The Tantric journey

The meditation we did in that last article — Highest Yoga Tantra: the quick path to enlightenment — was to provide a taste of what we can expect in Highest Yoga Tantra, where we purify our mind at its deepest level.

If everything is the nature of our mind, and we can gain the experience that everything is the nature of our very subtle mind of great bliss, then it follows that everything will be exceedingly blissful day and night in life after life.

To understand how everything can be a manifestation of great bliss, we need to understand the different levels of our mind. Then we need to know how to manifest and use our very subtle mind. This is where Highest Yoga Tantra really comes into its own.

Buddha didn’t talk about levels of mind in Sutra. If we practice Sutra alone, we’ll gain all the realizations of Sutra, including emptiness, with our normal waking awarenesses. In Highest Yoga Tantra, we learn to realize emptiness and everything else with our very subtle mind, the so-called “clear light of bliss”.

The different levels of mind

In the modern materialistic world, it is generally assumed that reality is what we experience when we are wide awake – at that time we are considered to be in tune with reality, whereas when we’re dreaming everything is highly subjective and not real at all.

This is because most people don’t know much if anything about their deeper levels of mind or awareness. Our waking mind is the grossest level of our mind and, as it happens, the most dualistic and mistaken. All those solid real things appearing to it right now don’t exist at all; these are just mistaken appearances. Therefore, our waking mind is, in important ways, our least reliable mind. It is also just as subjective as our dreaming mind. And our dreaming mind is also unreliable, as we know already. It turns out that the only mind we can fully trust is our very subtle mind.

This is all explained succinctly and powerfully in How to Understand the Mind:

The gross mind 

During our waking life we normally use gross minds such as our eye awareness through which we can see things, ear awareness through which we can hear sounds, nose awareness through which we can smell, tongue awareness through which we can taste, body awareness through which we can experience tactile objects, and mental awareness through which we strongly think ‘I’ and ‘mine’. These awarenesses are gross minds because they are relatively easy to recognize. Without these awarenesses we cannot communicate with others and we cannot perform our daily activities.

We must be awake to do most things at the moment! And so must all the other people around us. We can only get our to-do list done and communicate with each other while using our grosser levels of awareness. However, as Geshe Kelsang says, all these awarenesses, even the good ones, are mistaken awarenesses!

What is mistaken about them?

They perceive inherently existent objects, which do not exist, and therefore they cause us to experience suffering.

And there you have it. Nothing is really there but it appears to be. Right now we have little choice but to use our gross waking minds, and yet they are all mistaken in this way, which leads directly and indirectly to our daily suffering. So that sucks.

For example, when our mental awareness thinks ‘I’ or ‘me’ through perceiving either our body or mind, we mistakenly perceive our body or mind to be our self.

Although we perceive it (or appear it), there is no self anywhere to be found in our body or our mind. Right now, for example, as you read this, you can ask yourself, “Who is sitting here reading this?” Ans: “I am.” That me or I seems to be sitting right here reading. But if we go looking for this I, we will not find it anywhere either in our body sitting here or in our mind comprehending what we are reading, or in the combination of the two. This searching and not finding is the meditation on the emptiness or true nature of things.

However, if we don’t go looking for it, our self will continue to appear to exist somewhere within our body and mind, and:

Because of this when our body is sick we think ‘I am sick’, when our body is old we think ‘I am old’, and when our mind “experiences suffering or pain we think ‘I am suffering’ or ‘I am in pain.’

There is no I there, but we believe there is, so our waking mind is in a constant state of hallucination! Is it any wonder we experience one pain after another? As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says:

We experience suffering and problems throughout our life and in life after life without end.

If all our waking minds are mistaken awarenesses, then definitely we are not tuned into reality when we are awake. We all keep trying to make this work, to find real happiness within this hallucination. But we can’t. Grasping at it produces more and more delusion, contaminated karma, and suffering — samsara just gets longer. As Geshe Kelsang says:

This is our normal painful situation. Understanding this we should develop renunciation, the sincere wish to liberate ourself permanently from this hallucination by realizing the true nature of things, the emptiness of all phenomena.

The subtle mind

Dream minds are called subtle minds because they are difficult to recognize and to use.

During sleep while we are dreaming we use subtle minds such as our dream eye awareness, ear awareness, nose awareness, tongue awareness, body awareness and mental awareness, through which we experience the appearance of various kinds of dream things. All these appearances are mistaken appearances.

It’s hard for us to keep any mindfulness together when we’re dreaming, which explains why our dreams are so weird, except while they’re happening when they seem completely normal. That’s the point – we don’t usually know we’re dreaming and so we just believe it’s all happening and go along with it, even when the story line is totally random and things are popping up all over the place. With no mindfulness we cannot keep the plot together for any length of time at all.

We have the same reactions and delusions in our dreams as when we’re awake because the ignorance is the same — asleep or awake, we believe that what we’re seeing has nothing to do with our mind, that it is out there, really happening. However, we only notice our mistake and feel somewhat foolish once we wake up.

Eyes wide open  

Recently, I’ve been helping care for someone dementia. He has periods of lucidity when he knows moreorless what is going on and what things are, and periods of dullness and confusion when he might think the bed is the chair or not recognize his surroundings, “I am in someone else’s house.” Over the months and years that this dementia has been growing, I have several times tried to get to the bottom of how he feels and, as I suspected, when he is not lucid he fees as if he is asleep and dreaming, even though he is wandering around with his eyes open. “I haven’t woken up yet”, he says, whilst trying to navigate the room. At those times we have far less shared reality, so it is harder to converse or get him to follow simple instructions, and he panics more easily.

I have been thinking that we are all a bit like that – sometimes we’re lucid, but sometimes we feel dull, out of it, half-asleep, or perhaps day-dreaming, and just want to be left alone.

I have also been thinking that even when we are lucid, it is still only a relative lucidity. Our delusions are still relating to things that are not actually there! When we get angry, for example, the inherently unpleasant person we’re angry with doesn’t exist at all, no more than the chair as a bed – we too are in our own private fantasy. When we develop non-deluded minds such as compassion, things are still appearing as real, ie, we still have mistaken appearances. However, we are not apprehending or believing these inherently existent things, which is a huge improvement that’s taking us in the right direction.

The only true lucidity is when we know we are hallucinating.

No real meaning

Geshe Kelsang then says something a little bit devastating:

Because the appearances in our dreams and during our waking life are all mistaken appearances and hallucinations, our normal activities both in dreams and while we are awake have no real meaning.

Hang on a minute! No real meaning?!!! That’s a bit strong! Can it be true?

Let’s say we have a dream where we believe it’s all happening and we do lots of activities, really thinking we are going places – travelling, getting things done, meeting people, having a rich full life. Then we wake up.

Where did that go?! And where is the meaning in it?

It is the same with this waking life. We run around all our life going places trying to get things done. Then we die, and all these appearances dissolve away. (They even dissolve away each night when we fall asleep.) Why do they disappear? Because, however real they seemed, they were only ever appearances to begin with.

This is not to say we should just give up and be lazy and not bother being kind, etc. If we do good things in our dreams, for example, we will experience a happier more harmonious life and create good karma. Karma is definite precisely because everything is empty of independent existence and therefore totally dependent-related – being kind to others will result in happiness and being cruel will not. Therefore, if we don’t want to suffer, we have to observe the laws of karma.

So, what we do is not completely meaningless – that is not what’s being said here. Because our normal activities do have relative meaning, practicing the method teachings such as compassion, moral discipline, faith and all the rest will make our life meaningful and joyful. More about that here. However, our normal activities have no real meaning because we keep buying into something that just isn’t there.

If our normal activities in dreams and while we are awake have no real meaning, where does that leave us?!

It leaves us with the need to learn how to use our very subtle mind as explained in Highest Yoga Tantra.

Out of time, hoping to carry on in the next article … comments and questions welcome below!

Just a couple of practical points before you go …

I’ve been writing these recent articles in preparation for the Highest Yoga Tantra Festival coming up in two short weeks. The empowerments of Heruka and Vajrayogini take place from Friday to Sunday at 4 set times, so people will have to carve out the weekend to attend. They are also longer than other Tantric empowerments, with no intervals, so best not to plan lunch in the middle. And, while this may sound obvious, given our (my!) increasingly casual approach to livestream events, I think we’ll get the most out of these precious empowerments if we approach them with a more mindful mindset and planning to be as undisturbed as possible. The subsequent commentaries are available to view more at our leisure as needs be over the next couple of weeks.

Related articles 

Find all the articles on Tantra in one place

Highest Yoga Tantra: the quick path to enlightenment

Today I read an alarming statistic about loneliness in people aged 13-24 and all the reasons for it, which are sad. I was thinking, “If even our young are lonely, what does that say about our old? Those who can barely make it to their own front doors even when there isn’t a raging pandemic?” Despite brief flashes of excitement — such as England almost but not quite winning the European Football Championship last night* — there are so many recurring and new problems in the world, including loneliness. It has always been like this in samsara. According to Buddha, the only way to solve suffering for good is to realize our enormous spiritual potential by transforming our mind and heart.

Everyone’s going to attain enlightenment one day because we have Buddha nature and because the methods for attaining enlightenment exist — so the way I see it is that we may as well do it now rather than wait several more aeons. Waiting for conditions to improve isn’t going to work. Nor is waiting for rest of the world to change. I think that’s pretty clear by now.

As mentioned in the last article, the Tantric opportunity:

In his Sutra teachings Buddha gives us great encouragement to accomplish the ultimate goal of human life. ~ Modern Buddhism

This ultimate goal is the full realization of our spiritual potential, aka enlightenment, which gives us the ability to help each and every living being every day through our blessings and emanations. It’s hard to imagine a higher goal. And as Geshe-la goes on to say:

This goal will be accomplished quickly through the practice of Tantra.

There is a slow way to enlightenment and there is a fast way. According to Sutra, it takes literally aeons to become a Bodhisattva, practice the six perfections, and attain enlightenment. According to Tantra, we can get the job done in one lifetime! Once we’re interested in attaining enlightenment, therefore, who wants to go the slow poke way? Not me.

There are many reasons why Highest Yoga Tantra is so fast, one of the most important being that we learn to manifest and use our very subtle mind. This is exceedingly powerful and can derail our samsara almost instantly. In completion stage Tantra we learn the precise mechanics for transforming our actual very subtle body and mind into the body and mind of a Buddha. There is nothing vague about these instructions. More on this coming up in the next article.

Taking advantage of emptiness

Another reason it is the quick path is because we take advantage of everything being empty of inherent existence to deliberately create a whole new world for ourselves and others.

As explained in Modern Buddhism – Volume 1: Sutra, our world does not exist from its own side; like a dream world, it is a mere appearance to our mind.

