A Pure Life: Abandoning Pride

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

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

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

Faults of pride

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

Pretentious pride

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

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

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

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

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

Praising ourself and scoring others

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

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

Pride in our Dharma practice

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

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

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

Do not be boastful  

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pure Life: Don’t eat at inappropriate times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pure Life: Abandoning Intoxicants (In particular alcohol and marijuana)

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

One of our Mahayana precepts is to abandon intoxicants.  This includes drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or taking drugs.  This is often one of the toughest ones for us to follow.  The object of this vow is obviously any intoxicant, whether it is legal or not.  Some people ask the question whether caffeine counts, after all it is highly addictive and many people relate to it no differently than other drugs.  And if coffee is an intoxicant, then aren’t all of the centers and festivals and World Peace Cafes constantly encouraging others to break their Pratimoksha vows?

Some people don’t like the answer I am about to give, but I will give it anyways.  Yes, I think caffeine can be considered an intoxicant.  I think nothing is really an intoxicant from its own side and everything can be an intoxicant for us depending on how we relate to it.  Sugar is not an intoxicant from its own side, but if we adopt an addictive attitude towards it, then for us I would way it is and likewise should be brought under control.  Likewise, many people get addicted to porn.  This is a very common addiction in the modern world, especially with the ease of access on-line.  This too can be a form of intoxicant for us depending on how we relate to it.

Some objects, like cigarettes, alcohol and drugs are in a somewhat different category because their express purpose is to alter our mind.  This is the main point.  If we understand that our problem is our mind and alcohol and drugs help us change our mind, then can’t we argue that with them we are at least solving the right problem?  From one perspective, I guess we can say that.  But it is still a completely wrong thought.  Yes, we need to change our mind, but we need to change our mind with our mind.  We can think of our mind as like a muscle.  The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets.  The more we become dependent upon other things to change our mind, the weaker that muscle becomes.  Ultimately, we need a very strong mind.  Further, alcohol and drugs function to render our mind uncontrolled.  Our goal is to make our mind controlled.  So these things may change our mind, but they do so in a way that makes our mind more uncontrolled, and thus they take us in the opposite direction of where we want to go.

Let’s talk about alcohol

Alcohol in particular generally just makes us stupid.  The reason why alcohol is so dangerous is it primarily functions to undermine our inhibitions.  Our inhibitions are often what hold us back from engaging in negativity.  If we harbor in our heart a good deal of negative impulses, then when we consume alcohol, it erodes those inhibitions and our negativity is given free rein.  We all know stories.  Now, some people say that there is nothing wrong with being an occasional social drinker, especially if is done in moderation.  It is true that it is less bad, but that does not necessarily make it good.  It is true that it is good to be social, but how will you grow more as a person, by using the crutch of alcohol or doing the deep inner work of overcoming those delusions which prevent you from being a socially engaged person?  I am now a diplomat and I attend quite a number of social gatherings where virtually everyone is drinking.  I walk around with a glass of water or even orange juice in my hand.  At first, I hated these gatherings because I have never liked parties.  But I forced myself to learn how to become socially engaged, to let go, relax and have a good time.  I learned how to be able to have a good conversation easily with anybody.  The secret to this is not complicated:  take a genuine interest in what others have to say.  Everyone has a lifetime worth of experiences waiting to be tapped, and all you need to do is be interested in finding out what they have to say.  Usually people only want to talk about themselves anyways, so it is not difficult to get the conversations started, and what you will find is because you have all of your mental faculties about you, you are better able to cherish the other person and occasionally pepper the conversation with some wisdom. 

Other people object saying having a glass of red wine every day has been medically proven to be good for your health.  I am not a doctor, so I cannot say whether this is true or not, but let’s just assume it is.  My question is simple:  isn’t moral discipline also good for your health?  Let us take a wild exaggeration of the benefits of drinking a glass of wine every day and say it adds 10 years onto your human life.  Surely that is extraordinary, is it not?  Surely that is enough justification to do it.  But every time we engage in the practice of moral discipline we create the substantial karmic cause for a rebirth in the upper realms, for example as a human.  If we assume an average lifespan of 80 years, what extends our experience of human life more, the 10 years or the 80?  And, just to take this a little further, if you practice this moral discipline every day from age 21 to 80, then that is 21,535 instances of moral discipline, each one of which creates the cause for at least another human rebirth of say 80 years, then keeping this vow will extend our experience of human life by 1,722,800 years!  Do the math.  Logic doesn’t lie. 

Let’s talk about marijuana

Some people agree that drinking alcohol just makes us stupid and taking hard drugs is just too dangerous, but they then ask what about marijuana?  People who have smoked almost all agree that it makes them more mellow and often gives them insights which are very similar and profound like what we realize with the Dharma.  There are also a great number of medical studies about the health benefits of this drug.  Let us face it, a very high percentage of Dharma practitioners have smoked pot in the past. 

Here the case is much harder, but still it is not worth it.  Why?  First, just as alcohol functions to undermine our inhibitions, marijuana functions to undermine our desire to do anything other than more marijuana.  This is true, and anybody who has smoked knows what I am talking about.  Conventionally, people usually all agree that people who regularly smoke have less ambition and drive than they used to.  Whenever free time arises, their first impulse is to light up.  As we know from the lamrim teachings, desire is everything.  All of the lamrim meditations are ultimately about building up within us an unquenchable desire for liberation and enlightenment.  Marijuana deflates our desires, and the more we smoke the less we desire anything else. 

