Met with Geshe-la in my dreams last night

It has been a very long time since I had a dream with Geshe-la.  I met with him in my dreams last night and wanted to write it down before I forget (which I have done before and regretted).

It was some time in the future and I was able to go to a festival (something I haven’t been able to do in awhile). I was arriving late for some sort of big meeting with lots of people.  Geshe-la was not heading the meeting but was in the audience in the back row on the side and had been speaking with people before the meeting started.  When I walked in he saw me and I saw him and I very much wanted to meet with him but didn’t expect to be able to.  He nonetheless left his chair and went into the walkway behind the back row so he could speak with me.  I then got down and tried to do a mandala offering, but couldn’t remember the words nor get my fingers to do the right mudra.  I started becoming flustered.  He then tried to patiently explain to me how to do my fingers and say the words as if I was some beginner who didn’t know and who had never done it before.  I then became very attached to what he thinks of me and bothered by him thinking I was a beginner, like my pride had been wounded.  Wanting to make sure he knew I knew what I was doing, I then said, “I know how to do it, I am just very nervous.”

He then said,  “come with me” and we went back into a study/office that in the building which I understood to be where he normally works.  There was a little sign on the desk that said “20 minutes” which I understood was how long he was going to meet with me (something I have never had the karma to do).  He then started to get tea ready, but said, “actually, let’s go for a walk.”  We then went out, but even though he was very old he was like a tri-athlete.  He was running really fast in a park/track area and there was no way I nor anyone else could keep up with him, he was also climbing through trees like a seasoned climber.  I could basically just watch and I remember thinking, “it is important to exercise and stay physically in shape.”  I then knew I was about to wake up but thought I was going to fall back asleep and continue with the meeting when I did so I thought to myself, “I should remember what happened.”  I then woke up, it was still the middle of the night, so I tried to fall back asleep to get back in the dream.  I debated with myself whether I should just get up and write what happened or try fall back asleep.  I eventually fell back asleep, didn’t go back in the dream, but work up periodically between then and now each time trying to remember what happened and thinking I have to write it down when I get up.

It happens that people have dreams with Geshe-la.  I believe any dream we have with Geshe-la in it he is actually there and he is giving us a message.  Sometimes people ask others, “what do you think this dream means?” as if there is an objective meaning or code to interpreting dreams.  I personally think a dream means whatever we understand it to mean.  Nobody else can tell us what our dreams mean, rather they “mean” what Geshe-la blesses our mind to understand them to mean.  However, I don’t think there is any fault in sharing our dreams with others because then when they hear about our dream perhaps Geshe-la will bless their mind and they too will receive some message that they need to hear.  Perhaps not, but perhaps so.  For this reason, I share my dreams unless I understand I am not supposed to for some reason.

So what does my dream mean to me?  It seems there are several lessons.  First, it has been too long since I have been able to make it to some big event.  Second, we should always want to meet with Geshe-la, but not have any expectation of being able to do so.  These are the conditions in which the karma for a meeting can ripen.  Third, even though he is always busy helping many people, he nonetheless goes out of his way to take time to be with each one of us.  Fourth, we should not get flustered when we are with our spiritual father, rather we should relax and be happy.  Fifth, we shouldn’t feel threatened by our teachers considering us to be a beginner, rather we should embrace this attitude even if we have been practicing for a very long time.  Sixth, we should not be attached to what our teachers think of us nor develop pride in our Dharma knowledge or experience.  Seventh, even if Geshe-la is not leading the event, he is always there working for us in the background.  Eighth, we should not narrowly think of our Dharma training as just teachings or formal practice, but that it also includes seemingly mundane things like making tea and going for walks.  Ninth, appearances are deceptive, even though Geshe-la appeared to be very old he was full of vitality and energy and was running laps around everybody.  Tenth, as we get older it becomes increasingly important that we remain physically active and to stay in good shape.  Eleventh, our time with Geshe-la can end at any moment and we need to have a strong wish to meet with him again.  Twelfth, we never know when will be our last encounter with Geshe-la and we will never see him again.  I thought I was going to go back into the dream and see him again but I never did.  Lastly, I did, however, keep remembering that I have to remember all the messages he had given me, which I think in a broader sense is the most important meaning of my dream of them all.

Healing the (subtle) division between monastic and lay communities

Venerable Tharchin once said, “a Dharma center is the collection of inner realizations of its members bound together by their mutual love and appreciation for one another.”  It seems to me the same is true at the level of a spiritual tradition.  Creating division within the Sangha is considered one of the five heinous actions of immediate retribution (translation:  one of the most negative things we can do), so it follows that healing such divisions is one of the most virtuous things we can do.  For hundreds, arguably thousands of years, the Kadampa tradition has primarily been a monastic one.  Geshe-la’s goal now is for the Kadam Dharma to penetrate into every aspect of human life.  The mission he has given us is “to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.”  He has given us the Dharma, we all have modern lives, our job is to attain the union of these two.  To accomplish this, the false duality between monastic (read center) life and lay life needs to be dissolved away.

All Kadampas agree there is no point doing anything with our life other than practice Dharma.  We are all trapped in a hallucinogenic karmic dream from which there is no escape other than to wake up.  We have a precious human life that we may lose at any moment, and we are in grave danger of falling into the lower realms from which it is nearly impossible to escape.  Our only enemies are delusions and we all have assumed the task of developing our realizations, skills and abilities (up to and including full enlightenment) so that we can, together, lead all beings in a great exodus out of samsaric realms and deliver them all to the eternal bliss of the pure lands.  This is our common project.  In short, our job is to gain realizations to be able to free others from the bondage of delusions.  Towards this end, our kind Spiritual Guide has organized for us festivals, retreats, temples, Dharma centers and study programs and he has inspired for us a worldwide Sangha of lay and ordained practitioners alike practicing a common path.  Geshe-la has encouraged us to deeply cherish these things as “the main gateways for those seeking liberation.”  Gen-la Losang calls Dharma centers “the Embassies of the pure lands” in this world.  Venerable Tharchin calls Dharma centers “beacons of light in a world of spiritual darkness.”

Historically, the Dharma community was divided into the monastic and lay communities.  While the Kadampa tradition no longer has monasteries per se, we do have their modern equivalents, namely our Dharma centers.  The spectrum of Kadampas is quite vast, but we can loosely make a distinction between those who primarily live in and work for Dharma centers, attend every teaching and festival, and those who don’t.  For simplicity, let’s call these center people and non-center people – the modern equivalent of the distinction between the monastic and lay communities.  We can no longer make a lay/ordained distinction because we have lay people living a modern monastic way of life in Dharma centers and we have ordained people living modern lay ways of life out in the world of work and family.

There exists, quite naturally in fact, a current of thought within the tradition that values participating in centers, retreats, teachings, festivals and the like as the most important priorities in our life.  We should organize our life around being able to participate in these things as opposed to participate in these things when our life allows it.  There is, however, a literal grasping at what this means.  There is a grasping at there being a highest way of participating in the tradition, namely living in and working for a center, attending every teaching and festival, keeping all the commitments of the study programs perfectly, and so forth.  Those who fail to be able to do these things are somehow “lesser” Kadampas – less committed, less realized, less Buddhist.

This type of grasping leads to a good deal of mental pain and unnecessary, albeit subtle, division within the Sangha.  This grasping also is one of the main impediments to the accomplishment of Geshe-la’s wish for the Dharma to flourish into every aspect of human life.  Some center people can develop deluded pride thinking their way of practicing is better than everyone else’s.  They sometimes then look down upon those who are not able to attend every teaching and festival as somehow being more enmeshed in samsara.  They sometimes can develop resentment towards those who do not work as much for the flourishing of the center as somehow being less committed and more selfish.  When family or work considerations interfere with being able to participate in everything, some center people judge others as having misplaced priorities.  Whether ordained or not, some center people think those who focus their energies on their spouses or kids somehow have less equanimity, self-righteously declaring “relationships are deceptive.”  Some center people believe their job is to get non-center people to be more externally like them, and steer all of their advice towards this end.

Since center people are supposedly closer to the sources of Dharma, non-center people can sometimes assent to the view that grasps at center life being inherently supreme.  As a result, they start to view their families, jobs and responsibilities in this world as somehow being obstacles to their Dharma practice.  This introduces conflict in the home over participation in Dharma activities, guilt at work feeling like one is wasting their precious human life, and resentment about having to meet responsibilities outside the center.  Viewing their daily life as somehow being inherently ordinary and worldly, they fail to bring the Dharma into every aspect of their modern lives.  When non-center people feel judged by center people for their supposedly non-Dharma activities, non-center people can become defensive and view center people as belonging to some “clique” or, worse, “cult.”  Non-center people can become resentful about the lack of understanding and pervasive judgment of center people, causing them to lose faith in their teachers, center managers, and fellow Sangha.  Thinking there is only one way of practicing the Kadampa path and being karmically incapable of doing so, people move on to other things and sometimes spend the rest of their life criticizing the family they felt forced to leave.  Some non-center people can likewise develop pride thinking their way of practice is supreme since they are having to deal with real problems in the real world, but this is less common.  Usually they develop some sort of inferiority complex about how they live their life, feeling the need to hide their going to the movies or make excuses for going on vacation with their families.

Grasping at center life being supreme is a serious impediment to the accomplishment of Geshe-la’s vision for the Dharma in this world.  If the tradition is to gain the realizations the people of this world need, it is incumbent upon us to learn how to transform any life – center or otherwise – into a Kadampa quick path to enlightenment.  Our inability to conceive how to transform a non-center life into a quick path does not mean it is not possible, it just means we haven’t invested what it takes to realize how it can be.  The reality is this, there are far more people in this world who lead non-center lives than center ones.  This does not mean non-center life is more important than or superior to center life.  Both are equally good and precious, just in different ways.  Venerable Tharchin says, “we must each assume our place in the mandala.”  Rather, it means if the Dharma is to penetrate into every aspect of modern life, we must learn how to do this.  It is up to each of us to do what we can to heal these divisions and wrong understandings.

The question is how?  The answer is non-center people need to live their life as “their center life.”  And center people need to live their life as “their non-center life.”  How can this be done?  Fortunately, every life is equally empty, therefore every life is equally transformable.  Non-center people should impute “center” on their home, “retreat” on their work, “teachings” on their daily life, and “Sangha” on their loved ones.  Center people should impute “home” on their center, “work” on their retreat, “daily life” on their teachings, and “loved ones” on their Sangha.  Everyone needs to impute “festival” on whatever happens during festival time, whether we are in attendance or not.  If we each do our part, there is no doubt we can heal this subtle division within the Sangha, relieve the mental pain associated with this form of grasping, and unleash Kadampa wisdom into every aspect of human life, thereby fulfilling Geshe-la’s vision for the Dharma in this world.

A Dharma center is where we practice Dharma in this world.  Home is the base from which we go out to engage in activities and the place we return to to recharge.  Non-center people need to make their home their “center” for practicing Dharma in their life.  We can correctly view everything that happens in a Dharma center as being emanated by the Buddhas for our spiritual training.  There is no reason why we cannot do the same with our homes, viewing them as the principal place where we put the Dharma into practice.  The home of any Dharma center is the gompa, the center of any Kadampa home is our meditation corner.  Every member of a Dharma center has a responsibility to the other members of the community, every member of a home has a responsibility to the other members of the home.  Whether in a home or a center, we have no control over whether others put the Dharma into practice, but we can choose to put the Dharma into practice ourselves with those we encounter.  Living with people is hard, accepting people who are deluded but not cooperating with their delusions is harder still.  Viewed in this way, those who live in a home can come to understand what it is like to live in a center, and those who live in a center can come to understand what it is like to live in a home.  Dharma centers can become more like homes, and homes can become more like Dharma centers.

