Atisha’s Advice from the Heart: Part 4

If from your heart you practise in accordance with Dharma, both food and resources will come naturally to hand.

Buddha Shakyamuni made special dedications that future practitioners never want for basic necessities.  How does this work?  Through his virtuous actions, he accumulated a tremendous amount of merit.  So much so it was enough virtuous karma that he could take rebirth as a Chakravatin king many many times in succession.  A Chakravatin king is basically the king of the entire universe.  This is a lot of wealth, food and resources!  He then “dedicated” (invested) that merit into what we can consider to be a giant philanthropic karmic trust fund.  The purpose of the karmic trust fund is to ensure that all future practitioners who sincerely go for refuge to the three jewels will not have to worry about their basic needs being met.  This then frees them to focus on their spiritual development.  When we generate faith in the three jewels, and in Buddha in particular, it is like we gain special access to this fund.  Just as a king or a very rich person has the power to give away their wealth and resources to others, so too a Chakravatin king (or more specifically the karma giving rise to a Chakravatin king) can do the same.  When we generate faith in Buddha it functions to open our mind up to receive his special blessings which make this dedication a reality.  We have on our mind countless karmic seeds.  Buddhas have the power to activate specific karmic seeds.  Our faith in Buddha functions to open up our mind to the specific blessings which function to activate the seeds on our mind to have our basic needs met.

At a more practical level, we can understand this advice from the perspective of our own karma.  When we engage in virtue, we create the causes for future happiness.  If we practice Dharma, we will naturally be giving, practicing moral discipline, being patient and cherishing others.  All of these actions plant good karmic seeds on our mind which will ripen in the future in the form of us effortlessly having resources, and not just the limited resources of meeting our basic needs, but potentially unlimited resources.  What do we do with these unlimited resources?  Like Buddha, we invest them in the welfare of others, in particular supporting their ability to follow the spiritual path.

Friends, the things you desire give no more satisfaction than drinking sea water, therefore practise contentment.

There are two main points here:  Indulging your attachments does not satisfy them, it feeds them.  They only get stronger, like feeding the dinosaur which will eventually eat you.  If you have a mind that is wanting, you will always be poor no matter how much you have.  If you have a mind of contentment, you will always be rich no matter what you have.  This is why contentment is the greatest wealth.  One of life’s basic principles which will enable us to avoid many many daily problems is to learn to be happy with what you do have, not unhappy about what you don’t have.  Why do the things of this life not give the satisfaction we wish for?  Because they can’t.  It is our false belief in attachment that makes us think that they can.  But there is nothing there and it has no power from its own side to give us anything.

Avoid all haughty, conceited, proud, and arrogant minds, and remain peaceful and subdued.

I think Ghandi said it best when he said his goal was to become the lowest of all because then he could serve everybody.  The mind of a Kadampa is one of being a servant of all living beings.  We seek only to serve others without wanting or expecting anything in return for ourselves.  Pride is, in many ways, the most dangerous delusion we can have.  If we have any other delusion but not pride we will seek out help and put the instructions into practice and eventually get better.  But if we have pride, we feel we have nothing to learn from others, we deny our mental sickness and therefore the door of spiritual life remains firmly closed.  When we view ourselves as lower than others, we look up to and appreciate their good qualities.  This rejoicing creates the causes for us to obtain for ourselves the same good qualities we see in others.  But if instead we arrogantly look down at others, our mind will be filled with judgmental criticism of everyone.  Judging and criticizing others creates the causes for us to obtain exactly the same faults we criticize in others.  It is exactly the opposite of rejoicing.  Pride is, in short, spiritual suicide.  Paradoxically (or is it logically…), it is by making ourselves the lowest of all that we make ourselves the highest of all.  While this is true, even here we need to be careful because this thought can easily be kidnapped by our pride thinking, “I am so humble, doesn’t that make me better than everyone else!”  Such thoughts are completely absurd!

Avoid activities that are said to be meritorious, but which in fact are obstacles to Dharma.

