Happy Tsog Day: How to Practise Completion Stage

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 42 of a 44-part series.

I seek your blessings, O Protector, that you may place your feet
On the centre of the eight-petalled lotus at my heart,
So that I may manifest within this life
The paths of illusory body, clear light, and union.

Completion stage is the method for directly purifying samsara and becoming a Buddha. Everything else is fundamentally a preparation for completion stage. Samsara is most commonly understood as uncontrolled rebirth. Without freedom or control we die and are then thrown into another realm of samsara. The totality of the Buddhist path is learning how to gain control of the death process, so that we are able to control our next rebirth and take a rebirth outside of samsara either in a pure land, as a liberated being, or as a fully enlightened being. In generation stage, we purify the death process through the practice called the three bringings. We bring death into the path of the Truth Body, the intermediate state into the path of the Enjoyment Body, and rebirth into the path of the Emanation Body. In completion stage, we purify the death process through the nine mixings. There are the three mixings while waking, the three mixings while sleeping, and the three mixings at the time of death. The three mixings are mixing with the Truth Body, mixing with the Enjoyment Body, and mixing with the Emanation Body. By training in the three mixings while waking, we are then able to train in the three mixings while sleeping, which prepares us to be able to engage in the three mixings at the time of death. By engaging in the three bringings and the nine mixings we can gradually purify the process of uncontrolled death and become an immortal deathless being. We quite literally purify the appearance of death and rebirth so that they never arise again. From our perspective, we become a deathless being, a deity who abides eternally in the pure land. More explanation on the three bringings can be found in Essence of Vajrayana and Guide to Dakini Land, and more explanation on the nine mixings can be found in Clear Light of Bliss and Tantric Grounds and Paths.

The final object of meditation of all our completion stage practices is clear light emptiness. This is a very subtle mind of great bliss that realizes directly the emptiness of all phenomena. All our completion stage meditations, such as learning how to control our inner winds and drops, are all methods for generating the subjective mind of great bliss. We then carry this bliss with us into the clear light and we use it to meditate on emptiness. Emptiness is a very subtle object, therefore it requires a very subtle mind to realize it directly. Our very subtle mind of great bliss is our most subtle mind. It is also the most stable mind we can generate and so therefore is the most powerful possible mind with which we can meditate on emptiness. When we meditate on the emptiness of all phenomena, in particular the emptiness of our very subtle mind, with the mind of great bliss we quickly purify all the contaminated karmic imprints that are stored on our very subtle mind. When all these contaminated karmic imprints are purified, we attain enlightenment.

The practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide itself is a preliminary practice for our main practice which is Vajrayana Mahamudra. Vajrayana Mahamudra is in essence completion stage practice. All our other practices – the Lamrim, Lojong, generation stage, and everything else – are all preparatory practices for our meditation of the union of great bliss and emptiness. To find the correct object of bliss and emptiness requires all this preparation. The more qualified we can generate these preparations and the more accurate our understanding of emptiness, the more powerful our practice of purifying our contaminated karma will be.

For many years I was reluctant to begin the practice of completion stage. I simply did not feel that I was ready, and I needed to do more preparations through Lamrim, Lojong, and generation stage practice. There is of course nothing wrong with this because these are essential preparations, but we must not mistake them for our main practice. Our main practice must be understood, even from the beginning, to be training in Vajrayana Mahamudra, in particular the meditation on the union of great bliss and emptiness. If we correctly understand this meditation on the union of bliss and emptiness to be our final spiritual destination, then all the practices that we do before them will correctly function as preparations for when we are able to start engaging in completion stage practice.

In truth, completion stage practice is not complicated. Anybody can visualize channels, drops, winds, and so forth. The visualizations are not complicated. What makes them powerful, though, is not the visualizations but the purity of our bodhichitta motivation, the degree of our faith in our spiritual guide, and the accuracy of our understanding of emptiness. It is these three – our motivation, faith, and correct view of emptiness – that give our completion stage practices their power. Once we have these three foundations in place, engaging in completion stage meditation is not difficult. We just need to have patience to gradually gain familiarity to begin to perceive and experience our central channel, indestructible drop, and so forth.

Geshe-la explains in Oral Instructions of Mahamudra that once we attain the fourth mental abiding on the indestructible wind and mind at our heart, we can cause all our inner winds to enter, abide, and dissolve into our central channel and be able to directly perceive the eight dissolutions culminating in the clear light. It is also not that difficult to attain the fourth mental abiding. Once we realize how doable these things our effort becomes, in Venerable Tharchin’s words, effortless. We know how it works, we see how it works, and we see how it is doable, so effort comes naturally. We are also filled with a great deal of confidence that we can indeed attain the path if we put these methods into practice.

It is said that it is possible to attain enlightenment in three years through instructions of the Ganden Oral Lineage. Many of us have been practicing for several decades and still do not feel as if we have begun our practice. Geshe-la once told Venerable Tharchin that if he had complete faith he could attain enlightenment very quickly. What we principally lack is faith. If we had faith, were able to set aside all our doubts, and really go for it, there is no doubt that we would make rapid progress along the path. Whether we attain enlightenment in three years or not is of secondary importance. What matters is that we give it the best shot we can. At some point it will be true that our enlightenment is only three years away. We do not know when that point will be reached, but it is good to live our life believing that if we really go for it, it is possible.

Thanksgiving as a Kadampa

Getting together with family

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States.  Thanksgiving is part of modern life and one of the most important days on the American calendar. Therefore, it is our job to figure out how to celebrate it in a Kadampa way.

Traditionally on Thanksgiving, extended families get together and have a big feast and give thanks for the things and people in their life.  Even if people live far away, they travel to reunite with their family.  It is really only at Thanksgiving and Christmas that most Americans make a point of coming together as a family.  But that is often where the trouble starts!  We all have our uncle Bob or Grandpa John who just can’t help themselves saying offensive things.  Because it is supposed to be a “special day,” Mom and others get all stressed out that everything has to be “perfect,” but it is their anxiety about perfection that ruins it for everybody else.  Then of course, there is always the cynic – the person who is “too good” for Thanksgiving and feels the need to lambaste everyone else for their hypocrisy, fake friendliness, and consumerism come tomorrow.  Or perhaps we are Uncle Bob, the Nervous Nellie, or the cynic ruining the holiday for everyone else.  So the first things a Kadampa needs to do on Thanksgiving is to (1) fully accept and love our obnoxious relatives for who they are without feeling the need to change them in any way, and (2) make sure we are not the one ruining the holiday for everyone else.  As a cultural tradition, getting together with your family to give thanks is something to be rejoiced in, so we should throw ourselves into it and do what we can to make it good for everybody else.

Next, of course, comes the question about being vegetarian – or even more difficult, a vegan – on Thanksgiving.  What’s a good Kadampa to do with a giant Turkey carcass on the table, butter on the bread and mashed potatoes, and a hungry hoard ready to dig in?  Here, it entirely depends upon circumstance.  If your family is accepting of your vegetarianism, then make a vegetarian dish that you can share with everybody, and you eat what you can.  If your family does not understand and will feel offended or judged by your dietary choices, then I would advise to not make a stink out of it.  Take a small piece, eat a few bites without commentary to be polite and not hurt the cook’s feelings who prepared this big elaborate meal, and get on with your day.  But under no circumstances should you get on your soap box and make everybody else feel judged or guilty about their choices.  It is not our place to tell other people what dietary choices they should make.  Say some prayers for all the turkeys slaughtered on Thanksgiving, then transform everything into a giant Tsog offering and imagine you are offering up completely purified nectar to all the heroes and dakinis gathered around the table.

Giving Thanks

Usually during Thanksgiving, often during the meal, there comes a time where everyone explains what they are grateful for.  If your family is not accepting of your Buddhist path, now is not the time to profess your gratitude for your guru and the three precious jewels!  Internally, you should of course generate such gratitude.  But externally, you should express gratitude for things everyone else at the table can likewise generate gratitude for.  Why is this important?  If you express gratitude for something others are not grateful for, they may politely smile while you say your thanks, but in their heart they will be generating a critical mind towards your object of thanks.  You may feel like you have made your point, but they will have accumulated negative karma of holding on tightly to wrong views.  If you focus your thanks on things that everyone can be grateful for, then it is like you are leading a guided meditation in gratitude for all our kind mothers.

One of the hardest parts about Thanksgiving is, if we are honest, we don’t necessarily like our family very much.  Of course this isn’t true for everybody, but it is true for many people.  We are all just so different – different views and different priorities in life.  The members of our family have unique abilities to say all the wrong things which upset us in so many different ways, whether it is the irresponsible brother, controlling mother, judging father, obnoxious uncle, or embarrassing aunt, we find something we don’t like in all those closest to us.  One thing I have seen quite frequently among Kadampas is a very pure love for all the living beings they have never met, but general aversion for those closest to them in their life.  It’s easy to love all living beings in the abstract, loving actual deluded and annoying people is a different thing altogether.  Geshe-la tells us in all of his books we should start by learning how to love our family and those closest to us, and then gradually expand the scope of our love outwards until it encompasses all living beings.  Thanksgiving is a good day to start doing it right.  Love them, accept them, stop judging them.

Some people, though, find themselves alone on Thanksgiving. Perhaps there is so much conflict in their family that they just don’t get together anymore. Perhaps they would like to be with their family, but they lack the financial resources to join them. Perhaps there is a pandemic, preventing people from gathering. Perhaps their whole family has already passed away. Depression and suicide rates are often highest during the holidays. We attach so much importance to these holidays, and then when people find themselves alone or unloved, they fall into despair. When we were little, my mom was a single mother and the holidays were very important to her. Fortunately, some kind person always found a place at their table for us. It was annoying for me and my brother because we had to spend Thanksgiving with people we didn’t know nor particularly get along with, but it made a big difference for my emotionally fragile mother. If we know somebody who is alone on Thanksgiving, we should invite them to join us. There are so many people hurting out there, and most people just want to feel loved. So create a space at your table for them as my mother’s friends did for her. Don’t underestimate the difference such a gesture can make.

Celebrating Thanksgiving in Dharma Centers

I also think it would be wonderful if every Dharma center in America had a Thanksgiving party in which everyone was welcome.  Geshe-la often talks about Dharma centers as belonging to the community.  Why can’t a Dharma center have a Thanksgiving celebration?  This could be a private affair for the people of the center, or it could even be an open house community celebration for anybody to come.  In addition to a great meal and quality friends, discussions can be had about the kindness of all our mothers.  It doesn’t matter if the people who come never come back, or perhaps they only come on Thanksgiving because they have nowhere else to go.  We are grateful for all living beings, so Thanksgiving is our chance to give some love and kindness back.  Gen-la Losang once asked who is more important, the people who come to the center and stay or the people who come and never come back?  If we look at how most centers are run, it seems our answer is the people who come and stay.  But he said the correct answer is those who never come back for the simple reason they are more numerous.  If somebody comes once, but walks away thinking, “hey, those Buddhists ain’t bad,” then they have just created the karma to find the path again in the future.  If our centers belong to the community, there is no reason why our centers can’t start doing community service.  Perhaps this isn’t currently the tradition at our center, but there is no reason why it can’t become a tradition next year.

Internally, for me, Thanksgiving is a reminder that for the most part I am an extremely ungrateful individual and I take for granted the kindness of everyone around me.  As those who have been following my blog for a long time know, I have had lots of difficulties with my father over the years.  At the core of it, he simply finds me ungrateful for all that he has done for me.  Historically, I have disagreed and protested, but if I’m honest, he is right. I take for granted all of the kindness others have shown me, and I feel as if I am entitled to him showing me kindness. No matter how much kindness he or my mother have ever showed me, my general view has been “not good enough.” I might even conventionally have been right that he should have done more, but what good does such an attitude do. If others find me ungrateful, then instead of becoming defensive, I should use that as a reminder that I need to be more grateful.  How could that be a bad thing?  