This is a key understanding for Tantra – if  we understand about emptiness, we can understand how Tantra is the method to directly purify ourself, our enjoyments, our activities, and our world. Contemplating dreams is a helpful way into emptiness:

In dreams we can see and touch our dream world, but when we wake up we realize that it was simply a projection of our mind and had no existence outside our mind. In the same way, the world we see when we are awake is simply a projection of our mind and has no existence outside our mind.

The moment we wake up, we realize that our dream world never had any existence outside our dream mind. This is similar to realizing emptiness, when we realize this waking world also has no existence outside our waking mind. As Milarepa said:

You should know that all appearances are the nature of mind, and mind is the nature of emptiness.

It is our mind that is creating everything, projecting everything. Therefore if we want to change things – our world, our self, our body, or anything at all — we need to change the creator, our mind. Geshe Kelsang gives an example:

We know that when our mind is impure because we are feeling angry with our friend, we see him as bad; but when our mind is pure because we are feeling affectionate love for the same friend, we see him as good.

This is an obvious example that all of us understand – when we’re in a bad mood with a good friend or family member, they seem deliberately annoying and we may even tell them as much. When our fondness for them returns, they seem sweet and we once again enjoy their company. This is the same person, right? Whom within minutes can turn from bad to good and back again, depending on our thoughts. It doesn’t really have anything to do with them – they just want to be happy, have a good day, perhaps have us be nicer to them – but we see them as our enemy through our anger. All this is explained in Sutra – it is a simple example, but profound, because it shows how we create things with our mind.

Therefore, it is because of changing our own mind from pure to impure or from impure to pure that for us our friend changes from good to bad or from bad to good. This indicates that everything that is good, bad or neutral for us is a projection of our mind and has no existence outside our mind.

Purifying our mind at its deepest level

And what this means is that, if we purify our mind, we purify our entire experience of the world and all that is in it. Since there is no world outside of our experience (try and point to one!), we purify everything.

Tantra, also known as ‘Secret Mantra’ or ‘Vajrayana’, is a special method to purify our world, our self, our enjoyments and our activities; and if we put this method into practice we shall very quickly attain enlightenment.

Our entire Dharma practice can be seen as purifying our mind – making it less impure, deluded, and painful, and at the same time increasing our pure, peaceful, positive states of mind. However, there are many different levels of purifying our mind, and:

The subtle mistaken appearance of our mind cannot be purified through the practice of Sutra alone; we need to engage in the practice of Highest Yoga Tantra.

What is subtle mistaken appearance? It’s the appearance of things existing outside the mind.  The things we normally see seem to exist out there, independent of the mind. It feels as if there is a gap between our mind and its objects, between me over here and everything else over there; so this is also called “dualistic” appearance.

Due to this, when we see something we are scared of, for example, we develop aversion wanting to push it away or get away from it. If we see something attractive, we feel we have to somehow grab it and pull it towards us, run towards it, merge with it. From this aversion and attachment come all the other mental poisons, as explained more here. And these give rise to all our negative karma and suffering.

If we see a big bear running toward us in a dream, we probably develop fear – why? There is only the appearance of a bear – the bear has no existence from its own side and no actual power to eat us. We develop fear not because there’s a bear there, because there isn’t! But because we believe there is. It’s the same when we are awake. In fact I read an article just yesterday about a man who sees, hears, and feels bears whenever he goes anywhere near nature – even though every encounter he has had thus far with a bear has turned out to be an encounter with a large rock, a branch brushing his arm, or the wind growling in the trees. He loves hiking but this fear of bears has put a stop to that.

All our suffering arises from believing mistaken appearances. If we never had any mistaken appearances to believe in the first place, we’d be enlightened. We can purify our delusions and impure appearances to a large extent through our practice of Sutra – for example, through our practice of love people appear to us as lovable as opposed to unpleasant. However, to completely purify our mistaken appearances such that we never have any at all, we need Tantra.

The four complete purities

Through practicing Tantra we shall completely purify our mind and thus experience the complete purity of our world, our self, our enjoyments and our activities – the ‘four complete purities’.

If you check, our life is pretty much comprised of our self, our environment or world, our deeds (or what we do all day long), and our enjoyments. These are all the nature of mind, not objective truths that can be found outside of the mind — we cannot find even one atom of them when we explore them. Everything is mere appearance of the mind, like a dream – there is nothing there to grasp at. This means that when our mind is impure, appearances are impure; but when we purify our mind they become pure.

Point being, we don’t just purify our mind or our self such that we are wandering around all pure and blissful in an impure suffering world — ALL areas of our life are completely purified and transformed through our practice of Tantra. We transform ourself into a Buddha in a Pure Land, with pure enjoyments and performing pure deeds. This is what is known as the “four complete purities”. As Geshe Kelsang says:

When we completely purify our mind through Tantric practice, our world, our self, our enjoyments and our activities also become completely pure – this is the state of enlightenment. Attaining enlightenment is therefore very simple; all we need to do is apply effort to purifying our mind.

Generally we make our life pretty complicated. But this could be because we don’t spend much time trying to purify our mind – instead tying ourselves in knots in the attempt to make everything work out there, outside the mind. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s very hard to get things to work all the time – indeed, there are periods when we can’t get things to work any of the time. And even when things do work, it’s usually only a matter of time before they stop working.

Just this morning I heard someone bemoaning the “planned obsolescence” of modern life, how everything we buy quickly breaks down and needs to be replaced rather than repaired, creating mountains of plastic in our world. It struck me that everything in samsara is doomed for obsolescence, planned or not. In fact, just as I am writing this, a very polite Englishman sitting next to me in Costa has just dropped his glass and it is smashed into pieces all around my toes. He is being terrible apologetic, and I am replying, “No worries at all, these things happen!” Because they do. All the time.

This is where our renunciation and compassion are needed – in understanding that we and everybody else have tried since beginningless time to make samsara work, but samsara is the creation of ignorance and delusion and so it CANNOT work. Nothing lasts, for a start.

Quick thought experiment: imagine you have finally managed to pull it off – you don’t have a single problem left in this life and by some miracle you have gathered everything you’ve ever wanted!

In our human realm, of course, it is highly unlikely this’ll ever happen. In the god realms we have a better chance of this, and things are pretty nice for a while. But let’s say by some miracle we have pulled this off  …

We still drop dead.

Even gods drop dead. That is samsara for us. Now we have dropped dead, we almost immediately have to take another uncontrolled rebirth. So what was all that about? We have to start all over again. Due to our ignorance and mistaken appearances, we are still hallucinating a world that is not there. We have lost everything we strove for and are now suffering from a whole bunch of new problems. Perhaps we even have fur and a tail.

Where has all our hard work in this life gotten us, let alone the hard work in all our previous lives? We have worked so hard and so long to solve our problems and get happy, but where has that left us? Precisely nowhere.

There has to be a different way and, thank goodness, there is. If I use Tantra to purify my mind, I will purify my self, my world, my enjoyments, and my activities. I will experience everything as pure and blissful all the time, forever. This is not some make-believe world – it is more realistic than the hallucinatory world I am trying to live in now, with all its loneliness and other problems. And this new reality will not only be joyful but profoundly meaningful because we will be able to help everyone else in the same way every day.

I thought I could end this article with a meditation to bring together some of what I have been talking about in this and the previous article. You can do it now or come back to it later!

Meditation

We can begin by sitting comfortably with a straight back, happy to be here doing this. We can drop into our heart where our very subtle mind is located, already starting to sense the peace and clarity we have within. To calm the mind and absorb more deeply, we can spend a couple of minutes following the sensation of our breath as it enters and leaves our nose.

We can imagine that everything outside our body has dissolved away into clear light, including the past and the future.

We are experiencing peace in our heart – a peace that arises naturally whenever we just allow our thoughts to settle. A peace that is teaching us that when we drop our distractions and delusions there is always the potential for peace within us, even bliss.

This peace fills our mind, we just imagine. Because my mind is boundless, so too is my potential for peace. This is my Buddha nature.

Everyone has this – I am not unique. Through Buddha’s teachings on Sutra and Tantra we can all realize fully our potential for enlightenment. How amazing this would be. We can meditate on this for a couple of minutes.

This good heart is already connected to the blissful compassion and omniscient wisdom of my Spiritual Guide, Buddha. To attain enlightenment I need blessings and already my mind is tuned into blessings just by this recognition.

We can understand that our Spiritual Guide is appearing in our life, in our mind, and in the space in front of us, surrounded by countless enlightened beings. He is looking at us with unconditional love.

At this point we can, if we like, do the Liberating Prayer.  

Now all the Buddhas of the ten directions melt into light and dissolve into Buddha in the center. With great delight he comes to our crown and, facing the way we face, diminishes to the size of a thumb. We feel this powerful being at our crown.

With great love for us he then effortlessly descends down our central channel to the very center of our heart chakra in the center of our chest; and we go with him. We feel our mind mixes with his bliss and wisdom like a small stream flowing into a vast ocean. His good qualities pervade our mind and we feel deeply peaceful.

Now to increase this bliss we can bring a worldly enjoyment to mind. Something romantic. Beautiful music. Diving into a pool. Watching England score a goal a mere two minutes into game. Whatever it is, we bring this to mind and allow a good feeling to arise in our heart. We feel our mind become more concentrated and more blissful.

Normally we think that the source of our bliss is outside so we grasp at these things with attachment. Now we can ask ourself: “Is this pleasure coming from outside the mind or from inside the mind?”

When we observe that it’s coming from inside, we are free to let go of whatever it was we were thinking about. This pure enjoyment fills our heart and we can offer it to our Spiritual Guide.

Allowing ourself to bathe in the waves of bliss that arise from our root mind, we are reminded that our mind is naturally joyful and, at its deepest levels, very blissful.

We can now remember that the objects outside our mind don’t even exist – like last night’s dream world, today’s waking world is mere appearance to the mind. We allow our mind of bliss to mix with the mere absence of all the things we normally saw, which is emptiness. We can meditate on this for as long as we like.

As we prepare to arise from our meditation we can consider that when the next object of enjoyment presents itself we can enjoy it with the recognition that the actual bliss is coming from within – this attractive person or these Walkers Crisps or whatever it is are just reminding me of my own Buddha nature. I can offer that enjoyment at my heart. We can make some plan to transform our attachment into the quick path to enlightenment.

More on its way … 

More coming soon on Highest Yoga Tantra in preparation for this Summer’s International Kadampa Festival. Meanwhile your comments and questions are most welcome!

Related articles

The Tantric opportunity

Living in a virtual world

 

Aligning with reality

 

Perspective is everything

 

Can you find anything?

*Re. the football, I also remembered Venerable Geshe-la’s advice to a football fan to have compassion for those who lose (which isn’t hard, those penalties were brutal) and rejoice in those who win (nice job, as always, Italy!)

