Healing the (subtle) division between monastic and lay communities

Venerable Tharchin once said, “a Dharma center is the collection of inner realizations of its members bound together by their mutual love and appreciation for one another.”  It seems to me the same is true at the level of a spiritual tradition.  Creating division within the Sangha is considered one of the five heinous actions of immediate retribution (translation:  one of the most negative things we can do), so it follows that healing such divisions is one of the most virtuous things we can do.  For hundreds, arguably thousands of years, the Kadampa tradition has primarily been a monastic one.  Geshe-la’s goal now is for the Kadam Dharma to penetrate into every aspect of human life.  The mission he has given us is “to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.”  He has given us the Dharma, we all have modern lives, our job is to attain the union of these two.  To accomplish this, the false duality between monastic (read center) life and lay life needs to be dissolved away.

All Kadampas agree there is no point doing anything with our life other than practice Dharma.  We are all trapped in a hallucinogenic karmic dream from which there is no escape other than to wake up.  We have a precious human life that we may lose at any moment, and we are in grave danger of falling into the lower realms from which it is nearly impossible to escape.  Our only enemies are delusions and we all have assumed the task of developing our realizations, skills and abilities (up to and including full enlightenment) so that we can, together, lead all beings in a great exodus out of samsaric realms and deliver them all to the eternal bliss of the pure lands.  This is our common project.  In short, our job is to gain realizations to be able to free others from the bondage of delusions.  Towards this end, our kind Spiritual Guide has organized for us festivals, retreats, temples, Dharma centers and study programs and he has inspired for us a worldwide Sangha of lay and ordained practitioners alike practicing a common path.  Geshe-la has encouraged us to deeply cherish these things as “the main gateways for those seeking liberation.”  Gen-la Losang calls Dharma centers “the Embassies of the pure lands” in this world.  Venerable Tharchin calls Dharma centers “beacons of light in a world of spiritual darkness.”

Historically, the Dharma community was divided into the monastic and lay communities.  While the Kadampa tradition no longer has monasteries per se, we do have their modern equivalents, namely our Dharma centers.  The spectrum of Kadampas is quite vast, but we can loosely make a distinction between those who primarily live in and work for Dharma centers, attend every teaching and festival, and those who don’t.  For simplicity, let’s call these center people and non-center people – the modern equivalent of the distinction between the monastic and lay communities.  We can no longer make a lay/ordained distinction because we have lay people living a modern monastic way of life in Dharma centers and we have ordained people living modern lay ways of life out in the world of work and family.

There exists, quite naturally in fact, a current of thought within the tradition that values participating in centers, retreats, teachings, festivals and the like as the most important priorities in our life.  We should organize our life around being able to participate in these things as opposed to participate in these things when our life allows it.  There is, however, a literal grasping at what this means.  There is a grasping at there being a highest way of participating in the tradition, namely living in and working for a center, attending every teaching and festival, keeping all the commitments of the study programs perfectly, and so forth.  Those who fail to be able to do these things are somehow “lesser” Kadampas – less committed, less realized, less Buddhist.

This type of grasping leads to a good deal of mental pain and unnecessary, albeit subtle, division within the Sangha.  This grasping also is one of the main impediments to the accomplishment of Geshe-la’s wish for the Dharma to flourish into every aspect of human life.  Some center people can develop deluded pride thinking their way of practicing is better than everyone else’s.  They sometimes then look down upon those who are not able to attend every teaching and festival as somehow being more enmeshed in samsara.  They sometimes can develop resentment towards those who do not work as much for the flourishing of the center as somehow being less committed and more selfish.  When family or work considerations interfere with being able to participate in everything, some center people judge others as having misplaced priorities.  Whether ordained or not, some center people think those who focus their energies on their spouses or kids somehow have less equanimity, self-righteously declaring “relationships are deceptive.”  Some center people believe their job is to get non-center people to be more externally like them, and steer all of their advice towards this end.

Since center people are supposedly closer to the sources of Dharma, non-center people can sometimes assent to the view that grasps at center life being inherently supreme.  As a result, they start to view their families, jobs and responsibilities in this world as somehow being obstacles to their Dharma practice.  This introduces conflict in the home over participation in Dharma activities, guilt at work feeling like one is wasting their precious human life, and resentment about having to meet responsibilities outside the center.  Viewing their daily life as somehow being inherently ordinary and worldly, they fail to bring the Dharma into every aspect of their modern lives.  When non-center people feel judged by center people for their supposedly non-Dharma activities, non-center people can become defensive and view center people as belonging to some “clique” or, worse, “cult.”  Non-center people can become resentful about the lack of understanding and pervasive judgment of center people, causing them to lose faith in their teachers, center managers, and fellow Sangha.  Thinking there is only one way of practicing the Kadampa path and being karmically incapable of doing so, people move on to other things and sometimes spend the rest of their life criticizing the family they felt forced to leave.  Some non-center people can likewise develop pride thinking their way of practice is supreme since they are having to deal with real problems in the real world, but this is less common.  Usually they develop some sort of inferiority complex about how they live their life, feeling the need to hide their going to the movies or make excuses for going on vacation with their families.