Gratitude as the Foundation of the Mahayana Path

If we think about it, a feeling of gratitude is really the foundation of the entire Mahayana path. It is not enough to just generate a feeling of gratitude once a year on Thanksgiving, nor is it enough to generate such a feeling once every 21 days when we come around to it on our Lamrim cycle. Rather, gratitude should be our way of life. Venerable Tharchin says that the definition of a realization of Dharma is when all of our actions are consistent with that realization and none of our actions are in contradiction with it. A feeling of gratitude towards everyone is a stage of the path, and one we should carry with us every day of the year.

But Thanksgiving is about more than just feeling grateful, it is also about “giving” back. Giving is one of our basic virtues, and one of our perfections which will take us to enlightenment. Venerable Tharchin says the thought “mine” is the opposite of the mind of giving, so the way to perfect our giving is to stop imputing “mine” on anything. Instead we should mentally give everything we have to others. We mentally think everything, including our very body and mind, belong to others. We give them to others. Of course we may still retain control over certain things, but we should have no sense of ownership over anything. We are custodians of things for others, but our intention is to use them all for their benefit. We offer our body, our mind, our money, our time, our family, our careers, everything, to others. We commit that we will use everything we have for their sake. At the very least, we can offer a good meal and a warm heart. In the end, what most people want is to feel loved. This is something we can give if we put a little effort into it.

Most of all, on Thanksgiving, I try give thanks to those closest to me. Before I got married, I had a vision where Tara came to me and handed to me a child. As she did so, she said, “this is where you will find your love.” My children may be a lot of work, insanely expensive, and they may be maddening at times, but I love them with all my heart. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for them. If they were not in my life, I wouldn’t know what it means to really love another person and put their interests first. The path would remain quite abstract. I am also extremely grateful for my wife. I have to work all the time, but she takes care of our kids and she takes care of our home. She is my best friend. Before I received highest yoga tantra empowerments for the first time, I met with Venerable Tharchin for the first time. I explained to him all of the troubles I was having with my then girlfriend, and he told me two things. First, view all of her apparent faults as reflections of the faults within my own mind, and then purge those faults like bad blood. When I do, he said, they will “magically” disappear from her because they aren’t coming from her side anyways. Second, he said, “never forget she is an emanation of Vajrayogini sent to bring you in this life to the pure land.” Of course, at the time, I didn’t understand emptiness enough to understand that my now wife is or isn’t anything from her own side, but thinking she was an emanation saved our relationship and enabled me to transform my relationship with her into the path. Later, when I came to understand emptiness a bit more, I realized it didn’t matter what she was, it was beneficial for me to believe she is an emanation. Now, after more than 20 years of marriage, I’m starting to come back to Venerable Tharchin’s words – she is an emanation, not in an inherently existent sense, but in the same sense that any emanation is an emanation. Every day, her every action and her every word, functions to ripen me on the path. Externally, she appears to act entirely normally, gets angry or sad like everybody else, but her normal is now my blessing. All of us can get to the same point with our partners no matter how they act or what they might do. Our partners have come to get us and take us to pure Dakini land, even if they don’t know it! Be grateful for them entering into your life in this way.

I think it is very important that we also learn to be genuinely grateful for our suffering. If we are honest about our spiritual practice, we usually only really get serious when we are experiencing some type of suffering. Then, when the difficult period in our life has passed, we go back to enjoying samsara and going through the motions with our practice. The solution to this problem is to “know suffering,” not just intellectually, but with our heart. We need to actually see our samsaric happiness as nothing more than a temporary reprieve from the endless slaughterhouse of samsara. We need to know our ordinary body and mind – our contaminated aggregates – as a cage that will torment us until the day we die, only to be thrown into a new prison cell which is likely to be far worse. We need to know our delusions are like devils duping us to follow paths that all end only in the fires of the deepest hell. We need to know all of the negative karma on our mind that we have not yet purified are like time bombs that can explode at any moment, shattering our lives and everything we hold dear. Such suffering is inevitable unless we end it as a possibility. It will never end on its own. When we actually “know” our suffering in our heart, then we will be motivated to practice sincerely, day and night, from this day until we are finally out. When we are grateful for our suffering, we are able to “accept” it. When we accept our suffering, it is no longer a “problem” for us. It may still be unpleasant, but it is not a problem, and so in many ways, we no longer “suffer” from it. Suffering comes primarily from non-acceptance of unpleasant feelings. But if we can develop an attitude of gratitude towards our difficulties, we will be able to accept them and realize that they are actually our most important fuel for our spiritual life.

Most of all, I am thankful for Geshe-la entering into my life.  He found me at my darkest hour, pulled me up, gave me a purpose, taught me what my real problem was (my own deluded, unpeaceful mind), gave me methods that work to heal my mind, provided me with perfectly reliable outer and inner advice, opened up my heart, revealed to me the magic of faith, provided teachers and centers who could help me bring the Dharma into my life, gave me the opportunity to teach the Dharma, and has been with me when I have felt otherwise alone.  He has created for me a vajra family of Sangha Brothers and Sisters who are some of the dearest people in my life, even though I rarely am able to see them.  He has shown me the root of my suffering and a doorway out.  He has provided me with everything I need to enter, progress along, and complete the path.  He has blessed my mind with countless empowerments, and has promised to remain in my heart helping me along until I attain the final goal.  Most of all, he has introduced me to Dorje Shugden and defended him when anybody and everybody else would have abandoned him.  Dorje Shugden is my guru, yidam and protector who helps me in this life and will be with me when I need him most – at the time of my death.

On Thanksgiving, I am grateful for all of this.  And I offer myself as a servant to my guru and to all living beings.  Please keep me in your service for as long as space exists.

A Pure Life: Abandoning Pride

This is part eleven 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 actual precept here is to avoid sitting on high thrones, but the broader meaning is to not develop pride or to try put yourself in positions of superiority over others.  Very few of us have opportunities to sit on thrones, but we often generate pride.

Sometimes people get confused thinking bodhichitta is a supremely arrogant mind.  Who do we think we are to aspire to become the savior of all?  It is like we have some Jesus-complex or something.  But actually, pride and bodhichitta are exact opposites.  Pride thinks our ordinary mind is somehow special.  Bodhichitta fully accepts and acknowledges the limitations of our ordinary mind and sees how a Buddha’s mind is far superior.  So humility with respect to our ordinary body and mind are actually prerequisites for generating bodhichitta. 

Faults of pride

From a practical point of view, pride is actually the most harmful of all the delusions.  Why?  Because pride functions to blind us to our own faults.  If we are unaware of our faults, then there is no way we can overcome them.  Our pride does not prevent others from being able to catalog clearly all of our faults, but with pride even when others point out to us our shortcomings we fail to see them and we instead see all of the faults of the person “attacking and criticizing us.”  When we suffer from pride, when we do become aware of our faults or limitations, we quickly become despondent, deflated and discouraged.  We swing from misplaced overconfidence to a wish to give up trying.  We somehow think we should be naturally endowed with perfect abilities, and we think we should enjoy great success without putting in the necessary preparatory work.  We would rather not try at all than give something our all and then come up short.  With pride we become obsessed with “winning” and “losing,” and most importantly with whether or not we are better than everyone else.  This introduces haughtiness towards some, competitiveness towards others, and jealousy towards everyone else.  With pride, we are loathe to look at our faults because doing so shatters our inflated sense of our own abilities, and we would rather knowingly live a lie than come down to earth and begin rebuilding.  If we have every delusion except pride, we can identify our faults and gradually overcome them all.  If we have pride, however, we can never go anywhere on the spiritual path.  We may even occupy a high spiritual position, be venerated by everyone, but inside we know we are a charlatan; or worse, we don’t even realize that we are.   

Pretentious pride

I have a long history of being attached to what others think of me, especially what my spiritual teachers think of me.  For many years (and even now, if I am honest), I try get my teachers to think I am better than I really am.  I do this because I think they will like me more if they think I am this great practitioner. 

Another common example is refusing invitations or gifts.  If someone with a good motivation invites us to do something and without a good reason we decline merely out of pride, laziness, or anger, we incur a secondary bodhisattva downfall.  Similarly, if we are given gifts and, without a good reason, we refuse them merely out of pride, anger, or laziness we incur a secondary downfall. 

Likewise, there are some people – myself included – who are too proud to accept the help of others.  Sometimes we need help to get out of a situation we are in.  If due to our pride we fail to reach out to others for help when we need it, who are we helping?  We are unnecessarily bad off, and sometimes we can be in over our head and our situation can become much worse.  When that happens, we then have to ask people for help, but now we are asking for much more.  We shouldn’t be like this.  Likewise, by seeking help from others we can sometimes accomplish much more than if we do everything ourselves, and so therefore we can help even more people.  So in an effort to accomplish great things, we ask for help from others.

In the early days of the tradition, everyone spoke of their teachers as if they were Buddhas without fault.  This then lead to the teaches pretending to be better than they are thinking it was helpful to the student’s faith.  The teachers would then repress their delusions, develop all sorts of strange forms of pride and then either implode from repression or explode by doing something stupid thinking it was divine to do so.  This is why Gen-la Khyenrab is such a good example.  There is not an ounce of pretention in him and he constantly encourages us to keep it real.  Such behavior is perfect.

In my last meeting with Gen Lekma as my teacher before I moved to Europe, I asked her for some final advice.  She said, “train in the three difficulties, in particular identifying your own delusions.”  The most dangerous thing about pride is it makes you blind to your own faults and delusions.  If you can’t see them, you can’t overcome them.  Once we become aware of a sickness in our body, we are naturally motivated to find a remedy and to apply it.  It is the same with the inner sickness of our delusions.  Most doctors all agree medicine is 80% correct diagnosis, 20% cure.  Once the illness is correctly diagnosed, the cure is usually self-evident.  Again, the same is true with our inner sickness of delusions.

Praising ourself and scoring others

The reality is this:  everytime we say anything even slightly negative or judgmental about somebody else, we are implicitly saying we are somehow better.  If we check carefully and honestly, we will see that virtually everything we say is directly or indirectly saying we are somehow better than others who make the mistakes we cite. 

One of the bodhisattva vows is we need to abandon praising ourself and scoring others.  In my own speech, I try live by three rules:  First, never say anything bad about anyone ever.  I don’t always succeed at this, but I do try.  My Grandmother, who lived to 104 years old, basically never said anything bad about anybody.  The closest I have heard her say anything bad about anybody was during the first Iraq war, and she said, “Saddam Hussein, ehhhh, …”  And then she cut herself off.  Second, I try to never make any comparisons – ever.  When I make any comparisons between people, invariably I am putting somebody down.  When I make comparisons between myself and others, I invariably develop pride, competitiveness or jealousy.  But if I never compare, then these minds don’t have as much occasion to arise.  Third, I try to never miss a chance to praise somebody for some quality I see in them.  Of course we have to be skillful with this.  Our compliments should be genuine and well grounded.  If somebody doesn’t actually have a good quality and we praise it, they usually know we are not being sincere and it just makes things worse.  Likewise, we can’t do this too much where it becomes obnoxious or uncomfortable for the other person.  But even though we might not be able to say all the compliments you would like to, mentally we can still think them. 

Pride in our Dharma practice

Few among us, though would actually outright belittle those who travel other paths, but there are many subtle levels where we do this.  First, it is not uncommon for Mahayana practitioners to, even if only internally, generate pride thinking they are somehow better because than those travelling another path that leads only to liberation.  This downfall can take the form of a pride in thinking the Mahayana practitioner is somehow superior to the Hinayana practitioner.  Does a roof think it can stand alone without its walls supporting it?  Can a mountain tower above without the earth underneath it? 