Retreat is a time when we set aside our worldly activities to focus on our spiritual practice.  Work is when we do our jobs, fulfilling our responsibilities to the people in this world.  Normally we mistakenly grasp at our work as somehow being an inherently worldly activity and retreat as somehow being inherently spiritual.  As a result, we grasp at a duality between our work and our retreat.  Just as it is possible to be on retreat but never forget our worldly activities, so too it is possible to be at work and never forget our “retreat.”  Being on retreat is a state of mind.  If we have a mind of retreat, we can be on retreat no matter what we are doing externally, including our normal work.  The situations we encounter at work are our opportunities to put the Dharma into practice with an aim of gaining the realizations necessary to transform our jobs into the quick path.  If our primary objective is to gain Dharma realizations at work, that is what we will do while simultaneously fulfilling our responsibilities to our employers and customers.  Work, for us, will be “retreat time.”  Doing our jobs, or “working”, is also a state of mind.  It is the mental assuming of responsibility for what we need to do in this world.  When we are on retreat, our “job” is to gain deep experience and insight into the Dharma.  As Bodhisattva’s, our job is to gain the realizations the people of this world need so that we may lead them to enlightenment.  Retreat time is not vacation time, it is time to really get to work.  Work does not have to be a burden.  It is said if you enjoy what you do, you will never “work” a day in your life.  Effort is “taking delight” in virtue, in other words, enjoying engaging in virtue.  Viewed in this way, those who are working can better understand what it is like to be on retreat and those who are on retreat can come to understand what it is like to go to work.  Retreat can become more like work, work can become more like retreat.

A Dharma teaching occurs when the meaning of Dharma is transmitted from the teacher to the student.  Daily life is where we gain experience of how the world works.  When a teacher gives a teaching they should strive to explain everything in the context of applying it to the “daily lives” of the students.  They can only do this if they both understand the daily trials and tribulations of their students and they apply the Dharma themselves in their own daily lives.  Likewise, receiving a Dharma teaching depends upon listening in a particular way where we view what is being a taught as personal advice for how to overcome the sickness of delusions plaguing our daily life.  But there is no reason why we can only receive Dharma teachings in a Dharma center.  Milarepa said all of life teaches the truth of Dharma.  When we receive teachings we are advised to believe the living Lama Tsongkhapa enters into the heart of our teacher and through that teacher we receive Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings.  There is no reason why we cannot believe Lama Tsongkhapa has entered into the heart of everyone we encounter in daily life and through them he is giving us pure Dharma teachings.  Not everyone can attend every teaching, nor keep every commitment of every study program.  People shouldn’t be judged for this, rather reasonable accommodations should be made understanding that attending some teachings is better than attending none.  At the same time, not being able to attend the teachings at a center does not preclude Kadampas from receiving teachings every single day through their daily life.  Viewed in this way, teachings become advice for how to live daily life and daily life becomes our Dharma teaching.  Teachings can become more like daily life and daily life can become more like a teaching.

Sangha are those who inspire us to put the Dharma into practice.  Our loved ones are those we live and spend the most time with, usually our family and friends.  Our Sangha are our spiritual companions who we reunite with in life after life in pursuit of our common path and spiritual goals.  Geshe-la ends every festival telling us he prays for our families and friends, and he encourages us to love them first and foremost.  Venerable Tharchin says with every step we take towards enlightenment we bring all living beings with us in proportion to our karmic connection with them.  Dharma only finds its meaning when it is applied to the delusions that arise in our lives; and no one provokes our delusions more than our loved ones.  Put all of this together and it means for a Bodhisattva, the duality between their Sangha and their loved ones is false.  Sangha are not just the people who practice the same path as us, they are those who inspire us to put the teachings into practice.  Our loved ones do this, either through their good example or through their annoying quirks.  Our loved ones are not just our family and friends of this life, but also our vajra family (brothers, sisters, father and mother) who share with us the same lineage and view.  We do not have to be with our vajra family to be with “Sangha” and we do not have to be with our family and friends to be with our “loved ones.”  Viewed in this way, being with Sangha becomes more like being with family and friends, and being with our family and friends becomes more like being with our Sangha.  Sangha becomes more like family and family becomes more like Sangha.

Our Spiritual Guide, our Spiritual Father, has put in place a tradition of large spiritual gatherings, such as the various festivals and Dharma celebrations, where members from different centers come together as a large spiritual family to receive teachings and build spiritual bonds with one another.  Geshe-la calls these festivals our “spiritual holiday.”  They often feel like Kadampa “family reunions.”  Some people have the karma to attend ever festival and Dharma celebration, some only maybe one per year, others maybe only once in a lifetime.  Regardless of whether we are able to physically attend or not, all of us can “mentally” attend every festival.  How?  Anybody who has been to a festival can attest that there is a certain “magic” to them, where everything that happens seems “emanated” as part of our festival.  From the conversations we overhear to the cold water in the shower, it all somehow fits together in exactly the way we need it to.  It is a very special and blessed time.  But sometimes, for whatever karmic reason, we are not able to make it.  Those who are able to make it sometimes judge those who can’t.  Those who can’t make it sometimes become jealous (or even judgmental in a different way) of those who can.  This is completely unnecessary.  Those who can attend the festivals should make a point of “bringing along” those who can’t by carrying them around in their hearts as they go about the festival, attend the teachings and receive the empowerments.  In this way, those who can’t physically come are able to “be there” anyways.  Those who can’t make it to the festivals can adopt “the mind of a festival” during festival time, and view everything that happens to them during festival time as their personalized teachings emanated through whatever happens.  Buddhas pervade all things, so there is no reason why they cannot enter into our lives and transform whatever happens during this time into our own individualized festival.  People who can’t attend can also make a point of “tuning in” during the teachings and empowerments, mentally imagining they are receiving them at a distance through their meditation practices during teaching time.  They can also deeply rejoice in those who are able to make it, thereby creating the causes to perhaps one day be able to go back.  Whether we attend festivals or not, all of us from time to time will go on vacation (or “holiday” as the Brits call it).  Whether we are on holiday at Manjushri or on the beaches of Bali, there is no reason why we cannot impute “spiritual holiday” on this time.  Viewed in this way, while we still try make it if we can, it doesn’t matter whether we are physically present at the festival or not, we can attend anyways.  While we still encourage people to come, it doesn’t matter if our Sangha friends make it to the festival or not, we bring them along anyways.  It doesn’t matter whether we are at a festival or on a regular vacation, both can equally be viewed as our “spiritual holidays.”

It is true “centers,” “retreats,” “teachings,” “Sangha” and “festivals” are the main gateways for those seeking liberation, and we should cherish these things as our Guru’s greatest gifts to us.  But we need the wisdom to know there are many different ways we can integrate these things into our lives.  Likewise non-center life is not an object of abandonment.  It is not something we need fear nor feel guilty about participating in.  If we are to fulfill Geshe-la’s vision of bringing the Dharma into every aspect of human life we all need to work on eliminating the false duality between “center” and “non-center” life, between “home” and “center,” between “retreat” and “work,” between “teachings” and “daily life,” between “Sangha” and our “loved ones,” and between “physically attending festivals” and “not.”  In reality, whether we are a center person or a non-center person, we all have center and non-center aspects of our lives.  When we are engaging in center activities, we should never forget our non-center life; and when we are engaging in non-center activities, we should never forget our center life.  If we all in this way practice inclusion instead of exclusion we can “bind together in mutual love and appreciation” these two aspects of our spiritual community into one larger spiritual family.

 

 

My father never wants to speak with me again

As some of you may have gathered from my recent postings and tweets, I have been trying to navigate through a family conflict, in particular with my father.  Sadly, he told me (on Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, no less) that he never wants to speak with me again.  I am not very good at discussing my personal problems (funny how much easier it is to discuss the Dharma when it is abstracted from daily life), but as a dear Sangha friend recently told me, “the raw emotion of real life is where the mind moves the most.”  So I am going to try share my feelings and thoughts about how I am trying to work through all of this in the hopes that it might prove helpful to others who may one day face a similar situation.  It’s probably all wrong, but it’s my honest best.  At the very least, I hope clarifying my own thinking by writing it down will prove therapeutic in bringing a little peace.

I don’t even know where to begin.  I am sure my explanation is biased in a number of ways, but I will try explain things as “objectively” as I can.  Please forgive me in advance for that.  This is also unfortunately a bit of a long story, but the spiritual lessons I have learned from all of this lie at the end and for me it has been worth the trouble.

My parents got divorced when I was one year old.  My father is (was) a Doctor and made a ton of money.  My mother was a beauty queen.  If truth be told, my mother left my father because she thought she could “do better,” and if she didn’t do so soon, she would lose her beauty and it would be too late.  My mother later started dating this high-powered lawyer, and he eventually proposed to her but said he didn’t want my brother and I around.  My mother couldn’t bring herself to do that, so she said no.  She then had to get a job as a secretary and basically spent the rest of her life deeply scarred by the whole experience.

My mother’s actions, quite understandably, upset my father quite a bit – that’s an understatement, he hated her for it.  As a result, he refused to pay anything more than the absolute, absolute minimum in child support.  He had good lawyers who made sure he didn’t have to.  Sometimes we didn’t have enough money even for heat.  Meanwhile, he is flying around in his private plane and cruising on his private yacht.  My mother hated him for that.  She was part jealous of all his money, part bitter that she found herself a poor, single mother working as a secretary (when she could have had it all), part guilty knowing it was her own mistakes that led her to this fate.  I spent my entire childhood with my parents hating each other, taking each other back to court fighting about money, and being made to feel like I had to choose between my two parents – my love of one viewed as a betrayal of the other.  For whatever reason, my brother always had a very close and loving relationship with my father (first son, and all that).  I looked like my mother, and thought more like her too.  The legacy of this has echoed throughout my life.

The big problems in my relationship with my father began over payment for my undergraduate studies.  The last time my mother took my father back to court was when I had just started high school.  Part of the settlement was my father would have to pay for our college expenses.  My father had only allocated enough money to send me to a middle of the road public university.  His logic was “I put myself through school and I went to a State college.  If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.”  But I managed to get into a very expensive (but very good) private college.  The money ran out after two years.  The problem was in the United States the financial aid rules are such that if your parents make money, you are not eligible for financial aid.  To get around this, my father had to write to the financial aid office basically saying he was disowning me (so I could take out student loans) and I had to graduate in three years instead of four.  None of my other classmates were going through similar problems.  The families that had money, paid; the families that didn’t, got financial aid.  I had to cut school short and, to be honest, I felt cheated.  My father could have easily paid, he just chose not to.  He said it was to teach me responsibility.  I was a straight-A student, succeeding in my every venture.

Like all recent graduates, I struggled financially at first.  My now wife’s family was there for us, and largely picked up the slack helping us stay on our feet.  They were incredibly generous.  But when my father sent her family a bill for some minor dental work he did on my wife, I blew a fuse.  I basically told him everything I thought about how I thought his behavior was wrong – what he did in terms of child support and his not paying for college.  My words had echoes of my mother’s, and basically ever since this time our relationship has been strained.  He never forgave me, I never changed my stand that what he did was wrong, but I regret many of my word choices which were bitter and sometimes spiteful.

We spent the next 20 years trying to rebuild.  While I still think he made a mistake when we were growing up, I forgave him and made the best of it.  I tried to learn the lessons about self-sufficiency and personal responsibility that he wanted me to learn.  During this time, he basically disagreed with every career choice I made – leaving law school, working in investment banking, leaving banking to get a degree in economic policy, working for several years at a job beneath my educational attainment so that I had more time available to be Resident Teacher of a Dharma center, then becoming a Professor of economics.  He always felt I was making the wrong career choices and that I was irresponsible with money.

Seven years ago, there was a landslide at our house in Geneva, and as a result we had to use all of our savings for repairs, experts and lawyers.  I also had to borrow a substantial sum of money from my brother (who had taken over my Dad’s practice when he retired) to cover expenses until we received compensation from the insurance companies for our damages (the lawsuit continues to this day).  Five years ago, Dorje Shugden “arranged” for us to have twins when we weren’t planning on having any more children (we already had three at the time, bringing us up to a family with five kids).  This was yet another example to my father of our irresponsibility.  Shortly after the twins were born, while they were in the hospital with a bad infection that could have gone either way, he sent me an email accusing my wife and I of being “vagabonds” in life who are “living high on the hog on other people’s money (meaning my brother’s, who lent us the money to deal with the landslide lawsuit).”  He has since consistently expressed dismay about us “living beyond our means” (we’re not), and making us feel guilty anytime we spend money on anything, such as going on a family vacation.  Throughout all of this time, when he would make such accusations, I would spend many hours drafting respectful and carefully worded replies to try help him understand why his view of us was mistaken.  As his son, it hurt me greatly to have my father think all of these things about us when we were doing the best we could to get by.  In reality, I see now, I was very attached to both his approval and his understanding.  I mistakenly felt my happiness depended upon him approving of us and understanding our life choices.

