The Power of Correct Belief

Every stage of the path of both Sutra and Tantra is, in the final analysis, a meditation on correct belief. Understanding what are correct beliefs and how they function is therefore of fundamental importance. For some, this post may seem very technical. But if we understand correct beliefs, I believe we can gain great confidence in our spiritual path. Gen Tharchin said, “when we understand clearly how the Dharma works to produce its effects, effort becomes effortless.”

What is a correct belief?

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la says, “the definition of correct belief is a non-valid cognizer that realizes its conceived object.” In short, a correct belief is the mental action of believing in something that exists and is true. Meditation on correct beliefs transforms them into valid cognizers which know (as opposed to merely believe) the truth of the object. Meditation is the process of familiarizing ourselves with a virtuous object. We do so through study and practice. Study and practice give us the valid reasons and personal experience which establish irrefutably the truth of the objects of our correct belief. Knowledge held by correct beliefs is correct, but vulnerable to doubts. Knowledge held by valid cognizers is also correct, but invulnerable to doubts – it knows the truth.

Before we can appreciate the power of correct beliefs, we must answer a fundamental question of how they are established. In other words, how do we know if a belief is correct or not? Ordinary beings attempt to establish truth by demonstrating something is objectively true. To be objectively true means it is true on the side of the object, and not dependent upon any subjective perception or opinion. But clearly this doesn’t work for Prasangika Buddhists who reject that anything exists on the side of the object. If nothing exists on the side of the object, then nothing can be objectively true. Understanding this can lead many people into an existential crisis – if things can’t be objectively established, then they can’t be established at all, and there is no basis for establishing anything as true. Every subjective opinion becomes equally valid, including genocidal mentalities like Hitler’s, which is a disturbing conclusion to say the least. For this reason, many people wind up rejecting the teachings on emptiness altogether because to accept them leads to terrible consequences – namely the extreme of relativism that all subjective opinions are equally valid to those who hold them.

So how do we escape this conundrum? Dharmakirti’s Commentary to Valid Cognition provides the answer. Lorig is the teachings on how to understand the mind. Lorig can be taught at many different levels depending upon one’s understanding of emptiness. Dharmakirti presents Lorig from the perspective of the Madhyamika Prasangika, or the highest view of emptiness. For modern Kadampas, the book How to Understand the Mind is our commentary to valid cognition from the Prasangika perspective.

Epistemology is the study of how truth is established. All the lower schools of Lorig establish truth on the side of the object – or objectively. The Prasangika presentation of Lorig is a philosophical Copernican Revolution in Buddhist epistemology. Prior to Copernicus, everyone thought the sun revolved around the earth. Copernicus turned all of this on its head by showing the earth revolved around the sun. In the same way, all of the lower schools attempt to establish truth on the side of the object. Prasangikas establish truth on the side of the mind. If the mind knowing an object is valid, then the object known to that mind is valid. If an object is known to be true to a Superior Being (a being who has a direct realization of ultimate truth or emptiness), then that object is established to be true. In other words, an object is true if it is known to be true by a Superior being.

But since we ourselves are not a Superior being, how are we to know what is true to them and how are we to establish what is true? In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la provides us with a compass pointing us in the direction of knowing what are valid minds (which in turn know valid objects). A valid mind is one that “leads us in the direction of purity and happiness.” In other words, truth is established by looking at the function of believing something. If believing that thing leads us in the direction of purity and happiness, then it is true. If believing that thing leads us in the direction of impurity and suffering, then it is false. Virtuous minds, by definition, are those that function to make our mind pure and peaceful. Deluded minds, by definition, are those that make make our mind impure and unpeaceful. We distinguish what is a virtuous and what is a deluded mind by looking at the function believing that mind has on our mind. If believing something makes our mind pure and peaceful, we call that something “virtuous.” If believing something makes our mind impure and unpeaceful, we call that something “deluded.” As both Gen Losang and Gen Tharchin often say, “what is true is simply what is beneficial to believe.” If believing something makes our mind pure and peaceful, it is beneficial to believe, and thus established as “true” from a Prasangika point of view. This enables us to escape from the extremes of both objectivism and relativism. Truth can be established on the side of the mind and we can say without a doubt that Hitler is wrong.

In this way, all objects of Dharma – of both Sutra and Tantra – can be established as true. They are known and taught by valid minds, and believing them moves our mind in the direction of purity and happiness.

This then begs the question “how” does believing in correct objects move our mind in the direction of purity and happiness? If we understand this, we will see the power of correct beliefs. In fact, we will see the power of the entire spiritual path since the entire path is a series of meditations on correct beliefs.

The Karma of Correct Beliefs

To understand the power of correct beliefs, we need to understand the karma we create through them. All mental actions create karma, and correct beliefs are mental actions – they are verbs, not nouns. All actions have four karmic effects: the effect similar to the cause, the tendency similar to the cause, the environmental effect, and the ripened effect.

The effect similar to the cause of a correct belief can be understood as follows. The mental action of a correct belief functions to purify the mind of the obstructions that prevent us from realizing directly the truth of that object. Because the object is in fact true and exists, when we engage in the mental action of believing it, it functions to purify our mind of everything preventing us from knowing it to be true. The analogy of the toy snake is very helpful here. If in fact a toy snake exists, the more we investigate our assumption that it is just a toy snake, the more vividly and accurately it will appear to our mind to be a toy snake until eventually we see directly and without a doubt that it is a toy snake. In contrast, the more we investigate carefully our assumption that it is a real snake, the less a real snake will appear and we will discover that despite thinking it was a real snake, we were mistaken – in fact, it is just a toy snake. The same is true for all correct beliefs. The more we investigate them with study and practice, the more they are established in our mind to be true. We transform what was a correct belief into a valid cognizer. In this way, all realizations of Sutra and Tantra are gained.

The tendency similar to the cause of correct belief is a future tendency to more naturally believe correct things. Gen Losang says, “what is natural is simply what is familiar.” When we have familiarity believing something to be true, it becomes more natural for us to believe that thing. Tendencies similar to the cause of correct beliefs are extremely helpful because we build up spiritual momentum within our mind until eventually it becomes like a locomotive barreling down the spiritual track. In space there is no friction, so if force is applied, an object moving through space will gain momentum; and once set in motion, it will keep going forever because there is no friction to ever slow it down. In the same way, the effect similar to the cause removes the karmic friction within our mind preventing us from realizing directly something is true, and the tendency similar to the cause creates self-reinforcing momentum in our mind to realize directly the correct object.

The environmental effect of a correct belief is to abide in an environment which is conducive to believing in correct things. We see this all the time in society. When we are surrounded by people who think in similar ways, we naturally start to think in the same ways – almost through osmosis. Sometimes this socialization effect can be negative – such as hanging out with gangsters – or it can be positive – such as surrounding ourselves with Sangha friends. Milarepa once said he does not need Dharma books because everything confirms the truth of Dharma for him. Why? Because he had ample environmental effects similar to the cause of correct belief ripening. His mind was positioned in such a way through the tendencies and effects similar to the cause to believe correct things that every object in his environment was conducive to him realizing directly the truth of his correct views.

The ripened effect of a correct belief is being born already validly knowing the truth of our correct view. The teachings on karma explain that the only things we take with us into our future lives are our mind and the karma we have planted on it. When highly realized beings die they are able to carry their prior Dharma understandings with them from life to life – they are simply born already having Dharma realizations. Of course there are many degrees of having a Dharma realization, from the initial understandings to yogic direct perceivers. A Buddha has realized directly the truth of all objects of Dharma, and when they are reborn, they retain their enlightened mind forever. This is the final goal of correct beliefs – to gain their ripened effects. The effects similar to the cause, the tendencies similar to the case, and the environmental effects of correct beliefs all eventually lead to the ripened effect of correct beliefs.

Seen in this way, we can understand how fundamentally the entire path is nothing more than meditations on correct beliefs. The mental action of meditation – familiarizing ourselves with the virtuous object – creates the karma that transforms our correct beliefs into valid cognizers.