Grasping at center life being supreme is a serious impediment to the accomplishment of Geshe-la’s vision for the Dharma in this world.  If the tradition is to gain the realizations the people of this world need, it is incumbent upon us to learn how to transform any life – center or otherwise – into a Kadampa quick path to enlightenment.  Our inability to conceive how to transform a non-center life into a quick path does not mean it is not possible, it just means we haven’t invested what it takes to realize how it can be.  The reality is this, there are far more people in this world who lead non-center lives than center ones.  This does not mean non-center life is more important than or superior to center life.  Both are equally good and precious, just in different ways.  Venerable Tharchin says, “we must each assume our place in the mandala.”  Rather, it means if the Dharma is to penetrate into every aspect of modern life, we must learn how to do this.  It is up to each of us to do what we can to heal these divisions and wrong understandings.

The question is how?  The answer is non-center people need to live their life as “their center life.”  And center people need to live their life as “their non-center life.”  How can this be done?  Fortunately, every life is equally empty, therefore every life is equally transformable.  Non-center people should impute “center” on their home, “retreat” on their work, “teachings” on their daily life, and “Sangha” on their loved ones.  Center people should impute “home” on their center, “work” on their retreat, “daily life” on their teachings, and “loved ones” on their Sangha.  Everyone needs to impute “festival” on whatever happens during festival time, whether we are in attendance or not.  If we each do our part, there is no doubt we can heal this subtle division within the Sangha, relieve the mental pain associated with this form of grasping, and unleash Kadampa wisdom into every aspect of human life, thereby fulfilling Geshe-la’s vision for the Dharma in this world.

A Dharma center is where we practice Dharma in this world.  Home is the base from which we go out to engage in activities and the place we return to to recharge.  Non-center people need to make their home their “center” for practicing Dharma in their life.  We can correctly view everything that happens in a Dharma center as being emanated by the Buddhas for our spiritual training.  There is no reason why we cannot do the same with our homes, viewing them as the principal place where we put the Dharma into practice.  The home of any Dharma center is the gompa, the center of any Kadampa home is our meditation corner.  Every member of a Dharma center has a responsibility to the other members of the community, every member of a home has a responsibility to the other members of the home.  Whether in a home or a center, we have no control over whether others put the Dharma into practice, but we can choose to put the Dharma into practice ourselves with those we encounter.  Living with people is hard, accepting people who are deluded but not cooperating with their delusions is harder still.  Viewed in this way, those who live in a home can come to understand what it is like to live in a center, and those who live in a center can come to understand what it is like to live in a home.  Dharma centers can become more like homes, and homes can become more like Dharma centers.

Retreat is a time when we set aside our worldly activities to focus on our spiritual practice.  Work is when we do our jobs, fulfilling our responsibilities to the people in this world.  Normally we mistakenly grasp at our work as somehow being an inherently worldly activity and retreat as somehow being inherently spiritual.  As a result, we grasp at a duality between our work and our retreat.  Just as it is possible to be on retreat but never forget our worldly activities, so too it is possible to be at work and never forget our “retreat.”  Being on retreat is a state of mind.  If we have a mind of retreat, we can be on retreat no matter what we are doing externally, including our normal work.  The situations we encounter at work are our opportunities to put the Dharma into practice with an aim of gaining the realizations necessary to transform our jobs into the quick path.  If our primary objective is to gain Dharma realizations at work, that is what we will do while simultaneously fulfilling our responsibilities to our employers and customers.  Work, for us, will be “retreat time.”  Doing our jobs, or “working”, is also a state of mind.  It is the mental assuming of responsibility for what we need to do in this world.  When we are on retreat, our “job” is to gain deep experience and insight into the Dharma.  As Bodhisattva’s, our job is to gain the realizations the people of this world need so that we may lead them to enlightenment.  Retreat time is not vacation time, it is time to really get to work.  Work does not have to be a burden.  It is said if you enjoy what you do, you will never “work” a day in your life.  Effort is “taking delight” in virtue, in other words, enjoying engaging in virtue.  Viewed in this way, those who are working can better understand what it is like to be on retreat and those who are on retreat can come to understand what it is like to go to work.  Retreat can become more like work, work can become more like retreat.

A Dharma teaching occurs when the meaning of Dharma is transmitted from the teacher to the student.  Daily life is where we gain experience of how the world works.  When a teacher gives a teaching they should strive to explain everything in the context of applying it to the “daily lives” of the students.  They can only do this if they both understand the daily trials and tribulations of their students and they apply the Dharma themselves in their own daily lives.  Likewise, receiving a Dharma teaching depends upon listening in a particular way where we view what is being a taught as personal advice for how to overcome the sickness of delusions plaguing our daily life.  But there is no reason why we can only receive Dharma teachings in a Dharma center.  Milarepa said all of life teaches the truth of Dharma.  When we receive teachings we are advised to believe the living Lama Tsongkhapa enters into the heart of our teacher and through that teacher we receive Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings.  There is no reason why we cannot believe Lama Tsongkhapa has entered into the heart of everyone we encounter in daily life and through them he is giving us pure Dharma teachings.  Not everyone can attend every teaching, nor keep every commitment of every study program.  People shouldn’t be judged for this, rather reasonable accommodations should be made understanding that attending some teachings is better than attending none.  At the same time, not being able to attend the teachings at a center does not preclude Kadampas from receiving teachings every single day through their daily life.  Viewed in this way, teachings become advice for how to live daily life and daily life becomes our Dharma teaching.  Teachings can become more like daily life and daily life can become more like a teaching.