Every year for the last eight years my wife has brought our kids back to my home town for the summer.  We would stay at my father’s place while he would go on his annual boating trip to Alaska.  He would then usually see us for a few days at either the beginning or end of the summer, depending on the timing of his trip.  We never once failed to express our sincere gratitude for him making his house available to us in the summer, explaining if he hadn’t done so we wouldn’t be able to come home and make connections with all of the family (I have about 40 members of my family – aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, etc. – in my home town).  My father also owns a lake cabin which we enjoyed tremendously as kids growing up, and my father generously kept the cabin so that my brothers and I (and our kids) can continue to enjoy it.  Unbeknownst to me, my brother had several years earlier began assuming the annual expenses of the cabin (maintenance, taxes, etc.) which ran into tens of thousands of dollars every year.  When I became a diplomat, and my salary improved considerably, my brother explained what he had been doing and asked if we could also contribute since our kids were enjoying it throughout the summer as well.  I explained that between the on-going lawsuit and the price of tickets to bring the family back every year we could only afford to contribute about 15% of the annual expenses.  It was simply all we could reasonably afford.  My brother said that was fine and he appreciated whatever we could do.

Two years ago, due to the timing of the school year, my wife and kids had to leave Spokane in mid-August.  In order for my father to see them, he had to cut his boat trip short.  He wanted to see them, but he also didn’t want to cut his trip short, and he wanted to make sure we knew how much he had to sacrifice “battling the elements to make it back quickly” to see us.  There were, unfortunately, three incidents that my father misunderstood to be us avoiding him.  He was quite upset (inside), asking himself, “why did I go through all that to come back, only to be avoided when I get here?”  When I saw my father last June, he confronted me about all of this (before I knew nothing, except some murmurings from my brother).  I found this difficult to accept.  Basically, for the last five to seven years, my father has been “absent.”  He has consistently forgotten our kids’ birthdays, never made any effort to invest in their lives and was often standing in judgment when he did engage with us.  Nothing we could ever do was good enough for him.  We had sacrificed tremendously, both financially and stress-wise, to come back every summer to invest in family.  To spend 48 weeks in town over the span of several years to see family and then be accused of avoiding my father when in fact he was the one who was never in town was a bit much to swallow.  I explained as such saying essentially he has been completely neglecting his role as a grandfather and we have said nothing about it, choosing to accept you as you are and to instead focus on the positive, but for you to then get upset at us for avoiding you is a bit hard to comprehend.

This summer, when it was time to make plans, he asked when we were coming.  Due to changing countries and school systems, this summer we only have three weeks available right in the middle of when he is usually on his boat trip.  When we explained our timing, he started getting upset again basically saying we should try come earlier if we can.  I then sent him an email saying, “please don’t get upset, given the timing of the school year and movers, this is all we can do.”  He then sent an email titled “here it comes” in which he lambasted us for our lack of gratitude and appreciation for all that he does for us, accused us of having a “perverted sense of entitlement” and “misguided sense of my birthright” in my use of his house and lake cabin.  He accused us of being ungrateful, disrespectful and inconsiderate.  He completely fabricated out of thin air some story about us showing disrespect for his wife when she got cancer (never happened).  He said we were “mooching” off of him and my brother with our “token contributions” to the expenses of the lake.  He belittled my wife for what she does, and then concluded by threatening if we don’t start showing him “the respect he is due” there will be negative consequences (meaning we won’t be able to use his house, etc., any more.

This was emotionally devastating for both me and my wife to read, much less deal with given that we are currently on opposite sides of the planet (she is in France this year while I am in China).  Despite this, I really took my time to craft a reply in which I did not retaliate – at all – saying hurtful things in return.  I once again tried to clarify we weren’t avoiding him this was just his mis-reading of the situation, we were extremely grateful for everything he had done, we were sorry if he saw things in this way, we were financially contributing all that we could to the expenses of the lake, and that all of this was quite hard to take against the backdrop of him being the one who has been completely absent from our kids’ lives for the last five to seven years.  He then replied completely ignoring all of my clarifications, saying he was still “pissed” at us for mistreating him for the last 20 years.  He said all of the emails that I had previously sent during this 20 year period were just “meaningless words,” because our wrong behavior remained the same.  I felt like he had thrown away all of the work I had put in over the last 20 years to try rebuild our relationship after the college incident.  It was gone, out the window.  Again, I replied without retaliation, clarifying.  He replied he didn’t know how I could be so “dense” and engage in such “idiocy.”  I then sent a timeline, showing how things could have been different.  Once again, he responded with spite saying he gives up.

A week goes by and then he sent an email in which he communicated the exact same message saying he was angry at us for our mistreatment of him, expecting a change in our behavior.  But he did so with a decided change of tone, using nicer words.  This was a revelatory moment for me.  Every single example he had given us about our supposed mistreatment of him had been thoroughly refuted as being factually wrong, wildly exaggerated, completely misunderstood, etc.  None of our supposed wrong actions “objectively” (or should I say conventionally) could survive the scrutiny of a little light being shone on them.  Yet despite all of these clarifications, he simply couldn’t let go.  In his mind we had wronged him even though he couldn’t explain how or why, and by my constantly relating to his accusations as if they had a basis in truth I was actually feeding a dysfunctional dynamic.  I realized – quite vividly – that for the last 42 years of my life I have been chasing after his approval and understanding, and that my doing so was the source of all of my own mental pain with regards to this.  I also realized I wasn’t helping him by assenting to his simply wrong view of us nor trying to chase the rainbow of living up to his expectations when he couldn’t even articulate what needed to change.

So I sent back an email in which I essentially said, “what are you talking about?  None of what you are accusing me of actually happened, this is all your misperception of things.”  I then held up the mirror of what he had done and said that if he has a problem with me, it is his problem, not mine.  I will no longer chase after his approval or understanding.  Either he accepts me or he doesn’t.  I concluded by saying the solution here is simple – we both need to be happy with what does happen, not upset about what doesn’t happen.  This is what I am going to do, and I invite him to do the same.  But if he doesn’t, it is his choice.  His reply was “have a good life, I will no longer be a part of it.  Because of the way you mistreat me, I never want to hear from you again.”

When I received this, I quite clearly was struck with the understanding that his anger towards me is actually just, deep down inside far beyond any place he is emotionally or spiritually equipped to confront, his own guilt about his own failings and shortcomings as a father and grandfather.  His obsession with money and his attachment to the fulfillment of his own wishes have caused him to neglect his responsibilities to his family, and deep down inside he knows it – and feels guilty about it, but he can’t bring himself to change his own behavior.  When I refuse to assent to his narrative of what has supposedly happened between us, it forces him to confront this within himself.  Since he is incapable of doing so, he lashes out at me.  But what he is really lashing out at is his own reflection in the mirror which he is incapable of confronting.  I realized I no longer need to chase.  This actually has little to nothing to do with me (except, of course, it all being my karma).  These are his own inner demons he is wrestling with, and I can’t do it for him.  All I can do is understand what is going on, stop feeding the problem by assenting to his distorted view, explain to him that I love him anyways and leave the door open for him to come back once he has done this work within himself.  But to enter into this dynamic with him of trying to prove myself to him and conceding that there is some cosmic injustice I have inflicted upon him when I have done no such thing doesn’t actually help him.  And it certainly doesn’t help me, my wife or my kids to have to be subject to all of this unnecessary drama.

We sometimes take the Dharma teachings of “accepting defeat and offering the victory” or “not disturbing others” or “working to fulfill their wishes” too far, where in effect we are just feeding others’ delusions and wrong behavior.  If we love them and we care for them, sometimes we have to say “no, enough is enough.  I am not going to play this game anymore.”  Gen Lhamo explains that we often sacrifice inner peace on the altar of outer peace, and we do so driven by our own attachment to not wanting to lose something in our relationship with the other person.  Of course we shouldn’t unnecessarily antagonize others and we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, but when dynamics become fundamentally unhealthy and continuing with them is leading to an emotional black hole for all involved, we need to take a step back and take a stand.  Doing so is an act of compassion.  It is sometimes the only way to break the cycle of unhealthy dynamics.  Compassion without wisdom is not helpful.  Cooperating with and assenting to delusions – our own or others – always makes the situation worse.

It is hard when this happens with figures as important to us as our parents.  Of course we need to focus on the good, and appreciate our parents for all that they have done and not be upset about them for falling short of our expectations.  If I had a perfect realization of the kindness of my parents, this is what I would see.  I shouldn’t fault my father for what he didn’t do, I should just be grateful for what he did do.  We can always want and expect more, but when has that ever helped anything?  But at the same time, loving and respecting our parents does not mean we need to cooperate with their deluded behavior, nor does it mean we need to be attached to their approval and understanding.  Of course we need to be respectful, but ultimately our happiness does not depend upon what others think of us, including them.  The story of Buddha Shakyamuni also poignantly reveals this.  It is my attachment to his approval and understanding that prevented me for the last 20 years from realizing I had been trapped in an unhealthy dynamic with my father and I wasn’t willing to say, “Stop!  I am doing the best I can, if you have a problem with it, there is nothing I can do about it.  It is up to you to assume responsibility for your own feelings in the situation, as I have to assume responsibility for mine.”  He thinks his happiness depends upon me changing my behavior.  If I assent to that, then I disempower him from being happy on his own.  I don’t help him by agreeing with this premise.  While it can seem harsh, sometimes the best way to help somebody else is to tell them, “your feelings and your reactions are your responsibility.”

I don’t know where things go from here.  But I am grateful that all of this has happened.  I now understand his anger at me is actually coming from his own unacknowledged guilt and conflicting desires.  I can’t do his internal work for him, but I can do mine.  I can get myself to the mental space where I feel no animosity towards him at all, where I feel completely grateful for what he has done, not resentment for what he hasn’t.  I can forgive him, love him, but still not cooperate anymore with his wrong narrative.  I can also finally let go of my attachment to what he thinks of me and realize there is no contradiction between being a Dharma practitioner and saying, “if you have a problem with me, it is your problem, not mine.”  Sometimes, not often, this is the kindest thing we can do.  Even if saying so might mean the end of a treasured relationship.

Love someone unconditionally while not cooperating with their delusions.  Finding the middle way is never easy.

How to resolve conflict with your loved ones

Geshe-la said at a meeting with teachers at Manjushri once that we need people sharing on-line their positive experiences of using the Dharma to solve their daily problems.  He said this will help counter some of the false narratives against us.  I also think implicit in this is by sharing our experiences we can all learn from one another.  It is in this light that I share the following.  I hope my failures and struggles might in some way prove helpful to others who one day find themselves in similar situations.  At the very least, writing this will help me clarify my own thoughts and hopefully bring a little inner peace.

I am in the middle of the biggest fight I have ever had with my father.  It started over something trivial, namely making our plans for the summer, but it somehow tapped into deep-seated resentments that had been building up for years on both sides.  My job now, it seems, is to work through my own delusions and to use the Dharma to lay the foundation for what can in the future be some sort of honest reconciliation and stable resolution.  It seems to me all of us will one day encounter conflict with those closest to us.

In all conflict situations, there are two problems, an internal one of the delusions flaring up within our own mind and an external one of the actual conflict with the other person.  Since there are two different problems, we need two different solutions – an internal one and an external one.  While ideally, we should pursue our internal and external solutions in parallel, the reality is usually our external efforts will fail if internally we have not yet re-found peace within our mind.  As Geshe-la says, without inner peace, outer peace is impossible.

Internally, we need to work through all the delusions within our own mind and replace them with wisdom about the situation and compassion towards all affected by it.  Dharma practice is, for all practical purposes, a process of abandoning our habitual deluded reactions and replacing them with new and positive habits.  It seems to me, there are five deluded habits we often fall into during conflict with others.

