Practicing with power: Taking the bodhisattva vows

Very often in our deity practices, we retake the bodhisattva vows in front of the guru deity imagined in the space in front of us.  Here, I would like to explain how we can do this with the specific intention to increase our spiritual power.

To help us generate a pure motivation for taking the bodhisattva vows, it might be helpful to consider an analogy.  When I look at the world, I am looking into the mirror of my own mind.  This is how the purity of the Dharmakaya is reflecting in my own mind due to my contaminated karma.  The same is true for everyone else.  Everyone is looking at the Dharmakaya, but seeing their own reflection of it depending on their karma. In this sense, we are all looking at the same thing, just different angles on it.  Buddhas have the angle where they see the whole universe as completely pure.

My mirror is spinning out of control.  This is my samsara.  When I look into the mirror of my mind, it reflects a given world.  For example, the world of Ryan.  When the mirror rotates away, a new world or a new life gets reflected in the mirror.  Right now the mirror is rotating uncontrolledly, and I never have any idea what will be reflected next in the mirror.  I have no idea what my next rebirth will be.  This is also the samsara of others, because they have no existence other than that my mind projects for them.  My job is to align my mirror in such a way that I see directly the Dharmakaya, beyond samsara.

The spinning of the mirror around the vertical axis represents my motivation.  If my motivation is positive, it causes it to rotate upwards, so that the world reflected in the mirror resembles more the upper realms.  If my motivation is negative, it causes it to rotate downwards, so that the world reflected in the mirror resembles more the lower realms.  If my motivation is a pure, spiritual motivation, then the mirror is perfectly aligned, and the world that is reflected in the mirror resembles more the pure land.

The spinning of the mirror around the horizontal axis represents my faith.  If I have faith in samsara, viewing it as the source of my refuge, then it cause the mirror to rotate left or right.  If I have faith in the Spiritual Guide, viewing him as the source of my refuge, then it causes the mirror to be perfectly aligned.  Through this, no matter what we are looking at, we are always looking straight at the exit of the guru.  The rate of spin of the mirror is a result of our concentration.  The more our mind is unfocused, the faster the mirror spins.  When our mind is resting single-pointedly in the concentration on great bliss, then the mirror ceases spinning and is aligned perfectly.

Once the mirror is aligned, I need to remove the distortions in the mirror itself.  Our mind is a repository of all our karma, most of it contaminated.  This karma creates distortions in the mirror producing samsaric appearances.  The meditation on emptiness functions to smooth out the distortions in the mirror until it is completely clear.  Understanding this, when we take bodhisattva vows, we should generate a pure motivation to bring the mirror of our mind into alignment by improving our motivation, faith, concentration and realization of emptiness.  Specifically, we should generate a specific bodhichitta wishing to overcome our biggest delusion so that we can free ourself and others from the problems it creates for us.

The prayer for taking the bodhisattva vows is as follows:

I go for refuge to the three jewels.
And confess individually all my negative actions.

I rejoice in the virtues of all beings.
And promise to accomplish a Buddha’s enlightenment.

By reciting these very blessed words three times a day while intending to their meaning, we have the opportunity to take our bodhisattva vows.  These function like a safety net so that we never take another rebirth without access to the Mahayana path and they function to fully ripen our Buddha seed.  Specifically, we should try to renew our bodhichitta motivation of wanting to overcome whatever is our greatest delusion for the benefit of all living beings.  With the first line, we go for refuge to the three jewels with the intention to overcome specifically whatever is our greatest delusion.  With the second line, we confess and purify all the negative karma we have accumulated as a result of this delusion, including the breaking of our vows.  With the third line, we rejoice in all the efforts of all living beings to overcome this specific delusion.  With the fourth line, we promise to become a Buddha that has the specific power to help people overcome whatever is our biggest delusion.  After the third recitation, we should imagine that all the transgressions of our bodhisattva vows are purified and we receive fresh bodhisattva vows on our mental continuum.