Sangha are those who inspire us to put the Dharma into practice.  Our loved ones are those we live and spend the most time with, usually our family and friends.  Our Sangha are our spiritual companions who we reunite with in life after life in pursuit of our common path and spiritual goals.  Geshe-la ends every festival telling us he prays for our families and friends, and he encourages us to love them first and foremost.  Venerable Tharchin says with every step we take towards enlightenment we bring all living beings with us in proportion to our karmic connection with them.  Dharma only finds its meaning when it is applied to the delusions that arise in our lives; and no one provokes our delusions more than our loved ones.  Put all of this together and it means for a Bodhisattva, the duality between their Sangha and their loved ones is false.  Sangha are not just the people who practice the same path as us, they are those who inspire us to put the teachings into practice.  Our loved ones do this, either through their good example or through their annoying quirks.  Our loved ones are not just our family and friends of this life, but also our vajra family (brothers, sisters, father and mother) who share with us the same lineage and view.  We do not have to be with our vajra family to be with “Sangha” and we do not have to be with our family and friends to be with our “loved ones.”  Viewed in this way, being with Sangha becomes more like being with family and friends, and being with our family and friends becomes more like being with our Sangha.  Sangha becomes more like family and family becomes more like Sangha.

Our Spiritual Guide, our Spiritual Father, has put in place a tradition of large spiritual gatherings, such as the various festivals and Dharma celebrations, where members from different centers come together as a large spiritual family to receive teachings and build spiritual bonds with one another.  Geshe-la calls these festivals our “spiritual holiday.”  They often feel like Kadampa “family reunions.”  Some people have the karma to attend ever festival and Dharma celebration, some only maybe one per year, others maybe only once in a lifetime.  Regardless of whether we are able to physically attend or not, all of us can “mentally” attend every festival.  How?  Anybody who has been to a festival can attest that there is a certain “magic” to them, where everything that happens seems “emanated” as part of our festival.  From the conversations we overhear to the cold water in the shower, it all somehow fits together in exactly the way we need it to.  It is a very special and blessed time.  But sometimes, for whatever karmic reason, we are not able to make it.  Those who are able to make it sometimes judge those who can’t.  Those who can’t make it sometimes become jealous (or even judgmental in a different way) of those who can.  This is completely unnecessary.  Those who can attend the festivals should make a point of “bringing along” those who can’t by carrying them around in their hearts as they go about the festival, attend the teachings and receive the empowerments.  In this way, those who can’t physically come are able to “be there” anyways.  Those who can’t make it to the festivals can adopt “the mind of a festival” during festival time, and view everything that happens to them during festival time as their personalized teachings emanated through whatever happens.  Buddhas pervade all things, so there is no reason why they cannot enter into our lives and transform whatever happens during this time into our own individualized festival.  People who can’t attend can also make a point of “tuning in” during the teachings and empowerments, mentally imagining they are receiving them at a distance through their meditation practices during teaching time.  They can also deeply rejoice in those who are able to make it, thereby creating the causes to perhaps one day be able to go back.  Whether we attend festivals or not, all of us from time to time will go on vacation (or “holiday” as the Brits call it).  Whether we are on holiday at Manjushri or on the beaches of Bali, there is no reason why we cannot impute “spiritual holiday” on this time.  Viewed in this way, while we still try make it if we can, it doesn’t matter whether we are physically present at the festival or not, we can attend anyways.  While we still encourage people to come, it doesn’t matter if our Sangha friends make it to the festival or not, we bring them along anyways.  It doesn’t matter whether we are at a festival or on a regular vacation, both can equally be viewed as our “spiritual holidays.”

It is true “centers,” “retreats,” “teachings,” “Sangha” and “festivals” are the main gateways for those seeking liberation, and we should cherish these things as our Guru’s greatest gifts to us.  But we need the wisdom to know there are many different ways we can integrate these things into our lives.  Likewise non-center life is not an object of abandonment.  It is not something we need fear nor feel guilty about participating in.  If we are to fulfill Geshe-la’s vision of bringing the Dharma into every aspect of human life we all need to work on eliminating the false duality between “center” and “non-center” life, between “home” and “center,” between “retreat” and “work,” between “teachings” and “daily life,” between “Sangha” and our “loved ones,” and between “physically attending festivals” and “not.”  In reality, whether we are a center person or a non-center person, we all have center and non-center aspects of our lives.  When we are engaging in center activities, we should never forget our non-center life; and when we are engaging in non-center activities, we should never forget our center life.  If we all in this way practice inclusion instead of exclusion we can “bind together in mutual love and appreciation” these two aspects of our spiritual community into one larger spiritual family.



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.


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.


Transforming our life into the Quick Path: Being a good outer and inner example

We continue with the discussion of how to be good example.  There are three types of example we set, an outer example, an inner example and a secret example.  In this post I will explain how to set a good outer and inner example.

“be the best outer [example]…” 

First it is important to clarify a few things about being an example.  We should ‘be’ a good example, not ‘show’ one.  If we are a good example, we will naturally show such a good example.  If we try show one but are not such an example, it will come across as false and not work.  We should be the best example we can possibly be.  This means watching our behavior as best we can, imagining that we are in the presence of Geshe-la and all the Buddhas.  Part of this means being at peace with and accepting our mistakes.  Part of being perfect is creating the space to make mistakes and learn from them.

The outer example of a Kadampa is the Pratimoksha.  For our purposes, it has three elements.  First, we should harm no one.  We need to eliminate any trace of harming others with our body, speech or mind.  Second, we should help everyone.  We need to find out what others are trying to accomplish and help them do it.  And third, we need to get our life in order.  In a later post, I will explain some basic suggestions on life skills and why this is important.

