Making progress when access to a center is difficult:  Why Dharma centers are important

Practical steps for making manifest a center in our life

Dharma centers are important, very important.  But they arise only in dependence upon many different causes and conditions and they take on a variety of different forms.  If for whatever reason we do not have regular access to one we should take it as a sign that our job is to create the causes and conditions for one to appear in a way that we are able to easily and happily partake of it.

The primary cause for the appearance of a Dharma center in our life is the strong wish for it to do so.  If we don’t have this wish, even if we physically live in one, a “Dharma center” will not appear in our life.  To help us develop this wish, we can consider what Geshe-la has said about Dharma centers.

To begin, I would like to tell you that everybody should recognize how important Dharma centers are.  Teachers, managers and students should recognize that Dharma centers are extremely important for ourselves, our families and the general public.  Without Dharma centers, it is very difficult to maintain a pure spiritual life.  It is close to impossible to maintain a Bodhisattva’s way of life.  Without maintaining a Buddhist way of life, it is difficult to make progress on the spiritual path which gives us the real meaning of our human life.  …  With a connection to a Dharma center, we have the possibility to improve ourselves thanks to the Dharma.  Without Dharma centers, a meaningful life is difficult to find for ourselves, our family and others.  First, we must enjoy being in a Dharma center.  Then, everyone else, such as our parents, the other members of our family and our friends, will understand that we are happy, then they will rejoice for us and create a link with us.

Sometimes those who do not have regular access to a Dharma center can fall into the extreme of thinking Dharma centers are not important.  This is wrong.  As Geshe-la says, we must all recognize the importance of Dharma centers while we accept that our presently not having regular access to one is exactly perfect for our spiritual development.  Why?  Because of the opportunities not having one gives us to create the causes to have one appear in our life.

If we don’t have a Dharma center in our area, do what it takes to set one up.  Find other people in the area who are also interested in setting up a center and work with them to make it happen.  Contact the NKT office and ask them if they know of anybody else in our area who has expressed similar interest.  Write Geshe-la requesting a teacher be sent.  Invite the nearest National Spiritual Director to come give a public talk.  Start doing pujas together, even if it is just two of you (or even if you are alone).  Imagine that all of the people of your city are doing the pujas with you, making the strong request for a Dharma center to appear in your city.  Geshe-la has said his vision is for there to eventually be a Kadampa temple in every major city of the world.  This happening in our city may very well depend upon our personal wish.

There was a woman in Santa Barbara whose name was Lea.  She was all alone in her wish to establish a center, but she nurtured it and did everything it took to make it happen.  Through her unwavering wish and unending hard work, a center was eventually established in Santa Barbara.  Then Geshe-la came and did a California tour, and he wrote part of Essence of Vajrayana at this center.  Because that center was established, the Dharma came to Southern California.  From that center, eventually Los Angeles opened up as a “branch” of Santa Barbara.  Now there is a thriving spiritual community in the greater L.A. area, and this is just the beginning.  If the center in Santa Barbara did not exist, I would not be in the Dharma today.  If Lea had not had her initial wish, none of what currently exists and none of what is to come in Southern California would be.  It is said that the merit we accumulate from helping our Dharma center continues to grow for as long as the center exists.  The story of Lea and the Dharma in Southern California shows us how.


Making progress when access to a center is difficult:  Dispelling wrong views

Dispelling wrong views about spiritual life when access to a center is difficult

It goes without saying that regular access to a Dharma center is good thing.  Geshe-la would not have worked so hard to establish Dharma centers around the world, nor implore us to help contribute to their development, if they were not supremely sacred objects in this world.  When explaining how one can nonetheless make spiritual progress without regular access to a center, there is a danger that some will misunderstand what is being said to mean Dharma centers are not important and we don’t need to make effort to make them part of our life.  Some people who do have regular access to a center think it is good if people think it is “bad” to not have regular access because then they will be motivated to overcome their “obstacles.”  Sometimes this is motivated by a genuine belief that regular access to a center is a necessary condition for spiritual progress, sometimes it is motivated by a perhaps unacknowledged attachment to people coming to the center.  Regardless of the reasons, some people are reluctant to explain how one can still make progress without regular access to a center.  I would say if one truly is compassionately motivated to help people gain regular access to a center they need to help people transform life without such access.  Why?  Because transforming our life in this way creates the karmic causes to one day have regular access.  And in the meantime, it enables people to get on with their spiritual life without grasping at “phantom obstacles” to their practice.