The Path as Meditations on Correct Beliefs

All our Sutra Lamrim meditations, for example, are meditations on correct beliefs. Each object of the Lamrim is a correct belief. When we contemplate, meditate on, and practice in our daily life the different Lamrim teachings, we add valid reasons and personal experience which transform correct beliefs into valid cognizers. In science, we talk about necessary and sufficient causes. In Buddhism, we talk about substantial and circumstantial causes. The substantial cause of an oak tree is an acorn; and the circumstantial causes are the water, sunlight, and rich soil. In the same way, the substantial causes of valid cognizers are correct beliefs; and our study, meditation, and daily practice of the Lamrim teachings are the circumstantial causes which transform the acorn of our correct beliefs into the oak tree of valid cognizers. Just as you can never have an oak tree without an acorn, no matter how much water, sunlight, and rich soil you add; so too we can never have valid cognizers without correct beliefs, no matter how much study, meditation, and daily practice we add. They are fundamental and foundational.

In Tantra, it is said that all we need to attain enlightenment is faith and imagination. In other words, all we need is correct belief in our pure imaginations. In Tantra, we generate ourselves, our environment, our enjoyments, and our activities into ourselves as the deity, abiding in the pure land, enjoying all things as the dance of bliss and emptiness, and engaging in the enlightened deeds of a Buddha. This is a meditation on a correct belief.

At this point, an objection can arise – how can this be a correct belief if I am not, in fact, a Buddha? Rather, it seems like this is make believe. There are two main answers to this objection. First, this objection is grasping at ourselves inherently being one thing or another from the side of ourselves. But there is nothing about us that exists from the side of ourselves – we are empty of “objective” existence, or existence on the side of the object of ourself. Second, wherever we imagine a Buddha a Buddha actually goes. So if we imagine that our body and mind (and our subtle body and mind) transform into the body and mind of the deity (and our subtle body transforms into the body mandala of the deity), then actual Buddhas enter into our imagination. They are actually there. Wherever a Buddha goes, they perform their function, which is to bestow blessings. A blessing functions to move our mind in the direction of enlightenment, gradually transforming it from an ordinary state into an enlightened state. By imagining ourself, our body, our mind, and our subtle body and mind are all Buddhas, actual Buddhas enter into us and perform their function, which is to bless our mind moving it in the direction of enlightenment. Believing ourself, our environment, our enjoyments and our deeds are completely pure is a mental action. The effect similar to the cause is to purify the obstructions on our mind to seeing ourself directly in this way. The tendency similar to the cause is to build up spiritual momentum or familiarity with seeing ourselves in this way until it becomes entirely natural. The environmental effect will be to come to see our environment as a pure land. And the ripened effect will be to be reborn as the deity in the pure land (or as a Tantric bodhisattva reborn in a pure land so as to complete one’s training). What could possibly be more important than this?

The more we read all of our Dharma books – be they of Sutra or Tantra – the more we realize in the end all of the spiritual path is nothing more than meditations on correct beliefs. Meditating on correct beliefs is the sine qua non of spiritual practice. Or, put more poetically, it is the very heart of the spiritual path from which a thousand million blissful flowers of Dharma realizations may bloom.

Pure View as Compassionate Action

Abiding in a world without suffering right now

There is no doubt the world is hurting right now. Many of us very much want to do something to help, but are at a loss for what to do besides stay at home and perhaps say a few Tara or Medicine Buddha mantras. I would say our job right now is to quite literally construct and abide in a new world, free from all suffering. We can do this through our correct imagination. We can do this through our Tantric practice – not as some future attainment, but right here and right now. If we want to end the virus, we must end samsara.

Believing is Seeing

Sometimes people object, “yeah, it’s nice to dance with the Dakinis for a while in my mind, but when I come out of meditation, I’m right back in it. It was all a nice imagination, but the world continues to suffer and the virus continues to rage. Nothing has really changed, it’s not that much different from me watching some internal Netflix show.” This objection is completely wrong.

To understand why we first need to understand – precisely – how correct imagination works at the karmic level. Everything we perceive is a mere karmic appearance to mind. There is no samsara and there is no pure land, both are just different karmic appearances – one mistaken, one pure. But both arise from karma.

We create the karma for samsara by grasping at things existing from their own side, independently of our mind, and then living and acting as if that was true. When we do this, ALL of the karma we create is contaminated, and when that karma ripens in the future, it will manifest in the form of things that appear vividly to be existing from their own side. Then, through the force of mental habit, we will assent to these appearances believing they do in fact exist from their own side, and the cycle starts all over.

We create the karma for the pure land through believing our correct imagination. All of us are capable of generating correct imagination. We can go through the visualizations of the sadhana, and imagine all sorts of beautiful things, but we don’t really believe what we are doing, so it lacks any power. We think it is just a mental light show, and not real, and that nothing is really changing. We imagine, but we don’t believe our imagination. And we are right, if we don’t believe our imagination, then it is true, nothing is really changing.

But, if we do believe our imagination, then everything not only comes alive in our meditation, it actually works to karmically create pure worlds right here and right now. The key point is understanding that believing our correct imaginations is how we complete the karma of our mental action. If we accidentally squashed a bug, we did not complete the karma of killing because we didn’t have the intention to kill it. Our deluded intention is necessary to complete the karmic action. In the same way, believing our imaginations to be true (not inherently true, but union of the two truths true) functions to complete the karma. The same is true for the practice of taking and giving, which is really Sutra’s version of Tantra.

Creating Temporary Pure Lands

Now we might object, “OK, believing our imagination to be true functions to complete the karma, but the fruit of that karma won’t ripen until the future (otherwise effect and cause would be simultaneous) so I still haven’t actually transformed the world – everyone is still suffering.” There are three answers to this objection. First, if we have this doubt, we are not actually believing our imaginations – we are still hanging on to our doubts, so we are still not completing the karma. Second, this is still grasping at there being a world out there that exists independently of our mind. And third – and this point is subtle – if we are fully believing our correct imaginations, from the point of view of our experience, we quite literally abide in a world without suffering. Geshe-la sometimes talks about temporary emanations, such as when Lama Tsongkhapa enters into our teachers during teachings. In the same way, believing this correct imagination creates a temporary pure land.

Next, we might object, “OK, for me it creates a temporary pure land, but for everybody else, they remain stuck in samsara and the virus is still infecting people. So it is no different than you creating some happy place for yourself inside your mind, like being in a glass box while the war still ravages around us.” While it is true each one of us creates our own karma, and if others are not creating similar karma they will remain in their own karmically created samsara, this objection misses the point. First, it doesn’t matter if its “objectively true” (because nothing is), the point is the only way we can complete the karma is by fully believing it to be true without doubts. Holding onto the doubts means the karma is not completed, and so it produces few good results. Second, this objection still grasps at others’ minds as existing independently of our own. If we dreamt of somebody in a wheel chair, who put them there? Our mind. In the same way, if in our waking state, we “dream” of a world filled with disease and suffering, who put everyone there? Our mind. Others’ minds are also empty of inherent existence. The others that we normally see are the beings of our contaminated karmic dream. We can intentionally dream a different world, one in which there is quite literally zero suffering, we are the deity, and everyone else are Dakas and Dakinis.

Pulling our Head out of the Sand of Samsara

To this, we might object, “yeah, but isn’t this just burying my head in the sand, pretending there is no suffering? I will then do nothing to compassionately help those experiencing mental and physical pain.” Answering this objection is where we get to the punch line: from the point of view of tantra, pure view is compassionate action and our compassionate action is maintaining pure view. Wherever we imagine a Buddha, a Buddha actually goes. Wherever a Buddha goes, they accomplish their function, which is to bless the minds of others. When we believe our pure view, fully and completely believe it, all of the Buddhas enter into the other person (who is just a being of our karmic dream) and transform them into a temporary pure being. We should not doubt that they are not experiencing themselves in this way because doing so is still grasping on to some part of them existing from their own side independently of our mind and depriving them of receiving Buddhas into that part of them. We should also believe that they are experiencing themselves in that way. This is the most compassionate thing we can do because through this correct imagination, the Buddhas enter into every aspect of them without residual, thus maximizing the blessings we can bestow upon them and thus the benefit they receive from our pure view.

In truth, we currently are burying our head in the sand of samsara, and Buddha is trying to pull our head out into the pure lands.

