(Para leer este artículo en español utilice este link.)
This article is celebrating the life and death of Gen Kelsang Tharpa. He is the oldest friend I have, and we shared many sweet, humorous, profound moments together, as well as many wild adventures. I feel honored to be able to share some affectionate thoughts about my dear friend.
I met Gen Tharpa when I first arrived at Manjushri Institute in 1983. I had a burning desire to realize emptiness and become enlightened. At that time he was involved in teaching the Geshe studies program, and was teaching a course on Buddhist logic (Ta.Rig). I promptly joined the class.
In the early days at Manjushri, he was affectionally nicknamed “Yogi” because he loved meditation so much. Even then, all those decades ago, Yogi’s other-worldly and mystical side was showing its presence. Although he had a very gentle manner, his speech was powerful, and he soon became a leader in the community.
Shortly after arriving I became ordained. I found it a challenging time in my ordination, and Tharpa, with his laughter, lightheartedness, and kindness, was one of the people who kept me on track in the early days.
At heart, Gen Tharpa was a mystic. The flow of his energy was deep and powerful. He had a floating dreaminess that was attuned to understanding the mysteries of life and of death. He possessed the eternal patience of a single drop of water that wears away rock. Over the years, this patient and deep exploration of Dharma caused a profound and deep wisdom to begin to grow within him.
People would sometimes get exasperated with his inability to conform with their expectations. Little did they know that it was just because he was marching to the beat of a different drum …. a drum with a gentler, almost mirthful beat, that was not of this world. A drum that was very different from the manic cacophony a lot of us seem to march to.
Discussing emptiness with Gen Tharpa for any length of time would begin to re-shape reality. Another of his old friends told me: “One summer during ITTP (the International Teacher Training Program), while studying the Chittamatrins, Yogi and I were discussing every day how everything is the nature of mind. Life felt very spacey (in a good way) for weeks.”
Back in the early days, we travelled to India together to do pilgrimage. It was a profound and deeply bonding experience. We travelled with two other monks and went on a wild excursion to Massed Vultures Mountain, where Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras over 2500 years ago. We did Offering to the Spiritual Guide puja on top of the mountain.
Our conversations were mostly harmonious and friendly, but not always. Traveling back from Massed Vultures Mountain on the overnight train, I was slipping gratefully into an exhausted sleep, only to find myself suddenly pulled out of it by Gen Tharpa in the bunk above mine — doing his pujas and singing OM MANI PEME HUM really loudly. Indignant, I yelled, “Yogi! You just woke me up!” He smiled innocently: “I was just singing the mantra to lull you to sleep.” Yes, Gen Tharpa was marching to the beat of a different drum!
His natural courage, faith, and wisdom combined to summon the quiet strength and determination to deal with the challenges of life. A major challenge was his health …
Gen Tharpa had severe allergies to food, dust, and chemicals. For most of the 40 years I knew him, every day involved strict adherence to a very restrictive diet and strict vigilance towards external conditions. Often he would get ill from meeting even the smallest unfavorable conditions. Sometimes very ill.
He was very stoic with his illness. Illness was one of the main teachers in Tharpa’s life. Illness could not subdue him, so it taught him about the truth of Buddha’s words. When I reflect on this, I begin to think that if someone asked me to utter a word that summarized his life it would be this, VICTORY.
Maintaining his health involved strict discipline; however, rigidity was against his nature — he could never maintain strict discipline in a rigid manner. What I admired about him was his ability to adhere to strict discipline, but in an easy-going flexible way. He would naturally take a nap, rest a bit, eat some basic food, do some meditation, go for a walk, etc. The combination of his natural easy-going nature with a knowledge of his physical limitations and need for structure made him flow through the day, rather than stumble through it awkwardly. It was like watching a river flowing.
This quality of being flexible yet firm also appeared in his style of working with people. There was not an ounce of rigidity in him, yet he could be determined and tenacious. Combined with his skill with people and his inner courage, he was able to bring harmony to places of discord and strife.
He had the depth and vastness of mind to handle the intensity of another person’s strongest feelings, and hold the space for them to do deep inner work. With a rare combination of genuine compassion and pragmatism, he was able to help others navigate their spiritual lives and make genuine progress on the path to enlightenment.
Over the decades we have had many deep, enjoyable, and sometimes downright hilarious discussions about Dharma. Of all these conversations, one in particular changed me. We were talking about prayer and Tharpa shared an epiphany.
He described the suffering of this life as inevitable for most people. With his spaced-out and totally focused expression, he said that we often cannot protect the people we love the most. That we cannot stop their aging, their pain, their death.
There was a brief silence in the conversation. Tharpa slurped another spoon of his green spirulina soup, and I nodded wisely while contemplating the best way to fit a jumbo-sized veggie burger into my mouth. After a few moments of serious munching we resumed. He looked at me with that delightful other-worldly twinkle in his eye and said, “The way to help them is not to grieve, but to pray that we can meet them in future lives and teach them Dharma.” Maybe a basic point, but that is the moment it took root in my heart.
Gen Tharpa was one of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s first disciples. In Offering to the Spiritual Guide there is a verse:
O Protector, wherever you manifest as a Buddha,
May I be the very first in your retinue;
And may everything be auspicious for me to accomplish without effort,
All temporary and ultimate needs and wishes.
There is no doubt in my mind that in a previous life Tharpa sat making this prayer with deep sincerity and devotion. The life he has just lived and left is certain proof of that.
Being born among the Spiritual Guide’s first disciples is an experience of unusual good fortune. That does not mean it is easier. Often it is harder, and requires a disciple with strong faith and plenty of guts. The first disciples are entrusted with the responsibility of being the first emissaries of the Guru in what can be an uncomprehending society. Tharpa grew up in a time where there were no Dharma books, two or three Centers, not much by way of a Sangha support network, and many superstitions and myths about what Tibetan Buddhism actually was. Yet he triumphed, and shared what he learned with many others.
Three weeks ago, we video-chatted. He had just left hospital where he had been diagnosed with cancer and arrived back at Madhyamaka Centre where he was the resident teacher. Obviously he was happy to be back home, but something was different. His happiness was deep and almost other-worldly. It reminded me of a deep river, gentle, smooth, yet unstoppable. I think he gained a realization, and he was ready to go because he had gained that realization. Subsequent to his death, other people told me similar things…
“He was less in this world and more peaceful. He seemed happy that something was going to change. In retrospect, it was as if he was saying goodbye. As if he was getting ready to leave.”
“He had made peace with his illness and suffering. It was not his enemy any longer.”
After Gen Tharpa passed away, over many days and in many different places people practiced the Powa transference of consciousness puja. He was so well loved.
I have absolute conviction that he is in a Pure Land, that he was guided there by Geshe-la shortly after he left his physical body. Probably Keajra because he loved the practices of Heruka and Vajrayogini so deeply.