This can also take the form when we generate pride in our Dharma lifestyle.  There is sometimes a pride that develops in some Dharma practitioners who do live the more traditional Dharma life thinking that those who do not do so are somehow inferior or less serious about their practice.  Such practitioners think they are the real tradition, the real practitioners, and the only reason why people live a different mode of life is because they are too attached to samsara to let go of it, etc.  Such practitioners then unskillfully make others feel like they are somehow doing something wrong if they live a normal modern life, if they don’t make it to every festival, etc.  

Ordained people can feel like only they are the real practitioners and everybody else just can’t let go of samsara.  Prasangikas read there is no enlightenment outside of the wisdom realizing emptiness and then conclude they have the monopoly on the truth.  Mahayanists look down on Theravadan practitioners as being “lesser.”  Dorje Shugden practitioners look down on the Dalai Lama’s followers as having sold out the pure Dharma for Tibetan politics.  Buddhists look down on devout Christians with their grasping at an external creator and denials of basic science.  Resident Teachers look down on those who are not “committed enough” to follow the study programs perfectly.  Center administrators look down on those who contribute little to the functioning of the center.  So called “scholars” look down on those with a simplistic understanding of the Dharma.  So-called “practitioners” look down on scholars as just intellectual masturbators.  Those from more established, successful Dharma centers look down on those whose centers are struggling to survive.  Those who have not yet been fired by Geshe-la look down on those who have been.  Those who have been fired several times look down on those who haven’t yet.  Those who have been around for many years look down on those who are naively enthusiastic in the honeymoon stage.  Those on ITTP look down on those just on TTP; those on TTP look down on those just in FP; those on FP look down on those just in GP.  Those who go to pujas at the center look down on those who don’t.  Highest Yoga Tantra practitioners look down on those who are not.  The list goes on and on and on.  It’s all the same though:  people look at some good aspect of their Dharma practice as being somehow superior to that of others, and they use this as a basis for generating pride.

Do not be boastful  

 Our purpose in training the mind is to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all, therefore it is quite inappropriate to become conceited and boast to everyone what we are doing.

Those who suffer from pride, such as myself, often become very attached to what other people think of them.  Our sense of self-confidence and self-worth is based on an inflated perception of how great we are.  When others don’t share the same “exalted view” of us, then it threatens our self-narrative, and so we quickly become defensive.  Ultimately, of course, arrogance and pride are a reflection of deeper-seated insecurity.  Since we don’t want to confront that, we try get everyone else to likewise think we are so wonderful.

When we apply for jobs, we exaggerate our past accomplishments.  When we tell stories of particularly difficult situations we have dealt with, we almost always make it out worse than it really was.  We lie about our grades in school to our friends, we overstate the success we have enjoyed in our extra-curricular activities.  Especially among our Dharma friends, we put on a show of how we are free from delusions and are such a great Dharma practitioner.  

Many, many, conversations among work colleagues revolve around telling stories about how stupid our co-workers, clients or bosses are.  Every time we point out the faults of somebody else, what we are implicitly trying to say is that we are better than the person we are criticizing.  There is a very perverse logic in the world that thinks, “if I can criticize something good that everybody else likes, then it means I am even better.”  Rich people are praised for their “discriminating taste,” which essentially means they can’t be happy with anything but the very best of everything.  Why would we want to be like that, when the actual meaning of this is we are unhappy most of the time because rarely do we get the best of anything.  We see this dynamic all throughout our society:  criticizing famous people, disliking popular movies, judging those who eat fast food when who amongst us does not occasionally like a good burger!  Pride is so ridiculous, it can take any small personality characteristic we might possesses, and then use that as a basis for thinking we are better than everyone else.

Very often prideful and boastful people are not satisfied with knowing themselves that they are the best at everything they do, but they do not rest until everyone else agrees they are the best.  When somebody doesn’t agree, our mind is suddenly filled with an exhaustive list of all the faults of this insolent person!

Besides being absurd, what are some of the problems with such an attitude?  First, as a general rule, the more boastful we are with others, the more they dislike us and want to knock us down a peg or two.  Second, as a general rule, truly great people don’t talk about how great they are, they simply quietly do their thing.  Third, it feeds our dependency on what other people think of us, thus making us feel increasingly insecure.  Fourth, we close the door on ourselves of being able to ask for help from others, including our Dharma teachers.  I remember I used to be very attached to whether or not my Dharma teachers thought I was a great practitioner, so I actually didn’t want to go talk to them about what problems and delusions I was having because to do so might threaten their vision of me.  This makes our going for refuge impossible because we can’t admit we need help.  Fifth, pride in our contaminated aggregates makes renunciation, bodhichitta and our Tantric practice impossible.  It is only by coming to terms with the hopeless nature of our samsaric condition that we can make the decision to leave, become a Buddha and train in identifying with the pure aggregates of the deity.  Sixth, and worst of all, it makes it impossible for us to learn from anybody.  If we think we are better than others, we feel we have nothing to learn from them.  If we aren’t learning, how can we possibly progress along the path?

Happy Tsog Day: How to Train in Generation Stage Tantra

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 41 of a 44-part series.

Becoming a suitable vessel for the profound path of Secret Mantra, and keeping the vows and commitments purely

And then the swirling ocean of the Tantras is crossed
Through the kindness of the navigator, the Vajra Holder.
I seek your blessings to cherish more than my life
The vows and commitments, the root of attainments.

It was explained above how the practice of our vows and commitments are the foundation of our Buddhist, Mahayana, and Vajrayana paths. Keeping them also creates the causes to find the path again in all our future lives between now and our eventual enlightenment. The essence of our refuge vows is to rely upon the three jewels to solve our inner problem. The essence of our pratimoksha vows is to not harm living beings, our self or others. The essence of our bodhisattva vows is to put others first. And the essence of our tantric vows is to maintain pure view out of compassion. All the individual vows are simply aspects of these main practices. We cannot properly maintain our tantric vows if we are not keeping our bodhisattva vows, and we cannot keep our bodhisattva vows if we are not keeping our pratimoksha vows, and we cannot keep any of our vows properly if we are not keeping our refuge vows. Therefore, we should see our refuge vows as the foundation for our pratimoksha vows, which are the foundation of our bodhisattva vows, which in turn are the foundation of our tantric vows.

The primary benefit of keeping and maintaining our vows is to create the causes to attain a higher rebirth. Our refuge vows create the causes for us to attain a rebirth in the upper realms of samsara. Our pratimoksha vows create the causes to take a higher rebirth outside of samsara. Our bodhisattva vows create the causes for us to attain full enlightenment. And our tantric vows create the causes for us to quickly attain enlightenment as the Highest Yoga Tantra deity. In short, maintaining our vows is the method for redirecting the trajectory of our mental continuum towards enlightenment.

Geshe-la explains that the practice of moral discipline helps us overcome our gross distractions of mind. Concentration helps us overcome our subtle distractions of mind. And our completion stage practices enable us to overcome the very subtle distractions of mind. In this way, we can understand how the practice of moral discipline is the beginning of our ability to concentrate our mind on the Dharma. Why is it important to concentrate our mind on the Dharma? Because the cause of inner peace is mixing our mind with virtue. The more we mix our mind with virtue, more peaceful our mind will become and the happier we will be. Our vows specifically oppose any tendency in our mind that is contrary to virtue. Keeping her vows enables us to gradually weaken the power of our negative tendencies over our mind and strength and positive habits of mind that move us in the direction of virtue.

The most important aspect of this verse is the phrase that we cherish our vows more than our life. This may seem extreme but that is only because we value our happiness of this life more than we value the happiness of our countless future lives. By maintaining our vows, we ensure we remain on the spiritual path until we attain enlightenment and we protect ourselves against any form of unfortunate rebirth. It would be better to die with our vows intact and continue with the path in our next life than it would be to break our vows, live a long life, and never find the path again. But we do not need to worry. It is almost unthinkable that there could be a situation where we have to choose between maintaining our vows and continuing to live. The point is in our mind we should consider maintaining our vows to be even more important than preserving our life. This is a mental attitude, not a choice we will likely ever have to make.

How to meditate on generation stage

Through the yoga of the first stage that transforms birth, death, and bardo
Into the three bodies of the Conquerors,
I seek your blessings to purify all stains of ordinary appearance and conception,
And to see whatever appears as the form of the Deity.

According to sutra, the root of samsara is self-grasping ignorance. According to tantra, the roots of samsara are ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions. Ordinary appearances are all the things that we normally see. They appear to exist from their own side in all sorts of ordinary samsaric ways. Ordinary conceptions are when we assent to these appearances and believe them to be true, thinking things do exist in the way that they appear. In this sense, we can understand how self-grasping ignorance is simply an example of ordinary conceptions. There is no contradiction between sutra and tantra, tantra simply has a more expansive view.

Our practice of generation stage is a powerful method for overcoming both our ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions. We learn how to dissolve all ordinary appearances into emptiness and then in their place generate pure appearances. We then, through the power of correct belief, believe that these appearances are true. We do not believe that they are inherently true because nothing is inherently true, rather we believe that they are conventionally true and correct beliefs in the sense that it is beneficial to believe and we understand that the ultimate nature of all phenomena is mere imputation to mind. By mentally generating pure appearances with our imagination and then believing them with our faith, we create the karma to later have pure appearances appear directly to our mind.

In the beginning, ordinary conceptions are more dangerous than ordinary appearances. For example, if our spiritual guide appears to us to be an ordinary being but we mentally conceive of him as a fully enlightened Buddha, then we receive the blessings of a Buddha through our spiritual guide. During the meditation break, we perceive all sorts of ordinary appearances, but we train in viewing them in a pure way as emanations of our spiritual guide or manifestations of bliss and emptiness. In this way, in both the meditation session and the meditation break we gradually purify all our ordinary appearances and conceptions and thereby escape from samsara.

From another perspective, generation stage is a method for generating the gross body of the deity. On the basis of generating the gross deity body, we are then able to complete the picture by engaging in completion stage where we attain the subtle deity body. It is also the principal method for attaining rebirth in the pure land. By attaining rebirth in a pure land, we are then able to continue with our spiritual practices and complete the tantric path.

We can find a general explanation of the difference between generation stage and completion stage in the book Modern Buddhism. Extensive explanations can be found in Essence of Vajrayana, Guide to Dakini Land, Clear Light of Bliss, Tantric Grounds and Paths, and the Oral Instructions of Mahamudra.

Happy Tara Day: How to increase the power of our mantra recitation

This is the 11th installment of the 12-part series sharing my understanding of the practice Liberation from Sorrow.

Mantra recitation

OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SÖHA   (21x, 100x, etc.)

The meaning of this mantra is: with ‘OM’ we are calling Arya Tara, ‘TARE’ means permanent liberation from the suffering of lower rebirth, ‘TUTTARE’ means permanent liberation from samsaric rebirth, ‘TURE’ means the great liberation of full enlightenment, and ‘SÖHA’ means please bestow. Together the meaning is: ‘O Arya Tara, please bestow upon us permanent liberation from the suffering of lower rebirth, permanent liberation from the suffering of samsaric rebirth, and the great liberation of full enlightenment.

The power of our mantra recitation depends upon four key factors: the degree of our faith, the purity of our motivation, the single-pointedness of our concentration, the depth of our wisdom.  The stronger we make these four factors, the more powerful will be our mantra recitation.  This is true for all mantra recitation.  These will now be explained in turn.

