A Pure Life: Please Don’t Kill

This is part five of a 12-part series on how to skillfully train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts.  The 15th of every month is Precepts Day, when Kadampa practitioners around the world typically take and observe the Precepts.

The first precept is to abandon killing.  Geshe-la explains the object of killing is any other being from the smallest insect to a Buddha.  In the chapter on karma in Joyful Path, four factors must be present for the action to be complete.  First, for our intention, we must have the correct identification of the person we intend to kill.  We also need a determination to kill the person we have correctly identified.  Killing by accident is not a complete action, though this doesn’t mean there are not negative consequences of accidental killing.  Our mind must also be influenced by delusion, specifically anger, attachment, or ignorance.  It is possible to kill out of compassion to save the lives of others, but this requires great wisdom and courage.  Killing out of compassion is not a downfall since compassion is not a delusion.  The action also requires preparation, namely we prepare the means to engage in the action.  This includes having others do the action for us or engaging in the action as a group.  Finally, it requires the completion – the action must be completed, the person actually is killed and dies before we do.

The reality is we are killing all of the time.  Every time we scratch our arm, we are no doubt killing thousands of tiny bacteria or microbes.  Even if we do not eat meat, we are indirectly killing thousands of insects who died in the rice paddies or to the pesticides sprayed on our food.  Samsara is a slaughterhouse, and everything we do essentially kills.  This doesn’t mean we are doomed and it also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother trying to not kill because it is unavoidable.  What it means is we need to do our best to lead as low impact of a life as we can.  We should work gradually to kill less and less while working within our capacity and the karmic conditions we find ourselves in.

There are also many forms of negative actions that are adjacent to kill it that we should also try avoiding. For example, rejoicing in negative actions is karmically similar to engaging in those actions ourselves. Virtually every day on the news there are reports of people being killed in some form of military conflict. The United States, for example, has been at war nonstop for essentially the last 25 years. Our soldiers are killing people on an almost daily basis and the news is typically reported as a success story of having killed some “terrorists” or some other perceived enemy. These reports are designed to generate a mind of rejoicing in such killing. While this is not us killing ourselves, when we rejoice in such activities, we create karma similar to killing others.

There are also many subtle forms of killing that we may not even be aware of nor our role in perpetuating the systems that engage in such killing. Social scientists have coined the term structural violence to refer to societal structures that function to shorten the lives of particular groups of people. For example, due to structural racism in the United states, people of color tend to have worse access to health care, higher rates of poverty, lower rates of education, suffer from higher rates of crime, and so forth all of which contribute to shortened life spans compared to most white people. One study estimates that 8,000,000 African Americans are missing compared to what should be if structural racism did not exist. These are the victims of a form of unintentional slow-motion genocide.

Once we are aware that such structures exist and inflict violence, even if a subtle form of violence, against certain populations and then we do nothing to correct for it or we even seek to rationalize away such effects by denying it is occurring or it is justified based upon some arbitrary criteria, then we are participating in or enabling a subtle form of killing.  We may even be voting for such policies.  Even simply benefiting from such structures and not using our surplus privilege associated with being at the top of such structures to dismantle them, is a form of perpetuating them. These things would not be a violation of our Mahayana precepts per se, but they do move in a direction similar to the action of killing.  As Mahayana practitioners, we should be striving to move in the direction of not killing. And we should cast the net wide to avoid even subtle forms.

Happy Tsog Day: Destroying our Greatest Inner Demon

In order to remember and mark our tsog days, holy days on the Kadampa calendar, I am sharing my understanding of the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide with tsog.  This is part 29 of a 44-part series.

Equalizing self and others

In that no one wishes for even the slightest suffering,
Or is ever content with the happiness they have,
There is no difference between myself and others;
Realizing this, I seek your blessings joyfully to make others happy.

As explained above, there are two methods for generating bodhicitta: considering how all living beings are our mother and exchanging self with others. Meditation on equalizing self with others is the first meditation of the second method. The second method for generating bodhicitta is more powerful than the first method because we cherish ourselves more than we cherish our mother. Since it is more powerful, the practice Offering to the Spiritual Guide dedicates five full verses to the practice.

When we equalize self with others our objective is to generate the same degree of cherishing for others as we have for ourselves, in other words, to cherish others as we cherish ourself. This is not that uncommon of a mind. Political leaders who view their job as serving the public interest consider the happiness and welfare of all their citizens as being equally important. If some politicians can generate this mind, then surely we can generate this mind as a would-be-bodhisattva. We likewise find this mind in many families that consider every person in the family to be equally important and make decisions based upon what is best for the family as a whole. Some teachers do the same with the students in their classroom and some employers do the same with the people who work at their company. Even in normal society, we would say a political leader, a parent, a teacher, or an employer who puts their own interest ahead of the interests of those they serve is a corrupt person.

There are several different methods we can use to reach this mind. One method for doing so is to realize that all living beings have an equal wish to be happy all the time. There is nothing about our own happiness that makes it more important than the happiness of anybody else. Since we all share an equal wish, and there’s nothing that makes us more important than anybody else, it follows that we should cherish the happiness of each and every living being equally. A particularly powerful way of generating this mind is to consider how all living beings are like cells in the body of life. Just as we would not say the hand does not care what happens to the foot, so too when we have equalized self with others, we cannot say that we do not care about what happens to other living beings because we are all part of the same body of life. The definitive way of generating this mind is to consider how all living beings, including ourselves, are all equally empty and therefore equally projections of our mind. There is no basis for cherishing one appearance in our mind over another since they are all equally appearances to our mind. Whichever line of reasoning works for us, the goal is the same, namely to generate a feeling that cherishes all living beings equally.

The dangers of self-cherishing

Seeing that this chronic disease of cherishing myself
Is the cause that gives rise to unwanted suffering,
I seek your blessings to destroy this great demon of selfishness
By resenting it as the object of blame.

In the teachings on training the mind, we are encouraged to gather all blame into one. The meaning of this practice is every time we experience any problem, or we see anybody else experiencing any sort of suffering, we blame it entirely upon the mind of self-cherishing. In the Lord of all Lineages prayer it says, “since beginningless time the root of all my suffering has been my self-cherishing mind, I must expel it from my heart, cast it afar, and cherish only other living beings.”

How can we understand self-cherishing to be the cause of all our suffering? All our suffering comes from our negative karma, and all our negative karma is committed with a mind of self-cherishing. Self-cherishing considers our own happiness to be more important than the happiness of others and is therefore willing to sacrifice the happiness of others for the sake of ourselves. All non-virtuous actions fundamentally are willing to harm others in some way for the sake of ourselves.

Further, what happens to us is only a problem because we consider our own happiness to be important. If we did not consider our own happiness to be important, then what happens to us would also not be important, and therefore not a problem. From this we can see the only reason why we have any problems is because we cherish ourselves.

Intellectually this is not difficult to understand. The practice is to develop the habit of gathering all blame into one. We need to do this again and again and again throughout our life, whenever we see ourselves or others suffer, we do the mental exercise of identifying exactly how and why it is the fault of self-cherishing. The more we do this, the more determined we will become to destroy this demon within our mind.

Mother’s Day for a Kadampa

As Kadampas who practice the Lamrim, every 21 days is Mother’s Day.  We are all quite familiar with the various contemplations of how all living beings are our mother and how kind they were to us as our mother, therefore we should develop a profound feeling of gratitude towards our mother of this life and all our mothers of our past lives.  Very often though, primarily because we make our meditations intellectual exercises of recalling certain points as opposed to exercises of the heart where we change our feelings, these contemplations on the kindness of our mother no longer really move our mind.  We might recall them, but we don’t internalize them and let them touch our heart.  On actual Mother’s Day, we should take the time to reflect deeply and sincerely upon them so that our heart moves and we genuinely feel gratitude and a wish to repay our mother’s kindness.

Have we always neglected our mothers?