The first is we lose our refuge and instead rely upon our own instincts.  It’s relatively easy to practice Dharma when the problems we face are not too bad, but when our problems become extreme we tend to forget our refuge and instead try solve our problems on our own.  Gen Lhamo once said we are spiritual people, so our first reaction should be to pray.  We need to pray for wisdom to know what to do and how to think about it.  We need to pray for love and compassion to fill our hearts towards the other person.  We need to pray that Dorje Shugden take control of the situation and arrange whatever is best for all concerned.  Finally, we pray that our conflicts become a powerful cause of enlightenment for all involved.

Our second habitual reaction is usually we wish these problems weren’t happening.  But actually, I think, we need to be grateful that there are these problems, because without big problems we quickly become lazy and fail to actually change our mind with the Dharma we have received.  It is very easy for our Dharma studies to become abstract, academic or philosophical.  For me at least, it is only when I am really smacked down by major problems in my life that I am actually forced to change the way I think.  It is when we are confronted with the truth of the sufferings of samsara that the Dharma finds its greatest utility.

Our third habitual reaction is to blame the other person for our troubles.  But actually we need to recognize all of this is the ripening of our own negative karma of having acted in harmful ways towards others in the past.  We need to accept all of the difficulties as purification for our own past wrong actions, actively purify whatever negative karma remains and resolve to not repeat ourselves again in the future whatever mistakes we perceive.  If we have a “problem” with something, it is our problem because we are relating to the situation in a deluded way.  We need to do the internal work to replace whatever delusions we may have with wisdom, love, patience and compassion.  If we don’t do this, even if the external situation changes, we will remain with our internal problem and it is just a question of time before it comes back to haunt us.

Our fourth habitual reaction is to retaliate in some way to the harm we have received.  No matter how much the other person hurts us, we should try find a way to forgive them.  We shouldn’t stop this internal work until we get to the point where we have no animosity or anger towards them at all.  This will take time, depending on the hurt, sometimes even decades.  It doesn’t matter how long it takes and it doesn’t matter whether the other person ever admits their own harmful acts.  If we want inner peace ourselves, we can’t escape this work.

Our fifth habitual reaction is to jump from the extreme of anger to the other extreme of cooperating once again with the other person’s unhealthy behavior.  This one requires some additional explanation.  Many Dharma practitioners hear the teachings on the ripening of negative karma, how we are responsible for all of our problems and the need to fulfill others’ wishes and then misunderstand these instruction to mean we need to become a doormat and cooperate with the delusions of others.  Again, Gen Lhamo shows the way by pointing out that we are not helping others by cooperating with their delusions.  She says we need to recognize that it is our own attachment to outer peace and our own self-cherishing not wanting to lose what the other person might take away from us that causes us to allow others to abuse or mistreat us.  It doesn’t help them to allow them to mistreat us and it is soul-sapping to ourselves to remain in an avoidable unhealthy dynamic.  We should avoid the misguided view that we must suffer through unhealthy dynamics as atonement for our past sins.  Geshe-la says in the teachings on patient acceptance if we have a headache, we should take an aspirin, but then accept the pain until the aspirin takes effect.  In other words, we only accept the suffering we cannot avoid; we simply avoid the suffering we can avoid.  In the context of conflict with our loved ones, if we can get out and/or change the dynamic, we should do so.  We shouldn’t remain in an unhealthy dynamic if we can avoid or change it.

As with all situations which provoke delusions, as a dear Sangha friend recently reminded me, we need to remember none of it is real. There is no one there thinking anything about or doing anything against us.  The person we are fighting with that we normally see does not exist at all, they are just a construction of our own deluded mind. There are, in the final analysis, just various karmic appearances and how we respond to them, like a karmic video game.  None of it really matters because nothing is actually happening.  Our job is to respond to whatever arises with wisdom and compassion.  The more experience we have with remembering emptiness when conflict arises, the more powerful such wisdom will be at taking all of the sting out of such problems.

But we need to be careful.  Part of what causes us to cooperate with other’s delusions is misunderstanding the teachings on ultimate truth to mean conventionally everything that happens is all our fault so only we need to change for things to conventionally get better.  We need the wisdom to know the difference between what is conventionally “our” problem and what is conventionally “their” problem.  Our problem is our delusions, their problem is their delusions.  We need to do the internal work necessary to always stand ready to make peace (in other words work through whatever delusions we might have towards the other person), but we also need to accept that we can’t do others internal work for them.  If they are not willing to do their internal work, we can continue to pray for them but sometimes we may need to disengage from them, or at a minimum circumscribe our relationship to those situations in which conflict is unlikely to flare.

Having established a degree of inner peace towards the situation, we can then begin to think about how to solve our external problem of the conflict with the other person.  It seems there are four questions we need to answer:  When should we act?  How should we approach the other person?  What should we say?  And what are we aiming for?

When seeking to resolve a conflict with somebody else, the first thing we need to do is get our timing right. First, we need to get our own mind back to a space of wisdom, compassion and calm.  If we are still agitated and under the influence of delusion, we will no doubt make things worse if we approach the other person.  It is much better to wait until calm and clarity have returned to our mind.  Second, we should be patient and not rush others to a resolution before they are internally ready to embrace it.  We are fortunate to have the Dharma and so mentally we might be able to bounce back to a non-deluded space more quickly than the other person (or not!).  But just because we are mentally ready to make peace does not mean others are.  In the same way, those affected by our conflicts with our loved ones (such as our other family members or close friends) might also have a wide variety of different delusions troubling their minds.  If we impose our internal solution on others before they are ready to embrace it, one of two things will happen:  they will either reject it, thus we burn the opportunity for this solution to work; or they will feel like they have to repress their delusions before they have actually resolved them.  Repression doesn’t work, it just sows the seeds for future problems while leaving others miserable in the interim.  Instead, we need to give all those around us affected by the conflict the time they need to get to a mental space where they are ready to positively receive our overtures.

The second question we need to answer is how do we approach the other person to make peace?  Sometimes people can get into a juvenile dynamic of “who will make the first move towards peace,” as if making such a move somehow concedes that the other person is right and they win.  Everybody loses from conflict, everybody wins from peace.  The longer we take to make peace, the more entrenched the other’s hateful views become, making it harder later.  So, unless there is some overriding reason, we shouldn’t wait for the other person to make the first move, even if they are the one primarily at fault for the conflict.  Rather it is best for us to make the first move.  We should approach them with respect and appreciation for all that they do, and make clear to them that our intention is to come to an honest resolution of our differences.  We then begin by apologizing for whatever mistakes we may have made and harm we may have caused.  We then, without attacking the other person, explain to them how their actions have made us feel, but we have moved past those feelings by realizing XYZ.  Then, we can ask the person whether they are ready to work towards a solution?  It is entirely possible that the other person may reject our efforts, but it doesn’t matter if they do.  We will have done the right thing by trying.  We can tell them, “I see you are not yet ready to move beyond this.  When you are ready, let me know.  I am not going anywhere.”  Then, the ball will be firmly in the other person’s court, and you practice patience until they are ready.

Once they are ready to work towards a solution, when it comes to the substance of the discussions, I recommend proceeding in two stages.  First, agree on common principles for resolving the dispute that apply equally to both sides, then, once those principles are agreed to, get into the substance of applying those principles to the situation at hand.  You shouldn’t discuss the application of the principles to the situation until the other person has agreed to a common framework for resolving the dispute (namely the principles).  Make sure that whatever principles you propose apply more or less equally to both sides, otherwise the person will think you are trying to set them up.  When you do get to the stage of discussing the application of the principles to the present conflict, you should apply them fairly explaining how both sides are guilty of violating the principle and how everything would be better if both sides adhered to the principle.

What follows are some principles which are generally useful in any conflict situation and only the most unreasonable of people would disagree with:

  • We should each make an effort to understand the other’s perspective. We each feel justified in our view of the situation, so there must be some truth to each of our perspectives.  It is only our pride, anger and attachment to our own view that blind us to our own faults and mistakes, but make us keenly aware of others’ faults and mistakes.
  • Our differences are not so great as to make it worth it to throw away all the good in our relationship. It’s worth it to work towards a solution.
  • Small things we should treat like “water off a duck’s back” (falls right off without leaving a trace). Big things have to be addressed.  It’s not healthy to shove big things under the carpet and pretend they didn’t happen.  If there is to be a reconciliation, it has to be an honest one that takes both our perspectives into account.
  • Exaggeration makes everything worse. Both sides need to not exaggerate the supposed actions or negative thoughts of the other, relate to those exaggerations as if they were actually true, and then feel justified in being upset at the other person for something they did not in fact say or do.
  • We should recall that hurtful things said out of anger are not what we really think, whereas constructive things said out of love are what we really think. So we should dismiss the hurtful things as just the other person’s anger talking and embrace the constructive things as their love talking.
  • We each need to assume ownership and responsibility for our own problem. If we have a problem with something, it is our problem; if the other person has a problem with something, it is their problem.  We both need to get over our own problem by changing our view and letting go.
  • We need to avoid inappropriate attention. If we focus 99% of our attention on the 1% bad of the relationship, it will seem like 99% of the relationship is bad.  Instead we should focus on the good and forgive the bad.
  • We both need to accept the other as they are, not be upset at them for not living up to our expectations.  In fact, it is best to have no expectations of the other person at all.  We need to be grateful for what others do do, not resentful for what they don’t.

The final question is what are we aiming for as the final resolution of the conflict?  Once again, the resolution has to be fair and balanced, applying more or less equally to both sides.  It should take the legitimate views and interests of both sides fully into account.  The foundation of any lasting solution is both sides need to genuinely appreciate what the other person does do, not get upset about what they don’t do.  Each side should respect and be appreciative of the constraints the other is operating under, and not judge them for it.  To avoid future problems, both sides should agree if they make a mistake, they should honestly admit it and change.  If they harm the other person, they should apologize and make sincere amends. When apologies are offered, they should graciously be accepted and reciprocated in kind. If the other person does not apologize, they should be forgiven anyways.  Likewise, both sides should agree if the other person is not asking for our advice or perspective, we shouldn’t give it; but if unsolicited advice is given it should be received graciously.  In this light, both sides should agree to not be hyper-sensitive, where providing constructive feedback on how the other person can do better is blown completely out of proportion and is responded to with unhelpful defensiveness.  Finally, when we are with the other person, we should be vigilant to not create problems ourselves and to be forgiving if the other person is falling short of our expectations (with the mutual understanding that it is best to have zero expectations so we never become upset).  And when we are not with the other person, we should be mindful to not dwell on the supposed faults of the other person, instead we should try recollect their many qualities and develop appreciation for them.  In short, both sides should avoid inappropriate attention on the bad and instead focus on the good.  A solution grounded in these impossible to argue with principles is manifestly fair and can produce a lasting solution.

Conflict, even extreme conflict, between loved ones is inevitable, but it does not need to be a problem.  With Dharma wisdom, we can transform such conflicts into opportunities to identify and overcome our delusions and to learn how to apply wisdom to our daily circumstances.  Doing so will enable us to gain the realizations that the people of this world need.  Kadam Bjorn said the only things we can effectively pass on to others are those things we have personal experience of.  Life will give us challenges, our job is to apply the Dharma.  When we do, we gain direct experience of their truth.  Finally, we can share our experience with others in the hope that they might find something useful.  In this way, the inner lineage of realization gets passed down from generation to generation until eventually we all are permanently free.

On dealing with conflict within a family

I have had my fair share of problems and conflict within my family, especially with my parents.  I have probably made every mistake there is to make.  What follows are the lessons I have learned from these mistakes.  I share them in the hope that others do not make the same mistakes I have.  All of us have parents and all of us have families.  Even those who have no family have Sangha, and Sangha is our spiritual family.  Everything presented below is equally applicable to our spiritual families as to our biological families

As a parent I don’t help my kids if I shelter them from the reality of the world as it is, including conflicts within the family.  Rather I should view the inevitable problems that arise as a “teaching moment” to explain how one deals with such problems when they do arise.  Our job as parents is to prepare our kids to operate in the world (professionally and emotionally) on their own.  If they never learn how to deal with things as a kid, it will be even harder for them to deal with conflict as an adult.  If we do not prepare our kid now, they will lack the emotional maturity necessary to deal with life.  It is true, nobody wants problems and all of us wish no problems ever occured, but running away from problems or pretending they are not there does not make them go away.  Problems are like cancer, if we don’t treat them, they will fester, spread and become even worse.