This advice warns us against engaging in our Dharma work with worldly minds.  Many Kadampas work for Dharma centers, as a teacher, an Administrative Director, an EPC or even just cleaning the toilets at the center.  Such work is potentially a spiritual bonanza which pays FAR more than even the highest paid banker.  But it is also perfectly possible (and all too common) for people to do such work with heavily deluded minds.  Many people get resentful about how they are doing all of the work and everybody else is a “consumer” of the center.  Many people generate pride at how important they are because of their important position in the center.  Many people wind up abusing their authority in a center while rationalizing it as them “protecting the tradition.”  All such minds are classic examples of activities that are said to be meritorious but which in fact are obstacles to Dharma.  Such distorted minds subvert the virtues we accumulate and quickly bring the Dharma into disrepute.  So far from helping the tradition, they are actually destroying the tradition!  This does not mean we need to be perfect before we can work for the center, rather it means we need to be mindful to not fall into such mental traps but instead remain a humble servent eager to learn.  The higher our position in a center, the more we should relate to ourselves as the lowest of all.


Atisha’s Advice from the Heart: Part 3

Dedicate your virtues throughout the day and the night, and always watch your mind.

If we think about it deeply, one of the scariest disadvantages of anger is it functions to destroy our undedicated merit.  We may engage in very extensive spiritual training and engage in all sorts of virtues, but if we fail to dedicate and we subsequently get angry, we will lose all of the good karma we have created for ourself.  Karmically speaking, it will be as if we had never engaged in the virtue in the first place.  The best analogy for understanding how this works is saving our work on our computer.  We have all had the experience of doing a lot of work on a computer but then for whatever reason the computer crashes, and since we haven’t saved our work we lose it completely.  Then we have to start over from scratch.  Dedicating our merit is like saving our spiritual work on the computer of our very subtle mind.  It protects it in such a way that even if our mind subsequently crashes with anger, the merit is safe, secure and retrievable.

What does it mean to “dedicate” our merit.  I think the best analogy is “choosing how to invest it.”  If you make a lot of money then you have excess savings that you need to invest.  You want to invest the money in such a way that you get a good return on your money.  So you invest the money into something.  Once it is invested, that money is set aside and reserved, and even if you subsequently make no more money, the invested money is still there.  If instead you kept all of your money under your mattress at home, if there was a fire (of anger) in your house, you would lose everything.  So, like a spiritual philanthropist, we need to consciously decide how we want to invest our merit.  We can invest it in things like praying that others be granted the wisdom to transform their difficulties into the path or we can invest it in things like having the Kadampa tradition flourish in this world forevermore or we can invest it in things like having our mind be blessed at the time of our death so we are taken to the pure land where we can complete our training.

“Always watch your mind” means always watch your mind to avoid getting angry or other delusions, which functions to destroy your undedicated merit.

Because you have received advice, whenever you are not meditating always practise in accordance with what your Spiritual Guide says.

If we view everyone as our spiritual guide, then we can receive teachings from him through absolutely everybody.  In particular, the Spiritual Guide is a Buddha appearing in the aspect of an ordinary being.  He does so that you relate to him in a normal way.  By relating to him in a normal way, you will gain the realizations you need to attain enlightenment.   This does not mean doing whatever he says.  With this special view, you will receive powerful blessings through everybody, where whatever people say it will contain a Dharma lesson for you.  We can also do this with situations as well, not just people.

If you practise with great devotion, results will arise immediately, without your having to wait for a long time.

This refers primarily to practicing without attachment to results. If we have faith in karma, we are happy to just create causes because we know the karmic results are guaranteed.  This faith enables us to let go of attachment to results which actually blocks results from ripening.  The ‘result’ here is ‘enjoying practicing Dharma’.  If you have faith in karma, you will enjoy creating causes.  From this, the rest comes.

We need to have faith in the Dharma jewel of emptiness.  It is easy to develop faith in this Dharma jewel because it actually doesn’t take faith to establish it.  When we check, we realize directly that it is true.  So we do not take a risk by living our life as if it were a dream because that is exactly what it is.  What does it mean to live your life as if it were a dream?  It means to realize what needs to change is our own mind since it is our mind that creates the world.