Second, if we are even slightly prone to psychiatric disorders, marijuana is downright dangerous.  When I was in Geneva, there were three different practitioners who were mentally completely normal prior to smoking marijuana, but they had latent potentials for psychiatric disorders, and after smoking regularly for a period of time, they all three developed very serious psychiatric issues, so much so that all three of them have spent a fair amount of time in mental hospitals.  We do not know what latent potentialities we have lurking under the surface, and smoking could activate them.  Perhaps we have smoked a few times without a problem and therefore think we are immune to this problem.  But we never know if we are just one joint away from tripping over some invisible karmic wire we did not know was there.

Third, marijuana is a gateway drug.  It is like crossing the Rubicon, and once we have done so the other drugs which before we said we would never even consider trying suddenly no longer seem that different.  Marijuana seems to be OK, perhaps Ecstasy, opium, or a little blow might be OK too.  Geshe-la explains in the teachings on delusions that the easiest way to stop delusions is to do so early before they have gathered up steam.  Once we allowed them to run a little bit in our mind, they can seemingly take on a force of their own and become unstoppable in our mind.  It is the same with drugs.  Just as they say it is easier to attain enlightenment once we have become a human than it is to become a human if we have fallen into the lower realms, so too it is easier to avoid marijuana now than it is to avoid using other drugs once we have started using marijuana. 

Finally, sometimes people object saying that when they smoke marijuana it gives them deep insights into the Dharma, so how can that be bad.  Perhaps it is true that when we smoke up, suddenly emptiness makes sense.  We see all the connections between the different Dharma teachings.  Such experiences can quickly and easily be used to justify doing it some more “for valid Dharma reasons.”  So again, just like with the health benefits of drinking a glass of wine every day, let us assume for the sake of argument that there are deeper insights to be had by smoking marijuana.  Once again, my question is simple:  isn’t have a precious human life also good for gaining spiritual insights?  Every time we practice moral discipline for spiritual reasons, we create the karmic causes for an entire precious human life.  So what gives us greater opportunities to gain spiritual insights, 80 years worth of a precious human life or a few hours each week for 80 years?  And this is setting aside the fact that there are diminishing returns.  Perhaps the first time we get high we feel the subtle vibrations of the cosmos, but do we get that same feeling the 20th time we get high?  Eventually, it starts to do very little for us.  So again, let us assume you smoke once a week for your whole life.  By taking this vow, you will train in this moral discipline 3,120 times (assuming you are 20 and live until you are 80).  3,120 actions of moral discipline translates into 3,120 precious human lives or another 249,600 years’ worth of precious human existence.  What will give you the opportunity to gain greater spiritual insight, 250,000 years’ worth of precious human life or a few random insights from being high?  Again, math does not lie.

The final thing I want to address is the situation of what happens if despite all of the above, we are ready to take the Pratimoksha vows for everything except this one related to intoxicants.  We just can’t bring ourselves to do it.  Should we hold off on taking the vows?  I have heard some people within the tradition say yes.  This is wrong, and a dangerous wrong at that.  It runs exactly counter to everything Geshe-la teaches about the working gradually and skillfully with all of the vows.  It makes absolutely no sense to refrain from all moral discipline just because you cannot do one act of moral discipline perfectly.  How is that any better?  Now it is true that we cannot take all of the Pratimoksha vows except the one regarding intoxicants, we need to work with all of the vows, but we can work with each one at different levels according to our capacity.  Just as Buddha skillfully encouraged the butcher to no longer kill animals at night, so too we can skillfully promise to refrain from taking intoxicants in some circumstances, such as never do so while alone.  Or not on Tuesdays, whatever.  Start somewhere, and then gradually expand the scope.  What matters is that mentally you understand the value of moral discipline and you maintain the intention to one day keep even this vow purely.  It is better to get incomplete benefits from imperfect Pratimoksha vows than it is to get no benefit from no Pratimoksha vows.  So don’t let this wrong understanding prevent you from getting started on the path of improving your moral discipline.

A Pure Life: Abandoning Lying

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

The objects of lying are mostly included within the eight:  what is seen, what is heard, what is experienced, what is known; and what is not seen, what is not heard, what is not experienced, and what is not known. The intention requires that we must know we are lying, unintentionally providing mistaken information is not lying.  We must be determined to lie, and we must be motivated by delusion.  Lies can sometimes take the form of non-verbal actions such as making physical gestures, by writing, or even by remaining silent.  The action of lying is complete when the person to whom the lie is directed has understood our meaning and believes what we have said or indicated.  If the other person does not understand, then our action is not complete.

Of all the precepts, I think we transgress this one most frequently.  Most of us lie all of the time, directly or indirectly, in big and in subtle ways.  A very fun way of seeing this is to rent the movie Liar Liar with Jim Carey.  In the movie, I cannot remember why, but he has to always tell the exact truth.  This helps show us the many different ways we lie throughout our day because we see how we would likely lie in those situations.  In a similar way, it is a very useful exercise to at least once a month take an entire day to focus on just this one aspect of our practice of moral discipline.  Make a concerted effort to pay attention that you never mislead people, even slightly, and like Jim Carey you have to always tell the truth no matter what the consequences.

Will this get us into trouble with others when they hear what we really think?  Yes, it will.  So we might say, “then wouldn’t it be better to not say anything to them so as to not upset them?”  In the short run, that might be true, but that is not a good enough answer.  The correct answer is we need to change what we think about others so that we can tell everyone what we really think, and instead of that making them upset it makes them feel loved and cared for.  We can always tell the truth if we only have loving kindness in our heart. 