The central lesson I think I have learned so far in life is this:  “when you see qualities in others, emulate them; when you see faults in others, learn from their mistakes.”  If one adopts such an outlook, then it doesn’t matter what other people are doing, we grow as a person regardless.  As we go through life and observe other people doing all sorts of different things, our job is to do exactly this.

We should take the time to consider how fortunate we are to have many good examples of people in our family with many good qualities.  It is wrong to let our anger about perceived harm blind us to seeing the many good qualities others possess.  Sure, none of the people in our family are perfect and all of them have their own little foibles.  None of us are perfect, we all make mistakes.  But we shouldn’t let people’s mistakes blind us to their many good qualities.  Rather, we should take the time to appreciate their good qualities and resolve to emulate their good qualities ourselves.

But despite all of this, the reality is conflict will sometimes occur, even within the best families.  Our job is to learn how to deal with it and respond to it in a constructive way.

So what are some of the main causes of conflict within a family?

First is childhood rebellion taken too far.  Every child’s identity is shaped in part by a rejection or rebellion against the perceived failings and mistakes of their parents. This is entirely normal and there is nothing wrong with it.  Parents may not like it because they don’t like to admit their mistakes, but one of the first things we realize when we become a parent ourself is just how hard it is to be a good parent.  Nothing in life prepares us for it.  So yes, our parents will make mistakes – many mistakes.  And our job as kids is to learn from their mistakes and to not repeat them when you become parents ourselves.  If we all do this, generation after generation, there is hope that our family will grow stronger and stronger and we will become a great family.  But as children (even as adult children) we need to be careful to not take this rebellion too far where we also reject all of the good qualities our parents embody.  It is true, we need to develop our own opinion and views about life, but our views cannot just be a rejection of everything our parents think.  If it is, then we actually haven’t developed our own views at all, rather we are still allowing our parents to define our views in our rejection of them.  Our parents do get some things right, in fact, they generally get most things right.  Our job as kids is to take the good, learn from their mistakes and keep an open mind that we might just be wrong in thinking what they have done is mistaken.  Some things that were seen to be mistakes when we were a kid are not seen that way when we ourselves become a parent.  Same is no doubt true when we make the transition to being grandparents.  But some other things do continue to be seen as mistakes and when we are parents (or grandparents), we should try to not repeat those same mistakes ourselves.

Second, we should be grateful for what those in our family do do for us, not be resentful about what they don’t do.  Virtually all family conflicts stem from projecting expectations onto the other person about what they should be doing, then getting upset at them when they fail to live up to our expectations.  Only problems come from approaching family relations in this way.  We need to accept others for who they are, not judge them for all of the different ways we feel they fall short.  When we are not grateful for what people do give, then they come to resent their giving and they give less.  If we get upset at them for not living up to our expectations, then even if they start doing so they will not be doing so from their own side because they want to, but will instead be doing so out of some feeling of obligation, guilt or to avoid us getting angry at them.  So their extra action never leaves us feeling satisfied.  If truth be told, it is much better to expect absolutely nothing from others.  If we expect a lot and they give a little, we will feel disappointed.  If we expect nothing and they give a little, we will be extremely grateful.  It all depends on our expectations.  Nobody owes us anything.  We should be grateful for everything.

Third is exaggeration and inappropriate attention.  Every problem between any two people involves lots and lots of exaggeration.  There might be some small problem, but our mind quickly exaggerates the perceived harm completely out of proportion until it becomes this giant and awful thing which bears no resemblance to what actually happened.  We do this towards others, others do this towards us.  Until we stop exaggerating, we will never deal with the problem as it is.  Likewise, we need to be careful to not have inappropriate attention.  If we focus 99% of our attention on 1% of the problem, it will seem like there are 99% problems between us.  Our inappropriate attention will crowd out seeing all of the good, and we will quickly lose it.  We need to keep things in perspective, otherwise we risk losing it all over insignificant problems.

Fourth, don’t accept something from somebody who is not happy to give that thing.  Doing so just breeds resentment.  Sometimes people give not because they want to, but because they feel like they have to (for whatever reason).  Externally, they might not show the slightest trace that they are unhappy to give, but internally they are bitter about the fact they are having to do so and then they become resentful against those they perceive to be mooching off of them.  If somebody perceives us as mooching off of them for taking what they offer, they will grow increasingly bitter about it over time and it introduces all sorts of problems in the relationship.  That is why it is much better to not accept something from somebody who is not happy to give that thing.  In such a case, if w have the financial means of affording the thing ourself, we should provide it for ourself.  If we can’t afford to provide it for ourself, then we quite simply go without that thing.  My grandfather said, “if you can’t afford it, you don’t need it.”  I fully agree.

Fifth, we shouldn’t be jealous of our siblings for what we perceive to be a better relationship with the parent.  If truth be told, I have spent my whole life jealous of the relationship my father has with my brother.  It has always been better than the one I have had with him.  There is no end to how much I have resented my and brother for this.  Even now, I see the investment my father puts into his relationship with my brother’s children compared to what he invests in his relationship with my children, and I likewise become jealous.  This was/is 100% wrong of me.  The correct reaction is to be happy for others and for the relationship they are able to forge together.  Being jealous always makes things worse and leaves us miserable.  It is the most useless emotion there is.

So how should we deal with the mistakes of people within the family?  First, it must be said that unlike friends, family is forever.  Permanent breakdown of the relationship is not an option.  Even in the biggest fights, we should always work towards a resolution, but it has to be an honest one.  We can’t shove things under the carpet (more on that below).  We should always try keep the door open, but we shouldn’t do other people’s work for them.  If they don’t do their own work from their own side, there won’t be any real resolution of the issues, there will just be everyone pretending they are not there.  If the other person chooses to not do their work to love us despite our mistakes, at least from our side we do our work to love them despite their mistakes.  But loving them despite their mistakes and cooperating with their dysfunction are two different things.  We can love them and not cooperate with their dysfunction.  This is the fundamental lesson Ghandi taught in this world.

When dealing with people who make mistakes, we need to make a distinction between those who are trying to change and those who are not.  There is a fundamental difference between somebody who refuses to admit their mistakes and always blames others and somebody who admits their mistakes, apologizes for them and tries to do better.  The first person will never change.  With such a person, if their faults are minor, we should overlook them in order to preserve the good.  With such a person, if the dynamic between us and them has become poisonous, it is better to walk away and pray.  Continuing to try engage in an unhealthy dynamic just feeds it and makes it harder to get out of it later.  If somebody is not interested in making peace, but instead will just use every exchange as another opportunity to express their anger and say hurtful things, it is better to walk away, pray and hope time heals all wounds.  Oftentimes, our only choice with such people is to redefine the parameters of the relationship, usually making it confined to those areas where problems are unlikely to occur.  If they are not capable of doing so, but insist on allowing the problems to spill over into the good parts of the relationship, then there is nothing we can do but walk away and pray.  It goes without saying, if the situation is abusive, such as my cousin whose ex-husband beat her, then the only solution is to get out.  We do not help other people by allowing them to abuse us.  But we also shouldn’t cry abuse when it is not actually abusive.  Doing so cheapens the term.  It is like when people compare current behavior to Nazi Germany.  The Nazis were singularly evil and their acts unmatched in their awfulness.  We don’t make such claims unless they are warranted.

The second type of person is someone who is trying to change.  With them, we should show patience and acceptance.  When their faults are minor, we should overlook them as before with the person unwilling to change.  When their faults or mistakes are major, we shouldn’t cooperate with the dysfunction (for example giving into threats or shoving things under the carpet just to pretend everything is OK), but we should say despite their mistakes we love them anyways.  If somebody is genuinely trying to get better, they apologize when they do make mistakes, they honestly admit their mistakes, etc., then we should give such people the time to get better.  We cannot change others, only they can change themselves.  But we shouldn’t expect others to be perfect and we should give them the space to get better.  It takes time.  Changing ourself is hard.

What is the correct way of dealing with others when they are expressing their anger at us?  This is not easy to deal with, but it is also part of life.  If we can learn how to deal constructively with it, then we will save ourselves no end of grief and suffering in the future.  Here are eleven things we can do:

  1. Don’t allow people’s words said out of anger hurt us. It is their anger talking, not them. What they say when they have love and understanding in their hearts is what they really think. This is critical to understand and deeply internalize, otherwise we will never be able to let go of the hurtful things they have said.
  2. If we have made mistakes, we should admit them and apologize for them at the earliest possible opportunity. Otherwise the anger of the other person quickly turns to resentment which is much harder to uproot.
  3. Don’t give in to threats and blackmail. If we do, the threats and blackmail will never stop and we will always live in fear. The only way to stop a bully is to not give in anymore. Yes, they will impose their consequences on us, but when we show we are not afraid and we will not give in, they lose all power over us and we break free.
  4. Don’t retaliate to the harm we receive.  The more angry and unreasonable they are, the more calm and reasonable we need to be.  Retaliation (responding with anger and harm to their anger and harm) creates a vicious cycle that gets worse and worse.  Non-retaliation, however, provides an opening for things to de-escalate and get better.  And even if the other person continues to be upset, at a minimum we retain the high ground because we have not retaliated in kind.
  5. Don’t sacrifice inner peace on the altar of outer peace.  Nobody likes conflict in the family and the immediate reaction of everyone is to shove things under the carpet and pretend that nothing is wrong as quickly as possible to try get back to normal.  Shoving things under the carpet may temporarily create some outer peace, but inwardly it leads to resentment and the anger festers like a cancer until it blows in some dramatic fashion. When people repress their anger (as opposed to genuinely let go of it), the anger builds and builds like a volcano in their mind, and then the slightest thing causes it to blow.
  6. Once things have come to the surface, we should use our love and wisdom to work through the differences in a calm, reasonable, and fair way.  95% of the time in any dispute, both sides are making theexact same mistake just in different ways.  For example, usually both people are upset at the other person not living up to their expectations.  To find a solution, we should apply equal standards to both sides. Only that will lead to a fair and lasting resolution.  Both sides should appreciate the other person for what they do do, not be upset about what they don’t.
  7. Accept that some things are details and should be set aside.  Usually what happens when a fight starts is both sides bring out all of their past grievances against the other person – revisiting every harm that has ever occurred and bringing up many small issues.  We should not become distracted by this.  Instead, we should focus on the core of the dispute.  If we can resolve the core issue, usually the smaller things will resolve themselves.
  8. Don’t fight about fighting.  Once a conflict starts, people will usually spend most of their time fighting about fighting and all the hurtful things said during the fight.  Instead, we should see past this and strive to resolve the fundamental issue. Even if the other person doesn’t apologize for the hurtful things they say, we should apologize for the hurtful things we said.
  9. When we have been attacked,we shouldn’t respond until we are calm.  We shouldn’t respond out of anger.  We should wait until calm and reason have returned to our own mind.  We should be careful to not say or do anything that will make the conflict worse and that we will later regret.  It is better to do nothing than something that makes everything worse.  Sometimes we should also give the other person the time they need to calm down before we respond.  Even if we are calm, if the other person hasn’t calmed down yet, then they will reply to our peaceful overtures with further venom.  We should almost always wait at least 24 hours to respond.  If after 24 hours we are not calm, then we should tell the other person that we are waiting until we calm down before we reply.  Tell them we will reply, but we want to do so once we are calm and are ready to respond in a constructive way.  They will respect us for that, and it prevents their anger transforming into resentment because they think we are ignoring them.
  10. The reality is most people have no idea how to actually resolve conflicts. All they know how to do is bury their head in the sand and pretend it’s not there. While we don’t deal with things that way, forcing people to confront things they are not capable of confronting usually just makes things worse. So we also need to accept that different people will deal with conflict in different ways, and we shouldn’t impose our way of resolving conflict onto others.  But internally, even if we have no contact with the other person, we should do the internal work necessary to get to the point where we forgive the other person (even if they never apologize); we accept the other person as they are, warts and all; and we feel nothing but love, gratitude and compassion for them.  Even if the other person doesn’t do the same, we do this because it is the right thing to do.
  11. When the other person does apologize, we should accept it sincerely and apologize ourself.  Yes, its true, when we apologize people sometimes then lash out at us.  Fine, let them.  Apologize again.  But when they apologize to us, we accept it.  Trust is not reestablished overnight, some wounds are very deep and will take a long time to heal.  We should strive to build on the positive, work towards a constructive resolution of the rest. But we should resist the temptation to shove things back under the carpet. If we are to have reconciliation with others, it has to be an honest one where both sides genuinely let go.  If the other person isn’t able or willing to let go, we let go ourselves anyways because again, that is the right thing to do.

