Happy Tsog Day: Motivation for doing series

In Guide to Dakini Land, Geshe-la explains Heruka said, “Practitioners who sincerely practise the tsog offering without missing the two ‘tenth’ days of each month will definitely be reborn in Dakini Land.” A tsog offering is, in effect, an enlightened party. When ordinary beings throw a party, they gather their friends and enjoy objects of delight. In a tsog offering, we generate ourself and others as the Guru-deity, gather together, and collectively accumulate vast merit that is in turn dedicated to gaining Dharma realizations and accomplishing spiritual goals for the sake of all living beings.

Once we take rebirth in the pure land, we will be able to receive teachings and empowerments directly from Heruka and Vajrayogini and be able to swiftly complete our spiritual training. A pure land is like a bodhisattva’s training camp, and once reborn there we will never again take an uncontrolled samsaric rebirth. If we wish to help those we love, we can send emanations – almost like drones or avatars in a video game – into the realms of samsara, but from our perspective, we remain safe in the pure land. Once we reach the pure land, our eventual enlightenment is guaranteed. Geshe-la explains many different ways to guarantee that we attain the pure land, such as reaching tranquil abiding on the generation stage object, reaching the fourth mental abiding on the Mahamudra, or dying with a pure mind of compassion. But the easiest and most certain way of reaching the pure land is to maintain our commitment to practice the tsog offering without missing the two tenth days of each month. Heruka himself explained this. Thus, practicing the tsog offering is like an insurance policy for attaining the pure land. What could possibly be more important than this?

The “tenth” days here refers to the 10th and 25th of every month when Kadampa practitioners traditionally engage in a “tsog” offering in the context of the practice Offering to the Spiritual Guide. If we miss a tsog day, we can just make it up on the weekend. If we cannot do it at the center, we can just do it at home on our own. If we cannot do it with physical offerings, we can just do it with imagined ones. If we do not have time to do it and our other daily commitments, we can just imagine our tsog puja indirectly fulfils our other commitments. If we do not have time to do it, we can just do it more quickly. If we cannot do any of that, Venerable Geshe-la says we can just double our normal daily mantra commitment. The point is, we should try find a way to remember tsog days.

To help mark the tsog days myself, and hopefully help others do the same, I am writing this 44-part series of blog posts which I will post on every tenth day over the next two years. During January, which is Heruka and Vajrayogini month, I will post separately on the 10th and 25th since they are Vajrayogini and Heruka day respectively, hence 44 parts instead of 48 parts.  This series will share my personal thoughts and reflections on engaging in the Offering to the Spiritual Guide sadhana with tsog. Geshe-la encourages us to “make our own commentary” to our practices to try deepen our understanding of them. When Shantideva wrote Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, he said his purpose in doing so was to consolidate his own thinking about the bodhisattva’s path, and if others received benefit from his explanations, then all the better. In the same way, I do not pretend that this explanation is in any way definitive – for that, we have the book Great Treasury of Merit – rather, I will share what my current understanding is of the practice. I write it to help consolidate my own experience and understanding of the practice, and if others also find benefit, then all the better.

In my mind, writing and posting this series of posts is my tsog offering to my spiritual guide. By writing it, I offer my practice, my faith, and my effort to try help the Kadam flourish in this world. I pray that those who read this will be inspired to always engage in tsog offerings every tenth day for the rest of their life, and thereby guarantee that they take rebirth in Keajra Pure Land. Once there, may they quickly complete their spiritual training and begin liberating all living beings from the vast, terrible ocean of samsara’s sufferings. 

Happy Tara Day: Why we turn to Tara

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

Going for refuge

I and all sentient beings, until we achieve enlightenment,
Go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.   (3x)

Je Tsongkhapa explains the primary causes of going for refuge are fear and faith.  Fear of lower rebirth, samsaric rebirth, or solitary peace; and faith in the three jewels to provide us protection from these fears.  When we engage in Tara practice, even though the refuge prayer we recite is the same as in so many of our other practices, we should mentally generate a specific faith in Tara, understanding her function.  In particular, Tara promised Atisha that in the future she would provide special care for all of his followers.  Atisha is the founder of the Kadampa tradition, and all Kadampas take his Lamrim as our main practice.  Tara is, in many ways, the Buddha of Lamrim.  Her mantra reveals that her main function is to bestow upon our mind the realizations of the initial, intermediate, and great scope of Lamrim, thus protectingus from lower rebirth, samsaric rebirth, and solitary peace.  Viewing her as our spiritual mother and the Buddha of Lamrim, we go for refuge to her with deep faith.

Generating bodhichitta

Through the virtues I collect by giving and other perfections,
May I become a Buddha for the benefit of all.   (3x)

The way we generate bodhichitta is different for each practice we engage in, even if the words we recite are exactly the same.  Of course, our compassionate wish to become a Buddha for the sake of all living beings is the same, but the specific flavor of the bodhichitta we generate will depend upon the practice we are doing.  The difference is identified in how the practice we are about to engage in contributes to our enlightenment based on its uncommon function.  Tara helps us in ways that are different than say Manjushri or Avalokiteshvara, and so generating bodhichitta for Tara practice is different because it is informed by how she helps us.  The more clearly we understand her function, the more precisely we will understand how reliance upon her will help move us towards enlightenment, giving our bodhichitta prayers a unique Tara-like flavor.  What is Tara’s function?  She is our spiritual mother, she helps us gain Lamrim realizations, and she swiftly helps us dispel all fears.  We need a spiritual mother, the lamrim realizations, and fearlessness in order to progress swiftly towards enlightenment.  Wanting these things and understanding her power to help us attain them, we generate bodhichitta.

Generating the four immeasurables

May all sentient beings possess happiness and its causes,
May they be free from suffering and its causes,
May they never be separated from the happiness that is without suffering,
May they abide in equanimity, without feeling close to some out of attachment or distant from others out of hatred.

As with bodhichitta practice, our practice of the four immeasurables should also have a Tara-like flavor when we recite them.  To do so, we should not just generate the four immeasurable wishes in a generic sense, but we should try align ourselves with Tara’s four immeasurable wishes for all living beings.  How Tara feels and experiences these four immeasurable wishes will be informed by her own understanding of her function and how she helps people realize these four wishes.  If we are to align ourselves with Tara’s blessings, we need to not only generate faith in her, but we need to align our motivation with hers.

When Tara thinks may all sentient beings possess happiness and its causes, she does so as a spiritual mother would.  When she thinks may they be free from suffering and its causes, she does so as somebody who has the power to dispel all fears would.  When she wishes everyone never be separated from the happiness without suffering, she does so as somebody who has the power to bestow the lamrim realizations of freedom from lower rebirth, samsaric rebirth, and solitary peace would.  When she wishes everyone abide in equanimity, she does so as a mother would who loves equally all her children and wishes only that they also love each other.  As you engage in the four immeasurables, ask yourself, “how would Tara feel these wishes,” and then try to feel them in the same way she would.  This will make your practice particularly powerful and align your mind more precisely with her blessings.

Inviting Arya Tara

From the supreme abode of Potala,
Born from the green letter TAM,
You who liberate migrators with the light of the letter TAM,
O Tara, please come here together with your retinue.

Potala is her Pure Land.  Definitive Potala is the clear light Dharmakaya of all the Buddhas.  An enlightened mind is the union of the completely purified wind and mind.  The completely purified very subtle wind is the vajra body of the Buddha, and the completely purified very subtle mind is the vajra mind of the Buddha.  When bodhisattvas are progressing along the Tantric grounds, they imagine that out of the Dharmakaya their vajra body (or illusory body) emerges out of the Dharmakaya.  Their very subtle wind takes the form of a seed letter of the future Buddha they are to become.  For Tara, her seed letter is the green letter TAM.  Once a Buddha attains enlightenment, they send out countless emanations and blessings to help all living beings – these are their emanation bodies.  Taken together, this verse means from her inner pure land of Dharmakaya Potala, she emerges as her enjoyment body in the aspect of a letter TAM, which then sends out infinite light rays in all directions ripening and liberating all living beings, who then appear in the aspect of countless Taras surrounding her and the twenty one Taras.

Prostration

Gods and demi-gods bow their crowns
At your lotus feet;
O Liberator from all misfortune,
To you, Mother Tara, I prostrate.

Typically, gods and demi-gods bow to nobody thinking themselves superior to all, but when they are in Tara’s presence, they spontaneously bow their crowns out of respect a her lotus feet.  They do not do so out of fear or political loyalty, but deep respect understanding her to be the Holy Mother of all the Buddhas.  When we recite that she is the Liberator from all misfortune, we understand that she has the power to liberate all beings who are now around us in the aspect of Taras, and we imagine that all beings spontaneously bow down to her out of love and respect to her as our spiritual mother. 

The feeling this evokes for me is like in Game of Thrones with Daenerys Stormborn liberated countless slaves from their masters, and tens of thousands of them spontaneously started calling out to her as Mhysa, their liberating mother.  Tara is our Mhysa, and we imagine all living beings surrounding us feel the same loving respect. 

Happy Protector Day: Introduction to series

The 29th of every month is Protector Day, when we emphasize our reliance upon the Dharma Protector for the New Kadampa Tradition.  In order to strengthen our connection with him, increase our faith in him, and learn how to practically rely upon him, on the 29th of every month, I will explain my understanding of how to rely upon Dorje Shugden, our Dharma protector.  All of Dharma essentially has one purpose:  to bring the mind under control.  Delusions are that which make our mind uncontrolled.  For me personally, I overcome about 90% of my delusions “merely by remembering” Dorje Shugden.  In this series of posts I will explain how.

Our ability to rely upon Dorje Shugden depends primarily upon one thing:  are we a worldly being or a spiritual being.  If we are a worldly being, reliance on Dorje Shugden will not work.  If we are a spiritual being, reliance on Dorje Shugden will change everything for us – we will never be the same again.  All fear, all anxiety, all grasping will vanish.  Our mind will become smooth, balanced, flexible and peaceful all of the time. 

There is one question we need to ask ourself:  what kind of being do I want to be, a worldly being or a spiritual being?  A worldly being is somebody who is primarily concerned with securing happiness in this life.  Their actions are aimed at securing worldly happiness in this life.  A spiritual being is somebody who is primarily concerned with securing happiness of future lives.  Their actions are aimed at laying the foundation for happiness in future lives, up to the supreme happiness of full enlightenment.