Gen Tharpa was wise, unorthodox, courageous, and profoundly philosophical. My dear friend, I am a better person for having known you.
A short clip of Gen Tharpa talking about transforming death
When we practice Highest Yoga Tantra, we are learning to do all our meditations and indeed live our lives from a more blissful place. (If that isn’t appealing, I don’t know what is.) As well as making everything more fun, bliss is a naturally concentrated mind so it helps us with all our meditations, not just realizing emptiness, though that is its chief purpose. In generation stage, this bliss arises from faith and correct imagination. In completion stage it becomes the real deal — spontaneous great bliss — which arises from the drops melting and flowing within the central channel and functions to dispel mistaken appearance. This is the blissful mind that Buddha is referring to in this famous quote:
If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere.
Just to get us caught up … In Sutra, we use the cycle of Lamrim meditations to develop the compassionate wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings and use this conventional bodhichitta to meditate on the emptiness of all phenomena, which is called ultimate bodhichitta or the perfection of wisdom. With this good heart and wisdom, we are ready for Highest Yoga Tantra.
Having mixed our mind with our Guru’s mind, we manifest our clear light of bliss first through imagination (generation stage) and then through manipulating our channels, winds, and drops (completion stage), and use this to meditate on emptiness. Because the clear light mind has no mistaken appearances, it naturally and directly mixes with emptiness like water mixing with water, the union of bliss and emptiness, the higher perfection of wisdom.
From this we arise as the Deity (Tantric Buddha) in the Pure Land and meditate on clear appearance and divine pride to overcome ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions. Furthermore, we understand that this appearance is non-dual with bliss and emptiness; they are not two objects but one, like blue being merely a manifestation of empty sky, empty sky appearing. As Venerable Geshe-la says:
Unmistaken appearance is this.
This is the union of appearance and emptiness, and meditating on it is the real quick path to enlightenment.
The clear light of bliss
Sutra is just incredible and so so necessary, and we can go a long way and become a very happy person with these meditations. However, we are doing all our meditations with grosser levels of mind and so Sutra is not the quick path. In fact, we cannot realize emptiness directly or non-conceptually with our gross mind because it still has dualistic appearances, like seeing something through spectacles. And we cannot attain the final result of enlightenment with our gross mind because is our very subtle mind that actually becomes the Truth Body of a Buddha — our gross and subtle minds have to dissolve away permanently.
As I was saying in the last article, our own very subtle mind is naturally blissful but at the moment we cannot use it. So, we learn to deliberately awaken or manifest it in meditation, and this clear light of realization is blissful, powerful, and completely undistracted. Free from mistaken appearances, it mixes effortless with emptiness, the true nature of things, like space mixing with space. This is actual Mahamudra or ultimate bodhichitta. This mind is so powerful, and it is mixed with reality, so we can attain enlightenment very quickly, in a matter of a few years.
Dissolving the Guru
By the way, these articles are general and introductory, I am not explaining the techniques of the practice. For this you can read Modern Buddhism or one of the longer Tantric commentaries, having received empowerments or be intending to receive them next time around (eg, in Australia next year).
Our Spiritual Guide Heruka comes to our crown and descends through our central channel like a drop of dew flowing down a blade of grass, until he arrives in our heart channel wheel (Skt. chakra). As this happens, our mind becomes increasingly blissful and subtle. All of our grasping at ordinary appearances is loosened. We let go of the dreamlike hallucinations of the gross mind.
Guru Heruka mixes with our root mind in our heart and we experience his union of great bliss and emptiness. If you like, you can envisage our awareness as a small muddy stream flowing into a vast ocean of bliss and emptiness – who wins?! As a result, we imagine that we feel blissful. If you like, you can increase this bliss by transforming enjoyments as explained here.
We can remember that this bliss arises from the melting of the drops in the central channel. Unlike all our other minds, it is also free from dualistic appearances — which means that only the truth, emptiness, is appearing to it.
As Gen Rabten said in his profound Festival retreat recently:
We completely let go, deeply relax, forget the self we have grasped at, the world we believed in, the samsara we feared. Even our own name, we forget. We become an unbounded, infinite ocean of bliss and emptiness. This infinite unbounded expanse of perfect peace, of exquisite stillness, is definitive Heruka. It is the Truth Body, the Dharmakaya. It is our real self.
We are imagining the Dharmakaya at this point, but it is correct imagination because it is based on the wisdom of emptiness and is also mixed with the definitive Guru, the Dharmakaya of all enlightened beings. This is a legitimate experience because (a) our world is not outside our mind and (b) our mind is mixed with our Guru’s mind. The key to unlock the secrets of the universe really is Guru yoga.
Permission to let go
I want to stress something at this point. Because this is a legitimate experience, we have permission to drop all ordinary appearances and conceptions completely and without guilt. There are no suffering relatives, no Afghanistan, no painful body, no unlovable self, etc etc, whom we are now ignoring. This is the direct antidote to all that hallucination.
There is no ordinary world somehow beyond or outside this world, all phenomena are gathered and absorbed into the truth. Identifying with this is correctly identifying our self — a self utterly unlike our normal self because it is mere appearance inseparable from the emptiness of all phenomena. There is no here/there, no self/other, no mind/object, no inside/outside, etc. There is no duality at all. We have permission to let go. The Guru and Deities can then take over.
When we later arise from this meditation, our ordinary body, world, to-do list, politics, and so on will appear again and we can relate to and deal with these, especially as they affect others. But we don’t need to go back to thinking of them as any more than mere name and mistaken appearances. It doesn’t help anybody to go back to grasping at these hallucinations as real.
This is the best way to actually get rid of suffering – even temporarily, let alone permanently. It is the only way, as far as I can see. Without this, the cobwebs of delusion and contaminated karmic appearances will spread forever and the only choice we will have is to try and make ourselves and others comfortable within these sticky deathtraps. It is very hard work. It is demoralizing, one sticky step forward, one sticky step back. And it is ultimately futile.
Samsara is vast and living beings are countless – so trying to help a few people or even 100 or 1000 people is never going to be enough, like helping a few drops in an ocean, and temporarily at that. It doesn’t mean that we don’t do it, of course, because everyone is important, and Bodhisattvas can and must help on different levels. But we can keep in mind that the only way to stop suffering once and for all is to drain the entire ocean of samsaric suffering (including the lower realms) through meditating on bliss and emptiness. We have then realized the deepest meaning of our human life.
The meditation on bliss and emptiness is not make-believe but the truth. For one thing, it is all our usual mistaken appearances that are gross hallucinations of the root mind, not this. To understand this, we need to keep studying the mind and how everything is the nature of the mind and mere appearance or projection. For another, we are using our Guru’s mind, so we don’t need to lack confidence. We are tuning into definite Heruka/enlightenment. From his perspective we are already an aspect of the Dharmakaya, and we are now sharing this perspective.