If we are in a dispute, how should you relate to other people who are not party to your dispute, but who are nonetheless affected by it.  For example, imagine a big conflict between yourself and your parents, what should we do with our siblings, kids and so forth?

First and foremost, we should not put other people in the middle.  We put other people in the middle when we force them to take sides.  We put people in the middle when we get upset at them for liking the other person.  For example, my mother would make us feel like we were betraying her if we loved my father.  Many divorced couples make the same mistake with their kids.  This is completely wrong.   Instead, we should tell everyone that we don’t want our conflict with the one person in any way to interfere with their relationship with the person we are in conflict with.  We say we want everyone to continue to have a good relationship with everyone else.  We don’t just say this, we actively defend this as a principle and do what we can to make sure others do not suffer adverse consequences for the problems in our relationship.

Second, we do, however, need to keep others informed of what is going on if the fallout of the conflict affects them.  If it is small dispute or the outcome of that dispute doesn’t affect anybody else, there is no reason to inform them what is going on.  But if the fallout of the dispute does affect others, then it is a different story.  In such a situation, we have two choices:  we either try make up some lie as to why these changes are happening or we tell the truth.  Since we don’t lie, we tell the truth.  We have no choice but to inform people what is going on because the fallout impacts them. But when we do so, we need to be 100% clear with them that the conflict we are having with the other person has NOTHING to do with them, and that we do NOT want them to feel like they have to take sides, in fact we are asking them to NOT get involved.  But we are informing them because they are affected by the conflict and we don’t believe in lying to them.  When we inform other people of our dispute, there is a natural tendency to want them to take our side, even if we tell them we don’t want them to take sides.  There are all sorts of reasons why we would want this, some valid, some not, but we should resist this within ourselves.  People don’t want to get in the middle.  Sometimes they also simply don’t know what to say.  We should not get upset at others if they do not respond in the way we would want them to.  Likewise we should not internally sit in expectation that they take our side and then feel betrayed or let down when they don’t.  If we do, we just cause the problem with one relationship to spill over into our other relationships.  That turns a problem into a tragedy.  In sum, we shouldn’t let our problem with one person spill over into problems with other people who are also connected to that person.  We should instead try keep the problem isolated to the person we are in a dispute with and reassure everyone else that we have no problem with them.

If we ourselves are not party to a dispute between two people we love, for example we observe a conflict between our sibling and our parent, what should we do?  We should stay 100% out of it.   In a situation like this, there are no winners, only losers.  But if we put ourselves in the middle, we put ourselves in a no-win situation.  If we take one person’s side, we ruin our relationship with the other.  Therefore, it is almost always best to not take sides at all and stay out of it.  The only exception to this is if both sides are asking us to mediate the dispute for them because they both respect us.  But if they are not asking us to mediate their dispute, we should not get involved.  I have made this mistake many times in life, viewing myself as the hero who comes to save the day and resolve everyone’s conflicts.  The result of all such attempts has been to make things worse – sometimes much worse.  Since we love both people and it hurts us to see them fighting, its normal for us to want to do something to try make it better.  But almost always, the best thing we can do is stay out of it and let the other people work it out.  When we put ourselves in the middle, we often just make it harder to resolve the dispute.

Likewise, we should also not let other people’s problem become our problem.  For example, the fact that there is a problem between two people in our family is NOT your problem.  Just because they have a problem with each other does not mean we should have a problem with either of them.  We should take the position that we love everyone and refuse to be put in a position where we have to make a false choice between the two sides.  This is very important.

In summary, when we are in a dispute with others we should admit our own mistakes, apologize for whatever harm we may have done, not retaliate, not put other people in the middle nor make them feel they have to choose sides.  We should work towards an honest, reasonable and fair solution that doesn’t shove the core issues under the carpet while letting the details and minor issues fall away.  When observing others behavior, we should stop exaggerating the supposed harm, not let our anger or pride blind us to the other persons good qualities, we should emulate the good we see in them and learn from their mistakes so we don’t repeat them ourselves.

Dealing with conflict is not easy, but it is part of life.  It is important for us to learn how to deal with it so we have the emotional maturity necessary to navigate through the inevitable conflicts we will face as we go through life.

I don’t claim to have done myself all of the above perfectly.  I have made many mistakes and I will no doubt continue to make many mistakes.  But I am trying to honestly examine my behavior and do better.  What is described above are the ideals I am striving, however imperfectly, to put into practice.

 

May all conflict within all families be peaceably resolved, and may all such conflict become a powerful teacher of the truth of Dharma.

 

Avoiding cult-like behavior

When joining or belonging to a religious tradition, the question can sometimes arise, “is this a cult or is it a pure tradition?”  The answer is all religious traditions are nothing from their own side.  The real question is do we as spiritual practitioners relate to our tradition in a cult-like way or do we relate to it in a qualified way?  If we relate to it in a cult-like way, for us our tradition will be a cult and our relationship with it will be unhealthy and destructive.  If we relate to it in a qualified way, for us our tradition will be a pure tradition and our relationship with it will be liberating and enlightening.  How do we protect ourselves from relating to our tradition in a cult-like way and instead relate to it in a qualified way?  Geshe-la has given us the answer.  Here, I have tried to collect my understanding of all of that advice in one place.  Indeed, this advice is equally applicable to any spiritual person relating to any spiritual tradition, Buddhist or non-Buddhist, Kadampa or non-Kadampa.

The short answer is we need to avoid extremes in our relationship with our tradition.  If the bulk of practitioners of a given tradition relate to it in a cult-like way, then in this world it will conventionally function as if it were a cult.  If the bulk of practitioners relate to it in a qualified way, then in this world it will conventionally function as if it were a pure tradition.  What it is in this world, ultimately, depends upon the behavior of its practitioners.  It is because we cherish the tradition we belong to and we wish for it to bring infinite benefit to the beings of this world that it is our responsibility to make sure we are relating to it in a qualified, healthy way, free from extremes.  If we relate to our tradition in a healthy way, our spiritual friends, students and so forth will likewise be more likely to do the same.  Our friends and family will not fear we have joined some crazed cult.  If we get it right, our tradition “may flourish forevermore.”  If we get it wrong, we may inadvertently destroy our precious lineage in this world.  The stakes are high.

Many students of spiritual traditions become confused, not knowing what to do or how to react when they see cult-like behavior among their spiritual friends, including their teachers.  They love and cherish their tradition, they see wrong behavior, it creates for them a crisis of faith, and they enter into a terrible intermediate state where they are too attached to their tradition to leave it but too averse to some of the things they see in it to be able to receive any benefit from it.  Geshe-la touchingly says, old people “have many special sorrows.”  In the same way, so too do those who become trapped in such an intermediate state.  These practitioners have many special sorrows.  If we relate to them with compassion, we can lovingly bring them back into the fold; if we become defensive, they will feel attacked and mistreated and eventually leave the tradition at best or become virulent critics of it at worst.  How should we respond when we see cult-like behavior among our spiritual friends?  How should we respond with compassion when one of our spiritual friends has found themselves with these many special sorrows?  More on that below.  First, it is important for us to learn how to get our own relationship with our own tradition right.  Above all, Dharma is a mirror against which we can identify our own faults, it is not a magnifying glass for criticizing others.  To get our own relationship with our tradition right, I find it useful to be mindful of the many different sets of extremes we can sometimes fall into.

Remain faithful while striving to do better

The first set of extremes arises from relating to our tradition as if it existed from its own side.  One extreme is becoming a religious fanatic.  Here we grasp at our tradition as being inherently good from its own side.  Anybody who criticizes our tradition or calls its purity into question gets branded an “enemy” who needs to be defended against and even destroyed.  Some fanatics use words like “heretic” and “infidel,” but regardless of what language we use, we all know who our “enemies” are.  Anybody who doesn’t likewise share our exalted view of our tradition is deemed lesser, inferior or a threat.  We become paranoid, thinking others are out to destroy our pure spiritual tradition in this world.  When faults, mistakes or scandals do appear, our first reaction is to cover them up or make excuses for them, which always makes things worse.  In short, our extreme attachment to our view and to our tradition makes us hostile towards others who might think differently about it.  Our interactions with others become dominated by pointing out all of the different ways in which the other person is wrong and we feel greatly threatened when they do the same towards us.  Any deviation or any departure from a strict, literal reading of things is seen as “degeneration,” and such views must be snuffed out to preserve the religious “purity” of the tradition, even if that means resorting to what can only be described as spiritual bullying.  Divisive speech becomes the norm.  Veritable “witch hunts” become commonplace where those who are critical are made to feel in no uncertain terms that they are no longer welcome.  They either fall into line, or they can find the door.

The other extreme is becoming a religious critic.  Here, we grasp at a tradition as being inherently faulty from its own side.  In the early stages of being a critic, we may still go to teachings but we receive little benefit because we primarily see the faults of the teacher and the hypocrisy of everyone around us preaching goodness, but then acting otherwise.  Eventually, we focus more and more on the perceived faults until they are all we can see.  Not wanting to lose our connection with the spiritual tradition we have invested so much in, we keep our doubts bottled up, but they fester and grow like a cancer until at some point, in a flurry of passive-aggressive behavior, we get upset and voice our criticism.  We may have once belonged to the “in group,” ascribing to the fanatics view of things, but now we somehow find ourselves on the wrong side of cult-like divisive speech and we became a target for purge ourselves.  We then grasp very tightly at all of the perceived faults and wrong behavior we see in our former organization.  Having been a “victim” of their fanatical behavior, we then feel it is our duty and responsibility to “protect others” from becoming ensnared into the cult.  In the Lamrim, Geshe-la describes the stages by which delusions develop.  First, we grasp at our observed object as having certain faults or qualities from its own side, then, in dependence upon inappropriate attention, we exaggerate those faults or qualities, sometimes well beyond reasonable recognition.  We then relate to our exaggeration as if it were somehow “objectively true.”  Both the fanatic and the critic make the same mistake, just from two different sides.

The middle way between these two extremes is to “remain faithful while striving to do better.”  I remember feeling very frustrated when I first read the teachings on faith in Understanding the Mind.  Faith was defined as the principal opponent of non-faith; and non-faith was defined as the opposite of faith.  This seemed confusing at best and tautological at worst.  But faith is the mother of all virtues and the root of the path, so we must learn to understand it correctly.  Faith primarily functions to oppose the perception of fault in an object of refuge.  Non-faith perceives such faults in an object of refuge.  Without wisdom, this can easily be misunderstood.  Practically speaking, non-faith is grasping at our objects of refuge as being faulty from their own side.  If faith is the opposite of non-faith, we could wrongly conclude that faith, then, is grasping at our objects of refuge as being faultless from their own side.  Then, when these objects appear faulty, we are left with a dilemma:  either we say what is faulty is somehow correct (rationalizing wrong behavior as somehow being sublime) or our faith becomes shattered and we lose everything.  The opposite of non-faith is not grasping at our tradition as being inherently faultless, the opposite of non-faith is the wisdom mind that realizes our objects of refuge are nothing at all from their own side.  If we relate to our objects of refuge as existing from their own side, we will quickly develop all sorts of attachments to them causing us to become a religious fanatic or aversions to them causing us to become a religious critic.

Pure view does not mean trying to view our objects of refuge as being perfect from their own side, rather it means learning how to view our objects of refuge in a perfect way where we receive spiritual benefit regardless of how they appear.  This is not hard to do.  When our objects of refuge appear to do something right, we should be inspired to emulate their example.  When they appear to do something wrong, we should learn from their example what not to do.  Either way, we receive perfect spiritual benefit.  Avoiding the perception of fault in our objects of refuge does not mean turning a blind eye to the faults that appear, rather it means ceasing relating to those appearances in a faulty way.  To “remain faithful” means to do precisely that.   We are able to remain faithful not despite the appearance of fault, but rather thanks to the appearance of fault.  Venerable Tharchin says we should take refuge in the Dharma, not the person.  If we take refuge in the person and the person makes some mistake, we lose everything; if we take refuge in the Dharma and the person makes some mistake, we learn a valuable lesson.