I think it is also useful to make a distinction between lying and speaking non-truths.  The difference usually turns around whether there is delusion present in our mind or not.  Not telling your kids what you got them for Christmas, or even telling them something that is not true, is not lying.  Failing to mention that you are going to the Dharma center or to a festival to your relative who thinks you have joined some cult and you know saying something would just upset them is not lying, it is being skillful.  Ultimately, there is no objective truth, so the question arises what then is a valid basis for establishing the truth.  Geshe-la, Venerable Tharchin, and Gen-la Losang all say (in one manner or another) that “what is true or not true is not the point, what matters is what is most beneficial to believe.”  For example, we might say strongly believing we are the deity or that we have taken on all of the suffering or living beings or that we have purified all of our negative karma are lies because they are not true.  This is not the point.  The point is what is most beneficial to believe.  Believing these correct imaginations is how we complete the mental action of generation stage, purification practice, or training in taking and giving.  Venerable Tharchin explains that from a Dharma point of view, what establishes what is true is “what is most beneficial to believe.”  So if it is beneficial to believe something, it is truth.  It may not be objectively true, but it is a belief that moves in the direction of ultimate truth.  In other words, believing any idea that takes us in the direction of ultimate truth can be established as “truth,” and so saying or thinking it is not lying.  Helping others believe these things is not lying, it is wise compassion. 

But if we are misleading others for selfish reasons, or out of anger, fear or attachment, then there is no doubt we are lying.  We need to know the difference.

It is helpful to consider the example of Donald Trump. Love him or hate him, no one can deny that Donald Trump was a serial liar. Virtually everything he said was a lie in one form or another. All of his lies were ultimately motivated by what best served his interests. Many people shared his interests, and therefore excused his lying as what was necessary to accomplish their desired policy goals. But many people wound up believing his lies. Because of the nature of his position, his lies would reach virtually everyone on earth. It is said that the karmic effect of our actions is multiplied by the number of living beings affected by them. He essentially lied to 7 billion people many times every day. Certainly all of these people did not believe all of his lies, but millions did. They would then repeat these lies as if they were truth and on and on the deceptions would spread causing people to lose touch with conventional reality.

What are the karmic effects of such behavior? First, it is clear that he will virtually never hear the truth again for a very, very long time in his future lives. Because he has deceived so many people, he will himself be deceived that many times in return. Insanity is losing touch with conventional reality. He will no doubt spend countless eons in a state of complete insanity. All the insanity he created in society he will experience in return. Second, he will continue to have the tendencies on his mind to lie again and again in the future causing such suffering to continue. And his lies had real effects on the lives of others. Those adverse effects will be the environmental conditions of his future lives. Further, every negative action also comes with a ripened effect of some form of rebirth in the lower realms. Animals exist in a state of great confusion, so it stands to reason that the ripened effect of lying is most frequently rebirth as an animal. I know a lot of people have profound hatred for Donald Trump for all of the harm they perceive him to have caused in the world. But it is perfectly possible to acknowledge such harm but to nonetheless feel great compassion for him when we consider all of the suffering that will come as a result of his actions. Was any of it worth it? The price he will pay will be terrible. He is a worthy object of compassion and so too are all of those who he has deceived and those who have perpetuated his lies.

Nowadays, many people have been sucked into the vortex of conspiracy theories which weave all sorts of elaborate stories trying to make sense of the unknown. What is always shocking to me is how the people who believe in conspiracy theories actually think they’re the ones who are being open minded and it is everybody else who has been deceived by these elaborate lies elites have told them. And when you challenge them on their views, they simply grasp even more tightly onto them. It is almost impossible for someone subsumed by such misinformation to escape. Why do some people fall prey to such misinformation and others see it so clearly as nonsense? Karma. The karmic effect of having successfully deceived others. Because they successfully deceived others in the past, they are now easily deceived in the present. Many of the conspiracy theories people believe in are often harmless, but some of them are not. Some of them have real-world effects that function to cost lives or destroy cherished democratic institutions.

I have been surprised actually at the number of Kadampa practitioners who have been sucked into such ways of thinking. Perhaps even they misinterpret the teachings on emptiness to think there is no conventional truth these are just different ways of looking at the same observable data. Emptiness does not deny conventional truth. There are things that are conventionally true and conventionally false, even though both are ultimately empty. We can consider the difference between unicorns and horses. A unicorn is something that can be believed in but is conventionally nonexistent. A horse is also something that can be believed in but is a conventionally existent. Both unicorns and horses are equally empty. In the same way, believing lies is like believing in unicorns. It is believing in a conventionally false or nonexistent thing.

So how then should other Kadampas respond when they speak with a Kadampa who has been sucked into misinformation? I don’t pretend to have a good answer, but I do have some experience in dealing with this. First, it is almost always counterproductive to call them out on their wrong views because this just causes them to grasp even more tightly onto them.

The definition of delusion is a mind projects something false and exaggerated that we believe to be true. This is a pretty good definition of somebody who believes in misinformation and conspiracy theories.  To know how to deal with this, I think we should try divide their wrong views into two categories: those that are harmful and those that are harmless. For those that are harmless, it is probably better to just say nothing and leave them with it. For those that are harmful, it seems we have an obligation to help them return to conventional reality in the same way we would somebody believing any other delusion. For the harmful wrong views, I believe the best method is to ask questions that forced them to grapple with the contradictions of their wrong views. Kadampas our Prasangikas. A Prasangika is called a consequentialist. It is a form of reasoning where are the Prasangikas point out the absurd consequences of the wrong views held by others, but then they leave others to come to their own conclusions based upon contemplating these consequences. It is an extremely skillful way of dismantling wrong views without directly challenging them in a way that is going to provoke people grasping even more tightly onto their views.

Sometimes this form of questioning will work and sometimes it will not. If it does not, then unless the view is particularly harmful, it really doesn’t matter what they believe or how they perceive the world to exist and function. What matters from a Dharma perspective is that they generate virtuous minds with respect to how the world appears to them. So if the world appears to them in a false way, but they respond to that false perspective of the world in a virtuous way, then it’s OK and not that bad. They will be creating virtuous karma and engaging in virtuous actions despite the fact that their perception of the world is itself distorted. When we think about it, it is not that different than ourselves since we to grasp on to all sorts of distortions created by our delusions and other mistaken appearances and conceptions.