But what if they still appear to our mind to be suffering? Shouldn’t we tend to that? Yes, of course we should. This appearance of them still suffering is our residual ordinary appearance which has not yet exhausted itself. With our residual ordinary appearance of ourself we compassionately tend to the residual ordinary appearance of the other person, exactly as normal; while at the same time, with our believing ourselves to be the deity, we believe our correct imagination of them being a Daka or a Dakini. We practice the union of sutra and tantra. When we are in the meditation session, we have dissolved everything we normally see into emptiness, and every appearance is a pure one – there is no residual ordinary appearance. In the meditation break, when residual ordinary appearances arise again, we practice this layered approach of sutra and tantra simultaneously. Doing so creates the experience that we are quite literally purifying all of samsara in real time, gradually dissolving it into our pure world.

Gaining Experience in the Meditation Session

To help us gain some experience with this, it is vital that we infuse emptiness into every aspect of our Tantric sadhana practice. Sometimes we can feel like, “I never seem to practice emptiness in my tantric practice, I’m so busy with all these complex visualizations that I don’t get any deep experience of emptiness.”

We should think of the sadhana like a spiritual buffet. Different people will take different items in different portion sizes at a buffet depending upon what they hunger for and what their body needs. In the same way, different practitioners will emphasize different parts of the sadhana depending upon their needs and desires. Each time, we do all of the sadhana, but we can pause wherever we’d like for as long as we’d like to emphasize those parts that move our mind the most. Our problem is usually just an issue of not having the time to pause for long because we have to get to work, but with the present lockdowns from the virus, this is not our problem.

It seems there are two places within the sadhana where we can do a nice, long emptiness meditation to get a good feel for it: In the very beginning before we start, we can dissolve everything into emptiness, bathe in the clear light for a while, and then out of emptiness generate the appearances of the sadhana. The second, of course, is bringing death into the path to the truth body where the final object of meditation is emptiness.

We need to be careful to not confuse nothingness with emptiness. It should not feel as if nothing is arising in our mind, rather it should feel like a shocking reminder that everything we thought existed – the virus in all its horrible glory – in fact does not. As Geshe-la says all the time, “the things we normally see do not exist.” We are so convinced there is an actual reality around us, when in fact, there is nothing actually there. It has always been nothing more than mistaken appearance. This awareness protects us once again from thinking our generation stage practice is like retreating into a “safe space” within our mind like a glass box while the war ravages around us. Instead, we bring about a deep transformation of reality itself, creating a world quite literally free from all suffering.

We should view the non-emptiness meditation parts of the sadhana as training in the union of the two truths. We should see each appearance of the visualization as the dance of bliss and emptiness – never losing that feeling of emptiness we got at the beginning and at the death meditation. The union of conventional and ultimate truth is actually deeper than emptiness itself. I sometimes think of it as I looked so deep into emptiness, I found mere appearance. Each appearance is a mere karmic appearance of mind, generated through the force of my compassion, to liberate all beings.

Faith is Emptiness in Action

From my perspective, “faith is emptiness in action.” Faith, actually, makes no sense without emptiness. How could we take refuge in something that is independent of us and exists outside of us? When children blow air into soap, it creates beautiful bubbles that they take great delight in. In the same way, when we blow the pure winds of our faith into the space of emptiness, we get the pure appearances of the sadhana visualizations. When we experience it this way, every word of the sadhana comes alive as an expression of our faith.

Yes, the world we normally see is currently hurting. The question is what can we do about it? Through believing our correct imagination in this way, we can quite literally karmically reconstruct this world of sickness and suffering into a pure land in real time. Because we fully believe our pure imagination, we experience the world right now as a pure land; and through the karma we create engaging in this practice, eventually everything will directly appear to us and everyone else as completely pure. But if we are doing the practice correctly, we won’t even notice that happening because, from our perspective, we will already have been abiding in the pure lands for some time, the same as everybody else.

Faith is emptiness in action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your love is him in you.”

I went to visit Geshe-la in my dream last night.

First he told me, “death is just a mere appearance, so there is nothing to fear.” I was then projected towards it like a fast moving car, and blew right through it. He then said, “see, when you realize this, you just keep going [as if ‘death’ were nothing].” (Things in brackets were not said, but were understood to be the meaning of what he said).

Some time passed, and I then went back to his room wanting to ask a question. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there. I then tried to ask my question, but I couldn’t formulate any coherent thoughts or words and just a bunch of non-sense came out. I then collected myself and tried again, and suddenly I could see him directly. I then asked very clearly, “how do I make my every quality of mind Heruka’s qualities of mind, so that there is ‘no me?'” He then brought me over to him and had me get out some paper. He then said something and I wrote it down, and the two things (what he said and what I wrote down) were felt to be by nature two distinct things, separate from one another. Not that I incorrectly wrote what he said down, but I understood it to mean that the two things were separate or different entities. He then said, “it is not like that.” He then said, “every time you generate love in your mind know it is by nature the same [entity, nature] as Heruka’s. Know them to be the same. Your love is him in you.”

I then woke up, and it felt as if Geshe-la then told me, “the same is true for all realizations.”

How to deal with the death of a loved one

Unless we love no one, all of us will one day or another have to deal with the death of a loved one, such as a parent, a child or someone very close who has meant a lot to us.  For most people, this is one of the hardest things we will ever deal with in life.  We feel helpless, we feel as if we are losing something, and we feel as if our life will never be the same again.  Fortunately, there are things we can do to help, nothing is being lost and, even though our life will never be the same again, this need not be a bad thing.  The following is offered in the hopes of helping facilitate the passing of your loved ones and in helping all of us constructively transform the mourning process.  I have tried to put everything I know in one place in the hopes it might prove useful when the time comes.

When the death of a loved one comes, we often feel helpless as if there is nothing we can do.  From one perspective, this is completely true.  We cannot stop death from coming, no matter how much we might wish we could.  This feeling of helplessness makes it very difficult to deal with the suffering of losing a loved one, and we can quickly become depressed, discouraged or resentful.  But there are things we can do to help.

As our loved one approaches death, there are five main things we can do to help.  First, we should help them re-interpret the different physical and mental pains associated with death.  Pain only becomes “suffering” when we don’t know how to use it.  The suffering of death arises from the dying person’s unwillingness or inability to let go of their current body and mind.  The habitual practice in society is to tell the person to “hang on, fight for your life and refuse to accept death.”  When seriously ill but with a chance of recovery, this is good advice.  When terminally ill with no chance of recovery, this is disastrous advice.  When dealing with somebody who is terminally ill, we should help them let go.  Regardless of the person’s spiritual inclinations (Buddhist, non-Buddhist or atheist), help them reinterpret the pain of death as “God encouraging you to let go of this body so that you may now go to heaven.  The more it hurts, the more you are being encouraged to let go identifying with this body.”  Adapt the language as appropriate depending upon the person’s spiritual beliefs.  Similarly, help them mentally let go of all that they will leave behind.  This may be as simple as telling them, “don’t worry, I’ll deal with everything.”  Ideally, if your karmic relationship with the dying person allows for this, help them plan how they want to give everything away upon their passing.  Much of the mental anguish of death is grasping on to the things they will need to leave behind.  If beforehand they mentally give it all away, it will be much easier to let go.

Second, help them die without regrets.  Obviously the best way to avoid dying full of regret is to use one’s precious human life to the fullest.  When one hasn’t done so, however, it is quite natural to develop all sorts of regrets for the mistakes made throughout life.  This regret can easily transform into guilt (a form of self-hatred, which is a delusion), which may in turn activate negative karma at the time of death leading to a lower rebirth.  To protect against this, we help the person die without regrets.  We should help them understand it is never too late to learn life’s lessons.  If we admit our mistakes and learn from them, we will die with valuable lessons learned on our mind which we can carry with us into our next life.  It is likewise never too late to make amends.  We can help the dying person reach out to those they have wronged in an effort to make amends, even if it is only helping them draft a letter of apology to be passed along after death.  Help the dying person realize they did the best they could so that they can also forgive themselves.  But don’t allow inappropriate attention to focus just on the mistakes, also help the dying person recall all of the good things they have done, accomplishments they have had, virtues they have engaged in.  Rejoicing in our own virtue is a wisdom mind which lays the foundation for a future life of continued goodness.