If we have not yet formally taken bodhisattva vows, we should request that they be granted at our local Kadampa center.  We can ask our teacher to give a day course on how to skilfully practice the bodhisattva vows.  Moral discipline is the cause of higher rebirth, and ultimately it is the cause of happiness.  Normally, we think of moral discipline as something that restricts our freedom and enjoyment, but that is only because we are deeply confused about what are the causes of happiness and what are the causes of suffering.  In reality, it is our delusions which make us unfree.  We are slaves to our delusions and have no choice but to do what they say.  Our vows help us directly and indirectly counter all of our delusions.  Our delusions want to go in the opposite direction of our vows.  But our delusions will take us deeper into samsara whereas our vows will take us out.  The practice of vows is very extensive, but it is one of our most precious Kadampa jewels.  Nobody can force vows upon us, we take them from our own side voluntarily.  Generally, we vow only to try our best to go in the direction of the vows.  We should work gradually and progressively with all of the vows until we can keep them all perfectly.  This will take a long time, but if we understand the importance of vows and we are persistent with our effort, we will eventually get there.

Practicing with power: Guru Yoga

All of our spiritual practices include some form of Guru yoa.  Guru yoga is a special recognition where we view all of the different deities as being by nature our own spiritual guide.  Guru yoga increases the power of our spiritual practices beyond comprehension.  Why is this?  The reason is simple:  The spiritual guide functions as the synthesis of all of the Buddhas, so any action directed towards the spiritual guide with this recognition is karmically equivalent to engaging in this same action individually to each of the countless Buddhas.  So just as bodhichitta increases the power of our virtuous actions by the number of living beings, so too guru yoga increases the power of our virtuous actions by the number of Buddhas, which is also countless.  Bodhichitta and guru yoga together, in other words engaging in a virtuous action towards the spiritual guide motivated by bodhichitta is karmically equivalent to engaging in that same action individually a countless-squared number of times (countless living beings times countless Buddhas).  Understanding this, we should put just as much effort into our practice of guru yoga as we do in generating bodhichitta.

Before I explain the actual practice of guru yoga, I would like to address some popular misunderstandings related to this practice.  Some people object that the practice of guru yoga sounds cult-like.  They say, it means we are in effect worshipping a human being in this world as if they were the ultimate deity.  This can then lead to all sorts of cult-like behaviour.  But this is a completely wrong understanding.  The little Tibetan guy we affectionately refer to as Geshe-la is not our Spiritual Guide.  Geshe-la is an ordinary emanation body of our actual Spiritual Guide the Truth Body of Vajradhara.  Conventionally, Buddha Vajradhara sends various emanation bodies into the karmic dreams of living beings (otherwise known as their lives and worlds) to help lead them to freedom.  But from our own side we don’t have the karma to be able to see Buddha Vajradhara as Buddha Vajradhara.  Instead, he appears to us in the aspect of our spiritual teachers.

This is not at all different than the example given in Joyful Path how we might see water, but a hungry ghost will see pus and a god will see nectar.  The same thing appears differently depending upon the karmic glasses we have on.  If I put on orange tinted glasses, the whole world will appear to me to be orange.  If I didn’t realize that I was wearing such glasses and I had always been wearing such glasses, I might mistakenly conclude that the entire world is orange.  In the same way, if I have the glasses of an ordinary contaminated mind I will see all things as being ordinary and contaminated.  But if I didn’t realize I was just wearing such karmic glasses, I might mistakenly conclude that the entire world is actually ordinary and contaminated.  But just as if I took off the orange tinted glasses I would see the world in all of its myriad colors, so too if I remove my karmically ordinary and contaminated glasses I will see all worlds and beings as rainbow-like vajra light in an infinite dance of pure deeds.  In other words, the Buddhas appear to us in ordinary aspects not because they are ordinary but because we can’t see anything any differently.  Conventionally, we can say that Geshe-la is an emanation of Je Tsongkhapa, who himself is an emanation of Buddha Shakyamuni, who himself is an emanation of Buddha Vajradhara.

It is important to understand this notion of emanation.  Sometimes we think of emanations like we think of Avatars in on-line computer games.  In some respects, this is a helpful analogy, but it is not entirely accurate.  A better analogy is to think of emanations as facets on a multi-faceted diamond.  Each facet of such a diamond is completely inseparable from the underlying diamond.  The facet itself is by nature the diamond.  By nature in a Kadampa context can roughly be understood as “made of.”  Just as a coin is by nature gold, and the facet of a diamond is by nature the diamond, so too every Buddha is by nature the diamond of our spiritual guide.  If you look carefully into one facet of a diamond, you can see all of the other facets.  Anything you do to a facet of a diamond, you inescapable do the diamond itself.  Guru yoga, quite simply, realizes that just as you can’t have a facet without the diamond, so too you can’t have an emanation without the diamond of the spiritual guide.  Any action you do to one emanation with the recognition that they are by nature the spiritual guide, you inescapable do that action towards all the Buddhas.