But from a personal point of view, we should use our observation of how others have been sucked into lies to reinforce our determination to purify all of our negative karma associated with having live in the past and to make the firm decision that we will abandon lying.

A Pure Life: Abandoning Sexual Activity

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

The actual Mahayana precept we take on precepts days is to abandon all sexual activity. Ordained people take a vow to not engage in sexual activity with other people, in other words they have a vow of celibacy. I am not ordained and so therefore I am certainly not qualified to definitively interpret the vows of ordained people, but I have been told an ordained person’s vows do not prohibit masturbation, though doing so is considered to weaken the vows but not actually break them. In contrast, when we take the Mahayana precept to not engage in sexual activity, it does include not masturbating.

Many people misunderstand vows of celibacy and abandoning sexual activity as saying that there is something inherently wrong with sexual activity. They argue that sexual activity is entirely normal and healthy, and such vows are misguided and guilt-inducing, and therefore harmful. In truth, there is nothing wrong with sexual activity itself. But there is something wrong with the mind of sexual attachment. Attachment is a delusion that believes happiness comes from external objects. Sexual attachment is a specific form of attachment related to sexual activities. Engaging in sexual activities without attachment is not a problem, but engaging in sexual activities with sexual attachment is a problem.

The reason why we take a vow to abstain from sexual activity on precepts days is to force us to confront the tendencies of sexual attachment within our mind. Because we have taken a vow to not engage in such activity on this day, when the temptation arises to do so within our mind, we will see the power of our sexual attachment. It will actually be painful or difficult to not follow the impulses we are feeling. All sorts of rationalizations will arise as to why it is a good thing to follow our sexual attachment. When this occurs, we can then recall the disadvantages of the mind of attachment in general, and sexual attachment in particular, and we can contemplate the benefits of having a mind that is completely free from such attachment to strengthen the desire within our mind to become free of this extremely powerful delusion. The point of taking this precept is not to say sexual activity itself is bad, but rather to create the karmic habits of not being a puppet on the strings of our sexual attachment and to instead become free from it.

Driven by sexual attachment living beings engage in all sorts of negative actions, including killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, and so forth. We also waste so much of our precious human life and our hard-earned resources in pursuit of satisfying our sexual attachment. Most of our most shameful behavior can be traced back to our sexual attachment. Much of the conflict we have with those we love comes from sexual attachment. This mind creates so much suffering in the world and within our own mind, yet we still continue to follow it believing happiness can be found in doing so.  Imagine how much easier our life would be if we were not a slave to our sexual attachment. These are the sorts of things we need to consider when the temptation to break our precept arises within our mind. Engaging in these contemplations gradually weakens the hold our sexual attachment has over us enabling us to become more free.

While on precepts days we vow to abstain from any sexual activity, every other day we should strive to abandon all forms of sexual misconduct.  The object of our sexual misconduct is if we have a vow of celibacy, it is any other person; if we are not celibate and we have a partner, it is anyone other than our partner; if we are not celibate and do not have a partner, it is anyone else’s partner, our own parent, a child, anyone with a vow of celibacy, pregnant women, animals, or anyone who does not consent.  As far as the intention is concerned, we must know that they are an object of sexual misconduct.  We must be determined to commit sexual misconduct.  And we must be motivated by delusion.  Usually, it is committed out of desirous attachment.  As far as the preparation is concerned, there are many ways to engage in this action but we already know all of those!  This action is complete when sexual bliss is experienced by means of the union of the two sex organs.  This last point on the action being completed sometimes gives rise to the question, “well then is it sexual misconduct if our sex organs do not come into union?”  The answer to this question is very simple:  if you think your partner would object, then it is not OK.  Full stop.

Please note, within Kadampa Buddhism, heterosexuality and homosexuality are treated in exactly the same way, there is no difference.  Please note, it also does not include masturbation.  Finally please note, this also doesn’t say it is wrong to engage in sexual activity for reasons other than procreation, it says nothing about anything wrong with birth control, etc., etc., etc. 

I have posted in the past why people engage in affairs (you can find it by doing a search of the archive).  The short version is we relate to our partner and to sexual activity in the same way we relate to any other object of attachment, like pizza.  The first few pieces are good, but the more we eat the less we enjoy it.  Other foods start to look more appealing, so we switch to eating something else.  This is the completely wrong understanding of sexual actions.  Sexual actions are opportunities to cherish others and give them happiness, not something we consume for ourselves.  We derive our enjoyment from loving others and making them happy.  Sexual activity is an opportunity to draw very close to somebody else and deepen a relationship.  If we do not get our attitude towards sexual activity correct, then even if it is not sexual misconduct, it is still not necessarily a good thing for us. 

It is not at all uncommon for one partner in a couple to have stronger sexual desire than the other, and this can be a source of frustration and a temptation to go elsewhere.  Aside from the fact that there are other means to relieve oneself, we should view these gaps in sexual desire as emanated by Dorje Shugden to give us an opportunity to bring our sexual attachment a bit more under control.  In this sense, it is a similitude of the ordination vows of celibacy.  We are essentially saying we will be celibate with everybody except our partner.  Bringing our sexual attachment under control is not easy, but it is still necessary.  Buddha said the three biggest chains holding us in samsara are sex, drugs and rock n’ roll (well, those weren’t his exact words, but the meaning was the same).  If we do not bring our sexual attachment under control, it will be very difficult to escape from samsara.  So from this perspective, the difference between an ordained person and a lay person in a committed relationship is not that different.  We have much we can learn from each other.

