or to others, once we have made them, we need to be like Eddard (Ned) Stark from Game of Thrones.  Ned Stark was the most honorable man in Westeros.  He always kept his commitments – to himself and to others.  It was his honor.  He valued his honor more than his life.  True, it got his head chopped off, but it was the reputation of him as an honorable man that ultimately led to many of his children ultimately surviving and rising in their own right.  Even though he died, his honor won in the end.  So too it is with our spiritual honor.  If we keep our spiritual honor, even if we get our heads chopped off (an unlikely event, to be sure), we will keep our vows in tact on our mental continuum and be able to refind the spiritual path again in our future lives.  We should not fear losing our life for our spiritual honor, rather we should fear losing our spiritual honor for the sake of this one life.  In truth, it is almost unthinkable that we could find ourselves in a situation where we need to choose between our spiritual honor and our life, but internally we have already made our choice.  We know what we would choose.  We would channel our inner Ned Stark. 

Happy Protector Day: Tapping into Dorje Shugden’s Power

The 29th of every month is Protector Day.  This is part 7 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.

The remainder of the sadhana is largely making requests to Dorje Shugden.  Before we get into the specifics, I want to now explain some general advice on how to increase the power of our making requests to him.  These apply equally to the meditation break as well as the meditation session. 

First, the extent to which he can help us depends on the degree of faith we have in him.  If our faith is weak, his protection will be weak.  This is not because he is holding back it is because our mind remains closed so he has few points of entry for bestowing his blessings.  If our faith is indestructible and infinite, then his protection of us will be infinite.  If we understand this we will realize that our primary training in the practice of Dorje Shugden is increasing our faith in him.

Second, he can help us to the extent that our motivation is pure.  When our motivation is pure, it is like we align the crystals of our mind perfectly with the light of the deity.  To improve our motivation, we need to train sincerely in Lamrim.  The main function of Lamrim is to change our heart desires from worldly ones into spiritual ones.  Once we get our motivation right, everything else naturally falls into place.  It is the mental factor intention that determines the karma we create, so intention is the most important.

Third, he can help us to the extent that we realize that he, ourselves and everything else are empty.  The main point is this:  Dorje Shugden isn’t anything from his own side.  He is as powerful as we construct him to be.  We can construct him as an ordinary being or as an infinitely powerful protector.

After the invitation to Dorje Shugden, which has already been explained, we then make offerings and requests as follows:

HUM
Respectfully I prostrate with body, speech and mind. 

Here we imagine that from ourself and from all the beings we previously put within the protection circle, we emanate all of our past and future bodies.  Then with all of these past, present and future emanations of ourself, we prostrate.  This creates special merit with him so that he can provide us protection in all our past, present and future lives.  How Dorje Shugden protects us in our present and future lives is easy to understand.  But how can he provide us protection in our past lives when they have already passed?   He can bless our mind so that everything that happened to us in the past also becomes a cause of our enlightenment. We view our past differently in such a way that it teaches us lessons of Dharma.  In this way, no matter when we start our practice, even if it is when we are very old, it can be as if we effectively have practiced our whole life.  When we go to normal psychological therapists, they help us process our past so that it is no longer a drag on us.  In the same way, by requesting Dorje Shugden to transform our past experiences into a cause of our enlightenment, we receive special blessings to view these events differently.  We may even come to view our greatest past trauma as our greatest life blessing.  Such is the power of Dorje Shugden and the truth of emptiness.

I offer a mass of inner and outer offerings, blissful tormas,
Alcohol, tea, cakes, milk, and curd,
Both actually set out and mentally imagined, filling the whole of space.

The basic idea is this:  whatever we offer to Dorje Shugden, he can then use for our swiftest possible enlightenment.  For example, if I offer my house to him, then everything that happens in my house will be emanated by him for my practice, etc.  So mentally, we offer everything because we want to use everything for our attainment of enlightenment. 

Happy Tsog Day: Making Our Spiritual Life Practical

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 12 of a 44-part series.

Offering medicines, and ourself as a servant

I offer many different types of excellent medicine
That destroy the four hundred and four diseases of the delusions,
And to please you I offer myself as a servant;
Please keep me in your service for as long as space exists.

We have met Geshe-la in this life and he has taught us the stages of the path to enlightenment. If we are lucky and apply full effort with great faith and a pure heart, we may attain enlightenment in this life. But it is also possible we will not complete the path before we die. At that point, it becomes vital that we find the path again in all our future lives without interruption so we can continue on with our spiritual training. Venerable Tharchin explains that “if we do our honest best to train in the stages of the path throughout our life, it will be enough to ensure we find the path again in our next life.” But the supreme method to always meet Geshe-la again and again in all our future lives is to offer ourself as a servant for as long as space exists. What does it mean to offer ourself as a servant? It means to promise to dedicate our life to the fulfilment of our Guru’s wishes. What does our Guru wish? He wishes that we attain enlightenment and that we help others to do the same. His special method for leading all beings to enlightenment is to form fully qualified spiritual guides who in turn train other fully qualified spiritual guides, as a “great wave” of virtuous deeds that will – generation after generation – eventually wash over all living beings. To offer ourself as a servant is to make ourselves part of this great wave. Practically speaking we can do this by becoming a qualified Kadampa teacher, a center administrator, or even just a humble practitioner. The point is we do what we can to help cause the Dharma to flourish in this world. It is obvious that if we spend this life fulfilling our Guru’s wishes to cause the Dharma to flourish we will create the karma necessary to refind the Dharma in all our future lives.