To practice with devotion means to practice with faith, so I thought it might be useful to say a few words about faith.  What are the types of faith?

  1. Blind faith – this is faith without a valid reason.  We completely reject this is Buddhism (though in our Tantric practice, blind faith is better than no faith at all).    Blind faith is better than no faith only when you happen to get lucky and place your blind faith in something that is perfect.  But with blind faith there is the risk that you could place your faith in something not worthy of faith.  And even if you did put blind faith in a worthwhile object, you wouldn’t get very far because from a Buddhist perspective you need to realize all the stages of the path from your own side.  We are not training to be followers, we are training to be leaders, those who lead others to perfect freedom.  You can never do this if you don’t understand everything perfectly yourself in your heart.
  2. Admiring faith – appreciation for the good qualities of enlightened beings, or their teachings, or our spiritual friends.  Our mind naturally becomes very clear and free from disturbing conceptions.  This creates the space within our mind to allow ourselves to come under the influence of what we admire.  For example, when I was growing up I aspired to be like the Karate Kid and Michael Jordon.  Normally we keep a distance between ourselves and other objects because we fear coming under their influence.  But by contemplating and realizing their good qualities from our own side helps us to break down this fear, and thereby enables us to open our mind up.  But the way in which we open up is through investigating these things.
  3. Wishing faith – here we wish to acquire for ourselves the good qualities that we admire with our admiring faith.  This compels us to engage in practice.
  4. Believing faith – This is faith based on valid reasoning.  Even though it does not fully understand the given subject, it engages the topic without doubt.  Believing faith accomplishes a similar function as wisdom.  Wisdom knows its object thoroughly from one’s own side, and it functions to dispel doubt.  Believing faith accepts the truth of the subject even while uncertainty remains, and so therefore functions to dispel doubt.  It enables the practitioner to practice fully even when they don’t yet fully understand.

It is important to understand the key relationship between faith and wisdom.  This can be understood according to the following equation:  intellectual understanding plus believing faith equals wisdom.  There are many different methods we can use to develop believing faith.  First, we can use the logical reasoning contained within the Lamrim to convince ourselves by weight of argument.  Second, we can be like a good scientist who for the sake of the experiment suspends their doubts about whether it works or not, and instead puts the instructions into practice purely to see if they work.  Third, we can choose to believe.  Faith is a choice to believe.  What do we choose to believe?  That which is most beneficial to believe.  So we simply investigate whether it is beneficial to think in a particular way, and then we choose to do so.

The fundamental question of faith is:  upon whose mind do I rely?  Since we are not enlightened, if we rely upon ourself we will just go in circles and never get anywhere.  Since the guru has gotten there, if we rely upon his perfect mind then he will take us to wherever we want to go.  The most intelligent thing to do is to rely upon the guru’s mind alone.


Atisha’s Advice from the Heart: Part 2

Since you cannot become a Buddha merely by understanding Dharma, practise earnestly with understanding.

It is said that Dharma instructions are like a diamond, like the sun and like a medicinal tree.  The meaning is that just as every little shard of a diamond, ray of sunshine or leaf of a medicinal tree is valuable, so too every tiny understanding of Dharma understanding has great value.  There are many levels of understanding for every instruction, and each one functions to free our mind to a certain extent.  Gaining an intellectual understanding is a good thing.  Many people, understanding that personal experience is better, mistakenly conclude that an intellectual understanding is not good.  They then criticize when discussions of emptiness or other technical topics take place or they judge themselves as being somehow superior because they are “a practitioner.”  All of this is wrong.  Our intellectual understanding develops in relation to our practical experience of the instructions, with each reinforcing and informing the other.  But with that being said, we should never be satisfied with an intellectual understanding alone.  The real meaning of Dharma is only understood when we actually change ourselves with it.