It is important to understand whether our life is a worldly one or a spiritual one does not depend on what activities or job we do, rather it depends on what mind we do these activities with.  Sometimes we think that our families, jobs, vacations and so forth are necessarily ‘worldly’, but this is not the case.  They are only worldly if we engage in them with a worldly mind.  If we engage in these same activities with a spiritual mind, then they become spiritual activities and part of our spiritual life. 

What does it mean to live our life with a spiritual mind?  It means what we are looking to get out of a situation is different.  For example, I have a close friend who is a very successful businessman.  He views everything through the lens of the business opportunity.  We went to Magic Mountain together once (Magic Mountain is an amusement park with very big roller coasters, etc.).  For my friend, because he looked at things through the glasses of a businessman, what he took home from his trip to Magic Mountain was lessons in business. 

For a worldly being, what they are looking to get out of a situation is external happiness in this life.  Their actions are aimed at improving their reputation, increasing their resources, receiving praise and experiencing pleasure (and avoiding the opposite of these things).  For a spiritual being, what they are looking to get out of a situation is opportunities to train their mind and create good causes.  They view situations from the perspective of the opportunity they afford the person to train their mind and create good causes for the future.  To be a spiritual being doesn’t mean we do not care about this life, rather it means we also care about future lives.  We include future lives in our calculations for how we use today and how we use this life.

Before we can actually become a spiritual being, we have to have at least some belief in future lives.  Without such belief, it is difficult to view our life as a preparation for them.  So how can we develop some conviction, or at least some virtuous doubt, about the existence of future lives?  The definitive reason which establishes everything in the Dharma is emptiness.  Emptiness explains that all phenomena, ourselves included, are mere karmic appearance of mind.  ‘Mere’ means they are like appearances in a dream, and ‘karmic appearance’ means that these appearances arise from karma.  This life and all its appearances are just mere karmic appearances of mind that were triggered by previous minds.  The quality of our mind determines the quality of the karma activated.  Every karmic seed has a certain duration, and when it exhausts itself the appearance supported by that karma will cease.  It is just like during a dream. 

The nature of the mind is clarity and cognizing.  Clarity means our mind itself is without form, shape, color, etc.  If our mind had a color, for example, then everything that appeared to our mind would be that color.  It is because it lacks any color that it can perceive or know any color; because it lacks any form, it can know any form and so forth.  Cognizing means it has the power to know objects.  Lacking form alone is not mind – there are many things that lack form, but do not know.  Only something that both lacks form and knows is a mind.  Our mind is like a formless field of knowing.  It is like a giant container in which new karmic appearances are projected.  Think back to two hours ago.  What is appearing to our mind now is completely different.  What used to appear no longer appears at all, yet our mind itself remains clarity and cognizing.  In the same way, when the appearances of this life and this body cease, our mind itself will remain clarity and cognizing, it will just know new appearances.

If none of these ideas work for us, then it is useful to consider even if we are not sure, it is nonetheless better to live our life as if there are future lives.  Why?  If there are future lives, but we assume there are not, then we won’t be prepared for them when they come and our future will be uncertain.  It is like somebody denying that there is a tomorrow.  If there are not future lives, but we assume there are, then we will at least be able to have the happiest possible life during this life because a spiritual outlook on life is simply a happier way to relate to the world.  Why is this so?

Why is it a good idea to adopt a spiritual way of life?  Doing so can make every moment of our life deeply meaningful.  Our lives are as meaningful as the goals towards which we work.  If our goal is to lead each and every living being to the complete freedom of full enlightenment, then since this is the most meaningful goal, our life in pursuit of this goal will be felt to be full of great meaning.  We can find a true happiness from a different source – the cultivation of pure minds. 

External happiness, if we check, is really just a temporary reduction of our discomfort.   Even if it does provide us with temporary moments of happiness, we have no control over it and so our happiness is uncertain.  We feel we cannot be happy without our external objects.  In Buddhism, we have identified a different source of happiness – a peaceful mind.  If our mind is peaceful, we are happy, regardless of what our external circumstances are.  The cause of a peaceful mind is to mix our mind with virtue, such as love, compassion, etc.  When we engage in the actions of mixing our mind with virtue, we plant the karmic seeds on our mind which will ripen in the form of the experience of inner peace.  Understanding this, we have an infinite source of happiness just waiting to be tapped.  When our mind is at peace, we can then enjoy all external things, not just the ones we like.

We are all going to die, and the only things we can take with us are the causes we have created for ourself.  Everything else we have we need to leave behind.  The only riches we can take with us into our future lives are the karmic causes we have created for ourself.   When we think about this carefully, we realize that only they matter.  The rest of this life is not guaranteed to happen, but our future lives are, and they are very long.  Now is the time to assemble provisions for our future lives.  We do not know when we are going to die. 

Happy Heruka Day: Enjoying An Ocean of Bliss and Emptiness

Today is Heruka Day, which takes place during Heruka and Vajrayogini month (otherwise known as January), and is a special day when his blessings are particularly powerful.  Most of all, on this day we can recall his kindness and make an effort to bring him to life in our world.

Who is Heruka?

Heruka is the manifestation of the compassion of all the Buddhas.  Out of his Truth Body, he emanates himself as a complete path from the deepest hell to the highest enlightenment.  He is Keajra Pure Land, which is not some distant place but rather a different way of looking at our world.  He emanates in this world as Spiritual Guides who in turn introduce us to Keajra Pure Land.  We then begin to connect with it, and as we do, we are guided progressively to purer and purer states of mind.  Geshe-la once said the mind of Lamrim is Akanishta Pure Land – a revealing way of phrasing things, a mind as a place.  Heruka is the principal deity of Akanishta Pure Land.  Our Spiritual Guides first guide us into Lamrim (Akanishta), then conventional Keajra Pure Land through generation stage, then definitive Keajra Pure Land through completion stage.  Finally, we attain union with definitive Heruka, the omniscient mind of great bliss realizing directly and simultaneously the emptiness of all things.  Heruka is not just this final state, he is the entire path to it.  He is the compassion of all the Buddhas manifesting as the quick path to enlightenment.

My favorite description of Heruka is Chakrasambara.  As Geshe-la explains in Essence of Vajrayana:

“Another term for Heruka is ‘Chakrasambara.’  ‘Chakra’ means ‘wheel,’ and in this context refers to the ‘wheel’ of all phenomena.  ‘Sambara’ means the supreme bliss, which is called ‘spontaneous great bliss.’  Together ‘Chakra’ and ‘sambara’ reveal that by practicing Heruka Tantra we gain a profound realization that experiences all phenomena as one nature with our mind of great bliss.  This realization directly removes subtle dualistic appearances from our mind, and due to this we quickly become definitive Heruka.”

This realization is called “meaning clear light,” and Geshe-la explains in Guide to Dakini Land that if we gain this realization, we can attain enlightenment within six months.  This does not mean we can attain enlightenment in six months from the time we start practicing Heruka.  It will take a long time to gain the realization of meaning clear light, but once we do, we can attain enlightenment in six months.  Practicing Heruka is the quickest method for attaining the realization of meaning clear light.  At a minimum, through our sincere practice of Heruka in this life, if we can die with a mind of compassion and faith in Heruka, it is definite we can be reborn in his pure land.  From there, we will be able to quickly attain meaning clear light and then enlightenment.  This is our incredible good fortune. 

Recalling the Kindness of Heruka

The very heart of the sadhana Offering to the Spiritual Guide is the Single-Pointed Request, which can be understood as a prayer to Heruka as Keajra Pure Land. 

You are the Guru, you are the Yidam, you are the Daka and Dharma Protector;

From now until I attain enlightenment I shall seek no refuge other than you.

In this life, in the bardo, and until the end of my lives, please hold me with the hook of your compassion,

Liberate me from the fears of samsara and peace, bestow all the attainments, be my constant companion, and protect me from all obstacles.  

The first line reveals the vastness of Heruka.  Heruka is by nature our Guru and our Guru is Heruka.  All Tantric practices are fundamentally trainings in guru yoga – a special way of viewing the deity and the guru as inseparably one.  Saying Heruka is our Guru and our Guru is Heruka evokes different meanings, and both are true simultaneously.  Heruka is also our Yidam or our personal deity.  He is the Buddha we seek to become and our ultimate role model.  Christians ask, “what would Jesus do,” we ask, “what would Heruka do,” and we seek to do that.  Heruka is also the Daka, which here refers to the Heroes and Heroines of his body mandala.  These deities are his retinue, but also his spiritual limbs.  Heruka is also the Dharma Protector.  He manifests Dorje Shugden as the Protector of the Guru’s words.  Conventionally, Heruka appears as the totality of his Pure Land, from the HUM at his heart to the principal deity (Yidam); to the body mandala deities (Daka); to his celestial mansion, Mount Meru, and the continents (his gross body); to the charnel grounds (his perception of samsara); to Dorje Shugden’s protection circle surrounding it all transforming whatever appears into a perfect condition for the enlightenment of all beings within Heruka’s pure land.

The second line explains how we rely upon Heruka.  It begins with an understanding of both why we go for refuge to him and for how long our commitment to doing so is – namely to attain enlightenment and until we do.  Geshe-la explains Heruka’s power is only unleashed within us in dependence upon our motivation of Bodhichitta, the wish to become a Buddha for the benefit of all. 

The third line makes our reliance upon Heruka pure.  In Joyful Path, Geshe-la explains what makes our spiritual practice pure instead of worldly is whether we are engaging in it for the sake of all of our future lives or the sake of this life.  We rely upon Heruka in this life, in the bardo, and in all of our future lives.  What do we request of him?  That he always hold us with the hook of his compassion.  The ocean of samsara is vast and it is easy to get lost at sea and drown, but out of his compassion for us, he throws us a hook we can grab onto.  If we never let go, he will pull us to safety.  What is this hook and how does it appear in our life?  It primarily appears as our Spiritual Guide, but it also manifests as the Daka and the Dharma Protector. 

