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.

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

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

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

 

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

 

Get your priorities right:

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

 

Accept responsibility for everything

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

 

Apply skillful effort

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

 

Be on good terms with everyone

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

 

Employ skillful means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“secret example…”

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

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

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

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

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

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