A Kadampa Buddhist practitioner for 25 years, this guest author is a self-employed, healthcare business owner who practices Asian Medicine in the rural American South. She claims that she can provide a stainless example of the trial and error of integrating Dharma into a busy modern life. Her disclaimer: “My observations are neither new nor unique, but I can sincerely share what it’s like to NOT use the power of rest and relaxation!”
This morning, I woke up aware (again) of a self that starts the day thinking, “TIME TO GET GOING!! SO MUCH TO DO! … Better HURRY!”
Yeah, so maybe this is not necessarily a bad thing … IF the energy of these thoughts were used with positive spiritual intentions. They could be quite valuable to motivate and energize a self to get up out of bed.
But, usually, if you are anything like me, this starts up mental PUSHING.
The voice of this “I” or self has some strong belief that I need to push to “get through” the day.
And, the gaping agenda of any given day: the household chores, the email, the messages, the work tasks, ah, the ToDo List … and, not to mention, getting on the meditation cushion … I will have to push myself to get to it all.It can certainly feel like it’s not “okay” to relax my mind or my body.
However, what I have learned in over two decades as a Kadampa practitioner is that I have a strong identification with a uncomfortable limited self, one I have drolly named “Nagatha”.She “nags” me on.She schemes and plots, always pushing me — she is never satisfied.Her list is never done and, although she “lets” me have some daily formal meditation, it is rare that she allows for much satisfaction for some inner peace.
Reading the more recent Kadampa Life posts HERE about self-hatred and beingself-critical, I started thinking about how this very critical-nagging-Nagatha self takes a lot of license to keep pushing me around. Nagatha wants to keep me believing that I have to push for the energy to “get through” the day. But, sadly, it’s never enough for her. And the overall “I” or Self that gets reinforced is the one who believes she’s never been enough, she’s not enough now, and she never will be enough.
How easy it is, then, to start to hate that self, to believe that “she” is a failure, day inand day out.This further fuels Nagatha, of course, to keep on criticizing, nagging, and pushing.
I realize more and more that this is the very opposite of what the enlightened beings have long been saying to us.Geshe Kelsang has spelled out in many places the importance and power of rest.My Nagatha tends to stay busy overriding and drowning out his words.She bullies me into believing that I will be able to rest my mind when (and only when) my ToDo List is finished. I call this the “Unfinished Business of Busyness” — which Nagatha is determined to make me DO.
When someone in my clinical treatment room looks at me wearily and elaborateson how exhausted they are, I usually find that they also don’t believe that they have permission to stop, to rest. Even the mention of making “time to meditate” seems like just a really cute little ideal. “Yeah, right, like I have any time to stop or sit still! … I can’t do THAT!”
But there’s always much to do and many things to pay attention to (read: distractions).Our family, our culture, and our world all make for plenty of evidence.However, no amount of evidence alters Buddha’s verdict. This inner battle we create — between our striving and pushing self and our wiser, more peaceful self — has never delivered lasting happiness.
We continue to engage in a kind of inner ‘Warfare” instead of developing inner ‘Well-fare’. It doesn’t make for a healthy day — much less a healthy experience of the spiritual path.
Geshe-la says, actually, in How to Transform Your Life (free for download HERE), that we need to:
take care of ourself and look after our needs…otherwise we undermine our capacity to benefit others. … Moreover, others may conclude that we are imbalanced and consequently will not trust us or believe what we say … so we will not be able to help them.
He also says that if we are
not happy with ourself or foolishly neglect our own well-being, we will have neither the confidence nor the energy to effect radical spiritual transformation.
Sounds to me that this masterful spiritual teacher of mine is directly highlighting something I have definitely experienced along the way: that if I am going to be self-critical or neglect my own need for rest and replenishment, it will set me up for failure. A failed self who wishes to be of benefit to others.I won’t be able to provide authentic or lasting assistance (right again, thanks Nagatha!)
In the past I was able to override basic physical needs for much stopping or resting … and eventually it caught up. What was also terribly disheartening to discover was that it began tothreaten and undermine my confidence in my potential — my Buddha nature — which is inexhaustible in its power to benefit others.
Nagatha’s pushing kept feeding the self I would normally see and then believe: the self who is never enough, doing enough, having enough, beingenough.
So, I had to check: Who IS this self or “I”?
And is this really the self I am going to ask for permission to relax and be happy?!