The fourth line reveals Heruka’s main function; or put another way, the principal benefits of relying upon him.  His aspect of the Guru functions to liberate us from the fears of samsara and peace.  Peace here refers to the solitary peace of individual liberation, which is nice for us but useless for others.  We pray to never get trapped in solitary peace but instead strive to become a Buddha who works until the end of time to free others from their suffering.  His aspect of the Yidam functions to bestow all the attainments.  Bestow is a beautiful word as it implies the giving of something precious.  In truth, we attain enlightenment by the Buddhas bestowing the realizations of their mind upon ours, like a gift.  Of course, we must do certain things from our side to open up our mind to receive these precious gifts, but by nature, our future realizations of the stages of the path are actually by nature aspects of our Yidam’s mind.  His aspect of Daka functions to be our constant companion.  In other words, the deities of the body mandala – Heruka’s retinue – are his companions who not only bless our own channels, drops, and winds, but similarly bless all living beings as they fulfill Heruka’s wishes in this world.  His aspect of Dharma Protector functions to protect ourselves and all the beings inside Heruka’s mandala from all obstacles to our spiritual practice.  Nothing is an obstacle from its own side.  Things only become obstacles when we relate to them in a deluded way.  Dorje Shugden is first and foremost a wisdom Buddha, meaning he grants us the wisdom to be able to see how whatever arises is perfect for our spiritual training.  Since his protection circle envelopes all of Keajra, from the Charnel Grounds to the HUM at Heruka’s heart, he is likewise bestowing similar wisdom blessings on the minds of all living beings.  This is why for Heruka samsara appears as the Charnel Grounds.  In the Charnel Grounds, even though conventionally horrific things appear, they are all understood and seen as powerful Dharma teachings propelling us towards enlightenment.  When we have this wisdom, when others come to us with their difficulties, we fail to even see a problem, we see only spiritual opportunity.  We then share our perspective with others, empowering them to transform their life into a joyful path of good fortune. 

For myself, I recite the Single-Pointed request with these recognitions day and night as I go about my day.  It is my daily mantra, and with every recitation, it draws me closer to Heruka.  In my meditation itself, I try to gain experience for what it feels like to be Heruka in Keajra.

Bringing Heruka to Life in our World

We can sometimes feel like Heruka is not in this world and our attainment of union with him is very far off.  Both of these perceptions are completely wrong.  Heruka is the ultimate nature of everything in this world and attaining union with him is simply one recognition away.  How can we bridge the gap between these two very different views?  Through the practice of the Eight Lines of Praise of the Father.  This is a special method for activating Heruka’s function in this world through us.  On the basis of this feeling we simply recognize ourselves as Heruka.  Through continual training in this practice, the gap between our normal perception and our enlightened perception collapses until eventually, we experience ourselves directly as Heruka in this world performing his enlightened deeds for the benefit of all.   As Geshe-la says in Essence of Vajrayana, “By sincerely reciting these praises we swiftly purify our ordinary appearances and reach Heruka’s Pure Land.”

The Eight Lines of Praise are almost like words of a magical spell, which function to invoke or activate the different functions of Heruka we are praising. 

OM I Prostrate to the Blessed One, Lord of the Heroes HUM HUM PHAT

When we recite this line, we request Heruka’s body to become active in this world.  His body is the form aspect of Keajra Pure Land.  In Keajra, every form that appears is understood as a powerful Dharma teaching by all those who behold it.  Heruka manifests as whatever living beings need to be led to enlightenment.  While Keajra Pure Land is shaped like a mountain, it’s spiritual gradient is more like a funnel.  No matter where you drop something in a funnel, it is eventually guided down into the center of the funnel.  In the same way, no matter where you find yourself in Keajra Pure Land – from the Charnel Grounds to the principal deity’s body – you are inexorably drawn towards the indestructible wind inside Heruka’s heart chakra.  By activating Heruka’s form body in our world, we are “inviting all beings to be our guests” in our Pure Land where we engage in the pleasing supreme practices of enlightenment.  We then strongly believe that whatever forms appear to the minds of any living being, they are by nature emanations of Heruka’s form body, revealing the truth of Dharma and guiding all beings towards his heart. 

In particular, when we recite this line, we can imagine that our body is Heruka’s majestic body.  Our eyes may continue to perceive the body that we normally see, but our mind’s eyes of faith see ourselves as Heruka.  In Essence of Vajrayana, it explains the symbolism of Heruka’s body.  The short version is it reveals all of the essential stages of the path to enlightenment.  Buddhas can manifest their inner realizations as forms.  The main point is we should disregard, even forget, our body that we normally see and believe that through our recitation of this line of the prayer we perceive our body to be Heruka’s body.

OM To you with a brilliance equal to the fire of the great aeon HUM HUM PHAT

When we recite this line, we invoke/activate Heruka’s speech.  In Keajra, every sound is arising from Heruka’s enlightened speech and it functions to reveal the truth of Dharma.  When we recite this, we imagine that every sound, even the rustling of leaves in the wind, is actually vajra songs teaching Dharma.  His speech burns away the ordinary conceptions and ignorance of living beings like a great wisdom fire that radiates out and burns away all delusions.  In particular, we should imagine that from this point forward all of our own speech is actually Heruka’s speech being spoken through us.  Instead of saying whatever comes to our mind, we get out of the way and let him speak through us.  If we are practicing this at the level of completion stage, we can recall that the nature of sound is wind, and so all sounds are actually the whistling of Heruka’s pure winds blowing through the world.

OM To you with an inexhaustible topknot HUM HUM PHAT

With this line we imagine we invoke/activate Heruka’s mind in our world, symbolized by his topknot.  There are two aspects of his mind in particular worth noting.  First, his mind sees all past, present, and future phenomena directly and simultaneously.  He sees everything that has been, everything that is, and everything that will be as one inseparable ocean.  This wisdom knowing the three times is extremely effective for being able to help people because we can see the karmic why they are currently facing the situations they are facing and all of the different possible futures they will experience depending upon how they respond to their present circumstance.  Heruka sees everything as currents and continuums, like spiritual winds blowing through time, not static pictures that seem arbitrary and bewildering.  Second, his mind has the power to bestow the realizations of Chakrasambara on others, in other words, his mind functions to gather and dissolve all phenomena into the ocean of bliss and emptiness.  When impure winds cease to flow, the waves of appearance subside, and the ocean of our mind settles into a blissful clarity.  Heruka’s mind naturally draws all phenomena back into this original source of all purity.  When we recite this line, we feel as if these two powers of his mind are now active.  We start to see the three times as Heruka does and we feel all phenomena settling down into the ocean of our mind of clear light emptiness.

OM To you with a fearsome face and bared fangs HUM HUM PHAT

When we recite this line, we imagine we gain Heruka’s great wisdom knowing clearly and unmistakenly what are the objects to be abandoned and what are the objects to be attained, not only for ourselves, but for all living beings.  Not being clear about this is our fundamental problem and the source of all of our suffering.  In Modern Buddhism, Geshe-la makes a clear distinction between our outer problem and our inner problem.  If our car breaks down, normally we think, “I have a problem.”  No, our car has a problem.  Our problem is our inner problem of relating to this appearance in a deluded way.  We need a mechanic to fix our car, and we need to change our mind to solve our inner problem.  Fixing our outer problem will not solve our inner problem.  If we continue to have our inner problem, we will just project it onto some other external circumstance and think now that needs to be fixed too.  Worldly beings are convinced their problem is what is happening externally, and they expend all of their energy trying to solve all of their outer problems, but no matter how many times they do, they continue to have the same sorts of problems just with different faces or different sets of external appearance.  The reason for this is they have not solved their inner problem.  Heruka’s great wisdom enables us to see clearly that our own and others’ actual problem lies within.  Once we are clear that our problem is our inner problem, then his great wisdom helps us see clearly our delusions as mistaken minds.  It is one thing to identify that we have delusions, but if we do not see why they are wrong or deceptive, we will continue to follow them believing them to be true.  His great wisdom also helps us easily know what is the correct way of looking at things that leaves our mind peaceful and calm.  We not only know the wisdom way of thinking, we actually think that way – or at least believe it to be correct, even if the winds of our mind are blowing in opposite directions. 

When we recite this line, we have this wisdom not only for ourselves but also for others.  When others talk to us, we see clearly the difference between their outer and their inner problem, and with respect to their inner problem, we know and can explain in a way they can understand the objects to be abandoned and the objects to be attained.  Traveling outer paths is accomplished through taking steps, inner paths are traveled through knowing what thoughts to believe.  The great wisdom of knowing the objects to be abandoned and the objects to be attained is like always knowing which paths to travel so that we never get lost.  It is like an inner GPS that is always set for the City of Enlightenment, and no matter where we find ourselves, we always know how to get to where we want to go.

OM To you whose thousand arms blaze with light HUM HUM PHAT

When we recite this line we imagine we invoke/activate countless emanations of Heruka who spontaneously burst forth from his heart of compassion to benefit living beings through acts of loving-kindness.  This line refers to how Heruka is the compassion of all the Buddhas, he is the highest yoga tantra version of thousand-arm Avalokiteshvara.  Some people wonder how Buddhas gain the ability to send out emanations.  The answer is their compassion wishing to protect all living beings from all suffering is so great, emanations naturally burst out of their hearts.  Because they realize emptiness of all phenomena, their compassion is like blowing air into the soap of their realization of emptiness producing countless bubbles of emanations.  Normally, when people come to us for help, we think, “I can’t help all of these people,” and we wish some of them would go away and stop putting so many demands on us.  But a bodhisattva thinks, “I would want to help all of these beings, but right now, unfortunately, I can’t.  That’s why I need to become a Buddha because then I will be able to be with each and every living being every day.”  We imagine that through reciting this line, we gain this ability to send out countless emanations and to be like thousand-arm Avalokiteshvara, able to help living beings in countless ways.

OM To you who hold an axe, an uplifted noose, a spear, and a khatanga HUM HUM PHAT

With this line, we imagine we gain Heruka’s ability to engage in wrathful actions, and we invoke his wrathful actions pervade the entire universe.  What are wrathful actions?  They are the ability to use force out of compassion.  They are of two types:  outer and inner.  Outer wrathful actions are when somebody is hurting themselves or others and we can stop them through using whatever power we have (physical, our position, our speech, etc.).  We do this not out of anger, but to protect the person they are harming and to protect the person committing the harm from accumulating negative karma.  Our wish is not to harm the other person, but to protect them.  Sometimes outer wrathful actions take the form of telling people the hard truths of their situation, such as they are acting like a jerk or the only reason why they are suffering is that they are jealous or attached to companionship, or whatever.  Whether our outer wrathful actions are effective depends upon whether our mind is truly free from anger and whether the other person has enough faith in us to take well what we are saying.  If either of these two conditions is not met, our wrathful actions will just be anger or they will just be self-defeating.  Inner wrathful actions are the ability to be utterly ruthless with our delusions, but kind to ourselves.  We can only successfully engage in them if we have truly differentiated between ourselves and our delusions and we have realized that renunciation is true self-love or self-compassion.  It is loving or having compassion for our true selves, our pure potential.  Inner wrathful actions of a Buddha are powerful blessings that help people see clearly the error of their ways, sometimes at an epic scale, but without inducing guilt causing the person to beat themselves up.  When we recite this line, we imagine we gain the ability to engage in such wrathful actions and we imagine we invoke Heruka to engage in such wrathful actions through the appearances of this world.