The Tantric opportunity

 

If there’s a silver lining to our strange pandemic days, it could be that someone invented accessible live-streaming just in time. Most of us have been taking advantage of it all year; and this Summer it means that anyone who’s ready can receive Buddha’s teachings on the quick path to enlightenment, called Highest Yoga Tantra.

Throughout the centuries, whether in ancient India, Tibet, or even our modern world, people have travelled for days or even weeks to receive these empowerments and commentaries. But because it’s not safe for everyone to congregate in their thousands, and because this has been delayed once already, Venerable Geshe-la recently gave permission for them to be given online for the first time ever, at least in this human world.

Many people have been waiting for these empowerments for years, you might be one of them! They’re only granted every two years, either in England or elsewhere — the international Festivals are indubitably unique and life changing, but if we don’t live near those places it can be challenging to get to them in terms of time and money. This year is the exception. And because several people have asked me about this, I thought it might be helpful to spend a few articles talking about some of the special features of Highest Yoga Tantra, especially for those of you who are not sure what they are or whether you’re ready.

What is a human life for?

In the Modern Buddhism chapter “The Preciousness of Tantra”, Geshe Kelsang says:

In his Sutra teachings Buddha gives us great encouragement to accomplish the ultimate goal of human life. This goal will be accomplished quickly through the practice of Tantra.

All Buddha’s discourses are included in Sutra and Tantra, Sutra being those teachings that Buddha gave publicly to everyone. Most of the weekly classes given at Kadampa Centers, for example, come from Buddha’s Sutras, which boil down to three things:

  1. Renunciation
  2. Bodhichitta
  3. The wisdom realizing emptiness

For example the stages of the path to enlightenment (Lamrim) is presented as 21 (or 14) step-by-step meditations, and all of these funnel into these so-called “three principal aspects of the path”. We need to have some appreciation for these before embarking on Highest Yoga Tantra because it is both impossible and pointless to practice Tantra without Sutra, which provides both the motivation and the wisdom we need.

With renunciation, we make a decision to leave samsara by destroying all our delusions and suffering, and with bodhichitta we want to free everybody without exception by attaining enlightenment. These motivations are the only reason for engaging in Tantra, regardless of what you may have read about couples’ intimacy-improving retreats in Hawaii. It is even said to be dangerous to practice Tantra without some renunciation and bodhichitta, the big picture.  

It is in Sutra that Buddha extensively explains how to realize emptiness, which is the beating heart of Tantra. If things existed from their own side, as more than mere projection of mind, then Tantra wouldn’t make any sense at all. But because the things we normally see do not exist, Tantra makes perfect sense.

Sutra is the foundation of Tantra, and Tantra gives our spiritual practice vision, bringing our Sutra insights alive. I’ll stick my neck out here to say that in these degenerate times it might be almost impossible to gain deep realizations of renunciation, bodhichitta, and emptiness without practicing these in conjunction with Tantra.

Abandoning attachment

One reason is because we’re riddled with attachment, which makes it pretty hard to develop even the slightest wish to leave samsara, let alone muster up the energy to free everyone else. Within renunciation we’re taught to abandon attachment to our worldly enjoyments; but even hearing something like this in the desire realm, where we live, can be disconcerting, “How am I supposed to do that?! That’s where all my happiness lies – in pizzas, romance, sunsets, and money. What are you asking me to do here?! What am I going to replace them with? I can’t and don’t want to imagine life without them.”

This is not a surprising reaction given that we have turned to attachment for our happiness since beginningless time. Without Tantra, can we envision what it’s like to be completely free from attachment and other delusions, to enjoy everything endlessly with a mind of great bliss?! I don’t think we can.

All the teachings on renunciation are absolutely applicable to Tantric practice. We envision what it is like to be a totally liberated person and this both encourages us and accelerates our path to liberation. I remember how much easier and more fun renunciation became when I started to practice Highest Yoga Tantra. I could immediately tell that this pure blissful alternative to samsaric bodies, environments, deeds, and enjoyments is vastly superior – we taste this through the power of correct imagination and blessings. Also, what does it mean to give up worldly enjoyments and experience pure enjoyments instead? In Highest Yoga Tantra we learn how to manifest our innate great bliss and transform our experience of worldly pleasures into rocket fuel for spiritual development. More on that here.

Freeing the world

In Sutra we learn that all living beings are suffering in this wretched ocean of samsara and we develop the compassion that wants to permanently liberate them all, from the tiniest ant to the highest god. From this we develop the good heart of bodhichitta, wishing to attain enlightenment so that we can liberate them. This sounds pretty wonderful, no?! Maybe we appreciate this, and we do all the meditations on love and so on, and we do really want this a lot of the time. But there is this niggling part of us, “Me, attain enlightenment?! Really? Have you met me?!” We feel pretty ordinary, not like someone who could liberate all beings. We have no vivid concept of what that would even be like without Tantra.

We do get a bit of taste with the Sutra practice of taking and giving, where we imagine taking away everyone’s suffering and our body transforming into a wishfulfilling jewel bestowing on them all endless happiness. Taking and giving is similar to Tantric practice, as Venerable Geshe-la explains in How to Transform Your Life. So if you like taking and giving, you’re going to love Tantra.

Beyond that it can be hard to wrap our mind around being a Buddha who goes around liberating each and every living being every day, bestowing blessings on everyone we meet and think about (which will be everyone) all the time! But once we receive the empowerments we do generate ourself as such an enlightened being, bringing the future result of our practice into the present, realizing the aims of our bodhichitta in the here and now. We practice this through correct imagination (the other side of the coin from wisdom realizing emptiness), and our bodhichitta becomes very joyful, this vision deeply encouraging us to be a Buddha like Vajrayogini and Heruka.

Moreover, it is Tantric practice that finally removes the mistaken appearances from our mind permanently – we cannot completely purify our minds through Sutra practices alone. Sooner or later, if we want to attain actual enlightenment, we have to practice Tantra. More on why later.

Even when we are a novice to Highest Yoga Tantra, straightaway it starts to increase our enthusiasm and confidence for the Dharma of renunciation bodhichitta, and emptiness – these practices start to come alive and inspire us deeply. This is even in the early stages, when we are not that good at it yet.

Am I ready?

In terms of whether or not we’re ready for Tantric empowerments, in my observation there are a few useful questions to consider. One important thing about these empowerments is that they’re for life, so if you know your interest in Buddhism is a passing fad, perhaps it’s best not to embark on these earth-shaking practices. You can ask yourself, “Do I like Buddhism enough to want to be a Buddhist for the rest of my life.?” Clearly you cannot practice Buddhist Tantra if you are not a Buddhist. “Do I trust Buddha enough and like the teachings enough to know I want to remain a Buddhist?”

Within this, do I have a feeling for and appreciation of the teachings on renunciation, including overcoming all my delusions? Do I want to do that? This renunciation doesn’t have to be fully qualified by any means, we may forget it 23 hours a day; but generally speaking we have to be interested in attaining liberation by getting rid of our self-grasping, negative karma, and suffering. We have to think that this is something we would like. If you can say “Yes!” to that question, that’s a good start.

Then, do I want to free others? Do I care enough about others and their suffering – even if it is only some of the time and only a little — to want to free them by becoming a Buddha? How interested am I in this, is it something I’d like to pursue with this life? This bodhichitta is the other motivation we need to receive the empowerments and start practicing.

Of the three principal paths, it is perhaps most important to have some renunciation and bodhichitta because these will motivate us to learn more and more about emptiness. However, the more understanding we have of emptiness the better, because, like I said, it is only because everything lacks inherent existence that Tantra works; it would be impossible to practice Tantra if things were real.

One important point is that we don’t have to do things sequentially, that is, wait until we have perfect renunciation before we develop bodhichitta, perfect bodhichitta before we develop the wisdom realizing emptiness, and perfect wisdom before we practice Highest Yoga Tantra. This is just as well because, if we did, none of this would never happen. Why? Because Sutra and Tantra are mutually supportive and both accelerate and perfect each other.

In Je Tsongkhapa’s Kadampa tradition, we emphasize the union of Sutra and Tantra. Venerable Geshe-la’s Guru’s Guru was a spiritual giant in Tibet called Je Phabongkhapa, who taught extensively, including, unusually for the time, large numbers of lay people. He explained that we should sow five seeds together and reap their five crops together — this is how a Kadampa should practice Dharma to attain enlightenment. The first three seeds are the three Sutra paths mentioned above, and the other two are the generation and completion stages of Highest Yoga Tantra. I’ve always found this advice on how to do a fully integrated spiritual practice very helpful, trying to touch on all five every day even if emphasizing one or another of them. It also indicates that we don’t need perfect renunciation and so on before we are ready for our Tantric empowerments.

By the way, once you have your empowerments, it’s not like you’ll be left hanging and won’t know what to do. You will know exactly what to do because there are teachings during the Festival and you can read the books and receive other teachings over time as you wish.

Commitments

We also promise to observe various Tantric vows and commitments, especially a four-line verse that we contemplate six times a day. If we are sowing the five seeds we’re going in the right direction and don’t need to be concerned that we’re breaking these commitments. This is because we are not promising to keep them perfectly from day one, we are simply promising to keep the intention to keep them. And they are all very cool, if you ask me. For example, there’s a commitment to generate great bliss six times a day. When I first heard this, I was, like, “Who wouldn’t want to do that?!” Then our practical observation and understanding of these gets better and better as the years go by.

Further reading

As I write these articles, I’ll be dipping into various books to give you a general idea. For starters, I recommend that you download this free gift of Modern Buddhism if you haven’t done so already, go to Part 2, and read four chapters in there: the Preciousness of Tantra, the Tantra of Generation Stage, the Tantra of Completion Stage, and the Completion Stage of Mahamudra. Don’t feel like you’re supposed to understand it all already, by the way! These chapters provide a general explanation of Highest Yoga Tantra. They don’t go into too much detail on how to do the various Tantric practices because we only engage in these once we’re empowered to do so, Buddha is very clear on this. You’ll have time to read and practice these chapters again, as well as the following chapters on Heruka body mandala and Vajrayogini, after you’ve received the empowerments and commentary.

Here is the next installment: Highest Yoga Tantra ~ the quick path to enlightenment.

Please leave any questions or comments below. Feel to answer other people’s questions and comments as well for I am by no means the authority on any of this 🙂

Here is the International Kadampa Summer Festival 2021 website.

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What you been up to today? Has it been a blissful care-free day! or have you been worried about things? Have you felt a bit burned out or annoyed or sad? Have you been craving or missing anyone lately? On top of your own personal selection of things that are not quite working out, have you felt overwhelmed at all by any of the seemingly impossible problems experienced by people all over the world? How real and solid has everything seemed?

If today has not been a perfect day, we know we’re not alone. I think it is fair to say that most of us get very caught up with the appearances of this life – sucked in one minute, desperate to escape the next – day after day after day. Yet, none of these things that we normally see exists. Whereas we see everything as solid, real, and existing from its own side, out there, everything is mere appearance not other than emptiness, and the same nature as our mind.