To “strive to do better,” quite simply, means to act on the lessons we learn from observing the behavior of our objects of refuge.  When we see particularly skillful behavior, we seek to emulate it ourselves.  When we see particularly wrong behavior, we look within ourselves to see where we are making the same mistake and we try stop doing so.  Remaining faithful while striving to do better protects us from falling into the extremes of being a religious fanatic and a religious critic.  We appreciate the good qualities we see and adopt them for ourselves and we learn valuable lessons from the mistakes we see, vowing not to repeat them ourselves.  We realize our tradition isn’t a cult nor a completely pure tradition from its own side, rather there are just different individual practitioners relating to it in different ways.  Instead of becoming distracted by defending its greatness or lambasting its faults, we strive to put its teachings sincerely into practice.

Remain grateful while clarifying misunderstandings

The second set of extremes we can sometimes fall into arises from how we relate to criticism of ourself or of our tradition.  One extreme is the extreme of defensiveness.  Here, we feel as if we are being unfairly attacked by the other person.  We feel like they don’t appreciate all that we do or our many good qualities.  We exaggerate what the other person is supposedly saying, thinking they are saying we are all bad with no redeeming qualities.  Because we exaggerate the scope of their criticism, we find it most unfair.  Pride, ultimately, is a reaction to our underlying insecurity.  We have projected within our own mind an exaggerated view of how great we are, and our feelings of self-worth depend upon maintaining that illusion.  When others call it into question, it forces us to confront our false self-narrative which is sometimes quite painful.  Seeking to avoid that pain, we feel it necessary that the other person stop saying such things, and we use a wide variety of different methods to try to silence them, not because we are trying to protect them from negative karma but because we dislike being criticized.  Our efforts to silence them often lead us to engage in actions in direct contradiction with the many teachings we have received.  We become like the United States when it used torture, sacrificing its very ideals in the name of supposedly defending them.  Our mind immediately begins to find fault in the person who is criticizing us, focusing on all of their many mistakes and shortcomings.  We often are then driven to retaliate against them, pointing out all of their many faults and inflicting upon them penalties for highlighting ours.  The dynamic then quickly spirals out of control, with both sides so absorbed in their mutual war of words that they don’t realize their own behavior is consistently proving the other person right.

The opposite extreme of defensiveness is abject surrender or passive behavior.  We allow the other person to criticize us, assenting to their negative view of us being inherently faulty.  We develop all sorts of feelings of guilt, worthlessness and helplessness, eroding away at our confidence.  Motivated by a misguided attachment to outer peace and a deep-seated aversion to any form of conflict, we allow the other person to spread wrong views about us unopposed.  We correctly think their harsh words are the ripening of our negative karma of having unjustly criticized others in the past, but we do nothing to oppose it thinking doing so will somehow rob us of our atonement through suffering.  We think nothing of the negative karma the other person is creating for themselves by criticizing us or our tradition, nor the harm they are doing by destroying the faith of others.  We passively do nothing while all that we have built and cherish is gradually destroyed by an unrelenting current of misplaced criticism and false accusation.  We seek to appease our attacker by giving them what they want, even if that means sacrificing fundamental pillars of our own beliefs.

The middle way between the extremes of defensiveness and abject surrender is to “remain grateful while clarifying misunderstandings.”  If we are honest with ourselves, every criticism, even the most unfair, contains a morsel of truth.  Rightly or wrongly, we are appearing to others in certain ways, and we bear some responsibility for that appearance.  Yes, it’s true, what appears to others minds depends upon their own delusions and karma, but it is a cop out to say all the fault lies with them while pretending that we are perfect.  Sadly, all too often we do precisely that.  In my view, this is a misuse of the Dharma.  We are using the precious teachings on emptiness to escape judgment and dodge uncomfortable criticism.  When we do this, the person who courageously voiced their criticism feels as if the victim has been blamed and then (correctly) concludes we are a self-righteous charlatan blind to our own faults.  They then give up hope of finding refuge within the tradition we belong to and they leave disheartened, discouraged, confused and sometimes quite bitter.  They may leave jaded towards all religions, setting them back possibly countless lifetimes before they find a spiritual path again; or they join a new tradition that identifies itself primarily through its opposition to us.  Who benefits from this?  Nobody.

Geshe-la says when we are criticized, we should express gratitude.  How can we possibly improve if we don’t know what we are doing wrong?  Alertness is the ability to distinguish faults from non-faults; great wisdom is the wisdom that knows the objects to be attained from the objects to be abandoned.  Due to our pride, sometimes the only way we can become aware of our mistakes is when others point them out to us.  The correct reaction to criticism should be genuine gratitude because now we can do better.  If we are making mistakes, we should forthrightly acknowledge them, make amends for any harm we may have caused, and strive diligently to not repeat them.

But this does not mean we should not seek to clarify misunderstandings when the criticism against us is unfounded.  We should not sit idly by while our self and our tradition are unfairly attacked.  But when we do seek to clarify misunderstandings, it is vital that two conditions are met.  First, that our motivation is genuine compassion wishing to protect the other person from accumulating negative karma for themselves as a result of their false accusations; and second, that we do not act in ways in contradiction with the teachings we have received in the name of defending them – for if we do so, we transform ourselves into our own worst enemy.  Most of the time, our clarifying of misunderstandings will take the form of a grateful yet apologetic conversation where we acknowledge our mistakes yet clarify where the person has misunderstood.  Sometimes, however, it is necessary to use other means to clarify misunderstanding or even cut the power of false words in this world.  But at no time should we violate these two essential conditions.

Remain inspired while following your own path

The third set of extremes that we can sometimes fall into arises from how we relate to teachings of other traditions.  One extreme is the extreme of rejection.  Here, we reject any and all teachings different from our own as being wrong, inferior, misguided and possibly even harmful.  We believe our tradition has the monopoly on the truth and all others must, by default, be wrong, or at best only partially right.  We grasp at there being one valid truth, one valid path for all people, and we possess it.  We feel very threatened when people practice in ways different than our own, and feel it incumbent upon ourselves to point out all of the ways the teachings from other traditions are somehow wrong.  Some Christians, for example, believe if people do not accept Christ as their savior, then those people will be subject to eternal damnation.  They then feel it necessary to “convert” others in an effort to “save their souls.”  Some Catholics think if it is not Catholic it is cult.  Likewise, some Buddhists haughtily look back on Christians as being small minded and superstitious.  If the Buddhist is feeling generous, they might acknowledge that there is some overlap between the Christian faith and the initial scope of the Lamrim, but then they all share a good laugh with their fellow Buddhists about those Christians who believe in God as creator.  Some Muslims, some Jews and some Hindus develop similar misguided views towards other religions.  Even within a religion, different individual traditions will develop similar rejectionist views of other traditions, such as Catholics vs. Protestants, or the scorn cast towards Mormons or 7th Day Adventists.  Likewise, such views can arise amongst Buddhists, such as Hinayanists vs. Mahayanists, Gelugpas vs. Nyingpas, or Dorje Shugden practitioners vs. non-Dorje Shugden practitioners.  Regardless of the example, the mind is always the same:  we are universally right, everyone else is wrong.

The other extreme is the extreme of mixing traditions.  Here, we say that every tradition has something useful to contribute and our job is to mix and match the good bits from the different traditions while leaving out the bad bits, and in this way we synthesize all of the teachings down into an inner essence that is equally true for everybody.  On the surface, it can certainly seem like such an approach is open-minded and non-sectarian.  The first extreme of rejection is a form of gross sectarianism.  This second extreme of mixing traditions is in fact a form of subtle sectarianism.  How so?  First, it is a subtle form of rejectionism where we are leaving out what we deem to be the “bad bits.”  Second, it grasps at its synthesized essence as the only valid way of looking at things, and hypocritically accuses all those who wish to follow their own tradition purely without mixing of being sectarian.  Thinking that only the synthesized mix is valid is just another form of gross sectarianism, the only difference being the content of one’s views is a mix of different traditions as opposed to an individual tradition.  Practical problems also arise because when we mix we transform ourselves into our own Spiritual Guide who arrogantly thinks we can lead ourselves to enlightenment by putting it all together.  Perhaps we may succeed, but the odds of us doing so are quite low; and even if we do, it will surely take us longer to forge a new path on our own then follow a proven one.

The middle way between these two extremes is to “remain inspired while following your own path.”  The Heart Commitment of Dorje Shugden is to “follow one tradition purely without mixing while respecting all other traditions as valid for those who follow them.”  For me, the best analogy for explaining this is imagine you are trapped in a burning room with many different doors out.  What do you do?  You find the door nearest to you, and you head straight out.  You don’t head towards one door, then another, then another because then you never leave the room.  You don’t head towards the average of two doors, because then you run into a wall.  You don’t head towards all doors simultaneously, because that will split you into many parts.  Your selection of the door nearest you is in no way a judgment on the validity or utility of other doors for those who stand closer to them.  If you see your best friend close to one exit and you are closer to a different one, you don’t fight with your friend trying to get them to go out your exit, instead you tell them to take their exit while you take yours.

It is exactly the same with different spiritual traditions.  There are many different spiritual “doorways” out of this world of suffering.  Different people stand karmically closer to different doors.  What should you do?  Find the door closest to you and head straight out following its path.  This is the meaning of follow one tradition purely without mixing.  If we start along one path, then another, then another, we never escape.  If we follow an average of two paths we are not led to an exit and will quickly become confused as we try reconcile the two seemingly conflicting views.  If we follow all paths simultaneously we will spiritually tear ourselves apart while going exactly nowhere.  Our choice of one door as being best for us does not in any way mean other doors and paths are not better for those who are karmically closer to them.  If we see our cousin or partner or friend stands karmically closer to a different spiritual door following a different spiritual path, we shouldn’t fight with them trying to get them to take our path to our door, rather we encourage them to head along their path purely without mixing because that is what’s best for them.  We respect all paths as being valid for those who follow them.

Does this mean we ourselves should reject all other paths for ourself while appreciating their value for others?  No.  Milarepa said, “I do not need Dharma books because everything teaches me the truth of Dharma.”  Where does the wisdom to do this come from?  It comes from following one tradition purely without mixing.  A religious tradition is, in the final analysis, a way of looking at things.  The more purely and consistently we look at things in a single way, the more universally we can look at everything and receive teachings.  When we read the newspaper, go out to dinner with our friends or go to an art museum, everywhere we go, everything we do, everything we encounter will reveal to us the truth of Dharma (or the Gospel, or the Quran, etc., depending on our religious inclinations).  Some things teach us the faults of self-cherishing, some things reveal to us the preciousness of our human life, some teach emptiness.  But because we are clear on our point of view, everything teaches us something.  If we can do this with a good Beatle’s song, why can we not also do this with the Sermon on the Mount?  Why can we not be inspired by the faith of Christians, the wholesomeness of Mormons, the example of Ghandi?  This does not mean we mix the teachings of these different traditions into our own, rather it means we can without fear look at these things from a Kadampa point of view and extract Kadampa lessons from them.  Doing so is not mixing, it is using the whole world as a Dharma book.

It is important to also note that respecting all other traditions as valid for those who follow them also includes showing respect for those who choose to mix traditions.  If for some people mixing traditions is what works best for them, then we should be happy for them and respect their spiritual choices.  Just as it is wrong for them to judge us for following one tradition purely without mixing, it is likewise wrong for us to judge them for mixing.  They do their thing, we do ours, let’s all be inspired by each other’s wish to become a better person.  This is likewise true for those who wish to mix Kadampa teachings with non-Kadampa teachings.  It is entirely normal that there will be a wide spectrum of degrees to which one mixes their mind with the Kadampa teachings.  Some will wholeheartedly commit themselves in this and all their future lives to follow this tradition purely without mixing, others will by happenstance cross a quote by Geshe-la when they are searching images on Google.  And there will be countless examples in between.  All are good, none are bad.  If we present the Kadam Dharma as if it is an “all or nothing” proposition, then the vast majority of people will choose nothing because they are not yet ready to accept everything.  If instead, we present the Kadam Dharma as “take what you find to be helpful, and set aside the rest as possibly something for later,” then people will feel free to engage with the Dharma on their own terms, according to their own karma, needs and dispositions.  If we tell people they have to be vegetarian to be Buddhist, they will choose to not be Buddhist because they are not ready to be vegetarian.  If we tell people they don’t have to be vegetarian, they then become Buddhists and later perhaps from their own side choose to be vegetarians.  The same logic is true for everything else.

