Vows, commitments and modern life: Abandon harm

The commitments of abandonment. 

These are to abandon negative actions, especially killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants.

In a general sense, the commitments of abandonment encompass all of our other vows, but with a particular emphasis on refraining from any type of negativity.  The entire practice of the moral discipline of restraint in all of its various forms is included within this.  In particular, outwardly we need to train in the Pratimoksha vows.

Earlier in this series, I explored in detail each of the Pratimoksha vows.  For a more information on each one, you can consult those posts.  But here, I want to discuss the Pratimoksha vows from the perspective of highest yoga tantra.  Each of the Pratimoksha vows takes on a different level of meaning when looked at from the perspective of highest yoga tantra.  The path of Tantra can most easily be understood as “bringing the future result into the path.”  We first generate within our mind an enlightened being, and then we try identify with that.  In the meditation session, we primarily focus on our inner training of bodhichitta and on our secret training in bliss and emptiness.  But during the meditation break, we primarily focus on observing the moral discipline of the Pratimoksha and engaging in the actions of a Buddha in this world (which, at our level, means training in the bodhisattva’s way of life, or the practice of the six perfections).

In essence, even though we are not yet a Buddha, we try act like a Buddha would act.  A Buddha would never kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, lie or take intoxicants.  So as a Tantric practitioner trying to bring the future result into the path, neither should we.  It is not different than young Christians who wear bracelets that say, “what would Jesus do?”  We ask ourselves, “what would Heruka do?”

The key to understanding tantric moral discipline is to understand that built into our self-generation is a tantric exchanging of self with others.  According to Sutra, exchanging self with others means exchanging the object of our cherishing from self to others.  According to Tantra, exchanging self with others means actually exchanging the basis of imputation for “I” and “others.”  At present, we look at our ordinary body and mind and we think, “I.”  Likewise, we look at the bodies and minds of others and we think, “others.”  When we exchange ourself with others according to Tantra, when we look at the bodies and minds of what we used to think of as others we think, “I” and when we look at the body and mind of what we used to think of as I we think, “others.”

Viewed in this way, violating the Pratimoksha vows becomes almost impossible.  It would be as hard for us to kill others as it currently would be to kill ourselves.  At present we are extremely miserly and we would resist mightily if somebody tried to steal from us, but after we have exchanged ourself with others according to Tantra it becomes equally difficult to steal from anybody else because for us it would be like stealing from ourself and giving it to others.  At present, we would become quite upset if our partner cheated on us with somebody else.  We would quite rightly feel betrayed by such an action.  When we have exchanged self with others according to Tantra, we would become quite upset if “others” (or old self) were to cheat on “us” (formerly others).  Right now, we absolutely can’t stand it when people lie to us, and we always want them to tell us the truth and never deceive us.  When we have exchanged ourself with others according to Tantra, we similarly would find it completely unacceptable that “others” (or former self) lie to “us” (formerly others).  Finally, right now we can’t stand it when people blow smoke in our face or if they get intoxicated in our presence and act all stupid.  When we see people indulging in intoxicants, we naturally think they have no self-discipline nor self-respect.  We also will do everything we can to help people not fall into the abyss of using intoxicants and we naturally feel respect for those who abstain from such behavior.  When we have exchanged self with others according to Tantra, we wouldn’t want “others” (our former self) to blow smoke in our face, get intoxicated or become dependent upon such substances.  And we would naturally respect our former self (now seen as “others”) for their restraint in not indulging in such things.

The amazing thing about exchanging self with others according to Tantra is after the exchange what were delusions become virtues!  Our self-grasping becomes abandoning killing, our miserliness and possessiveness becomes abandoning stealing, our jealousy becomes abandoning sexual misconduct, our self-cherishing becomes abandoning lying, and our aversion to others acting in stupid ways becomes abandoning intoxicants.  We find it effortless to generate such delusions, so all we need to do is exchange self with others according to Tantra and then act as “deluded” as we possibly can.  The more “deluded” we are after the exchanging, the more “virtuous” we wind up acting.  No need to develop new mental habits, just exchange self with others!

More detail on this practice can be found in Chapter 8 of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life and in its commentary Meaningful to Behold.

Vows, commitments and modern life: Spiritual feminism

Scorning women. 

If a male practitioner criticizes women, saying ‘women are bad’, he incurs a root downfall.  Among women there are many emanations of Vajrayogini, and by criticizing women in general we criticize these emanations and thereby block our development of bliss.  Female practitioners incur a similar root downfall if they criticize men.

Most societies around the world contain a good deal of sexism.  This is the legacy of times when physical strength was at a premium for productive activity.  But in modern times where it is our social and intellectual capabilities that matter, there is no place for sexist attitudes.  Indeed, such attitudes are a downfall of our tantric vows.

It is important that we make a distinction between acknowledging gender differences and passing value judgments about those differences.  For a variety of social and cultural reasons, it is true that women are more likely to get socialized into certain values and behaviors and men are more likely to get socialized into different values and behaviors.  Different life experiences will naturally wire our mind in different ways.  Acknowledging this is not a problem.  The problems come when we grasp at these differences as being somehow inherent between the two different genders.  Such differences are the product of cultural and social forces, as well as a question of what karmic tendencies happen to be ripening in any particular life.  The second problem comes when we pass value judgments about these differences saying some qualities and characteristics are better than others in a universal sense, and so therefore one gender is better than another.  The most we can say is for certain activities certain characteristics or qualities are more effective, for example being really strong will make you a better lumberjack and being very patient will make you a better kindergarten teacher.