I wanted to say a few words about the difference between a lay and an ordained outer example.  Within the tradition, we need a wide spectrum of examples to capture the wide spectrum of lives people have.  There is enough room for everybody as their own example within the lineage.  There are many wrong views about being lay or being ordained.   Some stay in lay life out of attachment to samsara.  Some become ordained out of aversion to engaging in certain activities or living a certain way of life, grasping at such ways of living as being inherently deluded and samsaric.  Both of these are a lack of creativity with regards to how to transform any activity into the quick path.  Each activity gives us a chance to work on certain delusions.  The training is to be able to do this activity without delusions and to engage in it with supreme virtue.  There are many layers of delusions and many layers of making any activity more virtuous.  Lay or ordained are just different personal choices of mode of practice.  What matters is that we commit our lives to the best of our ability to overcoming delusion and training in virtues for both ourselves and for others.   Gen-la Khyenrab says there is ‘one path’, whether we are lay or ordained.  The real question is our individual karma what is most beneficial for others.

“Inner example…”

The inner example of a Kadampa is a Bodhisattva.  There are three aspects to this.  First, we try gain the realizations necessary to lead others to enlightenment.  While we are still under the influence of delusions ourselves, we are limited in how much we can help others.  So we eliminate everything within us that prevents us from helping others.  Others suffer due to their delusions.  Dharma realizations oppose delusions.  We can only help others gain Dharma realizations if we ourselves have them.  So we need to focus on gaining our own realizations of solving our problems with the Dharma, then we skillfully share our experience with others.

Second, we need to live our life from the point of view of exchanging self with others.  This powerful mind gives us the wisdom which knows what is in fact good for our self and for others.  We should live our life from the perspective of exchanging self with others and view everyone as an aspect of our own mind.  We view all others as our self, and then we cherish this new ‘self’ as much as we can or want.  We see each being as an aspect or part of our mind, and we naturally feel the need to lead every aspect of our mind to enlightenment.  We can also view our self as “all others.”  In other words, we believe that everything that takes place within our own mind is a synthetic reflection of what is taking place in the minds of all others.  In summary, we say all others are my self so I need to cherish ‘myself’ as much as I can; and we say I am all others, so by working to completely purify my own mind I am in fact, like a supreme spiritual doctor, working on their mind so that they can be free (we become a Buddha for their direct benefit).  If we combine exchanging self with others with rejoicing in other’s happiness, then we can literally enjoy ourself not only all the love we give, but all of the happiness of all beings in the world!  If we truly want to love ourself, this is the way to do it!

Third, we need to become everyone’s closest and most reliable friend and confident.  We need to become the person others turn to when they are in trouble and need help.  The closer the relationships we forge with others, the deeper the levels of delusion within our own mind we work on.  I have found the best strategy for becoming this special friend for others is the following:  First, we find out what people are trying to do, and then we help them to do it.  We need to leave others completely free to make their own choices without even the most subtle form of control or manipulation.  This is particularly true in Dharma centers.  It is far too common for over-enthusiastic officers of Dharma centers, convinced by the higher moral calling of their purpose, wind up using the Dharma to manipulate others into accomplish their personal wishes and vision for the center.  Then, when others don’t dutifully comply, tensions and conflict inevitably ensue.  Instead, the officers of a Kadampa centers should ask themselves what are the pure spiritual wishes and projects that the members of the center already have, and then they dedicate themselves to helping those members accomplish their visions.  The officers are there to serve the community, not the other way around. 

In all circumstances, whether we are in a center or at our work or home, we need to have no personal need whatsoever that others make certain choices or do certain things.  No matter what others do, from our perspective, it will be equally good for our practice.  When we see somebody in need, we should never force our help on them.  Instead, we just offer it and leave it to them to decide if want to take it.  Generating the intention to help others naturally creates opportunities to do so. 

The best way of helping others is to relate to their good qualities.  Relating to their good qualities is a means of drawing them out.  This is not difficult to do.  It is merely a question of not having inappropriate attention with regards to others faults and instead to practice appropriate attention to their good qualities.  If we are to help others, we need to have something useful to offer them.  The most useful thing we can offer to others is our own experience of solving your problems by changing your mind through practicing Dharma.  But if we can’t provide such help to others, we should not hesitate to help others in any other way possible, even if on the surface it seems we are providing worldly help to them.  We may be providing worldly help, but we are dedicating the merit we create to later be able to help them with spiritual matters.  And by helping them in worldly ways, we draw ourselves closer to them and later this close relationship will be the conduit through which we can help them follow the spiritual path. 


Transforming our life into the Quick Path: Reliance and respecting other’s freedom


We can summarize what it means to be a good example with the following phrase:  “While relying exclusively upon the spiritual guide as the source of all our actions and respecting completely everyone’s freedom to make their own choices, be the best outer, inner and secret example you can be of changing your own mind with the Dharma.”  Over the next four posts, I will expand upon the meaning of this phrase.