I was just driving through Suffolk this morning, like you do, and after a while wondered if I had reached Norfolk yet. How would I know?! Only if someone put a sign there “NORFOLK”. Norfolk is just another label, another imputation of mind, another idea if you like. And for it to exist and function we have to collectively agree that it is Norfolk and not, for example, Klofron.

However, if we try to point to Norfolk behind that sign or label, whether within the individual parts – trees, roads, pigeons, and rather cute cottages, etc – or within the collection of all of these, we’ll never ever be able to find it, we will only ever be pointing at things that are not it.

Like the blue of a clear sky, the more we go looking for something the more it disappears. That vivid blue above me is just the clear sky appearing as blue — if I fly through it I quickly discover that not one atom of that blue exists from its own side. Likewise, this screen is just the emptiness of your screen appearing as a screen. Your body sitting there is just the emptiness of your body appearing as a body. Same for everything we normally see, no exceptions.

But that is not of course how it appears normally. Due to the beginningless imprints of self-grasping ignorance, everything we see appears to be really there, existing from its own side; and we believe that appearance to be the truth. This belief is self-grasping ignorance, and it creates yet more imprints for these virtual-reality-like mistaken appearances to arise. A brief sojorn in Norfolk may or may not be a benign episode in my personal Truman show; but what about all those suffering appearances, such as sick and ageing bodies, famines, lower realms, and so on? Do I really want mistaken appearances to shift and change forever without me even knowing it??!

If we realized that we are effectively trying to live and work in an hallucination, this would clearly would have far-reaching implications.This stuff is profound! Yet given the tenacity of mistaken appearances, how are we supposed to realize this?! I don’t think we can without a lot of help from someone who has already seen so totally through the illusion that they can never fall for it again.

In Ocean of Nectar, Venerable Geshe-la invites us to imagine that a magician or illusionist has conjured up the appearance of a horse:

In the case of an ordinary member of the audience who is taken in by the spell, the horse appears to be real and he conceives it to be a real horse. In the case of the magician himself, a horse also appears to his mind but he is not taken in my the spell, and so he does not conceive it to be a real horse. In the case of a member of the audience with great wisdom whose mind is not affected by the spell, there is no appearance of a horse to his mind, and he does not conceive there to be a real horse.

If we are still sucked in by appearances because we believe they are real, we are like an ordinary member of the audience. If we have more wisdom and, although we still see the horse, know directly that this horse is not real and that we in effect created it, we are like the magician. We already have more control over the appearances of our life, rather like someone flying around in a lucid dream. If we don’t even see the mistaken appearance of a horse, much less believe it, we are like an enlightened being. We can never get fooled again. We are utterly free. And to help others, we can appear whatever we want to from our mind of great bliss.

To me, this analogy shows how much we need an enlightened Spiritual Guide. They can show us that these mistaken appearances do not exist and so there is no point in continuing to grasp at them with ignorance, anger, attachment, anxiety, and so on, all our actions or karma contaminated by this ignorance; and there is literally no point in suffering the needless endless way that we do. Once we have found this person, there are various ways in which we can rely upon them. This carries straight on from the first way I talked about in this last article.

(2) Practice the instructions

We can practice the instructions and teachings of Buddha as revealed to us by our Spiritual Guide. Nothing helps us or pleases him more

Once we have met a qualified Spiritual Guide, the way to rely upon him or her is basically very simple. All we have to do is to develop faith in him (or her) and put his instructions into practice to the best our ability. If we do this, our Dharma realizations will naturally increase and we will quickly attain enlightenment. ~ Great Treasury of Merit 

Teaching this in the recent International Spring Festival, Gen-la Khyenrab said:

Whatever is your ability, whatever that is, just try. A realization is a stable understanding of a virtuous meaning that will protect us from suffering — for example, love will protect us from anger.

We can do that today. Then we do the same tomorrow, doing our best. Gradually our wish and capacity to do this will improve and we’ll be moving ourselves along the spiritual path. Something in my heart works much better when I actively want to rely on a Spiritual Guide and take on board the instructions he has given me.

And anyone can do this, regardless of their history and background – even if they are a mass murderer! There is the famous example of Milarepa to give us hope:

To begin with, Milarepa was very evil. Using black magic he killed 36 people before he met his Guru, Marpa. Later, by relying sincerely upon Marpa he was able to purify his mind completely, accumulate merit and wisdom, and finally attain enlightenment in that same life.

The whole point of finding and relying on a Spiritual Guide is to make spiritual progress so that we can at long last get rid of all the causes of suffering and bondage in the mind and be able to help others do the same. This sickness and ageing stuff to which I currently have a front row seat (until I’m called to join the actors on the stage) is only going to be followed by rebirth, and then more of the same. It’s been this relentless grinding cycle since beginningless time, when will I have had enough?!

If we meditate on the stages of the path to enlightenment with the help of an enlightened Spiritual Guide, we can break this cycle and experience endless bliss. And just a reminder that in Buddhism we don’t trust blind faith. Relying on a teacher’s wisdom gives us the the tools to explore our own sense of truth from every angle, questioning and researching every step of the way – we have to do the work.

Enlightenment is reality; we are in unreality. I find this passage from Venerable Geshe-la’s Festival teachings on the Kadampa Way of Life incredibly encouraging in this respect:

“What is enlightenment? Enlightenment is not external light, it is inner light, the nature of omniscient wisdom. Our ignorance is an inner darkness that obscures our understanding of the ultimate truth of phenomena or reality.

Because this inner darkness is so powerful, all our environment, the place or house where we live, our enjoyments, food, drink, clothes, friends and other objects and necessary conditions, our body and our mind are polluted by this  inner darkness. Because of this all our environments, enjoyments, body and mind are contaminated phenomena and their nature is impurity and suffering. This is because of the inner darkness of ignorance.

To destroy this we need to engage in spiritual paths as mentioned in Lamrim teachings such as The Meditation Handbook where 21 meditations are listed. Each one of these meditations is very practical. If we develop 21 realizations through these meditations, these are the spiritual paths to enlightenment.

By engaging in the spiritual path and developing these realizations we will gain a good heart such as great compassion and the mind of bodhichitta, and we will definitely gain the wisdom understanding ultimate truth directly. Through further improving these two, eventually our inner darkness will completely disappear, together with its imprints. Nothing will be left except the inner light of omniscient wisdom.

Our mind will become inner light, the nature of omniscient wisdom and bliss. Our environments, enjoyments, and everything we perceive will become inner light, the nature of omniscient wisdom and bliss. We will only experience wisdom and bliss; this is enlightenment. This is our ultimate happiness. When we attain this enlightenment, we experience wisdom and bliss day and night life after life without ceasing.”

Coming soon … 3 more ways we can rely upon a Spiritual Guide. Meantime, I’d love to hear from you below.

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Not just anyone can be a Spiritual Guide, of course — it has to be someone who can guide us along the spiritual path. As a reminder of some of their necessary qualifications:

A pure Spiritual Guide must have authentic spiritual attainments, hold a pure lineage, cherish the Buddhadharma, and with love and compassion give unmistaken teachings to his or her disciples. If we meet such a Spiritual Guide we should consider ourself to be very fortunate.

Carrying on from this article, What if Buddha was around today

Once we feel we have found a reliable source of spiritual guidance, here are 5 simple practical things we can do to rely on them.

(1) Feel happy

We can just feel happy about it, for a start. As it says in Great Treasury of Merit:

We should try to feel close to him [or her], maintaining a happy and affectionate mind towards him at all times. We should regard our Spiritual Guide as our mother who cares for us and cherishes us, as our father who provides us with all we need and protects us from danger, as the moon that cools the heat of the delusions in our mental continuum, as the sun that dispels the darkness of ignorance in our mind, and as a kind benefactor who gives us the priceless gift of Dharma.

Why feel happy? Because:

Geshe Potowa says that if a pure disciple meets a pure Spiritual Guide it is not difficult for him or her to reach enlightenment. ~ Great Treasury of Merit

We can hopefully see from these articles that relying on a Spiritual Guide is not about having another authority figure in our life – who wants one of those, really?! Not me. Relying on a Spiritual Guide helps US make spiritual progress – there is a lot more in it for us than for our Spiritual Guide. We can keep reminding ourselves of the benefits until we feel lucky to have found ourselves in this position.

If through relying upon a Spiritual Guide we develop the realizations of the stages of the path to enlightenment within our mental continuum, we will be truly rich, even if we have no material possessions.

No other wealth is going with us. Only our faith and/or spiritual realizations can truly protect our mind when old age ravages our body and death comes knocking.

Not long ago Venerable Geshe-la said something along the lines that ten years goes very quickly. I have been finding this a helpful way to feel the brevity of this human life.  

When we’re 10, 20 seems a zillion miles away, and 30 positively ancient. When we’re 20, 30 on the horizon signals the end of youth but is still a long way ahead, we’ve got this, and there’s no way we’re ever going to be fat and middle-aged let alone old. At the slightly alarming age of 30, time is speeding up, but being 40 and middle-aged is still at a safe distance. Until all of a sudden we rather shockingly hit 40, where even looking at a chocolate donut puts on 5lbs and we are now the lucky recipient of those hilarious “Haha, not enough candles!” birthday cards. We now have to kid ourselves that people are not really middle-aged until they reach 50. At that slightly surreal half-century milestone — “No way can I be 50?!!”– wrinkly 60 seems like the beginning of old age and we are beginning to sense that we might, after all, end up one day being one of those bent-over old people. (Luckily “50 is the new 30!”, only of course it’s not, and you won’t find any 30-year-old agreeing.) When we’re 60, the illusion of youth and beauty — or even middle-age and being relatively presentable — is rapidly slipping, yet we tell each other that old age doesn’t begin until we’re 70. When we reach 70, the decrepitudes of the 80s and 90s are now just around the corner, we’ve seen what happens to people when they hit this wall, but we’re still not too old yet, we still have time to get our acts together … don’t we?!

Point is, don’t these decades actually fly past?, and we only have 8 of them, give or take. We can count them on both hands. It seems like mere months since my friends and I were at those earlier milestones, commiserating or joking with each other about how old we were becoming and how the heck did that happen?! And it was just months.

Nowadays when I look at someone and think “They’re pretty old”, there is an increasing chance that they are younger than me. And I can see from Facebook that younger friends are racing through the decades at the same speed, always relatively young but also undeniably, well, middle-aged. None of us gets away with it, no matter the glamor, wealth, or good genes. The sufferings of sickness and old age get all of us in the end, if we don’t die first. The meaty body and brain always wear out. In Sutra Addressed to a King, Buddha says:

Ageing is like an immovable mountain.
Decay is like an immovable mountain.
Sickness is like an immovable mountain.
Death is like an immovable mountain.