Fortunately, modern societies are definitively moving in the direction of a more balanced attitude between women and men, though there still remains many negative stereotypes.  But professionally speaking, a modern economy tends to favor qualities typically associated with women, such as patience, a caring and nurturing attitude, social sense and so forth.  Jobs in medicine, education, basically any service are more geared towards these qualities.  Unsurprisingly, women today are graduating at higher rates than men, and entering the professional work force at higher rates than men.  But there still tends to be prejudice against women who occupy higher positions where decisions are made, and in the math and sciences.  We should make a point to be mindful where we might have prejudicial attitudes against women, and actively seek to correct them.

Likewise, there is also a growing tendency for some women to realize that the modern world is breaking in their direction and they conclude that they are better than men in some universal sense.  It is perfectly conceivable as the economy evolves for in a few hundred years attitudes reverse and we have a societal problem of reverse sexism against men.  Both attitudes are equally wrong.

Finally, it should also be noted that there still tends to be a great deal of prejudicial attitudes that show up with respect to fixed notions of sexual identity and preference.  Sexual identity is how much one conventionally identifies with being male or female.  Previously, thinking was if you have a male body you should identify with being male, and if you don’t, then there is something wrong with you.  Highly effeminate individuals who happen to be in a male body are considered an aberration. Likewise highly masculine individuals who happen to be in a female body are considered an aberration.  The reality is there is a full spectrum of possibilities of highly effeminate individuals in female bodies to highly masculine individuals in male bodies, and all sorts of permutations in between.

What we identify with is the fruit of what ripened effects, what tendencies similar to the cause ripened in any given life, and what environmental effects one is exposed to.  The ripened effect determines what body we take on, the tendencies similar to the cause determine what qualities we identify with.  Our life experience, upbringing and socio-cultural environment are all the fruit of karmic environmental effects.  Just as there are infinite karmic combinations possible, so too there will be infinite combinations of bodies and senses of identity.  All are equally good, just different.

In the same way, there is a wide variety of sexual preferences one could have.  What we are attracted to sexually is likewise a product of different ripened effects, tendencies similar to the cause and environmental effects.  For a variety of biological reasons, those born male are more likely to be attracted to those born female, but not absolutely so.  For purely karmic reasons, it is perfect possible that the tendencies similar to the cause of being attracted to women could ripen at the same time as the ripened effect of being born a woman ripens.  This would karmically create a lesbian.  Someone could grow up in a social environment where different sexual preferences are fully respected or fully persecuted.  This will also have an effect on how the different karma ripens over the course of an individual’s lifetime.  Once again, there is a full spectrum of possibilities of a highly effeminate individual born into a female body who is intensely and unambiguously attracted to men to a highly masculine individual born into a male body who is intensely and unambiguously attracted to women, and there is every possible combination in between.  From a spiritual point of view, all of these different combinations are equally good, just in different ways.  From a Buddhist point of view, there is no basis for discriminatory or judgmental attitudes towards any of these combinations.

The Tantric solution to all of these forms of prejudicial attitudes is to view everyone equally as emanations of Heruka and Vajrayogini.  Whether you view somebody as Heruka or as Vajrayogini, both deities are there.  Both are filled with great and powerful sexual energy, both male and female, in perfect harmony though slightly different balances.  Whether somebody is a Heruka or Vajrayogini practitioner has absolutely nothing to do with whether they are male or female, gay or straight, or anything else.  It is all a function of different karmic feeling and predisposition.  From a spiritual point of view, both are equally good just in different ways.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  The vajra and bell are not useless

Not maintaining commitment objects.

Our Tantric texts explain three ways of incurring this downfall.  One way is if we refuse to accept the various commitment substances passed round during an empowerment or in a tsog offering puja, thinking that these substances are unclean.  A second way is not keeping a vajra and bell thinking that these objects are meaningless.  Yogis and Yoginis who have attained the realization of isolated mind also incur this downfall if they refuse to accept and action mudra without good reason.

During the empowerment or during tsog offering pujas, various substances are passed around that we partake of.  All tantric practices are aimed at overcoming ordinary appearance and ordinary conceptions.  We can take, for example, our inner offering.  Conventionally speaking, it is a nectar pill inside some alcohol.  The nectar pill itself is made of various plants and other normal substances.  Mentally, however, we imagine that it is the five meats and the five nectars.  The five meats and the five nectars (before being purified and transformed) are understood to be five 5 disgusting solids and liquids in a human body.  We then mentally imagine we purify and transform these disgusting substances through the ritual prayer into a completely pure inner offering, which we then partake of and imagine we generate uncontaminated bliss.  This action can be engaged in with three very different minds, each with different effects.  We could mentally think it is just some plants in some alcohol and we would think the whole exercise is meaningless.  We could think it really is the disgusting solids and liquids of the body and become grossed out and not want to do it.  Or we could think we have actually purified and transformed the substances and it is medicine nectar which heals our mind and bestows upon us uncontaminated wisdom.  If we fall into the second of these possibilities, we incur a downfall.  An exception to this would be if we are allergic to the substances passed around.  If we are allergic, it is fine to imagine you are partaking of the substance but not actually do so.  There is no need to go into anaphylactic shock during an empowerment or tsog puja!