If I keep on asking Nagatha, can I really expect to be granted time to stop, reflect, regroup, or refuel for a positive, relaxed, much less joyful daily life?
I don’t know about you, but I found that I would rather find and listen to someone who has a bigger mind than I do.Who has seen and explained that rest itself is a power — it is one of the four essential powers of joyful effort. And, after all, Buddha seems pretty darned positive, relaxed, and joyful!
we relax at the right time we shall soon be able to apply new effort again. … Timely relaxation maintains the constancy of our practice. … If we neglect the need for rest we becomeovertired and we are not able to apply effort again with joy.
I have seen over time that following the advice of the self I normally see makes not only my day, but my spiritual life path, a less than joyful one. Instead it can become all about pushing, hurrying, and busyness.And the self who lives that life eventually gets really really tired.
Why is it that when we’re thirsty we get a drink and when we’re hungry we find some food, but when we’re tired we’re like: “What is WRONG with me?!”
Perhaps we can check in: “Do I need to find ways to rest more?”I am betting that if you’re like me, you will see that resting the body and the mind, even for a few more peaceful moments throughout the day, goes a lot further to fostering more heartfelt presence for others.
A more relaxed mind naturally has more space for kindness, love, and compassion. There’s more available energy to be satisfied and fulfilled in our own efforts.If we ourselves can experience these inner resources, we will naturally be more able to resource others.
Do you permit yourself to take a rest, even a short break from pushing, or from your nagging self?
How often do you make one of your own “ToDo” items Rest and Relaxation?Do you give yourself that permission?
I spend my days at work offering these questions in the spirit of permission. (People actually PAY me to offer some room and time to rest and physically and mentally stop!) Surely this indicates a basic need — one that Geshe-la has always told us about. Not to mention, the enlightened beings themselves don’t seem to be busy hurrying around in a bustle of dissatisfaction!
Maybe, if you will, just think about it. Maybe take a moment to stop and contemplate (dare I say ‘meditate’ on this?) … I am talking to myself here, as well as to those of you who have been self-professed meditators for a long time but are still feeling less than deeply relaxed.
I think we could all do with some kind of conversation between our heart-mind and our thinky head.
I remember some years back already knowing exactly what to think and do, Dharma-wise, when undergoing a break up, and even clearly understanding that I was far better off without this person. My head knew all this very well. But still my heart would yearn for him.
The heart wants what the heart wants, so I realized I needed to change at a heart level. To meditate from a deeper level of awareness, if possible, so as to overcome the deluded habit of attachment and develop wisdom wishes at a more sustainable level.
Do you ever feel there are two of you – the wise person who sits in meditation and understands what’s really going on, and the crazy monkey-mind person who goes about their busy day getting overwhelmed by everything, sucked into the vast panoply of appearances, unknowingly driven here and there by the invisible habits of countless lives? “Deceived by grasping at things as they appear”, as it says in Essence of Vajrayana.
There can be a struggle between these inner and outer selves. After all, if there is a disconnect between our heart and our head, superficial determinations to change may be drowned out in our habit-driven distracted daily lives and personas. How long did this year’s New Year’s resolutions last, for example?! How long did this morning’s resolutions last in the hurly burly of the day?
You should not let your habits dominate your behavior or act as if you are sleepwalking.
We are currently controlled by our mental habits and past actions. Our habits are anchored in the mind, engrained by repetition, programming us to act and respond in certain ways, such as automatic irritation when we would much rather be patient, or automatic yearning when we would much rather be content. We probably all sense this, so what can we do about it?
Luckily, lots. There is extraordinary spiritual technology available to us.
The stillness within
Before we launch into contemplative stages of the path (Lamrim) meditations, we need to be sure we’re feeling it. Any of these 3 methods can help get us there.
Even the simplest breathing meditation, designed to let go of scattered thoughts, brings our awareness inward. Eventually we learn to “Leave the object alone”, as my friend Gen Losang puts it.
We are a bit addicted to movement, our monkey mind jumping all over the place. All this going outwards to objects of distraction is dualistic conception – me over here, the world and all its stuff over there. It feels different already just to bring our awareness inwards to examine the mind — already we sense the space around our thoughts, how we are not our thoughts. It is very relaxing just to stay a bit stiller for a while.