I think we need to give ourselves permission to let go in meditation or we will stay distracted by ordinary conceptions, whether a lot or just faintly. Even if not completely off-topic, there will still be that niggling need to sort things out solely by ordinary means: “After this admittedly enjoyable meditation, I must get back to real work, write that report, pick up the kids, pay those bills …”
We have left suffering behind. Which means that it has actually disappeared and gone out of existence because there is no longer any basis for it.
We need to give ourselves permission to trust this meditation. To trust Guru Buddha. To trust the generations of Bodhisattvas and Yoginis who have done this and discovered to their delight that it worked.
We keep training in all the components of both Sutra and Tantra separately as well – especially refuge, renunciation, compassion, and wisdom. But we can remember that they all culminate in or funnel into this meditation. Unmistaken appearance is this. All other appearances are mistaken.
This meditation is a bit like a transcendental worm hole to another galaxy, except that as soon as we’re there we realize the previous suffering galaxy was just a simulation. And the one before that. And all of them. Even the dimension we are in now is a simulation, except this one now pervades reality. It IS reality because we have realized the truth and become one with it. That is enlightenment.
Highest Yoga Tantra requires a lot of faith or trust. A surrender into bliss and emptiness. I am not talking about bind or instant faith, but a faith that is built up through our own gradual authentic experiences of Sutra and Tantra. And our own trust in our Tantric Spiritual Guide as someone who really does know what they are talking about.
This meditation also depends on our understanding of emptiness, of course. So we have to keep learning about the emptiness of our body, our self, and all phenomena, and keep applying what we learn, not leave it abstract.
The red alarm button
Once our mind mixes with our Guru’s mind of bliss and emptiness, if we like, and if we are about to engage in a detailed first bringing, we can envisage this appearing as a red letter BAM or blue letter HUM. We also concentrate on these so-called seed letters when we do completion stage meditations to bring all the energy winds into the central channel and manifest the actual clear light of bliss. Like the Deity, seed-letters and mantra are also not other than bliss and emptiness appearing.
My adorable mother has a red alarm button by her bed in case she gets too confused, overwhelmed, or anxious — help comes straightaway if she remembers to press it. The red letter BAM at the heart is the bliss and emptiness of the Guru’s mind mixed with ours and contains everything and everyone. When we remember to press (or concentrate on) it, everything disappears into transcendent bliss and emptiness for ourselves and everyone else. The virtual reality of mistaken appearances immediately evaporates because it’s not there to begin with.
My dad said the other day that the world is “very untidy”. Concentrating on the letter BAM dissolves and purifies everything and everyone – we can just press on it whenever the world gets too overwhelming. We are going deeper, to the source of the illusion, the source of all this untidiness, and unplugging it.
Even if we are a regular superhero, we cannot tidy up this world without doing this. Take Mrs Incredible’s word for it:
No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for… for ten minutes!
What is Buddha’s sense of self?
From that vast space of bliss and emptiness, the purified mistaken appearance of all phenomena which is Buddha’s Truth Body, we now appear as the Form Body, Heruka or Vajrayogini, with a blue or red-colored body and so on, like in a dream. We do this entirely out of compassion for others.
(Quick note: A Buddha has four bodies – the Wisdom Truth Body (Skt. Dharmakaya), the Nature Truth Body (Skt. Svavahikaya), the Enjoyment Body (Skt. Sambhogakaya), and the Emanation Body (Skt. Nirmanakaya). You can think of these not as corporeal but like a “body of water”, ie, an accumulation of water. The Truth Body is a body or accumulation of bliss and emptiness, for example.)
To begin with, this experience is probably not that dissimilar to our present experience – instead of being Luna with a meaty body sitting in my attic apartment, I am now a blue-colored Deity sitting in a mandala. However, for Buddha, there is no difference in feeling between being the Emanation Body and the Truth Body – they are one object, with two different names.
Practically speaking, arising as Heruka or Vajrayogini in that universe is utterly unlike being Luna in this universe because our sense of self pervades all phenomena, including all environments, enjoyments, activities, and other beings. These specific visualizations are deeply rich and beneficial, as I explain more here. Manifestations or embodiments of all the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra, they increase our experience of these minds — including bliss and emptiness — rather than taking us away from them. However, they are still mere name, mere appearance not other than the (bliss and) emptiness of all phenomena.
One thing that can maybe help us into this experience: In the first bringing according to the long Vajrayogini sadhana Quick Path to Great Bliss, our mind the letter BAM expands until it reaches the ends of space and beyond, dissolving everything into bliss and emptiness. Then it contracts back into emptiness. This is our own mind expanding and contracting – and our sense of self pervades space, is beyond space, infinite. There is no sense of me inside this pure universe and samsara remaining outside. There is no sense of me over here and the mandala and Deities over there. As with the Truth Body, there is no here/there, up/down, inside/outside. We can really contemplate the layered meanings of non-dual and we’ll come to discover that Buddha’s sense of self is utterly different to the self we normally grasp at.
In other words, there is no actual difference in feeling between our self as infinite bliss and emptiness and ourself as Vajrayogini or Heruka.
Not feeling like the maid
As Gen Rabten said:
With a blissful relaxed mind, without any grasping, we enjoy our emptiness appearing ourselves as a Conqueror Buddha, destroyer of samsara, protector of all living beings. We are surrounded by our retinue inside our celestial mansion as vast as space.
We hold this clear appearances with concentration because it a direct antidote to ordinary appearances. We don’t need to be in any rush to get back to our ordinary world – we should never meditate in a hurry, especially not now. This is the possibly the most important activity in the world. Our actions of mind are in any case thousands of times more powerful than actions of body and speech, so, even if this meditation is nowhere near perfect, we are creating umpteen potentials to be reborn in a Pure Land and free everyone.
We also do a beautiful practice called the yoga of purifying migrators where we instantly fill all living beings with blessings. The only reason we have gone to this trouble of becoming a fully enlightened being is to help others in this way — it is the very definition of enlightenment:
Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and whose function is to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day. ~ Modern Buddhism
Stay on the Dharma side
Approximately 4 decades ago as a new Buddhist, I stumbled upon this verse, a praise to Je Tsonkghapa, and stuck it on my wall at Madhyamaka Centre because I love it so much:
Your mind on bliss and emptiness inseparable
The flow of events appeared as a rainbow.
One body sends endless clouds of emanations
To set this world ablaze with joy.