The second way we incur a downfall is by not keeping a vajra and bell thinking that such objects are meaningless.  During the empowerment, we assume the commitment to maintain a vajra and bell viewing them as bliss and emptiness respectively.  There are two types of vajra and bell – namely the outer and inner vajra and bell.  The outer vajra and bell are the actual ritual objects, usually made of metal that we can buy in the Dharma shop at festivals or at our local center.  The inner vajra and bell are the realizations of bliss and emptiness within our own mind.  Our final goal is to develop within our mind the inner vajra and bell.  Our outer vajra and bell are physical reminders of this final goal.  A very common mistake is to think because the inner vajra and bell is the final goal that the outer vajra and bell are meaningless.  If we think this, we incur this downfall.  The outer vajra and bell are meaningful precisely because they do remind us of our final goal, and we need constant reminders of this.  In any given day, we encounter countless different objects.  How many of these objects remind us of bliss and emptiness?  Not many, if any at all.  Just as having a Buddha statue reminds us of Buddha in our lives, so too maintaining an outer vajra and bell helps remind us of the importance of developing within our mind the inner vajra and bell of bliss and emptiness.  It is not enough to simply “own” a vajra and bell and feel like we have checked the box of this vow.  We need to make a point of looking at and/or holding our vajra and bell, and when we do so we make a point of reminding ourselves of the inner vajra and bell.  If we fail to do this, we encounter this downfall.  It is for this reason that practitioners are encouraged to hold their vajra and playing the bell when they are engaging in their self-generation sadhanas to serve as a reminder.  But if for practical reasons, such as waking up your family members, this is not possible, there is no fault for not doing so.

The third way we incur this downfall is, without a good reason, we do not accept an action mudra if we have attained isolated mind of completion stage.  Isolated mind of completion stage is a very advanced realization.  It occurs when we have effectively gathered, dissolved and absorbed almost all of our winds into our central channel at our heart.  When we rely upon an action mudra correctly, it functions to untie the last knots within our subtle body enabling all of our winds to gather and dissolve into our central channel at our heart.  Once this has happened, we can generate a fully qualified mind of clear light, first as ultimate example clear light and finally as meaning clear light of completion stage.  If we attain the realization of meaning clear light, it is said we can attain full enlightenment in three years or even three months.  When we consider we have been planting contaminated karma on our root mind for countless aeons, the prospect of being able to uproot all of that contaminated karma in such a short period of time is inconceivably fortunate.

The reason why it is a downfall to not accept an action mudra once we have attained isolated mind is the longer we take to attain enlightenment, the longer those beings we would otherwise help if we did attain enlightenment will remain trapped in samsara.  Since our goal is to help all living beings, even delaying our enlightenment for a short period of time gets multiplied by the number of living beings and so the consequences are quite significant.  What are some good reasons, then, for not accepting an action mudra.  The most obvious one is we are an ordained monk or nun!  Because in modern times for a monk or nun to take an action mudra would be seen as a sexual scandal which would bring the individual, the Sangha and the Tantric path itself into disrepute, it is perfectly valid to delay taking an action mudra until the practitioner gets to the pure land!  This does not mean, however, that it is a fault for the ordained tantric practitioner to take an inner action mudra, imagining that they are engaging in qualified union with their Tantric consort in the context of their training in the Tantric path.  Such a practice will bring the ordained tantric practitioner almost all of the way so that it will be possible to untie the last knots at the time of death, thus making taking an action mudra unnecessary, or essentially guaranteeing that they will take rebirth in a tantric pure land where they can complete their training.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  Don’t commit spiritual murder

Destroying others’ faith.

If we cause someone’s faith in Secret Mantra to degenerate by telling them that the practice of Secret Mantra is dangerous and advising them to remain with Sutra practices we incur a root downfall.

Venerable Tharchin says that if we take full advantage of the spiritual opportunities that appear to us we create the causes to have even better spiritual opportunities in the future, but if we do not take full advantage of these opportunities we will burn up the karma that gave rise to them and we will have even fewer spiritual opportunities in the future.

It is said in the Lamrim that the odds of us finding the Dharma are equivalent to the odds of a blind turtle putting its head through a golden yoke floating on top of the ocean when that turtle surfaces only once every 100 years.  If you assume that the surface area of the yoke is one square meter (a yoke for an elephant), the surface of the earth is 510 million square kilometers, and the average life span of a person is 100 years, then it means we only find the Dharma once every 510 trillion lifetimes!  To find the teachings on Tantra is rarer still.  It is said of the 1,000 Buddhas of this fortunate aeon, only the 4th, 11th and last will teach Tantra.  So at a minimum, this means the odds of finding Tantra is equivalent to the blind turtle only surfacing once every 33,333 years (1000 Buddhas divided by only 3 teaching Tantra times the 100 years of finding Sutra), or once every 170 quadrillion lifetimes (170,000 trillion lifetimes).  Such numbers are so large we lose all grasp of their meaning, but try let that sink in – once every 17 million trillion years.  The odds of this are so infinitesimally small as to mean once in forever.

If somebody has the karma to encounter and begin their tantric path, and we unskillfully encourage them to not enter that path because it is dangerous to do so, we are effectively condemning them to spend another 170,000 trillion lifetimes in samsara.  There is no enlightenment outside of the Tantric path.  Sutra practitioners can practice for many aeons just to create the causes to find the Tantric path, and only once they do is it possible to attain enlightenment.   But we have found a fully qualified tantric path in this very life.  We have won the spiritual lottery of lotteries.  The odds of winning the MegaMillions lottery (the biggest lottery) is one in 260 million.  The odds of finding the Tantric path are equivalent to winning the MegaMillions lottery, then waiting until there are 260 million more such winners of the MegaMillions lottery, then winning another such lottery from among those winners.  Then waiting until a second person does the exact same thing, then holding a coin-toss to see who wins between the two of you.  That’s us in this life.  We just won that.