OM To you who wear a tiger-skin garment HUM HUM PHAT

This refers to Heruka’s ability to pacify anger and conflict.  There is no evil greater than anger.  Almost all of the harm in this world is caused by anger.  Hell realms are the nature of anger, and those who remain consumed by anger in life wind up taking rebirth in hell after death because that is the nature of their mind.  Anger prevents us from accepting samsara as it is, making us wish it was different.  It leads to frustrations, great and small, leaving us always internally uncomfortable, agitated, and unhappy.  Guilt is anger directed at ourself and is a major obstacle to our ability to view Dharma as refuge instead of a mirror we perceive to be judging us for all of our failures and shortcomings.  Conflict in the world ranges from large-scale wars to spats between siblings, but it leaves a wake of pain wherever it goes.  In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says the mind of cherishing others is like a magic crystal that has the power to heal whole communities.  In Toronto, he said, “love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys all enemies.”  Heruka’s compassion is his magic crystal and his love is his nuclear bomb that ends all conflict.  We imagine by reciting this line, we activate this power and it functions to pacify all anger, all guilt, and all conflict, not only in our own lives but in the whole world.  We feel as if his love radiates out, pulsing peace into the world.  In Transform Your Life Geshe-la says, “without inner peace, outer peace is impossible.”  We imagine through Heruka’s blessings, we bestow inner peace on all living beings, resulting in universal peace for all.

OM I bow to you whose smoke-coloured body dispels obstructions HUM HUM PHAT

In Essence of Vajrayana, Geshe-la explains:

“In the Condensed Root Tantra it is said that just by seeing a sincere Heruka practitioner we purify our negativities and attain liberation; just by hearing or being touched by such a practitioner we receive blessings and are cured of sickness; and just by being in the presence of such a practitioner our unhappiness, mental disturbances, delusions and other obstacles are dispelled.  Why is this?  It is because the actual Deities of Heruka abide within the body of the practitioner and therefore seeing the practitioner is not so different from seeing Heruka himself.”

When we recite this line of the Praise we recall this special quality of Heruka which makes merely being in their presence a cause of liberation for others.  There are two types of obstructions – the obstructions to liberation, or our delusions; and the obstructions to omniscience, or the karmic imprints of our past delusions.  Merely being in Heruka’s presence dispels both of these, just as being exposed to the sun will melt ice cream.  When we recite this line with faith, we imagine that our Heruka body attains these qualities and when others are merely in our presence, it functions as a cause of their enlightenment – even if we are doing nothing other than watching football together.  We further imagine that Heruka’s body pervades all phenomena, and while our ordinary eyes may perceive the things we normally see, our wisdom eyes see Keajra Pure Land, which is nothing other than Heruka’s pure form body.  By being in this world, the two obstructions of all living beings are dispelled away, all ordinary appearances and conceptions dissolve, and all beings awaken into a world of pure wonder. 

Through continuously engaging in the Eight Lines of Praise, we will gradually purify our mind and samsara will gather and absorb into the clear light, like clouds into a clear blue sky.  We will feel Heruka as Keajra Pure Land become increasingly manifest and we will realize it is not far away, but actually the true nature of all things.  Having activated these eight abilities of Heruka and feeling them work through us, we will have no difficulty generating a qualified divine pride thinking we are Heruka.  As our experience with these verses deepens, the duality between ourselves and our Yidam will dissolve away until we experience union with this marvelous being.  In this way, we will fulfill all of our own and others’ pure wishes.

Heruka day is a particularly auspicious day when Heruka’s blessings are especially powerful.  The karma we create familiarizing ourselves with Heruka in our life and drawing closer to him on this day will pay dividends for aeons to come.  If we have not yet memorized the Eight Lines of Praise, today is a perfect day to do so.  Once we have learned it, we can then practice it day and night and swiftly move out of samsara and into Keajra Pure Land! 

Happy Vajrayogini Day: Becoming the Vajra Queen

Today is Vajrayogini Day, which takes place every year on the first tsog day of Heruka and Vajrayogini Month.  On this day, we can remember her amazing good qualities and try to ripen them within ourselves.  By doing so, we can draw closer to her and eventually become her.

Our Vajra Queen

Within the Kadampa tradition, our highest yoga tantra deities are Heruka and Vajrayogini.  Heruka is great bliss inseparable from emptiness, and Vajrayogini is emptiness inseparable from great bliss.  Ultimately, they are the same person, differing only in aspect and emphasis.  Practically, they are our spiritual guide’s truth body inseparable from our own pure potential.  By relying upon Heruka and Vajrayogini, we can quickly ripen our Buddha nature and attain the union with their enlightened state.  Our highest yoga tantra deity is also known as our “yidam,” which essentially means it is the actual Buddha we want to become.  Venerable Tharchin explains we design our own enlightenment by the specific type of bodhichitta we generate.  In our tradition, we take Heruka and Vajrayogini as our yidam. 

Vajrayogini is known as the Vajra Queen because she is the highest of all the female enlightened deities for us.  Many people, both in movies and in real life, develop tremendous loyalty and respect for their political queen, willing to dedicate their lives to fulfilling the wishes of their noble queen.  How much more respect and devotion should we feel towards our Vajra Queen who leads us beyond samsara?

Venerable Tharchin once told me, several years before I married her, that my girlfriend at the time was an emanation of Vajrayogini.  He explained this to me at my very first Heruka and Vajrayogini empowerment.  Of course, she is not inherently so since she is inherently nothing, but he was unambiguous that I should view her in this way.  I then asked him again several years later if he meant it that she was an emanation of Vajrayogini, and he said, “without a doubt, for you, she is.”  When we got engaged, the ring she gave me had seven diamonds in it, and she said, “like seven lifetimes.”  She had never read Guide to Dakini Land where it explains by relying upon Vajraygoini, an emanation will enter our life within seven lifetimes to lead us to Dakini Land, yet I was flooded with a clear recognition that was the meaning of her engagement ring to me.  For me, she has been my spiritual muse – learning how to relate to her purely, learning how to help her, and overcoming all of the delusions her behavior would provoke in me. 

Vajrayogini practice has many uncommon qualities that surpass even Heruka practice.  First, her three-OM mantra is the king of all mantras.  Geshe-la explains in Guide to Dakini Land:

“By reciting this mantra we can help others to fulfill their wishes and gain peace, good health, long life, and prosperity. We gain the ability to avert others’ diseases, such as cancer, strokes, and paralysis, as well as all physical pain and dangers from fire, water, earth, and wind.  Some practitioners who have a strong karmic link with Vajrayogini, through their daily practice or by merely reciting this mantra attain outer Dakini Land before their death, sometimes even without engaging in close retreats or intense meditation. Some attain Dakini Land in the bardo by remembering as if in a dream their daily recitation of the mantra, thereby enabling Vajrayogini to lead them to her Pure Land. In Dakini Land these practitioners are cared for by Heruka and Vajrayogini and, without ever having to undergo uncontrolled death again, they attain enlightenment during that life. It is for these reasons that the three-OM mantra of Vajrayogini is called the `king of all mantras’.”

Vajrayogini’s body mandala is also unequaled.  Again, Geshe-la explains in Guide to Dakini Land:

“In the practice of Heruka’s body mandala, Deities are generated at the outer tips of the twenty-four channels, at the twenty-four inner places. In Vajrayogini’s body mandala, however, the Deities are generated at the inner tips of the twenty-four channels, inside the central channel at the heart channel wheel. This is the main reason why Vajrayogini’s body mandala is more profound than those of other Yidams.”

Finally, Vajrayogini practice has an uncommon yoga of inconceivability, which is the most profound practice of self-powa in existence, enabling us to transfer our consciousness to the pure land where we can complete our spiritual training without ever having to take another samsaric rebirth.  Through this practice, Geshe-la explains:

The uncommon yoga of inconceivability is a special method, unique to the practice of Vajrayogini, whereby we can attain Pure Dakini Land within this life without abandoning our present body.

By contemplating these incredible benefits of Vajrayogini practice, we can generate a strong faithful wish to rely upon her in this and all our future lives.

How we can activate Vajrayogini’s good qualities in our life

We do not consider the good qualities of Vajrayogini to simply think how amazing she is, the goal is for us to generate wishing faith, wishing to acquire these good qualities ourselves.  At first, it can seem like her good qualities are so far away that knowledge of them is more academic than anything else.  But there is a method for activating her good qualities within us right now, where we quite literally start to become her and fulfill her function in the world.  How?  Through faithful recitation of the Eight Lines of Praise to the Mother.

Becoming Vajrayogini is not like an on-off switch but is rather like a volume knob – the more we rely upon her, the more we come to embody her good qualities until eventually we gradually become her.  In our practice of divine pride, we train in imputing our “I” onto Vajrayogini, thinking, “I am Vajrayogini.”  If we impute “I am Vajrayogini” onto our ordinary samsaric body and mind, this is not only a mistaken imputation, it might land us in a psychiatric hospital!  For an imputation to be valid, the basis of imputation must be valid.  For an imputation to be valid, the name, aspect, and function must all be in alignment.  A tennis racket may be used to strain spaghetti noodles, but we would not call it a strainer.  In the context of Vajrayogini practice, her aspect is the beautiful red Dakini, her function is to bestow the qualities of her mind, and her name is Vajrayogini.  If we impute our I onto these three – her name, aspect, and function – we can validly say we are Vajrayogini.

Oftentimes, especially in our early years of Vajrayogini practice, we tend to place primary emphasis on the “aspect” of Vajrayogini, imputing our “I” onto this mere image.  But this rarely works to generate much feeling of actually being Vajrayogini.  In contrast, when we feel like this aspect is performing the function of Vajrayogini in our mind, then when we impute our I onto Vajrayogini engaging in her enlightened deeds, it is very easy to generate a qualified feeling of divine pride being Vajrayogini leading all beings to freedom. 

For me at least, the supreme method for generating a feeling of Vajrayogini accomplishing her function is using the Eight Lines of Praise as an invocation for her to accomplish her special function through us.  When we do this, we will feel her enter us and accomplish these eight special functions through us; and on this basis, it is easy to generate a qualified divine pride.