Now in London this summer helping my dad take care of my mom, who just got out of hospital, it is very easy to think back to the time when they were both fit and forty and traveling the world — yet here they are now largely stuck inside. This is increasingly the same for the dwindling number of their friends who are still alive, eking out their health and pleasures as long as they can. This is entirely normal. And my generation is next in line. If ever there was a good time to get a move on, that would be now.

Luckily we are not our bodies, our brains, or even our gross minds, not even close. There is an incredibly blissful clear light within all of us, our real home whence life after life we forgettingly arise and return, that totally transcends all these ravages of time. The spiritual path is at its essence being gradually guided to the clear light of bliss by our Spiritual Guide’s teachings and blessings so that we can enjoy it forever.  I must say that my mom surprised me at breakfast this morning by quoting word-perfectly Wordsworth’s mystical Intimations of Immortality:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.

Out of time (as I might soon be saying on my death bed 😳) The remaining four ways of relying upon a Spiritual Guide are coming up in the next article. Meantime over to you, I would love to hear your comments below.

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What if Buddha was around today?

Happy Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day! June 4 marks the anniversary of Buddha Shakyamuni’s first ever teaching in this world.

A question: if you knew that Buddha was alive and wandering this Earth, what would you do? …

… I know what I would do, I would be right there! I would find him. I would follow him. I would offer my services to help him bring the medicine of Dharma to everyone who wanted it. I would feel this was something unimaginably epic!!!

I would do the same if I knew, for example, that Je Tsongkhapa was around, or Nagarjuna, or Saraha, or Atisha …

And Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso IS around. A fully accomplished Buddhist master of the same caliber as these great practitioners of yore, he IS alive and wandering this Earth. He has done an extraordinary amount for Buddhism and Buddhists in the world today, continuing to turn the Wheel of Dharma for a huge and growing number of modern people. His life and works are epic.

Today also happens to be his 90th birthday and Kadampa Centers everywhere are doing long-life practices for him to stay on this troubled Earth as long as possible. That way, people can still find him.

Carrying on from this article. 

If you’ve read the biographies of the great Buddhist masters I mention above, you’ll know that most people had no real clue who they were or how influential they were going to be until later in their lives or even after they’d passed away (if ever). It seemed to dawn on people over time just how incredible these people were. That is not unique to Buddhism – don’t we often only fully appreciate people’s greatness after the fact?

In particular, whenever I read anything about Je Tsongkhapa or by Je Tsongkhapa it feels like I’m reading something about or by Geshe-la. Here’s what it says about Je Tsongkhapa in Great Treasury of Merit, for example:

Although Je Tsongkhapa was an emanation of Manjushri who possessed clairvoyance and miracle powers, he did not appear as a special, exalted being, but manifested as an ordinary, humble practitioner.

Geshe-la is truly humble – he has lived simply in modest surroundings all his 90 years, just practicing what he preaches, helping others all day long, completely uninterested in any status or other worldly concerns.

In this aspect he showed an immaculate example to others, gave pure teachings, and led thousands of people into correct spiritual paths. He spread a very pure Buddhadharma throughout Tibet, showing how to combine the practices of Sutra and Tantra, and in particular how to practice the Vinaya and Highest Yoga Tantra together.

Is this not what Venerable Geshe-la has been doing his entire life? What else has he been doing? Except that instead of his activities being confined to Tibet, due to the wonders of globalization and modern technology the Kadampa Buddhist teachings are now starting to reach the entire world.

The meditation on relying upon a Spiritual Guide

It says in Great Treasury of Merit:

Our Spiritual Guide is any spiritual Teacher who sincerely leads us into spiritual paths by giving correct instructions. Thus our Spiritual Guide can be eastern or western, lay or ordained, male or female.

And so on. They can be anyone.

It was Buddha Shakyamuni who first taught the importance of relying upon a Spiritual Guide (Skt. Guru yoga). For example, in the Condensed Perfection of Wisdom Sutra he said:

Good disciples who respect their Spiritual Guide
Should always rely upon their wise Spiritual Guides.
If you ask why, qualities of wisdom arise from them;
They reveal the perfection of wisdom.
The Conqueror who possesses all supreme good qualities says
“The qualities of a Buddha depend upon the Spiritual Guide.”

As with any other teaching of Buddha, it is good to ask ourselves about the validity of relying upon a Spiritual Guide — is it true, does it work, does it make sense to me, how will it help? Buddhism is not about blind faith, including — perhaps especially — when it comes to relying upon a Spiritual Guide.

The first question is probably why would I want to rely upon a Spiritual Guide? The great Indian Buddhist Master Padampa Sangye (who I’m guessing taught in a place called Tingri) said:

O People of Tingri, the Spiritual Guide will lead you wherever you wish to go.

So where is that exactly? If we don’t mind staying in samsara forever, including in the lower realms, we don’t need an enlightened teacher to show us the way out. But:

If we wish for a human rebirth our Spiritual Guide will lead us there, if we wish for liberation he will lead us there, if we wish to be reborn in a Pure Land he will lead us there, and if we wish to attain enlightenment he will lead us there. No one is kinder than our Spiritual Guide.

What is a Guru?

As explained here, the actual Spiritual Guide (Skt. Guru) is not like a person we normally think of, but is the omniscient wisdom of bliss and emptiness.

In Vajra Cutting Sutra Buddha says that those who think is body is a physical object and that his speech is sound are mistaken because his actual body is the Truth Body. ~ Great Treasury of Merit

The idea of what a Guru actually is can be hard to understand, and developing this understanding of his or her real nature is a huge part of a Buddhist’s spiritual journey.

Ultimately the student or disciple is seeking union with that state of compassion and wisdom, which is enlightenment, so as to become enlightened themselves. Guru yoga provides the technology for this.

It is also a doorway into seeing everybody in a pure way, as a Buddha, including ourselves, so as to manifest our own boundless potential for enlightenment. For as Venerable Geshe-la says in How to Transform Your Life:

Because we cannot see others’ minds, we do not know who is actually a realized being and who is not. Someone may not have a high position in society, but if in his heart he maintains loving kindness to all living beings, in reality he is a realized being.

(This also includes fellow practitioners within our spiritual society, I might add. If the past is anything to go by, there are probably plenty of highly realized beings lurking amongst us, not teaching from high thrones, no reputation at all, simply pulling the weeds, preparing publicity, or sitting around doing seemingly nothing. Think of Shantideva or Geshe Jayulwa or Biwawa or a lot of the Mahasiddhas, for a start — no one had a clue who they really were.)

When we are relating to our Spiritual Guide in this ultimate sense, we are not relating so much to a personality as to omniscient wisdom and compassion appearing for us, and our mind mixes with this, receiving blessings or inspiration. (Blessings are not that mysterious – check out these articles.)

Moreover, we develop faith in the context also of having faith in our own potential for enlightenment – without that, there is not much point in developing faith in enlightened beings.

The goal of Buddha’s teachings on Sutra and Tantra is to transform us from an ordinary, limited, deluded being, who suffers and can only benefit in a limited, temporary way into an enlightened being, who can genuinely protect countless others and lead them to perfect happiness. Our ability to make that transition depends upon blessings to transform our mind. Those blessings come when we shine the sun of our faith on the snow mountain of our Spiritual Guide. In the International Spring Festival this week, Gen-la Khyenrab said that our Spiritual Guide is the focus or lens through which all the blessings of the Buddhas come into our heart. He quoted:

The ultimate goal of human life is to attain enlightenment, and this depends upon continually receiving the special blessings of Buddha through our Spiritual Guide. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Four reasons why our Spiritual Guide is a Buddha

As Gen-la Khyenrab also explained, the object of the Guru yoga meditation as presented in Lamrim is our faith believing that our Spiritual Guide is an emanation of all the Buddhas of the ten directions.

Buddha attained enlightenment with the sole intention of leading all living beings along the stages of the path to enlightenment through his emanations. ~ How to Transform Your Life

So the question is:

Who is his emanation who is leading us along the stages of the path to enlightenment?

This is the jist of the meditation. And there are a lot of things we can ask and contemplate to increase our understanding and experience of Guru yoga, letting our faith grow naturally over the months and years. This seems like the perfect day to say a quick something about the four main considerations given in the Lamrim teachings, which you can read about in detail in the big Lamrim book called Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

  1. Buddha Vajradhara said that Spiritual Guides are Buddhas

He said this in Two Examination Tantra:

In degenerate times, when the practice of Buddhadharma is in decline, I shall manifest as a Spiritual Guide … I shall appear as an ordinary being, and I shall come in many forms.

If our Spiritual Guide isn’t this seemingly ordinary being who is an emanation of Buddha Vajradhara, then who is? It also occurs to me that a transcendent being can appear as ordinary, but an ordinary being cannot appear as transcendent.

  1. Our Spiritual Guide performs the enlightened actions of a Buddha

As Geshe-la says in Great Treasury of Merit:

The Buddhas have spent aeons investigating which is the best way to help sentient beings, and they have concluded that it is to manifest in an ordinary form as a Spiritual Guide, demonstrate a perfect example, and guide sentient beings by giving Dharma teachings.

Let’s think about this for a moment … if all the Buddhas right now wanted to appear in your life to help guide you to enlightenment — which they do — how would they do that? “Ok, Luna’s ready. What do we have to do?!”

Discussing this with each other, they might well conclude that it would make sense to appear as a monk in the notoriously Buddhist country of Tibet, who studies and practices Buddhism for decades in the well-established monasteries, manages to escape when the Chinese invade, goes into a 16-year retreat, and then is invited by his own highly regarded teacher to fly to the West deliberately to help modern people like you. There he teaches and translates and sets up Centers, and you encounter him, read the books, and meet other practitioners. Through this you realize that everything he says is incredibly helpful and liberating and that you want to practice it. So you do. And you are guided along the spiritual path.

What would a Buddha do differently?

Our Spiritual Guide has given us literally everything we need – there is nothing we don’t have when it comes to traveling this path to liberation or enlightenment. Why is nothing lacking? Why is everything appearing for me? Where is it all really coming from?

  1. In these degenerate times Buddhas continue to work for the benefit of all living beings

Benefiting others is the very meaning of becoming a Buddha – it is the whole reason why they attained enlightenment! It is why we ourselves are training for enlightenment, and Buddhas have already been there and done that.