To throw away this opportunity and not engage in the Tantric path when we have found it is equivalent to winning the above lottery of lottery winners and then not bothering to go cash in your winning ticket, but to instead throw it away.  Only the greatest fool would ever do such a thing.

To destroy somebody’s faith and encourage them to abandon such a Tantric path creates the karma for us to be such a fool.  It creates the causes for once we are such a winner for somebody to come along and convince us to throw away our winning ticket.  Imagine somebody posts on-line some words which serve to destroy the faith of the readers in a certain tantric spiritual guide.  Imagine one thousand people read such words and only 10 become convinced by them and they abandon the path.   This person’s words just created the karmic causes to be such a fool 10 times in succession.  If our heart does not melt with compassion for such a person, we are not paying attention.  If our heart does not crack open in fear of becoming such a person with our own unskillful actions, we are definitely not paying attention.

Why would engaging in the Tantric path possibly be considered dangerous?  The reason is simple enough to understand:  it’s just so powerful.  Playing irresponsibly with matches is dangerous, playing irresponsibly with nuclear power much more so.  In the same way, playing irresponsibly with the Dharma is dangerous, playing irresponsibly with the Tantric teachings much more so.  When you think of all the people teaching “Tantra” classes where the only requirement is loose-fitting shorts, you can see how common of a problem this is.

What protects us from these dangers?  Quite simply, a pure motivation, enough humility to learn from our mistakes, and a sincere mind of faith. A pure motivation means we are practicing out of concern for our future lives, not just this life alone.  Humility means we don’t kid ourselves into thinking we are doing it right, but instead we are constantly striving to do things in a more qualified way.  Sincere faith means we are constantly requesting blessings from the holy beings that they internally and externally guide us along the tantric path.  If we have these three things, we do not need to worry.

When we first start the tantric path, we are mere beginners and are not doing it in a very qualified way.  As long as our motivation, humility and faith are more developed than our tantric practice, we are safe.  If our tantric practice starts to outstrip our motivation, humility and faith, then we can quickly get ourselves into trouble.  This is why it is said we need to practice Tantra on the foundation of Lamrim.

The good news is just as destroying people’s faith in a Tantric spiritual guide or path is unparalleled in negative karma, so too cultivating people’s faith in a Tantric spiritual guide is unparalleled in creating virtuous karma.  If we seize the opportunity we currently have to train in the tantric path, we create the causes to continue to do so in our next life.  If we encourage others to do the same, we create the causes to quickly refind the tantric path if we lose it somewhere along the way.  Encouraging faith in the Tantric path is like buying insurance for maintaining the continuum of your Tantric path without interruption until you attain enlightenment.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  How to remember emptiness all of the time

Not recollecting the view of emptiness. 

If we have some understanding of the view of emptiness as taught in the Chittamatra or Prasangika schools and we remain for a day without recollecting emptiness, with the motivation to neglect Vajradhara’s speech, we incur a root downfall.

This vow, of course, does not mean if we go a day without thinking about emptiness we incur a downfall, rather the meaning is we have the express motivation to neglect Vajradhara’s speech and we choose to not remember.  I try keep a picture of Geshe-la on my desk so that I see it.  Knowing he is there helps me remain a good boy!  But sometimes our delusions get the better of us and we want to do something we know we shouldn’t.  At such times, we try to avoid thinking about the fact that he is with us.  We don’t want our remembering the Dharma to ruin our fun.  For some, it will be drinking or smoking, for some it will be indulging in pornography or sweets, for some it will be when we are really angry at or jealous of somebody, or maybe we just think we need some “me time.”  Our delusions convince us that following them is the way to go, and we choose to forget the Dharma so that we can follow them.  We all do this from time to time, or at least I do.

Recalling emptiness protects us from this.  The vows and commitments are not laws written by Buddha where we will be punished if we break them.  It is not like that at all.  The vows and commitments are rather simply a description of what works and what doesn’t given that everything is a dream.  A correct understanding of emptiness establishes karma, and a correct understanding of karma establishes emptiness.  If a little toy boat is placed on top of the water in a fish bowl, making a wave in any direction will eventually find its way back to the boat.  You can’t disturb the waters anywhere without it eventually disturbing the stability of the boat.  Such is the nature of our empty karmic existence.  The vows and commitments explain how to avoid disturbing the empty waters of our mind, violating them creates waves.  It is no different than the laws of physics, it is just how things work.  Just as regardless of whether or not we believe in the laws of physics, they will govern our reality; so too whether or not we believe in the laws of karma and emptiness, they will govern our experience.  When we recall emptiness, we know if we kick the dog we are kicking ourselves.

Nagarjuna said for whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.  Everything is a karmic dream.  Right now, due to our past deluded actions, we have created a nightmare for ourselves called samsara.  But because it is a karmic dream, if we change our actions we can change our karma, and therefore change our dream.  Our Tantric practices are, in the final analysis, powerful methods for reconstructing our karmic dream from a world of suffering into a pure land.

We ourselves currently appear to ourselves to be an ordinary being trapped in samsara.  There is only one reason for this:  we assent to ordinary appearance.  Due to the ripening of contaminated karma, there is an appearance to our mind of ourselves as an ordinary being.  This is just an appearance, but we have a choice whether to assent to this appearance or not.  If we assent to this appearance as being true, then we create new contaminated karma which will ripen in the future in the form of a new contaminated appearance.  We also create the tendencies to assent to ordinary appearances when they do appear, and finally we suffer because our inner peace is disturbed by this deluded thought of believing in the appearance of samsara.