In short, guru yoga does not say we view all Buddhas as emanations of the little Tibetan guy we call Geshe-la, rather we say the little Tibetan guy is himself an emanation of our actual Spiritual Guide, Buddha Vajradhara.  He is a facet of the diamond of our Spiritual Guide.

When we engage in any practice of guru yoga, the most important thing is to imagine that the actual deity is in front of us inside our mind.  Believing this functions to purify the karmic obscurations which prevent you from directly feeling and perceiving the guru deity in the space in front of you.  We should maintain the recognition that the deity we are visualizing is by nature our Spiritual Guide in the apsect of the deity. We do this for two main reasons:  First, the extent to which we can receive blessings depends on the strength of our karmic connection with a given Buddha.  Karmically speaking, the Buddha we are closest to is our Spiritual Guide.  So with this recognition, we receive more powerful blessings.  Second, the Spiritual Guide has a specific function of acting as the synthesis of all the Buddhas.  Wherever you imagine a Buddha, a Buddha actually goes.  Wherever you imagine your spiritual guide, ALL the Buddhas actually go.  So this multiplies the power of your practice by the number of Buddhas, which is countless.

After we visualize a deity, we usually make some form of offerings.  Here we imagine that countless offering goddesses emanate from the letter HUM at our heart and fill the entire universe making offerings to the guru deity.  We strongly believe that this gives rise to a feeling of great bliss within the guru deity.  We do not make offerings because guru deity needs them, rather because we need to accumulate the merit associated with making these offerings.  Specifically, making the offerings in this context enables us to accumulate the merit we need to be able to overcome our greatest delusion.

Practicing with Power: Going for refuge and generating bodhichitta

Every sadhana begins in the same way, by first going for refuge and generating bodhichitta.  So how can we do these practices from the perspective of increasing our spiritual power to overcome our greatest delusion?  The short answer is our faith and our motivation are two of the most important components of spiritual power. 

Before we go for refuge, there are several things we can do.  First, we need to adopt the correct meditation posture and be completely relaxed physically.  I think most of the people reading this blog already have experience with this, so there is no need for me to provide extra explanation.

Second, we should imagine that all conventional phenomena dissolve, like a dream, into the clear light nature of our mind.  It is as if our entire reality is made of holograms of light, which dissolve and reveal the clear light nature of our mind.  We should identify this clear light as the same nature as the omniscient mind of all the Buddhas, which is itself the same nature as the omniscient mind of our Spiritual Guide.  Doing this enables us to let go of our distractions and tune into the mind of the spiritual guide to be able to receive his blessings.

Third, we should imagine around us are our friends, our family, our colleagues, the people of our region, and finally all living beings.  We should strongly believe that they are actually with us in the clear light Dharmakaya.

Fourth, we should develop a strong desire to overcome our greatest delusion.  The first ingredient of spiritual power is our motivation or desire.  Kadam Bjorn said that our practices are powerful not in terms of how well we know the methods, but rather by how strongly we wish to overcome our delusions.  To help us increase our desire to be free from our delusions, we can view our delusions as demons or devils dwelling within our mind.  Would we allow a demon into our home or to remain?  They are not actual demons, since there is no such thing (there is also no such thing as you, but that is a different story…).  Much of Christianity, for example, can be correctly understood from a Dharma perspective if the devil is understood to simply be the personification of self-cherishing abiding in the minds of living beings; and God is the personification of the union of wisdom and compassion in the minds of spiritual practitioners.  To help us generate the specific desire to overcome our greatest delusion, we can consider how it creates countless problems for ourself and for others.

For ourself, we should consider how does our specific greatest delusion create problems for ourselves in our life.  We can consider how it has created countless problems for ourselves in this life.  All delusions are deceptive, they promise us one thing but give us the opposite.   We can think, “as a result of this delusion, I have engaged in many negative actions, which will later throw me into the lower realms.  If I do not get rid of this delusion now, it will assert itself at the time of my death, and I will be forced to return to samsara again.  In the end, I face a choice between remaining with this delusion or attaining enlightenment.  I can’t have both.”

