A light in the darkness

7 mins read.

In this last article, When the student is ready the teacher appears, I was in the middle of talking about Venerable Geshe-la — there are just so many things to say about him, but I had to stop in order to give you time to eat your supper and scream at the TV.

Joking of course. But having said that, I do hope you’re finding time to tune into Dharma books and Buddhist TV (livestreaming meditation classes) as an antidote to all the crazy stuff going on. In these “unusual times”, and I speak here to myself as well, one thing that can be quite unhelpful is spending too much time imbibing bad news on TV or social media. If we find our anxiety, depression, irritation, or sense of powerlessness are increasing as the weeks and months go by, this could mean that we are consuming life’s appearances passively, not working with them actively*.

(*Getting pulled down the rabbit holes of addictive game-like conspiracy theories or spending hours trying to convince others of how free-thinking and right we are doesn’t count, btw. And life is so short, just a matter of months, do we even have time for that?)

Reminds me of Shantideva’s question — if there is something you can do about it, why worry? If there’s nothing you can do about it, why worry?

Legit question: How can we stay involved in social media but still cut through the noise? Samsara is nothing if not beginningless and endless noise. If we find we are getting totally caught up in it, experiencing frustration, might it be more effective and sanity-restoring to just get away from the deep diving online dialogues (monologues?!) for a while? The world probably won’t end if we stop discussing it for a bit. We could spend more time instead filling our hearts with love (and even bodhichitta) and doing something practical and “real” to help the people immediately around us, in our families and communities? Civic engagement. Volunteering. Helping our Dharma Centers. What do you think?

I think people have just spent too much time online of late, not surprisingly. We know it’s addictive. We know conspiracy theories spread in this environment. The thing I mainly don’t appreciate about conspiracy theories, as a Buddhist, is that we are supposed to be in the business of vanquishing mental elaborations and samsaric narratives, not seeking out more. We are in the business of training our minds because all of us are creating our reality with our minds. And the biggest conspiracy theorist and yarn spinner of them all is our mind of self-grasping ignorance – we have to see through its convoluted sad-world-creating lies before it’s too late.

I personally think a lot of conspiracy theories fall into the category of what Buddha described as intellectually-formed delusions, which we pile up as so much clutter on the prison floor of our innate self-grasping and other delusions, in front of the escape route. Plus holding false views as supreme, holding wrong views, and so on. Buddha knows our psychology very well, he left no stone unturned in his description of the human mind and what games we could play on ourselves. Check out How to Understand the Mind for more. We all need to be hyper-vigilant these days with respect to our own minds, not just what everyone else seems to be up to. As the saying goes:

More Dharma, less drama.

We could instead choose to take charge and advantage of how creative our mind is by using Buddha’s wisdom and compassion teachings to check what’s meaningful AND create the causes for freedom and happiness. So simple! So effective. Rather than fall victim to negative unpeaceful thoughts and hallucinations that make us feel worse and worse (and cause us to fall out with our oldest friends), we can use every appearance and experience actively to create compassion, love, unity, joy, and lasting mental freedom. Becoming more and more like those who have truly freed their minds and become a lasting source of happiness for others.

Two practical suggestions

Next time we’re about to read or see a video or article or discussion online, and are in any danger of getting sucked into yet another dystopian narrative, we can ask ourselves: “What would Buddha believe?” I find this helps me.

The other is to spend far less of our valuable days online altogether — to read Dharma books or listen to more teachings instead, schedule these in, be more disciplined.  I don’t think it’s any accident that Venerable Geshe-la’s message for us at the beginning of the last two International Kadampa Festivals has been Aryasura’s incredible benefits of listening to Dharma. We need to give ourselves this chance to stay inspired and happy. That’s really important.

What IS “in fact” going on?!

In another of Venerable Geshe-la’s recent messages to everyone, he said:

There is not much reason to worry. With respect to the difficult situations that are appearing to us, we do not know whether they are good or bad. So, we should make our own life peaceful and happy through putting Dharma into practice. This is our job. We can solve our problems through the practice of Dharma. Everything is uncertain. This is samsara’s nature of impure life. So we ourself should be an example. We can solve our problems, we should maintain a peaceful and happy mind all the time through putting Dharma into practice.

One reason we don’t know whether these difficult situations are good or bad is because everything depends on the mind, everything is empty of existing from its own side, objectively. Difficult circumstances, for example, can be immensely helpful, not harmful, if we use them to increase our renunciation or compassion.

What CAN we trust?!

In a world of hallucination, what can we actually trust? What can we beneficially believe? If we open our eyes and look with real empathy, coming from an understanding of who we all really are, we see so much more.

So, for example, when we see people doing or saying things we don’t like, rather than falling for the blame game and becoming upset or angry, we can remember that they are not their delusions, that they are being controlled by their delusions. Hating them is not helpful. Instead we can do the internal work of developing love and compassion for everyone concerned, and this will lead to sustained patient, skillful, and joyful actions on others’ behalf, really trying to help people in whatever practical way we can, without us succumbing to bitterness, exhaustion, or despair.

We can remember, for example, the Kadampa motto for a meaningful life, which is to harm our delusions as much as possible and help others as much as possible. Now is the time to be proactive and creative! Our world is not as solid as it appears, rather more like an illusion or a dream. Our thoughts are infinitely flexible and changeable, and we can vastly improve our own and others’ reality.

Which brings me back to the main subject of this article …

What does this have to do with relying on a Spiritual Guide? A lot, as it happens, because he or she shows exactly how we can harm our delusions and help others as much as possible – through his teachings, practical encouragement, and own uplifting example. He is a light in the darkness of the confusion, and we can follow that light right out of here — if we decide not to lose sight of it by falling down a rabbit hole.