~ A Song Rapidly Invoking Blessings by Lama Gyalwa Kelsang Gyatso, the 7th Dalai Lama
During the day, if we stay on the Dharma side like this, as Venerable Geshe-la recommends, we can focus on one person at a time as usual. We definitely do cherish the individual people around us, we get through our to-do lists and do the practical physical and verbal actions to help as many people as we can. But we don’t have to get sucked back into believing this is all real such that we get overwhelmed again, trying to figure things out piecemeal, shiffling around in the cobweb.
Is this escapism?
Before we have a deep realization of emptiness, we might be concerned that our meditation in general and Tantra in particular is a form of escapism. But it’s not. We are not escaping reality but going to its heart. You don’t need to worry — all the things you normally see will reappear again soon enough, probably minutes after the meditation! Including all this world’s small and big problems alike. But we can believe it less and less.
If we take the time to go looking for anything, we will not find it. There is nothing actually there — everything is mere name not other than emptiness. Everything is like a dream. Yet sentient beings are suffering because they believe the hallucination is real. The Awakened Ones, or enlightened beings, are trying to wake us all up.
Our renunciation and compassion are utterly genuine and pervade this practice, giving it its meaning.
Have you noticed how in Sci Fi movies heaven is often depicted like lakes and mountains in Italy or an opulent country club in Florida? So pleasant! Nothing ever goes wrong again! Everyone is so polite! You can do whatever you want forever! You can bounce around on a cloud! (Happily oblivious to the poor sods left on earth.) And of course people tire of this because it is meaningless.
Plus we haven’t “made it” at all — an environment, enjoyments, and body perceived to be outside of the mind, however pleasant, just generates the suffering of change, naturally leading to existential boredom sooner or later. How much time can you spend on a beach, for example?!
Going to the Pure Land is not like this at all. It is realizing that all appearances are the nature of bliss and emptiness. Our aim is not to end up wandering around in some scenic god-like realm with ice cream on tap, but to become one with reality so that we can draw everyone to that state.
I find this verse helpful to remember in the meditation break:
Through the wheel of sharp weapons of the exalted wisdom of bliss and emptiness,
Circling throughout the space of the minds of sentient beings until the end of the aeon,
Cutting away the demon of self-grasping, the root of samsara,
May definitive Heruka be victorious. ~ The New Essence of Vajrayana
I want to finish this (sorry) long article with some reassurance from Gen Rabten:
“Many of you have received these empowerments for the first time, so it’s possible we don’t have much familiarity and the thought “I am Heruka” is a quiet thought compared to the loud thought ‘I am not Heruka and my knee hurts’. These meditations are however having a powerful impact on the mind. Many people have been doing this for years, and an ebb and flow are usual. Energy can wane and enthusiasm slip away, and we can lose conviction — then maybe we receive an empowerment and get back into it. All that is normal. And it can really help us to know that every moment we spend in these meditations we are obliterating our samsara, actively cutting through the chains that bind us to suffering, even if it doesn’t feel that way.”
Apparently we are out of space and time, but I do have more up my sleeve for another day if you’re still there.
Over to you – would love your comments, feedback, questions, and so on.
Since I last wrote about Highest Yoga Tantra a month ago, a lot of you have received the empowerments and commentaries and even done some retreat. I hope you had an eye-opening and inspiring time in the mandala, whether you were in one of the Temples or sitting home with the dog. Tantra is not exactly simple breathing meditation, and can be a little unusual if you’re not used to it; so I hope you are asking lots of questions! It occurs to me that this article may now be redundant as you will have received teachings on all of this (and those teachings are still available until September 4). But perhaps it can serve as a reminder or a discussion opener.
Our mind is continually circling through different levels, gross, subtle, and very subtle. As explained in that last article, the Tantric journey, both our gross mind and subtle mind are mistaken awarenesses all the time. They cannot be unmistaken awareness because they always have mistaken appearance. They cannot help but perceive — or have appear — inherently existent objects, and inherently existent objects do not exist.
We are basically hallucinating, seeing things that are not there.
It’s not just our ignorance and other delusions that perceive inherent existence – even our gross virtuous minds perceive everything to be solid and real. For example, even though the mind of compassion itself does not apprehend inherently existent beings, living beings still appear to it to be independent of the mind.
Still, that’s a huge step up from our delusions – within all our delusions there is not just the appearance but an actual apprehension of inherent existence. We are not just seeing things that are not there but apprehending or believing them. And Buddha identified this as the source of all suffering.
The last article left off on a bit of a cliffhanger, with Geshe Kelsang concluding:
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.
Which begs the question:
What is the real meaning of our human life?
Which brings us to the explanation of our very subtle mind.
Our very subtle mind
The very subtle mind is so called because it is extremely difficult to recognize. Without the very subtle mind we would have no life because our gross and subtle minds cannot hold our life. This is because they are only temporary minds, and very unstable. They suddenly arise and quickly disappear like clouds in the sky. Therefore, only our very subtle mind holds our life continuously throughout the day and night, and in life after life until we become an enlightened Buddha. ~ How to Understand the Mind
Our very subtle mind is like a foundational consciousness – the root mind from which all our other levels of mind arise. It is completely stable – traveling from life to life, carrying our karma. Although it is impermanent, changing moment by moment, it is eternal in that it never ends. Once fully purified it becomes the omniscient awareness of a Buddha.
When we become a Buddha our very subtle mind will become a Buddha’s mind and our very subtle inner wind will become a Buddha’s body. Our very subtle mind, or ‘continuously residing mind’, is therefore our Buddha nature.
Our very subtle body and mind are our actual Buddha nature because they are what transform into a Buddha’s body and mind, they are the actual ingredients!
Since our very subtle inner wind, or ‘continuously residing body’, will never die we have a deathless body that is our own body. In truth, our present body is a part of our parents’ bodies, and so it belongs to our parents and not to us.
Don’t tell them that! Lol. I spent a lot of this Summer with my wonderful, aged parents – a useful reminder that this meaty body is going in the same direction as theirs, it’s just a younger version. Kadam Bridget told a friend that our parents help us into this life and we eventually help them out of it, with any luck into a good next life.
These bodies are, in other words, entirely perishable, no shelf life worth talking about. Our very subtle body and mind, on the other hand, are entirely indestructible. Although we are completely unaware of this amazing fact until it is pointed out by Buddha, we have always had and can never lose this Buddha nature.
Our very subtle mind – our Buddha nature – is very precious, like a priceless jewel, but we cannot recognize it unless we engage in special methods for recognizing it that Buddha explained in his Highest Yoga Tantra teachings.
Geshe Kelsang is referring here to the completion stage meditations of Highest Yoga Tantra, through which we can deliberately gather and dissolve our inner winds into the central channel.
When all our inner winds completely dissolve into the central channel through the force of meditation, all our gross and subtle minds will also dissolve, and our very subtle mind will naturally manifest. We will then be able to recognize it through our own experience.