“While relying exclusively upon the spiritual guide as the source of all our actions…”

We can say we have two sources of our actions within us.  First is our ignorance and self-cherishing.  This is the current source from which all our actions arise.  The second is our wisdom.  This is actually our true self, which is none other than the Spiritual Guide within us.  Our job is to train in making the spiritual guide the source of all our actions.  By doing so, all our actions will be those of a Buddha, and our life will become the quick path.  Relying exclusively upon the guru is actually quite simple, it is merely a question of which mind we make requests to and it is a question of which mind we choose to listen to and follow.  For more information on this see the series of posts on Activating the Inner Spiritual Guide and relying upon the Guru’s mind alone, which you can find in the category section. 

But briefly, what is the actual method for having the guru be the source of all our actions? Geshe-la gave some special advice on this to the ITTP several years ago.  First, we need to make completely still your ordinary self to get out of the way.  Then, we generate a pure spiritual motivation to help those around us.  The scope of our motivation determines the scope of the actions that arise.  We should recall that our guru (definitive Vajradhara) is none other than our own true self, the foundation of our being.  Then, with deep faith, we request him to reveal to us what we should do.  Then, we surrender ourself fully to him so that he may work through us and he can use us as one of his limbs.  If we can master this, we can effectively accomplish all actions through invoking the Buddhas with a pure intention.  This enables us to engage in a Buddhas actions right now.

In particular, we can have all our actions be those of a Buddha from right now by learning how to invoke the Buddhas, in particular, the guru, yidam and protector, to accomplish their function.  There is little difference between being able to do things ourself and being able to ask somebody else to do something.  From the point of view of effect created in the world, it is the same.  Through the above method we can request the three principal deities to accomplish their function for ourself or for others, we invoke them to accomplish their function.  Clearly they will only do this if our motivation is correct, we have deep faith, and we understand how they are not separate from us.

The three principal deities and their function can be understood as follows:  The Guru guides us as to what to do and how to help others.  The Yidam, or personal deity, is the source of all our actions and who we ultimately strive to be.  The Yidam has the power to bestow blessings on others.  The Protector arranges everything so that whatever circumstances arise, it functions to forge us as quickly as possible into the Buddha we need to become.  We can accomplish all the four types of actions (pacifying, increasing, controlling and wrathful) through relying upon him.

We need to spend time building links with these three deities to increase our access to their power and function.  The most important thing is to build faith in them that they are there and ready to respond and help.  During the meditation session, we should feel as if we retreat into the pure land in our heart and we mix fully with them to gather their strength and wisdom.  Then, during the meditation break, we use them to accomplish all your actions in the way described above.

“and respecting completely everyone’s freedom to make their own choices…” 

We need to respect completely everyone’s freedom to make their own choices.  For Dharma to work it has to come from one’s own side, and one’s own desires.  When we do not respect the freedom of others, it invites rebellion and resistance.  Since we only want what is good for others, to not respect them sends them in the exact opposite direction.  We need to leave everyone free to contribute in their own way that they see best.  We should not have pre-conceived notions of what they should do.  We give to others the principles and let them decide themselves how to best contribute.  In particular, we need to do this without any trace of judgment.  If we judge others, they become defensive and self-justify, so we just create the conditions for them to hold on even more tightly to their wrong views.  In contrast, by accepting others fully, we create the space for them to change from their own side.

We need to be skillful.  We should not try to change others to adopt our view because when we do so it comes across as being patronizing, prideful and manipulative.  Instead, in our own actions, we should respect other people’s choices and make our own actions correct.  Other people do not have to understand what we are doing or thinking, but we do and we have to know with an honest mind whether what we are doing is right or just an excuse for remaining ordinary and deluded.  We have a tendency to project others are judging us and then we feel the need to defend against it.  When we do so, we wind up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We project others are judging us out of our own insecurity and doubt about whether we are doing something wrong.  If we clarify this internally, the people appearing to judge us will simply dis-appear.

We will inevitably encounter situations where there is a difference of view with someone.  Our goal during such discussions should be to avoid constructing things where one person is right and the other is wrong, rather we should strive for a situation where both people are equally right, just in different ways and from different perspectives.  We can simply explain why our way of viewing things works for us, without trying to impose our view on others or convince others that our view is superior.  If others find our view to be interesting and valid, then they can adopt it from their own side.  From our side, we simply clarify how we think and understand things.  In general, unless the circumstances call for it, we should not enter into debates with others.  Above all, when we are giving advice to others, we should never accuse them of having a particular delusion.  Instead, we should tell stories about ourselves in similar circumstances and explain how our own mind works in deluded ways, or we can tell stories of people we know in similar circumstances and we can use their story to illustrate how things work.  But we leave others to make the final step of connecting the story to their own lives and situation. 

It is a misuse of Dharma to try to change others with it when we have attachment to them changing.  All of Dharma is and should be viewed as personal advice.  We often feel others are judging us unfairly, so we want to change their views out of an attachment to getting them to stop.  We feel justified in doing so because ‘we are right’.  But because our motivation is attachment/aversion, when we do go out to ‘change others’, others will merely see us acting out of defensiveness and self-justification.  They will then train themselves in rejecting what we have to say, even if what we have to say is correct.

Transforming our life into the Quick Path: Building our spiritual reliquary

To give our life direction, we need to have a life project.  Shantideva explains that our project is to build our spiritual reliquary.  Collectively, as a tradition, we are trying to build an outer and inner reliquary to give to others in future generations.  When we understand this from the point of view of emptiness, we need to build our reliquary for our world, our dream.   In short, we need to work on what endures – karma, realizations, and our reliquary.