If we have strong sexual attachment, we can pursue a multi-prong strategy.  First, we should read Chapter 8 in Meaningful to Behold again and again to help us reduce our exaggerated notions of the attractiveness of another human body.  I love breasts, I will admit it, but if we check they are just bags of fat.  Second, as best we can, we should avoid things that fuel the fire, such as pornography, etc.  But the reality is sexual imagery is omni-present in our society, so there is no avoiding it.  But there is a difference between encountering it as we go about our life and seeking it out compulsively. 

Third, and this is the most important, we need to get to the point where we want to get out of samsara more than we want its pleasures.  We are desire realm beings, which means we have no choice but to pursue our desires.  If in our heart, our desire is still dominated by sexual attachment, if we try to force ourselves to avoid making contact, etc., then all we will do is just repress the desires.  They will build up, and eventually we will give in and do something we subsequently regret.  This is not Dharma practice.  Dharma practice is a very active process of picking apart and reducing our desirous attachment primarily by (1) reducing our exaggerated attitudes down to something in line with the underlying reality of what is actually there, and (2) considering the disadvantages of following the delusion. 

There are few delusions that create more problems for living beings than sexual attachment.  Just open any newspaper or consider your own life for more than 3 seconds and you will have plenty of material to work with.  At the same time, we need to consider the advantages of not following the delusion.  Every time a delusion arises but we choose to not follow it understanding it to be deceptive, we are engaging in the practice of moral discipline.  Each action of moral discipline creates the cause for a higher rebirth.  So quite literally, if in a given 5-minute period we successfully see through the lies of our sexual attachment and not follow it, say 20 times, then we just created 20 causes for 20 future higher rebirths.  What will bring more happiness, five minutes of some porn video or an entire lifetime in the upper realms?  Are we ready to sacrifice one for the other?  If so, which one will we sacrifice?  If we value the happiness of our future lives as much as we value our present happiness (the definition of a spiritual being) then the choice becomes obvious. 

There is much more that can be said, but I will stop here. 

A Pure Life: Do not Steal

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

The object of stealing is anything that someone else regards as their own.  This includes other living beings.  If we take something that no one claims to possess, the action of stealing is not complete.  Like with killing, the intention must include a correct identification of the object of stealing, a determination to steal, and our mind must be influenced by delusion, usually desirous attachment, but sometimes out of hatred of wishing to harm our enemy.  It can also sometimes be out of ignorance thinking such stealing is justified such as not paying taxes or fines, or stealing from our employer, downloading pirated music or videos, etc.  Stealing also requires preparation.  It may be done secretly or openly, using methods such as bribery, blackmail, or emotional manipulation.  Finally, it must also include completion.  The action is complete when we think to ourself ‘this object is now mine.’

In modern life we have countless opportunities to steal and we often take advantage of most of them.  Common examples include not giving money back when we have been given too much change at the store, accidentally walking out with some good we didn’t purchase and not making an effort to go back and pay for it, stealing work supplies from work for our personal use, stealing our employers time by doing personal things on company time beyond what is conventionally acceptable in your work place (most work environments allow you a limited amount of personal administrative time.  The point is do not go beyond what is intended by your employer).  Another very common form of stealing is lying on our taxes so that we pay less arguing our government is wasteful.  We come up with all sorts of justifications for why this is OK, but it is still stealing. 

Stealing can also include saying certain clever things to cause something to come to us when it would otherwise normally go to somebody else.  One of the most common forms of stealing these days is downloading pirated music or videos, or copying and using software we didn’t pay for.  Again, our rationalizations for such behavior know no limits, but it is still stealing.  The test for whether we are stealing or not is very simple:  if we asked the other person would they say its legitimately ours?  If not, it was stealing.

Stealing is incredibly short-sighted.  Anybody who feels tempted to steal should take a few hours driving through a really poor neighborhood or they should go visit a very poor country or watch a documentary on global poverty.  You can find plenty of material just on YouTube.  When we see these things, we should remind ourselves that this is our future if we steal.  When we steal, we create the causes to have nothing in the future.  Giving is the cause of wealth, taking is the cause of poverty.  It is as simple as that.  Why are Bill Gates and Warren Buffet so rich?  Because they have the mental habits on their mind to give away everything.  Because they did this in the past, they became incredibly rich in this life.  Because they are again giving away all of their wealth, in future lives they will again be incredibly rich.  Just as they are external philanthropists, a Bodhisattva is an inner philanthropist.  We seek vast inner wealth so that we can have even more to give away.

There are also many subtle forms of stealing that occur due to the way we have structured our economy. As many of you know I am in economist by training. I very much believe in free markets as the least bad way of organizing an economy. However, the optimal effects of the market only occur when there is what is called perfect competition. When there is perfect competition, excess profits are competed away and both consumers and producers are as good off as they could possibly be on the aggregate. But when markets are not perfectly competitive, markets do not produce optimal results. For example, if a company has a monopoly on the sale of a certain good that everybody needs, it can charge extraordinarily high prices and people will be forced to pay. The company intentionally restricts production to drive the prices higher than would otherwise exist in a perfectly competitive market. As a result, they extract a surplus in profit not due to the quality of their product, but rather by virtue of their market power. Extracting this surplus profit is a form of stealing from the consumers and also from society as a whole because not as much of the good is produced as would otherwise be the case.  It is beyond the scope of this blog to outline them, but there are many examples of market power being used for selfish purposes. 

