Modern Day Kadampas

8.5 mins read

Scrolling through the news these days feels a bit like drinking salt water to quench my thirst – I keep vaguely hoping I’ll stumble upon something or someone that can make things better, but I rarely if ever do. This is probably because we cannot make this cycle of impure life called samsara work properly — it is not set up to work, it has not worked since beginningless time, and it is unlikely to start working now.

Better to listen to advice from enlightened beings, if we are lucky enough to stumble into any of that. As Atisha says in his Advice from the Heart

Until you realize ultimate truth, listening is indispensable, therefore listen to the instructions of the Spiritual Guide.

Our samsaric societies have systemic problems such as racism and sexism because samsara’s very source code is corrupted, contaminated by the mental poisons of ignorance, aversion, and uncontrolled desire. Samsara needs to be burned to the ground with wisdom, and a Pure Land built in its place from the source code of renunciation, compassion, wisdom, and the Tantric pure view that sees through our ordinary conceptions to the bliss and emptiness that is already here

A  friend and Yogi in England sends me regular insights and comments from his retreat, and some of you might like this recent one, at least I did:

What day are you reading this, Tuesday? What time is it there? In the world of self-grasping it is Unhappyday every day. No matter what the time, it is unhappy o’clock. In Keajra Pure Land it is Blissday every day and it is always happy o’clock.

Winter is coming

I think it’s always worth remembering that our mental actions or intentions are hundreds of times more powerful than our verbal and physical actions, however necessary these may be. Mental intentions determine the outcome of all our actions or karma, and it is intentionality that creates our experiences, creates our world. This also means that the mental actions of listening to enlightened advice, or Dharma, and working with our minds are never a waste of time but immediately enable us to become a greater source of strength for ourself and others.

This training is going to be very useful as we head into an uncertain winter. There’s no better time than in these coming dark perhaps somewhat solitary months to train as a spiritual warrior, a Bodhisattva, for the sake of our family, friends, community, society, animals, and everyone in the world.

Everyone has freedom

Now back to that Modern Day Kadampas booklet for more about Venerable Geshe Kelsang, as begun in this previous article, A light in the darkness.

Geshe-la has always encouraged his students to present Dharma in a way appropriate to their own culture and society without the need to adopt Tibetan culture and customs. Realizing that it would be difficult for many of his students to learn Tibetan, he taught himself English.

As I’ve mentioned in a few places on this blog, Buddha Shakyamuni was cutting edge in India almost 2600 years ago in ancient India – his teachings and actions freed his followers from the rigid caste system and he ordained untouchables. His Sangha is a classless society.

Venerable Geshe Kelsang has also been cutting edge in today’s world. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to watch this extraordinary person and his disciples change the course of Buddhist history over the past 40 years, and I hope I live long enough to watch some more riveting chapters play out. And, by the way, despite his success in bringing modern Buddhism to our world, Geshe-la has never been partisan. I have never heard him utter anything disrespectful about any other traditions or faiths, Buddhist and not Buddhist. For example, he says in Modern Buddhism (available here as a free ebook, already downloaded a million times): 

Today we can see many different forms of Buddhism, such as Zen and Theravada Buddhism. All these different aspects are practices of Buddha’s teachings, and all are equally precious; they are just different presentations.

He has always spoken up for freedom, “Everyone has freedom!”, and mutual respect.

Beyond politics

From The Internal Rules of the New Kadampa Tradition ~ International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT-IKBU):

The principal lineage Gurus of the NKT-IKBU are Atisha, of the Old Kadam lineage, and Je Tsongkhapa, of the New Kadam lineage. The New Kadampa Tradition itself is not a Tibetan Buddhist tradition but a completely independent and worldwide Buddhist tradition. The constitution of the NKT-IKBU Charity explicitly forbids the NKT-IKBU to have any political affiliation.

The NKT has divested itself of the political luggage that was carried over from Tibet because Venerable Geshe-la does not agree with mixing religion and politics — any politics, Tibetan or otherwise. We don’t buy into the Tibetan power system, which partly explains why we have sometimes been unpopular amongst Tibetan Buddhists, but also why Kadampa Buddhism is increasingly well received amongst modern people who want to practice Buddhism but have neither interest nor time for learning Tibetan culture, language, or politics.

Back in the day, in England, when I had time on my hands, I personally used to enjoy learning Tibetan and studying old-fashioned style; but I have witnessed how much more accessible is the presentation of Buddha’s teachings and practices now, and how much easier it is to share it with different parts of the world.