The slightest experience of peace indicates that lasting peace is possible, so we identify with that. We can learn to live more and more in our heart, where we know and feel things most deeply, where true happiness is. We are connecting to our Buddha nature, which is in fact unfathomably profound, and we can sense that.
Never meditate in your head. You can’t anyway.
And at those times we can believe we are accessing a subtler or deeper level of mind because, even if we are not yet using it directly, we can still know this mind. It also really helps to recognize that our peaceful mind is mixed with the blessings of all enlightened beings, their minds, because for sure we’ll feel ourselves going deeper if we do that.
Clarity of mind
An even more powerful method for dissolving away distractions and going deep is meditating on the clarity of the mind.
Absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thoughts
And then we also have this wonderful meditation on accessing our subtle mind by remaining “unmoving, with a mind as impassive as wood.”
This meditation on turning our mind to wood temporarily shuts down all the deluded habits of ignorance, attachment, and worry etc. going outwards. It stops the projector, so that we can meditate at a deeper level and so change at a deeper more sustainable level. We are using absorption of cessation to stop the projector of the gross mind, which is only projecting mental images that aren’t really out there.
It doesn’t seem to work to superimpose Lamrim thoughts on top of hallucinatory thoughts. We need to scrap this movie or dream altogether and start again. Every day, until it takes.
The heart wants what the heart wants
Since the heart wants what the heart wants, it is best to start each Lamrim meditation in the heart, identified with our boundless Buddha nature, ideally mixed inseparably with the blessings of our Spiritual Guide, Buddha. We can observe self-limiting habits and conditioning in the light and space of our own indestructible potential, letting them fade away like mist in sunshine.
Having dissolved away our gross over-thinky thoughts and ordinary conceptions, we can generate the new ideas and language of Lamrim, the new naming, labelling, and discrimination at a subtler level. This will then show up in our lives, as our lives. In the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh, as my favorite line in the Bible would have it.
By the way, as mentioned in this article Start where you are, it is effective to tune into an example of whatever object it is you’re going to meditate on, eg, the love you already have inside you for a nephew or a pet. This is because we have the seeds for every single stage of the path, so we are watering these, rather than adding something that is not there.
So we do our Lamrim meditations in our heart, with a peaceful undistracted mind. On this basis we reinvent ourselves – having dissolved everything away into inner empty space, we now have a chance to start from scratch. This is because everything is empty and therefore entirely unfixed, including, and especially, ourselves.
Moreover, we need to identify deeply with these new understandings and determinations, believing “I am a being of boundless potential who has a precious human life,” to take the first Lamrim meditation as an example. This wisdom discrimination will bring about very different actions and results in our daily life, don’t you think?, than the deluded discrimination that we cannot change, “I am pathetic. I can’t help even the people I want to help, and my life is going nowhere.” We might feel guilty or doomed, like we’re a total loser who is wasting this precious opportunity … instead of inspired, feeling that we are the luckiest person alive.
We don’t use the word “subconscious” in Buddhism, but, if we did, I think this would be what I’d be talking about, changing at a subtler level.
I like to practice Lamrim in this way, in the light of our boundless potential that is part and parcel of our increasingly blissful levels of mind. (You can learn all about how to identify and realize the three levels of mind in Mahamudra Tantra.)
This is part of the union of Sutra and Tantra that is the hallmark of the Kadampa tradition. We are basically going with the deepening heart bliss (taught in Tantra) on the one hand and the infinite possibilities of the wisdom realizing emptiness (taught in Sutra) on the other – thereby rebooting and completely transforming our reality from a samsara of suffering, ordinariness, and fixed existence into a Pure Land of bliss and the endless possibilities of emptiness.
As it says in Request to the Lord of all Lineages:
Through enjoying great bliss and the emptiness of all phenomena I have pacified all ordinary appearances and conceptions,
And thus I have accomplished the real meaning of human life.
We are waking up so that we can wake everyone else up as well.
And, one last thing for Tantric practitioners …
In Highest Yoga Tantra completion stage, just so you know, we are aiming to get the energy winds from the left and right channels into the central channel for a completely blissful non-dual experience of the mind and its objects – that gap between them vanishes because it is an optical illusion of the ignorance that rides upon impure winds. With this manifest very subtle mind mounted on pure wisdom winds, we are finished with the powerlessness of confusion.An explanation of how to do this is given in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra.