At a personal level, the point is we need to be aware of the situations in which we have some form of market power over others and to not take advantage of our more powerful position to extract greater profits then we are justifiably due. If we fail to do this, it is a form of stealing. Likewise, if we live in a society in which corporations have disproportionate power and enjoy political protection for their monopolistic behavior, if we vote for or lend political support for such policy knowing that it is a form of stealing, then we are also engaged in a subtle form of stealing. The point is this, we live in a society and we have a say in how that society is run. If we use our political power for selfish purposes or to support those who do so, then are these not karmic actions that have karmic effects? This is not mixing Dharma with politics; this is understanding that the actions we engage in have effects on those around us and we must take that into account when choosing our actions.  I would not say that all of this is a violation of our Mahayana precept to abandon stealing, but it is once again a directional question. Are our actions moving in the direction of stealing or are they moving in the direction of not stealing. That is the question.

A Pure Life: Please Don’t Kill

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pure Life: How to take the Eight Mahayana Precepts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pure Life: Putting the “Mahayana” in Precepts Days

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

This practice is called training and the eight mahayana precepts. The eight precepts themselves are specific moral disciplines that we train in. What makes them mahayana precepts is we train in this moral discipline with a bodhicitta motivation. Any virtuous activity can become a buddy safas perfection by engaging in that virtue with a bodhichitta motivation.

What is bodhichitta? Bodhichitta is a mind that spontaneously wishes to attain enlightenment for the sake of protecting all living beings from their suffering. It observes that all living beings are suffering, drowning in the ocean of samsara, and wishes to do something to help them. But it recognizes that at present we currently lack the ability to help living beings. We ourselves remain trapped within samsara, controlled by our delusions, and limited in our capacity to do much good to help people over a sustained period of time. We also frequently have no idea how to actually help people, and all we can do is perhaps offer them a shoulder that they could cry on. Observing this, we conclude it is not enough to simply wish others did not suffer, but we must ourselves do something to free them from their suffering.

If a mother saw her child drowning in a river, she would not merely wish the child not drowned but would actively dive in to try save her. But the problem is at present we do not know how to swim. So even though we would want to help others, we lack the ability to actually do so. We then ask ourselves, who does have the ability to help all living beings and lead them out of the ocean of samsara onto the island of enlightenment? Only a Buddha does. A Buddha possesses the omniscient wisdom that always knows how to help others, is able to continue to help others life after life without interruption unimpeded by their own death or the death of those they are trying to help. A Buddha is also able to emanate countless forms for each and every living being trapped within samsara. They are not limited by simply one body and one voice, but can emanate as many forms as living beings need to always be there with them 24/7 life after life. Buddhas also possessed the skillful means necessary to guide complicated samsaric beans how to enter, progress along, and eventually complete the path. Let us face it, most people reject the advice that they receive even if it’s exactly what they need to hear. Having skillful means knowing how to encourage people to engage in spiritual practices makes the bodhisattva’s task possible.

Understanding that only a Buddha has the ability to actually fulfill the compassionate wish to protect others from their suffering, we then make the firm determination that we ourselves must become a Buddha in order to help all other living beings. The primary wish of bodhichitta is the wish to help others, and the wish to attain enlightenment is the secondary wish we need to do in order to fulfill our primary wish. Geshe-la gives the analogy of wanting a cup of tea. If we generate the intention that we would like to have a cup of tea, we naturally get a cup, a tea bag, and hot water. This happens almost automatically and is a natural consequence of our primary wish to have a cup of tea. In the same way, when we wish to protect all living beings from their suffering, we then naturally get the body, speech, and mind of a Buddha that enable us to fulfill our primary wish. This happens almost automatically and without our having to give it much thought, we are simply driven by the desire to protect others and we naturally do what is necessary in order to fulfill that wish.

Each of the eight precepts by itself is a practice of world discipline. What makes it a mahayana practice of moral discipline is we engage in them with a bodhicitta motivation. When we explore each of the eight precepts themselves, I will attempt to explain how our observing that precept specifically helps us gain the ability 2 protect others from their suffering. But generally speaking, how does our practice of moral discipline help us attained enlightenment? 

To attain enlightenment, we need to purify our very subtle mind of the two obstructions. The two obstructions are the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience. Delusion obstructions are simply the delusions of our mind, and the obstructions to omniscience are the imprints of our past solutions and past deleted actions. Once we have purified our very subtle mind of the two obstructions, we will naturally attain enlightenment. In other words, enlightenment is already within us, we simply need to uncover it.

How do we purify our mind of the two obstructions? We do so by meditating on the emptiness of our very subtle mind where all of our delusions and their imprints are stored. When we directly realize the emptiness of our very subtle mind, it functions to uproot directly and simultaneously all of the contaminated karma we have accumulated since beginningless time.

How do we then gain a direct realization of emptiness? That depends upon our ability to concentrate our mind. In the Sutra teachings on tranquil abiding, we learn how to concentrate our gross mind. And in the tantric teachings regarding controlling our inner winds, we learn how to concentrate our very subtle mind. It is impossible to concentrate with our very subtle mind if we are incapable of concentrating with our gross mind.

Concentration is primarily a training in overcoming distractions. Distractions cause our mind to move away from our chosen object of meditation towards something else. If we do not mix our mind with the Dharma, it will have no power to transform our mind. Distractions are the thief that robs us of our spiritual life.  Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path of Good Fortune that distractions are of three types: mental excitement, mental wandering, and mental sinking. Mental excitement is when our mind moves to an object of attachment. Mental wandering is when our mind moves to another object of Dharma other than our chosen object of meditation. Mental sinking is when we lose the clarity or grip of our mind on our chosen object, but our mind has not necessarily gone to something else. In the beginning, our primary obstacle is mental excitement.

Why does our mind go to objects of attachment instead of our object of meditation? The reason why is our mind is naturally more interested in objects of attachment because we still believe them to be causes of our happiness and we have not yet realized that our objects of meditation are causes of happiness, rather we find them to be quite distance or perhaps even boring. Our mind will naturally go to wherever it feels it will be happiest. Why does our mind believe objects of attachment are causes of happiness? Simply habit. The habit of believing the lies of our attachment that external objects are indeed causes of our happiness. We are so accustomed to these lies that we do not even call them into question. If we are to overcome our mental excitement, we must stop being fooled by our attachment.