We can understand how to do this as follows:

OM I prostrate to Vajravarahi, the Blessed Mother HUM HUM PHAT

To prostrate means to wish to become, it is a form of wishing faith.  Vajravarahi refers to her function of destroying ignorance, recognizing her as the essence of the perfection of wisdom that destroys ignorance.  Blessed Mother means she is the mother of all the Buddhas, both in the sense of all Buddhas are born from bliss and emptiness (definitive Vajrayogini), but also in the sense of the actual mother of all the Buddhas in that they arise from her.  In this sense, she is simply the highest yoga tantra version of Mother Tara.  When we recite this line, we imagine we invoke this power to destroy the ignorance of all living beings and give birth to all the Buddhas, requesting that this function be accomplished within our mind.

OM To the Superior and powerful Knowledge Lady unconquered by the three realms HUM HUM PHAT

Superior means she can see directly the ultimate nature of all phenomena, powerful Knowledge Lady means she has the power to bestow great bliss, and unconquered by the three realms means she has the power to overcome all delusions of the desire, form, and formless realm.  When we recite this line, we imagine we invoke her to bestow bliss on ourselves and all living beings, which bestows a direct realization of emptiness on the minds of all, enabling them to completely abandon all the delusions of the three realms.  We feel as if this is actually happening inside our mind.

OM To you who destroy all fears of evil spirits with your great vajra HUM HUM PHAT

Nobody is an evil spirit from their own side, they only become evil spirits for us if we relate to them in deluded ways.  It is our delusions that create all evil spirits in our life, and we can say from one perspective all evil spirits are really just our delusions so condense that they take on a life or personality of their own and function like they are an “evil spirit.”  But through Vajrayogini’s blessings, we can come to experience all beings and all phenomena as manifestations of her mind of bliss and emptiness.  In this way, what was previously experienced as an evil spirit in our life is now experienced as the dance of bliss and emptiness.  Instead of harming us, we receive blessings.  All fear is destroyed because they are now seen as bliss and emptiness, and indeed we can say all “evil spirits” themselves are destroyed, not in the sense of they are killed, but in the sense that there is no longer a valid basis for imputing “evil spirit.”  When we recite this line, we imagine that we come to see all phenomena as manifestations of bliss and emptiness, and so we fear nothing and nobody has the power to harm us in any way.  We strongly believe our view of everything has changed and now we fear nothing because we experience it all as great bliss.

OM To you with controlling eyes who remain as the vajra seat unconquered by others HUM HUM PHAT

Vajra seat here means she is always in union with Heruka who is eternally filling her with great bliss as she bestows the realization of emptiness on his mind.  Her controlling eyes can subdue negative behavior simply by looking at others, much in the way a mother’s firm stare brings her children in line without saying a word.   When we recite this verse, we imagine that while in union with Heruka – being filled with bliss and bestowing upon him the realization of emptiness – we can look out onto all living beings subduing all of their negative behavior in an instant.  We feel this compassionate power coursing through us and that this function is actually being accomplished.

OM To you whose wrathful fierce form desiccates Brahma HUM HUM PHAT

This refers to Vajrayogini’s ability to subdue the pride of all living beings, even the highest gods.  Geshe-la explains that pride is the death of all spiritual learning.  If we are free from pride, we can use the Dharma to overcome all our other faults; but if we are consumed by pride, we cannot overcome any of our faults.  Subduing our pride is, in this sense, a prerequisite for all spiritual progress.  Vajrayogini does not merely subdue our pride, she desiccates it, which means to drain of emotional or intellectual vitality.  We generate pride when we observe some uncommon characteristic we have, and then think that somehow makes us better than others.  Perhaps a candle in a dark room provides some light but standing next to the blazing of the sun its luminescence is humbled.  In the same way, we may think we are special in some way, but standing before the Vajra Queen we are stripped away of all pretension and are drained of any emotional or intellectual basis for thinking we are special in any way.  Vajrayogini’s mere presence has this humbling effect on all living beings, opening their mind to generate faith in the spiritual path.  When we recite this line, we feel as if the pride of ourselves and all living beings has been thoroughly desiccated and everyone now bows down with humble faith in her magnificence, ready to learn from her.

OM To you who terrify and dry up demons, conquering those in other directions HUM HUM PHAT

This refers to the ability of her wisdom blessings to burn up the inner demons of ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions of all living beings.  According to Sutra, the root of samsara is self-grasping ignorance, but according to Tantra, the root is ordinary appearances and conceptions.  Ordinary appearances are, essentially, the things that we normally see – all of which appear to exist from their own side, independent of our mind.  They appear to have some objective existence that we believe our mind merely observes accurately.  Ordinary conceptions are believing these appearances to be true.  We think everything really does exist in the way that it appears.  Due to ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions, we remain trapped in the nightmare of samsara, and the same is true for all other living beings.  The fire of Vajrayogini’s wisdom blessings has the power to burn through all ordinary appearances and conceptions like the fire at the end of the aeon, stripping away samsara from everyone and enabling them to see directly pure worlds.  Samsara is nothing more than a dream that need not be.  Vajrayogini has the power to burn it all away.  When we recite this verse, we imagine we invoke the fire of her wisdom blessings to radiate out like a spherical burst in all directions stripping away the ordinary appearances and conceptions of all living beings, and then we strongly believe that as a result of this enlightened action all beings are now able to see directly her pure world, Keajra Pure Land.

OM To you who conquer all those who make us dull, rigid, and confused HUM HUM PHAT

This refers to her ability to protect us from evil spirits who would interfere with our spiritual practice by making our minds dull, rigid, or confused.  There are countless evil spirits who would interfere with our practice, and we have all experienced the effects of their interference in our practice.  Vajrayogini can subdue these spirits in four ways, the first of which was already explained above by viewing them as manifestations of bliss and emptiness.  The second is just as would-be attackers are deterred through knowing they are outmatched, so too evil spirits know they stand no chance against Vajrayogini and so they keep their distance.  The third is through the wisdom fire of her protection circle, the basis for any negativity is burned away as it approaches, and thus cannot even enter like a magical shield that disarms all those who would enter the realm.  Negativity simply can’t get through.  The fourth way is through the power of her love and compassion for evil spirits who would do harm.  Just as Buddha Shakyamuni under the Bodhi tree defeated all the spirits through the power of his love, so too Vajrayogini’s unconditional love defeats the evil intentions of all those who would interfere with our practice.  As Geshe-la famously said, love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys all enemies.  When we recite this verse, we imagine we invoke Vajrayogini to dispel all interference from evil spirits in these four ways, and strongly believe as a result all interference is permanently subdued.

OM I bow to Vajravarahi, the Great Mother, the Dakini consort who fulfills all desires HUM HUM PHAT

This refers to Vajrayogini’s ability to fulfill all the pure wishes of living beings.  Buddhas do not fulfill our worldly wishes – nothing can since samsara is by nature contaminated.  But they can fulfill all our pure wishes.  Like a loving mother who helps fulfill all the pure wishes of her children, Vajrayogini works tirelessly to fulfill all the pure wishes of all living beings.  What are pure wishes?  They are spiritual wishes, such as wishing to abandon lower rebirth, escape from samsara, and gain the ability to lead all beings to enlightenment.  They also include any wish to overcome our delusions, purify our negative karma, or gain any of the realizations of the stages of the path.  Vajrayogini is the real wish-fulfilling jewel who possesses the power to fulfill all the pure wishes of all living beings.  When we recite this verse, we strongly imagine that she does so in an instant and everyone is spontaneously born into the pure land. 

We can recite these Eight Verses anytime, both in meditation and out of meditation.  We can also recite specific lines of the eight verses as targeted prayers for specific situations we find ourselves in.  The effectiveness of our recitations depends primarily upon the purity of our motivation, the depth of our faith, and the extent of our realization of emptiness of all phenomena.  The more we improve these three conditions, the more we will begin to feel Vajraygoini entering into us and accomplishing her function through us in the world.  With deeper experience, it will almost feel like she takes on a life of her own inside of us, spontaneously accomplishing her function in this world.  Once we have a taste of this experience, generating qualified divine pride both in and out of meditation is easy.

May we all come under Vajrayogini’s loving care and behold her sublime face.  May we become empty vessels through which she may accomplish her enlightened deeds in this world, bringing benefit and happiness to ourselves and all living beings in the process.  May she burn away all ordinary appearance and conception until we see ourselves directly as the Vajra Queen.

Happy Tara Day: Getting to know our spiritual mother

The eighth of every month is Tara Day.  Geshe-la once said during a commentary to Tara practice that, “we should make our own commentary” based on our experience.  As my offering to her and to help celebrate her day and to deepen my own relationship with her, over the next twelve months, I will provide my own understanding of the practice Liberation from Sorrow.  Nothing I say should be taken as definitive in any way, I am simply sharing my personal experience of this practice.  I hope others might also share their own experience and understandings of the practice in the comments.  Then, we can all learn from each other.

In the introduction to the Sadhana, Geshe-la says:

Tara is a female Buddha, a manifestation of the ultimate wisdom of all the Buddhas. Each of the Twenty-one Taras is a manifestation of the principal Tara, Green Tara. Tara is also known as the ‘Mother of the Conquerors’.

The ultimate wisdom of all the Buddhas is the wisdom directly realizing the emptiness of all phenomena.  Sometimes we think of emptiness as a state that somehow exists on it’s own – everything is empty – but in reality, it does not exist without a mind realizing it.  Emptiness is also dependent upon the mind realizing it, and so is also empty.  Tara is a being who has imputed her “I” onto the ultimate wisdom of all the Buddhas – she is this ultimate wisdom.  She appears in the aspect of the twenty-one Taras, just like a single diamond can have twenty-one facets to it.  All other Buddhas arise from her ultimate wisdom, just as waves arise from an ocean.  In this sense, she is the Mother of all the Buddhas – they literally emerge from her, she gives birth to them all.

Tara is our common mother, our Holy Mother. When we are young we turn to our worldly mother for help. She protects us from immediate dangers, provides us with all our temporal needs, and guides and encourages us in our learning and personal development. In the same way, during our spiritual growth we need to turn to our Holy Mother, Tara, for refuge. She protects us from all internal and external dangers, she provides us with all the necessary conditions for our spiritual training, and she guides us and inspires us with her blessings as we progress along the spiritual path.