To the coarse beings of these impure times who, being so hard to tame,
Were not subdued by the countless Buddhas of old,
You correctly reveal the excellent path of the Sugatas. ~ Offering to the Spiritual Guide

Who knows what Geshe Kelsang really thought in those first few years as he met his first spiritually bedraggled and clueless Western disciples (speaking for myself). Yet, whatever he thought, he didn’t leave us to our own degenerate devices, but has been consistently gentle and understanding, just like Je Tsongkhapa:

Je Tsongkhapa was like a mother teaching her children. A mother patiently teachers her children everything they need to know, from how to eat and how to walk, through to how to read and how to write. In the same way, Je Tsongkhapa patiently taught the Tibetans everything they needed for their spiritual development, from the initial step of entering into a spiritual practice through to the ultimate attainment of Buddhahood. ~ Great Treasury of Merit

  1. Appearances are deceptive and our own opinions are unreliable

As I write this outside in a café, a man at the next door table is hacking and coughing – he is reminding me of the pandemic that is not over yet, despite my complacency that has set in on this warm summer’s day, and that people are still hacking and coughing and dying all over the world. Who is he, really? For that matter, who is the homeless dude who swore at us yesterday as he swigged his whisky, before bicycling away fast on a green bike that he stole from right under our noses? Amongst other things, he reminded me how crazy it is that we don’t have affordable housing in this wealthy country, how easy it is for me to take my home and resources for granted, and how much I want to become a Buddha to help everyone find shelter (mind you, it wasn’t my bike, hahaha!.)

In How to Transform Your Life, Geshe-la says:

We cannot say for sure that our closest friend or worst enemy, our mother or even our dog, is not an emanation [of Buddha]. The fact that we feel we know someone very well and have seen him or her behaving in deluded ways does not mean that he or she is an ordinary person. What we see is a reflection of our own mind. An ordinary, deluded mind will naturally perceive a world filled with ordinary, deluded people.

Therefore, naturally this must also apply to someone who actually seems to check the boxes for being a suspected emanation. We are advised in general to check out a Spiritual Guide’s qualifications, of course. In Great Treasury of Merit, Venerable Geshe-la says:

A pure Spiritual Guide must have authentic spiritual attainments, hold a pure lineage, cherish the Buddhadharma, and with love and compassion give unmistaken teachings to his or her disciples. If we meet such  Spiritual Guide we should consider ourself to be very fortunate.

However, it is also worth remembering that nothing exists outside our mind. Therefore:

While my mind is impure I shall continue to experience hallucinations and mistaken appearances. Only a completely pure mind can perceive things the way they really are. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

Everything we see right now is relatively faulty and ordinary (speaking for myself). Which means that even if all the Buddhas were to appear right in front of me – and perhaps they are – I would see them as ordinary or not at all. As Geshe-la says in Joyful Path:

Before they purified their minds many of the Mahasiddhas and Yogis saw their Spiritual Guides in low and imperfect forms.

It’s true, they did! Check out the various biographies. It’s not just us!

Asanga saw his Spiritual Guide, Maitreya, as a dog. Naropa saw his Spiritual Guide, Tilopa, as a fisherman. Devadatta and Bhikkshu Legpai Karma saw the completely perfect Buddha as a very limited being.

Like them, to overcome ordinary appearances we need faith that our Spiritual Guide is a Buddha appearing in this ordinary form so that he or she can actually benefit us. This pure view gives our mind a transcendent focus and we are able to reach for the sky. Then over the years as our mind gradually clears, we will come to see our Spiritual Guide more and more unmistakenly. One of my favorite quotes is from Oscar Wilde, as it happens:

We are all of us in the gutter. But some of us are looking at the stars.

Point is …

In Essence of Vajrayana, Venerable Geshe-la quotes Geshe Potowa, one of the great Kadampa Geshes:

 Whether or not our Spiritual Guide is precious depends upon us and not upon our Spiritual Guide. If we view our Spiritual Guide as a Buddha, we will receive the blessings of a Buddha. If we view him or her as a Bodhisattva, we will receive the blessings of a Bodhisattva, and if we view him or her as an ordinary being, we will receive nothing.

So it is up to us – and it is also for us, not our Spiritual Guide. He doesn’t need us to seem him as pure. He already has everything he needs.

It is very helpful to understand that all we ever perceive is a reflection of our mind. An impure mind can only perceive an impure world. If we are waiting to see an objective, truly existent Buddha, we are never going to see one. We need to reach beyond our appearances, beyond the impure, suffering appearances that are capped by the karma we have, to tune into something transcendent and pure.

Geshe-la goes onto say:

Knowing this is very helpful because for as long as our mind remains impure it is impossible directly to perceive anyone, including our Spiritual Guide, as a real Buddha. Our task at the moment therefore is to use our imagination, and the many valid reasons explained in the book Joyful Path of Good Fortune, to train in the recognition that our Spiritual Guide is a living Buddha. Through continually training in this recognition our faith will increase and our mind will become purer and purer, until eventually we will directly perceive our Spiritual Guide as a real Buddha.

If we consider and meditate on these four points, we will develop a conviction that our Spiritual Guide is a Buddha; and with this recognition we will feel very guided. And since we have never travelled to enlightenment before, this guidance is exactly what we need.

Thank you Geshe-la. I will dedicate myself to the flourishing of Kadam Dharma.

Over to you – I’d love to read your comments and stories on this auspicious day 😇😍

Further reading if you still have time 

A Spiritual Guide

 

When the student is ready, the teacher appears

 

A light in the darkness

 

Modern Day Kadampas

Seeing the divine in everyone

9.5 mins read.

Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche is about to turn 90 on Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day, June 4th 2021. There are celebrations and long-life retreats planned all over the world, and it would be deeply auspicious if all of us who appreciate him could join in.

Geshe-la was already well into his forties by the time he arrived in England to bring us – total novices – the entire modern Buddhism. There are now hundreds of thousands of Kadampa students all over the world and he is still going strong. Put that in your pipe and smoke it next time you feel you’re too old or that you’ve left it too late to get anything meaningful done in your life, lol.

The Dharma Wheel still turns …

Buddha Shakyamuni was the first Buddhist teacher in our particular world to show us a doorway into ultimate truth, the illusory nature of all phenomena — knowledge of which frees our mind. This is a person we can trust.

In the same way, a modern-day spiritual master is continuing to turn the Wheel of Dharma with his practical presentation of Kadampa Buddhism. Venerable Geshe-la is a reliable wealth of wisdom for how to solve our daily problems and find lasting peace and joy. As the author of 22 books on all of Buddha’s teachings, the spiritual architect of 5 World Peace Temples, and the visionary behind 1400+ Kadampa Centers and branches around the world, he is showing his students what it means to think big—and how to correctly imagine a previously unbelievable reality of pure happiness.

Carrying on from this article, Living Buddha.

Many people consider Geshe-la to be their Spiritual Guide because he has provided them with teachings, teachers, books, empowerments, centers, temples, and so on. Based on that faith, they feel some connection with him in their hearts, and through that a connection with something very profound and peaceful.

As with any deep relationship, we need to allow ourselves time to get to know our Spiritual Guide on different levels. We don’t need blind faith. As it says in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

We need to become acquainted with someone who has all the qualifications of a Spiritual Guide, and gradually gain confidence through their teaching and example so that we can rely completely on their guidance.

Then we develop pure view to bring about faith in their true nature, and we contemplate their kindness to bring about devotion and respect.

Will there ever be a biography of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso?

People often ask this and the short answer is, I have no clue. But I do know it would be a challenging project.

As mentioned in this recent article, Trust in the infinite, our actual Spiritual Guide is imputed on the Truth Body of Buddha — ultimate bodhichitta that is the union of omniscient wisdom and a supreme good heart.

Pervasive nature of all things stable and moving,
Inseparable from the experience of spontaneous joy without obstructions;
Thoroughly good, from the beginning free from extremes,
O Actual, ultimate bodhichitta, to you I make requests. ~ Offering to the Spiritual Guide

Given that this is who our Spiritual Guide actually is, it is quite hard to write a biography! Or at least one that could begin to do him justice.

Another reason we can’t begin to capture all our enlightened Spiritual Guide’s deeds on paper is because everything is empty of existing from its own side, and we are blindfolded by hallucinations and mistaken appearances.

A Buddha’s mind is everywhere, and wherever their mind is, so too is their body. As I talk about here, we all have our own Spiritual Guide. Whenever a Buddha appears, so too do their countless emanations and deeds, way beyond the ability of even many voices to explain. As it says in Guide to the Middle Way (XI.41):

Just as a bird does not turn back due to lack of space,
But returns when its strength is consumed,
So the disciples and Sons of the Buddhas
Turn back when describing the good qualities of Buddha, which are as limitless as space.

Some biographies of great practitioners take this into account, and to common appearance they therefore sound totally hagiographic, even hyperbolic. For example, have you ever read the book Sky Dancer, the Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel? Her life and deeds as a Guru Dakini very much defy ordinary conceptions and appearances — and we’re either ready to hear and be inspired by it or we’re not! Take just her birth for a start:  

“At sunrise of the tenth day of the monkey month of the year of the bird, Getso, my mother, gave birth painlessly. The earth shook, thunder rolled, and a rain of flowers fell from the sky. The lake increased in size, and on its banks a vast number of different species of flowers bloomed. The palace was covered by a net of rainbow light, a miracle to which all present bore witness. Then the sound of music filled the sky … and between the clouds in the sky a host of goddesses appeared who sang these auspicious verses….”

I mean, you were either there or you weren’t. In other words, an ordinary mind experiences ordinary things like COVID or mortgages, and a pure mind experiences things like this! According to common appearance, therefore, these kinds of Tantric biographies are reserved for those with a lot of faith and pure view.

Who isn’t a manifestation of Buddha?!

The things we normally see don’t exist. Which means, for all we know, that everyone could be a manifestation or emanation of Buddha. As Gen Rabten put it in the Summer Festival of 2020:

We are taught that Buddhas help in many ways through bestowing blessings and through emanations and so forth; and we know whether we are a Buddha or not. We know, you know. But we don’t know about anyone else — for sure — we don’t know for sure. We probably have strong opinions, but we don’t know.  

In his Tara teachings of 2006, quoted last Summer Festival, Venerable Geshe-la explained how our mother is an emanation of Arya Tara, backing it up with some compelling reasons.

“Generally, of course, Tara’s great kindness pervades every living being without exception each day. There is not a single person who does not receive Arya Tara’s blessings every day. How? … This is difficult to understand unless we already have some basic Dharma knowledge or understanding. But I can give a simple reason … Immediately, from the time we were born from our mother, someone has cared for us, helped us, fed and clothed us. We have received so much care. Later, we continually received help from many people in different aspects…

When you were born you were completely powerless to do anything. You could not find food; you could not say anything. Everything was taken care of by your mother. From then until now your mother has continually cared for you.

But the mother that you see caring for you, the mother that you normally see, does not exist. So who cared for you? Who is this someone who cares for you continually?

I can say that it is an emanation of Arya Tara. But you cannot see this. You cannot see the mother who is really caring for you. The mother that you see does not exist. You cannot see the existent caring mother because you see only an inherently existent mother and say, ‘She is good, she is bad, she is helping me,’ and so forth. In reality, such a person does not exist. Then I can say, ‘If you receive care from someone, then this is an emanation of Arya Tara.’ If we debate probably I will win! So you should think about this carefully.”