The first and most important thing to realize is all lives are equally empty, so they are all equally transformable into the quick path to enlightenment.  It is perfectly possible for somebody to have regular access to a Dharma center and teachings, yet make no spiritual progress at all; and likewise it is possible for somebody to never set foot in a Dharma center and make rapid progress to enlightenment.  To go one step further, all Dharma centers are equally empty.  Externally, all the trappings of a Dharma center may be present, but the members of the community lack, in Venerable Tharchin’s words, “realizations bound together by mutual love for one another;” and it is likewise possible that none of the external trappings of a center be present, but one nonetheless feels like they live every day in a Dharma center.  Some people, for example, are unable to make it to a Dharma festival.  But if during the time of the festival, the practitioner adopts “a festival mind” then everything that happens to them during festival time will be, for them, their “festival.”  Whether we have regular access to a Dharma center is, in the final analysis, a state of mind.  As soon as we adopt this state of mind, regardless of where we externally might find ourselves, we can validly experience ourselves as “being in a Dharma center.”

The difference between a qualified Dharma practitioner and a qualified Dharma teacher is similar to the difference between somebody who drives to work every day and a taxi driver.  Somebody who drives themselves around might know very well how to get from their home to their work in the city center, and they may even know a few short cuts which enable them to avoid most of the traffic.  But if you ask them how to get to their work starting from someplace else, they wouldn’t know.  An experienced taxi driver, however, knows all of the different routes one can take to get to the city center, regardless of where somebody started out.  They know all the routes, and indeed shortcuts, starting from anywhere to anywhere.  In the same way, a qualified Dharma practitioner will know how to transform the life they have led into the quick path to the City of Enlightenment, and they may even know a few shortcuts along the way; but they do not necessarily know how to transform a life other than their own into the quick path.  A qualified Dharma teacher, in contrast, is like a taxi driver that understands we all have our own unique karmic starting point on the spiritual path and so the route we each take to enlightenment will necessarily be different.  Understanding this, over the span of many years working with a wide variety of different practitioners, they become like a skilled taxi driver who knows how to get from anywhere to the enlightened city center.

Problems arise, though, when a practitioner first makes the transition to becoming a teacher and they mistakenly grasp at there being only one way – the way they just took.  As a result, the advice they give might be perfectly appropriate for somebody who is travelling the path as they have; but perfectly wrong for somebody who is beginning their trip from a different karmic starting point.  It is possible, for example, that abandoning our kids, jobs and families is the right thing to do for one person; this does not mean, however, it is the right thing to do for everybody else.  I have found that most of the Dharma advice people give is, if we check, the rationalizations we ourselves have used to make the spiritual decisions we have made.  Such thinking may be right for us, but we should be careful in assuming it is equally right for everybody else.  In a similar way, when we receive Dharma advice from our teachers or spiritual friends, we should always keep in mind that just because a certain way of doing things worked for others doesn’t necessarily mean that same way will work for us.  It is easy to become attached to what our teachers and spiritual friends think of us, and when we feel they are judging us for making what they consider to be wrong spiritual choices it hurts.  When this happens, people usually fall into one of two extremes, either they assume the teacher is right and start making choices that might not make sense given their individual context; or they assume the teacher is wrong, wind up losing faith and abandoning everything.  The middle way is to understand what the teacher is saying was right for them, but we need to check and see if what they are saying is right for us as well.

In the end, our job is very simple.  We need to do our best to make it to Dharma centers or Dharma teachings when we can, but accept our karma when we can’t.  We need to surrender our life and our karma to Dorje Shugden, our Dharma Protector, requesting that he transform our life into our Dharma teachings and wherever we are into our Dharma center.  Dorje Shugden’s job is to arrange the perfect outer and inner conditions necessary for our swiftest possible enlightenment.  Some people mistakenly believe he can only do so with our virtuous karma, but in reality he is especially skilled at transforming the ripening of our “negative karma” into our most transformative Dharma teachings.  If he can transform our worst negative karma into the path, then certainly he has the power to transform whatever happens in our life into a “Dharma teaching” and wherever we might find ourselves into our “Dharma center.”