The degree of our faith:  Faith is to Dharma practice like electricity is to our electronic devices.  Without power we say our devices “are dead.”  The same is true for our spiritual practices.  But it is not like an on/off switch, but rather more like a volume knob, where the more we turn it up, the more powerfully the Dharma will resonate in our mind.  As discussed at the beginning of the 21 homages, there are three types of faith:  believing faith, admiring faith, and wishing faith.  Believing faith believes in the good qualities, admiring faith develops a sense of wonder understanding their meaning, and wishing faith wishes to acquire these good qualities for ourselves.  When we recite the 21 homages, we are building up the strength of our faith.  We should carry it with us into our mantra recitation.  The mantra is the condensation of the 21 homages.  By reciting the mantra with faith, we accomplish the same function as reciting the 21 homages.  We should believe in Tara’s amazing good qualities, develop a feeling of wonder and amazement that she is in our presence, and then wish to acquire all of her good qualities ourselves. 

To increase our faith in the mantra of Tara, we need to consider its primary function.  As Geshe-la explains in the sadhana, the primary function of Tara’s mantra is to protect us from lower rebirth, rebirth in samsara, and to bestow full enlightenment.  In other words, her mantra functions to bestow upon us the realizations of Lamrim.  This is why she is called the Lamrim Buddha.  For this function to move our mind, we must first understand our samsaric situation:  we are barreling towards lower rebirth, where we will become trapped experiencing unimaginable suffering for countless aeons.  This is our present destiny, our inevitable fate if we do not change course.  It is not enough for us to just avoid lower rebirth, because even if we attain upper rebirth, we risk falling back down into the lower realms; and even while born in the upper realms, we continue to experience problems like waves of the ocean.  And it is not enough for just ourselves to escape from samsara, but all our kind mothers are likewise drowning in its fearful ocean, and if we do not rescue them, they will continue to suffer without end.  As it says in the Lord of all Lineages Prayer, “if we give no thought to their pitiful suffering, we are like a mean and heartless child.” 

The purity of our motivation:  Our motivation for mantra recitation determines the final karmic effect of our recitation.  According to the Lamrim, living beings can be divided according to the scope of our motivation.  Specifically, it explains there are three types of being:  beings of initial scope, beings of intermediate scope, and beings of great scope.  Being of initial scope are of two types – those who wish only for happiness in this present life and those who wish to avoid lower rebirth in their future lives.  Beings of intermediate scope wish to not only avoid all lower rebirth, but to permanently free themselves from any type of samsaric rebirth.  Samsaric rebirth occurs when we uncontrolledly impute our I onto the contaminated bodies and minds of the six realms of samsara – hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demi-gods, or gods.  Beings of great scope are not satisfied to merely attain their own liberation from samsara, but they wish to gain the ability to gradually lead each and every living being to the ultimate state of full enlightenment.  Any virtuous action can be performed with any of these motivations. Generally speaking, we say that our motivation becomes “pure” if we engage in the action for the sake of our own or others future lives.  Somebody whose primary motivation is to attain happiness in this life is considered a “worldly” being, and those who are looking to attain happiness in their own or others future lives are considered “spiritual” beings.  This does not mean spiritual beings do not also wish to be happy in this life, rather they wish for happiness in this life AND all of their future lives.  In this way, as we expand the scope of our motivation, we subsume the lower levels of motivation with our higher level of motivation.  There is no contradiction between being entirely dedicated to the enlightenment of all and being happy in this life. 

The teachings on karma explain it is primarily the scope of our motivation that determines the type of karma we create.  If we recite the mantra with a motivation of initial scope, the karmic effect of our recitation will be to avoid lower rebirth in our future lives; if we recite the mantra with a motivation of intermediate scope (otherwise known as renunciation), the karmic effect of our recitation will be to escape from samsara; and if we recite the mantra with a great scope motivation (otherwise known as bodhichitta), the karmic effect of our recitation will be not only our own full enlightenment, but the full enlightenment of all.  This does not mean with one recitation, we will attain enlightenment.  Rather, it means the karma we create will continue to function until the final goal is attained.  It is like a locomotive gradually building up momentum – the more power we add, the more momentum is built up moving it down the tracks.  Great scope karma keeps powering us along the path until its final goal is realized.  As we recite the mantra, we can request blessings that Tara expand the scope of our motivation for reciting her mantra, thus greatly increasing the power of our recitations.

The single-pointedness of our concentration:  The definition of meditation is the mixing of our mind with virtue.  The more we mix our mind with virtue, the more we create the causes for future inner peace.  Inner peace is the inner cause of happiness – when our mind is peaceful, we are happy, regardless of our external circumstance.  The more thoroughly we mix our mind with virtue, the more peaceful our mind will become.  There are three levels at which we can mix our mind with virtue:  listening, contemplating, and meditating.  Venerable Tharchin explains when we listen to or read the Dharma, we come to understand a spiritual perspective; when we contemplate the Dharma, we transform our own perspective into a spiritual perspective; and when we meditate on the Dharma, we become ourselves a spiritual being.  In other words, whatever we mix our mind with, we become.  Applied to the practice of mantra recitation, when we read about Tara’s mantra, we can come to understand that it functions to bestow upon us Lamrim meditation.  When we recite the mantra understanding its meaning, strongly believing we are requesting her to bestow these realizations on our mind, we are reciting while contemplating.  When we understand by mixing our mind with the mantra we are mixing our mind directly with Tara’s Lamrim realizations so that her realizations become our own, we are reciting while meditating. 

It is important that we try recite the mantra with single-pointed concentration.  Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path that according to Sutra there are three types of faults to our concentration:  mental wandering, mental excitement, and mental sinking.  Mental wandering is when our mind wanders to some object of Dharma other than the mantra.  While still virtuous, this other object is not our object of meditation.  Mental excitement is when our mind moves towards some object of attachment – typically any object that is not our mantra and not some other object of Dharma.  Mental sinking is when our mind sinks into a degree of non-awareness of anything, an extreme form of which is falling asleep.  Concentration free for mental wandering, excitement, and sinking is calm, collected, relaxed, and absorbed into our object of meditation – in this case the mantra. 

In Sutra, we concentrate with our gross mind, in Tantra we learn how to concentrate with our subtle and very subtle minds.  The key to understanding how is to understand the relationship between our mind and our inner energy winds.  Our inner energy winds are like the deep currents of our mind that flow through our inner channels.  The channels of our subtle body are like the scaffolding of our mind – the structure which holds it all up and together.  Our channels and winds are not physical phenomena that can be detected with x-rays or microscopes, but are rather mental phenomena that are experienced energetically primarily in the aggregate of feeling.  Wherever we direct our mind, our winds follow.  Since our mind is scattered around countless object of samsara, our winds scatter everywhere outside of our central channel.  If the object of our mind is contaminated, the wind it is mounted on also becomes contaminated.  Conversely, if our winds are pure, the minds mounted upon them also become pure.  There are two ways to purify our winds.  The first is to bring them within our central channel.  Our central channel is like a purifying bath for our winds.  As our contaminated winds cease, our contaminated minds – including all of our delusions – cease as well.  The second way is to mix our mind with pure objects.  If the object of our mind is pure, then it functions to purify the wind that is its mount.  Pure objects are those that exist outside of samsara – such as Buddhas and motivations that wish to get ourself or others outside of samsara. 

Mantras are, by nature, the purified wind of the Buddha.  When we recite Tara’s mantra, we mix our mind with her pure winds.  A Buddha’s mantra is like a subtle emanation of the Buddha.  Their pure winds appear in the aspect of their mantra.  When we recite the mantra, we mix their pure winds with our own, like water mixing with water.  In effect, their pure winds become our own.  The minds mounted on Tara’s pure winds are the Lamrim realizations of the initial, intermediate, and great scope.  By bringing her pure winds into our mind, mixing them with our own, the realizations of Lamrim will naturally arise in our mind.  Gathering mantra into our winds and our winds into mantra is how we concentrate on mantra recitation according to highest yoga tantra.  The highest form of mantra recitation is called “vajra recitation.”  Geshe-la explains in Tantric Grounds and Paths and Clear Light of Bliss that with vajra recitation we don’t “recite” the mantra with our gross mind, rather we “hear” it emerge within our mind, recognizing it as Tara infusing her pure winds into our very subtle mind. 

The depth of our wisdom:  The goal of mantra recitation is to mix our winds with Tara’s pure winds.  The primary obstacle to being able to do so is grasping at the inherent existence of her, her mantra, our winds, and ourself.  We grasp at these things as being four distinct things, completely separate from one another, like there is some chasm between them and they cannot interact.  This grasping prevents us from seeing Tara as inseparable from her mantra, her mantra as mixed with our winds, and all of this as our own.  When we let go of this grasping, we experience her mantra as her pure winds mixed inseparably from our own, arising within our mind.  The duality between her mantra and our pure winds dissolve completely, and her vajra speech becomes our own.  Single pointed concentration explained above brings our mind to the mantra recitation, realizing the emptiness of Tara, her mantra, our winds, and ourself is how we mix completely with her mantra.  When our absorption into mantra recitation is complete, it will feel as if we are her mantra being recited, accomplishing the function of bestowing Lamrim realizations.  It is like the whole world is absorbed into or, more deeply, appears as her mantra.

These four key factors for powerful mantra recitation are equally true for all mantras – Vajrayogini, Heruka, Dorje Shugden, and so forth.  When we engage in close retreats, while our primary practice is engaging in mantra recitation, most of our inner work is building up the strength of these four factors.

Happy International Temple’s Day: Building the Embassies of the Pure Land in this World


The first Saturday of every November is International Temples Day where we celebrate the creation and maintenance of Kadampa temples around the world.  On this day we principally try to recall why temples matter.  On this basis, we become inspired to do what we can to become part of the International Temple’s Project – and don’t worry, there are many other ways we can help besides just donating money.

What is the International Temples Project?

One of the central legacies of Geshe-la in this world is the International Temples Project.  Launched in the mid-1990s, it is Geshe-la’s vision for there to eventually be a qualified Kadampa temple in every major city of the world.  Geshe-la’s wish is for the Kadam Dharma to pervade everywhere, and these temples are like iron frames upon which buildings are built.  They provide the basic structure sustaining and supporting the development of Kadam Dharma in the minds of the beings of this world.

The very first temple was opened in 1997 at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Center in Ulverston, England.  It is the mother center of the NKT, and this temple is the mother temple for all the others.  Later, another temple was opened in Glen Spey, New York.  I was fortunate enough to be at the opening of both temples.  Since then, temples have sprung up in Brazil, Arizona, Spain, and more are planned until eventually, they will be everywhere.

Gen Losang once told me, “temples are like Embassies of the Pure Land in this world, and our Dharma teachers are like the Ambassadors of all the Buddhas.”  An Embassy is like a portal through which another country can express its culture and share its experience in a foreign land.  The goal is to improve relations between the two countries and their peoples.  By coming into contact with temples, the beings of this world are introduced to the pure worlds of the Buddhas.  Through temples, the wisdom of all the Buddhas is brought into this world.  Those who are interested can enter into these spiritual Embassies and be transported to new worlds.

Geshe-la explained that each temple is by nature Heruka’s celestial mansion in this world.  One of our refuge commitments is to regard any statue of a Buddha as an actual Buddha.  We are supposed to see past the craftmanship, no matter how beautiful it may be, and with our eyes of faith see a living Buddha.  In exactly the same way, when we see or enter into a temple, we should recognize it as an in essence Heruka’s celestial palace in this world, where we are transported to the pure land, can receive the blessings of all the Buddhas, and can learn all of the stages of the path.  Without a portal, we cannot enter.  Temples are an outer portal that leads us to the inner portal to lands of eternal peace.