We need to invest our time, energy and resources into building an external and internal reliquary that we will leave behind for the beings of this world.  The inner reliquary is our own spiritual realizations obtained for and dedicated to others.  They are our own realizations which we gain for the benefit of others that we carry with us into our future lives.  The most important part of our reliquary is ourself as a Buddha.   The most important part of the reliquary is building ourselves as a Buddha for others.  We likewise do the same in others by helping them gain realizations so there are more beings with realizations in our karmically appearing world.

The external reliquary is what we give in time, energy and resources to the destruction of delusions and the flourishing of Dharma in this world.  Our local center and the Sangha community is our main reliquary.   We need to build them up so that they endure and become self-perpetuating.  The objects of our reliquary are our Books, sadhanas, temples, centers and sangha.  But the real inner reliquary are the inner realizations and karma of practitioners.

It is really worth considering how the reliquary works.  A former student of mine in Lausanne once generated the intention to receive a Medicine Buddha empowerment for the benefit of a particular family, and a year later, the conditions ripened where this happened.  We make intentions to perpetually become ourselves whatever other living beings need.  When this fully ripens, we spontaneously give to others without having to generate anew the conceptual intention to do it. 

Strategically speaking, Venerable Geshe-la encourages us to think cosmically, but to act locally in tight, pure concentrations that gradually expand.  A Dharma center is like an outpost for the Buddhas in the barbarian land or wild west of this deluded world.  We need to build the pure land around us in close proximity, with tight concentration of high quality, and then gradually radiate out.  We work immediately around us, working to concretely transform our world into a pure land.  We shouldn’t spread ourself too thin, instead we should expand gradually over time by focusing on quality and purity.  We need to karmically reconstruct our dream into the pure land, like Mount Meru arising out of the swamp of samsara.  We need to build your own mandala, externally and internally.  Our mandala should be built in a non-exclusive way.  Everybody is invited in, and you share it with everyone.  Within our mandala, everyone is free to do as the wish.  The pure land is a place of total freedom.

We should think of building our reliquary as the very means by which we provide ourselves with provisions for the continuation of our spiritual project in future lives.  In general in life, we need to invest time, energy and resources into that which is most beneficial and produces the highest possible return for our self and others.  Karmically, everything we invest for others we invest for our own future lives.  Other living beings are like magical time machines for transporting what we have in the present to ourselves in the future when we do not have these things.  In our future lives, we will karmically inherit the reliquary that we create and give in this life.  For example, the NKT is Venerable Geshe-la’s reliquary in this world. 

We need to become a spiritual philanthropist across time.  We will inherit the reliquary that we give away to others.   We will lose forever that which we keep for ourself.  The reliquary will appear to us in our future lives to benefit us to the extent to which we use it now to benefit others.  We will find the reliquary to the extent to which we help others to find it now.  It will appear attractive and useful to the extent to which we render it attractive and useful to others now.  This depends on ourself finding it attractive and useful.  Which itself depends on us relating to it with an attractive and useful mind.

Specifically, what do we need to do to re-find the reliquary in our future lives?  We need to align our personal motivation with that of the reliquary.  If we do this, we will flow in the same direction as it and more easily re-find it.  We need to concentrate on putting into practice the  instructions we have received.  Every time we do so, we create karmic connections between ourselves and the spiritual guide who gives the instructions.  Since he is at the center of the reliquary, we will be reborn with him.  We should also pray to never be separated from it in all our future lives until we complete the final goal.

Whatever we do, we should pour ourself fully into doing it as part of building our reliquary.  To enjoy ourselves, we need to get our effort right.  We do this by pouring ourselves into everything we do.  Right now, we either do not do samsara because we feel guilty and we know it does not work anyway or we do not do Dharma because we are afraid of changing and think we will lose the only remaining happiness we have.  The end result is we are just unhappy and bitter with both our life and our practice.  But if we pour ourselves into all that we do, focusing on doing things well, we will enjoy all that we do.  We need to live our life from the point of view of ‘doing’ instead of ‘being.’  When we pour ourselves into all that we do, we will seek how to do things better and better.  We will naturally then bring Dharma into it because it works to makes everything better.  Whatever we do, we do it with quality and we do it well.  My grandma always used to say, ‘a job worth doing is a job worth doing well.’

In the end, having our life’s project be building our reliquary is about creating good causes.   There are two levels to this:  First is responding well to whatever arises.  Appearances arise, our job is to respond to them correctly.  When we do so, the appearances become increasingly pacified and we create good causes for the future. Very simply, we try to respond to whatever appears with the least delusion and the most virtue possible. Second is building our reliquary for the future.  It is not enough to just respond, we also need to actively shape our reality by creating a new one.

Our biggest obstacle to doing this is our preoccupation with worldly concerns.  To overcome this, we can repeat the mantra, “So what, quit whining and get on with it.”  ‘So what’ means live life from the point of view of the mental factor of discrimination, it doesn’t matter what you are feeling or what effects are ripening.  ‘Quit whining’ means realize that everything is perfect and stop wishing things were otherwise.  Stop self-cherishing making such a drama out of it.  ‘Get on with it’ means just practice what you need to do.


Transforming our life into the quick path: Assume responsibility for your part of the lineage

In Joyful Path, Geshe-la says one of the most important minds in the Lamrim is superior intention, taking personal responsibility for the spiritual welfare of others.  Each one of us has a responsibility for part of the lineage.  Our part of the lineage is the specific understanding of Dharma that transforms our life into the path to enlightenment.  Other people in future generations will have lives similar to ours.  We learn how to transform a life like ours into the path and then we share what we have learned in the hope it proves beneficial to others with similar lives.