Falling asleep, dropping dead
Whenever our very subtle mind manifests, it is “clear light” – so called because it is a clear perception and an inner light. Right now, our inner winds dissolve naturally when we fall asleep and as we die, but we don’t recognize the clear light that arise and we cannot do anything with it, more’s the pity.
However, we all go so deep – we already have within us this entirely blissful ingredient of Buddhahood and briefly experience it every night! When we sleep, our winds absorb, and this helps to get all our elements back into balance – it seems as though that clear light mind is restorative. However, we still have no clue it is there until someone is kind enough to point it out.
If we watch someone go to sleep, we know there is a gathering and absorption. You can see it sometimes – one minute someone is rushing around, the next they stop and absorb until their head flops over. They have “fallen” asleep. Not just kittens, though they are particularly good at it; this is everyone. And a similar thing happens when we die.
The winds are absorbing, but normally we have no control over that process. This is where Tantra comes in. We learn how to absorb our winds and manifest our clear light mind without losing control. When the winds dissolve into the central channel through the force of mediation, it is called the “clear light of realization” or “the clear light of bliss”. And we can use this powerfully blissful and concentrated mind to mix with and realize emptiness very quickly.
When we fall asleep or die, everything absorbs and dissolves — our winds absorb, and along with them all our gross minds and their objects, and then our subtle minds and their objects. We end up with the deepest or most subtle level of mind manifesting, the clear light mind, which is radiantly blissful.
Most importantly, the mind of clear light is naturally free from mistaken appearances or hallucinations and therefore the truth, emptiness, is naturally appearing to it!
Once we can use it, our clear light mind naturally mixes with or apprehends emptiness, the true nature of all things; and within that we have infinite blissful possibilities, including enlightenment.
This song by Pharrell Williams just came on in this cafe:
Clap along if you know that happiness is the truth.
Truth or reality is not mistaken appearance and suffering, but emptiness and bliss. Happiness IS the truth.
What to do?
Our problem is that it’s too hard for us to recognize the clear light, let alone use it. We miss it every night!
So what we need to do is manifest our clear light mind deliberately through meditation. We learn to do this in Tantra, especially completion stage Tantra, when we learn about all about our subtle body and how to manipulate our inner winds. Generation stage sets the scene by, amongst other things, blessing our subtle body of channels and drops so that it becomes very pliable and flexible.
Also, to begin with, with generation stage we can start to access this deep and powerful level of clear light through imagination. We imagine that our mind is the clear light of bliss mixed inseparably with Guru Heruka or Guru Vajrayogini’s mind at the level of our heart, and that we arise from that in the form of the Deity. We do many of our meditations at the level of our heart, slowly but surely bringing all our winds closer to our heart chakra; and then in completion stage we finish the job.
The first of the two stages of Highest Yoga Tantra — generation stage — is actually more complicated than completion stage, involving more visualizations and things to do. We might be tempted to jump straight into completion stage – how hard can it be to meditate on my central channel, drop, and indestructible wind and mind? But although these meditations seem simple, they don’t work if we don’t do generation stage first.
For example, while we remain identified with being an ordinary samsaric being, our inner energy winds that support mistaken or dualistic conceptions & appearances are going to be flowing through the left and the right channels and it will be impossible to bring them into the central channel where they need to be. (For more on inner winds, by the way, Tantric Grounds and Paths is a good book to study). To have success in completion stage, we need to view our gross body and subtle body as mere name not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, and that emptiness is mixed inseparably with great bliss. Wisdom winds can then flow through the central channel.
Practically, we train at first primarily in the generation stage practices of Heruka or Vajrayogini, using our wisdom, faith, and correct imagination, and motivated by renunciation and bodhichitta. We can start to sprinkle in a little completion stage, and eventually we will be able to just do completion stage.
There is some more general advice on generation stage here.
Controlling our death and rebirth
The heart of generation stage is a practice called the three bringings. The first is called bringing death into the path to the Truth Body, when we imagine we are actually going through the death process until we end up with Buddha’s clear light mind, which we use to meditate on emptiness. This might be my favorite practice – it is profound and blissful and has helped me more than anything to live in accordance with impermanence.
Tantric practitioners of yore would notoriously keep reminders of death such as skull cups, bone malas, and even thigh-bone trumpets 🙂 This meditation helps us stop grasping at this life and everything in it, and also creates powerful causes to be able to recognize and use the clear light of bliss when we die. If we practice the first bringing at death, it acts as a powa, or transference of consciousness, and we will definitely go to the Pure Land where we can finish our path to enlightenment.
Every day in our Tantric sadhana, we practice for our death. We imagine going through the death process exactly as it will happen when we die. First we can remind ourself that we are going to die and take rebirth anyway within a few years, months, or weeks. At which point, as our gross minds dissolve, all the objects of those minds will also dissolve. All the hallucinations we have been holding onto for dear life simply slip away in the time it takes for us to fall dead, whether that is a few minutes or a few hours.
This means all the appearances of this life – our body, our sense of self, everything we have done, everyone we have known – are all gone. It’s similar to what happens when we fall asleep, except of course when we die none of this comes back. Even if I have managed to accomplish everything I ever wanted in this life, it all goes away very quickly. Even if I have solved all my problems, the problems of my next life are now on their way. Death is the final separation of this body and our mind. The world doesn’t reappear as it is now – we take another body in another world and everything is brand new.
As we are going to die anyway, we now take control of that process and transform the continuum of our awareness. We die from this ordinary sense of self and this ordinary world and arise in the Pure Land. With the three bringings, Buddha taught us how to transform the process of dying, entering the intermediate state, and rebirth – “bringing” these levels of awareness into the quick path to enlightenment, the three bodies of a Buddha.
In Sutra we learn in general terms how to get out of samsara and help others. In Tantra we learn the mechanics for directly disrupting that cycle of consciousness which is going around and around in endless circles – indirectly with generation stage and then directly with completion stage. We get in there, as it were, at the weakest link – access via our clear light mind — and now use it to meditate on ultimate truth emptiness. This way we quickly and powerfully purify all mistaken appearances and — instead of beginningless and endless contaminated consciousness arising in suffering lives — we have broken free. Using the clear light of bliss to meditate on emptiness, we have woken up. We can now emanate bodies to help everyone.
Hopefully that gives you a better idea of why Highest Yoga Tantra is Buddha’s ultimate intention and is called “the quick path.” Everyone who has attained enlightenment has done so through these direct methods – what other way could there be to do it?
Thank you for reading all this! My apologies if I have made things more confusing – if I have, please ask questions or offer clarifications in the comments.
By now many of you know that Colin Chase died on Saturday. Because it turns out that this man is extraordinary, this past week has been a surreal, heart-breaking, yet also curiously peaceful journey for many hundreds of people. I can’t begin to capture this collective experience, but I can share what I thought about it at the time it was happening.