If we choose to not assent to this appearance as being true, in other words we see it as a lie or as an illusion or as a mistaken appearance, then the power of that appearance is cut.  It appears, but it has no power to disturb our mind.  It is little different than remembering the scary movie can’t hurt us, it is just light being projected onto a screen.  It is little different than consoling a child after a nightmare telling them it is just a dream and the monster can’t hurt you.

It is not enough, however, to simply not assent to ordinary appearance.  We also have the opportunity to karmically construct a new, pure dream.  We generate with our imagination a pure world, and with our wisdom and faith we assent to this pure world as being true.  Not inherently true, since nothing is inherently true, but epistemologically true.  Epistemology asks how truth is established.  Truth can only be established either on the side of the object or the side of the mind.  There is no third possibility.  All philosophical schools with the exception of the Prasangika school (and its cousins) seek to establish truth on the side of the object – the object is somehow objectively true.  The Prasangikas thoroughly refute this possibility by showing nothing exists on the side of the object at all.  But then, if taken too far, we can fall into an extreme of nothingness.  For Prasangikas, truth is established on the side of the mind.  If the subject mind is a valid mind, then the object known by that mind is said to be valid.  If the subject mind is a non-valid mind, then the object known by that mind is said to be not valid.  A mind that realizes the union of karma and emptiness is a valid mind, so all objects known to that mind are likewise valid.  If we check, there is no other way of establishing truth than this.

When we generate ourselves, others, our world and our environment as the pure land we then train in assenting to that appearance as being valid and true – not objectively true, but conventionally true.  For an imputation to be valid the name, aspect, nature and function of an object all need to align.  Calling a shovel a car doesn’t make it a car, but calling the basis of imputation of a car a car is valid because the name, aspect, nature and function are all in alignment.  So first we generate a valid aspect, nature and function of the self-generation, and then we impute our name, or our “I” onto that, saying “I am Heruka” or “I am Vajrayogini.”  The correct aspect is the visualized self-generation as described in the sadhanas, the nature of the emptiness of our mind of bliss and emptiness in the aspect of the self-generation, and the function is to ripen and liberate all beings.  On this valid basis, we can impute Heruka or Vajrayogini.

When we do this, we create a new karma which will gradually kamrically reconstruct our dream from a world of suffering into a living pure land, and we can do this for both ourself and for all living beings.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  Choosing your friends wisely

Relying upon malevolent friends.

We incur this downfall by allowing ourself to come under the influence of people who criticize the Three Jewels or our Spiritual Guide, who harm the Buddhadharma, or who interfere with the spiritual practice of many living beings.  Mentally we should develop love and compassion for such people, but we should not become too close to them physically or verbally.  We also incur this downfall if we have the power to help such people through pure wrathful actions but we do not attempt to do so.

On the one hand, it is true there are no external enemies, there are only the internal enemies of the delusions.  It is likewise true that we are advised to love all living beings without exception, view others as being without faults, etc.  But this does not mean we pretend there are not those who conventionally appear to have a clear intent to harm us, criticize our tradition, harm the Buddhadharma or otherwise interfere with the sincere practice of others.  Of course, as Geshe-la said, love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys all enemies, but this does not mean we don’t correctly identify a threat as a threat and conventionally respond accordingly.

People who criticize the three jewels or interfere with the faith and practice of others are creating a terrible negative karma for themselves.  Most criticisms of other paths occurs because people fail to realize the simple maxim of “different strokes for different folks.”  The diversity of mental dispositions is almost infinite, so it is only natural that there will be many different ways of presenting the spiritual path.  Just because one spiritual path works for us does not mean it is the best spiritual path for everybody.  Likewise, just because our chosen path says one thing does not mean every other path is wrong if it says something different.

The heart commitment of Dorje Shugden is to “follow one tradition purely without mixing, while respecting all other paths as valid for those who follow them.”  In other words, we have our bread, you have yours, let’s all get along and respect one another.  If somebody practices differently than we do, we should be happy for them if they have found a path that works for them.  But there is no need whatsoever to put down, criticize or judge the spiritual choices of another.

While we may realize this to be the correct attitude, others may continue to criticize us, our teachings, our Spiritual Guides, and they may engage in all sorts of speech whose express purpose is to interfere with the spiritual path of others.  Of course the other person will internally justify their actions on the grounds that they are saving others from what they consider a bad tradition, but this just belies their failure to understand different paths will work for different people, and that is perfectly OK.

Unless we have a valid reason for doing so, it is best to simply avoid contact with such people.  The reasons for this are as follows:  First, when we associate with anybody, unless we are careful with our mind, we naturally become socialized into the views of others.  If we hang out with people who routinely engage in negativity, we will start to do so as well; if we spend time with our Sangha friends, we will become more like them; if we engage with people who are critical of our spiritual practice, we will come to share their views.  Second, if we try refute their wrong views about our spiritual practice, then they will feel the need to respond to our refutations.  Thus every time we speak with them, all we really do is create the causes for them to create further negative karma for themselves by engaging in divisive speech.

But sometimes we can’t avoid such people.  At such times, our first task is to not allow ourselves to be adversely affected by their speech or their actions.  This is not an easy thing to do.  When we encounter their wrong views, we need to confront the doubts that arise within our own mind.  If we do not resolve our doubts, they will just fester and grow like a cancer, eventually devouring our spiritual life.  We should seek out Sangha friends we trust and have faith in, and with them try work through our doubts and see things differently.  Likewise, we should constantly request wisdom blessings so as to be able to cut through all doubts.