I sometimes wonder if ancient Tibetan culture was the same as our modern culture.  In modern culture, particularly in modern psychology, the trend is to blame our mother for all of our problems.  We are encouraged to go back into our childhood and find all the different ways our mother made mistakes and how that is “the underlying cause” of why we are the way we are today.  We likewise completely take for granted everything our mother has done for us.  As kids, we are completely blind to it. 

We think it is “normal” that our mothers do everything for us, and we feel “justified” in getting angry with them when they don’t do it perfectly.  In truth, our mother could have just abandoned us on the street.  She owes us nothing.  Nobody owes us anything.  It is our expectation that they do that actually prevents us from appreciating all that she did for us.  It is the very nature of modern motherhood to give everything you have to your kids only to have them take your kindness for granted, blame you for all of their problems, and want to have nothing to do with you because you are such an embarrassment.  Perhaps it has always been such, which is why the meditation on the kindness of our mothers has always been taught.

It’s time to apologize for being such a jerk

On Mother’s Day, I think it is important to not just express our gratefulness, but to sincerely apologize for what a jerk we have been to her over the years.  Explain that when you were a kid, you didn’t understand, and now it is only as an adult (and perhaps a parent yourself) that you are beginning to realize all she did for you.  Apologize for yelling, apologize for disobeying, apologize for being embarrassed by her, apologize for ignoring her, and apologize most of all for taking for granted all that she has done for you.  Explain to her that all of your good qualities now come from her. 

My father once said about his mother, “everything good in our family comes from Grandma.  That’s the truth.”  This is a perfect attitude.  It is the truth.  The truth is mother’s really struggle with the fact that everything they do is taken for granted and that they are blamed for everything.  Yes, it is good for them in terms of being able to learn how to give love unconditionally, but it is hard.  All it takes is one honest conversation where you admit you were a real butt with her, and where you express sincere gratitude for everything you previously took for granted.  Such a conversation can heal decades of grief.

No, our mothers aren’t perfect, but why should we expect them to be?

Sometimes when we encounter the meditation on the kindness of our mothers we develop all sorts of objections because it is true, our mother did make a lot of mistakes.  My mother had all sorts of serious mental health issues, we had an off and on terrible relationship until eventually she likely killed herself on my wedding day.  I had all sorts of resentments towards her for years, then I had guilt after her suicide, and now I find it difficult to think anything good about her.  All I see is her many faults and delusions.  Most of us have problems of one kind or another with our mothers.  I personally feel it is vital that we identify the delusions we have towards our parents, in particular our mother, and work through them.  We need to get to the point where our mind is completely healed of all delusions towards them.  This is not only a way of repaying the kindness of our mother, it is a way of healing our own mind.

Our mothers were not perfect, they made many mistakes, and they were full of delusions.  This is also true, and acknowledging that fact is not a denial of their kindness.  We can hold the view that they were emanations of Buddhas who appeared to make the mistakes that they did to give us a chance to grow.  Every child grows up cataloging the many mistakes their parents make and resolves when they are parents they won’t do the same thing; only to find when they do become parents they wind up making many of the same mistakes.  The power of osmosis with our parents is the most powerful force shaping our lives and shaping our mind.  It is not enough that we heal our mind of all the delusions we have towards our mother, we also need to look into our mind and identify all the delusions we received from her. 

Venerable Tharchin once told me the only reason why the people in our life appear to have delusions is because we ourselves possess the same delusions within our own mind and we therefore project beings who have the same faults.  Our task, therefore, is to identify within ourselves the delusions that appear in others and then root them out completely.  When we do so, he said, several amazing things will happen.  First, our relationship with the person will improve.  Second, we will have less delusions in our own mind.  And third, the faults we see in the other person will gradually “disappear.”  Why?  Because they were never coming from the other person in the first place.  He concluded by saying, this is how Bodhisattva’s ripen and liberate all beings.  When we attain Buddhahood, he said, it appears to us as if everybody attains Buddhahood at the same time with us.  In fact, we see that they have always been so.  If we love our mother, this is essential work.

Tara is our eternal mother

Mother’s Day, though, is about much more than just our relationship with our own mother of this life, or even recalling the kindness of all our past mothers.  I think on Mother’s Day we need to recall the kindness of our Spiritual Mother, Guru Arya Tara.  Tara promised Atisha long ago that she would care for all Kadampas in the future.  The fact that we have a spiritual life today is due to her kindness.  She gave birth to our spiritual life.  Like all mothers’ kindnesses, we don’t even see it.  She operates unseen, and we take it for granted.  But there is no doubt, it is thanks to her that we have a spiritual life.  She gave birth to it, she has nurtured it, and she cares for us now even if we never think of her.  For some, she appears herself as Vajrayogini, and therefore serves as our Highest Yoga Tantra Yidam.  Tara is one of the Buddhas who often appears early in our spiritual life.  Almost everybody has a very positive experience with encountering her.  But then, over time, we tend to forget about her as we move on to other practices.  But like any mother, she never forgets her spiritual children.  We should remember this, and generate our thanks to her for it.

Viewing all living beings as our children

Finally, I think it is worth recalling that just as all living beings have been our mother, so too we have been the mother of all living beings.  We can correctly view all living beings as our children, and love them as a good mother would.  The contemplations on the kindness a mother shows to her child are not there just to help us develop gratitude towards our mothers, they are also examples of the attitude we should have towards all of our children.  How many of us would be willing to remove the mucus from a stranger’s nose?  Our mother did that for us.  We should love others so much that we would gladly, and without hesitation do the same for others.  Of course, we shouldn’t go around offering to others to do so, but training in the mind that is willing to help any living being in any way we can is the real meaning of Mother’s Day.

Happy Tara Day: Causing the three worlds to shake

This is the fifth installment of the 12-part series sharing my understanding of the practice Liberation from Sorrow.

Praising Tara by the light that radiates from the letter HUM

Homage to you who strike the ground with the palm of your hand
And stamp it with your foot.
With a wrathful glance and letter HUM,
You subdue all seven levels.

This also refers to Tara’s ability to engage in wrathful actions and can be understood from the above.  I’m not sure what the seven levels are.

Praising Tara by her Dharmakaya aspect

Homage to you who are happy, virtuous and peaceful,
Within the sphere of the peace of nirvana.
Fully endowed with SÖHA and OM,
You completely destroy heavy evil actions.

This verse refers to definitive Tara.  The conventional Tara is the green deity we know and love.  She manifests this form so that living beings can more easily develop a relationship with her.  But actual Tara is Dhamakaya Tara, or Truth Body Tara.  This is definitive Tara.  The Dharmakaya is a Tara’s realization of great bliss mixed inseparably from the emptiness of all phenomena.  She is referred to as the mother of all Buddhas because all Buddhas arise out of her Dharmakaya – she gives birth to them from her realization of bliss and emptiness.  What does the Dharmakaya feel like?  Happy, virtuous, and peaceful.  This is her inner pure land, and anytime we ourselves feel happy, virtuous, or peaceful, we are experiencing a similitude of her pure land.

Praising Tara by her divine actions of peaceful and wrathful mantras

Homage to you who completely subdue the obstructions
Of those who delight in the Dharma Wheel;
Rescuing with the array of the ten-letter mantra
And the knowledge-letter HUM.

Peaceful actions refer to a Buddha’s ability to pacify negativity, delusions, or their imprints in either ourselves or in others.  All living beings possess Buddha nature.  What does this mean?  It means we all possess within ourselves the potential for an enlightened mind, and all we need to do is purify our mind of all that defiles it and our natural enlightened state will be unleashed or uncovered.  What is our mind defiled by?  Principally three things:  negative karma, delusions, and their imprints.  Technically negative karma is also an imprint of a delusion which is why we normally say the “two obstructions,” referring to delusions and their imprints.  But from a practical point of view, we place particular emphasis in the early stages of our practice on purifying our negative karma (lower scope meditations), then overcoming our delusions (intermediate scope meditations), and finally the remainder of our contaminated karma (great scope meditations).  Tara can help us pacify all three of these, as explained by her ten-letter mantra whose principal function is to bestow all of the Lamrim meditations.  According to Tantra, the two main objects to be pacified are ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions.  Ordinary appearances are phenomena appearing to exist independently of our mind (the things we normally see), and ordinary conceptions are grasping at the wrong belief that objects do in fact exist in the way that they appear.  For example, when we think of ourself, we see our ordinary body and mind.  This is an ordinary appearance.  When we grasp at them actually being ourselves, this is an ordinary conception.  Tara also has the power to pacify all our ordinary appearances and conceptions.