Over to you. How do you keep your meditation determinations, or practical plans to apply the teachings, alive and well in your busy life?
We need to develop a healthy sense of self based on something genuine. Fame won’t crack it, as this example from The Week shows, and nor, probably, will any other worldly concern, such as fortune or worldly enjoyments:
Maisie Williams says fame has had a negative effect on her mental health and self-esteem. Williams, who was 13 years old when she was cast as Arya Stark (in Game of Thrones) said there was a period of time where she was sad after becoming overwhelmed by the criticism on social media.
“It gets to a point where you’re almost craving something negative, so you can just sit in a hole of sadness,” Williams said.
While she has tried to move past what people have said online, Williams, 22, said she still thinks about comments that hurt her.
“I still lie in bed at, like, 11 o’clock at night telling myself all the things I hate about myself,” Williams said.
This is the last of this series of articles on overcoming self-hatred and toxic self-criticism. It follows straight on from this article, which looked at the first step for overcoming these delusions once and for all = changing our experience.
Step 2 ~ New improved sense of self
Allowing ourselves to feel even the slightest peace, we are changing our experience. We know too that this is the tip of the iceberg, from which we can deduce that there is a lot more peace where this comes from. Identifying with this peaceful experience is how our experience will grow. So we think:
This is me. I am peaceful! And there is a lot more where this comes from. I really do have boundless potential.
We are experiencing a new view or a new sense of self based on different feelings — feeling good about ourselves.
And on this legit foundation we can build – positive, wise states of mind, all the stages of the path to enlightenment of both Sutra and Tantra.
Another tip: Whenever we sit down to meditate, it’s always a good idea to start by tuning into a positive and happy mind that we’re already familiar with, so that our experiences are rooted in something we are already experiencing. We can use something or someone that we already find it easy to feel good about, such as affection for a pet or gratitude for a kindness. Anything that can move our mind quickly to peace and happiness will do, for we can then smoothly seguey from that into fully-fledged Dharma minds. We are not, in other words, obliged to start from scratch. More on that in this article, Start where you are.
It makes all the difference also to remember that whenever our mind is peaceful or positive in any way, we are alreadyconnected to the blessings of all enlightened beings, to enlightenment itself. We can develop refuge:
This peaceful mind, however slight, is my Buddha nature. It is already mixed with the peaceful non-deluded reality of my Spiritual Guide (Buddha’s) mind — love and enlightenment. It is me.
This open us up to even more blessings, with which we feel our minds fuse even more fully with positivity.
Step 3 ~ New improved intentions
If we are genuinely feeling, “I am a happy peaceful person, I have boundless Buddha nature,” what wishes and intentions will naturally arise from that? We will want to do well, we will want to share this with others, we will have more patient acceptance of ourselves and others. In other words, this new improved sense of self will now naturally lead to new improved intentions.
Step 4 ~ New improved actions
This in turn will lead to new improved actions or behavior, as we always follow our wishes or intentions. We will naturally try to fulfill this destiny. If we think we are peaceful, we will engage in peaceful actions. If we think we have boundless potential for love, wisdom, and compassion, we will be acting to realize those qualities, as well as enjoying the daily challenges that allow us to improve.
Step 5 ~ New improved life
And this will lead to a new improved life and experiences, in a virtuous cycle. Because our karma has also improved, this leads to longer-term good results as well.
To summarize, just telling ourselves we’re great doesn’t work. Nor does attempting to change our intentions or our actions while still identifying with being an inherently limited person. If we miss out on the changing of our experience, none of this is sustainable.
So, to those of you who have been meditating for years — if you find you are not changing as fast as you’d like, do check to see if this is because you are not changing what you are actually imputing yourself on/identifying yourself with. If we do change our experience — our basis of imputation — the rest will follow.
No one can give us freedom. We have to claim it. And thanks to meeting these Buddhist psychological and spiritual insights, we can get started right away.
“Look within you to find peace”
At any time we feel unpeaceful, including self-critical, we can ask ourself:
What version of myself am I relating to? And does it even exist?
We can dissolve that limited self away with breathing meditation or something stronger (as explained here for example), and identify with the resulting peace, freedom, and potential. Only THEN should we do our meditations.
As Arya Starck (Williams) puts it:
“Honestly, I want a normal life,” she said. “I don’t want any of this crazy, crazy world because it’s not worth it.”