As Gen Rabten went on to comment (and it was so good that I’m quoting it in full):

This is very profound because it is turning our whole sense of what our reality is on its head. Ordinarily, we live in a world that we grasp at as inherently existent, objectively existent, existing outside of our mind; and everything is in all the little boxes that we put things in. This is my mother and this is this place and these are these people … and when we go deep into the meditation on emptiness we realize, well, none of that is true. There is no outside, objective reality. There aren’t any inherently existent people. So then who are these appearances that are helping me? And what Venerable Geshe-la is saying is that every appearance of someone helping me is an emanation of Arya Tara. …. We can gently navigate our way into this special, almost magical way of viewing the world, being filled, populated by emanations of Arya Tara.

Training in seeing everyone as pure helps us and it helps them, for many reasons. And our Spiritual Guide is an easy candidate to practice with!

Who needs you to be ordinary?

It also helps a lot if we train in pure view of ourselves. 

Who needs you to be ordinary? Maybe try this — go through the various spheres of your life and ask, do my children need me to be ordinary? My parents? My boss? My co-workers? Everyone in India? My dog? Etc.

If you reply, yes, my children need a Dad, it is perfectly fine to hold yourself to be their Dad and, for example, Avalokiteshvara at the same time. Not only can you be earning their keep and taking them to football matches, but you can also simultneously be giving them constant blessings and leading them to enlightenment. Moreover, if we have divine pride of ourselves as an enlightened being, based on wisdom and correct imagination, others’ minds are blessed just by seeing us, listening to us, or touching us.

In the Condensed Root Tantra it is said that just by seeing a sincere Heruka practitioner we purify our negativities and attain liberation; just by hearing or being touched by such a practitioner we receive blessings and are cured of sickness; and just by being in the presence of such a practitioner our unhappiness, mental disturbances, delusions and other obstacles are dispelled. ~ Essence of Vajrayana

Applying this to our Spiritual Guide

We can train in this pure view with our mother and with anyone else who has helped us. By following the mind-training instructions we can train with those who are giving us a hard time, who can function as a kind teacher by allowing us to perfect our patience. And we can train even with ourselves through the power of Tantric practice.  So of course we can train in this pure view with respect to our Spiritual Guide, who is probably the most likely candidate for a Buddha.

The nature of enlightenment itself is compassion — Buddhas automatically bless each and every living being all day every day. So when we get our grasping out of the way, opening the shutters of our mind, we’ll see that this sun has been shining all along; and then we will always have the experience of being helped and guided.

At the end of the day I think that what is important is not an objective reality of the Spiritual Guide, because there isn’t one, but how our own hearts and minds transform when we rely upon an enlightened being as our Spiritual Guide or our Spiritual Guide as an enlightened being (it works both ways). Once we are free from the obstructions to liberation and omniscience, we’ll see our Spiritual Guide as he or she really is. Until then we have to be content with what we can infer, and be inspired by the stories of their life and deeds.

Thank you for reading this! Your comments are so welcome below. I am really looking forward to June 4th and hope that a lot of us can tune into the long-life practices for our precious Geshe-la, perhaps even attend our nearest Center if possible! (Find your local center here.)

Related articles

 Celebrating a great Buddhist Master on his birthday

A Spiritual Guide

When the student is ready, the teacher appears

Trust in the infinite

3.5 mins read.

In Buddhism, the actual Spiritual Guide is the so-called “definitive Spiritual Guide”, the Truth Body (Skt. Dharmakaya) of great bliss and emptiness of all Buddhas, which can also be understood as the union of universal compassion and omniscient wisdom. This appears in the form of a person who, in accordance with our karma, can show us a good example and lead us along the path to the same blissful freedom of enlightenment. He or she is called the “interpretative Spiritual Guide”.  

One way I like to develop faith in my Spiritual Guide, therefore, is to use my own humble experiences of Dharma to extrapolate and develop confidence in these transcendent qualities of enlightenment.

To take one example, earlier today I was thinking about where I and everyone I know lives. How it is a big ball zooming through space, with all of us hanging on for dear life (thank you gravity!); and how none of us can exactly leave it, even for a cigarette break, (except when we die). Therefore, it makes no sense not to look after this shared home we call Planet Earth – is it not suicidal to poison the rivers, for example, or to fight amongst ourselves? How’s that different to people at 36,000 feet strewing their garbage around in an aircraft, hogging all the food, or maiming each other (including the flight attendants who are trying to take care of us)? How are any of us supposed to make it if we behave like this and don’t look out for each other? Indeed, the fact that our self-cherishing so deeply blinds us to the fact that we are all in this together reminds me of why it never works, whereas clear-sighted cherishing others is the source of all goodness and happiness.

This then got me thinking about how we are all bobbing about in the vast limitless Milky Way. I started to contemplate how not just our little home planet but the endless reaches of outer space – past, present, and future — are all mere imputation of mind. They do not exist outside my mind or yours, they cannot be found upon ultimate analysis if we go looking for them with wisdom. They simply are the nature of our mind, dream-like, illusory. Mere name. It became very blissful and spacey for a while there, lol. Manageable, yet with infinite possibilities. And super enjoyable. And it gave rise to a deeper compassion for all sentient beings because, although they also are not solid and real but merely imputed by conception, they do not realize this — hence all this needless tragic suffering.

This got me to thinking how Buddhas are never separated from this so-called compassion observing the unobservable for each and every living being. They are never separated from the wisdom realizing that everything and everyone to the ends of space and beyond is mere imputation, mere name, not outside the mind. Their sense of self is utterly unlike ours – we impute ourself on a meaty body and a deluded mind that seems cut off from everyone and everything, whereas they impute themselves on this blissful Truth Body of wisdom and compassion that pervades all of space and time.

And that is my Spiritual Guide, my actual Spiritual Guide. As I cannot readily or easily access that, at least for now, Buddhas emanate Spiritual Guides whom I can see and understand. As it says in Offering to the Spiritual Guide:

Exalted wisdom of all the infinite Conquerors
Out of supremely skillful means appearing to suit disciples,
Now assuming the form of a saffron-robed monk,
O Holy Refuge and Protector I prostrate at your lotus feet.

Through my own small experience, therefore, I can understand that there are countless beings who have these kinds of experiences of wisdom and compassion, just far far deeper and more stable, and that they are trying to reach us. Whenever we taste our own potential to become more and more like them, we can develop the believing, admiring, and wishing faith that allows us to trust them enough to show us how.

Weirdly, this Supertramp song Babaji just came on:

All of my life I felt that you were listening
Watching for ways to help me stay in tune
Oh Lord of my dreams
Although confusion keeps trying to deceive
Oh what is it that makes me believe in you?

Over to you, comments welcome!

Related articles

More on the Spiritual Guide 

More on mere imputation 

More on unfindability 

More on faith 

More on Planet Earth 

 

 

 

Why do bad things happen to good people?

8.5 mins read.

Often when things go wrong in our lives, we cast about for someone to blame and/or conclude that life is unconscionably unfair. Maybe we think there is some arbiter of our fate, some supernatural law-giver who is punishing us, and we feel guilty.

We ask, “Why me?” There are actually two questions we can ask: (1) Why is this happening? (2) Why is this happening to me?

For example, I just had my second COVID vaccination. I am very grateful, especially given what is happening in India and Brazil, and wish everyone could be safe from this seemingly endless pandemic. But I am also waiting for the well known side effects to start kicking in … some people have none, others are laid up for a few days. Although monumentally better than catching (and spreading) COVID itself, nonetheless, like I said, I am waiting ….

If I do start feeling fatigued and feverish, by understanding karma I can accept (1) that this is happening because causes were created, and (2) it is happening to me (as opposed to somebody else who got the same shot but is getting off symptom-free) because I was the one who created these causes.

Following on from this article.

A natural law

Just to reiterate the basic teaching on karma: Buddha observed that if an action is motivated by a good intention, such as compassion, an experience of happiness results; but if an action is motivated by an intention that is out of whack with reality, aka deluded, it is the substantial cause of a suffering experience. Also, there are neutral actions that give rise to neutral experiences, such as wondering what work shirt to wear today above our sweatpants.

Karma is a natural law that governs us, like the law of gravity. It is not the same as fate or predestination because we can change our karma by understanding how it works. That wisdom gives us free will.

Buddha didn’t invent karma any more than Sir Isaac Newton invented gravity. At some point in our life we learn about the earth’s gravitational pull — big things like this planet attract small things like me. And from then on, to protect ourselves from unwanted suffering, ideally we act in accordance with this natural law, such as by not jumping off the top of the Empire State Building.

Nor is there any capricious supernatural lawgiver. Everything depends upon our own minds and intentions. As Geshe Kelsang says in The Mirror of Dharma:

No-one has the power or authority to say to living beings, ‘You should go to the human realm, the animal realm, the hell realm, or the god realm.’ Because of our previous different actions, or karma, accumulated since beginningless time we all take different rebirths and experience different sufferings.

Just as there is no one who is casting us off the Empire State Building, so according to Buddhism there is no one who is punishing us for our transgressions or rewarding us for our good behavior.

Suffering is created by our own actions or karma – it is not given to us as a punishment. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Therefore, there is no need to feel guilty. However, there is a need to understand. 

Why do bad things happen to good people?

When talking with other people about karma, it is important to do so sensitively. This is because when explained skillfully, it is very empowering and releases people; but when it is not, it can do the opposite — although logical, it can sound brutally unfair. For why do bad things happen to good people?

At a day course on karma recently a friend noticed a participant with his head in his heads and, asking him if he was ok, saw that he was crying. He told her he had a disabled son and was very upset by the teaching for suggesting that it was his son’s fault. His son is gentle and kind and he couldn’t bear to hear people suggesting that he somehow deserved this suffering. It was heartbreaking.

What would you have replied?

My friend said that we needed to take past lives into account — that it was not his son but a perfect stranger, really, in his son’s mental continuum who had created the causes for disabilities in this life. She also tried to explain how precious it is to have a human life and the story of the turtle and the golden yoke, meaning that someone in his son’s continuum must also have done many wonderful things, even more so to be born to such a loving father.

Other suggestions in response to my friend’s post on Facebook were to understand that all our negative actions are caused by our enemies, the delusions, and we are not our delusions, meaning that no intrinsically bad person created the karma. It was not his fault but the fault of delusions.

Moreover, there is no judgment – not just because it is our delusions that are to blame, but because all of us samsaric beings are in the same boat and have created a long history of similar deluded actions. They just haven’t ripened for us yet.

Far from feeling that this man’s son is inherently bad or deserving of his disability, taking karma into account can deepen our compassion (and our renunciation). This is because we develop a wish for ourselves and others to be freed not just from whatever is ripening to hurt us now, but from the causes of our suffering, delusions and karma. These are the chains that will bind all of us in all realms to suffering perpetually until we learn how to dismantle them.