Confession

In the presence of the great Compassionate Ones I confess with a mind of great regret
All the non-virtues and negative actions that, since beginningless time,
I have done, ordered to be done, or rejoiced in;
And I promise that from now on I shall not commit them again.

Infinite negative karma is the biggest problem we do not realize we have. Logically, this is not difficult to establish. First, the vast majority of our previous lives have been spent in the lower realms, where we engaged almost exclusively in negative actions. Animals may occasionally engage in virtuous actions, but almost every other action a lower being engages in is negative – each one creating negative karmic seeds on our mind. Second, engaging in virtue takes effort, whereas engaging in negativity comes effortlessly. This shows not only that we have powerful negative tendencies on our mind, but that in the past we have mostly engaged in negative actions and very few virtuous ones. And third, we have made almost no effort to purify our negative karma, even after having been in the Dharma for many years. Before we met the Dharma, we did not engage in purification at all, and since we have found the Dharma, we have done precious little purification. There are only two ways negative karma can be removed from our mind, either by ripening in the form of suffering or through sincere purification practice. Since we have not purified, all these countless negative karmic seeds remain on our mind. Intellectually, this logic is inescapable proof.

But it still does not move our mind. Why? Primarily because we still have on our mind negative karma of holding wrong views rejecting the truth of karma and past and future lives. These negative seeds prevent us from believing the unavoidable truth of our negative karma. So even though intellectually, we know it must be true, we do not really believe this in our heart, and therefore we never generate the appropriate levels of fear for the negative karma that remains. Geshe-la explains in Oral Instructions of Mahamudra that the primary reason we have not yet sincerely put the Dharma into practice is because we have neglected generating rational fear of samsara. In other words, the fact that we do not feel fear of our negative karma is itself a perfect sign that we have much left to purify.

I find it helpful to consider I (and everyone I know) am destined for the lower realms. We are en route for them right now, and if we do not purify, we will inevitably fall. I find it helpful to consider some analogies, such as I am on an island that is rapidly sinking into an ocean of molten fire of the lower realms. I am chained to the deck of the Titanic, and if I do not free myself, I will go down with the ship. I carry in my heart countless karmic time bombs that can explode at any moment.

To purify our negative karma, we need to apply the four opponent powers. The power of regret admits to ourself that we have untold quantities of negative karma remaining on our mind, and if we do not purify it, we will get sucked into a vortex of endless suffering. The power of reliance is turning either to the three jewels or to all living beings to purify our negative karma. The power of the opponent force is any virtuous action motivated by regret and is directed towards either the three jewels (such as Vajrasattva practice of the 35 Confession Buddhas) or living beings (such as engaging in virtuous actions for their benefit). The power of the promise is making internal commitments to refrain in the future from similarly engaging in negative actions. The power of regret purifies the effects similar to the cause. The power of reliance purifies the environmental effects. The power of the opponent force purifies the ripened effect. And the power of the promise purifies the tendencies similar to the cause to engage again in negativity.

I find it helpful to understand how this works by considering how we apologize. When we have wronged someone in some way, if we check, we follow a very clear formula when we apologize. First, we honestly admit what we did and the harm that it caused the other person. Then, we express our apology to whoever we harmed. Then, we do something kind to make amends. Finally, we promise to not do it again. The truth is we have been harming the three jewels and living beings since beginningless time. But we now have an opportunity to correct for this by engaging in sincere purification practice.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Don’t be complacent with your current ways

Sometimes we are afraid of changing because what we are doing is working out alright for us.  Not perfectly, not as good as it could be, but seemingly good enough.  We know if we change we might lose that good enough and it will be harder for us in the short-term before we get to the long-term when things start to get better.  Our objects of attachment or our present worldly life, for example, are giving us some modicum of happiness now; but our meditations on lamrim aren’t really doing that much for us. 

Sure, in the long-run, if we gain deep realizations of lamrim we will be happy all the time, but if I have to give up my enjoyments in the short-term, I will be more unhappy then until I reach the long-term.  I’m not willing to do that, so I never get serious about my practice.  There are two main faults with this way of thinking.  First, there is nothing about our future happiness that makes it any less important than our present happiness.  Indeed, the reason why we suffer now is because in the past we didn’t work for our future happiness.  Our goal should be to maximize the happiness of the totality of our mental continuum, not just this one life, and certainly not this one present moment. 

Second, it grasps at there being a tension between happiness in this life and spiritual practice.  We mistakenly think we need to sacrifice our happiness in this life in order to be happy in our future lives.  This is completely wrong.  We travel the Joyful Path of good fortune.  By adopting a spiritual outlook on life now, we will both be happier in this life and in all our future lives.  Someone who has a spiritual life is able to find great meaning in everything that happens – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and so they are able to enjoy and be happy all the time regardless of what happens.  When we hang on to our worldly outlook on life, then we can be happy for those few moments when things go well, but then we suffer all the rest of the time when things go badly.  And let’s face it, things go wrong in samsara far more than they go right.

Shantideva says the root of Dharma is the intention to practice.  This is why virtually all the lamrim meditations have as their object of meditation, therefore I must practice Dharma.  This intention will never come on its own.  We need to cultivate it.  If we don’t cultivate it, it will never come and we will remain the same (or worse) forever.