Venerable Tharchin explains there are basically three levels at which we mix our mind with the Dharma.  First, through our listening to and reading of Dharma instructions we can gain a primarily intellectual understanding of the wisdom and good qualities of others.  Second, when we contemplate the Dharma and test its validity, we transform what was the wisdom and understanding of others into our own wisdom and understanding.  Finally, third, when we engage in formal meditation or actually put the instructions into practice we make the Dharma an “acquisition of our personality.”  In short, we become what we mix our mind with.  For example, by reading instructions on compassion I can get an understanding of what it is and how to develop it, but it is not mine – I am understanding how others’ minds work.  By contemplating it, I develop my own compassion.  By putting it into practice, I become a compassionate person – it becomes part of my personality.  To practice earnestly with understanding means to make this progression from intellectual understanding to personality acquisition.  First we understand what we need to do, then we do it, then we become it.

Avoid places that disturb your mind, and always remain where your virtues increase.

Until you attain stable realizations, worldly amusements are harmful, therefore abide in a place where there are no such distractions.

Avoid friends who cause you to increase delusions, and rely upon those who increase your virtue. This you should take to heart.

This is very practical advice.  Of course in theory, a Bodhisattva can transform any situation into the path and so has no need to avoid certain places or remain in other places.  But we are not yet bodhisattvas.  We are still heavily influenced by our surroundings, so we need to pay attention.  There are some parts of our life where we can remember that everything is a dream, but there are other parts where it is more difficult, where we are easily swept away by our ignorance, attachment and aversion.

There are three main pieces of advice in this respect.  With respect to remaining in places that draw out your virtuous qualities, the point is going to bars will not bring out the best qualities of an alcoholic.  This is why our Dharma centers are so important.  When we spend time with the people there, we become socialized into their way of thinking and they encourage us to engage in virtue.  Where else in this world can we find that?   The meaning of the advice to avoid worldly distractions is if we are easily swept away by worldly activities and we wind up forgetting our practice, then we need to be aware of such situations and avoid them.  We need to cultivate relationships with friends who draw out the best in us.  We are easily socialized by those around us, so we should remain with people who draw out our virtues.  A good analogy is with children.  The goal is to be able to have our children be fully functional in the world, but while they are growing in maturity we need to keep them protected from certain influences until they are ready to deal with them correctly.  After we have stabilized these things, then we can safely ‘go out into the world’ without losing our practice.  But as long as we are still vulnerable, it is wise to keep yourself somewhat sheltered.

Since there is never a time when worldly activities come to an end, limit your activities.

It is important to understand what Atisha means by “worldly activities.”  No activity is worldly from its own side.  It only becomes worldly if we engage in it with a worldly mind.  Spending time with our families, working, shopping, etc., are not by nature worldly activities.  We just have bad mental habits of engaging in these activities with a worldly mind.  A worldly mind is one that is primarily concerned with the happiness and welfare of this life alone.  A spiritual or pure mind is one that is primarily concerned with the happiness and welfare of all of our future lives.  We can engage in exactly the same activity with a worldly mind or a spiritual mind depending on how we relate to it.  So the advice here is not to abandon our normal activities, rather it is to abandon engaging in them with a worldly mind.

But with that being said, it is likewise important to make the time to engage in our formal Dharma practice.  If we do not make time to engage in our practice, we will never have time to do so.  If we do not take the time to wake up from this dream, we will never wake up from it.  Just as we find time every day to clean and feed our body, so too we must find time every day to clean and feed our mind with virtue.  Just as we take the time to exercise our body and keep it healthy, so too we need to find the time to exercise our mind and keep it healthy.


Atisha’s Advice from the Heart: Part 1

Atisha is the founder of Kadampa Buddhism.  What makes somebody a Kadampa is they take Atisha’s Lamrim as their main practice.  Before he left Tibet, Atisha gave some parting advice.  In many ways, his advice is a guide to how to practically live our life in accordance with his Lamrim.  This is very special advice that we should take to heart. Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path that we should take all Dharma instructions as personal advice, but I think this is especially true for Atisha’s advice.  This is advice he has specifically given to us as Kadampas.