Our responsibility is towards all the beings of future generations who have the same type of life as ourselves.   Our job is to learn how to make a life like ours into the quick path.  We need to learn how to use everything for the accomplishment of our training.  Ven. Tharchin says we need to design our own enlightenment.  What kind of Buddha am I going to be?  If we learn how to transform our life into the quick path with a bodhichitta motivation for the sake of those with a similar life, then we will become a Buddha who has that specific power. Then, situations where we can help will naturally arise and we just share our experience.  I have a very close friend who has been in a psychiatric hospital for about 15 years now.  He is a very pure Dharma practitioner, but the tendencies that ripen in his mind are horrific.  He says, “I am training to be a Buddha of extremely degenerate times.  In the future, all beings will have tendencies of mind like I do.  I am training to be a Buddha for such time.”  This attitude is perfect.

Very often we think we cannot transform our life into the quick path because our life isn’t conducive to that.  But because everything is equally empty, everything can equally function for us as the quick path.  Because we grasp at some things as being inherently better, we conceive of things as obstacles and when we can’t overcome them, we make excuses for not practicing or we develop aversion for our life.  Geshe-la explains in Universal Compassion that obstacles are created when we grasp at certain situations as being better than others.  Assenting to this is laziness and an ignorance.  Sometimes we think our obstacles are particularly difficult.  Actually, there is no situation that can prevent us from practicing Dharma.  All lives are equally good for practice because everything is equally empty.  No matter what our situation  nothing can prevent us from loving others and training our mind. 

We need to optimize on the two forms of practice, formal and informal.  From one perspective, it is easier to only practice Dharma when all day we are only practicing Dharma directly and formally.  This is important and if we have such a life, we should be very happy.  For the rest of us, our job is to learn to equally practice Dharma regardless of where we are and what we are doing.  We need to learn how to ‘attain enlightenment where we stand.’  We need to optimize between these two, formal and informal ways of practicing, for maximum transformation of our mind.  We need to alternative between these two, between our meditation sessions and our meditation break; between our teachings and working in the field; between our retreat and our daily life.

What matters is not how we practice, rather that we dedicate our entire life to the practicing of Dharma and to the destruction of delusions in the minds of living beings in this world.  Shantideva says we are at war.  How we specifically wage that war depends on our karma and everyone is different.  When we grasp that one way of doing things (formal, ordained or informal, lay) IS best, it blocks the mind to creatively see how to make any life a quick path.  This leads to suffering in minds of those who do not have the karma to lead such a life and causes them to impute obstacle on everything that prevents them from doing so.

How do we actually transform every aspect of our life into the quick path?    Practically speaking, we need to look at everything in life and see how it can be part of our practice.  Every situation gives us an opportunity to overcome delusions.  With training, we can get to the point where we can go anywhere with anybody doing anything and be free from delusion.  Wherever we can’t currently do so is our samsara because we are unfree.  Liberation is complete freedom. 

We need to request Dorje Shugden, “please forge me in the fires of my karma into the Buddha that I need to become / into a fully qualified Kadampa Spiritual Guide.”  Then, every situation should be viewed through the lens of the opportunity it provides us to train our mind in abandoning delusion and cultivating virtues.  One of the most important things for being able to do this is to maintain pure view of others.  Geshe-la explained at the Spring Festival many years ago that Buddha Vajradhara intentionally appears in the aspect of ordinary beings for us to act normally with them, and by doing so, we will create the causes to become a Buddha ourself.  Because we conceive of all beings engaging in enlightened actions, it karmically reconstructs others into Buddhas and we receive maximum benefit.

Our ability to maintain this pure view arises in dependence upon first and foremost our Bodhichitta intention.  The function of an object is determined by our intention.  By wanting to become a Buddha, it changes the function of every object to be a cause of our enlightenment.   When we are unsure how something is perfect for our practice, we can ask ourselves specific questions: What delusions does this situation provoke?  What does this situation give me an opportunity to practice?  What spiritual lessons can I learn from this/does this teach me? What does this situation teach me about the truth of Dharma?  When we have answers to these questions, we will understand how the situation can be viewed as emanated.   These questions will give us valid reasons for believing it to be true that everything is emanated for our practice.  On the basis of this, we practice the believing faith that others are Buddhas intentionally doing whatever they are doing to give us an opportunity to practice something or to teach us something about the truth of Dharma.  It doesn’t matter if this is objectively true – nothing is – what matters is that it is very beneficial to believe.

In terms of how to respond to the various situations we encounter, Geshe-la gave us a powerful and simple practice at the Spring Festival many years ago called “integrating Lamrim into our daily appearance.”  Whenever we experience suffering, we view it as a reminder of the far worse suffering we will experience in countless future lives if we don’t attain liberation.  So this appearance is encouraging us to attain liberation.  Whenever we see others experiencing suffering, we view it as a reminder that all our mothers will experience far worse suffering in all their future lives if we do not become a Buddha and free them.  So this appearance is encouraging us to attain enlightenment for their benefit.  Whenever we see any attractive, unattractive or neutral appearance, we view it as a reminder that the things we normally see do not exist at all.  These are just dream like appearances within our mind.  So the appearance of inherently existent forms reminds us that they are empty of such existence.  Geshe-la said by practicing in this way, we can enter the pure land.  He then said something amazing:  he said the mind of Lamrim itself is Sukavati pure land.