Praising Tara by her divine actions of wrathfully shaking the three worlds

Homage to TURE, stamping your feet,
Born from the seed in the aspect of HUM,
Who cause Mount Meru, Mandhara and Vindhya,
And all the three worlds to shake.

Buddhist cosmology is incredibly vast.  The universe as we know it actually only one world system.  There are the thousand worlds, which is a thousand world systems or universes as we know them.  There are the two thousand worlds, which is a thousand of the thousand worlds, or one million universes.  And there are the three thousand worlds, which is a thousand of the two thousand worlds, or one trillion universes.  In truth, there are countless universes, and the three thousand worlds is a shorthand for implying countless that makes it somewhat easier to grasp.  Just as the stars in the sky form galaxies, super clusters, and so forth, the three thousand worlds also cluster together and are arranged in different ways, so too the three thousand worlds cluster together and are arranged in particular way.  In the center of the three thousand worlds is Mount Meru, which is actually comprised of countless different pure lands at different levels of purity, such as the Land of 33 Heavens where Buddha went to teach his mother after she took rebirth there.  At the top of Mount Meru is Heruka’s celestial mansion.  Surrounding Mount Meru are the four major and eight minor continents, like an archipelago of different clusters of universes – they can be likened to superclusters of galaxies.  The universe that we live in is simply one of many universes in what is known as the Eastern continent, but is in reality just a cluster of universes.  Traditional cosmology as we know it just talks of our one universe where the Big Bang unfolded, but this one universe is as insignificant as our own planet is in our universe.  The vastness of Buddhist cosmology is almost beyond comprehension.  Interestingly, some astrophysicists have a similar view arguing we live in a multiverse, or a n-dimensional multiverse, but they have no idea how these universes are shaped.  Just as the science of quantum physics is gradually catching up with Buddha’s teachings on emptiness, it is only a question of time before science catches up with Buddha’s teachings on cosmology.  Tara’s blessings and power pervade everywhere.  Vajrayogini and Tara are actually the same being, just appearing at two different levels – Action Tantra version as Green Tara and Highest Yoga Tantra version of Red Vajrayogini.  Vajrayogini is in union with Heruka inside his celestial mansion atop Mount Meru and her wisdom is able to cause all three thousand worlds to shake!

Praising Tara by her divine actions of dispelling internal and external poisons

Homage to you who hold in your hand
A moon, the lake of the gods;
Saying TARA twice and the letter PHAT,
You completely dispel all poisons.

Conventionally, Tara’s blessings are particularly powerful at dispelling external poisons, such as those we might ingest.  I personally suffer from terrible allergies, some of which are deadly.  When I have a strong allergic reaction to something I eat, I of course take my Benadryl or other allergy medications, but I also recite with great faith Tara’s mantra requesting that she protect me.  Those who have allergies can do the same, even allergies as light as hay fever.  But principally, Tara’s blessing dispel the inner poisons of our delusions.  Outer poisons can at most harm us in this one life, but the inner poisons of our delusions harm us in all our future lives.  Considering our delusions to be inner poisons is a particularly powerful way of thinking of them.  If we ingested an external poison, we would do everything we can as quickly as we could get rid of it from our body or to take an antidote.  But we would never think that the poison is us, we see clearly the difference between the poison and ourselves.  In the same way, our delusions are not us, but they do terrible harm to us, and we should feel great urgency to purge them from our system.  Tara is the antidote to all of the inner poisons of delusions.  She is known as the Lamrim Buddha because she helps Atisha’s followers and her blessings specifically function to bestow Lamrim realizations.  Lamrim is like a net of virtuous minds that functions to oppose all delusions directly or indirectly.  By weaving the Lamrim within our mind, we protect ourselves against any possible combination of delusions, and thus achieve protection from all inner poisons.  

Happy Protector Day: Preliminary practice of the Guru Yoga of Je Tsongkhapa

The 29th of every month is Protector Day.  This is part 4 of a 12-part series aimed at helping us remember our Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden and increase our faith in him on these special days.

Within the Kadampa tradition we are advised to practice the sadhana Heart Jewel as our daily practice as explained in the book by the same title.  If we are a Tantric practitioner, we engage in the Tantric version of this practice known as Hundreds of Deities of the Joyful Land According to Highest Yoga Tantra as explained in the Oral Instructions of Mahamudra.   In either case, the sadhana begins with the Guru Yoga of Je Tsongkhapa.  I will explain things from the perspective of Heart Jewel since it is a common practice. 

In general, the practice of Heart Jewel is the method for practicing the entire path to enlightenment.  There are three main parts – affectionately called a ‘Heart Jewel Sandwich.’  The first part is the Je Tsongkhapa part – the function of this part of the practice is to be able to draw closer to Je Tsongkhapa, the founder and source of the Dharma of the New Kadampa Tradition.  Through reling upon him, we receive his external and internal guidance to be able to realize his Dharma of Lamrim, Lojong and Vajrayana Mahamudra.  The second part is our Meditation on Lamrim, Lojong and Vajrayana Mahamudra.  We do this in the middle of the practice.  And the final part is the Dorje Shugden part – this creates the causes to be able to receive Dorje Shugden’s care and protection for being able to gain the realization of Lamrim, Lojong and Vajrayana Mahamudra.  This series of posts is primarily about how to rely upon Dorje Shugden, but I will nonetheless give a brief explanation of how to engage in the first two parts of the Heart Jewel sandwich. 

To actually engage in the Je Tsongkhapa part, we do as follows.  First, we generate the mind of refuge and bodhichitta – here we establish our motivation for engaging in the practice:  “With the wish to become a Buddha so I can help all the beings around me attain the same state, I will now engage sincerely in the practice of Heart Jewel, trying to generate the minds indicated by the words.”  Then, we engage in the prayer of the seven limbs and the mandala.  This accomplishes two main functions:  First, we accumulate merit – merit is positive spiritual energy.  It is like gasoline in our spiritual car.  Second, we purify negativities – negative karma prevents us from engaging in spiritual practices and is the substantial cause of all our suffering.  It is like lots of traffic and debris on the roads.  On this basis, we then recite the Migtsema prayer and prayer of the stages of the path.  These two enable us to receive the blessings of all the Buddhas through our living spiritual guide Je Tsongkhapa.  Blessings are like spark plugs which ignite the gas of our merit to push us along the road to enlightenment.  The migtsema prayer draws us closer to Je Tsongkhapa and enables us to receive the blessings of the wisdom, compassion and spiritual power of all the Buddhas.  The prayer of the stages of the path is a special prayer for requesting the realizations of the Lamrim.

At this point in the sadhana we typically engage in meditation on Lamrim.  Usually people use the book the New Meditation Handbook and cycle through the 21 Lamrim meditations explained there, one each day.  Alternatively, we can practice the 15-day cycle explained in Mirror of Dharma.  Instead of engaging in a daily Lamrim meditation, it is also possible for us to recite with deep faith one of the longer prayers of the stages of the path.  There are three main Lamrim prayers – the short prayer as explained in Heart Jewel, the middling prayer as explained in Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, or the extensive prayer as explained in Great Treasury of Merit.  When we recite the Lamrim prayers as our main Lamrim practice, we should do so slowly and from memory, trying to sincerely generate in our heart and without distraction the Lamrim minds indicated by the words.  For more information, we can also attend classes on the Lamrim at our local Dharma centers, including Foundation Program on the book Joyful Path of Good Fortune, which is our principal Lamrim text.  After our meditation, we recite the dedication prayer from the Je Tsongkhapa part of Heart Jewel.