Third, heal our own relationships with those that the dying person also loves, especially the close members of their family.  When the relationships within a family are strained, everyone in that family pays a price.  This is especially true for the dying person.  One of the best ways we can repay the kindness of the dying person is to heal our own relationships with those that the dying person also loves.  The dying person loves both us and the other person, and when we are estranged from the other person, it quite literally rips the dying person’s heart in two.  Healing our relationship with the other person heals this rift in the heart of the dying.  Fortunately, the truth of death usually cuts through our petty differences with others and both sides agree it is time to bury the hatchet.  But even if the other person is unwilling to do so, from our own side we can let go of our own animosity and we can choose to not add any more fuel to the fire, even when provoked.  One common source of tension amongst the loved ones being left behind is anger about how others within the family or close circle of friends are responding to the impending death of the common loved one.  This anger can arise from disagreements over when it is time to accept the inevitable and shift the focus from avoiding death to preparing for its coming, scheming with regards to how the assets of the deceased will be divided, frustration with how the other person is responding to the impending death in a different way than we are or even petty jealousy over who was loved more by the dying.  Generally speaking, we should give people the space to deal with death in their own way and we should not seek to impose our way of dealing with death onto others.  Our focus should be having our own reactions be constructive, regardless of what others are doing or how they are responding.  We should recall from Eight Steps to Happiness where Geshe-la says the mind of cherishing others acts as a magic crystal with the power to heal any community.

Fourth, we should help the dying person have a virtuous mind at the time of death.  Externally, we should help them be comfortable and feel as if they are enveloped in love.  To help them feel comfortable, we should not develop extreme attitudes towards the use of pain killers.  One extreme is avoiding pain killers altogether under the false notion that pain is purification.  Pain is only purification if we accept it.  If the pain is so great that we are unable to respond to it constructively or to focus on our other virtues, then we have gone too far.  The other extreme is to overly rely upon them depriving the person a chance to remain conscious enough to generate virtue.  If the person is unnecessarily knocked unconscious, they will die without pain but they also will not have a chance to generate virtue.  Each person’s tolerance for pain varies, and the closer one comes to death the attitude towards pain killers may shift.  As a general rule of thumb, respect the wishes of the dying in this regard, don’t impose your own views on them unless absolutely necessary.  Keep the temperature of the dying person comfortable, not too hot nor too cold, again respecting their wishes.  To help them feel enveloped in love, simply love them.  Let them know you are there for them.  Help those around you project the same feeling when they are with the dying.  Mentally imagine that the dying person is surrounded by all living beings, in particular those they are close to, sending love and prayers towards them.  Strongly believe that the dying is surrounded by all of the Buddhas who have taken the dying into their loving care, protecting them from the ripening of negative karma and bestowing upon them a rain of blessings and realizations.  Most importantly, if possible, help the dying person strongly believe that whoever is their object of faith is with them and will take them by the hand through the death process and beyond.  Geshe-la once told a dying person, “know that I am with you always.”  Faith is a naturally virtuous mind.  In all religions, people are encouraged to remember their object of faith (Jesus, God, Buddha, Krishna, whomever) at the time of death.  Faith functions to open the blinds of our mind to receive into it the sunlight of blessings.  Blessings function to activate virtuous, even pure, karma leading to a fortunate rebirth.  We can surround the dying person with holy images or objects that remind them of their objects of faith, such as Buddha statues, crosses, sacred texts, etc.  Geshe-la explains that holy images are by nature non-contaminated, and merely beholding them is a naturally virtuous act which functions to plant non-contaminated karma onto our minds.

Fifth, regularly do powa for the dying as it becomes increasingly clear that death is approaching.  At the end of every festival, Geshe-la would always spend the last few minutes of his teaching encouraging us to love our families and letting us know that he prays for them.  In my view, his greatest gift to our loved ones is his teachings on the practice of powa.  Powa is a special method for transferring the consciousness of somebody to the pure land at the time of death.  The most important thing to know about death is the quality of mind we have at the time of death determines the quality of our next rebirth.  If we die with a negative, deluded mind, it will activate negative karma throwing us into a lower rebirth.  If we die with a positive, virtuous mind, it will activate positive karma lifting us into an upper rebirth.  If we die with a faithful, pure mind, it will activate pure karma taking us out of samsara to the pure land.  The primary function of powa is to help the dying generate faithful, pure minds during the death process and in the bardo (or intermediate state).  There are two main practices of powa, powa for the dying and powa for the deceased.  As it becomes increasingly clear that death is approaching, we should increase the frequency with which we engage in the practice of powa for the dying.  Sometimes the doubt may arise, “but what if my loved one is not Buddhist, surely they might object to me doing a ritual practice transferring them to a Buddhist pure land.”  We need not worry.  Even though in this world people of different religions may be in conflict, we can be assured qualified holy beings are not in conflict with each other (if they were, how could we say they were qualified holy beings?).  If the dying person’s karma is Christian, for example, even though within our own mind we might be imagining holy beings in the aspect of Guru Buddha Avalokiteshvara and that their consciousness is being transferred to Akanishta, Tushita or Keajra, we can confidently know that the holy beings will appear to the dying in the aspect of Jesus, Mary and the holy Saints and they will experience their consciousness being transferred to heaven to be reunited with God.  What we see is a question of our karmic point of view, but the underlying spiritual process of transference is the same.  More detail on powa practices can be found below and in the books Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully, and Great Treasury of Merit.

After death, what can we do to help?  Sometimes, oftentimes in fact, we will have very little warning that death is coming and so we will have little opportunity to do much of the above.  But we can almost always do much of the below.

First, what should we do about the body of the deceased?  It is important to understand there is a difference between clinical death and the death process being complete.  Clinical death usually occurs when the heart permanently stops beating.  The death process is complete when the karmic connection between the body and the mind permanently ceases.  This can happen quite quickly, or it can take up to 72 hours after clinical death.  During this time, to the maximum extent possible, the body should be left undisturbed.  If the body is to be touched, do so gently, minimizing contact with the lower parts of the body and maximizing contact with the upper parts of the body, in particular the crown of the deceased’s head.  The reason for this is the mind can remain in the body for some time after clinical death, and contact with the body can cause the person’s mind to move in the direction of the point of contact.  If our mind leaves our body through the lower doors, we will more likely take a lower rebirth; and if our mind leaves our body through the upper doors, we will more likely take an upper rebirth.  If our mind leaves through the crown of our head, we will more likely take rebirth in a pure land heaven.  Geshe-la said he has specially blessed the book Joyful Path of Good Fortune so that if we touch it to the crown of the deceased, imagining that the person’s consciousness ascends through their central channel from their heart to their crown, entering the book and then being transported to the pure land, the deceased will definitely take rebirth in a pure land.  I think every Dharma center should have a special copy of Joyful Path, which they generally keep on the main shrine at the center, and that is used in this way again and again whenever loved ones of the Sangha members pass away.  In this way, the book becomes increasingly blessed with the power to do powa and becomes a true holy relic in this world passed down from generation to generation.  Similarly, individual families can do the same thing, having a family copy used especially for this purpose.  In modern times, sometimes it is not always possible to leave the body untouched for three days.  We simply do our best knowing the power of Buddha’s blessings are far stronger than the minimal contact with the body after death.  Christians have similar beliefs, and Christian hospitals can often be more flexible about leaving the body undisturbed.  We should try negotiate this in advance with the medical facility, paying for extra nights in the hospital room if necessary and possible.  Dying at home or in special hospitals for the dying can also be arranged.