Venerable Geshe-la has written 22 books that are extraordinary – if you haven’t read all or any of them yet, you are in for a treat (just ask Prince Harry, who recently listed Eight Steps to Happiness as his favorite motivational book.) These books flowed out from Geshe-la’s extensive learning, practice, and wisdom — for us — so that people in the modern day could practice Dharma in their everyday lives. He changed the whole presentation of this rich tradition of Kadam Dharma without adding anything or leaving a single thing out. He received permission from Trijang Rinpoche to teach the entire path of Sutra and Tantra to you and me so that we could actually practice it with all our modern issues, with everything that’s going on – in our jobs, in our families, in our societies, in our lives.

It was not always like this – there was a time when Buddhism was the precinct of monks (and to a lesser extent nuns) in monasteries, not just in Tibet but in other Buddhist countries the world over. Lay people would be considered the less serious practitioners, whose main job was to support the ordained community. Tibetan Buddhism came over to us from a monastic tradition, and in the very early days you could be forgiven for thinking you had to be a monk and sit in your room all day long to get anywhere, both spiritually AND in the organization. (Not that there is anything wrong with sitting in your room all day long, in fact it can be very helpful — I would submit that we probably all could benefit from more study and meditation if we can carve out the time, especially in these turbulent days. Point being, though, that we can go far by applying the teachings in the midst of a “normal” daily life.)

I had an hour-long conversation with Geshe-la back then about whether or not lay people could become enlightened. (The answer is ….. wait for it …. Yes!!!) The only reason I needed to ask him this was because of an attitude around at the time that to be ordained was the only proper way to be. Geshe-la never said this and, in fact, pretty much the day he landed on English soil he said he wanted there now to be four types of teacher – nuns, monks, lay women, and lay men – and that they would study together and be equal. He has always aimed for equality, but has had to skillfully offload the baggage that came over with that generation of Tibetans.

I will finish this article for now with a quote from Venerable Geshe-la:

I am working very hard to spread Kadam Dharma throughout the world because I wish each and every living being to attain real happiness, the pure and everlasting happiness of enlightenment. This depends on each and every living being having the opportunity to practice Buddha’s teaching. I am strongly applying effort to prepare this precious opportunity and with sincere strong prayer. This is my cherishing of all living beings in a practical way. You can do this too.

And, would you look at that, I am out of space again! There’s more on its way. Meantime, please share comments, stories, or anything you like in the box below.

Related articles

More Buddhist views on conspiracy theories 

Why rely on a Spiritual Guide?

What can we really know about anyone? 

From division to unity

An article co-written by a friend and me. 

One of Buddha Shakyamuni’s qualities is that he has love and compassion without discrimination. Sometimes we fantasize about Buddha’s time, as if it was always peaceful and magical. But the truth is that Buddha went against the grain of his society and invited everyone into the spiritual community — men, women, kings, queens, those of the lowest caste, those shunned by society, even thieves and murderers. This speaks to the foundation of the teachings — that they are for everyone. These teachings, which provide freedom, provide this freedom for everyone. It was powerful then and it is powerful now.

Tibet was pretty feudal, not the most progressive society in the world by any means. Although there were spiritual masters and Yoginis of staggering power, Dharma teachings and teachers were largely confined to the monasteries; and for whatever reason society as a whole was static for centuries. We have a better opportunity than practitioners in Tibet to use Buddhist ideas to make a difference in our world because we are already democratic in theory and because of modern communications. The last time that Venerable Geshe Kelsang, originally from Tibet, visited the States, he praised Western countries:

I find in Western countries very good examples. For example, in Europe and in America, according to their constitutions, everyone is equal. They’ve even made it into law. There is equal education, equal rights, equal freedom for free speech, no discrimination between different races, no discrimination between different religions.

 On paper at least we are doing very well, and this is actually a wonderful achievement. The truth is that you cannot find one single person who is more important than everyone else, or even more important than anyone else. We are equal. We believe it in principle. However, as we know, we don’t always believe or live this truth in practice. Why? Geshe Kelsang explained:

It is so difficult to put this law into practice because we cannot help but discriminate naturally. Due to our self-cherishing mind thinking “I am important” and ignoring others’ happiness, even though the law says everyone is to be treated equally we are not doing this practically. The government constitutions saying “Everyone is equal” looks like a Mahayana Buddhist idea; but we can’t do it practically. 

When Gen-la Dekyong was talking about this in this year’s Summer Festival, she said we need to check inside our heart: “Am I discriminating that everyone is equal? When we think I, I, mine, mine, we naturally cherish that I, thinking it is most important, and neglect others.” As Geshe-la says:

We can’t practice equality if we have never trained in thinking ‘Self-cherishing is bad. It causes problems and suffering.’ Thus the constitution is the law and Mahayana Buddhism is the practice of this law.

As Buddha’s ideas spread into the modern world at large, where everything is connected, we now have a new and inspiring opportunity to use them to reshape our society and become truly democratic. Everyone can make use of these ideas, not just Buddhists, for they are in many ways just super-charged common sense.

Over to my co-writer again for some very helpful suggestions on how we can get started.

Equalizing self and others

If we want to move from division to unity, if we want true equality, one way is to practice equalizing self and others. We can contemplate this for example: 

Just as we value our own peace and happiness, so too should we value the peace and happiness of all living beings; and just as we work to free ourself from suffering and problems, so too should we work to free others. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness 

If we’re going to get to true or actual equality, equalizing is what we each need to practice. This is a very deep attitude, a deep spiritual conversion of our heart. Believing that other people’s happiness is equally or at least as important as our own, we will really help them and pray for them. 