Geshe-la has said that our Kadampa temples are our places of pilgrimage.  We are not always able to make it to every Kadampa festival or Dharma celebration, but we should make an effort to go at least once in our life.  One of the commitments of Muslims is to make a pilgrimage to the Haaj at least once in their lifetime.  Personally, I think this would also make a wonderful commitment for all Kadampas.  One cannot help but be moved by the experience, and karmically speaking the experience quite literally stays with us our whole life.

Geshe-la explains that the karma we create by helping a Dharma center continues to accumulate for as long as that center exists, and it continues to expand as the center expands.  In the early days, there was no center in Los Angeles, just a small, rented house in Santa Barbara.  There was a woman who lived in the center named Lea, who helped keep the center afloat financially with her rent payments and who dedicated her time to organize classes and other center activities.  In the beginning, it was basically just her, and without her, the center would have never gotten off the ground.  Later, a branch was opened in Los Angeles, which grew and grew until eventually now there is a vibrant spiritual community.  Eventually, I have no doubt, there will be a Manjushri-style temple there.  I don’t know whatever happened to Lea, she was likely just an emanation of Tara sent to help, but the karma she accumulated from that initial help continues to multiply today.  The temples we build are built to last.  There are churches in Rome that are over a thousand years old.  We are at the very beginning of the International Temples Project, and the help we provide now will be like Lea’s, and the karma we accumulate will serve us in all our future lives.

Why do temples matter?

Everyone appreciates a beautiful temple, even non-religious people.  All over the world, tourists flock to churches, temples, mosques, and other sites of worship.  They are living testaments to the faith of the practitioners who built them and serve as a point of focus for practitioners.  Normally we might think it is a sign of degeneration that these places of worship become tourist attractions, but Geshe-la explains this is one of their greatest advantages.  Why?  Every time we see a Buddha image, it creates a non-contaminated karmic potentiality on our mind which can never be destroyed and will eventually become a seed of our future enlightenment.  Angulamala had killed hundreds of people and when he went to ordain, seers said he could not because they could find no virtue on his mind.  Buddha, however, looked into his mind and saw that in a previous life he was a fly who landed on some dung next to a stupa (a representation of Buddha’s mind).  This seed could not be destroyed, even by all his evil deeds, and later became the foundation for his spiritual life.  When busloads of children and tourists come and visit our temples, they behold hundreds of images of Buddhas, each time planting the seeds of their future enlightenment on their minds. 

Geshe-la once famously asked who is more important, those who come to the center and stay or those who come to the center and leave?  If we look at how centers are organized, it seems our implicit answer is those who come and stay.  But Geshe-la said it was those who come and leave who are more important because they are more numerous.  Some practitioners might think they don’t need temples and they wonder why so much emphasis is placed on creating them, but this is because they are thinking primarily about their own needs and not the larger function temples serve in the world.

Kadam Lucy said the most important thing people discover when they come to a temple or Dharma center is not the building, but the people.  Everyone is looking for happiness but rarely do we find genuinely happy people.  If when people come to visit our Dharma centers they find happy people, others will naturally want to stay and find out what the secret to their happiness is.  Everyone is looking for unconditional love and lightness, and we can provide that.  Seen in this way, we – the practitioners of this tradition – are equally part of the Temple’s project simply through the force of our example and our welcoming attitude.  The essence of the Kadampa Way of life is “everybody welcome.”  This does not just mean nobody is excluded, it means everyone is made to feel welcome as if they are coming home.

My teacher in Paris said when we work to flourish the Dharma, we need to avoid the extremes of external and of internal flourishing.  The external extreme is when we focus exclusively on external developments, like buildings, temples, ritual objects, and other external manifestations of being a “Dharma practitioner.”  The internal extreme is when we completely neglect these things and only focus on gaining inner realizations, thinking the external manifestations are unnecessary or even anti-spiritual.

Venerable Tharchin said the real temple is the inner realizations and interpersonal connections of the practitioners who practice there.  While of course, outer temples are important, inner temples are their main cause.  He explains that since our minds are not separate from others, our inner realizations are like a beacon of light in the darkness of the minds of the beings of our community.  All living things are naturally drawn towards the light, and the more realizations we gain and the closer the karmic connections we create with our fellow sangha, the brighter our light shines.  The spiritual light in each one of us is like a single candle flame, but when we put our lights together, it creates a blazing spiritual sun in our communities.  Venerable Tharchin explains that when the inner temple is right, the outer temple will spontaneously appear, almost like magic.

Venerable Tharchin also explains that every time we do a spiritual practice with others we create the causes to do the same spiritual practice with the same people again in the future.  When we do a puja in a temple, for example, we create not only karmic connections with the Buddha of the given practice, but we create karma with all of the other practitioners engaging in the practice with us.  This karma will ripen in the future in the form of us reuniting with these same people engaging in the same practice.  It is in Temples that our international Kadampa family gathers together as a global sangha to engage in teachings and practices together.  Without the temples, we could not gather together and create this karma.  Seen in this way, temples are also like an insurance policy for finding the Dharma and our spiritual family again and again in all our future lives. 

How Can We Celebrate International Temples Day?

The main way we celebrate this day is by contemplating why temples are so important to generate an appreciation for them.  Sometimes we might hold ourselves back from doing so because we are afraid if we do so, we might then have to give some of our money, and we are extremely reluctant to do that.  We wonder whether all of this talk about temples and the International Temples Project is really just a clever scam to get our money!

There are many ways we can contribute to the flourishing of Kadampa temples in this world without having to part with any of our money.  Many people volunteer their lives and their skills to building temples.  They travel the world offering their labor and their time to help build the temples the rest of us enjoy.  How wonderful it would be to let go of our worldly concerns and live the life of an international temple builder!  But even if that is not possible for us, we might be able to offer a Saturday afternoon using whatever skills – be they building skills or office skills – we might have to help advance the project.

All of us can rejoice in those who can donate their money or their time to the project.  Rejoicing costs us nothing, but in doing so we create very powerful karma similar to that of those who are actually doing it.  This karma will ripen in many ways.  The ripened effect will be to be reborn either as a temple benefactor or a temple builder.  The environmental effect will be to have temples appear in our lives in all our future lives.  The effect similar to the cause will be to have the means in the future to be able to more easily give to the project.  And the tendency similar to the cause will be to always appreciate the good qualities of Kadampa temples and those who make them happen.

We can additionally dedicate the merit we accumulate from our spiritual practices to the realization of Geshe-la’s vision for a Kadampa temple to appear in every major city of this world.  One of the uncommon characteristics of pure wishes is the karma we dedicate towards them can never be destroyed and never ceases to work until our pure wish is fulfilled.  This does not mean one prayer alone is enough, but each dedication we make adds energy towards the realization of this wish, and this energy can never be destroyed.  When enough energy has been created, the result will spontaneously arise.  All of us engage in spiritual practices every day, but how often do we decide to dedicate that merit to the fulfillment of Geshe-la’s vision for international temples?  At a minimum, International Temple Day gives us an opportunity to make such dedications; and even better, to decide to start making such dedications every day.

Perhaps our city doesn’t yet have a temple.  We might even become jealous of those cities that do have one or think we can’t advance in our practice unless we too have a temple, transforming them from an object of refuge into an object of attachment.  Or perhaps we think our city is far away from having a temple because our Sangha is so small, so why should we help support the development of temples somewhere else where we won’t receive any benefit from it ourselves?  None of us would admit to having any of these minds, but they do arise and they are as ridiculous as they sound.  So what should we do?  First, we can recall that by helping others have temples, we create the causes for ourselves to have one.  That’s how karma works.  Second, we can imagine that, even though our center might currently be a classroom we rent out one night a week in a local massage school, our actual center is Heruka’s celestial palace, a fully qualified temple.  While our physical eyes might see plastic chairs in a room, our eyes of faith can imagine we have gone to the pure land and are receiving teachings in a temple.  This imagination is very similar to generation stage of highest yoga tantra and creates the causes for our correct imagination to eventually become a reality.

One of the best ways we can contribute to the International Temples Project is to build within ourselves the inner temple of realizations Venerable Tharchin refers to.  We can become the kind-hearted happy Kadampa who makes everyone feel welcome that Kadam Lucy extols.  We can build close karmic connections with our Sangha friends so we can unite our candles together into a blazing spiritual sun.  We can make a point of attending classes and putting our guru’s teachings we have received in temples or centers into practice.  All of these actions create the deep substantial causes for temples to appear in this world.  Without them, we fall into the extreme of the external flourishing of Dharma. 

And yes, some of us can donate money. 

The reality is temples cannot appear in this world without financial resources.  It is not a scam or a cult, this is simply a fact about how the world works.  Yes, the Dharma should be made freely available to all, but how is that to happen if nobody gives to them?  There is a very special offering called a torma offering.  The meaning of a torma offering is we are mentally willing to give everything we have for the sake of Dharma realizations because we recognize them as that valuable.  Geshe-la’s books are filled with examples of practitioners willing to cut off their flesh or undergo incredible hardship for the sake of gaining access to teachings.  He tells us these stories not to encourage us to do the same but to realize that it would be worth it even if we had to do so.  Such practitioners, from their own side, value the Dharma more than they do their material belongings, including their own bodies. 

Perhaps we don’t have any money now to give.  No problem, we can give in all the other ways described above, or at a minimum, we can rejoice in those who do have such ability.  We can also think about including the International Temples Project in our last will and testament so that when we die, whatever resources we have accumulated go towards spiritual purposes.  In Joyful Path, Geshe-la tells the story of somebody who was extremely attached to their money when they died and was later reborn as a snake inside their money jar.  He encourages us to give everything away before we die so that we are not attached to anything.  Of course, we need to provide for our families, but we can also use some resources we have for spiritual purposes.  Universities around the world accumulate vast endowments from such giving, which continues to support opportunities for students for generations to come.  Why can we not do the same?  Similarly, if our parents or relatives pass away, instead of keeping the money for ourselves, we can give some or all of it away to the Temples’ Project.  Why keep it for ourselves when we can create so much better karma by giving it away?  Such giving also helps our deceased relative because they get a fraction of the good karma of our giving away their money to spiritual causes.

My teacher in Paris once said, “We should give until it hurts.”  Wow!  What a statement.  While it is perhaps unskillful to say, she makes a valid point.  It is easy to give away things we don’t need or don’t use anymore, but it cuts into our self-cherishing to give more than that.  What is bad for our self-cherishing is good for us.  Geshe-la explains in the teachings on emptiness that an effective way to identify the self that we normally see is to think of it in a situation where it is particularly manifest, such as imagining we are standing on a high precipice.  At such times, we clearly see our I.  In the same way, sometimes we are forced to confront our demon of self-cherishing straight in the face, and others asking for donations is usually one of the most manifest examples.  Our self-cherishing roars in protest and comes up with a thousand reasons why we shouldn’t give or feels like we are being spiritually manipulated out of our money, so we reject doing so as a matter of principle. 

But are we being manipulated here?  Is that the motivation and goal?  Or are we merely being given an opportunity to accumulate amazing merit while benefiting countless future generations?  Is our resistance to giving a matter of principle, or is it our self-cherishing rationalizing our miserliness?  We need to be honest with ourselves.  We talk all the time about the evils of our self-cherishing mind, but when we are presented with an opportunity to go against its wishes, how do we feel about that?  Venerable Tharchin says it is better to give one penny a day for 100 days than $1 on one day.  Why?  Because the point is not the money, it is training in the mind of giving.  There is something we can give, so why not do so?  If we can’t part with our money, then no problem, there are still so many other things we can do that cost us nothing.  We shouldn’t feel guilty or beat ourselves up for not being able to give money, it is just where we are at.  No problem.  We can recognize that and do what we can.  When we do, we will find helping in greater and greater ways becomes easier over time. 