Second, we should actively do the internal work necessary to overcome any and all delusions we might have towards the deceased, and instead fill our mind with gratitude and selfless love.  Ideally, we should start this process before the person dies, but if that is not possible it is never too late.  It does not matter if the deceased is able to reciprocate our overtures,  what matters is internally when we think of the other person our mind is free from delusion and is instead pervaded by virtuous thoughts.  We should take an honest look at what delusions we may have in our mind towards the deceased, such as resentments for past wrongs, jealousy, or strong attachment to them.  We should view their death as our opportunity to finally lay to rest these deluded states of mind towards them.  Did they make mistakes?  Of course they did, but who among us is perfect?  Did they harm us in some way?  Probably, but whether we receive harm or whether we receive benefit depends a great deal (indeed entirely) upon how we relate to whatever they did or did not do.  Even if we related to it badly in the past, it is never too late to relate to it constructively now.  We should practice appropriate attention recalling all of their acts of kindness towards us, generating deep feelings of gratitude for the contribution they have made to our life.  And most importantly, we should let go of our strong attachment towards them.  When my mother died, my teacher Gen Lekma told me, “you are not losing your mother, she is simply going someplace else.  There is nothing about her death that prevents you from continuing to love her, pray for her and have a relationship with her.  If you keep your relationship with her alive in your mind, for you she never dies.”  This does not mean we don’t let go and accept that death occurs, rather it means we understand that death is not the end of our relationship with our loved ones, it simply marks the beginning of the next chapter.  For a Buddha, they see their relationship with others in an arc across countless lifetimes, one eventually resulting in their leading of all beings to enlightenment.  We can do the same, starting with our loved ones who pass away.  Venerable Tharchin said, “those who serve as our main objects of bodhichitta while we are on the path are the first ones we liberate after we complete it.”  We should always keep our loved ones, even those who have passed away, as our main objects of bodhichitta, striving sincerely to attain enlightenment so that we may one day be certain to rescue them all from samsara.

Third, we can put our share of the deceased’s assets to good use.  We can give the money to charities or causes dear to the heart of the deceased, whether that be paying for college for the grandkids, aiding the homeless, a local church, the Red Cross, or a shelter for abused women and children.  We can likewise donate the money to the International Temples Fund, the building of a retreat center in our country, or even our local Dharma center.  At a minimum, we should save some of the money to buy offerings for the main powa ceremony we do after their death.  We should try purchase offerings of things that the dying person loved most.  For my mother, this wound up being brownies, lots of flowers and a copy of Vogue magazine!  The point is this, even if the person was not very giving in their lifetime, we can be giving for them, using whatever they have accumulated in this world for good purposes (not our own selfish ones).  This does not mean we cannot use some of these resources for our own benefit.  We can honestly ask ourselves, “what would the deceased want for me,” and allocate the resources accordingly.  If the person dies without assets, we can practice such giving ourselves on their behalf.

Finally, we should try do powa for the 49 days that the deceased could be in the bardo.  Sometimes people develop the doubt, “why should we do powa more than once, isn’t once enough?”  Once may be enough, but then again it may not be.  The point is it is better to err on the side of doing too much powa than not enough.  The more causes and conditions we create for the person to take rebirth in a pure land, the better.  This may lead to a contradiction in our mind.  We may doubt, “aren’t I supposed to strongly believe at the end of powa practice that the person has indeed taken rebirth in the pure land, and so by doing it again just in case am I not undermining that strong belief?”  The answer to this doubt is subtle, but profound.  We do not strongly believe that the deceased has taken rebirth in the pure land because this is objectively true (since nothing is objectively true), rather we generate this strong belief because doing so completes the karmic action of powa which will ripen in the future in the form of this person appearing to have taken rebirth in the pure land (appearing in this way both to ourself and to their own mind).  The same logic is true for the practices of taking and giving, generating divine pride in our practice of Tantra, and so forth.  At a minimum, we should try organize one main powa ceremony at our local center with our Sangha friends, or at least one main one we do on our own at home.  Afterwards, we can (if we wish or need to) set aside our main daily practice and do the powa sadhana every day for the 49 days that the person could be in the bardo.  Indirectly, we will still be keeping all of our commitments, so we need not worry.  Alternatively, we can do 100 Avalokitehsvara mantras every day, with each recitation requesting that the deceased be taken to the pure land.  At some point during the 49 days, we may receive clear indications that the powa has been complete.  These signs may take the form of special dreams or perhaps our mind will suddenly clear and we will just know it has been done.  After that time, we can continue for good measure or cease with the practice depending upon what feels most appropriate.  Regardless of whether we receive such signs or not, we should continually train in the strong belief that the person has indeed taken rebirth in the pure land for the reasons explained above.

The power of our powa practices depends upon (1) the degree of faith we have in the holy beings, in particular their power to actually do the transference, (2) the strength and soundness of our karmic connections both between ourselves and the dying/deceased and with the holy beings, (3) the purity of our compassion for the dying/deceased, wishing that they be protected from the sufferings of death and uncontrolled rebirth, and (4) the karma of the dying/deceased, both in terms of their richness in merit and how purified their mind is of negative karma.  During the entire death process, both leading up to it and after death occurs, we should continuously strive to improve these four things.  We can increase our faith through the explanations found in the Lamrim, reading authentic commentaries on powa practice and speaking with our Sangha friends about their experiences with this practice.  We can improve our karmic connections by spending time being with or thinking about our loved one and also the holy beings.  In effect, our karmic connections with our loved one and our karmic connections with the holy beings serves as a karmic bridge through which the blessings of the holy beings can reach the mind of our loved ones.  We can improve the purity of our compassion by working through whatever delusions we may have towards our loved one and by contemplating the nature of our samsaric situation.  We can improve the karma of our loved ones by practicing giving and purification on their behalf or through encouraging them to do the same.  Everything described above, directly or indirectly, helps improve these four causes and conditions for effective powa practice.

In conclusion, when our loved ones pass away it is true our life may never be the same again.  Dealing with the death of somebody close to us will always be one of the hardest things we ever do in life.  But we need not feel helpless, there are many things we can do to help.  Our doing these things not only helps the deceased, but it is also the very means by which we ourselves mourn their passing.  Their death is not the end of our relationship with them, but is rather the beginning of the next chapter.  We can continue to love them, pray for them and keep our relationship alive with them.  Perhaps their death will fundamentally change things in our life, but this need not be a bad thing.  If we relate to their death in constructive ways, we can transform the experience from a travesty into fuel for our spiritual growth.  One door closes, but others open.  Some things are lost, but new things are gained.  Above all, Geshe-la said, “our main job is to pray.”

 

I pray that all sufferings of death be pacified, both for the deceased as well as those that are left behind.  I pray that at the time of their death all of your loved ones are effortlessly transferred to the pure land.  And I pray that their death becomes a powerful cause of enlightenment for all those touched by it.  May all those who might benefit from this document find it when they need it, may all sorrow come to an end, may we never feel alone, and may we all one day be reunited in the pure land.

Transforming our life into the Quick Path: Getting our life together

The brutal truth is we will never be able to help others with the Dharma if it appears that our own lives are out of control.  Communication theorists say that something like 80% of effective communication is non-verbal, about 15% is the tone with which we say things, and only about 5% is the content of what we have to say.  These are stunning statistics.  In a Dharma context, our non-verbal communication of what it means to be a Kadampa is the totality of our life.  If our life is a mess, if we are a mess, then that will speak far louder than any amazing teachings we might be able to give.  But if we have our life together, the power of our example will teach volumes even if we say very few Dharma words.

Sometimes in Dharma circles there is this mistaken notion that it is somehow worldly to put effort into learning good conventional practices of living and managing our lives.  Geshe-la dispelled this one year at a teacher’s meeting when he said when it comes to management and conventional living, we have much to learn from society.  When it comes to the Dharma, we rely upon our Dharma books.  When it comes to worldly affairs, we rely upon all conventional wisdoms.

 

The reality is our life habits very much determine our habits for our practice.  If we train in good habits of life, then we will have good habits for our practice.  Kadam Bjorn once told me that in the German part of Switzerland, the sangha has very functional lives, but a dysfunctional understanding of the Dharma.  He said in contrast, the French part of Switzerland, the sangha had very dysfunctional lives, but they had a very functional understanding of the Dharma.  The goal, of course, is to have a functional both.  Then we can accomplish great things, both externally and internally.  To help us do this, I wanted to share my understanding of some basic life skills for making the fulfilling of our ordinary lives part of our spiritual practice.