If we all go deep into this, how would it affect the people around us? How would our world change as a result? I think our personal world would change immensely, and the immediate world of our family and community would also change. Our contribution, our influence, would be powerful.

We need to examine our own perceptions and attitudes through introspection or meditation; this is our responsibility. What about those who are not doing this though, who are careless with their self-cherishing, who don’t even know or care that they have it? 

The only appropriate response to those who are driven by their delusions to harm others is compassion. Sometimes it is necessary to force those who are behaving in very deluded ways to stop both for their own sake and to protect other people, but it is never appropriate to blame or become angry with them. ~ Eight Steps

Which means to hate them. We know this. To hate someone who is acting out of ignorance or hatred is no better. It is no solution. It is a deeper transformation of our mind to see that people are being harmed by their hatred as opposed to being their hatred. It takes the wisdom born from meditation to really see the difference between a delusion and a person. It’s not intellectual.  

We are all family

Right now, there’s a lot of division. Broadly speaking, we have friends, we have people we don’t like, and we have a huge group inbetween for whom we feel nothing at all. This is all mis-identification because, according to Buddha, we are all family. We have all been each others’ mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters a million times over. Through the countless rebirths we have had, we’ve changed our relationships repeatedly. We have taken a different rebirth now, but that doesn’t mean the connection we’ve had is gone — it does still exist. We are connected deeply. 

Along with this basic category of friends, enemies, and strangers, we further divide ourselves up in so many different ways: by culture, race, sexual preferences, politics, income, and more. So then what happens? We develop attachment for the people who seem to be like us or who agree with us. And we develop unpleasant feelings — maybe even hatred — for people who do not seem to be like us or who do not subscribe to our views. Doesn’t this sound like what we do!? We create division. We’re fractured.

Dualistic thinking

Just to get profound for a bit … on the deepest level, the origins of these classifications and divisions are what we call “dualistic appearance” and “dualistic grasping.” There’s the truth or reality of me, and there’s also what appears to be me. We see these two things to be separate when they are not

For example when you go to work there’s a professional you in your uniform, then when you go home there’s an at-home you in your old comfy jeans. The professional you is not different from the at-home you — they are just different aspects of what appears to be you. The truth of you is that you are undefined and unlimited in aspects. Gardening you, jogging you, angry you, happy you. There are so many aspects or appearances of you! All of these “you’s” are unified in your truth, which is what Buddha called your emptiness. 

One way to look at it is this — you are truly empty of definition. You are the unlimited possibility of emptiness. It’s a very positive liberating emptiness!  

Your emptiness, or lack of true definition, is how the many aspects or appearances of you are possible in the first place. For the sake of argument, if you really were just one of these aspects entirely, defined only in that one way, the other aspects of you would be impossible. However, how you live your varied life every day in all these aspects tells you what’s really going on. 

All of these modes of you, these ways of being, exist because of your lack of true definition. Your unlimited true nature (your emptiness) and your various aspects are unified.  However we normally perceive these two, our emptiness and our aspects, as two different things, which is called dualistic appearance or mistaken appearance. Out of deep habit we believe this difference or inner division to be true, which is called dualistic grasping. From The Mirror of Dharma:

When we see our body, in truth we see only the emptiness of our body because the real nature of our body is its emptiness. However, we do not understand this because of our ignorance. We normally see our body as something that exists from its own side. This is mistaken appearance. ~ The Mirror of Dharma

Whether talking about our body or our self, we are perceiving something that is true as well as something that is not true. We perceive our emptiness, because emptiness is our true way of being, yet we don’t apprehend or relate to it. Instead we see and relate to an ordinary limited self that is independent in its way of being. 

For example, we can think “I’m stuck,” and have this strong sense of a limited real self, yet not understand how that sense of self depends upon our way of thinking and is therefore empty of being stuck, not really stuck! Our mind is obscured by confusion, although the truth is already before us. 

Becoming whole

If our confused mind is creating division in ourself at a very deep level, you better believe it’s going to divide everyone and everything else up too. However, due to Buddha’s great and practical wisdom, we can remedy this situation. We can become whole — individually and collectively. 

If we believe that there is an independent me or self, then this means there’s an independent you or other too. We have divided ourselves into independent me and independent you. Or into real, or actual, self and other. 

Then come the many layers of classification and division that pile on from that ignorance. We believe in so many things that don’t exist from their own side! We put everything into separate boxes, not seeing their interconnection and 100 percent mutual dependence. Understanding the origin point of the mistake, we can address it or abandon it, as Buddha explains fully in the four noble truths

Uprooting systemic ignorance 

Samsara, from a Buddhist definition, is the cycle of impure life — a life that is created by this dualistic self-grasping ignorance along with the self-centeredness (Me first!) that goes with it. This world that we normally see is definitely impure life — created, controlled, and perpetuated by ignorance. It is not so hard to see this truth when it is pointed out. The root of samsara is deep, deep systemic ignorance, and it is therefore pervaded by systemic division and systemic inequality.

The inequality that we see in society is a manifestation of the deep levels of samsaric divisiveness. Because in the origin point of our thinking there is a false duality, everything else is a projection of this duality, this separation, this division. However, instead of believing in an objective or actual “self” and “other” — or an independent me divided from an independent you — we can learn to see ourselves as gathered together into one. Parts of a whole. Unified in truth.