Williams said the first step to finding her happiness is to stop trying to be who people want her to be, and instead, focus on being herself.
“It sounds really hippy-dippy and like ‘look within you to find peace’, but it is true,” she said. “At the end of your day, you’re making yourself feel this way for a reason.”
Just one last thing
When we impute ourselves on our pure potential, we can’t find that self either; which means we are not inherently pure. However, there are two good reasons for doing it anyway:
This basis of imputation is more valid because we can’t ever destroy our pure potential whereas we can completely eradicate our delusions.
It works a lot better – it leads to better intentions, actions, and results, which propel us toward growing freedom and the happiness of enlightenment.
And, if we want to make it even more effective, we can recognize that we are merely imputing this self on the basis of our pure potential. This self is mere name, not solid, real, or findable — but it functions very well.
That’s it, folks
In these last 7 articles we looked at the inner critic, where it comes from, and what’s wrong with it. We looked at how our whole life depends on our actions, intentions, sense of self, and experience. We saw first how NOT to break that cycle, and then HOW to break that cycle by getting in touch with our pure and kind nature, identifying with it, and building upon that experience. All this can start with the simplest skillful breathing meditation.
Thanks for reading! I hope you have found these 7 articles on overcoming self-criticism helpful — I have enjoyed writing them 😄 I’d love your feedback and comments.
To celebrate Buddha Shakyamuni’s Turning the Wheel of Dharma (Skt. Dharmachakra) Day, which also happens to be Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s birthday, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the study programs in Kadampa Buddhism. Today, these are turning the Wheel of Dharma at hundreds of Buddhist centers around the world.
There are 3 programs — General Program, Foundation Program, and Teacher Training Program. They’re all great, but I will mainly be talking about the last two.
As you may or may not know, Buddhism has always put an emphasis on (1) listening to lots of teachings, (2) contemplating them to check they work in our own experience and transform them into our own idea, and (3) meditating on them to bring them deep into our heart where they will be a constant joy and protection, leading us all the way to enlightenment. Buddha gave 84,000 teachings of Sutra and Tantra, and basically the idea is to learn the jist of all of these and put them into practice 😊
I will be quoting Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s words from a talk he gave called A Wishfulfilling Dharma Jewel, and you can read the whole thing here.
At present in our Centers we have a Foundation Program and a Teacher Training Program. This is not a new tradition. In the past there have been other programs specially designed for Dharma students according to their particular circumstances.
All these programs involved studying a certain number of texts, memorizing material, passing examinations, and being awarded a degree or certificate. For example, the ancient Kadampa Geshes had a program in which they studied six texts. Later Je Tsongkhapa introduced a program based on ten texts, and later still Tibetan Monasteries such as Ganden, Sera, and Drepung introduced a program based on five texts.
Even for the 1,000 years before Buddhism got to Tibet, deep learning and meditation had always been integral to the Buddhist tradition – for example the famous monastic university of Nalanda in Southern India produced generations of famous master practitioners from the fifth to twelfth century CE.
Now Geshe Kelsang has made all these teachings and meditations accessible to us in the unwieldy modern world through modern books, teachers, centers, temples, and study programs. Most of us definitely don’t have the same kind of time for formal study that they had in the old days, so he has made the time we do have incredibly efficient, and put more emphasis on sustaining and deepening these teachings and meditations through mindfulness in our regular daily lives.
Geshe Kelsang said:
Inspired by my own experience, I developed a strong wish to introduce a similar program for western Dharma students so that they could reap the same results. However, I understand very clearly that the program designed for Tibetan Geshes is not suitable for westerners.
For one thing, most western Dharma students are lay people …
Recently I asked some of my teacher friends to tell me what they thought were the main benefits of the Foundation Program (FP) in particular, as this is the program that most people tend to join. I wanted to hear what they had to say in particular about the commitments of the FP and why someone might want to take those on. So here goes, their ideas and mine, all jumbled together.
Becoming our own Protector
I agree with Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living. Studying Dharma consistently guarantees our getting to know ourselves and our lives a lot better, and overcoming all our faults and limitations. This gives our life a spiritual dimension, and a vision far less ordinary.
As Geshe Kelsang says:
With wisdom and Dharma experience we can bring our deluded minds under control. We can reduce our attachment, anger, jealousy, and so forth, and subdue our self-grasping and self-cherishing. By controlling our deluded minds we will come to experience permanent peace day and night. We will bring about a permanent cessation of human problems in particular and of samsaric problems in general. In this way we will become our own protectors.