In any case, we can meditate on the many good qualities of international temples and rejoice in their arising in this world.  This is the essence of International Temples Day.  The rest flows naturally from this.

Happy Protector Day: Requesting the accomplishment of our wishes

The 29th of every month is Protector Day.  This is part 10 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.

The reason why we make offerings and requests, which was explained in the previous two posts, is to accumulate a special merit which will ripen in the form of Dorje Shugden being able to respond to our requests.  In the next part of the Sadhana, we actually make specific requests and prayers to Dorje Shugden.  These prayers reveal what Dorje Shugden can accomplish for us through our faithful reliance.

HUM
Whenever your followers with commitments
Request any of the four actions,
Swiftly, incisively, and without delay, you show signs for all to see;
So please accomplish the actions that I now request of you.

The first line indicates how if we choose to keep the heart commitment of Dorje Shugden (which was explained in a previous post) we become uniquely qualified to be able to make requests to Dorje Shugden to accomplish the specific actions we request of him, not just that he arrange things in general.  This is like a special qualification that gives us special power.  By requesting that Dorje Shugden causes the Dharma to flourish, we create the karma for it to flourish within our own mind.  In the context of the sadhana, what we are requesting of him is what follows in the sadhana, but outside of the sadhana, we can request him anything.

The stainless sun of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition
Shines throughout the sky of samsara and nirvana,
Eliminating the darkness of inferior and wrong paths;
Please cause its light to spread and bring good fortune to all living beings.

Path in a Dharma context refers to believing a thought in our mind.  If we believe our delusions to be true, we are following an inferior path.  If we believe our wisdom to be true, we are following a correct path.

May the glorious Gurus who uphold this tradition
Have indestructible lives, as stable as the supreme victory banner;
May they send down a rain of deeds fulfilling the wishes of disciples,
So that Je Tsongkhapa’s doctrine will flourish.

Through increasing the study, practice, pure discipline, and harmony
Of the communities who uphold the stainless doctrine of Buddha,
And who keep moral discipline with pure minds,
Please cause the Gedän tradition to increase like a waxing moon.

There are two methods for growing a Dharma center, external and internal. The external methods include doing good publicity making the center known, working for the center in the running of the center, improving the facilities, etc.  Internally, a Dharma center is actually the collection of spiritual realizations of its practitioners.  If the practitioners have no realizations, it is a small center, even if it has hundreds or thousands of members and many external temples.  If the practitioners have rich realizations, it is a large center, even if there are only a few practitioners and the external conditions are limited.

Venerable Tharchin explains the way to grow a center is for the practitioners of that center to gain authentic spiritual realizations and then form karmic bonds between them.  We are given the problems of the community we serve.  We then use the Dharma to solve these problems.  Then, Dorje Shugden arranges for people who have these problems to come to the center.  He does not do it beforehand because he doesn’t want people to come to a center and not find the answers they are looking for.  So he waits until we gain experience and that we have something useful to share.  In particular, we can gain such realizations if people in Dharma centers study, practice and maintain pure discipline and harmony. 

Through your actions please fulfil the essential wishes
Of all practitioners who uphold the victory banner
Of practising single-pointedly the stages of the paths of Sutra and Tantra,
The essence of all the teachings they have heard.

Here we make special requests that whenever any practitioner makes requests to Dorje Shugden that he respond.  In this way, we put our karma behind it, and we each help one another in our requests.

Beings throughout this great earth are engaged in different actions
Of Dharma, non-Dharma, happiness, suffering, cause and effect;
Through your skilful deeds of preventing and nurturing,
Please lead all beings into the good path to ultimate happiness.

This is an important verse.  Dorje Shugden has the ability to transform any action or any experience into a cause of enlightenment.  For example, if somebody falls ill with cancer, we can request that it become a powerful cause of his enlightenment.  Or if our child starts using drugs, etc., we can request that this become a cause of their enlightenment.  Through this, Dorje Shugden will bless their minds where the condition will function as a cause of enlightenment.  It may not be immediately obvious how, but over the years with our sincere requests, it will definitely happen.  The feeling is that he gradually shepherds all the beings within the protection circle onto and along the path to enlightenment.  It will take time, but through our persistent and faithful requests, eventually everyone without exception will be lead along the path to enlightenment.  Again, note that this doesn’t mean that they are all brought to the Kadampa path, though certainly some will.  We are happy for them to be brought to any authentic path.

In particular, please destroy the obstacles and unfavourable conditions
Of myself and other practitioners.
Increase our lives, our merit, and our resources,
And gather all things animate and inanimate to be freely enjoyed.

Again, we make specific requests for practitioners, understanding their importance.

Please be with me always like the shadow of my body,
And care for me always like a friend,
By accomplishing swiftly whatever I wish for,
And whatever I ask of you.

If you want to receive the protection of Dorje Shugden like a true spiritual friend, the best way to do so is to become a true spiritual friend for others.  This creates the karma necessary for you to receive his protection in this way. The same is true for receiving his protection like a spiritual father.  Become a spiritual father (or mother) for others.  Take responsibility for others in your life, do not just do the minimum.  We should take worldly responsibility and spiritual responsibility for others. 

Please perform immediately, without delaying for a year, or even for a month,
Appropriate actions to eliminate all obstacles
Caused by misguided beings with harmful minds who try to destroy Je Tsongkhapa’s doctrine,
And especially by those who try to harm practitioners.

It is possible that some people may oppose our practice of Dharma.  Dorje Shugden can dispel all such obstacles through external and internal blessings. He can do this by blessing our mind to see the other person’s ‘interference’ as perfect for our practice.  Then it is no longer an obstacle. He can also do this by blessing the minds of others so that they no longer create obstacles for us.  We do not request this for selfish reasons, rather we do so to protect others from creating the bad karma of interfering with the pure spiritual practice of another.

Happy Je Tsongkhapa Day: I Rejoice in the Great Wave of your Deeds

In many ways, October 25th, or Je Tsongkhapa Day, is my favorite day of the Kadampa calendar.  Why?  Because he is the founder of our tradition, our living spiritual guide, and the source of all good.  On Je Tsongkhapa Day, we can remember his great kindness, strive to emulate his example, and ultimately decide to mix our mind inseparably with his.  I pray that all those who read this develop unchanging faith in Guru Tsongkhapa, and in dependence upon this faith, effortlessly follow his joyful path.

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 like 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.

Je Tsongkhapa is the Founder of the New Kadampa Tradition

Buddha Shakyamuni is the founder of Buddhism in this world, and all of the different types of Buddhism (Zen, Theravadin, Kadampa, etc.) are all different presentations of his teachings.  Buddha gave 84,000 different instructions, but different traditions will place different emphasis on different aspects to correspond with the karmic dispositions of those who follow that tradition.  We cannot say one tradition is better than another in some absolute sense, rather we can say, “this tradition is better for me,” and “that tradition is better for her,” etc.  In this way, we can each cherish our own traditions while respecting all others.

Atisha is the founder of the Kadampa tradition.  ‘Kadam’ means a special presentation of Buddha’s 84,000 teachings called the “Lamrim,” which the Buddhist Master Atisha introduced when he went from India to Tibet in 1042 AD.  ‘Pa’ means somebody who puts into practice.  A Kadampa, therefore, means somebody who takes Atisha’s Lamrim as their main practice.  Atisha is primarily known for uniting the vast and profound paths together.  The vast path refers to the accumulation of merit, the principal cause of a Buddha’s body; and the profound path refers to the accumulation of wisdom, the principal cause of a Buddha’s mind.  By practicing the union of the two, our practices of the vast and profound paths reinforce each other and we create the causes to attain a Buddha’s body and mind simultaneously.  His path is generally presented as the Three Principal Aspects of the Path, namely renunciation, bodhichitta, and the correct view of emptiness.  Renunciation is the wish to escape from samsara ourselves, bodhichitta is the wish to become a Buddha to lead others to liberation, and the correct view of emptiness eradicates the root of samsara, self-grasping ignorance.

Je Tsongkhapa (1357 to 1419 AD) is the founder of the New Kadampa Tradition. Just as Atisha presented the union of the vast and profound path, Je Tsongkhapa introduced the union of Sutra and Tantra. Like the old Kadampas, practitioners of the New Kadampa Tradition also take Atisha’s Lamrim as their main practice. The difference is New Kadampas can practice the Lamrim at the gross level (Sutra) and the subtle level (Tantra) as completely non-contradictory. Sutra is how we practice Buddha’s instructions with our gross mind, Tantra is how we do so with our subtle and very subtle minds, but both are methods of practicing Lamrim.

Ultimately, Tantra is much quicker than Sutra because our gross minds arise from our subtle and very subtle mind. If we pull weeds but fail to take out the roots, the weeds will grow back; in the same way, if we pacify our gross minds but fail to purify our subtle minds, the delusions will keep coming back. Tantra is a special spiritual technology for purifying our root mind, or our very subtle mind, of all of our delusions and their karmic imprints, thus eradicating samsara at its root. We purify our very subtle mind by meditating on its emptiness. This one meditation functions to simultaneously uproot all of the contaminated karma we have accumulated since beginningless time. Je Tsongkhapa showed how the paths of Sutra and Tantra are not only completely non-contradictory, but are mutually reinforcing, and by practicing them together in the context of Atisha’s Lamrim, we can quickly attain enlightenment.

The New Kadampa Tradition has five main aspects of the path: renunciation, bodhichitta, the correct view of emptiness, generation stage, and completion stage. These can be understood as there is one action on the path: changing the basis of imputation of our I from our ordinary samsaric body and mind to the completely pure body and mind of a Buddha. There are two reasons why we do it, renunciation (for ourselves) and bodhichitta (for others). And there are two levels at which we do it, the gross body and mind of a Buddha (generation stage) and the subtle body and mind of a Buddha (completion stage). Je Tsonkghapa is the founder of this way of practicing.

Since Je Tsongkhapa, there has been an unbroken lineage of his teachings down to our present-day lineage gurus, including Je Phabongkhapa, Trijang Rinpoche, and our very own Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.  There is no difference in meaning between the Dharma Je Tsongkhapa taught and what we currently practice, the only difference is the cultural presentation, analogies, and languages used to express that meaning.  Everything we practice, directly or indirectly, comes from Je Tsongkhapa.  We are Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition.  The New Kadampa Tradition – International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT-IKBU) was founded by Geshe-la to present Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings to the modern world. 

Je Tsongkhapa is our Living Spiritual Guide

One of the hardest parts of the Buddhist path for modern people is relying upon a “guru.”  At first, it all seems very “cult-like.”  I remember telling my first teacher Gen Lekma once, “I’m down with all of the Dharma teachings except this whole reliance upon the spiritual guide thing!”  When I told her this, she was in the middle of swallowing some tea, and she nearly spit it out in a laugh.  After collecting herself, she looked at me and said, “I have found that the things we struggle the most with at first later become the things that have the biggest transformative impact on our mind.”  Truer words have never been spoken. 

To understand why reliance upon the spiritual guide is the root of the path, we have to back up a bit.  Why do we need teachers in general?  Because we are ignorant and don’t know.  Why do we need spiritual teachers?  Because we are ignorant of the spiritual path, not knowing its destinations nor how to follow the path to these destinations.  Why do we need a root guru or root spiritual guide?  Because we need somebody who has completed the path and can guide our mind to the same state.  It takes humility to learn from any teacher, it takes great humility to rely upon a Spiritual Guide. 