For more detailed information, we can read in the book Heart Jewel which provides an extensive commentary.  Geshe-la has said that this is his most important book, yet sadly it is often overlooked.  It is available for sale at www.tharpa.com

We should also take advantage of the opportunity to attend courses on Heart Jewel at our local Kadampa center, and we should make many requests that our local teacher grant the empowerments of Je Tsongkhapa and Dorje Shugden.  What is an empowerment?  An empowerment in general is method for establishing a very close connection with a particular enlightened being.  The closer our karma with a given enlightened being, the more ‘bandwidth’ they have for being able to help us.  It is a bit like making a connection with a very special friend.  When we meet somebody very powerful and we have a close connection with them, we can more easily call upon them and ask them for help.

An empowerment is like receiving a personal deity within our mental continuum.  We can all appreciate the qualities of the different Buddhas, and think how wonderful it would be to know them and be able to call upon them.  But how much more wonderful would it be to have a personal emanation of a Buddha who is available for us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  During the empowerment, we receive our own personal emanation of Dorje Shugden into our mental continuum.  We will be able to develop a personal relationship with this Dorje Shugden and he will care for us.  Geshe-la once told a very senior teacher about the Dorje Shugden empowerment, “people need this empowerment, they need this protection.”

Happy Tsog Day: Understanding the Truth of Samsara for Ourself and Others

In order to remember and mark our tsog days, holy days on the Kadampa calendar, I am sharing my understanding of the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide with tsog.  This is part 28 of a 44-part series.

Developing the wish to gain liberation

Being violently tossed by the waves of delusion and karma
And tormented by the sea-monsters of the three sufferings,
I seek your blessings to develop a strong wish for liberation
From the boundless and fearful great ocean of samsara.

Even if we take an upper rebirth, our situation is only temporary. It is just a question of time before we burn up the virtuous karma giving rise to our upper rebirth and we fall once again into the lower realms. Beings in the upper realms primarily just enjoy their good karma ripening. We can see this in our world with those who are extremely fortunate. How many dedicate their lives and their good karma to helping others? Besides Bill Gates, there is virtually no one. Taking an upper rebirth is extremely dangerous from a karmic perspective because we essentially create a bonfire for all our virtuous karma. Once it is burned up, all that remains on our mind is negative, and then we once again fall into the lower realms. Thus, to be in samsara is to be in the lower realms with only very temporary exceptions.

It is helpful to consider what exactly is samsara. In truth, it is a karmic nightmare that we are trapped in that we believe to be true. Everything we normally perceive does not exist, but we think it does, and as a result we suffer. To wish to escape from samsara, therefore is the wish to wake up.

How to practise the path that leads to liberation

Forsaking the mind that views as a pleasure garden
This unbearable prison of samsara,
I seek your blessings to take up the victory banner of liberation
By maintaining the three higher trainings and the wealths of Superiors.

All the so-called good experiences we have in samsara are in reality changing suffering – the temporary reduction of our discomfort. Eating temporarily reduces the suffering of hunger. Sleeping temporarily reduces the suffering of fatigue. Companionship temporarily reduces the suffering of being alone. The list goes on and on. And even if we were able to experience good things for all this life, we would still all inevitably get sick, get old, and die. We are imputing our “I” onto a sinking ship. From a tantric perspective, samsara is identifying with contaminated aggregates of body and mind. More profoundly, it is ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions. These have all been explained in detail in previous posts. The point is, there is no lasting happiness to be found anywhere in samsara. If we contemplate this deeply, we see our only rational choice is to escape.

What are the three higher trainings? They can properly be understood as the process of letting go of samsara. The three higher trainings are higher moral discipline, higher concentration, and higher wisdom. They are called higher trainings because they are motivated by renunciation, the wish to escape from samsara. With higher moral discipline, we let go of deluded behavior. With higher concentration, we let go of our distractions being fascinated by samsaric objects. With higher wisdom, we let go of grasping at the things we normally see existing from their own side. In particular, we let go of grasping at our ordinary body in mind as ourself. Once we let go of samsara, it will gradually exhaust itself because it was never anything more than mere karmic appearance.

How to generate great compassion, the foundation of the Mahayana

Contemplating how all these pitiful migrators are my mothers,
Who out of kindness have cherished me again and again,
I seek your blessings to generate a spontaneous compassion
Like that of a loving mother for her dearest child.

Just as we are trapped in samsara, so too are all other living beings. But frankly, we generally do not care. Why? Because we do not think these other living beings are important, or that their happiness matters. Once we consider them to be important, then we consider how they too are suffering, and we will naturally generate a compassionate wish that they too escape from samsara. In the Lamrim teachings there are two principal methods taught for how to consider the happiness of others to be important. The first is to consider how all living beings are our mothers, and the second is to engage in the practice of exchanging self with others. In this verse, we train in the first method.

The logic here is very simple. Because we have taken countless rebirths in the past, we have had countless mothers. Where are all these mothers today? They are the beings around us. Buddha said there is not a single living being who has not been the mother of all the others. This is difficult for us to understand only because we fail to grasp the infinite past of our lives. We tend to think in very narrow terms just the human world on this planet. Time is without beginning, therefore there has been plenty of time for each and every living being to have at one point been our mother.

Some people also struggle with this meditation because they have a bad relationship with their mother of this life. For these people, considering how everyone is our mother does not help us to generate compassion for them because we do not like our present mother. There are two answers to this problem. The first is to see things in perspective. No matter how much harm our mother caused us after we were born, the truth is we would not even have this life if she had not kept us and kept us alive when we were younger. Thus, everything we have in this life is indirectly thanks to our mother. And even if she was abusive with us, this has taught us how not to be with others, and so even her negative actions have brought us benefit. The second way of avoiding this problem is to consider that all living beings are equally our child. We have been the parent or mother of all living beings at one point in the past. It is because our mother so mistreated us that we now wish to not repeat her mistakes and instead to care for all living beings as a good mother should that we can consider everyone as our child who we must care for. The point is to realize each and every living being is someone important whose happiness we should care for. It does not matter whether we reach this destination by considering how everyone is our mother or by considering how everyone is our child.

A Pure Life: How to take the Eight Mahayana Precepts

This is part four of a 12-part series on how to skillfully train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts.  The 15th of every month is Precepts Day, when Kadampa practitioners around the world typically take and observe the Precepts.

In this post I will explain how to actually take the Eight Mahayana Precepts using the sadhana called A Pure Life.  If we have not yet received the Eight Mahayana Precepts, we first need to receive them directly from a preceptor. Once we have done so, we can take them again on our own anytime we wish. Typically, Kadampa practitioners around the world retake the Eight Mahayana Precepts the 15th of every month. This is not that difficult to do nor is it a particularly onerous moral commitment. But through training gradually month after month, year after year, eventually our behavior begins to change, and we naturally start to live a pure life.

How do we receive them directly from a preceptor? The easiest way of doing so is to request the resident teacher at the closest Kadampa center to us to grant them. Since most Kadampa centers engage in this practice once a month, it should be very easy for them to grant you the precepts formally. If we are unable to make it to a Kadampa center to take the precepts, it might also be possible to do so online through zoom or a similar service. I would recommend simply asking if this is possible. I imagine if your intention is sincere, your closest resident teacher will find a way to make it happen.

The way of taking the precepts for the first time and the way of retaking them every month is almost identical.  We typically take the precepts at dawn. But if this is not possible, it is OK to take them first thing in the morning. Again, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

When it comes time to take the precepts, we should first recall that we have accumulated a nearly infinite amount of negative karma associated with violating the eight precepts. This karma remains on our mind, and if we do not purify it, we will eventually suffer its bitter consequence. One of the most effective methods for purifying our past transgression of the eight precepts is by retaking them. When we do so, we can purify all of our past transgressions and renew afresh the commitments upon our mind.

We then should imagine that our spiritual guide in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni appears clearly in the space in front of us. He is delighted that we have decided to engage in the precepts practice. When we actually take the precepts, we are not promising our spiritual guide that we will keep them, rather we are promising to ourselves that we will keep this moral discipline and our spiritual guide in the space in front of us is a witness to our commitment. He is honored to be such a witness.  With this mind fearing the karmic consequences of our past negative behavior, strong faith in the value of moral discipline practice, and remembering our spiritual guide as a witness, we can then engage in the refuge prayers of the sadhana while contemplating deeply upon their meaning.