Remain natural while changing your aspiration

The final set of extremes I like to try keep in mind are those arising from grasping at their being only one way to practice.  One extreme is the extreme of the exaggerating the importance of the external aspects of practice.  For centuries, our tradition has primarily been a monastic one, so it is only natural that we tend to hold up the example of an ordained person, living in a center, dedicating all of their time to working to cause the Dharma to flourish as the example of what we are supposed to be doing.  Some ordained people develop pride thinking this is the case and they look down on all those who “can’t let go of samsara.”  Some lay people develop all sorts of doubts thinking everything in their life that prevents them from adopting this monastic way of life is somehow an “obstacle to their practice.”  They then find themselves torn between what they think they should be doing if they were a pure practitioner and their commitments to their spouse, kids, job and so forth.  They grasp at these latter activities as being somehow inherently mundane and non-spiritual, while living and working at the center attending every puja, teaching and festival as being somehow inherently spiritual.  When they aren’t able to live as the person in the center, they start becoming frustrated with their loved ones, job and so forth and they feel this great tension between their spiritual life and their daily life.  If spiritual teachers are not careful, they can easily fall into the trap of mistaking their own personal choices as somehow being best for everyone else.  The skillful teacher understands different people have different karma and so therefore will follow the same set of teachings in different ways.  People who exaggerate the external aspects of practice find themselves suddenly dressing differently, bathing less, abandoning their non-Sangha friends or activities, beginning every sentence with “Geshe-la says,” and likewise standing in judgment over all those who continue to have kids, partners, professional careers, go on normal vacations to something other than a festival, or those who don’t attend every puja, teaching or festival.

The other extreme is exaggerating the internal aspects of practice.  Here, we neglect doing anything other than our practice.  We think the only thing I need to change is my mind.  I can remain cloistered alone in my room, avoiding contact with the rest of the world fooling myself into thinking I am being a bodhisattva.  When we are on this extreme, we look down on those who act in this world for normal charities or other good causes, we judge those who engage in political or social activism, and we give up on trying to make the world a better place concluding it is hopelessly broken so why bother.  Venerable Tharchin tells the story of when he was on long-retreat at Tharpaland.  After several years of retreat, he told Geshe-la, “I feel like I am very close to enlightenment; if I stay on retreat for a while longer I will make it.”  Thinking that Geshe-la would be delighted and tell him to remain on his retreat, Venerable Tharchin was greatly surprised when Geshe-la told him, “then now is the time to leave your retreat.”  Geshe-la continued, “if you stay on your retreat, you will attain enlightenment, but if you do you will become a ‘worthless Buddha’ because you will have no karmic connections with living beings.”  Geshe-la then sent him to Canada to teach, where he formed some of the best teachers of the tradition who are now teaching other students.  Geshe-la then sent Venerable Tharchin back to Tharpaland to lead it as a retreat center, where he established how exactly a retreat center within this tradition should operate.  Those he taught then fanned out to the other retreat centers around the world.  Venerable Tharchin concluded the story by saying our ability to help others primarily depends on two things, the quality of our inner realizations and the depth of our karmic relationships with others.  We need both.

The middle way between these two extremes of exaggerating the external or internal aspects of our practice is to “remain natural while changing our aspiration.”  Our primary task is to internally change our motivation from a selfish one to a selfless one.  When we do so, our external behavior will naturally change.  We can’t make external changes to try live up to some fixed notion of what it means to be a Dharma practitioner and think that will bring about internal transformation.  It is perfectly possible to get ordained, live in a center or spend our entire life on retreat and remain just as deluded and ordinary as before.  It is likewise perfectly possible to change diapers, work long hours in a demanding career, and otherwise lead a completely normal modern life and have it be the Quick Path to enlightenment.  All situations are equally empty, therefore all ways of life can equally be the Quick Path.  It all depends upon how we relate to that life.  If we respond to what arises in our life with Dharma minds, then regardless of what those life appearances might be, we are living a Kadampa way of life.  If other people don’t understand this and continue to judge the choices we make, that is only coming from their ignorance grasping at there being only one way of practicing Dhama.  We need to be engaged in the world, helping in every way we can.  Geshe-la said our job now is to “attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.”  He has given us the Kadam Dharma and we already have a modern life, our job now is to completely unite the two realizing their non-contradiction.

This does not mean there is some fault in becoming ordained, living in a center or dedicating our life to retreat.  Of course that is wonderful and is a life that should be rejoiced in.  If every life is equally perfect for our practice, then that must also be true for somebody who follows a more traditional approach to practice.  The fault comes when we grasp at there being only one valid way of practicing, regardless of whether we think it is a traditional way of doing so or a more modern way of doing so.

What do we do when we see our spiritual friends engaging in cult-like behavior?

Having explored in depth the four different sets of extremes we can fall into with our relationship to the tradition, we can now return to the question of what we should do when we see our spiritual friends, including our teachers, engaging in cult-like behavior.

There is something about religious teachings that just naturally tends to bring out extreme behavior in people.  The reason for this is quite simple:  they are very powerful.  I had a friend once who loved all sorts of two-wheeled vehicles, from his first bike, the scooter he drove around in college to his prized Harley.  One day, he went to visit a friend who just bought a racing bike, which he affectionately called his “crotch rocket.”  Quite naturally, my friend wanted to try it out.  The owner of the bike said, “be careful, it’s really powerful.”  My friend said, “yeah, yeah, I know.  Let me give it a try.”  So my friend got on the bike, started out slowly, drove around a bit, and then turned a corner where he found himself at the beginning of a long, straight country road.  Wanting to see what the bike was capable of, he hunched down and decided to gun it, throwing the throttle to the maximum.  The bike suddenly lurched out in front of him, he found himself doing a wheelie, and the bike kept going throwing my friend back skidding along the road and trashing the bike in the process.  Spiritual teachings are just like this.  We hear about them, try them out carefully at first, but then once our initial doubts and hesitations are overcome we might decide to really go for it.  Our mind can race off in an unbalanced way and we will find ourselves skidding along the spiritual road, trashing the bike of our spiritual life in the process.  We start out just trying to become a better person and find a little inner peace, but before long we have transformed ourselves into a crusading spiritual zealot.  Such is the power of spiritual teachings.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when our spiritual friends, including our teachers, might sometimes start acting in cult-like ways, relating to the tradition in one of the extreme ways outlined above.  We all have experienced this from time to time.  I would say my time with the Kadampa tradition can be divided into two distinct phases.  For about the first decade, the normal view students tended to adopt towards their teachers was viewing them as “Buddhas.”  People would routinely joke about their teachers “miracle powers,” and anytime somebody had a problem with the behavior of the teacher, it was the student who needed to “maintain pure view.”  Teachers felt like they had to go along with the pretense of being a Buddha because it seemed to help students generate faith, and therefore take the teachings to heart.  But it had many unintended, indeed unhealthy, side effects.  Some teachers let this go to their head and started believing they were infallible, refusing to continence that they were making any mistakes.  Some teachers would engage in all sorts of spiritually manipulative behavior, thinking themselves Marpa taming a bunch of unruly Milarepas.  Some teachers wound up repressing all of their delusions, pretending that they didn’t have any to maintain the external image, but the end result was quite predictable.  They increasingly felt trapped, incapable of discussing with their spiritual friends their delusions and struggles, the repressed delusions would fester and grow like a cancer under the surface until one day they would blow in a variety of dramatic fashions, from sudden disrobings, sexual scandals to breaking off from Geshe-la wanting to establish one’s own tradition and lineage.

Students likewise began having all sorts of unhealthy, cult-like relationships with their teachers, desperately trying to get the teacher to love and approve of them, but never quite succeeding.  When confronted with wrong behavior on the part of their teacher, they would be told it was their wrong views and delusions, and they would tie themselves into all sorts of spiritual knots trying to say what is wrong is somehow right.  They would feel it is wrong to ask questions or challenge their teacher on the things they would say, growing increasingly confused as one misunderstanding compounds another.  So deeply scarred by such relationships some students became that they felt the need to flee the tradition or they remained and even to this day constantly judge themselves as spiritually falling short.

Geshe-la, then, one year at a Summer Festival gave a teaching which changed everything.  He said, clearly and unequivocally that we should view our teachers as Sangha jewels, not Buddha jewels.  They are practitioners, just like us, who are trying their best to put the instructions into practice, but still struggling with their delusions and making mistakes.  He said when teachers are teaching on the throne, the students should feel as if an emanation of Je Tsongkhapa enters into them and teaches through them.  In this way, they become a “temporary emanation.”  But that when they come down from the throne, we should relate to them “exactly as normal.”

He said when our teachers appear to make a mistake, with a mind of cherishing love for the teacher, the student has a responsibility to approach the teacher with their concerns.  He said, if we fail to do this the wrong behavior will continue and it could threaten the future of the tradition.  When we approach our teacher, he said we should do so respectfully saying, “first, I want to thank you for all you have done for me.  However, I have noticed that you tend to do XYZ.  Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that this is not right for ABC reasons.  But perhaps I am misunderstanding, and I am hoping you might be able to clarify your perspective on this.”  Geshe-la then told us how the teacher is supposed to respond.  The teacher should first thank the person for raising the issue, honestly acknowledge any and all mistakes that the person is pointing out, and then clarify any remaining misunderstandings.  The student should then listen with an open-mind to the teacher’s explanation.  If we do this, he said, only good comes.  The teacher is made aware of their mistakes, so they can do better in the future.  The student feels as if their concerns have been acknowledged and addressed, and so go away happy.  If the student is right and the teacher changes, then the student’s faith in the teacher will deepen because they see the teacher sincerely putting the instructions into practice.  If the student is wrong, then the teacher’s patient explanation clarifying any misunderstandings will help the student see things more clearly in the future.  If we do not do this, only harm comes.  The teacher continues with their mistaken ways and the student remains stuck with their doubts and appearances of fault.  They then lose all refuge.  While not explicit in his advice, implicitly I think his meaning is also that if a teacher sees a student is trapped behind doubts, the teacher should compassionately approach the student and try clear the air so all concerned can go into the future free from problems.

After he gave this teaching, it took many years for things to really change, but year by year things have definitely gotten better.  There are still, of course, residuals of the old behavior.  Old habits die hard.  But by and large, with this clarification things are definitely trending in the direction of getting better and better.  The Dharma may be flawless, but we remain deeply flawed beings, so it is only natural that we will from time to time make a real mess of things.  That’s perfectly normal and not a problem.  As long as we are learning from our mistakes, it’s all part of the path.

In the end, nobody wants to be part of a cult.  Geshe-la certainly doesn’t want us to become one.  No spiritual tradition is, from its own side, either a cult or a pure tradition.  If we relate to our spiritual tradition in cult-like ways, such as the extreme behaviors described above, we transform our tradition into a cult.  But if we instead relate to our tradition in a healthy, balanced way then we transform our tradition into a pure one.  We all have a responsibility to carry the lineage forward in a way we can be proud of.  As it says in the sadhana Dakini Yoga, “all my actions from now on shall accord with this noble lineage; and upon this lineage pure and faultless, I shall never bring disgrace.”  This does not mean we will not still make mistakes and become cult-like in our behavior, rather it means when we do so we will recall the teachings and make another honest stab at finding the middle way.

 

May all conflict and tensions between religious traditions cease and may they all respect and be inspired by one another.  May all extreme behavior quickly cease, may we all find the humility to admit to and learn from our mistakes, and may all those who suffer from the many special sorrows associated with cult-like behavior find peace.  Above all, may my own behavior continuously improve so that I can, in my own small way, help the tradition of Je Tsongkhapa flourish forevermore.

 

 

 

 

 

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.