The only reason why it is painful to hear harsh things said about our Spiritual Guide or our tradition is because we still have unresolved doubts.  When all of our doubts have been fully and effectively resolved (which is different than repressed), then we will have no difficulty hearing anything and it won’t disturb our mind at all.  The more doubts we resolve within ourselves, the more capable we are of safely interacting with those with hostile intent without falling under their influence.

One very common occurrence is when we ourselves start making the exact same mistakes as our “adversary,” just in different ways.  Nine times out of ten, whoever is accusing somebody of doing something is most likely doing that same thing themselves.  Venerable Tharchin said, “just as rejoicing creates the causes for ourselves to become that what we rejoice in, so too criticizing others out of delusions creates the causes for ourselves to become that which we criticize.”  It takes tremendous wisdom, a very clear compassionate motivation and great inner strength for this not to happen.

If we possess such strength, then we will have the ability to engage in “pure wrathful actions” against those who are criticizing our tradition.  Our motivation for doing so is to protect the other person from creating negative karma for themselves, and to protect others so that their faith is not destroyed.  But we must be careful, because if we are unskillful, we can very easily defeat ourselves where we tell ourselves we are acting “wrathfully” but in reality we are driven by anger.  If this happens, the benefits of our actions are completely destroyed.  We accumulate negative karma, cause the other person to retaliate also out of anger, and cause others to lose faith in us because we are seen as a hypocrite.

None of this is easy.  This is a very advanced form of practice.  If we currently lack the ability to do this perfectly, it’s OK.  What matters is that we try, check our mistakes, learn our lessons and try better next time.  Eventually, we will get there.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  The point is to realize emptiness.

Abandoning emptiness. 

Success in Tantra depends upon understanding emptiness.  If we do not yet understand the Prasangika view of emptiness, we should at least study and meditate on the Chittamatra view.  If we completely stop trying to develop or improve our understanding of emptiness we incur a root downfall.

In the scriptures it says we to attain enlightenment we unite the bliss of Tantra with the emptiness of Sutra.  The emptiness explained in the Sutras and the emptiness explained in the Tantras is exactly the same, namely the lack of inherent existence.

In the teachings on emptiness, we are led through a series of different philosophical schools, which effectively form a ladder leading to the highest view of the Madhyamika Prasangika school.  In the beginning of our contemplations on emptiness, it is not necessary to familiarize ourselves with the different tenets of the different philosophical systems.  It is better to get a general understanding of our final destination – namely the emptiness of inherent existence – and then later when we our understanding becomes a bit more stable we can dive into the “debates” we find between the different schools in the Sutra texts.

Some people develop rather negative reactions to these debates.  They either become discouraged because they understand none of them, or they reject the debates as nothing more than intellectual masturbation.  In reality, if we are training in emptiness correctly, we will naturally find ourselves with some of the views and questions of the lower schools.  Only when we identify within ourselves the doubt, view or question of the lower schools will the Prasangika refutation of that wrong view function to move our mind.  We actually hold, often at very deep levels, virtually all of the wrong views refuted by the Prasangikas.  But if we don’t connect the refutation with the wrong views to our own thinking, such debates will be a purely intellectual exercise.

Despite this, we should still somewhat early in our study of emptiness (say after having been in the Dharma for a few years), take the time to read through the debates in Meaningful to Behold and in Ocean of Nectar so we are at least familiar with the broad contours of the debates.  It is a bit like when you first arrive at University and they give you a tour of the library.  You don’t read all the books in any detail, but you are given a general overview of what all is there so that when you do need a particular book, you know where to find it.  Venerable Tharchin explains that wrapping our minds around the meanings of these debates is a systematic method for breaking down all of our wrong views about the nature of reality.  By working through them, we gradually fine tune our understanding until it is correct.  It is only by meditating on correct meanings that we will actually generate within our mind a wisdom realizing emptiness that can function to remove the two obstructions.

To keep things simple, though, we can think of things developing in four stages.  The initial stage is our ordinary view that grasps at everything as being somehow objectively real, existing completely independently of our mind.  We think the world is out there, waiting to be observed by our mind, and our mind has no role whatsoever in bringing these objects into existence.  The second stage would be realizing everything is the nature of mind.  Every appearance is like a wave on the ocean of our mind, but we still grasp at our mind as existing inherently.  This is roughly speaking the Chittamatrin view.  The third stage is realizing the Sutra Prasangika view which sees all things as mere appearance, like a dream, like a hologram, like an illusion.  The only thing that is there is a mere appearance of something being there.  The appearance is not real, it is a “mere” appearance, and nothing more.  The fourth stage is the Tantra Prasangika view which asks the question, “what is the conventional and ultimate nature of the mere appearance?”  The answer is the conventional nature of the appearance is the very subtle mind of great bliss itself, and the ultimate nature of the mere appearance is the emptiness of the very subtle mind in the aspect of the appearance.   We continue to meditate until we realize the non-duality between the conventional and the ultimate.  It feels as if “the emptiness of my very subtle mind of great bliss appears as all things.”  When we attain this state, we know directly and simultaneously all phenomena of all three times and we become a fully enlightened being.

The interesting paradox is our practice when we are beginners (viewing all things as a dream) and our practice when we are very advanced in our training is the same.  It is the middle part where we systematically deconstruct all of our wrong views until we are left with only a correct understanding of emptiness.  It is for this reason that a true meditation master can teach profound topics like emptiness simultaneously to an audience of brand new beginners and very advanced practitioners and all in the audience can marvel at the beauty of it all.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  Taking good care of our body

Abusing our body.