Abolishing inequality

Going back to equalizing, we can see for a start that each one of us is interconnected in a dimensionless, huge, universal wish to be happy and free. We are unified or one in this wish. We can easily begin to overcome our mistaken divisiveness by seeing and feeling that we are all interconnected rather than independent. It’s so necessary, because this view of independence is literally killing us.

Geshe Kelsang says:

Loving others is principally an attitude of mind. The way in which we express it depends upon the needs, wishes, and situations of each individual as well as our karmic connection with them. We cannot physically care for everyone, but we can develop a caring attitude towards all beings. This is the main point of training the mind.

We can spend weeks, months, our whole life on deeply seeing others’ happiness and freedom as important as our own, and developing a caring attitude towards them. If we can do this, we will move beyond division. When we do this, we become someone who creates harmony, who creates peace, who can repair trouble. We become more and more fearless, an abolitionist of inequality. We have the methods. We’ve got such clear instruction that holds incredible power. We’ve got the wish and people are waiting.

Over to you. Please leave your comments and questions for us in the comments so we can answer them.

Related reading 

The meditation on equalizing self and others 

What is self-cherishing and what is wrong with it?

What can we really know about anyone? 

Living beings are not their delusions 

When the student is ready, the teacher appears

Je TsongkhapaYesterday Michelle Obama, an amazing woman who always strikes me as grounded, wise, and resilient under pressure, offered comfort to others by sharing how she herself of late has been coping with low-grade depression. It’s not at all hard to understand why. And people all over the world are feeling it too, for all kinds of reasons.

Lying in bed late last night, unable to fall asleep with all that’s been going on, I found myself mulling over everything seemingly wrong in my life, in my friends’ and relatives’ lives, in this country and the world at large, and not restricted to human beings. It was a lot! Yet I also realized it was nothing — on one level, a deeper level — that I couldn’t actually handle.

In these unusual and unsettling times, would you agree it is more apparent than ever that we need actively to be seeking something trustworthy? Something and/or someone to help us navigate beyond anxiety, depression, fear, anger, and overwhelming confusion to a heartfelt peace, stability, inspiration, and transcendence? The time-honored benefits of relying on a qualified spiritual guide are compelling in this regard, not just for ourselves but for others — so that we can provide an ongoing brave and safe space for them to land. If we really want to change things, I think we all need the firm basis of refuge.

Carrying directly on from this article.

Once we have decided to rely upon a spiritual guide, the big question is – obviously — who?! Who is my Spiritual Guide?Screen Shot 2020-08-05 at 4.46.52 PM

In the book Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe Kelsang says that our Spiritual Guide

… is any spiritual teacher who sincerely leads us into spiritual paths by giving correct instructions.

This can be anyone – from East or West, lay or ordained, male or female, black, white, or green with pink spots. It doesn’t matter who they are as long as they are able to guide us along the spiritual path because they’ve been there themselves, always showing us an inspiring example of what is possible. That is our Spiritual Guide, that person.

We have complete choice over that – everyone in Buddhism always chooses their own Spiritual Guide, that’s how it works. I can’t tell you who yours is, but I can tell you more about mine.

Moreover, not just for me, but for this current generation of Kadampa teachers and practitioners, I would say we are probably in unanimous agreement that our Spiritual Guide is Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche, otherwise known as “Geshe-la”.

GeshelaJust so you know, “Geshe” is short for “ge way she nyen,” the Tibetan term for “spiritual friend”. “La” is a term of endearment and respect. “Rinpoche” means “precious,” and is an honorific for highly regarded Teachers. “Kelsang” means “good fortune”. “Gyatso” means “ocean”. And “Venerable” means “Venerable.”

This generation of practitioners who have been lucky enough to be in this world with him would probably all agree that Geshe-la is our root Spiritual Guide, even if we have also received a lot of teachings from his other disciples. Some of his disciples have more experience and knowledge than us, so they can help show the path, act as role models, advise us, encourage us. But for anyone who wants to follow the path of Kadampa Buddhism to its completion, I would recommend Geshe-la as their fully qualified guide because (a) he is the obvious candidate for the job, and (b) anything we learn from any other Kadampa teacher is coming from him in any case — they’ll all tell you that. Also, any love, wisdom, or skill these practitioners have gained comes largely from following his example.

Therefore, if we can go direct to the source, then why not?! But it is nonetheless entirely up to us who we end up choosing, and it depends on our karma as well.

Meeting Geshe-la

Within that, of course, many people have not met Geshe-la in the flesh, as it were. However, luckily, he is not a fleshy person, there is a lot more to him than that – he is an enlightened being who possesses omniscient wisdom and compassion. That’s one reason why he makes such a good Spiritual Guide — he is everywhere all the time. His physical body is like some kind of overcoat, as he once said, and not who he really is. You may not have been in his direct physical presence but you still know him.

Geshela youngIt’s a bit like how, right now, I’m not in your physical presence and you’re not in mine – we could well be on different continents. If I know you are in London, say, and I think of you there, then my mind is in London right now, as well as up a mountain in Evergreen, Colorado looking after some friends’ chickens. Mind is extraordinary. Even an ordinary mind like mine can be anywhere I decide to put it, so of course an enlightened being’s mind can go anywhere and is everywhere all the time. Geshe-la’s mind is very much with us all the time. He said, “My mind will always be with you;” and I’m not the only one who has had innumerable experiences where I know this to be true. If we understand that enlightenment is reality, it is easier to understand the real nature and power of a Spiritual Guide.

Relying on a Spiritual Guide is a bit like tuning in and just knowing he is there. And the sheer act of knowing he is with you, always, means there is a connection and relationship right there already. From his side he already knows you. From your side you just need gradually to get to know him.