Our spiritual life can begin at any point in our life, sometimes when we are young or sometimes when we are older; but in either case, Tara is our spiritual mother.  She cares for us in the earliest stages of our spiritual life, nurturing it to make sure we eventually ripen into an independent, functioning spiritual adult able to sustain our practice on our own for the rest of our life.  This is why it is especially important for new practitioners to take Tara practice as their main deity practice.  Establishing an early relationship with Tara will ensure that we ripen onto the math in a mature and stable way.  All we need to do is put our faith in her and request that she nurture our spiritual life into spiritual adulthood.

In some New Age circles, they talk about us choosing our parents in this life.  Generally speaking, according to the Kadampa teachings at least, we are trapped in samsara, which means we necessarily take uncontrolled rebirth.  We did not “choose” our parents, we we karmically thrown into rebirth as their child.  It is true that we may have generated attachment for our mother as she was engaging in intercourse with our father, but that is quite different from “choosing” our mother.  Despite this, through reliance upon Tara in this life, we can choose to have her as our spiritual mother in all of our future lives.  The paths of future lives are very uncertain and samsara’s distractions and deceptions are endless, but our spiritual mother can care for us and guide us to the spiritual path, help us enter it, and then once again ripen us into spiritual adulthood.  People buy insurance policies all the time to protect themselves against eventualities.  Reliance upon Tara is like a spiritual insurance policy for making sure we once again find and enter the path in all of our future lives until we attain enlightenment.  Every day, I pray, “May Guru Tara be my eternal mother in all my future lives.” 

Tara’ means ‘Rescuer’. She is so called because she rescues us from the eight outer fears (the fears of lions, elephants, fire, snakes, thieves, water, bondage and evil spirits), and from the eight inner fears (the fears of pride, ignorance, anger, jealousy, wrong views, attachment, miserliness and deluded doubts). Temporarily Tara saves us from the dangers of rebirth in the three lower realms, and ultimately she saves us from the dangers of samsara and solitary peace.

There is a close relationship between the eight outer fears and the eight inner fears – indeed, the eight inner fears create the eight outer fears.  The eight outer fears are not just literal lions, elephants, snakes, and so forth.  Rather, these animals are symbolic of types of outer circumstances which give rise to fear.  Through relying upon Tara, we pacify the eight inner fears, and as a result we no longer fear the eight outer fears.

For example, pride is a mind that thinks we are better than we actually are, or that takes some characteristic we have about ourselves and generates a feeling of superiority over others due to this trait.  Lion-like outer fears are situations that call our exalted view of ourselves into question.  We fear others criticizing us or discovering that we are a fraud.  We try exert our domination or superiority over others and feel threatened by those who challenge our authority or position.  All of the outer things we fear as threats to our status, reputation, or position are fearful to us only because we have the inner fear of pride.

Ignorance has two types, conventional ignorance of not knowing what to do and ultimate ignorance of not knowing how things truly exist.  People’s lives are plagued by the elephant of insecurity and uncertainty.  We don’t know what the day will bring, and we have no idea what karma will ripen.  To try control against these fears, we try gain control and reduce uncertainty, and we fear anything that could increase our insecurity or uncertainty.  All of our outer fears associated with insecurity and uncertainty come from the inner fear of conventional ignorance.  If we knew clearly what objects are to be abandoned and what objects are to be attained, we would not fear an uncertain world because we would always know what to do and how to respond.  We would have confidence in the laws of karma that if we responded wisely to whatever arises, our karmic circumstance would definitely get better, so we would fear nothing.  Further, ultimately, the only reason why we fear anything is because we still grasp at things existing from their own side, independently of our mind as causes of our happiness or suffering.  But if we understood that everything depends upon how we look at it and everything can be transformed into a cause of our enlightenment, we would quite literally have nothing to fear at all.  Thus, eliminating the inner fear of ignorance removes all of our outer fears.

All of the other outer fears are likewise born from the inner fears of anger, jealousy, wrong views, attachment, miserliness, and deluded doubts.  We can think about all of the things that give rise to our anger, jealousy, wrong views, attachment, miserliness, and deluded doubts.  Normally we view these things as our “problems” because they give rise to feelings in our mind.  But if we eliminated these delusions from our mind, then we would no longer have outer fears.

If we rely upon Mother Tara sincerely and with strong faith, she will protect us from all obstacles and fulfil all our wishes. Since she is a wisdom Buddha, and since she is a manifestation of the completely purified wind element, Tara is able to help us very quickly. If we recite the twenty-one verses of praise, we shall receive inconceivable benefits. These praises are very powerful because they are Sutra, the actual words of Buddha. It is good to recite them as often as we can.

The power of any Buddha to help us depends almost entirely upon the strength of our faith.  Faith is like electricity for our spiritual life.  The entire modern world would come to a screeching halt without electricity, in the same way our spiritual life is inert without the electricity of faith.  Faith can also be likened to our sails, and the Buddhas blessings to winds filling our sails.  If our sails are raised and aligned with the pure winds of the Buddhas, we will be blown swiftly towards enlightenment.  Tara is the completely purified wind element, which means the winds of her blessings are particularly powerful and swift.  Through generating faith in her, we will enjoy all of the benefits and protections explained in the sadhana.  Through faith in her, we will come to feel her presence in our life and enjoy her protection, which will increase our faith further in her in a self-fulfilling cycle of enlightenment.

Happy Heruka and Vajrayogini Month: May the Dakinis Forever Dance in your Subtle Body

Every January is Heruka and Vajrayogini Month when the blessings of the Dakas and Dakinis are particularly powerful.  Traditionally, Kadampa practitioners do long retreats related to their Heruka and Vajrayogini practice during this month to take advantage of these special blessings.  If we can, it is a good idea to do retreat during this month, but even if we are not able to, there are many other things we can do to increase our familiarity with our highest yoga tantra practices.

Why do we need to practice Tantra?

Buddha’s instructions can be divided into two categories, Sutra and Tantra.  Sutra teachings are primarily about learning how to control, meditate with, and purify our gross levels of mind.  Tantra is primarily about learning how to do these things with our subtle and very subtle levels of mind.  Our gross minds arise from our subtle minds, and our subtle minds arise from our very subtle mind.  Purifying our gross mind is not enough because if our subtle and very subtle minds remain contaminated and out of control, they will push up into our gross levels of mind in the form of new delusions.  In other words, no matter how hard we try, our delusions will just keep coming back, like weeds not pulled out by the roots.

Tantra is said to be the quick path.  If we practice Sutra alone, it is said it could take tens of thousands of lifetimes before we attain enlightenment, but with Tantra, we can attain enlightenment in this one short human life.  While our human life may seem long compared to thousands of lifetimes, it is like attaining enlightenment in an instant. Why is Tantra so powerful and so quick?  This is primarily because with one single meditation – the emptiness of our very subtle mind of great bliss – we can purify ALL our contaminated karma directly and simultaneously.  If we imagine all the plants and trees on earth are our different contaminated karmic seeds, practicing according to Sutra is like pulling them all out one at a time.  But with Tantra, we can get inside of the center of the earth and with one meditation uproot all our contaminated karma simultaneously.

In the Sutra teachings, it explains the odds of attaining a precious human rebirth in which we find the Dharma and are interested in practicing it are likened to that of a blind turtle who normally lives on the bottom of the ocean the size of this world rising to the surface only once in every 100,000 years putting its neck through the middle of a golden yoke floating on the surface.  The earth is 510 trillion square meters, and we only get one shot every 100,000 years!  The odds are infinitesimally small.   While no similar analogy is given, the Tantric teachings are only taught by the fourth, eleventh, and the last of the 1,000 Buddhas of this fortunate aeon.  Buddha Shakyamuni was the fourth.  From this, we can perhaps say the odds of us finding the tantric path are one in 170,000 trillion!  Yet this is our present circumstance. 

Normally, we can say our gross minds are the minds we normally have during the waking state, our subtle minds are our dreams and subtle meditational states, and our very subtle mind is manifest during death and our very subtle meditational states.  Ultimately, all our contaminated karma is stored on our very subtle mind.  It is like a repository of all the karma we have previously accumulated that has not yet ripened.  We learn how to control our gross mind by identifying our delusions and applying opponents.  We learn how to control our subtle levels of mind through generation stage practice of highest yoga tantra.  And we learn how to control our very subtle levels of mind through completion stage practice.  There are more technical explanations, but this is close enough for our present purposes. 

In generation stage practice, through faith and imagination, we create our gross deity body and the pure land where we hope to take rebirth.  Once we take rebirth in a pure land, we never again take a samsaric rebirth and can complete our spiritual training.  From a practical point of view, it is as if we have escaped samsara, but technically speaking we have not since we still have self-grasping and contaminated karmic imprints on our mind.  But once we get to the pure land, we can receive teachings directly from the Heroes and Heroines and we can swiftly complete our spiritual training.  The main function of generation stage is to create the necessary causes for us to attain the pure land.  It is said that if we sincerely practice the generation stage of Vajrayogini, we can be guaranteed to attain pure Dakini Land within seven lifetimes, even if we are reborn in the fires of the deepest hell.  Why is this?  Because our practice of Heruka and Vajrayogini places uncontaminated karmic potentialities on our mind that can never be destroyed.  We may need to exhaust a good deal of negative karma before these seeds can ripen (which rebirth in the lower realms will do), but eventually these seeds will ripen and we will be met by the Dakinis who will guide us to the pure land.  Of course, it is better to not have to wait seven lifetimes through even more qualified practice in this lifetime, but the point is even if we do have to wait seven lifetimes before we get to the pure land, compared to beginningless time, we are almost there.

In completion stage we learn how to control and purify the channels, drops, and winds of our subtle body.  Just as oceans have currents that power the whole ocean, so too does our mind.  These are our inner energy winds.  Particularly strong currents tend to flow in tight densities, like rivers moving through the oceans.  This is like our channels.  The water that moves through these currents is like our drops.  The currents then create waves on the surface of the ocean that are like the different conceptual minds that arise and phenomena that appear in our mind.  As long as our winds are moving uncontrolledly, the waves of our conceptual thoughts will continue to arise.  But if we can learn to completely still our inner winds, the waves gradually cease, and the ocean of our mind becomes clearer and clearer until eventually, we realize the clear light nature of our mind.  With this clear light, we then meditate on the emptiness of all phenomena, which is easy because we directly see the absence of all of the waves we normally see.  This meditation on the emptiness of our very subtle mind of great bliss swiftly purifies our mind of all delusions and their imprints.  In Guide to Dakini Land, Geshe-la explains if we attain the direct realization of our very subtle mind of great bliss (meaning clear light), we can attain enlightenment in six short months! 

How does Tantra work?