The commitments of the FP involve attending every class for the enrolled book, reading ahead, memorizing the root text and main points of the commentary, discussing, doing pujas (chanted prayers), and taking an exam.
Their overall purpose is so that our practice is not stop/start but regular and consistent, leading to guaranteed results. Buddha’s example for this kind of steady effort is like leaving water in a pot on the stove to boil at a low heat rather than moving it on and off a high heat such that it never gets around to boiling.
Mixing our minds with Dharma
In a busy, distracted, ofter overwhelming world, it’s only too easy for other stuff to get in the way; so committing to attending each class (or catching up with the recording and study summary in a timely manner) moves us past that problem. It helps us fulfill our wish to help ourselves and others.
We go deeper than in drop-in General Program classes because each class can build upon the one before it, presupposing knowledge, and shifting the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student. And then we start to change.
This is good for the group, as we all literally stay on the same page. It becomes teamwork. The team is strong and unified and so everyone likes being on it. It is also good for the teacher as they don’t have to repeat the same points each week for people who weren’t there, and can take all the students more deeply into the material.
Reading ahead is a bit like toasting bread into which the hot butter of Dharma can easily soak during the class. That’s my analogy anyway! We come prepared with questions and looking forward to hearing the commentary on what we’ve already read and studied.
At the end of discussion the students come up with creative ideas together on what to practice in the meditation break to transform our everyday lives. We can troubleshoot how to practice Dharma throughout all our activities, lifestyles, and challenges. There are so many examples of people practicing Dharma in all walks of life, and we can learn from each other’s practical wisdom.
As Geshe Kelsang puts it:
The nature of western people is to study something one day and to want to put it into practice the next. This is a very good quality because they are always trying to gain practical experience of what they study.
Scale the highest mountain
One friend sent me this:
The Foundation Program is an opportunity to turn intellectual understanding into insights that authentically move our mind. For example, we understand intellectually that real or lasting happiness cannot be found outside out mind, and yet we still have a strong pull to find happiness from outside. FP is a chance to make a lasting change on our mind so that we genuinely want to find happiness from within.
We do this by giving more structure to our practice and spiritual development. FP is the opportunity to go through the training the mind teachings in depth, discuss, ask questions, and meditate on them. We make a commitment to study in this way so that, when difficulties come, we already have the structure in our mind to transform them. We have internalized the meaning. This means we will be able to actually transform adverse conditions in real time which is so much more difficult without this foundation.
FP creates the “foundation” for lasting happiness in our life. It’s an opportunity once or twice a week to reconnect deeply with our intention to improve our mind. We learn to consistently rely on Buddha and his teachings to solve our inner problems. We learn to trust and grow with our Sangha friends who are on the path with us. It’s a much more enriching way of experiencing this inner transformation.
As Geshe Kelsang says:
Our present understanding and experience of Dharma is quite superficial. We are like someone who has entered a huge food store and seen many things but sampled only a few. We may have received many different teachings from many different Teachers, but we have taken in very little, just a few morsels. Therefore our actual experience remains superficial. There is a gap between us and the Dharma. It feels as if Dharma is there and we are here. Our mind is not mixed with Dharma and so we cannot apply it in our daily lives.
As a result our ordinary everyday problems remain. For example, we may have received many teachings on Lamrim and read many books. Intellectually we find it relatively easy to understand and we accept it all, but we find it difficult to integrate into our daily lives, and so we cannot use this Dharma to solve our daily problems. When we study Dharma our mind remains passive, like someone watching television. It does not engage in the subject and mix with it. Therefore our daily life and our Dharma remain completely separate and unrelated.
Why is this? It is because we are not studying systematically according to a specially-designed program. If we just pick at Dharma randomly we will never gain a deep and stable experience, and our wisdom will never become like a full moon.
Geshe Kelsang has always said we should not view commitments as “heavy luggage” (Ed: it’s more like a purse).
We are simply making time for the things we actually know are good for us and love to do. I read a study the other day where a large group of women were questioned on how much time they spent meditating and so on versus watching Netflix – they replied that although they felt far better when they were meditating, they still spent about 5x more time on Netflix.