A good example is spam. We have all received the emails from the Nigerian Prince who promises to transfer us a bunch of money for safekeeping if only we give him our bank account numbers. When we first receive this email, we wonder maybe it is true, and we are tempted to send our bank information. But when we know clearly that this is a scam and a lie, we are no longer fooled and do not feel tempted to send our information. In fact, simply receiving such an email reminds us of the need to be careful to not be fooled by the many scams that exist out there. We may not be able to prevent such spam from arriving in our inbox, but we can cut the power or the danger of such messages by seeing them as the lies that they are. In the same way, our minds of attachment are like spam. They promise us all sorts of happiness if only we follow their advice. When we first encounter such lies, we are tempted and often do follow their advice. When we fail to find the happiness that they promised, our attachment then lies to us again and says we did not experience it because we did not do it well enough. So once again we believe the lie and follow it. We start to do this again and again, until eventually we have no choice and we follow such lies blindly believing them to be the truth.

But with Dharma wisdom, we can recognize attachment for the lie that it is. It is the spam of our mind. When the thoughts of attachment arise in her mind, we then see them for the lies that they are. The more they come, the more we strengthen our determination to not be fooled. Like with our spam, we might not be able to prevent such thoughts from arriving in our mind, but with wisdom we can cut the power of such thoughts over us in terms of controlling our behavior.

How do we game such wisdom and such power? Through training in moral discipline. The practice of moral discipline is quite simply seeing the dangers of engaging in negative behavior and then making the determination to not do so. It is a wisdom that is no longer fooled by the lies of our attachments. It sees through these lies and recognizes them as deceptive, trying to trick us into engaging in negative behavior thinking it will bring us happiness when in fact it only brings us more suffering.

So how then do we train in moral discipline? When the temptation to break our moral discipline arises in our mind, we remind ourselves of the wisdom that caused us to take the vow or precept in the first place. We recall how the minds of attachment encouraging us to break our moral discipline are in fact deceptive, promising us happiness but simply guaranteeing more suffering. The practice of moral discipline is not an exercise in willpower. If in our heart we still want to engage in the negativity, we may for a short period of time be able to refrain, but all we will actually be doing is repressing our attachment wanting to do the opposite until eventually our attachment grows in strength and it overwhelms our willpower.

Rather, moral discipline is the practice of changing our desires. By contemplating again and again how are delusions are deceptive and how our wisdom and virtues are non-deceptive, we gradually change our desires to no longer want to chase the objects of our attachment and be fooled by their lies, and rather we want to train in the opposite virtues which we know are reliable methods for bringing us the happiness that we seek.  It is easy to take the Eight Mahayana Precepts, but the actual training is keeping them in the face of our deluded temptations to break them.

When the temptations arise in our mind, we then recall the disadvantages of breaking our moral discipline, the deceptiveness of the attachments lying to us, and the benefits of observing our moral discipline and following pure conduct. Through engaging in these contemplations again and again and again, we gradually change our desires. We no longer want to follow attachments, we instead want to follow our wisdom and virtues. By gaining experience with these contemplations and in keeping our vows, we gradually build up tendencies similar to the cause within our mind that are familiar with this way of thinking. Then, when we are in meditation itself and objects of distraction, or objects of mental excitement, arise in our mind, we are not tempted to go follow them but rather we see them as deceptive. We are then able to more easily renew our determination to not follow our distractions and instead to keep our mind focused on our object of meditation.

It is for this reason that Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path of Good Fortune that the practice of moral discipline overcomes gross distractions and the practice of concentration overcomes our subtle distractions. We first need to overcome our gross distractions through the training in moral discipline and then we can overcome our subtle distractions through our training and concentration. By training in concentration, we can gradually gain control over our gross mind, which then creates the space for us to gradually gain control over our subtle mind through the trainings of learning to control our inner winds. Once we can control our inner winds, we will eventually be able to make manifest our very subtle mind of clear light. Once this mind is manifest, we can then engage in the meditation on the emptiness of our very subtle mind and purify our mind of the two obstructions and thereby attain enlightenment.

In this way, we can see the very clear connection between our training in the practice of the Eight Mahayana Precepts and our eventual attainment of enlightenment. When we see this connection, we can easily generate the bodhicitta motivation to take the Mahayana precepts. In this way, our practice of the eight precepts becomes training in the eight Mahayana precepts.

A Pure Life: How to Skillfully Train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts

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

Most of us know the teachings Geshe-la has given on the correct attitude to have towards our vows and commitments, but sadly we sometimes don’t really believe him when he explains it.  We still tend to think of them in absolutist, black and white terms, when in reality each vow has many, many different levels at which we can keep it.  We think in terms of our ability to “keep” our vows instead of viewing them as trainings we engage in. 

When we go to the gym, there are all sorts of different exercise machines.  Each one works out a different muscle, and each person who uses the machine uses it at a different level (different amounts of weight, different number of repetitions, etc.).  But everyone in the gym uses the same equipment.  It is exactly the same with our vows.  Each vow is something we train in, not something we are already expected to be able to do perfectly at the maximum.  Each vow focus on strengthening different mental muscles, but doing all of them strengthens the whole of our mind.  We each train in the vow at different levels according to our capacity, but we know the more we train, the more our capacity will grow.  Everyone in the spiritual gym trains with the same vows regardless of our level.  In almost every way, the correct attitude towards a physical exercise regimen is exactly the same attitude we should cultivate towards our spiritual exercise regimen of the Eight Mahayana Precepts, and indeed all of our vows.  I often find it helpful to read the sports training literature, especially that of long-distance tri-athletes.  Our journey is very long and will require almost unthinkable stamina, but we must recall every Iron Man Champion was once a baby who couldn’t even lift their head. 