Internal locus of control

Another person replied that on the other hand it can be a relief to understand about karma being created in previous lives as an explanation for their suffering now. Otherwise if we suffer a trauma or continuous ill health we just think we’re unlucky or being punished. We now have a ‘scientific’ explanation for it, which can be healing to hear and allow us to do something practical.

Some social scientists say that one thing we can do to ensure success is to take responsibility for everything that comes our way—big and small. To take the reins of our life, they believe it’s important to maintain an “internal locus of control.” This refers to the belief that our own ability and efforts contribute directly to our success. Conversely, when something doesn’t go our way or we encounter adversity, we don’t hold factors beyond our control as responsible.

In an article from Inc. titled “Here’s How Highly Successful People Make Little Choices Different From the Rest of Us,” Christina DesMarais explains:

When you believe you alone are responsible for your circumstances [ie, an internal locus of control], you’ll make necessary changes in your life to achieve success. If you sit around blaming everyone else for your problems an—’external locus of control’—your situation will remain as it is.

This makes sense to me, but it may not work so effectively if we evaluate our actions in only a short-term way when effects seem far more random, such as good things happening to bad people and vice versa. But it is very effective to take ownership of our intentions and actions by taking karma into account, if we are ready to do that.

This isn’t fair!

Bad things happening to good people and vice versa leads a lot of people to shrug that it doesn’t matter what we do, what is the point of going out of our way to be kind? Don’t we live in some kind of a haphazard world where things happen accidentally, meaninglessly?

Truth is, nothing happens accidentally and there’s no such thing as co-incidence. Events happen systematically according to the definite albeit illusion-like laws of cause and effect, including certain laws of nature; and one such ubiquitous law is the law of karma. Because it has such a tremendous impact on every aspect of our lives, we are very much kept in the dark by trying to live without an in-depth understanding of its workings. We end up floundering in this life too, not understanding “Why is this happening!”, just as we have been blundering around in all our previous lives.

As I talk about in these articles,  this is not our first much less our only life – we have had countless lives, repeating the same mistakes that come from not understanding this natural law. By keeping an open mind to Buddha’s explanations, we can finally break free and create the future we want.

It’s karma so I won’t do anything about it

If misunderstood, observing the law of karma can even provide a false excuse to preserve the status quo, such as in the caste system in India. Or it can lead to a general lack of motivation to do anything practical to help ourselves and others because we think, “Oh it’s our karma, there’s nothing I can do.”

Related to this, earlier in the pandemic I heard some people say, “I’m not going to wear a mask because it is my karma whether or not I get COVID. I will take my chances.” More recently I have heard people say they won’t receive a shot for the same reason. Is this true?! What do you think?

This is what I think: understanding karma does NOT mean that we do nothing practical to help ourselves or others. I would argue the exact opposite — that it becomes even more compelling to work to end suffering, injustice, disease, cruelty, and so on, preferably motivated by wisdom and positivity and without attachment to results.

Moreover I think it’s just common sense to observe the valid conventions of our world, including its laws of cause and effect, because we are part and parcel of this world, not immune to pandemics or anything else. I could be wrong – happy to discuss — but to me it’s a bit fatalist, like someone smoking cigarettes saying they don’t need to quit because it’s their karma whether or not they die of lung cancer.

(At the very beginning of the pandemic, even before we all knew it was that serious, the person who seemed to be encouraging us the most to observe the COVID protocols was Geshe Kelsang himself.)

Over to you: would love to discuss this all with you. Per my earlier question, how would you explain to yourself or others how good things can happen to “bad” people and vice versa?

Related articles

Making karma work for us 

Living beings have no faults 

Precious human life  

How to hit the jackpot

8.5 mins read.

I do like this time of year – sitting in the Spring sunshine watching those moist bright green buds pop out hopefully from the skeleton trees. The seeds were clearly there all along, but now the conditions have come together for them to burgeon into the most beautiful flowers and leaves.

Carrying on from this article, Unlocking the power of intention.

These seeds remain dormant in our mind until the conditions for them to ripen occur, and then they produce their effect. In some cases, this can happen many lifetimes after the original action was performed. ~ Geshe Kelsang

Seeds ripen as sprouts sooner or later, with the assistance of some external conditions such as sunlight and moisture. Similarly, every time we intentionally do anything, we sow a seed in our field-like consciousness that later ripens as a crop-like experience when various conditions come together. If we have a kind intention, for example, this will ripen as a positive experience for us, such as receiving help. If we have an unkind intention, this will ripen as a suffering experience, such as receiving hostility.

We can sow the seeds for whatever beautiful healthy plants we want to ripen in our minds. We can also dig out the poisonous seeds with a bit of mental gardening – nothing is fixed.

(Those green buds also remind me of the ripening of everyone’s potential – most people just don’t realize yet what they have inside of them, how extraordinary they can be.)

Striking it lucky

It’s a good idea to nurture and feel happy about all the seeds you have sown already in this life and in previous lives – you did a lot of pretty awesome things just to be sitting here in this rare precious human life, for a start. You already hit the karmic jackpot.

And ever since you were born in this life, every moment of love where you have wished others to be happy, for example, has created the causes for so much happiness. As a matter of fact, our mental actions are hundreds of times more powerful than our physical and verbal actions. As an illustration of this, it is said that generating real love for all living beings for one moment creates more merit, or good karma, than feeding all living beings three meals a day. (Nothing to stop us loving people and feeding them, by the way.)

Or how many seeds of faith have we already sown in the Field of Merit (focusing on the vast assembly of enlightened beings), including just requesting their help? This opened our mind to blessings at the time and sowed the seeds for whatever it is we asked for.

Or those times we’ve thought about emptiness, the mere absence of all the things we normally see – just doubting inherent existence causes samsara to shake! Not to mention any time we may have done a Tantric sadhana, creating potent causes for the Pure Land.

Everything is continually growing and evolving, so who knows when all those good seeds we have already planted will ripen? Far from being fatalistic, understanding karma gives us agency. It gives us hope.

Life after life after life

Buddha gave detailed explanations through which we can understand the connection between our actions performed in previous lives, either virtuous or non-virtuous, and our experiences in this life, either happiness or suffering. ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

If we understand this natural law we can use it to our advantage and gain full control of our actions and lives. If we don’t, we keep being swept along by the winds of karma as helplessly as a leaf in a typhoon.

Buddha understood and explained how our intentions and their resultant experiences don’t just play out over one lifetime and in one world. This body you are sitting in is not the only body you have ever had or will have, nor is this the only life. We’ve already had countless dreamlike bodies and lives and will be having countless more. As Voltaire put it:

It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.

(Talking of which, a friend recently recommended a Netflix documentary called Surviving Death, especially Episode 1 ‘Near Death Experiences’ and Episode 6 ‘Reincarnation’. I just watched a bit so far but you might find it interesting.)

Yesterday has gone. Tomorrow has not yet been born. Today, moment by moment, is appearing from the ripening of potentials in my mind. We are not moving around in a real or permanent world — nothing is actually out there or static, instead life is momentarily unfurling like a dream. What comes up for me today has less to do with what I do today than what I did in the past. What I do today, meantime, is creating the causes for all manner of future experiences.

A few days ago, I, in Denver, was chatting to a Brazilian friend in the UK, when another American friend just happened to walk past and I just happened on a whim to introduce them — maybe because they sort of remind me of each other and are both passionate about animals. One of them enquired about the other’s last name, the same as her mother’s unusual maiden name; and it turns out that their families come from the same small village of Ganci in Sicily. What are the chances?! It is no coincidence — simply the ripening of collective karma to be in the right place at the right time to meet a long-lost cousin.

All living beings have been our mothers, for that matter. Below the surface where we usually hang out, there is an infinite web of karmic relationships. We often deny ourselves that depth, richness, and connection in our lives, but it’s there.

Everyone is unique

Most humans already have a general sense of karma; it makes intuitive sense that what we put out there should come back to us sooner or later. Buddhists believe that our karma plays itself out over many lifetimes, but we can also see instances of karma operating within one lifetime.

The law of karma explains why each individual has a unique mental disposition, a unique physical appearance, and unique experiences. These are the various effects of the countless actions that each individual has performed in the past. We cannot find any two people who have created exactly the same history of actions throughout their past lives, and so we cannot find two people with identical states of mind, identical experiences, or identical physical appearances. ~ How to Transform Your Life 

Each of us is unique, like snowflakes. Even identical twins who have the same nature and moreorless the same nurture still have their own experiences, personalities, tendencies, and life spans — a unique and complex summation of their individual and collective karma. Despite all the same caregivers, genes, education, toys, parental love, etc — ie, even with all else being equal — they can and generally do end up being completely different. Karma also goes deeper and explains why two people are born as twins in the first place.

Geshe Kelsang gives the example of two siblings going into business. They have the same education and resources and do the same things, but one becomes wealthy and the other goes bankrupt. What accounts for this? Nothing external.

Luck and bad luck are descriptions, not explanations. The explanation is that one sibling previously created the causes of wealth—giving—and the other created the causes of poverty—stealing or miserliness. They created a different set of actions, so they had different karmic effects.

(This doesn’t mean that the bankrupt sibling hasn’t also planted the seeds for wealth and vice versa – they may well have, it’s just that these have not yet ripened.)

We know things are not really handed to us on a plate for no reason, so what is that reason?! What we believe it is will determine what we do with our lives. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in Ocean of Nectar:

If our enjoyments were the result of this life’s endeavors alone, anyone who strove to became rich would succeed; yet there are many people who work hard at business with no success, while there are others who seem to accumulate wealth with almost no effort. This is because wealth is the result of giving in former lives.

We read this and maybe we even think we believe it, but the proof is in the pudding – do we act according to it? How much time do we (do I) spend putting effort into gathering external conditions for success compared with the internal conditions for success, such as giving? Today, for example – did I just push on through trying to fix everything on the outside with uncertain results, or was I mindful of my intentions and where these were certainly leading me?

Each person has a different individual karma. Some people enjoy good health while others are constantly ill. Some people are seen as very beautiful while others are seen as very ugly. Some people have a happy disposition that is easily pleased while others have a sour disposition and are rarely delighted by anything. Some people easily understand the meaning of spiritual teachings while others find them difficult and obscure. ~ How to Transform Your Life

I’ve heard people say things like, “I had a karmic thing happen once! I stole a lollipop and …” Or “It was karma, meeting that love of my life!” Yes, it was. But so is everything else. Karma affects every part of our life all the time.

Just so you know, I am laying some groundwork in these first few articles on karma, and then I intend to apply this basic understanding to different areas in our life and spiritual practice, and answer some common questions. That’s the plan, anyway!

Meantime, over to you ~ I would love to have your comments and questions in the box below 🙂

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