I am always with you

Geshe-la is exceedingly quiet and humble, he doesn’t really put himself forward, much less make himself the center of attention; but his wisdom is everywhere, in everything. He is in all those 23 books because he wrote them – one time he said he was like the tape recorder for the tapes of Manjushri Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings. He is responsible for over 1200+ Buddhist centers around the world and all their teachers who are his disciples. All the five World Peace Temples, portals into the Pure Land, that are being plonked all over the world — Heruka’s mandala — all come from him. All of this comes from his heart of compassion and wisdom, his enlightenment.

If you have walked through the door of any Kadampa Center or listened to the livestream of any class, you already know Geshe-la. When you see your local Kadampa teacher, or any other disciple, Geshe-la is at their heart. Buddhas’ minds can go anywhere, is everywhere, and Venerable Geshe-la has appeared in this world for the Geshe-la humilityspecific purpose of leading us to enlightenment. That’s all he has ever done — lead people along the path to increasing freedom and happiness. In all the 39 years I’ve known him I’ve never known him do anything else. I think this all means that he is very well qualified for this job of Spiritual Guide.

Modern Day Kadampas booklet

I want to say a bit more about him, referring to a booklet called Modern Day Kadampas written by a dear old friend called Jim Belither, who was the NKT secretary for about an aeon and is now the chief Tharpa editor (thank you for over 40 years of non-stop usefulness, Jim!) I don’t know if this booklet is still in circulation or not, but it is still true, even though many more good things have happened since its publication. (Hey, Jim, maybe you should update it … ) This tradition of Buddhism is growing fast because people are able to apply the teachings to their everyday lives and are getting results.

Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche is a highly respected meditation master and scholar. He was born in  Tibet in 1931 and ordained as a Buddhist monk at the age of eight.

Modern Day KadampasBack in the early eighties, other Tibetan Lamas such as Venerable Geshe-la’s friends and sometimes his teachers like Kyabje Song Rinpoche would come teach us and spend time with us. (Once or twice I practiced my Tibetan on them to help them feel at home, but they just laughed at me uproariously.)

Anyway, a fellow monk from Geshe-la’s childhood told me that even as a child Geshe-la was unusual. At the age of 8 or 9 he would study the philosophical treatises all day long with the rest of them, and then meditate on Lamrim all night long while they slept.

It was traditional for the young monks to have an older disciplinarian monk in charge of them, and Geshe-la and two friends had one who was almost blind. One of the little monks played a trick on him, I don’t remember what, and the elder monk was not happy: “Who did this?! I will beat you.” And Geshe-la spoke up, “It was me.” It wasn’t him, but he took the beating.

Geshe-la’s own Spiritual Guide

He studied both philosophical and practical subjects of Buddhism under many highly qualified Teachers, especially Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche.

Geshela and lineage GurusThe beautiful Lama Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche was the Teacher of all this present generation of Gelugpas who came out of Tibet, including the 14th Dalai Lama.

Geshe Kelsang has likened Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche to a vast reservoir from which all Gelugpa practitioners of the present day received waters of blessings and instructions.

Trijang Rinpoche was widely revered, and Venerable Geshe-la was a heart disciple. Geshe-la has always said that everything he has and that he can pass on comes from his root Guru – he shows a very good example of relying upon his own Spiritual Guide. In this year’s Summer Festival during the commentary to Eight Verses of Training the Mind by Geshe Langri Tangpa, Gen-la Dekyong quoted Geshe-la as saying:

When I was in Lhasa I met my Spiritual Father, Vajradhara Trijang Rinpoche, for the first time. Just seeing him reminded me of Bodhisattva Langri Tangpa. I felt great devotion towards him. I often thought he must be an emanation of Langri Tangpa. A senior monk later gave me a small book that listed the names of Trijang Rinpoche’s previous incarnations, among these was the name ‘Geshe Langri Tangpa’. I was so happy to find my previous belief confirmed!TrijangRinpoche-1024x796

Any time and any place Trijang Rinpoche taught, Geshe-la said he would try to go:

I thought only if I receive his speech, if I hear his speech, this is enough. From his teachings, from his blessings, he gives me spiritual life, real spiritual life. I was born  from him. All my teachings of Sutra and Tantra came from him. Through receiving blessings from him, I have the opportunity to benefit and help internationally with people’s spiritual development. All my ability to teach, write books, organize, help, benefit — everything came from this Lama. Without this Lama, Geshe Kelsang is powerless. He is still my life. He is still in front of me.

Coming to the West

Back in Modern Day Kadampas, it says:

Geshe Kelsang arrived in Engand in late August 1977 at the invitation of Manjushri Buddhist Centre, then Manjushri Institute. [Ed: now Manjushri KMC].

No time for the whole story here (more here), but, in brief, Geshe-la was one of two Geshes at Manjushri Institute back in the day, the other one teaching the traditional monastic Geshe studies; and he became an English citizen asap so he could freely teach what he wanted to as opposed to what Tibetan Lamas were told to teach by the Tibetan government in exile. He has always been a bit of a freedom fighter, to put it mildly. And he learned English as soon as he could. I was around by 1981, reading stuff to him in English that he’d asked me to transcribe and edit, and he was like a sponge – you only had to explain a word once and he would never have to ask twice, nor ever forget it.

When he first flew over London … and London is really big, especially for someone coming out of an 18-year solitary retreat in the Himalayas — he asked his translator: “How many people live in London?” Upon hearing the answer, 10 million, he said: “There are only 5 million people in Tibet! I must stay here and bring Dharma to London and England.” (And the rest of the Western and then whole modern world, as it turns out.)