For others, we can consider how our biggest delusion creates problems and suffering for the others around us?  We can think, “as a result of this delusion, I project a world filled with beings who suffer from similar delusions, which create countless problems for them in their lives.  When I engage in negative actions as a result of this delusion, I create the cause for others to engage in negative actions towards me in the future, and as a result of their actions, they later fall into the lower realms themselves.  When the karma I create from this delusion ripens, it will create a world which is the same nature as this delusion, and all the beings who abide in my dream world will suffer as a result.  For as long as I have this delusion, I cannot become a Buddha.  If I cannot become one, then it will be impossible for others to do so since they are my spiritual creation.  Because they are empty, they are ultimately the beings of my karmic dream.  Thus, for as long as I remain with this delusion, countless beings will remain trapped in the prison of samsara.”  We can consider these points to develop a heart-felt desire to overcome this delusion, indeed we need to make the firm decision that we will do whatever it takes to overcome our greatest delusion.

Fifth, we imagine that in response to this decision, from the Dharmakaya, the guru-deity spontaneously appears in the space in front of us in the conventional aspect of whatever deity we are practicing (Vajrayogini, Heruka, Je Tsongkhapa, Tara, Vajrapani, etc.).  His arising is the response to our desire.  The most important thing is for us to to have the conviction that the guru-deity is actually in front of us, inside our mind.  We then try generate faith in him by considering how he can help us overcome our biggest delusion.  For now, we just believe he has all the power necessary.  So we strongly believe that through relying upon the guru-deity in this way, we can gain all of the realizations necessary to overcome our greatest delusion. On the basis of this strong desire/decision and deep faith in the guru-deity, we are ready to go for refuge.

When we recite the refuge prayers, the most important thing is to imagine that we are leading all these beings around you in the practice of going for refuge to the guru-deity to overcome their own greatest delusion.  Each being is, ultimately, an aspect of your own mind.  They are a wave on the ocean of your mind.  By imagining each being is going for refuge with you, you literally karmicly reconstruct the beings of your dream into beings who will, in the future, actually go for refuge.  This is very profound.  This correct imagination plants the karma on your mind to have all of these beings actually go for refuge to the guru-deity in the future.

When we recite the prayers for generating bodhichitta, the most important thing is to generate a specific bodhichitta:  I must overcome my greatest delusion so that I can free all these beings from the suffering that flows from it.  Bodhichitta multiplies the power of our spiritual practices by the number of living beings.  Why is this?  When we engage in an action motivated by bodhichitta, we are seeking to attain enlightenment so that we may benefit countless living beings.  So our intention is to benefit countless others.  To engage in one virtuous action for the benefit of 1,000 beings has the same karmic effect of engaging in that same one virtuous action 1,000 times for the sake of one being each time.  Since the object of bodhichitta is the nearly infinite number of living beings, actions motivated by bodhichitta are karmically equivalent to engaging in a virtuous action nearly an infinite number of times for the sake of one being each time.  This is one of the most effective and direct ways of increasing the power of our virtuous actions.


Practicing with Power: Connecting the Dharma to our biggest delusion

One of the most important things to understand about spiritual power is that it does not exist in a vacuum.  Dharma instructions have power in a dependent-relationship with the delusions they oppose.  This is very important to realize, but not difficult to understand.  If at a given moment of time we are not suffering from a particular delusion, the Dharma instructions that are that delusion’s opponent will actually have no power within our mind even if we generate the opponent perfectly.  But if, for example, our mind is infected with jealousy, the teachings on rejoicing suddenly have great power within our mind.  It is for this reason that when we listen to or read Dharma instructions we are encouraged to maintain the recognitions that we are sick and that the Dharma is the medicine.

Practically speaking, what does this mean?  It means whenever we listen to or read Dharma instructions we should do so with our biggest delusions/problems in mind.  Then, when we hear or understand the instructions we will connect the Dharma we are learning with the sickness in our mind.  By doing so, we will then receive special blessings which will enable us to see how we can use the instructions to heal our own mind.  That is spiritual power.

