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.