When I asked a very senior teacher once what the key is to growing the Kadampa tradition, he said “we need to create a space in which others are 100% able to come into the Dharma from their own side, and then in that space we set a good example.”  The advice of Atisha is how we do that.  By living our life in accordance with this advice, we will show the example of a pure Kadampa practitioner.  This is what a Kadampa does.  This is the ‘good example’ that we set for others.  Geshe-la includes this advice in a booklet called ‘the Kadampa Way of Life.’  This is really meant as advice for the way in which we live our life.  So we should put it into practice in our daily life.

You can read the complete life story of Atisha in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, but here I will just give a summary of his life.  The purpose of this story is to inspire faith and respect for the author to show that the instructions are authentic.  Atisha was born as a prince in India in AD 982.  His name means peace.  Throughout his life he received visions of Tara, wherever he went, Tara went with him, and he could speak with her like we would speak with any other person.  When his parents arranged a marriage for him, Tara told him that if he renounced his kingdom and dedicated his life to the spiritual path, then he could become a spiritual guide and lead countless others to enlightenment.  So he left his kingdom and became a spiritual practitioner.

Originally Buddha Skakyamuni taught 84,000 different instructions, and between the life of Buddha Shakyamuni and Atisha, the lineage of these instructions became spread out, and nobody contained a complete lineage of all the instructions.  So Atisha set out to collect all of Buddhas instructions.  Meanwhile in Tibet, the Dharma had degenerated, and so a King Yeshe O wanted to bring the pure Dharma back to Tibet, so he sent many people to find out who was the greatest spiritual guide in all of India.  The answer was Atisha, so he decided he wanted to invite Atisha to Tibet.  But he needed more gold to be able to do so, so he went out in search of more gold and was captured by a hostile king.  The evil king then demanded that Jangchub O, the king’s nephew, bring Yeshe O’s weight in gold for his release.  When the Jangchub O went to visit the king, Yeshe O said to offer the gold to Atisha instead so that pure Dharma could be restored in Tibet.   When Atisha learned of the many sacrifices made by the Tibetans, he decided to go to Tibet to teach Dharma. There he wrote Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, or Lamrim, which is a special presentation of all of Buddha’s instructions.  After several years in Tibet, Atisha decided it was time to return to India, and the Tibetans requested one last teaching.  In response to this request, Atisha taught Advice from Atisha’s Heart.

During this series of posts, I will share my understanding of what I consider to be the essential points of Atisha’s advice.  Ultimately, though, the best way to truly understand the meaning is to start living our life in this way.  Then we will know first-hand how special this advice really is.  If I were to summarize all of it, though, I would say Atisha’s advice explains to us how we would/should live our life when we understand it is all a dream.  Atisha’s actual advice will be presented in italics, and my understanding of the meaning will follow.

Friends, since you already have great knowledge and clear understanding, whereas I am of no importance and have little wisdom, it is not suitable for you to request advice from me. However because you dear friends, whom I cherish from my heart, have requested me, I shall give you this essential advice from my inferior and childish mind.

Friends, until you attain enlightenment the Spiritual Teacher is indispensable, therefore rely upon the holy Spiritual Guide.

Until you realize ultimate truth, listening is indispensable, therefore listen to the instructions of the Spiritual Guide.

Who is the Spiritual Guide?  He is somebody who exists outside of our dream of samsara, who has come into our dream to explain to us how to wake up from this dream.  We consider the Spiritual Guide to be a Buddha, and therefore perfectly reliable.  It is important to understand how this works.  If you consider your spiritual guide as a Buddha, he will perform the function of a Buddha for you, even if from his side he is an ordinary being.  If you consider him to be an ordinary being, he will perform the function of an ordinary being, even if from his side he is a Buddha.  The reason why this works is because wherever you imagine a Buddha a Buddha actually goes.  So by maintaining the view of the Spiritual Guide as a Buddha, all the Buddhas enter into him.

The primary sickness we have is we believe this dream to be real.  This is why we suffer and why we make mistakes.  We have all done the meditation on emptiness many times and we know that things are a dream.  We can’t deny this because it is easily provable.  Yet we continue, by force of karmic momentum within our mind, to grasp at all of this being real.  We need to realize that we are sick in this way and study Dharma instructions as the medicine for our sickness.