Geshe-la explains there are four main causes of the degeneration of our vows and commitments.  These are known as the ‘four doors of receiving downfalls’.  He says to close these doors we should practice as follows:

  1. Closing the door of not knowing what the downfalls are.  We should learn what the downfalls are by committing them to memory.  We should learn how they are incurred.  We should make plans to avoid such situations.  In this series of posts, I will try explain all of these things for each of the Eight Mahayana Precepts.
  1. Closing the door of lack of respect for Buddha’s instructions.  We can protect ourselves from this primarily by training in the refuge vows.  Refuge is not a difficult concept.  When we have a toothache, what do we do?  We turn to the dentist.  When we have a legal problem, what do we do?  We turn to a lawyer.  When we have an internal problem with our mind, what do we do?  We turn to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.  Dentists can fix our teeth and lawyers can solve our legal problems, but only the three jewels can help us with our inner mental problems.  In particular, we need to contemplate the benefits of each of the Eight Mahayana Precepts.  We need to think about how much better our life would be and all the karmic fruit that flows from training in them.  When we see the value of keeping the Precepts, we will naturally have respect for them.  Geshe-la said we should contemplate as follows:

Since Buddha is omniscient, knowing all past, present, and future phenomena simultaneously and directly, and since he has great compassion for all living beings without exception, there is no valid reason for developing disrespect towards his teachings.  It is only due to ignorance that I sometimes disbelieve them.”

  1. Closing the third door of strong delusions. The reason why we engage in non-virtuous actions is we are currently slaves to our delusions.  They take control of our mind and then compel us to engage in harmful actions.  We may voluntarily participate in the process, but that is only because our delusions have so deceived us, we actually believe their lies.  Largely, the Eight Mahayana Precepts oppose our delusion of attachment.  Our attachment does not want to keep the precepts, and frankly views them as standing in the way of our fun.  We cannot keep our vows through will power alone.  Perhaps we can for Precepts Day itself, but if in our heart we still want to engage in these behaviors, what we will really do is simply do slightly more negativity before and after Precepts Day, so for the month as a whole, it is exactly the same amount of negativity.  That’s obviously not the point!  Our goal should be to train in the Precepts and gradually expand the scope of keeping their meaning throughout the month and indeed throughout our whole life.  To do this, we need to want to keep them more than we want the objects of attachment they oppose.  We are desire realm beings, which means we have no choice but to do whatever we desire.  The only way to sustainably train in moral discipline is to change our desires away from delusions and towards virtue.  This is primarily accomplished through a sincre and consistent practice of Lamrim.  Lamrim is a systematic method for changing our desires from worldly ones to spiritual ones. 
  1. Closing the fourth door of non-conscientiousness.  We should repeatedly bring to mind the disadvantages of incurring downfalls, and the advantages of pure moral discipline.  These have been explained in the previous post, and the specific karmic benefits of each Precept will be explained in the explanation of each Precept.

In brief, Geshe-la explains, we prevent our vows from degenerating by practicing the Dharma of renunciation, bodhichitta, correct view, generation stage, and completion stage. 

It is important to be skillful in our approach to all of our vows, including the Eight Mahayana Precepts.  We should not have unrealistic expectations or make promises we cannot keep.  It will happen to all of us in the early stages of our Dharma practice that when we are at some festival and feeling very inspired, we make these outlandish vows that we (at the time) intend to keep our whole life.  Then we get home, try at first, but eventually are forced to abandon the vow.  Venerable Tharchin says when making promises, we should ask ourselves, “what can I do on my absolute worst day?”  We promise only to do that.  On any given day we will most likely do better than our promise, but then we will not actually break it.  It is a bad habit to make spiritual promises which we later break.  We will all make all sorts of what I call “beginner’s errors” with this one.  It does not matter.  When you break the promise, realize your mistake, recalibrate your promise and try again.  Eventually you will get the right balance. 

We should adopt our vows gradually, as each can be kept on many levels.  In this way, we can gradually deepen the level we are able to keep the vows.  If we are a teacher, we should explain the vows well and not encourage our students to promise to keep them all perfectly from the beginning.  Getting the correct attitude towards our vows is well over half the battle.  But keeping the vows gradually does not mean that we can temporarily put to one side the vows that we do not like.  We have to work with all the vows, gradually improving the way we observe them.

Finally, Geshe-la says we should begin to practice all the vows as soon as we have taken them.  Then we practice them to the best of our ability.  Geshe-la says we should never lose the determination to keep our vows perfectly in the future.  He says by keeping the intention to keep them purely in the future we keep our commitments, even if along the way we repeatedly fall short.  I can’t remember who, but some wise person once said, “the day you can keep all of your vows and commitments perfectly is the day you will no longer need them.  It is because we can’t keep our vows and commitments perfectly that we do need them.”  This is useful to always keep in mind.

All of that being said, the Eight Mahayana Precepts are unique in our training in moral discipline because on Precepts Days we do strive to keep them perfectly. On Precepts Days we make a point of emphasizing the practice of moral discipline and we strive our best to observe the the vows as purely as we can. The literal meaning of many of the precepts is quite black and white, we either keep the vow or we do not. In this sense, we can say it is an exception to the otherwise gradual approach we take to our practice of moral discipline. But if we look beyond the literal meaning of the precept, we realize that they all also have many different levels at which they can be kept. Further, we can gradually expand the scope with which we engage in our precepts practice by observing their essential meaning throughout the month, not just on Precepts Days. In any case, we should not worry but always simply try our best. If we break our precepts, we can learn our lesson, retake them, and try again.