Once we have done so, we can then recall our bodhichitta motivation for engaging in the practice of the Eight Mahayana Precepts.  How our practice of the precepts helps us attain enlightenment was explained in the previous post of this series. The short version is to attain enlightenment we need to purify our very subtle mind of the two obstructions.  To do that, we need to realize the emptiness of our very subtle mind, which requires a powerful mind of concentration. The mind of concentration in turn depends upon the practice of moral discipline. Moral discipline is a special wisdom that recognizes delusions and negative behavior are deceptive and is therefore not tempted by them. This wisdom then enables our concentration to be stronger, which then strengthens our meditation on emptiness, enabling us to purify our very subtle mind. Recalling this, we then recite the bodhichitta prayers.

We then purify our environment, arrange beautiful offerings, invite the field for accumulating merit, and engage in the practice of the prayer of the seven limbs and the mandala as outlined in the sadhana. We have all received commentary to these practices many times. What is unique in this context is we should recall and connect all of these trainings into the broader specific narrative of us retaking the Eight Mahayana Precepts.

After we offer the mandala, we then stand and make three prostrations to the visualized field of merit. We then kneel with our right knee on the floor and place our palms together at our heart. If we have bad knees and it is too painful to actually kneel while taking the precepts, we can simply do so seated in whatever physical posture is comfortable while mentally imagining that we are kneeling in front of our spiritual guide. We then once again recall our bodhichitta motivation for taking the Mahayana precepts. In the sadhana, in the italics, Geshe-la provides a contemplation we can engage in. What matters is we generate a qualified and personal bodhicitta motivation for taking the precepts.

If we are taking the precepts in front of a preceptor, we then recite three time the line “O preceptor, please listen to me.” But if we are taking them on our own, we can recite three times, “All buddhas who abide in the ten directions, and all bodhisattvas, please listen to me.”  Once we have completed this request, we then repeat the statement outlined in the sadana. The essential meaning of this statement is just as all the previous holy beings gained the ability to help all living beings through practicing the Eight Mahayana Precepts, so too will we now take the precepts and practice them throughout the day.

We then recite the prayer of the precepts by following the words in the sadhana. As we do so, We should mentally make the firm personal promise that we will observe these precepts for the next 24 hours.  After reciting the precept prayer, we then recite the mantra of pure moral discipline seven, twenty-one, or as many times as we wish strongly believing that we are requesting the wisdom blessings necessary to joyfully engage in the practice of moral discipline in general, and the Eight Mahayana Precepts in particular. It is a good idea to memorize this mantra and use it anytime we feel tempted to break some moral discipline we have taken on. If we recite this mantra with faith, we will receive powerful wisdom blessings which cut the power of our delusions tempting us to break our moral discipline. Again, the practice of moral discipline is not one of willpower but rather having the wisdom to no longer want to engage in negativity and to no longer want to follow our delusions. After reciting the mantra, we can then engage in the prayer of moral discipline and dedication.

Our practice after taking the precepts is to then observe them throughout the day. As we do so, we should recall again and again the dangers of not following them and the advantages of following them. Through training and familiarizing our mind with this wisdom, we will gradually loosen the hold of our delusions over our behavior. We will build up strength within our mind to not want to engage in impure behavior. This wisdom and these mental habits will help us engage in pure behavior not just on precepts day but throughout the month, and indeed throughout our life.

Sometimes, it will not be possible for us to actually engage in the sadhana A Pure Life on precepts day. If this is the case, it is enough for us to recall our bodhichitta motivation for wanting to keep the precepts, to then mentally make a promise to observe them throughout the day, and then recite the mantra of pure moral discipline strongly believing that we have renewed our precepts. Then we practice throughout the day in exactly the same way. Ideally, we would engage in this sadhana on the 15th of every month. But again, if this proves too difficult, it is better to do this short version of taking the precepts then not doing so at all. The danger, though, is we just engage in the short method and never fully engage in the whole sadhana. Our practice of the Eight Mahayana Precepts then becomes rather superficial, and the transformative effects on our mind are limited. Therefore, we should try our honest best to engage in this practice as Geshe-la presents it.

Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day: We can do it too

Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day everyone!  April 15th of every year we celebrate and remember Buddha’s enlightenment.  It is one of the most special days on the Kadampa calendar and provides us an excellent opportunity to deepen our understanding of what enlightenment is, recall Buddha’s kindness in attaining it, and make a clear determination to attain enlightenment ourselves.

Understanding How Holy Days Work

There are certain days of the year which are karmically more powerful than others, and the karmic effect of our actions on these days is multiplied by a factor of ten million!  These are called “ten million multiplying days.”  In practice, what this means is every action we engage in on these special days is karmically equivalent to us engaging in that same action ten million times.  This is true for both our virtuous and non-virtuous actions, so not only is it a particularly incredible opportunity for creating vast merit, but it is also an extremely dangerous time for engaging in negative actions.  There are four of these days every year:  Buddha’s Englightenment Day (April 15), Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day (June 4), Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day (September 22), and Je Tsongkhapa Day (October 25).  Heruka and Vajrayogini Month (January 3-31), NKT Day (1st Saturday of April), and International Temple’s Day (first Saturday of November) are the other major Days that complete the Kadampa calendar. 

A question may arise, why are the karmic effect of our actions greater on certain days than others?  We can think of these days as a spiritual pulsar that at periodic intervals sends out an incredibly powerful burst of spiritual energy, or wind.  On such days, if we lift the sails of our practice, these gushes of spiritual winds push us a great spiritual distance.  Why are these specific days so powerful?  Because in the past on these days particularly spiritually significant events occurred which altered the fundamental trajectory of the karma of the people of this world.  Just as calling out in a valley reverberates back to us, so too these days are like the karmic echoes of those past events.  Another way of understanding this is by considering the different types of ocean tides.  Normally, high and low tide on any given day occurs due to the gravity of the moon pulling water towards it as the earth rotates.  But a “Spring tide” occurs when the earth, moon, and Sun are all in alignment, pulling the water not just towards the moon as normal, but also towards the much more massive sun.  Our holy days are like spiritual Spring tides.

What is Enlightenment?

Fundamentally, the entire Buddhist path is about attaining enlightenment.  This is a word that is used in many different contexts, even in modern society, but sometimes we lack a clear understanding of what exactly it means.  Geshe-la provides several different definitions or explanations to help us understand.

According to Sutra, Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path, “any being who has become completely free from the two obstructions, which are the roots of all faults, has attained enlightenment.”  The two obstructions are the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience.  Delusion obstructions are the presence of delusions in our mind.  The root delusion is self-grasping ignorance, which thinks we are the body and mind that we normally see.  From this comes self-cherishing, which thinks this self is supremely important and is willing to neglect or sacrifice others for its sake.  From these two, which are sometimes referred to collectively as our self-centered mind, come attachment and aversion.  Attachment mistakenly thinks some external objects are a cause of our happiness and aversion thinks other external objects are a cause of our suffering.  These four delusions together are the root of all of our other delusions, such as anger, pride, jealousy, deluded doubt, and so forth.  The obstructions to omniscience are the karmic imprints from our previous delusions and their corresponding actions.  Every time we engage in an action, it creates karma that gets planted on our very subtle mind.  Actions motivated by delusion create contaminated karma – karma that ripens in the form of samsaric experience.  These contaminated karmic imprints on our very subtle mind prevent the omniscient mind of a Buddha from arising.  When we remove the two obstructions from our mind, our pure potential, or Buddha nature, becomes completely unobstructed and we become a Buddha.  From this perspective, we are all Buddhas in waiting, we merely need to remove all that obstructs such a state from arising.  When we permanently overcome our delusion obstructions, we attain liberation; and when we permanently overcome our obstructions to omniscience, we attain full enlightenment.