 

Get your priorities right:

  1. Do what you have to do before what you want to do.  Learn to want to do what you have to do.
  2. Invest your energy now into creating causes/building a better future.
  3. Learn to be organized, prioritize and focused in all that you do.
  4. Do the difficult thing now so that you are unencumbered later.
  5. Everything is important, but nothing is serious.
  6. Do what you want, but want what is actually good for you.
  7. Never consume for now, always invest for the future.
  8. Your real job is to learn how to live your life and do what you do with the least delusion and the most virtue possible.
  9. We waste time by thinking the following:  I have plenty of time, so I don’t get to it.  Then things come up, so it gets pushed back.  Then, I am running out of time and some things have to get done so I can’t do it.  Finally, I run out of time and it doesn’t get done.  We do this with wasted time, vacation time, our precious human life, etc.
  10. View all activities from the point of view of what opportunity it gives you to practice and how doing it will transform you into the Buddha you need to become.  Because that is exactly what the situation is.

 

Accept responsibility for everything

  1. Assume personal responsibility for everything and for your own experience.  Then, help others do the same.  Do not accept the blame for other people’s experience or reaction.  That disempowers them from being able to effectuate their own solution.
  2. View others as future emanations of yourself, and treat them accordingly.
  3. Think before you commit, but once you have committed to do something, see it through to the end, no matter how hard it is to do so. If you start something, see it through to the end.  If you give up due to obstacles, you will never be able to accomplish anything and you create the karma for massive obstacles to accomplishing things in the future.
  4. Creating the space to make mistakes is part of being perfect.  Making mistakes is not a problem if you learn from them and try to do better next time.
  5. Laugh at the fact that everything goes wrong, this is samsara after all.
  6. Realize that others don’t owe you anything.
  7. Attachment to justice comes from a false belief that samsara should work.  Let go of it.
  8. Your suffering will last for as long as you don’t end it.  So quit blaming others, and get on with it.
  9. You will know others minds to the extent that you have cleaned up your own.  The extent to which you have cleaned up your own mind is the extent to which you will have the clairvoyance of knowing others minds and knowing what is wrong to be able to help them.
  10. The challenges you have are those given to you to forge you into the Buddha you need to become.
  11. The world you experience is the world you pay attention to.
  12. Do not provoke delusions in others, rather draw out the best in them.
  13. Don’t fall into the trap of if you can’t do everything, you do nothing.  Instead, get across the finish line all that you can, but get something across the finish line.

 

Apply skillful effort

  1. Don’t worry about what you are accomplishing, just improve the quality with which you do things.  Results come naturally from that.
  2. Accept where you are at, but do not remain.  There are two things:  where you are at and where you are going.
  3. Appearance-Response.  Respond to whatever appears with the least delusion and the most wisdom/virtue possible.
  4. When you fall, laugh, get back up and try again.
  5. The only way you can fail is if you give up trying.
  6. Reprogram yourself where the harder it is, the more motivated you are to keep going.
  7. There is nothing you can’t do if you practice.
  8. Rejoice in what you do do, don’t judge yourself for what you don’t do.  Do the same with others and help others do the same with themselves.
  9. If you do not have an effect that you want, take that as a sign you need to create its cause.
  10. Be rigorous, but never rigid, in everything you do.
  11. Adapt as necessary when your plan meets reality, but keep innovating until the objective is accomplished.  Adapt, yes; abandon, no.

 

Be on good terms with everyone

  1. Maintain good relationships with everyone in your life.
  2. Like the sun, make everyone around you feel good about themselves.
  3. Help others accomplish what they are trying to do.
  4. Be genuinely happy for others good fortune and successes.
  5. Don’t expect samsaric beings to act in non-deluded ways any more than you expect fire to not burn.

 

Employ skillful means

  1. Say nothing and think nothing bad about anyone.
  2. Learn from everybody’s mistakes
  3. Quietly do your own thing under the radar, without telling others what you are doing.  Anonymous bodhisattva. Do not be quiet because you think they are wrong and that they are not open minded enough to discuss it.  Rather, respect each person’s choice to practice in the way that seems best to them, accepting where they are at and trusting their intention.  Don’t not be quiet about of defensiveness or feeling they need to change others.
  4. Give up trying to change others and just focus on changing yourself.
  5. Personal experience speaks.  Everything else is just words.
  6. Instead of giving people the solution, ask them the right questions to help them find their own solutions.
  7. Become trustworthy and reliable.  Always keep your word.  If you say you are going to do something for others, always follow through.
  8. Under promise and over deliver in all your interactions with others.
  9. Always do the right thing.  The right thing is that which leads to self and others to decrease delusions and increase virtuous minds.  Do not be quiet because fear of people judging you and thinking that you are doing something wrong and you do not want others to judge you about it.

Transforming our life into the Quick Path: Changing our mind with the Dharma

The final aspect of being a good example of a Kadampa is using the Dharma to change our mind.  At our stage of development, we can say there are two main ways we use the Dharma to change our mind.  The first is we use it to overcome our attachment to the eight worldly concerns, and second we use it to solve our daily problems.  These will now each be explained.

“…of changing our own mind with the Dharma.”

Dharma practice is the process of changing the habits of our mind.  If we are not changing our mind, we are not practicing the Dharma, no matter how much Dharma we may know.  If we are sincerely changing our mind, we are a qualified yogi even if we only know one or two lines of Dharma. 

We need to make a point of overcoming the 8 worldly concerns.  The first two are attachment to pleasant feelings and aversion to unpleasant feelings.  What is pleasant depends on what you pay attention to.  For example, if we pay attention to the taste, broccoli may seem bad; but if we pay attention to how good it is for our health, we will enjoy eating it.  Gen-la Khyenrab says we need to live our life from perspective of our aggregate of discrimination, not our aggregate of feeling.  It doesn’t matter what we are feeling, it only matters how we are choosing to respond to it.  So much of the spiritual life can be summed up with the phrase “it doesn’t matter, quit whining and get on with it”. 

The next two worldly concerns are attachment to praise and aversion to blame.  If we understand emptiness, we can cut this very quickly by recalling that in reality there is nobody there saying anything or thinking anything about us.  There is just the appearance of somebody there saying of thinking something.  What others say is just karmic echo of what you said about others in the past.  If we receive praise, we should direct it all to the guru at our heart and to the purity of the mind of the other person.  If we enjoy praise, then we will suffer from criticism.  We should use praise and blame to help us identify our delusions and faults.  The correct response to somebody criticizing us should be “thank you for helping me see that in myself.  I certainly don’t want to be like that!”  At the end of the day, praise and blame make no difference on our deathbed, so why should we worry about it now?

The next two worldly concerns are attachment to a good reputation and aversion to a bad reputation.  Again, we can recall that there is nobody there thinking anything, there is just the appearance of somebody there thinking something.  In reality, they are just a karmic echo of what we have thought about others in the past.  When it appears others think badly of us, we should recall this and use it to reinforce our determination to think only good things about others now.  In modern times, there is so much suffering that arises from trying to manage what other people think.  If we realize it does not matter, we can let go of so much suffering.  Even from a conventional point of view, what others think depends upon their mind, not ours.  So it is their problem.  What they think is a reflection of their own mind, so it should not affect us.  We can be concerned about it as it relates to the flourishing of Dharma, but we should never be attached to it.

The final two worldly concerns are attachment to gain and aversion to loss.  What is there to gain, what is there to lose?  Nothing.  There is nothing there, there is nothing to gain, there is nothing to lose and there isn’t even an us.  It is a karmic light show, nothing more.  In the end, gain and loss depend on what you are trying to accomplish.  If we are trying to train our mind, then all things equally lead to a gain.  It is only when we want to accomplish goals other than training our mind that things become “good” or “bad.”  Shakespere said in Hamlet, “Things are neither good nor bad, but thinking makes them so.”  This is very true.  For myself, I deal with almost all of my either worldly concerns through reliance on Dorje Shugden.  His job is to arrange what is best for my practice.  So I simply request, “with respect to X, if it is best, please arrange; if not, please sabotage it.”  After this request, I can then know that no matter what happens, it is for the best.  So I can accept it, be happy and get on with training my mind in the situation.