To practice Secret Mantra we need a strong and healthy body because if our bodily strength decreases our drops will also decrease, and then it will be difficult for us to generate spontaneous great bliss.  For this reason, if we deliberately cause the strength of our body to decrease motivated by the thought that the body is impure, we incur a root downfall.  Instead of regarding our body as impure we should generate ourself as the Deity.  We also, obviously, incur this downfall if we decide to commit suicide.

It is said that beings who have taken rebirth in certain pure lands actually pray to be born human so that they can practice Tantra.  In order to practice Tantra, in particular completion stage of highest yoga tantra, we need a bodily basis that includes channels, drops and winds.  A human body has such things, the wisdom bodies of light beings have in certain pure lands do not.  There are, however, some pure lands such as Keajra, where we have the necessary bodily basis to practice highest yoga tantra.  This is why it is such a good idea to strive to take rebirth there.  Then we get all of the benefits of being born in a pure land and all of the benefits of being born human at the same time.

The reason why we want to generate bliss is not because it feels good (although that’s a nice side benefit), but rather because only the very subtle mind of great bliss can mix indistinguishably, like water mixing with water, with the very subtle object emptiness.  To attain enlightenment, we need to purify our mind of the two obstructions – the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience.  Delusion obstructions are, quite obviously, the delusions we generate such as attachment, aversion and ignorance.  The obstructions to omniscience are the karmic imprints of our past delusions.  Venerable Tharchin explains that karmic imprints are like tiny vibrations on the fabric of our very subtle mind.  When karmic imprints ripen, the amplitude of these vibrations increases more and more, giving rise to mental winds, currents, thoughts and eventually appearances.

The way we purify the two obstructions is by realizing directly the emptiness of our very subtle mind of great bliss.  When we do so, it functions to smooth out all of the contaminated karmic vibrations until our mind is completely pure and without obstruction and we attain full, irreversible enlightenment.  To realize directly the emptiness of our very subtle mind of great bliss, we must first make it manifest.  To make it manifest, we need to cause all of our inner energy winds to gather, absorb and dissolve into the indestructible drop at our heart.  Right now, due to aeons worth of wrong actions, our subtle body through which our inner winds flow is a tangled mess.  The purpose of most completion stage meditations and the body mandala meditations is to heal our subtle body, so that the winds may flow freely into the heart.

While we need a human bodily basis with channels, drops and winds to train in this way, we don’t actually train with the subtle body of our ordinary selves.  Rather, we first generate ourselves as our Highest Yoga Tantra Yidam and then we imagine that the completely pure subtle body of the deity is the same nature as our ordinary subtle body.  Or more specifically, we imagine that our ordinary subtle body transforms into the completely pure subtle body of the deity.  Just as all Tantra is a process of bring the result into the path, so too our body mandala and completion stage meditations can be thought of as bringing the result of our completely pure subtle body into the path.

Understanding the relationship between our ordinary body and our practice of Tantra, we see how important it is to keep our ordinary body healthy and full of vitality.  Eating well, exercising, getting adequate sleep, etc., are all aspects of our Tantric training.  We should do what is required to maintain a strong and healthy body, especially as we grow older.  But eventually, sickness and old age catch up to us.  We shouldn’t view that as a problem, but simply the evolution of our karma.  But we should take heart in how many active and healthy seniors there are, and we should strive to create the causes to have a similar future.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  Shhhh…  Keep this quiet

Revealing secrets to an unsuitable person.  We incur this downfall by knowingly teaching Secret Mantra to those who have not received a Tantric empowerment.  Without the empowerment, it is impossible to attain results.  If someone practices without an empowerment, and they achieve no results, they might conclude that Tantra does not work. To understand the wisdom of this vow, we need to be clear on why Tantra does not work without an empowerment.  The reason is simple:  without a seed, no matter how much water, sunlight and fertilizer you add, a plant will never grow.  Receiving the empowerment is like the planting of the seed.  We all possess the seed of enlightenment within our mind, it is our Buddha nature.  But the seed of the tantric path of a given deity is the special blessing we receive during the empowerment. The karma for being able to encounter the path of Tantra is so rare and precious that we must be very careful.  It is entirely possible that others may have only one karmic seed on their mind to meet such teachings, and if we are unskillful we can wind up causing others to burn up such karmic seeds, reach wrong conclusions, and then not encounter the Tantric path again for aeons.

By the same token, we shouldn’t go to the other extreme of depriving people of access to the Tantric path out of our own fear of making a mistake.  The story is told in the Lamrim of the man who saw a live fish fall from a fishing cart, and instead of letting it die, he compassionately put it in the pond close by.  Unfortunately, though, this fish then proceeded to eat all of the other fish in the pond.  When the local fishermen discovered what happened they proceeded to kill the fish the man tried to save.  So while his intention was good, the end result of his action was in fact not beneficial.  Some people hear this story and mistakenly conclude that until they “know for sure,” it is better to not try help.  This is the wrong conclusion from this story.  Given the information that the man had at the time, he made the right decision to try save the fish.  He cannot be faulted for having tried.  However, the story shows why we need to gain the omniscient wisdom of a Buddha, because only then will we not make such mistakes.  In the meantime, we continue to try our best to help people in whatever ways we can.

When we make mistakes, we should humbly acknowledge them, learn from them, and try do better next time. I don’t always succeed at following my own principles, but what I try do is the following:  I try to only give Dharma when people ask for it and I think their minds are sufficiently open to receive it in a positive way.  When talking about Tantra, I explain “about” Tantra, but not “how to do it.”  So it is OK to discuss the benefits of Tantra and the general theory of how it works, but not good to discuss how people actually do it unless they have received the empowerment.  When we give “Introduction to Tantra” classes at Dharma centers, this is usually the fine line we try to walk.