Wednesday August 11th: A devoted disciple of Venerable Geshe Kelsang had a motorcycle accident last night, on August 10th, leaving him with catastrophic brain damage.
I can’t believe I am writing those words. Not least because Colin Chase is also one of my closest friends.
I am going to write stuff down now because I have been making non-stop prayers and I will be praying again soon, and in the meantime I don’t know where else to put myself. I am so very sorry for all of you close family and friends, I think I can guess at some of how you feel.
I just spoke to him via phone. I knew what to say. But it’s not enough time. There’s so much more that was supposed to happen. There were still so many more conversations to be had, so many more adventures in the mandala, so many more mountains to climb. I even want to tell him about the strangeness that is going on now.
Colin made me laugh and was kind enough to find me humorous too. He has been a very reassuring, loving presence in my life, and not just mine, of course. He was a great listener. He genuinely loved helping people. You could learn a lot from watching him interact with others even in difficult negotiations or tense situations – smart, worldly-wise, diplomatic, always thoughtful. His effortless kindness is the first thing I noticed about him many years ago, watching him in some interaction I’ve now forgotten at Manjushri KMC, before we’d even exchanged a word. There is nothing he would not do to help bring about Geshe-la’s wishes to establish a Pure Land for all living beings. “I’m a believer!” he joked with me recently, and this combination of devotion and love made his life amazing. He was kinda epic, to be honest.
All appearances in my dream teach me that all my appearances while awake do not exist. Thus for me all my dream appearances are the supreme instructions of my Guru. ~ Lord of all Lineages
Last week Colin reminded me of the vivid dream I had when he was visiting in June. He said he had been thinking about it all the time since then. This was the dream as I recorded it at the time:
I was standing on the edge of the virtual reality show of this life, but a vast abyss of empty space had opened up that I knew plunged to all my previous rebirths. I was tipping over – I could scramble back on to this life or I could let go. For some reason I decided to let go and fall to see what was there.
I fell fast and was seeing all my human rebirths, thousands of appearances and versions of me as a different human being in different places doing different things, sometimes male, sometimes female, etc.
I wanted to stop before I got to all my previous lower realm rebirths, starting with animal rebirths — that felt too scary, as if I may not be able to get out again. So I went for refuge to ask to return to the albeit even more obviously temporary appearances of this current life.
A special aircraft appeared and the pilot told me to buckle up while he flew me back up past all those lives. We stopped at one life where he introduced me to someone who I recognized, though he didn’t recognize me yet – I could tell he was a previous different-looking version of a someone I know in this life. In that life I was a woman with yellow hair and a round face.
I asked the pilot why I hadn’t gone all the way to the lower realms and why he was able to appear so I could get back up to my human life; and he said it was because I had purified a lot of the karma of killing, which was protecting me from lower rebirth. However, he also cautioned that I didn’t necessarily have enough good karma next time to come straight back up if I fell again. I had used some up and needed to create more.
Past and future lives exist, I have believed in them for as long as I can remember. I felt the need for all of us to go for very strong refuge because this life is entirely dreamlike, fragile, and impermanent. And where we go/what appears to us depends entirely on our karma.
Colin asked how if I, with all my merit, might not be able to get easily back into the human realm if I fell, what chance did he have? I replied that he had created astonishing merit, far more than me. He replied by generously listing all the things he thinks I’ve done. I replied by listing his good qualities and accomplishments. Anyway, you get the drift. He was always rejoicing in other people, never pulling them down.
Death on our minds
And in the last few months, death was on his mind. We had several conversations about it, and the fleeting nature of this life and our fragile silly bodies. Including his knees – he was due for double knee replacements next week (August 17), repayment for a lifetime of daredevil bodily risks. Talking of which, I said he’d be needing a wheelchair if he insisted on having both knees done at the same time. “No, I won’t. I’ll have crutches.” “You do know how crutches work, right?!”
And now he lies in Newark hospital, the need for knee surgery gone.
In an astonishing coincidence, the main spiritual director of Newark Hospital happens to be a New York Sangha member, Helen, charged now with taking care of Colin and the family. Her assistant is called Tara.
Testament to his outsized role in our tradition, at very short notice hundreds of people attended Tara puja live at KMC New York City and at the upstate NY and Grand Canyon World Peace Temples or tuning in online. We could see KMC NYC’s beautiful city temple on one side of the screen and Colin on the other. All the way through puja his chest was exaggeratedly inflating and deflating with the life support machine. Seared into many minds now is the image of his beloved mother Marsha, same cheekbones and red hair, sitting by his bed and stealing glances at his poor damaged head. What a gift she gave us in Colin.
Colin’s vital signs improved during puja. That has to mean something, right?
Conversations on life and death
Like I said, over the last few months we were having conversations about the brevity of life, how quickly each decade had flown by, and how little time we had left. We are moreorless the same age and have both been caring for our mothers lately, in the front row seats to great old age. I hoped we’d grow old together, hanging out, building centers (the architects’ drawings just landed for KMC CO’s new building, and I would love nothing more right now than to hear what Colin has to say about them). At the same time I kinda figured that Colin might not stick around for the ravages of extreme old age.
I am still taken aback by how early he checked out and, if I’m honest, a trifle annoyed. When I sent a photo of him in Colorado in June to a mutual friend, he replied: “Should Colin really be climbing trees?!” Of course not, nor ignoring my protests to climb onto the roof of KMC Colorado’s new building (the views, though, turned out to be worth it.) Nor should he have been riding motorbikes between hip and knee surgeries, but I have to acknowledge that this was typical Colin. He was probably always set to go out in a blaze of glory (from his perspective, not so much ours). Sitting it out in an armchair for years wearing slippers was probably never going to happen.
Maybe his mother knew this too. I hope she did. I guess we all have to accept now that he was made to live fast and die too soon.
I just re-read the last text I had from Colin yesterday afternoon (August 10) on my way up this mountain for a week to look after four dogs and cats while attending the remainder of the Summer Festival:
“I am very happy that you’re getting away!! When you get settled, please let me know when we might connect again. Enjoy the mountains, and please say Hello for me. I miss them, and look forward to returning soon!”
He didn’t reply to the text I sent back at 7.39pm MST. Turns out he was climbing onto his motorbike. And it also turns out that I am not the one who is getting away.
A friend of mine is part of a healing energy group and they just spent time tuning into him. I don’t know if you believe in these things or not, but I am going to share this anyway because it honestly does sound just like Colin.
Curiously to their minds, because they are not Buddhists and don’t know Colin, they kept getting a strong message from him, “Be joyful!” After helping to clear out his chakras they normally infuse the person with a lot of energy, but they said that he was already completely full of positive energy and there was nothing to add. (They had no idea about the Tara pujas being held for him worldwide.) They also said that he was very determined. And the word “Rinpoche” kept coming to them, even though they didn’t know what it meant. (“Rinpoche” is the Tibetan word for “precious” and is applied to reincarnate Lamas.)