According to Tantra, a Buddha is someone who has completely overcome ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions.  Ordinary appearances are all of the things we normally see – our bodies, minds, enjoyments, others, worlds, etc.  These are the samsaric appearances that arise from our past contaminated actions.  Samsara is nothing more than a contaminated karmic dream.  When we purify our ordinary appearances so that they never arise again, samsara simply ceases to appear.  It dis-appears because, in fact, it never was.  Ordinary conceptions occur when we grasp at ordinary appearances as being true.  All ordinary appearances appear to exist from their own side, as being completely real and existing independently of our mind.  Things exist “out there” waiting to be experienced or observed, and it appears to us as if our mind has absolutely nothing to do with bringing these objects into existence.  Ordinary conceptions think things actually exist in the way that they appear – they really do exist out there, independently of our mind.  When we overcome our ordinary conceptions, we attain liberation; and when we overcome our ordinary appearances, we attain full enlightenment.  For somebody who has overcome their ordinary conceptions but not yet overcome their ordinary appearances, things will still appear to their mind in the way that they normally do, but the very appearance of these things will remind the person that such inherently existent things do not exist at all.  For example, if we look at a picture of the New York City skyline before 9/11, the very appearance of the World Trade Center will remind us that it no longer exists.

In the Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, Geshe-la provides a functional definition of enlightenment when he says, “Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and whose function is to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day.”  This definition not only explains what enlightenment is but also provides us with the definitive reason why we should attain it.  Since Mahamudra is a Tantric instruction, it too says enlightenment is permanent freedom from all mistaken appearance.  But this definition also describes what unique abilities we gain when we attain enlightenment, namely the ability to use our blessings to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day.  Happiness is a state of mind, therefore its cause must come from within the mind.  We can observe from our own experience that when our mind is peaceful, we are happy even if our external circumstance is terrible; whereas if our mind is not peaceful, we are unhappy even if our external circumstance is terrific.  Therefore, inner peace is the cause of happiness.  Buddhas are sometimes referred to as “inner beings,” or beings who live within the mind.  As inner beings, they have the power to directly touch the minds of other living beings (since despite all appearances our minds are not actually separate from each other) in such a way that their minds become more peaceful.  And they are able to do this directly to each and every living being every day forever.  Just as the sun shines equally upon all things, Buddha’s blessings shine forth into the minds of all living beings directly and simultaneously.  We attain enlightenment to gain that ability.

Buddha is So Kind Because He Teaches the Truth of Suffering

One of the hardest things for people to come to accept is that happiness cannot be found in samsara.  We are convinced that it can be, and we resist thinking that it can’t be.  There are two main causes of this resistance.  First, our attachment has been duping us since time without beginning that external objects are a cause of our happiness.  There are all sorts of pleasant things like a beautiful sunset, a delicious pizza, or great sex.  We have seen countless TV shows or movies, and almost without exception, they all have happy endings; so we think samsara must be the same.  When we hear that samsara is the nature of suffering and happiness and freedom are impossible to find in it, we think, “that’s just not true.”  The second reason we resist this is it seems to be an incredibly depressing thought.  It seems so pessimistic and negative to always talk about suffering and how terrible everything is – how about a little optimism here so we can retain some hope?  Things may be bad, but better to not think about it too much, otherwise, we will become overwhelmed by sadness and despair. 

When people first hear the teachings on suffering they think, “how can this possibly be a ‘Joyful Path,’ and how can thinking about so much suffering ever lead to happiness?”  We might think Buddhists are all “Debby Downers,” and Buddha’s teachings are actually preventing us from enjoying even the very modest happiness we are able to find in life by pointing out how such pleasures are not real happiness.  So we are left with nothing.  Buddha does not seem kind, he seems like the ultimate ‘buzz kill.’ 

How can we happily understand the teachings on the truth of suffering?  First, we have to be clear on their meaning.  Buddha is not saying there is no happiness, he is simply pointing out that we can’t find it in external things.  Ultimately, happiness comes from within the mind, namely through inner peace.  He further explains what destroys inner peace (delusions and negativity) and what causes inner peace (wisdom and virtue).  So he does not deprive us of happiness, he simply points out what works and what doesn’t – very useful knowledge!  Second, these teachings save us from wasting our time looking for happiness where we will never find it.  If we lost our keys, we might spend hours and hours looking all over our house to find them.  But if our daughter sent us a text message saying she accidentally walked off with them, we would not waste our time looking for them because we would know she has them.  We have been looking for the keys of happiness in samsara since beginningless time – searching, searching, but never finding.  Buddha comes along and tells us, “you’ll never find them in samsara, but you can find them by getting them from me,” we are incredibly relieved.  Third, he is not saying we can’t enjoy the sunset, pizza, or sex, he is saying from their own side they have no power to bring us happiness, but if we relate to them in a pure way, we can come to enjoy a far greater pleasure than we ever could have through ordinary means alone. 

But for me, his greatest kindness is he has provided us with a permanent solution to aging, sickness, death, and uncontrolled rebirth.  In the life story of Buddha Shakyamuni, Prince Siddhartha is given everything he could possibly want – riches, enjoyments, loving parents, a beautiful family, and adoration from all of his subjects.  Yet he realized that none of these things can provide him (or any of us) from the seemingly inescapable sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, and death.  Seeking a solution, he wanted to leave the palace and go attain enlightenment.  His father tried to stop him, and the Prince said, “if you can provide me with a solution to these problems, I will remain in the palace,” but his father had to admit, he could not.  The Prince then said he would leave the palace and return with a solution so that he could help his parents, his subjects, and indeed all living beings with a permanent method to escape such sufferings forever.  He then began his spiritual journey, and eventually attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.  He conquered the cycle of death itself.  Instead of being reborn in samsara, he discovered methods to permanently wake up from it into the pure lands of the Buddhas.  The practices we have today are those that he taught, and if we sincerely put them into practice, we too can attain the same state.

Deciding to Become a Buddha Ourselves

Compassion is said to be the mother of all Buddhas since all enlightened beings are born from it.  Buddha attained enlightenment out of compassion for us – he wanted to help us also permanently escape the sufferings of samsara, the two obstructions, and ordinary appearances and conceptions.  Without his compassion for us, he would not have been able to purify his own mind to attain enlightenment and he never would have begun turning the Wheel of Dharma for us. 

But our ability to attain enlightenment depends upon ourselves generating compassion for others, just as Buddha did.  How do we generate compassion?  We first generate love for others, then we consider how they suffer.  It is said if we do this, compassion will naturally arise, but this is not entirely correct.  If we lack faith in a solution, then when we consider the suffering of those we love we will become overwhelmed with grief and sadness.  But if we realize there is a solution, then when we consider the suffering of those we love we will find their suffering difficult to bear because we will realize none of it need be.  They could be completely free. 

To transform this powerful mind of compassion into the personal determination to attain enlightenment ourselves, we need to add three things.  First, a feeling of personal responsibility for leading others to everlasting freedom ourselves.  We generate this mind by thinking, “if I don’t do it, who will?”  We might think, “well, Buddha will.”  But Buddha attained enlightenment so that we could do the same so that we could help these people who are karmically close to us. 

Second, we need to add confidence that we ourselves can attain enlightenment just like Buddha did.  Sometimes we think attaining enlightenment is just too difficult and we are too incapable to ever even contemplate beginning such an undertaking.  But as explained above, we all have a Buddha nature, we simply need to remove the two obstructions or ordinary appearances and conceptions from our mind, and our enlightened state will naturally be unveiled.  We each have enlightenment within us, we just need to remove all that obstructs it.  Further, we all have experience of being able to remove our faults somewhat and replace them with similitudes of inner qualities.  If we can do this a little bit, there is no reason why we cannot do so completely.  The methods we have are the exact same ones Buddha taught and have been practiced by millions of practitioners since.  Geshe-la calls them “scientific methods,” meaning everybody who investigates for themselves by sincerely putting the instructions into practice will likewise enjoy the exact same results – he guarantees it!  There is nothing we can’t do without persistent effort.  Our delusions are just bad habits of mind, but with effort, we can change our habits and thereby change our karma. 