Many of us grasp onto a fixed notion of what it means to lead a spiritual life, namely somebody who leaves behind the worlds of work and family to dedicate themselves to a life of meditation, retreat and working for the center.  It is true, this is one way to lead one’s spiritual life, one that we should deeply rejoice in; but by no means is it the only way.  After the publication of Modern Buddhism, Geshe-la said our mission now is to “attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.”  Modern lives are incredibly diverse in nature, and all of them have equal potential to be quick paths.  Due to karma accumulated over countless previous lives, we find ourselves with some form of modern life – whatever form that might be.  Our job is to bring the Kadam Dharma into our life and realize the union of the two.  Time and time again, Geshe-la has said, “everyone needs Kadam Dharma.”  This does not mean everyone needs to become Buddhist, it means everyone can beneficially bring Kadampa wisdom into their lives.  The only way they will be able to do so is if we, the Kadampa practitioners of this world, learn how to do the same.  If we grasp at the Kadam Dharma only being practicable in a single type of life, its reach in this world will be extremely limited.  If instead we learn how to bring the Kadam Dharma into any life, we will help fulfill Geshe-la’s vision of bringing into everyone’s life.  In short, as Venerable Tharchin says, we each need to “assume our place in the mandala.”  We each have a role to play, and that role is to show how whatever life we may have (including one that does not have regular access to a Dharma center) can be a quick path to enlightenment.

Making progress when access to a center is difficult:  Motivation for series

This series of posts is written for the benefit of all those who, for whatever reason, are unable to have regular access to a Dharma center and Dharma teachings.  I have attempted to gather in one place my own experience and understanding for how it is not only possible to continue to make progress when access to a center is difficult, but it is also possible to spiritually thrive.  This series is additionally written in the hope that those who do have regular access to a Dharma center might be able to better understand, accept and help those who don’t.  It will hopefully also be useful for all practitioners who wish to receive a constant stream of Dharma teachings every day.  This is not to say Dharma centers are not important, rather it is to say our understanding of them is too narrow.  Our Spiritual Guide is providing all of us without exception access to Dharma centers and Dharma teachings every single day, regardless of how the world might conventionally appear to us.

The kindness of our Spiritual Guide in establishing Dharma centers, temples and study programs around the world is unequaled.  Without this basic spiritual infrastructure we would find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make the journey to enlightenment.  Through his provision of these things, he has created for us magical transporters that connect our home towns to the city of enlightenment.  Gen-la Losang said Dharma centers are like Embassies of the Pure Land in this world.  Dharma centers accomplish two main functions.  First, they provide us with regular access to qualified teachings; and second, they provide a focal point for connecting with and building up pure spiritual communities in this world.  Venerable Tharchin says a Dharma center is not the bricks and mortar, though they of course matter, rather a Dharma center is the “collection of spiritual realizations of its practitioners bound together by their mutual love for one another.”   When we understand the nature of samsara, there is quite literally nothing more precious in this world than this basic spiritual infrastructure.

For a wide variety of reasons, though, not everyone has easy access to a Dharma center and Dharma teachings.  Some people simply live far away from the closest center, some live in countries where Dharma centers are not allowed, some lack the financial means to get to and participate in the center’s activities, some have family or work obligations which make it difficult to come to the center as often as they would like.  Some people have physical constraints which prevent them from coming, such as disabilities, illness or old age.  Some people have mental constraints, such as strong delusions, wrong views, or simply a failure to understand the importance of receiving teachings or being involved with a spiritual community.  Some people may simply lack the karma to be able to make it to the center, others may love the teachings but may have strained relationships with certain members of the Sangha or the institution of the “NKT.”  Some people, sadly, are simply not made to feel welcome at their local Dharma center, even though our Spiritual Guide has made it clear that the sign hanging over the center door reads, “Everybody Welcome.”  Whatever the reasons, it happens that practitioners will sometimes find it difficult to have regular access to Dharma teachings and a Dharma center.

When this happens, it can be a real problem for people.  They can come to view everything in their life that prevents them from making it to the center as an obstacle to their spiritual progress, giving rise to all sorts of anxiety, worry, inner turmoil and family conflict.  They then wrongly conclude that they cannot practice Dharma, and either postpone or even abandon their spiritual life.  It does not help that some of those who do have regular access to a Dharma center, including some teachers, lack the spiritual imagination to see how one can transform such a circumstance into the path.  As a result, those who do lack regular access can feel judged as lacking spiritual commitment or looked down upon as being spiritually lazy.  Since their teachers or spiritual friends are assenting to the view that there is only one way of fully committing oneself to the practice of Dharma, people who cannot live their life in that image continue to grasp at these constraints as inherently being obstacles to their spiritual practice.  Like old people and some other marginalized groups I have written about before, people whose access to a center is difficult “experience many special sorrows.”  In my view, all of this is completely unnecessary.

To understand why, in this series of posts I will first attempt to dispel some wrong views about spiritual life when access to a center is difficult, then I will explain some practical steps we can take to make manifest a Dharma center in our life.  I will then explain how we can receive individualized Dharma teachings through our every experience, and I will conclude by sharing some special advice Geshe-la has given us for how to receive perfectly reliable inner guidance from him every day.