Today, Thursday Aug 12, I woke up today feeling hopeful that maybe Colin can be healed after all. I understand that quite a number of people dare share this optimism, quoting Colin’s lack of boundaries, how many crazy accidents he has pulled through before, and the power of the prayers. A lot of people are praying for his full recovery in today’s Tara prayers. Helen said today: “In general you do not come back from this and, if you do, you wish you hadn’t. But I’ve seen miracles. He is in the right hospital.”
Later on Thursday: But now, later this same day, we have heard the deeply sad news that the doctors could not stop the bleeding. Colin is brain dead. Again, I cannot believe I am writing these words, but Colin will be taken off life support tomorrow. Powa is planned for just after he dies.
The last time we spoke on the phone, Colin told me he had just spent a 14-hour day at KMC NYC making sure everyone could tune in online to the Vajrayogini empowerment and teachings. He was very happy and we talked for over an hour. Thousands of people received these empowerments, and to begin with he was doing all the tech himself. Then he handed it off to 3 people he’d trained — rejoicing in them when he saw them on CCTV (he loved his CCTV, lol) – and headed off to see his family.
It is no wonder that there is an outpouring of people now, saying “he helped me”; he was always there to help. Within minutes of arriving at a Festival he knew everyone and everyone knew him. He has been instrumental in the success of KMC New York City, from the day he turned up and went off roller blading on the hunt for a new building. For Colin, nothing was a problem. No vision was too big. He found that beautiful space in a huge cooperative skyrise, and not only managed to acquire it for the Center but also became the most important board member in the whole building. Later Greg showed up and took on all the day to day volunteer projects, allowing him to be full-on visionary along with KMC NYC’s wonderful EPC Simone.
I’m also going to go right ahead here and call out the quiet heroine Laurie, assistant AD, who worked tirelessly by Colin’s side the whole time he was there — never one to steal any limelight, she was nonetheless the right-hand woman to the right-hand man.
The barefoot Bodhisattva
In his occasional day job, Colin was a fixer for the one-percenters, so he often had plenty of resources. (Sometimes he was broke, too). However, that wasn’t his lifestyle and he was usually just trying to give money away. Colin’s leased apartment wasn’t really his – and indeed it never looked very lived in to me. Instead it hosted everyone and anyone who came through town, if they needed a place to stay. Colin was always barefoot, unless the occasion demanded shoes, such as the opera, when he might wear flip flops. He only drank sparkly water, no tea, coffee, or any other beverages. He would often camp at Festivals despite being easily able to afford something more comfortable. He loved sailing on the open seas. He loved the freedom of his motorbike. A few years ago he wanted to go riding in the Rockies:
Colin: Maybe you will consider taking a ride with me, through the mountains, if I reschedule my visit. xx Me: haha, i may consider it — but not sure about my precious human life 😃 Colin: You don’t trust me?!?! Me: aha, i do.
Colin told me, and I witnessed several times, that he didn’t really mind physical pain. During a painful lung infection a few years back, for example, he replied to my text: “In truth, I am fine now. My body just has a few challenges. There are so many people out there, who are truly suffering.”
He was astonishingly successful and made everything fun at the same time. A friend told me that he reminded her of what Heruka would be like if you met him:
“He managed to make everyone feel happy and strong. When you were around him, that was the quality he had. He was heroic and gave you what you needed, whether that was a hug if you were cold or helping to negotiate a million-dollar building. And it wasn’t like there was anything in it for him.”
Within seven lifetimes
Last week Colin called me with a question about Vajrayogini practitioners definitely going to Keajra within seven lifetimes, asking if that was a rumor or was it true. I replied that it is in The New Guide to Dakini Land:
It is said that even those with the least fortune who do not attain Dakini Land in the intermediate state will be led by Vajrayogini to her Pure Land within seven lives.
He was very excited for some reason, and wanted to know which lifetime I thought he might be in. I said not the first, because it is unlikely that he could have all these unusually good conditions coming together in his life on a first encounter with Guru Vajrayogini, given that each of them needs a lot of good karma to create. “So, who knows, maybe your 4th or 5th, or perhaps even your 7th!” Turns out that might have been right.
When this picture was taken of Colin and Helen in front of Compassion Buddha Avalokiteshvara, no one had a clue that she would be able to orchestrate at his bedside not only all the Tara pujas but the transference of consciousness puja, when Avalokiteshvara could lead him to the Pure Land.
Helen is a force of nature herself. She trained hard for years to be a Buddhist Chaplain, the very first person in the Kadampa tradition to do so. She landed this job very quickly afterwards because she excelled in her training. I asked her yesterday how many people and families she had helped die, and she said hundreds. She tries to make the right situation for people to die peacefully, and I asked her how. One woman wanted so badly to go home to die in Puerto Rico, but could not be moved. Helen asked her what exactly about home she missed and, upon hearing that it was the scents and the plants and the food, she recreated that for her in the ICU.
She didn’t have time for attention to detail last year, however, when she had to help six or seven different people and their families every day during COVID. “That was a different world.”
What a meaningful job! Venerable Geshe-la has said that helping people die well is the kindest thing we can do. And helping their families find some measure of peace at one of the very worst times of their life is also no small feat. If any of you are looking for a career path … but I do believe this is not for the faint-hearted.
Helen said that she hopes that Colin’s death will also spark conversations about the end of our own lives and whether or not we want DNR and so on. (I did my Living Will a couple of months ago, it only took about 15 minutes, FYI.)
“Nothing gets in the way of that!”
It is thanks to Helen that I was able to talk to Colin in his last two days. I asked if I could say a few words into his ear and she did one better, organizing a WebEx between the end of visiting hours at 6 p.m. and the nighttime shift at 7 p.m. Talking to him for what turned out to be well over an hour was surprisingly not difficult. Here is the jist of some of what I said.
“Hello my beloved friend, and farewell for now, just for a short while though, I will see you on the other side. I know you’re going to enjoy being in Keajra so much sending emanations to help us all and everyone else — it’s what you’ve been practicing for the whole time I’ve known you, you were made for the Pure Land! You will so enjoy helping Geshe-la help everyone now on a grand scale. I do believe this was your seventh and final lifetime in samsara, just like we were speculating the other day.
Thousands of people have been praying for you because it turns out that you helped too many people to count. People are wondering when you had the time?!
Your family were very happy to discover about your life, and the powa we are doing tomorrow will bring your birth family and your Sangha family together in a way that you would love. The mother of all sendoffs awaits you, you created the cause for hundreds of people to send you the Pure Land. We insist you go. You are going anyway, but we’re going to make sure of it.”