The second way we can change our mind with the Dharma is we can use it to overcome our problems.  Geshe-la gives the example of our car breaking down.  Normally, we say, “I have a problem, my car broke down.”  But the car breaking down is the car’s problem, not ours.  Our problem is the unpleasant feeling which arises in our mind as a result.  If we want to fix the car’s problem, we take it to the mechanic.  If we want to fix our problem, we need to change our mind by learning how to respond differently to the situation.  Gen-la Dekyong took this example one step further by saying when we think about it the car can’t have a problem either because it is an inanimate object, and how can an inanimate object have a problem.  So in reality, there is neither an inner problem nor an outer problem!

We can say there is an evolution of how to resolve problems.  Ordinary being exclusively try make changes on side of object.  When we have some Dharma wisdom, we pursue a mixed strategy where we change things on the side of object to the extent that we can, and then we change the rest on the side of our mind.  Geshe-la gives the example of having a headache.  We take the aspirin, but then we patiently accept the suffering as purification until the aspirin kicks in.   Through training in this way, gradually our capacity to transform suffering into purification increases and we are able to accept more and more suffering without it being a problem for us.  Where in the past, we may have taken the aspirin at the first available opportunity, we later don’t want to take it because for us we would rather have the opportunity to purify than to have the headache go away.  Eventually, we reach the point where we can change everything with the power of our mind alone.  We spontaneously perceive every object as perfect on side of object because our mind spontaneously responds perfectly to whatever arises.  A pure mind experiences a pure world. 

Transforming our life into the Quick Path: Being a good secret example

In the last two posts we have been discussing how to set a good example.  First we looked at the need to rely on the Spiritual Guide for all of our actions and why we need to completely respect others’ freedom.  Then, we examined what it means to be a good outer and inner example.  In this post we will explore what it means to be a good secret example.

“secret example…”

The secret example of a Kadampa is a Tantric yogi.  There are several different ways we can do this.  First, in Essence of Vajrayana Geshe-la explains that when others interact with a qualified tantric practitioner it is the same as if they are interacting with the living deity.  Why is this when we are not actually a deity yet?  The reason is wherever you imagine a Buddha, a Buddha actually goes, so when we recall that Heruka’s mandala abides within our body, when others interact with us, they are also interacting with the living Heruka, even if they don’t see him. 

Second, mentally we should send emanations of Buddhas to the hearts of all living beings, and indeed generate them as emanations.  This is an incredibly powerful way of helping others.  By sending an emanation to their heart, an emanation actually goes there and blesses their mind.  By generating them as the deity, it functions to ripen their pure potential.  For ourselves, generating others as deities plants very special karma on our mind which will ripen in the future in the form of us being actually able to see the emanations of Buddhas who are around us helping us. 

Third, we can imagine that both ourselves and others are actually abiding in the pure land.  While what appears may seem like samsara, we should see everything as the charnel grounds of the pure land.  In the charnel grounds, what appears is horrific and awful, but we understand all of these appearances to be by nature Guru Heruka (or Vajrayogini) teaching us the stages of the path.  Or, if we prefer, we can mentally generate a beautiful pure land or the celestial mansion, and we can imagine that when anybody comes in our proximity, they are actually entering Heruka’s celestial mansion.  Heruka’s mansion is a very special place.  Within it, all of the sounds teach the Dharma and the mandala deities heal the subtle body like spiritual doctors. 

Fourth, we can imagine that everything ourself or others consume is actually nectar or offering goddesses.  This nectar functions to heal all physical sickness, heal their minds of all delusions, infuse their mind with inexhaustible merit and bestow upon them the immortality that comes from realizing directly the clear light mind.  So when we see somebody drinking water, eating spaghetti or listening to music, mentally we imagine they are consuming this medicinal nectar which helps them in these ways.

Another very powerful way we can set a good secret example is to imagine that the entire universe is actually contained within our indestructible drop.  We imagine we are on retreat inside our indestructible drop, and everything that arises is taking place within it.  Every appearance is like a ripple on the ocean of our very subtle mind, emanated by our guru protector to guide us along on our retreat.  Such a recognition may sound outlandish, but that is only because our experience of emptiness is not sufficiently deep.  Geshe-la tells the story of how a particular guru went into the horn of a dead yak, without the horn getting any bigger or the guru getting any smaller.  If this is possible with a yak horn, then surely it is possible with the indestructible drop. 

As a tantric practitioner, we can easily transform all experiences into the quick path.  If we experience unpleasant feelings, we practice patient acceptance.  If we practice patience, we accept everything.  What enables us to accept everything is we see how we can use everything for our spiritual training.  Even though we may experience unpleasant feelings, we won’t experience them as suffering and they won’t be a problem for us.  If our practice of patience is well developed, it can be exactly as if we are already in the pure land.  In the pure land there is no manifest suffering and everything functions for us as a teaching.  The mind of patience acceptance is exactly this.  We experience no manifest suffering because nothing is a problem for us because we can use it all.   Likewise, everything functions for us as a teaching.  It becomes as if instead of our suffering pushing us deeper into samsara, our unpleasant feelings actually push us out!  We can literally reprogram our reaction to suffering where for us it functions as an empowerment.  When we experience pleasant feelings, we can offer them our guru at our heart and use it as an opportunity to train in bliss and emptiness.  Either way, it fuels us along the path.

 

Transforming our life into the Quick Path: Being a good outer and inner example

We continue with the discussion of how to be good example.  There are three types of example we set, an outer example, an inner example and a secret example.  In this post I will explain how to set a good outer and inner example.

“be the best outer [example]…” 

First it is important to clarify a few things about being an example.  We should ‘be’ a good example, not ‘show’ one.  If we are a good example, we will naturally show such a good example.  If we try show one but are not such an example, it will come across as false and not work.  We should be the best example we can possibly be.  This means watching our behavior as best we can, imagining that we are in the presence of Geshe-la and all the Buddhas.  Part of this means being at peace with and accepting our mistakes.  Part of being perfect is creating the space to make mistakes and learn from them.

The outer example of a Kadampa is the Pratimoksha.  For our purposes, it has three elements.  First, we should harm no one.  We need to eliminate any trace of harming others with our body, speech or mind.  Second, we should help everyone.  We need to find out what others are trying to accomplish and help them do it.  And third, we need to get our life in order.  In a later post, I will explain some basic suggestions on life skills and why this is important.

I wanted to say a few words about the difference between a lay and an ordained outer example.  Within the tradition, we need a wide spectrum of examples to capture the wide spectrum of lives people have.  There is enough room for everybody as their own example within the lineage.  There are many wrong views about being lay or being ordained.   Some stay in lay life out of attachment to samsara.  Some become ordained out of aversion to engaging in certain activities or living a certain way of life, grasping at such ways of living as being inherently deluded and samsaric.  Both of these are a lack of creativity with regards to how to transform any activity into the quick path.  Each activity gives us a chance to work on certain delusions.  The training is to be able to do this activity without delusions and to engage in it with supreme virtue.  There are many layers of delusions and many layers of making any activity more virtuous.  Lay or ordained are just different personal choices of mode of practice.  What matters is that we commit our lives to the best of our ability to overcoming delusion and training in virtues for both ourselves and for others.   Gen-la Khyenrab says there is ‘one path’, whether we are lay or ordained.  The real question is our individual karma what is most beneficial for others.

“Inner example…”

The inner example of a Kadampa is a Bodhisattva.  There are three aspects to this.  First, we try gain the realizations necessary to lead others to enlightenment.  While we are still under the influence of delusions ourselves, we are limited in how much we can help others.  So we eliminate everything within us that prevents us from helping others.  Others suffer due to their delusions.  Dharma realizations oppose delusions.  We can only help others gain Dharma realizations if we ourselves have them.  So we need to focus on gaining our own realizations of solving our problems with the Dharma, then we skillfully share our experience with others.