In Universal Compassion, Geshe Chekhawa encourages us to “purify our greatest delusion first.” In this vein, I encourage you to read this series of posts with your greatest delusion in mind.  If we are working on our greatest delusion and we are looking at the instructions from the perspective of spiritual power, then we supercharge the power of the Dharma within our mind.

What does Geshe Chekhawa mean?  He means we should identify what we consider to be our biggest delusion, the one that creates the most problems for us, and then to focus all of our efforts on overcoming this delusion.  By focusing in a sustained way on a single problem, we can make definite headway and progress in overcoming it.  If we are scattered in our approach, it will be difficult to make any progress because our delusions are so strong and we are not applying enough effort to win.  By actually making progress against our biggest delusion, several things happen:  We will significantly improve the quality of our life by weakening one of the principal causes of our difficulties.  We will indirectly weaken all our other delusions, because our delusions are often interrelated to one another.  We gain confidence that if we can overcome or weaken our biggest delusion, then we should be able to do the others.  I had a student in Geneva who would each year have a sit down with me and we would discuss what would be the main delusion she was going to work on overcoming in the coming year.  Then, she would view the entire year as a spiritual project of working on overcoming that delusion, and she would apply everything she learned towards that end.  I find this way of practicing perfect.

So how do we know what is our biggest delusion?  It is the one that causes us the most problems and that we have the most difficulty in overcoming.  For some of us it is attachment, where we are convinced that our happiness depends on something external, such as a good reputation, being with a certain somebody, or perhaps attachment to some harmful substance like cigarettes or alcohol.  For some of us it is anger, where we are constantly frustrated with how things are and we wish things were otherwise.  We wind up lashing out at those we love and making everyone around us fear us and want to get away from us.  We see fault in everyone, and our mind is never at peace.  For some of us it is deluded doubt or holding wrong views.  Without control our mind manufactures a variety of ‘yes, buts’ which prevent us from ever fully engaging in our spiritual life and so we don’t get anywhere.  Or we hear instructions and our mind automatically misinterprets them or remains focused on how they can be taken wrong instead of how they can be taken right.  For some of us it is our self-cherishing.  We are so busy thinking about our own happiness and well-being that we are reluctant to do anything to help others.  We have before us the opportunity to become fully qualified spiritual guides for the benefit of countless living beings, but we allow our petty self-concern to hold us back from fulfilling our potential.  For some of us it is discouragement.  Everything just seems too hard, and we don’t believe that we are able to make any spiritual progress, so we feel it is hopeless to even try.  We are constantly judging ourselves and we feel we are never good enough.  We each have our own delusion, so we need to try identify what we perceive our greatest one to be.

For the rest of this series of posts, we are going to discuss how to systematically attack and hopefully destroy this delusion.  When we receive an empowerment, we should feel as if our guru is giving us each one a personal deity that is specifically empowered to help us overcome our own specific biggest delusion.  When we receive empowerments, it is important to develop a specific desire to receive a such a personalized Buddha who is specifically empowered to help us overcome our own personal biggest delusion.  Then, we when you learn how to engage in the practice of that deity, you should view it as a method for overcoming this specific delusion.  We can do this with any deity and with respect to any delusion.  I will try explain how we can engage in the common parts of every sadhana form the perspective of increasing our spiritual power to overcome our biggest delusion.  We can then engage in whatever is our daily practice from this perspective.

Specifically, we need to learn how to cultivate the essential ingredients of the spiritual power we need to overcome our greatest delusion.  These ingredients are:  a pure spiritual motivation, faith in the guru-deity, self-confidence, the concentration of great bliss, and a correct understanding of emptiness.  We will learn all of these in this series of posts.  Through continual training in these methods, we can eventually weaken and finally destroy this greatest of our delusions.  It is just a question of persistent effort in putting into practice the methods that we have learned.


Practicing with Power: Motivation for the series

At the core of it, our success in our spiritual path comes down to a very simple question:  which is more powerful, your delusions or your virtues?  When our delusions are stronger than our virtues, they will overwhelm us even if we don’t want them to.  If our virtues are stronger than our delusions, we will gradually overwhelm them and free ourselves in the process.  It is not enough to know the opponents, we need power in applying them. 