I did make him promise us two things because he always liked to keep his promises: (1) he needed to visit us all with his emanations, including KMC NYC and KMC CO to finish those projects he started; (2) if he insisted on leaving early, he needed to set things up for me and everyone else to join him in the Pure Land. After all, that’s what he did. As he texted himself the other day:
This is Geshe la’s work, and NOTHING gets in the way of that!!!
Before I left, I asked the nurse to touch his heart to indicate we are all going with him, and then to touch his crown.
I thought that was it, but the following morning one of Helen’s assistants called again unsolicited to see if I’d like to talk to him. Of course I wanted to. Then again in the afternoon, I got this rather wonderful call:
Hello L, this is Tara. I have Colin here. Will you talk to him?
So that was lucky for me.
I also talked to him a lot about what the Pure Land is like from things I’ve read, “without even the name of mistaken impure appearance”, where even stepping on the ground gives rise to bliss. How it is full of all the things he loves, but all completely pure and known to be illusory, like dream oceans and dream mountains. How he will send emanations. It was me doing all the talking, of course, but a conversation nonetheless, because, along with Helen, I believe that people in this situation can hear “beyond words and sounds” as she put it. This is not least because I had this experience with Bob — his brain was also gone when Cheryl and I talked him into the Pure Land, yet “it worked”. That story is here.
I also shared with him several beautiful messages, such as from Sara Wendt, his “little red-headed childhood friend”, who did us all the big favor of introducing him to our tradition. And this one from Gen Samten:
“Please tell him that a life lived with kindness is a life lived without regrets. Please tell him that he has brought happiness to so many people in so many places. And please tell him that it is time for him to leave now, to let go of this life and to move on to a pure world where he can work with Geshe-la to bring happiness to many people.”
August 14th: I dreamt vividly of Colin last night, he was very youthful and joyful, it was blissful to see him, and it felt like he was on his way to the Pure Land.
In a dream, a girl meets a boy and sees that he is dying. She is happy to meet him but unhappy to see him dying. We should understand that all phenomena are like this. ~ Buddha
I have been contemplating how Colin is mere name not other than emptiness and therefore can be Heruka. It is worth pointing out that all this has been going on during the retreat section of the Summer Festival, (good timing Colin!), where Gen Rabten has been giving profound instructions, including on what Buddhas experience. The suffering hallucinations of Colin’s gross mind are about to be all over for him, and indeed could be for us too, if we really want them to be.
Accepting the sorrow
Talking to myself … There are a million ways to transform this sadness, but I have to accept that it is there first, not paper over the cracks. Use the heartbreak to allow my heart to grow. Practice the yoga of equalizing samsara and nirvana. Not be attached to my sorrow, nor the ordinary narrative of our friendship.
Accepting the suffering means not repressing it, but at some point we know it is empty and we let it go, to be replaced by compassion and joy. I did this this morning, which is the day of his powa.
It is our joy, compassion, love, wisdom, and pure view that will help Colin get to the Pure Land, not dragging him with our sadness. But this is a process for everyone, it has to be natural, not forced nor pretended. We can’t tell people who are grieving: “Think like this and you’ll stop being sad”, and assume that’ll work. We cannot be disconnected from our sadness; it is the sadness which gives us the realization that suffering is unbearable. From there we can develop authentic renunciation and compassion, hence “Suffering had good qualities.” Then we can also view it as mere name. It is mere mistaken appearance blocking us from seeing the truth of bliss and emptiness.
The powa, 2.25pm EST, August 14th
Nearly 1,000 people attended Colin’s powa, joining in from all over the world. And it was very powerful. This has got to be a first. Who were you, Colin Chase?! As a friend said:
“Colin really did get a Powa Express, not too many have 500+ people on stand-by for your last moment in this life to send you off to the Pure Land. His kindness & bodhisattvaness touched countless beings ”
I think many people now feel deeply supported to know that we are united not only in our grief but also now in the knowledge that we can do this for each other – we can send our friends, Sangha, and family to the Pure Land. It is inspiring to see how our Sangha is open-ended because everyone is welcome, and that none of us has a monopoly over anyone else’s affection or memory, we are all learning to love one another.
At my deathtime may the Protectors, Heroes, Heroines and so forth,
Bearing flowers, parasols, and victory banners,
And offering the sweet music of cymbals and so forth,
Lead me to the Land of the Dakinis. ~ The New Guide to Dakini Land
During his death and for about an hour after I had an unexpected and good experience that I won’t share here, but that was in keeping with everything else that has been happening these last few months and days. It convinced me that Colin is now in the Pure Land of the Dakinis.
For such practitioners, death is just mere name – they are simply moved from the prison of samsara to the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka. ~ Heruka Root Tantra
I will just say that we are usually so dualistic about samsara vs nirvana, for the Pure Land is mere name away at all times. We go where our mind goes. How many different ways has Guru Heruka explained this to us?!? He couldn’t have made it clearer.
Enlightenment is reality, it is right here. So of course the Pure Land is right here.
Living meaningfully, dying joyfully
I feel that Colin’s life and death have had a large impact on our Kadampa tradition, that something has shifted for a lot of people. It was a meditation on death par excellence, our own life of approx 4,000 weeks not to be taken for granted, not even a day of it. Of course we all die – we don’t all die on a stage, though, in a five-day drama watched by hundreds of practitioners. It revealed what happens if you do spend your whole life being kind — living meaningfully does mean you’re going to die joyfully. We have seen the power of the Guru and the power of the Sangha. We can do this for each other.
When someone I love and respect dies, I try to honor them by adopting some of their good qualities; and that may merit another article. Colin would read this blog from time to time and generously told me: “Your writing draws people into their heart, and leaves them yearning for more. That, my dear lady, is an unparalleled talent.” So perhaps he will be reading this along with all the comments I hope you will leave below. Please leave comments! Tell your stories. Let us be encouraged by this man’s life and works.
(Since I posted this, a lot of you have kindly sent inspiring comments below, thank you! This includes people (and good writers!) who knew Colin well such as Greg and Michelle — very well worth reading if you get the chance.)
Colin, if you are reading this … you may not fully appreciate how much you are loved and by how many. That, and riding a motorbike, might be the worst faults you had. But it doesn’t matter now because the Guru and Dakinis have you. I know we’re going to be hanging out again in the mountains of Keajra one way or another. We’re all going to be having endless fun with the Heroes and Heroines of Geshe-la’s mandala, a mandala that you’ve already been a huge part of creating. It is your home, where you belong, where we and our families all belong. Indeed, where else could you be now but there already, inseparable from your beloved Spiritual Father — paving the way, as ever, for us all to see through the illusion and join you.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
*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!)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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 😇😍