Finally, we need to add an understanding of the special abilities of a Buddha to help others so that we see our becoming one is the only way we can rescue all living beings from their suffering.  Buddhas are fearless in helping others.  We tend to hold ourselves back for fear of what others might think or lack of confidence in our abilities, but Buddhas have overcome all delusions and all fear.  He fearlessly teaches the truth of suffering and worries not what others might think.  Buddha is also a deathless being.  In our present state, we can at best help a limited number of people in this one life, but a Buddha has transcended death, and so is able to continue to help living beings in life after life, gradually guiding each and every one of them to the enlightened state.  Buddha possesses omniscient wisdom.  We are quite ignorant and often have no idea how to help others.  We don’t understand karma, delusions, nor the causes of happiness or suffering.  But Buddhas see all three times directly and simultaneously, so they know exactly why people are experiencing the suffering they are and they know exactly what others need to do to make their way to the city of enlightenment.  Buddhas also have perfected their skillful means of helping others.  It is not enough to simply know everything if we are not able to actually skillfully help people come to realize the same things.  Buddhas know how to present the Dharma to others in a way that they can easily understand and practically put into practice, thus opening the door to liberation for them.  They know how to gradually guide people to enter, progress along, and ultimately complete the path to enlightenment.  If we become a Buddha ourselves, we too will develop the fearlessness, deathlessness, omniscient wisdom, and skillful means necessary to gradually lead everyone we love to the same state. 

When we combine our compassion which cannot bear the suffering of others with a feeling of personal responsibility, the confidence we can do it, and a firm understanding of the many qualities of a Buddha, we will naturally develop a strong determination to attain enlightenment ourselves for their sake.  This mind is called “bodhichitta,” or the mind of enlightenment.  It is the most virtuous mind a living being can generate.  In Joyful Path, Geshe-la says:

“Bodhichitta is the best method for bestowing happiness, the best method for eliminating suffering, and the best method for dispelling confusion. There is no virtue equal to it, no better friend, no greater merit. Bodhichitta is the very essence of all eighty-four thousand instructions of Buddha. In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life Shantideva says: It is the quintessential butter that arises when the milk of Dharma is churned. Just as by stirring milk, butter emerges as its essence, so by stirring the entire collection of Buddha’s scriptures, bodhichitta emerges as its essence. For aeons Buddhas have been investigating what is the most beneficial thing for us. They have seen that it is bodhichitta because bodhichitta brings every living being to the supreme bliss of full enlightenment.”

Today is Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, which means if we strongly develop this supreme mind of Bodhichitta today – making the firm decision to work for as long as it takes to attain enlightenment ourselves – it will be the same as doing so ten million times.  Such a pure mind has the potential to permanently redirect the trajectory of our mental continuum and powerfully propel us towards the City of Enlightenment.  From there, we will be able to help everyone attain permanent freedom from all of their suffering for all of their lives.  What could be more meaningful than this?

Happy Tsog Day: Training in the Initial Scope of Lamrim

In order to remember and mark our tsog days, holy days on the Kadampa calendar, I am sharing my understanding of the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide with tsog.  This is part 27 of a 44-part series.

How to rely upon our spiritual guide, the root of spiritual paths

Through the force of my making offerings and respectful requests
To the venerable spiritual guide, the holy, supreme Field of Merit,
I seek your blessings, O Protector, the root of all goodness and joy,
So that you will gladly take me into your loving care.

In truth, the entire practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide explains how to rely upon our spiritual guide. The main point is to develop conviction that our spiritual guide is indeed a Buddha and the source of all good in our lives. To develop conviction in the former, we need to understand the emptiness of the spiritual guide. Sometimes when we hear teachings explaining that the spiritual guide is a Buddha, we misunderstand this to me we are to try view him as inherently a Buddha. But obviously that is not correct since nothing is inherently existent. Instead, we need to understand that by viewing him as a Buddha, Buddha will enter into him and we will receive Buddha’s blessings through him.

More profoundly, viewing our spiritual guide as a Buddha does not mean viewing him as a Buddha from his own side, rather it is a special way of relating to everything the spiritual guide does so that it functions to provide us with pure Dharma teachings. So even if our spiritual guide, or any living being for that matter, engages in manifestly negative or destructive actions, we can nonetheless view all these as powerful teachings of our spiritual guide. Nothing is pure from its own side, rather things become pure by viewing and relating to them in a pure way. Pure view does not exist on the side of the object, rather it exists on the side of the subject mind viewing things. Thus, if we want to generate pure view of our spiritual guide, regarding him as a Buddha, it suffices to relate to everything that he does as something confirming or revealing the truth of Dharma. We can apply this same logic to any living being, and therefore view anyone as an emanation of our spiritual guide. But we begin by first doing it with the person in our life who is so manifestly engaging in the actions of a Buddha, namely our spiritual guide. Once we can do it with our spiritual guide, it becomes easier to do it with other living beings.

To gain conviction in the latter, that the spiritual guide is the source of all good, it suffices to recall the teachings on karma that all happiness comes from virtuous actions. Then we look honestly into our mind and realize that all the habits that we have effortlessly move in a negative direction, and it takes effort for us to engage in virtuous actions. This shows that the current of our mind is moving in a negative direction. If this is true even once we have found the Dharma, it is obviously true for all our past lives. Thus, it is safe to say that the only time we engaged in any virtuous action was when we received the blessings of a Buddha to encourage us to do so. Thus, any happiness we enjoy comes from our past virtue, which comes from receiving the blessings of Buddha.

Developing the aspiration to take the essence of our human life

Realizing that this freedom and endowment, found only once,
Are difficult to attain, and yet decay so quickly,
I seek your blessings to seize their essential meaning,
Undistracted by the meaningless activities of this life.

It is important to make a distinction between having a human life and having a precious human life. To have a precious human life means to have a human life plus also have an interest in Dharma and an opportunity to meet pure teachings. It is exceedingly rare for us to attain a precious human life. For me, the most powerful analogy is likening the odds of a precious human rebirth to the odds of a blind turtle surfacing only once every 100 years putting its head through a golden yoke floating on an ocean the size of this world. The earth’s surface is 149 trillion square meters, so we can say we have a one in 149 trillion chance of attaining a precious human rebirth. Amongst humans, very few have an interest in practicing the Dharma and have found a pure path that they can practice. Thus, objectively speaking we can say it is almost impossible to attain a precious human rebirth. Yet we have attained one. That is undeniable. The question we all face is what do we do with the opportunity we have been given?

The actual method for gaining the happiness of higher states in future lives

Fearing the blazing fires of the sufferings of bad migrations,
From the depths of my heart I go for refuge to the Three Jewels,
And seek your blessings to strive sincerely
To abandon non-virtue and practise the entire collection of virtue.

When you look at the population of just this world, we can see that animals and insects far outnumber humans, probably by a factor of at least a million to one. Some scientists estimate much much higher than that. If we assume the same proportions into the hungry ghost and the hell realms, we can see that the overwhelming majority of living beings in samsara are in the lower realms. When we take rebirth in the lower realms, we engage in almost exclusively negative actions. This means that virtually all the karma on our mind is negative. To attain a human rebirth, positive karma needs to ripen. That is exceedingly rare simply because such karma is exceedingly rare. Whether we take a human or a lower rebirth in our next life depends upon the quality of mind we have at the time of death. If we die with a negative mind, it will activate negative karma throwing us into the lower realms. If we die with a positive mind, it will activate positive karma throwing us into the upper realms. If we die with a pure mind, it will activate pure karma enabling us to escape from samsara and take rebirth in a pure land. Typically, when we encounter adverse circumstances, we react with a negative deluded mind. We can observe this in our daily behavior. There is no experience more adverse than death. If we respond to even minor inconveniences with negativity, it goes without question that we are most likely to respond to our death with a negative mind. This means unless we thoroughly train our mind, it is almost certain we will fall into the lower realms.