One may ask, “if spiritual power is so important, why does Geshe-la speak so little of it in his books?”  The answer to this is Geshe-la does talk extensively about spiritual power, he just doesn’t explicitly label it as such.  In fact, we can say that all of his teachings can be viewed from the perspective of they are methods for increasing our spiritual power.  There is a particular pole in Geneva that has metal bent in such a way that when you look at it from one point of view it reads “oui” (yes), but when you go around to the other side and look at it that same metal reads “non” (no).  So what does the pole “really” say?  It does not say yes, it does not say no, but it says both simultaneously depending on how you look at it.  In the same way, all of the Kadampa teachings can be viewed from multiple points of view.  For example, we can consider all of the lamrim from the point of view of emptiness, or we can consider our Tantric practice from the point of view of lamrim.  Looking at the teachings through different lenses reveals different interconnections between the teachings.  Exploring these myriad interconnections is the essence of contemplation.  Eventually, through looking at the teachings from many different spiritual vantage points, we build an intricate web of interconnections between the teachings that has the benefit of every time we deepen our experience of any one instruction, it ripples out deepening our experience of all of the other teachings.  The purpose of this series is to explain my understanding of how we can view all of Geshe-la’s teachings from the perspective of how they are methods for increasing our spiritual power.

Why would we want to do this?  Spiritual power is a force that pervades all of our spiritual practices.  If our body is strong and powerful, we can harness that power for any physical activity.  In the same way, if our mind is spiritually strong and powerful, we can harness that power for any mental activity.  In many ways, Dharma knowledge without spiritual power is essentially useless.  Mere knowledge will not be sufficient to change our mental habits.  We need to give that knowledge force by infusing it with spiritual power.  In this light, there are few qualities we need to develop more than spiritual power.  We live in degenerate times.  If the rate of degeneration is greater than the rate at which our spiritual power increases, we will never attain escape velocity from samsara.  When our practice is infused with power, we become the Barry Bonds of Kadampa practitioners that can hit out of the park every delusion that comes our way (sorry to the non-American readers for the baseball analogy).  When we have spiritual power, we have great confidence that attaining enlightenment is something entirely doable.  Venerable Tharchin explains that the key to effort lies not in hard work but in realizing that the goals of the path are entirely doable.  When we see it is doable, effort comes naturally – and indeed it comes effortlessly.

So how can we understand all of Geshe-la’s teachings as methods for increasing our spiritual power?  In general, we can say divide all of Geshe-la’s teachings into two categories:  those which are primarily focused on developing the subject mind and those which are primarily focused on realizing certain objects.  Ultimately, of course, mind and its object arise in mutual dependence upon one another.  A pure mind will perceive all objects purely through the power of the pure mind.  Focusing on a pure object will render the mind pure through the power of the pure object.  According to Sutra, the most powerful subject mind is bodhichitta realized with a mind of tranquil abiding (technically, the bodhisattva grounds and paths explain more powerful minds, but I set that aside for now for the sake of simplicity).  Likewise, according to Sutra, the most powerful object one can realize is the wisdom realizing emptiness according to the Madhyamika-Prasangika school.  According to Tantra, the most powerful subject mind is the very subtle mind of great bliss.  Likewise according to Tantra, the most powerful object one can realize is the wisdom realizing emptiness according to the Tantra-Prasangika school (don’t worry, all of this will be explained in the course of this series).  To increase our spiritual power, therefore, we need to cultivate both powerful minds and realize powerful objects.  The extent to which we can do so is the extent to which our practice will have power.

Breaking this down a bit, the main contributors to a powerful subject mind are faith, renunciation, cherishing others, concentration and the extent to which we can cause our winds to enter, dissolve into and abide inside the indestructible drop at our heart.  Of these, faith is actually the most important, in particular the faith of guru yoga.  A very good friend of mine once told me the greatest line of Dharma I have ever heard.  He said, “stop telling your spiritual guide how big your problems are and start telling your problems how big your spiritual guide is!”

The main ingredients of a powerful object, emptiness, are realizing correctly the object of negation, understanding things are mere projections of mind and understanding that these projections themselves are the nature of our mind of great bliss (waves on the ocean of the emptiness of our mind of great bliss).  Of these, realizing correctly the object of negation is actually the most important.  If we can do that, everything else comes naturally.