I might have told this story in the wrong order … what brought all this about is that the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959 and Geshe-la escaped over the Himalayas with just two texts and his robes.

mountains panorama

After leaving Tibet in 1959, Geshe-la spent the next 18 years mainly emphasizing retreat in various locations in the Himalayan region and northern India.

He left the only country he had ever known (the snowy-mountained roof of the world), his monastery, his family, his language, to live in hot India with its very different culture, food, etc. He had lost everything, but people who saw him at that time said he remained just as blissful as ever.

(Given the unusual times we are all living through in 2020, where even my own country is feeling alien, I find there’s a lot to be inspired by in this example.)

He entered a long retreat of 18 years, receiving teachings from the Wisdom Buddha Je Tsongkhapa directly; and perhaps he might have stayed there happily forever. Luckily for us however Manjushri Institute invited him to come over and teach them — and Trijang Rinpoche asked him to accept Manjushri’s invitation. So he agreed, and that is how he ended up on that airplane over London. He came to these barbarian lands where people like you and me live, to bring us the entire path to enlightenment.

A bit more about him … 

Geshe-la is a complete Yogi, having studied every teaching on Sutra and Tantra and realized it in his own experience He is happy day and night, and needs nothing from us other than our help in establishing Centers to offer the same teachings that are so precious to his heart. He has never been remotely seduced by worldly pleasures. As it says here:

Geshe-la with bowl in TibetHis personal life continues to inspire his students as an immaculate example of someone who has found inner happiness through practicing Buddha’s teachings. Despite repeated offers from Manjushri Centre to prepare more spacious accommodation, Geshe-la continues to live there simply in the one small room that he moved into in 1977.

He has never been bothered about comfort. I remember the admin team wanted to update his very old bathroom, and he declined, saying “What does a monk need with a washer tap?” (It is worth pointing out though that he knows modern people generally prefer far higher standards of living, and encourages the NKT Centers to make everything comfortable.)

As mentioned in this article of how Kadam Dharma came to America (the so-called “frog story”), a student offered him a car, but when Geshe-la saw the famine in Ethiopia he asked this benefactor, “Can I sell the car and give it to Live Aid?” He gave his house away. If you would visit Venerable Geshe-la, you might give him a gift, only to see the next person come out holding it 😄 Everything flows through him, he is the epitome of generosity. He doesn’t need wealth, fame, or a good reputation – he has never given a monkeys about any of these things. His only interest is in helping people and in Dharma – I have never seen anything to contradict that.

He is a great healer (see this story here.) And he loves animals (he has a couple of dogs and a cat with 3 legs), with compassion for even the smallest insects. Once I was visiting him in his room at Manjushri KMC, when the wasps were dying by the window, as they do in the Summer. Picking one up, he blew ever so gently on her as she died — the love coming out of him was mesmerizing. He loves everyone like that, finds everyone to be important, with no exception, equally. For this is what Buddha teaches, and he has fully internalized those teachings. He embodies them.

Geshe-a in Tibet with child

This is a good example of how we can be too.

It would be really really hard to write a biography that does justice to Geshe-la. I know this because he was once kind enough to let me attempt it – just ten glorious and inspiring days later he took the project away, saying it was too hard, which is true. Someone else continued for a bit, but now I think it is shelved, at least for the time being. Me and this other person both agreed that there are just so many versions of him – hundreds of thousands of people now have stories to tell of how he has transformed their lives. How do you begin to get that down on paper?

Beyond some sparse biographical details, I think he will be known publicly with regard to the preeminent qualities of his teachings, practical example, and Dharma activities, including the tradition he has established. When I really think about that, isn’t the same true for all the great Buddhist teachers of the past, including Atisha, Je Tsongkhapa, and Trijang Rinpoche?

It appears that everyone has their own Geshe-la guiding them. And that’s how it is with an authentic Spiritual Guide, everyone has always had their own. Although there is just one moon in the sky, its reflections show up on every body of water – and in the same way, Buddhas can and do emanate in numerous receptive minds and lives.

Out of space! But there’s a bit more coming in the next article. And do leave any comments you like in the box below.

A Spiritual Guide

Buddha’s teachings on Sutra and Tantra take us places we’ve never been before mentally, or for that matter physically.

Spiritual guidanceIn our beginningless lives, in lifetime after lifetime, including year after year in this one, we have been searching for happiness high and low, pretty much non-stop. We have also been searching for freedom non-stop. Yet here we are, still not perfectly happy, still not free. Despite our unending search for happiness, liberation and enlightenment are magical inner destinations that (speaking for myself) we have not yet reached.

Every day seems to bring difficulties and pains — do you know anyone who is as happy as they’d like to be? Why not? It’s not through lack of trying. Maybe it is  because we haven’t yet travelled the path to real happiness and freedom. And one reason we have not yet travelled that path is because we have not yet followed a trustworthy guide.

Without a Spiritual Guide to lead us, we have no idea where we are going, existentially speaking. No Google map can point us the way to mental freedom. No YouTube video can show us how to fix the endless pains of our samsara. No pilgrimage to Mecca or even Bodh Gaya can land us in the invisible destination of bliss and emptiness.

To quote Gen Rabten at the really really good International Kadampa Summer Festival (still ongoing til Aug 25th, click here!)

We are here because we want new ideas. We know that if we always think what we’ve always thought, we will always feel what we’ve always felt. We want different outcomes for ourself, for our family, for our communities. We look at the tarnished history of our world, and the suffering and the injustices, and we want something different. That is going to require different ideas, new ideas, new ways of thinking.