Second, we need to live our life from the point of view of exchanging self with others.  This powerful mind gives us the wisdom which knows what is in fact good for our self and for others.  We should live our life from the perspective of exchanging self with others and view everyone as an aspect of our own mind.  We view all others as our self, and then we cherish this new ‘self’ as much as we can or want.  We see each being as an aspect or part of our mind, and we naturally feel the need to lead every aspect of our mind to enlightenment.  We can also view our self as “all others.”  In other words, we believe that everything that takes place within our own mind is a synthetic reflection of what is taking place in the minds of all others.  In summary, we say all others are my self so I need to cherish ‘myself’ as much as I can; and we say I am all others, so by working to completely purify my own mind I am in fact, like a supreme spiritual doctor, working on their mind so that they can be free (we become a Buddha for their direct benefit).  If we combine exchanging self with others with rejoicing in other’s happiness, then we can literally enjoy ourself not only all the love we give, but all of the happiness of all beings in the world!  If we truly want to love ourself, this is the way to do it!

Third, we need to become everyone’s closest and most reliable friend and confident.  We need to become the person others turn to when they are in trouble and need help.  The closer the relationships we forge with others, the deeper the levels of delusion within our own mind we work on.  I have found the best strategy for becoming this special friend for others is the following:  First, we find out what people are trying to do, and then we help them to do it.  We need to leave others completely free to make their own choices without even the most subtle form of control or manipulation.  This is particularly true in Dharma centers.  It is far too common for over-enthusiastic officers of Dharma centers, convinced by the higher moral calling of their purpose, wind up using the Dharma to manipulate others into accomplish their personal wishes and vision for the center.  Then, when others don’t dutifully comply, tensions and conflict inevitably ensue.  Instead, the officers of a Kadampa centers should ask themselves what are the pure spiritual wishes and projects that the members of the center already have, and then they dedicate themselves to helping those members accomplish their visions.  The officers are there to serve the community, not the other way around. 

In all circumstances, whether we are in a center or at our work or home, we need to have no personal need whatsoever that others make certain choices or do certain things.  No matter what others do, from our perspective, it will be equally good for our practice.  When we see somebody in need, we should never force our help on them.  Instead, we just offer it and leave it to them to decide if want to take it.  Generating the intention to help others naturally creates opportunities to do so. 

The best way of helping others is to relate to their good qualities.  Relating to their good qualities is a means of drawing them out.  This is not difficult to do.  It is merely a question of not having inappropriate attention with regards to others faults and instead to practice appropriate attention to their good qualities.  If we are to help others, we need to have something useful to offer them.  The most useful thing we can offer to others is our own experience of solving your problems by changing your mind through practicing Dharma.  But if we can’t provide such help to others, we should not hesitate to help others in any other way possible, even if on the surface it seems we are providing worldly help to them.  We may be providing worldly help, but we are dedicating the merit we create to later be able to help them with spiritual matters.  And by helping them in worldly ways, we draw ourselves closer to them and later this close relationship will be the conduit through which we can help them follow the spiritual path. 

 

Transforming our life into the Quick Path: Reliance and respecting other’s freedom

 

We can summarize what it means to be a good example with the following phrase:  “While relying exclusively upon the spiritual guide as the source of all our actions and respecting completely everyone’s freedom to make their own choices, be the best outer, inner and secret example you can be of changing your own mind with the Dharma.”  Over the next four posts, I will expand upon the meaning of this phrase.

“While relying exclusively upon the spiritual guide as the source of all our actions…”

We can say we have two sources of our actions within us.  First is our ignorance and self-cherishing.  This is the current source from which all our actions arise.  The second is our wisdom.  This is actually our true self, which is none other than the Spiritual Guide within us.  Our job is to train in making the spiritual guide the source of all our actions.  By doing so, all our actions will be those of a Buddha, and our life will become the quick path.  Relying exclusively upon the guru is actually quite simple, it is merely a question of which mind we make requests to and it is a question of which mind we choose to listen to and follow.  For more information on this see the series of posts on Activating the Inner Spiritual Guide and relying upon the Guru’s mind alone, which you can find in the category section. 

But briefly, what is the actual method for having the guru be the source of all our actions? Geshe-la gave some special advice on this to the ITTP several years ago.  First, we need to make completely still your ordinary self to get out of the way.  Then, we generate a pure spiritual motivation to help those around us.  The scope of our motivation determines the scope of the actions that arise.  We should recall that our guru (definitive Vajradhara) is none other than our own true self, the foundation of our being.  Then, with deep faith, we request him to reveal to us what we should do.  Then, we surrender ourself fully to him so that he may work through us and he can use us as one of his limbs.  If we can master this, we can effectively accomplish all actions through invoking the Buddhas with a pure intention.  This enables us to engage in a Buddhas actions right now.

In particular, we can have all our actions be those of a Buddha from right now by learning how to invoke the Buddhas, in particular, the guru, yidam and protector, to accomplish their function.  There is little difference between being able to do things ourself and being able to ask somebody else to do something.  From the point of view of effect created in the world, it is the same.  Through the above method we can request the three principal deities to accomplish their function for ourself or for others, we invoke them to accomplish their function.  Clearly they will only do this if our motivation is correct, we have deep faith, and we understand how they are not separate from us.

The three principal deities and their function can be understood as follows:  The Guru guides us as to what to do and how to help others.  The Yidam, or personal deity, is the source of all our actions and who we ultimately strive to be.  The Yidam has the power to bestow blessings on others.  The Protector arranges everything so that whatever circumstances arise, it functions to forge us as quickly as possible into the Buddha we need to become.  We can accomplish all the four types of actions (pacifying, increasing, controlling and wrathful) through relying upon him.

We need to spend time building links with these three deities to increase our access to their power and function.  The most important thing is to build faith in them that they are there and ready to respond and help.  During the meditation session, we should feel as if we retreat into the pure land in our heart and we mix fully with them to gather their strength and wisdom.  Then, during the meditation break, we use them to accomplish all your actions in the way described above.

“and respecting completely everyone’s freedom to make their own choices…” 

We need to respect completely everyone’s freedom to make their own choices.  For Dharma to work it has to come from one’s own side, and one’s own desires.  When we do not respect the freedom of others, it invites rebellion and resistance.  Since we only want what is good for others, to not respect them sends them in the exact opposite direction.  We need to leave everyone free to contribute in their own way that they see best.  We should not have pre-conceived notions of what they should do.  We give to others the principles and let them decide themselves how to best contribute.  In particular, we need to do this without any trace of judgment.  If we judge others, they become defensive and self-justify, so we just create the conditions for them to hold on even more tightly to their wrong views.  In contrast, by accepting others fully, we create the space for them to change from their own side.

We need to be skillful.  We should not try to change others to adopt our view because when we do so it comes across as being patronizing, prideful and manipulative.  Instead, in our own actions, we should respect other people’s choices and make our own actions correct.  Other people do not have to understand what we are doing or thinking, but we do and we have to know with an honest mind whether what we are doing is right or just an excuse for remaining ordinary and deluded.  We have a tendency to project others are judging us and then we feel the need to defend against it.  When we do so, we wind up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We project others are judging us out of our own insecurity and doubt about whether we are doing something wrong.  If we clarify this internally, the people appearing to judge us will simply dis-appear.

We will inevitably encounter situations where there is a difference of view with someone.  Our goal during such discussions should be to avoid constructing things where one person is right and the other is wrong, rather we should strive for a situation where both people are equally right, just in different ways and from different perspectives.  We can simply explain why our way of viewing things works for us, without trying to impose our view on others or convince others that our view is superior.  If others find our view to be interesting and valid, then they can adopt it from their own side.  From our side, we simply clarify how we think and understand things.  In general, unless the circumstances call for it, we should not enter into debates with others.  Above all, when we are giving advice to others, we should never accuse them of having a particular delusion.  Instead, we should tell stories about ourselves in similar circumstances and explain how our own mind works in deluded ways, or we can tell stories of people we know in similar circumstances and we can use their story to illustrate how things work.  But we leave others to make the final step of connecting the story to their own lives and situation. 

It is a misuse of Dharma to try to change others with it when we have attachment to them changing.  All of Dharma is and should be viewed as personal advice.  We often feel others are judging us unfairly, so we want to change their views out of an attachment to getting them to stop.  We feel justified in doing so because ‘we are right’.  But because our motivation is attachment/aversion, when we do go out to ‘change others’, others will merely see us acting out of defensiveness and self-justification.  They will then train themselves in rejecting what we have to say, even if what we have to say is correct.