Some people will misinterpret our “holding back” on explaining to them how to do it, thinking we are withholding explanation of some secret Dharma that is only available to those elite and privileged few who pay extra money and show extra commitment.  I can understand why people might misinterpret things in that way, but it is not the case.  Our motivation for practicing this vow, like all the others, is love and compassion for the welfare of others.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  Abandoning critical minds towards the Dharma

Scorning the Dharma of Sutra or Tantra.

If we criticize any teaching of Buddha, claiming that it is not the word of Buddha, and if someone else hears our criticism, we incur a root downfall.  This also teaches that Tantric practitioners must respect Sutra teachings because Sutra is the foundation for all Tantric realizations.

It is unfortunately all too common for different religious traditions to criticize one another.  Human history is replete with wars fought and lives destroyed as a result.  The root of this problem is a lack of understanding of emptiness.  If two religions say contradictory things, and both religions grasp at their being an objective truth, then one of them must be wrong or both of them are wrong, but both can’t be right.  The zealots then get into all sorts of heated discussions about who is right and who is wrong, both claiming to have the monopoly on the truth.  Meanwhile, neutral observers to these religious disputes conclude, “all religious people are nuts!”

If we understand emptiness, all of these problems go away.  Virtue can be arrived at in a variety of different ways depending upon the karmic dispositions of the different followers.  For some, a Christian presentation will work; for others, a Jewish presentation; for others a Muslim presentation, and so forth.  All valid religions point in the same direction, but their presentation and explanation differ.  This difference is not a problem, it is a gift of all of the holy beings.  As a result, different people can be touched by different words that move them.  Someone who doesn’t grasp at objective truth can say, “your teachings work for you, my teachings work for me, and even though they seem contradictory, this is not a problem at all.  You have your bread, I have mine.”

Our heart commitment to Dojre Shugden is to “follow one tradition purely without mixing, while respecting all other traditions as valid for those who follow them.”  On the surface, this can seem like a contradictory statement.  If we are following only one tradition, aren’t we implicitly rejecting all others, and thus becoming sectarian?  No, not at all.  We are not rejecting these other traditions for other people, we are just saying we drink a different cup of tea.  Our choice of one tea does not in any way imply other teas are less good in some universal sense.  Rather it just says, “for me, this is what I like.  You order what you like, and we all can be happy for each other.”

The analogy I like to give is of a burning room.  Imagine you are in a giant burning room, and there are many different doorways out.  What should you do?  You should find the doorway nearest you, and head straight out.  You don’t head towards one door, then another, then another, because then you remain forever in the burning room.  You don’t head towards the average of two doors, because then you bang into the wall.  You don’t head towards all doors simultaneously, because then you will be split in many directions at once.  No, you find the door nearest to you, and you head straight out.  Your choice of one door doesn’t in any way deny the validity of any of the other doors, and if you see your friend closer to a different door, you encourage them to head out the door closest to them.  This is exactly what the flight attendants ask us to do in the event of an emergency.

In exactly the same way, if you find yourself trapped in the burning room of samsara, and there are many different doors (spiritual paths) out, what should you do?  You should find the one that is karmically nearest to you, and head straight out.  The one karmically nearest to you is the one that speaks to you most clearly, the one that moves your heart the most, and the one that seems complete (in other words, it actually leads out).  You don’t follow one path, then another, then another, because then you never get out.  You don’t follow the average of two paths because that doesn’t lead to a door out.  You don’t follow all paths simultaneously because that spiritually splits you into many parts.  No, you find the path that karmically is closest to you and you head straight out.  Your choice of one path doesn’t in any way deny the validity of the other paths. If you see your friend karmically closer to another path, say Christianity, then you encourage them to follow their path sincerely and purely.  We each follow our own path, and even if they seem to be heading in opposite directions, in reality they all lead us out of the same burning room.

It is terribly negative karma to criticize another spiritual tradition.  Why is that?  Because when you do so, you destroy the faith of another person in what is otherwise a perfectly valid path.  If that path works for them, meaning it is helping them become a better person, then to sabotage that is to destroy that person’s spiritual life.  They might wind up losing faith in all paths and reject spirituality altogether.  Crises of faith are extremely painful things, and ultimately our criticism is based solely on our delusion finding fault in something that encourages virtue.  If we were sick with a cold, do we go around and sneeze in other people’s faces?  No, we cover our mouth and turn the other way because we don’t want to get other people sick.  In the same way, if we have a critical attitude towards the spiritual path of another, what gives us the right to go in there and start sneezing our critical attitude in everybody’s faces?  We might self-righteously claim we are protecting these poor innocent people from being misled down wrong paths.  But can we honestly say we know the minds of others to know that this other path is not exactly what they need?  Who made us the spiritual police?  How does our attitude make us any different than Spanish Inquisition?

The correct attitude is to rejoice in the virtue of others, regardless of whether what motivates it is the teachings of our tradition or something else in complete contradiction with our tradition.  Even if it seems a very goofy and esoteric system of belief, if the end result is people acting in more virtuous ways, more loving ways, more compassionate ways, more wise ways, then let people be.  Even when others criticize us, our teachers, our traditions, we should never retaliate in kind.  We should never criticize their spiritual teachings.  We can say, “your teachings work for you, mine work for me, let’s all respect one another and co-exist peacefully and in harmony.”  Conflict comes when everybody has to hold the same view.  Harmony comes when everyone can hold their own view, and nobody tries to impose their view on anybody else.