Normally, we say Geshe-la is the root guru, or Spiritual Guide, of the NKT.  It is true everything we study and practice comes from him, and he has created for us all of the conditions we now enjoy for our practice, such as temples, centers, teachers, sangha friends, books, sadhanas, and so forth.  But what does he say?  He says don’t look at me, rather look at Je Tsongkhapa at my heart.  We view Geshe-la as an emanation of Je Tsongkhapa, but Je Tsongkhapa is our actual Spiritual Guide.  What does Je Tsongkhapa say?  He says don’t look at me, rather look at Buddha Shakyamuni at my heart.  What does Buddha Shakyamuni say?  Don’t look at me, rather look at Heruka at my heart.  Guru Heruka is our actual spiritual guide.  He appeared as Buddha Shakyamuni to introduce the Dharma to the people of this world.  He later appeared as Je Tsongkhapa, who in turn is now appearing as Geshe-la.  From one perspective, it is the same person – the same mental continuum – appearing at different points in time according to the karmic dispositions of the people of this world.

But from another perspective, Je Tsongkhapa is still our Spiritual Guide today. His emanation bodies may change, but the jewel in the lotus remains the same person. When Buddhas attain enlightenment, they become deathless beings. Their emanation bodies may pass away, but they do not, they continue to live. We can continue to develop a living relationship with these holy beings because they are still with us today. He is still here, guiding us, teaching us, blessing us, and so forth. Geshe-la, the Gen-la’s, and all of our other spiritual teachers are essentially spiritual telephones which connect the pure world of Je Tsongkhapa with our present samsaric reality. When we rely upon our outer spiritual teachers they explain to us how to develop a relationship with our inner spiritual teachers who then take us to enlightenment. The outer teachers and the inner teachers are not separate beings, but different layers of the same being appearing to different levels of purity of mind.

Whenever we engage in any Guru Yoga practice, our main job is to feel we are in the living presence of our spiritual guide – seeing all of the Buddhas as inseparable from our guru and our guru as inseparable from all the Buddhas.  Every practice we engage in is about creating a close karmic relationship with our spiritual guide in his different karmic aspects.  In dependence upon this karmic relationship, we gain greater and greater access to our spiritual guide’s blessings, until eventually, it is almost as if we gain the ability to download their enlightenment into our own mind.  In the end, we mix our mind with our guru’s mind, where we make no distinction between our mind and his enlightened mind.  From one perspective, it is like a mind transplant where his mind becomes ours; from another perspective, it is like removing the obstructions to our own root mind and discovering that our actual mind was his enlightened mind all along. 

Because Je Tsongkhapa is the embodiment of his Dharma, by mixing our mind with his, we mix our mind with his special union of Sutra and Tantra and eventually come to see ourselves as a wave inseparable from the ocean of his omniscient mind.  We view all phenomena as arising from emptiness, all emptinesses as the nature of our mind of great bliss, and the union of our realization of great bliss and emptiness as inseparable from our guru’s Truth Body, or Dharmakaya. 

Je Tsongkhapa is the Source of all Good

This is somewhat harder to understand.  All good things come from good karma.  All good karma comes from virtuous actions.  All virtuous actions arise due to receiving blessings from the holy beings.  Je Tsongkhapa is the synthesis of all the Buddhas, therefore he is the source of all blessings, virtuous actions, good karma, and ultimately good results. 

Sometimes, we like to take credit for our good deeds, therefore we think Je Tsongkhapa is not the source of all good, we are. Or maybe it is a mixed affair, where he helps us with his blessings, but mostly it comes from our own effort. This doubt comes from grasping at a duality between ourselves and our ultimate nature. Our good deeds arise from our good intentions, but where do they arise from? They pour into our mind when we open it up to the sun of our pure potential. Just as the sun pours in whenever the blinds are opened, so too virtuous intentions come into our mind when cracks in the layers of the karmic obstructions on our mind appear. But what is our pure potential? By nature, it is Guru Tsongkhapa. All Buddhas impute their I onto the truth body or Dharmakaya. What is this? It is a mind of great bliss that realizes directly and simultaneously the emptiness of all phenomena. A Buddha’s body and mind are the same entity, the same nature, which means their truth body pervades all phenomena. Because we too are empty, we have a pure potential. This pure potential fully realized is Je Tsongkhapa. Every time we access or ripen this potential, we are releasing some of Je Tsongkhapa into our mind. Thus, he is inseparable from all of our good intentions – he is our good intentions manifesting in our mind.

There are many prayers to Je Tsongkhapa, but the most famous is the Migtsema prayer, which explains that Je Tsongkhapa is the synthesis of Buddha Shakyamuni, Vajradhara, Avaolokitehsvara, Manjushri, and Vajrapaini. There is also the single-pointed request which explains he is the guru, he is the yidam, he is the daka, and the Dharma protector. If all of the goodness in all of the universe were gathered together, it would produce the appearance of Je Tsongkhapa. Put another way, Je Tsongkhapa is a holy being who has managed to successfully impute his I onto the synthesis of all goodness. Thus it is perfectly correct to say he is the source of all good because he is all goodness itself.

But how can we understand he is the source of all good, including that of non-Buddhists?  Everything we perceive is ultimately created by our mind, arising from our mind.  There is no creator other than mind, and there is nothing that exists outside of our mind (if it did, that thing would be inherently existent).  This means that everything is part of our karmic dream. Any good we perceive in the world is a reflection of the goodness in our mind.  We created the karma for that goodness to appear.  We already established that all goodness that arises in our mind comes from Je Tsongkhapa, thus any goodness that arises in our karmic dream also arises from him. 

Remembering Je Tsongkhapa’s Kindness

On Je Tsongkhapa Day, our main practice should be to remember his kindness.  We can do this by contemplating what Geshe-la said about Je Tsongkhapa Day.  I find it particularly helpful to remember his kindness in my own life.  He has given me my spiritual life.  Without my Dharma practice, I don’t know how I would have turned out in the wake of my mother’s suicide on my wedding day or all of the other challenges I have faced in my life.  Je Tsongkhapa’s way of thinking has come to dominate my way of thinking, and I am much happier for it.  It suffices to ask myself what my life would be like if I had never met his Dharma to see the profound impact it has had. 

More importantly, he has provided me with the spiritual tools I need to close the door on ever taking lower rebirth again through purification and refuge practice.  Through his kindness, I have found the door to liberation that will enable me to once and for all cease the samsaric nightmare I have been trapped in since beginningless time.  He has shown me not only that I can attain enlightenment and thereby be in a position to help all those I love who are also drowning in samsara, but he has provided me with incredibly simple step-by-step instructions for how to do it.  In what can only be described as a miracle, I have found qualified tantric teachings of generation and completion stage through which it is possible to attain enlightenment in one life or barring that, at least getting to the pure land where I can complete my spiritual training.  His blessings flow into me day and night, even while I sleep, holding me back from quite literally going insane.  Without him, I would be lost.  With him, I have been found.  By relying upon him, I can fulfill all my own and other’s pure wishes.  He is a true wish-fulfilling jewel who has kept alive the holy Kadam Dharma in this world, and it is my job to do all that I can to internalize it and then pass it on to future generations.

Emulating his Example

If I were trapped on a desert island and only allowed one book, it would be Great Treasury of Merit. Normally we say Joyful Path of Good Fortune is like the hub of the wheel of Dharma, and all of the other books are like spokes of that wheel. But the axis around which Joyful Path turns is Great Treasury of Merit which presents the very synthesis of Je Tsongkhapa’s Dharma by showing how all the essential meanings of his teachings fit together with exactly the right proportionalities of how important each teaching is. In truth, the book is about 70% how to rely upon the Spiritual Guide and 30% everything else, which is exactly correct. The sections on visualizing the spiritual guide explain the meaning of his holy form. Buddhas can manifest their inner realizations as outer forms, and Je Tsongkhapa’s body is quite literally all of his realizations as form. By generating faith in his holy form, we mix our mind with all of his realizations. The sections on prostrations, praises, and making requests explain his many good qualities and special functions in our life. Reading these with faith, one cannot help but be amazed.

There are two aspects of his example which appeal to me most.  The first is how he demonstrates the practice of moral discipline and the second is the great wave of his deeds. 

His outer form is of a fully ordained monk, revealing the practices of the vows of individual liberation. His inner form is Buddha Shakyamuni, revealing the moral discipline of a Bodhisattva. And his secret form is Vajradhara, demonstrating the moral discipline of a tantric master. At my very first Kadampa festival, when Geshe-la first opened the temple in Manjushri, he gave a three-day teaching on essentially one subject – overcoming distractions. He explained that we have everything we need to attain enlightenment, the only thing that is missing is our practicing these instructions without distraction. The practices of moral discipline are how we overcome our gross distractions by letting go of each object of abandonment. Moral discipline is not wishing to engage in negativity, but holding ourselves back from doing so. Rather, it is realizing we no longer wish to do so, and so we “let go” of wanting the objects of our transgressions. Normally, we think moral discipline is a list of ‘don’ts’ that deprives us of our freedom. We have everything backward. The practice of moral discipline is a profound shift in our mind that is experienced as a “release” into greater and greater levels of inner freedom by leaving behind the chains of samsara.

Every day in our Heart Jewel practice, we rejoice in the great wave of Je Tsongkhapa’s deeds. What exactly is this great wave? We can say it is his special method for eventually liberating all beings. He attained enlightenment. What did he do with his enlightenment? He formed new spiritual guides for carrying forward the tradition. What did those spiritual guides do? Create more spiritual guides still. In this way, his virtuous deeds multiple exponentially until eventually the wave of his kind actions will carry every single living being to the state of full enlightenment. He has set in motion a spiritual self-perpetuating machine whose function is to liberate all beings from all suffering forever. In one short life, he initiated a wave that will never stop until all of his pure wishes are fulfilled.

We have the incredible good fortune to not only receive benefit from him but to become ourselves part of his great wave. He has laid at our feet exactly the same Dharma he taught and realized. By picking up the Dharma he has given us and bringing it into our mind, we too can become a fully qualified spiritual guide able to carry forward this great lineage for the benefit of all those we have a close karmic relationship with. If we do not do this for those we love, who will? It may be aeons before his wave comes around again to these beings, but we can carry them with us right now. Venerable Tharchin says the beings who we generate bodhichitta towards as bodhisattvas are among the first we lead to enlightenment when we attain the final goal. Look around at everyone you love, see how they are drowning, and now remember Je Tsongkhapa has given you the means to do something about it by becoming part of his great wave.

Deciding to Mix our Mind with His

In the final analysis, attaining enlightenment is very simple:  all we need to do is mix our mind inseparably with somebody who has already attained enlightenment.  In this way, the duality between their mind and our mind vanishes, and their enlightened mind becomes our mind and our mind becomes their enlightened mind.  Everything else in the Dharma is why we should do this and how to do it.  As practitioners of the New Kadampa Tradition, whose mind do we mix ours with?  Lama Tsongkhapa’s.  It’s as simple as that.

Every object of meditation is an aspect of his mind.  Every instruction we practice comes from his mind.  Every realization we gain is an infusion of his mind into our own.  Every practice we do is changing the basis of imputation of our I from our ordinary contaminated body and mind to his completely pure body and mind.  Every deity we rely upon is like a facet on the diamond of his mind.  Every phenomenon we see is a wave on the ocean of his mind.  He is everything.  Our job is so simple:  just mix our mind with his.  Whatever we mix our mind with, we become.  Since he is the synthesis of all the Buddhas, all Dharmas, and all Sanghas, by mixing our mind with his, we too become the source of all good.

The only thing that is missing is deciding to dedicate our lives to this goal.  There are so many things we do in life, but how many of them do us any good?  Only deciding to mix our mind with his will free us.  We can reach the point where our every thought, word, and deed is him working through us.  We need not struggle in our spiritual practice, we merely need to request his blessings.  We need not invent the path, we can simply follow the one he has laid out for us.  We need not ever doubt, we can internally request his wisdom.  There is nothing he cannot provide us, all we need to do is decide to rely upon him.