The spiritual path is one that will definitely take us through some unfamiliar terrain within our own minds – terrain that is fascinating, wonderful, sometimes challenging, and ultimately transcendent, eventually culminating in full enlightenment for everybody’s benefit. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know someone who has already taken this journey, who in fact lives there? Especially if they are offering to guide us along the way, inspiring us to deal with the challenges, and showing us how to avoid any pitfalls?

The practice of relying upon a Spiritual Guide is common to all Buddhist schools, Hinayana and Mahayana, and has been since time without beginning. It is considered an essential ingredient of the path both to liberation and to enlightenment. As Geshe Kelsang said (quoted by Genla Dekyong in the Festival):

Geshe-la with BuddhaHow to solve human problems is very simple in reality, but because we are ignoring the  advice of enlightened beings, our problems are endless and never finish.

Personal spiritual trainer

The big yellow book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune, contains all the stages of the path to enlightenment in detail, and is the go-to book for Buddha’s teachings on relying upon a Spiritual Guide. At the beginning of that chapter, Geshe Kelsang says:

Reliance upon a Spiritual Guide is called the “root of the path” because all other spiritual realizations of Sutra and Tantra depend upon it.

One reason for this could be that we had no idea these realizations even existed before meeting our Spiritual Guide. Generally, we don’t know we need a Spiritual Guide until we’ve tasted some Dharma, at which point it becomes a bit obvious, and increasingly more obvious the more we delve into these deep and far-reaching teachings on Sutra and Tantra.

Just as in our ordinary education we need to rely upon the help of well-qualified teachers to guide us from the level of nursery school to the completion of college or university training, so in the spiritual training that leads to full enlightenment we need to rely upon a well-qualified Spiritual Guide.

Joyful Path

If I decide for some reason that I would like to make airplanes, the day I start reading the manuals is the day I know that I am going to need someone’s help and instruction.

It’s all very well to dismiss this seminal practice to say we need to follow our heart or follow our bliss, except that we’ve already basically been doing that for a inconceivably long time. We’re going around in circles. If we want to learn things that we’ve never learned before, things that are going to take us somewhere completely new, if we want a transcendent route out of the cycle of suffering, we have to follow a transcendent Guide.

As Gen Rabten put it last week:

We have had countless lives, in every one of which we longed to find a lasting happiness and an end to suffering. We have travelled through each and every realm countless times. And never once have we fulfilled our wish for happiness and peace. This cyclic existence, samsara, is not an external prison, but a prison created by our own mind. There is just one door through which we can escape.  That door is the realization of emptiness. In this life we have met a pure spiritual path that has led us to this door. Not once in our countless previous lives have we found a better position than this. If we step through this door, our samsara and all our sufferings will cease. We will find our own nirvana and the ability to lead others to theirs.

Who benefits from this practice?

We do. A qualified Spiritual Guide is not going to be bothered from their own side whether or not we rely upon them because they already have everything they could possibly want or need.

mountains 1

In Buddhism, as I think I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, faith in Buddha and our Spiritual Guides depends on faith in our own Buddha nature. If on the basis of at least suspecting that we have the potential for boundless freedom, and perhaps first giving ourselves a few moments to feel some of the peace we already have in our heart, we think through some of the following benefits we’ll experience from relying upon a Spiritual Guide, this will increase our wish to find and rely upon one. This in turn will increase our effort or enthusiasm, which will lead to all these benefits.

We progress towards enlightenment

If I rely completely upon my Spiritual Guide, he or she will reveal what I have to practice to attain full enlightenment …

(For the purposes of keeping this article reasonably short, I’d like to direct you to Joyful Path to find the rest of this quote and other quotes below, page 98 onward).

Our Spiritual Guide reveals the truth to us and explains what we need to do, such that we can accomplish our spiritual goals swiftly, even “in this very lifetime”. How is that even possible?! If you are wondering that, check out Buddha’s Tantric teachings. Enlightenment in one lifetime is possible if we find a qualified Tantric teacher.

Here is one of my favorite quotes, which is by Padampa Sangye in One Hundred Verses for the Tingri People:

If we rely upon our Spiritual Guide he can lead us wherever we wish to go and so we should repay his kindness by offering faith and respect. If we wish to attain enlightenment, our Spiritual Guide will lead us there….   If we wish to be reborn in a Pure Land, he will lead us there. He will lead us to whatever virtuous destination we desire.

mountains 2Decades ago I had a clear dream in which Geshe-la told me:

I will take you wherever you want to go. Don’t be concerned about what other people are doing or how they are looking at you, just follow me.

And it’s true. It has been true for me so far, and for many others, and for practitioners since the time of Buddha including Buddha himself — they have all had Spiritual Guides who took them where they wanted to go. No one has ever attained enlightenment without a Spiritual Guide. I don’t think you’re going to be the first.

We delight all the Buddhas

Buddha Vajradhara says:

When disciples make offerings to their Spiritual Guides, I myself and all the other Buddhas enter into the body of the Spiritual Guide and accept the offering.

And there’s more, it’s pretty deep, you can learn more about how that works from the chapter.

We are not harmed by demons and other evil influences

 When we have refuge in our Spiritual Guide, we are not going to experience spirit attacks and so on. Most humans cannot see spirits, and probably a lot of humans don’t even believe in them; but a lot do as well. (Recently I have been told by various housemates that when I’ve been away they’ve heard voices and seen lights flicker on and off in my attic apartment. I don’t mind. In any case, these apparently benign spirits go away when I come home.)

mountains 3According to Buddha, there is a whole so-called spirit or hungry ghost realm, one of the six realms of samsara; and quite apart from the fact that life is ghastly for them, some of these spirits can give us a hard time. There is no space in this article to look more into this, but it reminds me of the quote from Hamlet:

There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

We easily overcome our faults and delusions

If I rely upon my Spiritual Guide, through his or her kindness he will show me how to abandon faults and delusions and so I will be able to avoid harmful actions and their results.