As Geshe-la puts it:
We should try to memorize the important points of the subject and combine whatever we understand in a practical way with our daily activities. We also have to observe the various commitments of the program. These commitments are designed to help us accomplish our aim. Without them there is a danger that we will be distracted by laziness or other circumstances and not complete our studies.
Any meaningful relationship requires commitment. For example, what would a marriage be like without any commitment? Or our job? Or working to combat climate change, or improving social justice, etc.? I think we find things more meaningful or of benefit when we have some commitment to them; and we get more done.
The FP commitments are also largely a commitment to each other. If everyone turns up and gets with the program, the group becomes stronger. If attendance is sporadic, the group weakens and our fellow students’ Dharma experience suffers.
One friend puts it like this:
On FP we come to experience in our heart (1) who we truly are, and (2) who we can become, and (3) more importantly, who our family, friends, and everyone else can become. Not through hearing ideas that it’s easy to soon forget, through dropping in on General Program (GP), but through a relaxed, consistent, dynamic engagement and deepening experience of Dharma and meditation on FP. FP closes the gap between the teachings we hear and experiencing them in our heart.
If we signed up to be a doctor with the goals of (1) having a good life ourselves and (2) benefitting others, but then didn’t turn up to classes consistently or seal that understanding through exams, out in the field we’d quickly realize we’re not equipped to fulfil our goals. From this point of view our 7 years in medical school would feel meaningless, because meaningful just means we feel we have accomplished or are accomplishing our goals.
In a similar way, to derive the greatest meaning and fulfillment from the time we have chosen to spend on FP, the commitments and exams are not rigid rules, but rather helpful guidelines and opportunities to accomplish the goals of (1) having a good life ourselves and (2) benefiting others. Or, in Geshe-la’s words, 1) to be happy and 2) to make others happy! In this way taking the commitments to heart is the best way to make our time on FP FEEL meaningful for us (not to placate the teacher or program coordinators) and be beneficial for others.
As Geshe-la explains from his own experience:
I studied this program at Sera Monastery. When I completed it and was awarded my Geshe degree, I felt as if I had reached the summit of the highest mountain. My faith and experience had increased considerably and I felt great confidence in teaching others. My mind was very happy and I felt completely free from problems.
Become a really good meditator
We learn how to have a regular practice that is sustainable at home, know what to meditate on clearly through structured study, and build up self-discipline. Plus being there for other meditators in the FP group.
On the Foundation Program we can learn to meditate very well and always know what to meditate on — we learn how to do analytical meditation (contemplation) and placement meditation (single-pointed meditation) on every aspect of Buddha’s Sutra teachings. This leads to results, confidence, and joy.
The power of discussion
Discussion is a particularly important aspect of the program because we can help each other greatly by sharing our experience and understanding of Dharma.
Discussing with each other resolves our doubts, increases our understanding, and shows us what we don’t yet understand. Talking about gaining a realization of emptiness in particular, Geshe Kelsang says in The New Heart of Wisdom:
If we develop doubts or cannot accept what is taught we should discuss the matter with others. In this way, our understanding will become clearer and clearer. We should not keep doubts hidden inside our hearts — we need wisdom in our hearts, not doubts!
Geshe Kelsang has said that, in terms of his own understanding, he got 50% from the teachings and contemplations and 50% from his discussions with others! Which is quite a statement given how much he understands. He also gives some great advice on how to discuss in this talk.
The Foundation Program builds the spiritual community so everyone ends up with more friendship and support. Connections strengthen due to weekly study, discussion, meditation, and so on; and once an FP group has been studying together for a while, people connect with each other at a deep level (a bit like people who do retreats together). This is the true meaning of Sangha community. And, as Sangha are the third Jewel of Buddhist refuge, who can really help us to make spiritual progress, the more the better.
The study programs involve prayers as a support for the meditations. Sometimes people are a bit like, “I didn’t know Buddhists did prayers!” But we do, as explained more here. Prayers give us the opportunity to quickly purify our mind, accumulate merit or good karma, and bathe in inspiring blessings.
One of my friends says he puts it like this to his students: If you don’t think you like prayers, perhaps let go of what you think about them until your growing experience of them reveals a far deeper knowing. Buddhist prayers are just another form of meditation. We are so used to skimming the surface of life (caught up in busyness and trivia, numbing the pain of ordinary life) that we can miss out on the opportunity to experience something far deeper and incredibly rich. Prayers empower us to connect to and directly experience the greater depth that life has to offer, such as our pure potential and connection to enlightenment. They provide refuge.