All our minds are mounted upon inner energy winds.  These winds are what enable our mind to move to objects.  Our mind is likened to eyes without legs, and our winds are likened to legs without eyes, but together they can move to and know any object.  If our winds are impure, then the minds mounted on those winds will likewise be impure.  Therefore, the entire goal of tantric practice is to purify our winds.  We primarily purify our inner winds by either mixing them with mantra or by bringing them into our central channel, in particular at the level of our heart.

When we bring our inner winds into our central channel, our mind becomes increasingly subtle until eventually, we reach our very subtle mind of great bliss.  It is with this mind that we then meditate on emptiness and quickly attain enlightenment.  Thus, the whole goal of tantric practice is to generate the subjective mind of great bliss.  The way we do that is by bringing our winds into our central channel through completion stage practices. 

The problem is at present our winds are scattered everywhere outside of our central channel.  These winds get stuck outside of our central channel due to damage to the channels of our subtle body.  Every time we generate a delusion or accumulate contaminated karma, we do psychic damage to our subtle body.  It has taken quite a beating since beginningless time.  Imagine a city with a web of freeways running through it.  Our winds are like cars on the roads.  When we generate deluded or negative minds, we damage the roads, which slows down traffic.  Sometimes, the roads get so bad that traffic can no longer pass through, and blockages start to form.  These blockages eventually can turn into physical diseases, such as cancer.  Kadam Bjorn explained that all physical sickness comes from the sickness of delusions, and all delusions come from blockages within our subtle body.  To get the traffic flowing again, we need to repair the roads. 

How?  Through receiving the blessings of the Heroes and Heroines (or Dakas and Dakinis) of Heruka and Vajrayogini’s retinue.  Venerable Tharchin explains that the specific bodhichitta we generate as a bodhisattva shapes the type of Buddha we become.  For example, Avalokiteshvara specifically wanted to help living beings generate compassion, and so he became the Buddha of compassion.  The Heroes and Heroines of Heruka and Vajrayogini’s retinue are specialized enlightened beings who attained enlightenment for the specific purpose of healing certain aspects of our subtle body.  In this sense, they are all Medicine Buddhas.  In our body mandala practice, we imagine these deities enter into our channels, drops, and winds and heal them completely so that our winds can flow unobstructedly into our central channel at our heart. 

In the same way, we imagine Heruka and Vajrayogini themselves enter into our indestructible drop inside our heart chakra, blessing and purifying it so that the winds can flow inside.  Inside our indestructible drop is our indestructible wind, which is like our root wind from which all other winds arise.  We imagine that a very subtle emanation of Heruka in the aspect of his seed letter HUM mixes inseparably with our root wind, which then reabsorbs all our winds back into their source.  When this happens, all the gross conceptual thoughts and appearances which normally are mounted on these winds subside into clear light emptiness.  Our winds and conceptions become completely still, and the clear light mind manifests.  We then use this mind to meditate on emptiness and attain enlightenment very quickly.

From this explanation, we can see that without the blessings of the deities of Heruka and Vajrayogini’s mandala, it is almost impossible to attain enlightenment, but with their blessings, we can do so quickly and nearly effortlessly.  It is during Heruka and Vajrayogini month that these deities are particularly powerful at bestowing their blessings.  Our sincere practice during this time enables us to make very rapid progress along the tantric path.  This is why Heruka and Vajrayogini month is so important.

How can we take advantage of this month?

If we have the karma to do an intensive retreat on Heruka and Vajrayogini during January, we should.  We can do so at our Kadampa temples, retreat centers, our local centers, or even at home.  There is no place not pervaded by Heruka, so we can do our retreat anywhere.  Even if we are not able to physically be with others engaging in similar retreats, we can recall that thousands of Kadampas all over the world are also focusing on their Heruka and Vajrayogini practice this month, and collectively all of our practices are strengthening the practice of everyone else in the same way many bristles come together to form a brush.

Many of the major Kadampa centers organize close retreats of both Heruka and Vajrayogini during January.  But we are not limited to doing close retreats, we can also do any sort of retreat to familiarize ourselves with the practice.  What is retreat?  A retreat is just extensive meditation over a period of time without our normal distractions.  What is meditation?  It is familiarizing ourselves with virtue.  When we do so, our mind becomes more peaceful and controlled and we become happier and happier as a result.  But this does not mean retreats are all rainbows and unicorns!  Quite the opposite.  Going on retreat is like diving into the deeper recesses of our mind where we discover all sorts of powerful monsters lurking about.  These powerful deluded currents are always there, but it is in a retreat that we can bring them to the surface and eventually subdue them.  This is not always pleasant, but it is always therapeutic. 

If due to our karmic circumstances, such as our job or family responsibilities, we are not able to do a formal retreat, there are still many other ways we can take advantage of this month.  For example, instead of our normal Heart Jewel practice, perhaps we can do a more extensive Heruka or Vajrayogini sadhana.  Geshe-la has given us a wide spectrum of tantric practices that take anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours.  We can choose the level that our schedule allows and do the practice every day for this month.  Perhaps we can even wake up 30 minutes earlier than normal (by perhaps going to bed 30 minutes earlier) to do a more extensive practice than we normally do.  Most of us have a commitment to practice Dorje Shugden every day, we can just add this onto the end of our tantric practice before the dedication, even if we do it in abbreviated form by just visualizing Dorje Shugden and reciting the “all the attainments I desire arise from merely remembering you…” prayer. 

We can also make a point of taking advantage of the two tsog days during January, namely January 10th and January 25th, which are Vajrayogini and Heruka Day respectively.  If we have done our close retreat, these days make excellent opportunities to do self-initiation where we can renew our vows and the blessings of the empowerments.  At a minimum, we can do the Tsog offering in the context of our tantric practice for the month. 

If none of the above are possible, we can also perhaps recite more mantras than our normal daily commitment.  During the empowerment, we promised to recite our mantras a certain number of times every day.  During Heruka and Vajrayogini month, we can perhaps double our normal mantra commitment or agree to do a full mala of mantras every day. 

All of us can throughout the month try to remember Heruka and Vajrayogini throughout the meditation break.  Perhaps we have gradually lost our practice of six-session guru yoga where we self-generate and recall our vows six times every day.  Heruka and Vajrayogini months are an excellent opportunity to start again.  The trick to remembering is to connect it to things we do every day.  We all wake up, eat several times, go to the bathroom, and go to sleep every day.  If we make a point of doing our six-session guru yoga practice every time we do these daily activities, it will not be long before it becomes our habit.  As we walk about or drive, we can recite our mantras.  Normally our mind wanders to all sorts of irrelevant things, but during this special month, we can perhaps instead use this time to recite mantras.  We can also recall the three main recognitions of the yoga of daily activities, namely to view all phenomena as empty, all emptiness as the nature of our mind of great bliss, and the bliss and emptiness of all things as our truth body, Dharmakaya.  Or we can view everything we see as comprised of atom-sized offering goddesses, so instead of seeing samsara, we see the pure land.  Or we can simply throughout this month recall the benefits of our tantric practice or read our tantric books before we go to bed.  The point is – do something more than you usually do. 

If we practice in this way during Heruka and Vajrayogini month, there is a good chance we will be able to carry some of our new habits or understandings into the rest of the year.  Then our practice is better all year.  If we practice in this way, year after year, our familiarity with Heruka and Vajrayogini practice will grow and grow until eventually, we feel as if we are always in their presence and we never forget them.  In the end, we will attain union with them and become a Heruka or Vajrayogini ourselves. 

All of this depends upon a wish, and the wish depends upon understanding the benefits of this practice.  If we contemplate deeply how our tantric practice is the quick path to enlightenment and we consider how long living beings will have to suffer waiting for us to attain enlightenment, we will be very motivated to practice.  From this, everything else naturally comes.

Enjoy!

New Year’s for a Kadampa

New Year’s Day is of course preceded by New Year’s Eve.  The evening before is usually when friends get together to celebrate the coming of the new year.  Sometimes Kadampas become a social cynic, looking down on parties like this, finding them meaningless and inherently samsaric.  They mistakenly think it is somehow a fault to enjoy life and enjoy cultural traditions.  This is wrong.

If we are invited to a New Year’s party, we should go without thinking it is inherently meaningless.  Geshe-la wants us to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.  New Year’s Eve parties are part of modern life, so our job is to bring the Dharma into them.  Venerable Tharchin said that our ability to help others depends upon two things:  the depth of our Dharma realizations and the strength of our karmic connections with living beings.  Doing things with friends as friends helps build those karmic bonds.  Even if we are unable to discuss any Dharma, at the very least, we can view such evenings as the time to cultivate our close karmic bonds with people.  Later, in dependence upon these bonds, we will be able to help them.

One question that often comes up at most New Year’s Eve parties is what to do about the fact that most everyone else is drinking or consuming other intoxicants.  Most of us have Pratimoksha vows, so this can create a problem or some awkward moments for ourself or for the person who is throwing the party.  Best, of course, is if you have an open and accepting relationship with your friends where you can say, “you can do whatever you want, but I am not going to.”  It’s important that we don’t adopt a judgmental attitude towards others who might drink, etc.  We each make our own choices and it is not up to us to judge anyone else.  We might even make ourselves the annual “designated driver.”  Somebody has to be, so it might as well be the Buddhist!

If we are at a party where we can’t be open about being a Buddhist, which can happen depending upon our karmic circumstance, what I usually do is drink orange juice or coke for most of the night, but then at midnight when they pass around the glasses of Champagne I just take one, and without a fuss when it comes time, I just put it to my lips like I am drinking but I am not actually doing so.  If we don’t make an issue out of it, nobody will notice.  Why is this important?  Because when we say we don’t drink, they will ask why.  Then we say because we are a Buddhist.  Implicitly, others can take our answer to mean we are saying we think it is immoral to drink, so others might feel judged. When they do, they then reject Buddhism, and create the karma of doing so. We may feel “right,” but we have in fact harmed those around us. What is the most moral thing to do depends largely upon our circumstance. It goes without saying that others are far more likely to feel judged by us if in fact we are judging everyone around us! We all need to get off our high horse and just love others with an accepting attitude.