Today is Je Tsongkhapa Day.  Every decision we make today is karmically equivalent to making that same decision ten million times.  What better way to mark this holy day than making the firm internal decision to dedicate our life to mixing our mind with Lama Tsongkhapa’s, our living Spiritual Guide.  I pray that everyone who reads this transforms their life in this way.

Happy Tsog Day: How to Practice the Perfection of Wisdom

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 40 of a 44-part series.

How to practise the perfection of wisdom by sustaining space-like meditative equipoise

I seek your blessings to complete the perfection of wisdom
Through the yoga of the space-like meditative equipoise on the ultimate,
With the great bliss of the suppleness
Induced by the wisdom of individual analysis of thatness.

Emptiness is the ultimate nature of all things. It is the way in which things truly exist as opposed to the way they appear. Emptiness is what is called a non-affirming negative phenomena. What this means is we realize emptiness by negating its opposite, inherent existence. Thus, it is a negative phenomena. But it is also non-affirming in the sense that by establishing emptiness we do not then subsequently establish some other existent object. An example of an affirming negative phenomena would be saying “not male” to someone who still grasps at binary gender identities.

What is the object of negation of emptiness? Geshe-la gives many different explanations to help us understand. His most famous explanation is saying it is “the things that we normally see.” What we normally see are objects that appear to exist from their own side independent of our mind. It seems as if our mind has no role in the creation of the objects that we perceive, but rather that they exist out there waiting to be experienced. This is sometimes also called inherent existence or true existence. Inherent existence means the object exists inherently, from its own side, or objectively existent. Objectively existent means existent on the side of the object. Normally, when ordinary beings say something exists, they mean it exists objectively, not subjectively. True existence means that objects exist in the way that they appear. They appear to exist inherently, and we grasp at believing that they in fact do. For myself, I find that inherent existence, objective existence, and true existence work better to gain a conceptual, intellectual understanding of emptiness. But to gain an experiential understanding of emptiness in meditation itself, for me at least, nothing surpasses simply saying, “the things I normally see do not exist,” and then dissolving them all into emptiness. This phrase, the things we normally see do not exist, is specifically an instruction for the meditation session. It works perfectly for bringing us to our object of meditation. All the things that we normally see simply do not exist. We then perceive the clear light, the absence of all the thing that we normally see.

The supreme object of concentration is the emptiness of all phenomena, in particular the emptiness of our very subtle mind of great bliss. When we meditate on the emptiness of phenomena, it purifies the contaminated karma giving rise to that appearance. When we meditate on the emptiness of all phenomena, it purifies all the contaminated karma on our mind to perceive samsara. When we meditate on the emptiness of our very subtle mind, it directly and simultaneously uproots all the contaminated karmic potentialities to perceive any contaminated appearance. With this one concentration we are able to uproot eons worth of samsaric contaminated karmic imprints. Once we have completely purified our mind of the two obstructions, in other words all our past karmic imprints, we attain enlightenment. This is irreversible because there is no longer any basis for us to generate delusions, and therefore impossible for us to generate new contaminated karma.

For more detailed explanations of emptiness, we can read the chapter on ultimate bodhicitta in Modern Buddhism, Chapter 8 of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, the book Heart of Wisdom, or the book Ocean of Nectar.

How to practise the perfection of wisdom by sustaining illusion-like subsequent attainment

Outer and inner phenomena are like illusions, like dreams,
And like reflections of the moon in a clear lake,
For though they appear they do not truly exist;
Realizing this, I seek your blessings to complete the illusion-like concentration.

Sometimes the easiest way to understand the conventional nature of phenomena is through analogies. Appearances are like dreams, in the sense that they appear to mind but we do not go looking for them when we wake up. We understand they were just mere appearances to our mind. Phenomena are also like illusions. It appears that something is there, but in fact the way things exist do not correspond with the way they appear. Conventional phenomena are also sometimes likened to hallucinations, where our mind projects a distorted image of what is there and we mistakenly believe what is appearing to our mind to be what is actually there. A schizophrenic believes they are talking to other people, when in fact they are just projections of their mind. I find it helpful to consider these analogies as I am going about my day, in particular traveling from one place to another. As I see phenomena move around me, I keep reminding myself that all this is just a mere karmic dream, hallucinations, illusions, and in fact all the things that I normally see do not exist. They are simply mere karmic appearances to mind.

We might mistakenly think if things do not exist inherently and are just mere karmic appearances to mind, then it does not matter what happens to others. But if we are hurt in our dream, we experience pain. The dream is still a mere appearance to mind, but because we believe it to be true, we experience suffering. In the same way, all samsara is nothing more than a dream, but we believe it to be true, and as a result we suffer from it. To attain enlightenment means essentially to wake up from the dream of samsara. And to lead others to enlightenment is to help them wake up from their samsaric dream. As long as they remain trapped in the dream, they remain frightened and experience pain and suffering. We seek to relieve them from their suffering not because it is real, but rather because it is painful.

How to train the mind in the profound view of the middle way

I seek your blessings to realize the meaning of Nagarjuna’s intention,
That there is no contradiction but only harmony
Between the absence of even an atom of inherent existence in samsara and nirvana
And the non-deceptive dependent relationship of cause and effect.

Once we realized that the things we normally see do not exist there is a danger that we could fall into the extreme of nothingness, thinking that if things do not exist inherently then they do not exist at all. Je Tsongkhapa explains the correct view of emptiness is taught by Nagarjuna in his commentary Guide to the Middle Way. The middle way refers to the middle way between the two extremes of existence and non-existence. The extreme of existence is believing that objects exist inherently. And the extreme of non-existence is thinking if things do not exist inherently then they do not exist at all. The middle way is things do exist as mere karmic appearances to mind.

This phrase mere karmic appearance to mind has great meaning. “Mere” means that the appearances are nothing more than appearance, and if we looked for something behind the appearance, we would find nothing. In this sense it is like a dream or a hallucination. “Karmic” means that the appearances themselves arise from the ripening of karma. Karma ripens in the form of appearance. “Appearance” implies exactly that, things appear. There is an appearance of something there, not something actually there. What is there is an appearance of something being there. “To mind” means that the appearance is appearing to our mind. Sometimes we think that objects appear to our senses, but in fact they are appearing to our mind through the medium of our sense powers. Sometimes we say, “appearance of mind.” “Of mind” in this context implies that mind itself assumes the form of appearance.

We have arrived at a correct understanding of the middle way when our understanding of emptiness confirms the truth of karma, and our understanding of karma confirms the truth of emptiness. Sometimes we might think if things do not exist inherently, how can they do anything? There is nothing there to push on anything else to cause something to happen. And so for us it seems as if emptiness and karma negate each other. But the opposite is the case. To be inherently existent means to exist from its own side, on the side of the object, independent of all other phenomena. If something is independent of all other phenomena, how can it come into contact with anything else and therefore do anything? If it can come into contact with other objects, then the object does not exist independently of all other phenomena, and its nature changes from not being in contact with something else to being in contact with something else. Further, we can all observe that as things come into contact with other things they change. The mere existence of change shows that these objects do not exist inherently, independent of other causes. Once we understand objects are dependently related, then we understand it is impossible for them to exist inherently. Dependently existent and inherently existent are opposites. It is easy to understand how an object that is a mere karmic appearance of mind can come into contact and influence another object that is a mere karmic appearance of mind because both objects are the same nature, mere appearances to mind. They are part of the same dream, so therefore can interact with one another. In this way we can understand that the laws of cause and effect establish emptiness, and emptiness establishes karma.

A Pure Life: Don’t eat at inappropriate times

This is part ten 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 precept here is to not eat at inappropriate times, which is typically understood to mean we do not eat after lunch.  The reason for this precept is not that it is inherently non-virtuous to eat after lunch, rather we do so as purification for all of the negative karma we have accumulated in our past lives related to food.

We all need food in order to survive. But we do not necessarily have to engage in negative actions in order to get our food. However, in our countless previous lives we have engaged in innumerable negative actions in pursuit of food. We see this in particular in the human realm, the animal realm, and the hungry ghost realm. In the human realm, people hunt or fish and kill animals for food.  In Joyful Path, Geshe-la tells the story of the man who was born in a resembling hell that during the day he was eaten by vicious animals, but at night he was visited by beautiful goddesses. This rebirth occured because in his past life he was a butcher, but made a promise to not kill animals at night. As a result, his practice of moral discipline led to him being visited by beautiful goddesses but his killing of animals during the day resulted in his rebirth being viciously attacked by animals. Many people hunt and fish thinking there is nothing wrong with it. But from a karmic perspective killing animals and killing fish is still killing.

We also see tremendous non-virtuous actions in the animal realm related to feeding. It is enough to watch Animal Planet or National Geographic documentaries about the animal realm to see what life is like and how virtually all day every day animals in the wild are either hunting other animals or being hunted.  The hungry ghost realm is worse still. Beings in the hungry ghost realm are almost never able to find food unless it has been specifically dedicated for them by kind practitioners. They engage in virtually every kind of negative action in pursuit of finding something to eat. Even if they acquire their food, the negative karma remains with them. We ourselves have been born countless times in the animal realm and in the hungry ghost realm, and as a result all of the negative karma we accumulated during those rebirths remains on our mind. If we do not purify this negative karma, it will eventually ripen.

When we take the precept to not eat after lunch, it is a practice of purification of our negative karma associated with food. The practice of purification can be understood according to the four opponent powers: the power of regret, the power of reliance, the power of the opponent force, and the power of promise. 

In this context, we aim to make our training in the precept of not eating after lunch a practice of purification. We generate the power of regret by contemplating deeply all of the negative karma we have created in this life and in our countless previous lives related to food. We should consider that we have not yet purified this negative karma and that it remains on our mind. If we do not purify it, we will inevitably suffer the negative consequences. We generate the power of reliance through engaging in the practice of actually taking the precepts. We imagine in the space in front of us is our spiritual guide in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni.  Our taking of the precept itself is relying upon the Dharma. If we are taking the precepts with our spiritual friends, us mutually encouraging each other to engage sincerely in our precepts practice is relying upon sangha. We generate the power of the opponent force by keeping our precept throughout the day. Every time the thought or tendency arises in our mind thinking that we should eat something, we can recall all of the negative karma that we have created with respect to food in the past and remind ourselves of are precept to not eat after lunch as purification. This mental action of keeping our precept functions as the direct opponent that we are engaging in out of regret. The power of the promise in this context is not the promise to just simply keep our precept for the day, but rather to refrain from engaging in negative actions associated with food in the future.

It is important to remind ourselves that we are all bound for the lower realms unless we purify. It is not a question of do we fall into the lower realms or not, nor is it like in Christianity where if we are 51% good we supposedly take rebirth in heaven. Rather, from a Buddhist perspective, everyone bound up in samsara will inevitably fall into the lower realms. Indeed, close to 99% of all living beings within samsara are in the lower realms. The lower realms are our actual home, and our present rebirth in the human realm is a very brief and very rare aberration from our normal state.

We also need to honestly acknowledge that up until now we have not taken the practice of purification seriously enough. If we had time bombs strapped to our back and we had no idea when they would go off, we would be extremely motivated to remove the timebombs from our back. Our situation is actually far more dangerous than this. We have countless karmic time bombs which could cause us to take lower rebirth and experience incalculable sufferings, and we have no idea when this karma will ripen or when we all die. It may happen today. We do not know. It is simply too dangerous to remain complacent and allow this negative karma to remain unpurified on our mind. This is the essential meaning of a pure life and the practice of the eight Mahayana precepts. We recognize we have created non virtuous karma by not following these precepts, and our training in them is a practice of purification aimed at solving this problem.