So if you are new to a study program and faced with the prospect of doing prayers, for now just sit back, relax, and enjoy. We don’t have to understand all the meaning of the words of a beautiful song to enjoy the experience. We don’t go into existential meltdown because we don’t get it! It’s the same with prayers — just enjoy the experience of the peaceful resonance of the prayers for now, which is connecting us to our pure nature and enlightenment, whether we know it or not. Over time their meaning unfolds in any case.
There is a commitment to try and attend a weekly puja (chanted prayers) at the Center. Many people don’t even know what a puja is yet; so don’t sweat this one. It will come gradually and be explained over time. The main thing to know about pujas is that they are beautiful and saturated with blessings, and people always seem to leave a puja feeling better than when they arrived.
Plus group pujas increasingly bless the center or temple so that these become refuge zones for everyone who visits them, which is providing a beautiful service to this troubled world.
Memorization and examinations!
Now we get to the commitment that generally freaks modern-day disciples out the most 😄. A dollar for everyone who says, “I left school years ago, I can’t memorize a thing, I’m way too old for this,” and variations on that theme.
It can be helpful to think of the exam at the end of the book as a self-assessment in six questions. They are marked, but no one but you knows your score (candidates have numbers, so even the marker doesn’t know.)
One teacher told me that with exams he likes to encourage people to regard it as a retreat rather than as preparing for a test. The exam is not the important part. The important part is the reading and contemplating. We can just have fun with it.
As mentioned earlier, if we are training as a doctor we need all the essential knowledge in our hearts, not on a dusty bookshelf. So this is Geshe Kelsang’s skillful way to encourage us to take the time to study – for when else are we going to be sufficiently motivated to do that?!
Another teacher says: “Don’t worry about it. This is a wonderful opportunity to study, get lots of Dharma — the cause of happiness — into your mind. Ask people who have taken exams – they have initial resistance sometimes but once they do it they realize why. Don’t be a perfectionist American (if you are) – remember Geshe-la’s advice:
Try, don’t worry.
And no one cares how you do on your exam.
If none of that works, how about regarding exam prep as an excellent way to ward off senility in a culture that is overly dependent on Google. Memorizing beautiful Dharma greatly improves our mindfulness.
We recite the Root Text and Condensed Meaning every week in class as well, so we find that we pick a lot of it up naturally.
The Kadampa way of life
Another friend, when I asked him what the benefits were, said succinctly:
This made me think of the old Kadampas and the Kadampa way of life. Foundation Program is training in a way of life. Transforming our life into Kadampa life. This takes real training – mindfulness, blessings, discipline. Do you wish to become a Kadampa?
By studying all five subjects (in six books) on FP, we come to know all of Buddha’s Sutra teachings, joining the illustrious company of tens of thousands of modern-day Sangha around the world. We will help provide hope for our society in the form of practicing and sharing Buddha’s teachings with the people around us, which amount to profound common sense that can be applied usefully to most of their everyday problems.
You can see some of these programs and students around the world in this video:
The six FP books are like jewel mines, and the FP allows us to delve deep. In this context the word ‘foundation’ does not mean basic or for beginners. It means we are constructing a strong and stable foundation for our daily Dharma practice and for attaining high realizations in the future.
If you want to train as a Kadampa Buddhist teacher, you can join the Teacher Training Program, which adds extra subjects and books including all of Buddha’s Tantric teachings, and has more of a retreat commitment.
Final encouragement from Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
Sometimes five years or seven years may seem like a very long time, but if we practice steadily every day without giving up, gradually we will reach our goal. If we start today, tomorrow we shall already be a bit closer to completing! We should think like this and then one day we shall have completed our training.
How wonderful that will be! We shall be able to give pure teachings with confidence on any subject we have studied, and people will believe us and develop faith in us because we have prepared so well. They will appreciate us from many points of view: our teachings, our personal experience, our ability to help them solve their problems, and so forth.
These are benefits that we shall experience just in this life. In reality, future lives are much more important. We shall experience the beneficial results of studying on this program for life after life until we reach enlightenment. The benefits are inexhaustible.
Over to you please! From your own experience, would you like to add anything?
Happy Dharmachakra Day! May Dharma flourish, may everyone be happy, and may our world be peaceful.