Fortunately, most Kadampa centers now host a New Year’s Eve party.  This is ideal.  If our center doesn’t, then ask to host one yourself at the center.  This gives our Sangha friends an alternative to the usual New Year’s parties.  We can get together at the center, have a meal together, do a puja together and just hang out together as friends.  We are people too, not just Dharma practitioners, so it is important to be “exactly as normal.”  If our New Year’s party is a lot of fun, then people will want to come again and again; and perhaps even invite their friends along.  It is not uncommon to do either a Tara practice or an Amitayus practice.   Sometimes centers organize a retreat weekend course over New Year’s weekend.  For several years in Geneva, we would do Tara practice in six sessions at the house of a Sangha member.  The point is, try make it time together with your Sangha family.  Christmas is often with our regular family, New Year’s can be with our spiritual family.

But it is equally worth pointing out there is absolutely nothing wrong with spending a quiet evening at home alone, or with a few friends or members of your family. Just because everybody else is making a big deal out of it and going to parties doesn’t mean we should feel any pressure to do the same. I personally have never enjoyed them party scene, even when others are not getting drunk, etc. I much prefer a quiet evening or a solitary retreat. There is nothing wrong with this, and if that is how we prefer to bring in the New Year, we should do so without guilt or hesitation.

What I used to do (and really should start doing again), is around New Years I would take the time to go through all the 250+ vows and commitments of Kadampa Buddhism and reflect upon how I was doing.  I would try look back on the past year and identify the different ways I broke each vow, and I would try make plans for doing better next year.  If you are really enthusiastic about this, you can make a chart in Excel where you rank on a scale of 1 to 10 how well you did on each vow, and then keep track of this over the years.  Geshe-la advises that we work gradually with our vows over a long period of time, slowly improving the quality with which we keep them.  Keeping track with a self-graded score is a very effective way of doing this.  New Years is a perfect time for reflecting on this.

Ultimately, New Year’s Day itself is no different than any other.  It is very easy to see how its meaning is merely imputed by mind.  But that doesn’t mean it is not meaningful, ultimately everything is imputed by mind.  The good thing about New Year’s Day is everyone agrees it marks the possibility for a new beginning.  It is customary for people to make New Year’s Resolutions, things they plan on doing differently in the coming year.  Unfortunately, it is also quite common for people’s New Year’s Resolutions to not last very long.

But at Kadampas, we can be different.  The teachings on impermanence remind us that “nothing remains for even a moment” and that the entire world is completely recreated anew every moment.  New Year’s Day is a good day for recalling impermanence.  Everything that happened in the previous year, we can just let it go and realize we are moving into a new year and a new beginning.  We should make our New Year’s resolutions spiritual ones.  It is best, though, to make small changes that you make a real effort to keep than large ones that you know won’t last long.  Pick one or two things you are going to do differently this year.  Make it concrete and make sure it is doable.  A former student of mine would pick one thing that she said she was going to make her priority for the coming year, and then throughout the year she would focus on that practice. I think this is perfect. Another Sangha friend of mine would every year ask for special advice about what they should work on in the coming year. This is also perfect.

When you make a determination, make sure you know why you are doing it and the wisdom reasons in favor of the change are solid in your mind.  On that basis, you will be able to keep them.  Making promises that you later break creates terrible karma for ourselves which makes it harder and harder to make promises in the future. We create the habit of never following through, and that makes the practice of moral discipline harder and harder.

Just because we are a Kadampa does not mean we can’t have fun like everyone else on New Year’s Eve.  It is an opportunity to build close karmic bonds with others, especially our spiritual family.  We can reflect upon our behavior over the previous year and make determinations about how we will do better in the year to come.

I pray that all of your pure wishes in the coming year be fulfilled, and that all of the suffering you experience become a powerful cause of your enlightenment.  I pray that all beings may find a qualified spiritual path and thereby find meaning in their life.  I also pray that nobody die tonight from drunk driving, but everyone makes it home safe.  Since that is unlikely to come true, I pray that Avalokiteshvara swiftly take all those who die to the pure land where they may enjoy everlasting joy.

Christmas for a Kadampa

For those of us who live in the West, or come from Western families, Christmas is often considered the most important holiday of the year.  Ostensibly, Christmas is about the birth of Christ, and for some it is.  For most, however, it is about exchanging gifts, spending time with family and watching football.  Or it’s just about out of control consumerism, depending on your view.  Kadampas can sometimes feel a bit confused during Christmas time.  It used to be our favorite holiday as kids, but now we are Buddhists, so how are we supposed to relate to it?

It’s true, Christmas time has degenerated into a frenzy of buying things we don’t need.  It is easy to criticize Christmas on such grounds.  Of course, as Kadampas, we can be aware of this and realize its meaninglessness.  We can correctly identify the attachment and realize it’s wrong.  But certainly being a Kadampa means more than being a cynic and a scrooge.  Instead, we should rejoice in all the acts of giving.  Giving is a virtue, even if what people are giving is not very meaningful.  There is more giving that occurs in the Christmas season than any other time of the year.  Yes, the motivations for giving might be mixed with worldly concerns, but we can still rejoice in the giving part.  Rejoice in all of it, don’t be a cynic.

Likewise, I think we should celebrate with all our heart the birth of Christ into this world.  Why not?  Our heart commitment is to follow one tradition purely while appreciating and respecting all other traditions.  Instead of getting on our arrogant high horse mocking those who believe in an inherently existent God, why don’t we celebrate the birth of arguably the greatest practitioner of taking and giving to have ever walked the face of the earth?  The entire basis of Christianity is Christ took on all of the sins of all living beings, and by generating faith in him, believing he did so to save us, we open our mind to receive his special blessings which function to take our sins upon him.  He is, in this respect, quite similar to a Buddha of purification.  By generating faith in him, his followers can purify all of their negative karma.

Further, he is a doorway to heaven (his pure land).  If his followers remember him with faith at the time of their death, they will receive his powerful blessings and be transported to the pure land.  In this sense, he is very similar to Avalokiteshvara.  Christ taught extensively on being humble, working for the sake of the poor, and reaching out to those in the greatest of need.  Think of all the people he has inspired with his example.  Sure, there are some people who distort his teachings for political purposes, but that doesn’t make his original intent and meaning wrong.  In many ways, one can say he gave tantric teachings on maintaining pure view, and bringing the Kingdom of Heaven into this world.  Who can read the Sermon on the Mount and not be moved?  Who can read the prayers of his later followers, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, and not be inspired?  Think of Pope Francis.  You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate his positive effect on this world and the church.  All of these things we can rejoice in and be inspired by.  A Bodhisattva seeks to practice all virtue, and there is much in Jesus’ example worth emulating.  Trying to be more “Christ-like” in our behavior is not mixing.  If we can see somebody in our daily lives engaging in virtue and be inspired to be more like them, then why can we not also do so for one of the greatest Saints in the history of the world?  Rejoicing in and copying virtue is an essential component of the Kadampa path.

Geshe-la has said on many occasions that Buddhas appear in this world in Buddhist and non-Buddhist form.  Is it that hard to imagine that Christ too was a Buddha who appeared in a particular form in a particular place in human history for the sake of billions?  Surely all the holy beings get along just fine with one another, since they are ultimately of one nature.  It is only humans who create divisions and problems.  Geshe-la said we do believe in “God,” it is just different people have a different understanding of what that means.  Christians have their understanding, we have ours, but we can all respect and appreciate one another.

Besides celebrating Christ, Christmas is an excellent time for ourself to practice virtue.  Not just giving, but also patience with our loved ones, cherishing others, training in love and so forth.  It is not always easy to spend time with our families.  The members of our family have their fair share of delusions, and it is easy to develop judgmental attitudes towards them for it.  It is not uncommon for some of the worst family fights to happen during the holiday season.  Christmas time gives us an opportunity to counter all of these delusions and bad attitudes, and learn to accept and love everyone just as they are.

When I was a boy, Christmas was both my favorite time of year and my worst time of year.  My favorite time of year because I loved the lights, the songs and of course the presents.  It was the worst time of the year because my mother had an unrealistic expectation that just because it was Christmas, everything was supposed to work out perfectly and nothing was supposed to go wrong.  This created tremendous pressure on everyone in the house, and when the slightest thing would go wrong, she would become very upset and ruin the day for everyone.  This is not uncommon at all.  People’s expectations shoot through the roof during the Christmas season, and especially on Christmas day.  These higher expectations then cause us to be more judgmental, to more easily feel slighted, and to be quicker to anger.  We can view this time as an excellent opportunity to understand the nature of samsara is for things to go wrong, and the best answer to that fact is patient acceptance and a good laugh.

As I have grown older, Christmas has given rise to new delusions for me to overcome.  When I was little, I used to get lots of presents.  Now, I get a tie.  Not the same, and it always leaves me feeling a bit let down.  I give presents to everyone, yet nobody seems to give me any.  As a parent, I cannot help but have hopes and expectations that my kids will like their presents, but then when they don’t I realize my attachment to gratitude and recognition.  During Christmas, even though I am supposed to be giving, I find myself worrying about money and feeling miserly.  I find myself quick to judge my in-laws or other members of my family if they don’t act in the way I want them to.  Since I live abroad, far away from any family, I start to feel jealous of the pictures I see on Facebook of my other family members all together and seeming to have a good time while we are alone and forgotten on the other side of the planet.  When kids open presents, they are often like rabid dogs, going from one thing to the next without appreciating anything and I can’t help but feel I have failed as a parent.  Trying to get good pictures is always a nightmare, and getting the kids to express gratitude to the aunts and grandmas is always a struggle.  The more time we spend with our family, the more we become frustrated with them and secretly we can’t wait until school starts again and we can go back to work.  None of these are uncommon reactions, and these sorts of situations give rise to a pantheon of delusions.  But all of them give us a chance to practice training our mind and cultivating new, more virtuous, habits of mind.

Christmas is also a time in which we can reach out to those who are alone.  Suicide and depression rates are the highest during the holiday season.  People see everyone else happy, but they find themselves alone and unloved.  Why can we not invite these people to our home and let them know we care?  Make them feel part of our family.  There are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer to help out the poor and the needy, such as giving our time at or clothes to homeless shelters.  People in hospitals, especially the old and dying, suffer from great loneliness and sadness during the Christmas season.  We can go spend time with them, hear their stories, and give them our love.

Culturally, many of us are Christian.  People in the West, by and large, live in a Christian culture.  Geshe-la has gone to great lengths to present the Dharma in such a way that we do not have to abandon our culture to understand the Dharma.  Externally, culturally, we can remain Christian; while internally, spiritually we are 100% Kadampa.  There is no contradiction between these two.  On the whole, Christmas time gives us ample opportunities to create virtue, rejoice in goodness and battle our delusions.  For a Kadampa, this is perfect.

Happy International Temples Day: 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. 

Gen Losang 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 Gen Losang 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.