Here, Geshe Kelsang mentions the example of Milarepa, which, if you haven’t read yet, and even if you have, I strongly recommend – it is a really good story, popular in Buddhism. Milarepa had done some atrociously bad things, like murdering about 30 people, by the time he met his Spiritual Guide. I am assuming that none of you reading this is a mass murderer, but even if you are, and have gotten away with it this far, Milarepa 2although it is eating away at you, if you rely wholeheartedly on your Spiritual Guide and their instructions you can abandon and purify every single evil action.

Milarepa attained enlightenment in that very same lifetime! Which means there’s a lot of hope for the rest of us. The stronger our faith, the more “easily” we can overcome our faults and delusions. “Easily” sounds good to me.

Our experiences and realizations of spiritual grounds and paths greatly increase

The story is told here of Geshe Jayulwa, who had no time for meditation or study because he was always serving or cleaning up after his Spiritual Guide. One day he went outside to empty the trash and

… his mind naturally developed single-pointed concentration on emptiness and, without having to exert extra effort or engage in meditation, he gained a realization of emptiness.

This happened due to the purification and huge good karma he got from humbly serving his kind Spiritual Guide, who in turn was freed up to help so many other people. Without us helping Venerable Geshe-la, for example, he cannot get much done practically speaking – he has said that he is like one hand and his students are like the other.

We never lack spiritual friends in all our future lives

Je Phabongkhapa is the Spiritual Guide of Trijang Rinpoche, who is the Spiritual Guide of Geshe Kelsang – making him, I do believe, our spiritual great-grandfather. Which is good news because he was a formidable Lama. He says:

Although our Spiritual Guide may at present appear to be ordinary, if we do not assent to this ordinary appearance but practice regarding him or her as a Buddha, we shall create the cause to have actual Buddhas … as our Spiritual Guides in the future.

Right now everything appears to us as ordinary because we have ordinary minds. This makes ouropinions unreliable, and even if Buddha Shakyamuni or Manjushri or Tara sky 1were to appear in all their glory in front of us, their illusory bodies made of wisdom light, and say “Hello!”, what would we see? An ordinary person. (In fact, they may have already tried to say “Hello!” to you.) Buddhas are already all around us all the time. Enlightenment is reality. In The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Venerable Geshe-la says:

Buddhas are like the sun and our ignorance is like the clouds that obscure the sun. When clouds disperse we see that in reality the sun has been shining all along; and, in a similar way, when we remove the clouds of ignorance from our mind we shall see that the Buddhas have always been present all around us.

Traveling the spiritual paths of Sutra and Tantra is very much the process of unveiling that reality – we’re not seeing all that wonder because our ordinary appearances and projections are getting in the way, like clouds. So we practice seeing our Spiritual Guide as an embodiment of all these Buddhas appearing in a form that we can relate to, talk to, and understand – but never for a moment thinking that the ordinariness we perceive belongs to our Spiritual Guide, but rather to our own perceptions. You can see how this unordinary view is creating the cause to see Buddhas in their actual forms.

We do not take rebirth in the lower realms

You may think, “I wasn’t planning on doing that anyway.” But the thing is that we have been in samsara since beginningless time and are travelers bound for future lives. This world is not our permanent home, as Buddha said, and we have at most a few hundred months left before we have to leave this body and its world.

travellersWhen we fall asleep tonight, everything about today is going to disappear and we will enter a different world in a different dream body — maybe it’ll be a nice world, but it could just as easily be a nightmare. Then tomorrow with any luck we’ll wake up into a world similar to today’s world (though not the same, as explained in these articles on subtle impermanence).

A similar thing will happen when we die, except that we won’t be waking back up into anything even remotely resembling what is appearing to us now. In the time it takes to go through the death process, the few hours or less that it takes to die, everything about this life will disappear. We will be parted from everything and everyone we know in this life, including our body, friends, career, and children. We have to think about these things because it is only a matter of time before this happens to us.

And at that point, we will definitely want our Spiritual Guide with us. He is the one person who can accompany us in the death process and stay with us in all our future lives. No ordinary being can do this, however much we want them to come with us. Our Spiritual Guide can, and he will. Therefore, this is a very important benefit.

All our wishes, temporary and ultimate, are easily fulfilled

I don’t have anything to add for that one, at least not right now.

Does any of this sound good to me?

mountains 5We can close our eyes and contemplate all or any one of these benefits, asking ourselves, “Is this what I want? Would I like this benefit? How might that work?” If we do this, and it moves our heart, we’ll naturally have a wish to find and rely upon a Spiritual Guide. And if we have that wish, we will find and rely upon one. As the old saying goes:

When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

For which Buddha could refuse you?! All of them attained enlightenment because they found living beings’ suffering impossible to ignore and wanted to be in a position to guide us out of samsara. Therefore, if someone is finally seeking lasting freedom and happiness, what Buddha is going to say, “No, not you, sorry. Mm mm. I attained enlightenment to guide all living beings to freedom and bliss, but there is an exception to every rule, and I’m afraid that’s you.” No, that’s not going to happen. Therefore if you want to follow the path with a Spiritual Guide, one will appear, one has already appeared to be honest.

Coming up next … once we have decided to rely upon a Spiritual Guide, the big and obvious question is – Who?! Who is my Spiritual Guide?

Meantime, please leave your comments in the box below!