Transforming our life into the Quick Path: Reconstruct our dream

Is this world samsara or is it part of the pure land?  Actually, it is neither.  Because it is empty, this world is nothing other than how we discriminate it.  This world is samsara if we look at it from a samsaric point of view.  This world is part of the pure land if we look at it from a pure point of view.  So is our waking reality a training simulation orchestrated by Dorje Shugden or not?  It is if we view it that way.  It is not if we do not.  The choice is ours.

We need valid reasons to be able to look at our life in this way.  It is more beneficial to view it this way.  By doing so, everything becomes part of our training to become a Buddha.  This is how pure beings view it.  For a pure being, this is a pure world.  For an ignorant being, this is a world of suffering.  The minds of ignorant beings are mistaken, the minds of pure beings are not.    If we request Dorje Shugden to make our life a training simulation, he has the power to do so since all things are mere karmic appearances to mind and he has the power to manage what karma ripens if we request him to.  On the basis of these valid reasons, we train in believing that it is, and through the power of this, it will be and become this for us.

So how can we view things in this light?   The purpose of everything Dorje Shugden emanates for us is to forge us into the Buddha we need to become.  He orchestrates what appears in our life optimally to the extent to which we request him to and that we have faith in him.  But he leaves it up to us to make our own choices.

We can practice this according to completion stage by imagining our entire world is taking place inside of our indestructible drop.  We imagine we are inside the emptiness of our very subtle mind of great bliss.  This itself is inside the indestructible drop.  To strengthen our bodhichitta, we can believe that we are living our life inside the hearts of all living beings.  So everything we do in this space reflects into the minds of each and every living being.  If we generate love, love is generated in the minds of all beings.  If we generate the intention to attain enlightenment, this intention is generated in the minds of all beings.  In summary, we can view our whole life as a bodhisattva training ground emanated by Dorje Shugden and taking place inside the emptiness of our very subtle mind inside the drop.  We can view every object as a ripple on our very subtle mind emanated by your guru as part of our training. 

When we understand the emptiness of ourself, our world and others, we realize our real task is to karmically reconstruct our dream from a world of suffering into a pure land for ourself and for all living beings in it.  When we do this from the point of view of exchanging self with others, we view the delusions of anybody as our own delusions.  It is part of the fabric of our mind that needs to be liberated from all delusions.

What makes accomplishing our task difficult is each being has their own mind and the law of karma applies to each mind.  So they will only experience the effect of being in the pure land if they engage in the actions of the stages of the path from their own side and from their own free desire (because it is intention that creates karma).  So the practical conclusion is we need to get each being from their own side to engage in all of the stages of the path to enlightenment.

So how do we do this?  If we are a kadampa, the basic strategy we follow is that of the Kadampa Tradition of Je Tsongkhapa.  What is this basic strategy of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition:  We become ourselves a fully qualified Kadampa spiritual guide who then forms other fully qualified Kadampa Spiritual Guides, who have the intention to form others, etc. 

There are two levels at which we operate to get all living beings from their own side to engage in all of the stages of the path.  The practical means of doing this can be understood as follows: The goal of helping others is to teach them to walk on their own.  With somebody, we are like a spiritual parent.  In beginning, we help people with whatever they are doing practically.  Then, we help people transform whatever problems they have into their practice.  Then, we work with them step by step showing how to solve their problems by changing their mind with the Dharma.  Then, we help them by not giving answers, but by asking the right questions.  Then, we do not indulge their delusions.  Then, we should be willing to let them fall so they can learn to walk on their own.  Then, we give them discretion within a box.  Then, we help them in a supporting role to accomplish their own spiritual projects and aspirations.  Then, we let them completely run on their own and just be there for them when they want to come to us for help.

The profound means of karmically reconstructing others can be understood as follows:  We need to engage in the Guru Yoga of everything.  People appear to us as ordinary because in the past we engaged in the mental action of assenting to our ordinary appearance.  This planted the karma which ripens now in the appearance of others as being ordinary engaging in ordinary actions.  By maintaining pure view, we plant the karma on our mind which will ripen in the future in the form of all beings engaging in enlightened actions.  If we do this, later each being of our dream will appear to us to be engaging in the stages of the path to enlightenment from their own side.  We need to be patient with this, a farmer does not plant seeds and expect the crop to ripen the next moment.

What are the benefits of this?  First, by believing it to be true, it will become true.  Because this view is a correct imagination, by believing it to be true, it will increasingly become our living reality.  This will first happen as a conceived pure land – by believing this to be true, we enter the conceived pure land.  When it becomes our habit to view things this way, we can say we are abiding in a conceived pure land.  Later, this will happen as an appearing pure land – by relating to the pure appearances as if they were true, we create the karma that karmically reconstructs our dream world where it will actually appear to us directly to be true.  The second benefit of this practice is it gives us a correct attitude towards our practice.  Everything is important, but nothing is serious.  We view life as a challenging game that we need to learn how to play well.  The third benefit is we naturally create the causes to become a Buddha as quickly as possible.  If this is the story of our life, we will live our life accordingly and everything we do will be directed at attaining enlightenment.  The fourth benefit is we will draw out the best in others.  What we relate to, we draw out.  If we view everybody as Buddhas sent to help forge us into a Buddha, we will draw out their pure qualities in them.