The truth of the matter is samsara is almost entirely the lower realms. The upper realms are like a tiny island surrounded by an ocean of fire. The island we stand on is sinking into the fire. This is not a metaphor, this is our actual karmic situation. We tend to think it is highly unlikely we will take lower rebirth, but the reality is the exact opposite. We need to let this truth touch our heart and frankly become terrified at the prospect of our almost certain lower rebirth. Virtually everybody we know and everybody we see will all fall into the lower realms. We are all bound for hell. Hell is our natural home in samsara.

Sometimes we reject these teachings because we think it is a religious institution trying to manipulate us. While of course we need to check to see if this is the case, we also need to check to see if this is in fact our samsaric situation. There are many valid reasons establishing the existence of past and future lives. It is also a manifest truth that we very rarely engage in virtuous actions despite having found the Dharma. So how often do we create the karma to attain another rebirth compared to how often in our countless past lives we have created the causes for lower rebirth? Do the math. The truth is inescapable. The only question is whether we allow this truth to touch our heart and then become extremely motivated to engage in purification practice.

Happy Tara Day: How to ignite Tara’s fierce and raging fire in our life

This is the fourth installment of the 12-part series sharing my understanding of the practice Liberation from Sorrow.

Praising Tara by her destroying opponents

Homage to you who by saying TRÄ and PHAT
Completely destroy the obstructions of enemies.
You suppress with your right leg drawn in and your left extended,
And blaze with a fierce and raging fire.

I think there are two ways we can understand this.  First, her wisdom blessings act like a fierce and raging fire that radiate out in all directions like a protection circle, dispelling all obstructions of enemies, keeping them at bay.  Second, because she is a Buddha she has universal compassion even for those who would oppose the Dharma.  To destroy the obstructions of enemies means she has the power to destroy the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience of her would-be enemies.  Geshe-la once famously said in Toronto that “Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys all enemies.”  In the same way, Tara completely destroys opponents by destroying the obstructions to enlightenment on their minds.  This shows her skill in loving living beings while directing wrathful energy against their delusions.

Praising Tara by her purifying demons and the two obstructions

Homage to TURE, extremely fearsome one,
Who completely destroy the chief of demons.
With the wrathful expression on your lotus face
You vanquish all foes without exception.

Where do demons come from?  They are mere karmic appearances to mind, ripening from our negative karma.  The way to actually destroy all demons is to purify the negative karma that sees or appears anybody as a demon.  Nobody is a demon from their own side, they only become such when we view them with a deluded, contaminated mind.  This is how she purifies all demons.  It also says she vanquishes all foes without exception.  In Buddhism, there are no outer enemies, only inner enemies.  To vanquish all foes without exception, therefore, refers to her ability to vanquish the inner enemies of the two obstructions – delusions and their imprints.

Praising Tara by the objects she holds in her right and left hands

Homage to you whose fingers perfectly adorn your heart
With the mudra symbolizing the Three Precious Jewels.
Adorned with a wheel of all directions
Whose radiant light outshines all.

Buddhas hold different implements in their hands to symbolize their inner qualities and abilities.  Her hand in the mudra symbolizing the Three Precious Jewels indicates that she is the synthesis of all three jewels, and that she also performs the function of all three jewels.  She blesses our mind like a Buddha, she teaches and protects the Kadam Dharma, and she helps us like loving Sangha.  I’m assuming the wheel here refers to the Wheel of Dharma which outshines all because it enables us to escape from samsara.

Praising Tara by her crown ornament and the sound of her laughter

Homage to you whose very joyful and shining crown ornament
Radiates a garland of light;
Who, with your mirthful laughter of TUTTARE,
Subdue the demons and worldly gods.

Here, we can imagine that infinite light rays radiate out from Tara’s crown ornament, bestowing blessings and peace on all living beings.  We can then rejoice in her enlightened actions, wishing to gain the ability to do the same ourselves.  Mirthful laughter means a merry or amused laugh.  We should never underestimate the power of laughter.  More often than not, we take everything too seriously.  This makes us tight and our grasping stronger.  But when we can laugh at the absurdity of samsara, then it takes the sting out of it.  Samsara makes me laugh!  In particular, it is important to be able to laugh at ourselves and our delusions.  This is one of the most powerful ways of cutting the power of our delusions over us because we are able to view them from a distance and laugh at how ridiculous they are.  Being able to laugh at others in a way that also enables them to stop taking themselves or their samsara too seriously is a whole other level of skill at mirthful laughter.  Normally, people can take it wrong that we are laughing at them or their plight, and they can become quickly offended.  But Tara has the ability to use skillful mirthful laughter to even subdue demons and worldly gods, disarming their ill intent or pretension. 

Praising Tara by her accomplishing divine actions through the ten directional guardians

Homage to you who are able to summon
All the directional guardians and their retinues.
Frowning and shaking, with the letter HUM,
You rescue all from their misfortune.

In the Tsog offerings, we invite the directional guardians, evil spirits, zombies, givers of harm, smell-eaters and other such beings from the charnel grounds, offer them Torma and Tsog offerings, bless their mind, and effectively “enlist them” to help Dharma practitioners and flourish the Dharma instead of oppose them.  From a deeper point of view, we imagine that all of these beings are actually emanations of the principal deity sent into the realms of samsara to help the beings in every terrifying corner of the six realms.  From the letter HUM at the heart of the principal deity, light rays radiate out and invite these beings to come before the deity to then work on the deity’s behalf.  When we recite this verse, we can imagine Tara does the same, inviting all such beings from the charnel grounds who come before her, and then commit to working on her behalf to rescue all beings from their misfortune.  In this way, she also rescues these beings themselves from their misfortune by inspiring them to engage in virtuous actions of protecting practitioners.

Praising Tara by her crown ornament

Homage to you with a crescent moon adorning your crown,
And all your ornaments shining brightly;
With Amitabha in your top-knot
Eternally radiating light.

Here we can imagine different details of Tara’s form, recognizing them all as manifestations of her inner realizations.  Buddhas have the ability to manifest their mind as form.  When we engage in checking meditations of different deities, we focus on different aspects of their form recalling the inner realization it represents.  A moon in Buddhism symbolizes the realization of emptiness.  The ornaments of a Buddha’s body typically symbolize their inner realizations of the six perfections.  Amitabha in her top-knot indicates Amitabha is her spiritual guide.  Amitabha is the Vajra Speech of all the Buddhas, and is the same nature as Geshe Langri Tangpa, the author of Eight Verses of Training the Mind, our root text for Lojong practice.  Recalling this, we can generate faith that through our reliance on Tara we will be able to realize emptiness, complete the six perfections, and train in transforming adverse conditions into the path.

Praising Tara by her wrathful posture

Homage to you who dwell amidst a garland of flames
Like the fire at the end of the aeon.
With your right leg extended and left drawn in,
You destroy the hosts of obstructions of those who delight in the Dharma Wheel.

Buddhas engage in four types of enlightened action – pacifying, increasing, controlling, and wrathful actions.  Wrathful actions are forceful actions that skillfully differentiate between the person and their delusions or faults.  They are able to be ruthless with delusions while being loving with the person.  They are like a wisdom anger against the inner objects to be abandoned along the path.  If we fail to make the distinction between the person and their delusions, our wrathful actions are just ordinary anger and usually wind up harming living beings.  Pacifying and increasing actions are relatively easy to do without delusions, controlling actions can be done if we are free from attachment to the other person doing what we want, and wrathful actions can only be performed with compassionate wisdom differentiating clearly the person from their faults.  They also typically require the other person to have faith in us to receive well our wrathful actions, but this isn’t always necessary.  Buddhas are often surrounded by blazing wisdom fires indicating their ability to burn through negativities and protect others with great power.  When we recite this version, we imagine Tara radiates such powerful energy around her like the fire at the end of the aeon.  Her right leg extended symbolizes her ability to swiftly come to the aid of living beings.  Because she is the completely purified wind element, she can move as fast as mind to any object.  If we think of the moon, our mind is instantly there.  But how does it get there?  By being mounted upon winds.  Tara is the wind all virtue is mounted upon.  Her right leg extended shows her swift ability.