Vision

From the start, Geshe Kelsang has been pretty visionary. Again, just from being in the right place at the right time, I was able to ask some questions and receive deep advice over the years about the role of women in Buddhism (because Tibetan society was pretty misogynistic), about the role of lay people (when there was a discouraging wrong view floating about that only monks and nuns could get enlightened), about LGBTQ (Tibetan society was antiquated), and about generally reaching people where they are at as opposed to waiting for them to come to us.

The New Kadampa Tradition started small and English and middle class and monochrome, because you have to start somewhere and England was a good choice; but as the years have flowed by I have watched with awe as Geshe-la has been finding more ways to include and promote women, lay people, children, LGBTQ, people of color, and so on and so forth. Not to mention adapting to countries and cultures all over the world, East and West, over 1200 Centers in 40 countries and counting.

Buddhism is a very forgiving religion because it teaches not to conflate people with their delusions – which is why the scriptures are full of stories of formerly evil people being given the chance to purify and make amends, such as Angulimala or Milarepa, and going onto attain high realizations. At the same time, it is so incredibly important that Buddhist traditions never condone systematic homophobia, racism, intolerance, or abuse.

Over the decades, Venerable Geshe-la has produced and sometimes updated the so-called “Internal Rules” (quoted above), which are vital guidelines on how this tradition can continue to be run smoothly, harmoniously, democratically, and with discipline. He has also appointed nuns and other women to head and run this tradition. This is unheard of in Tibetan circles where privileged monks are the order of the day, rather like white men in the West. Geshe Kelsang has broken all manner of glass ceilings, and I am sure he has a lot more up his sleeve.

Moreover, every time he has brought Buddhism to new countries — whether that be to Spain or to the States or to Brazil or to Malaysia or to South Africa — or to new communities and demographics, our whole Kadampa tradition has gotten so much more rich, vibrant, relevant, and joyful.  

Over the years he has modernized this tradition from many angles, clearing away all that is not necessary or useful for us without in any way diluting Buddha’s message. How many have managed to do what he has done in bringing Buddhism to the lives of so many thousands of people, showing how to transform all the appearances of modern life and make Dharma applicable to the issues of the day? There is nothing to stop us now from gaining enlightenment in the very midst of our regular lives.

No baggage (yet)

This tradition came via India and Tibet and, as mentioned, Geshe Kelsang has skillfully cut away cultural and political accretions that doesn’t serve us whilst keeping the teachings intact. One thing it’s important to take into account in the United States, for example, is that we don’t have the baggage of systemic racism (yet) because we are brand new. Therefore, the question would seem to be, who do we want to be? We have some choice here. As part of a letter received from the Education Council a few months ago, it said:

The NKT does not accept discrimination based on race, gender, background, age, religion, politics, sexual orientation, or otherwise. Everyone is welcome at Kadampa Centers around the world.

It would appear from most of the Kadampas I have spoken to that we want to totally embody our motto “Everyone welcome” by making active and sustained efforts to be thoroughly inclusive, diverse, equal, and so on, to go out of our way to do this. This is both in accordance with Buddha’s teachings and because our tradition will be infinitely stronger if we adopt this approach.

Dharma is for everyone and it works for everyone. This world could do with these ideas spreading everywhere, IMHO, because they can bring about peace wherever they flourish. I think we are nowhere near finished yet in reaching out and growing, boldly going places no one has gone before, and making Buddhism accessible and available to the people of this world. I for one am sure that Venerable Geshe-la is not yet done in finding ways to make everyone feel truly welcome — understanding and embracing the awesome diversity of races and cultures that make up our modern world; and that our tradition will be far more outstanding and dynamic as a result.

Oops, gotta stop there, but I’m not finished talking about Geshe-la yet 😊So in the next article I will explain a bit more about him in particular, and also how we can rely upon a Spiritual Guide in general per Buddha’s advice. 

Over to you! Your comments and stories about Geshe-la are most welcome — please put them in the box below so everyone can read them ….

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How to keep a peaceful mind

 

9 mins read

This happens to be Article #500 on Kadampa Life! Thanks for sticking with me these last 10 years.

Although things are falling about around our ears, we nonetheless have the opportunity right now to discover deep peace. Although times are degenerating in general, for us individually this is said to be a golden age for spiritual practice because we have everything we need. Moreover, as Shantideva says:

Suffering has good qualities.

The more suffering we have, the more we have to practice with, and the stronger our mind becomes. Eventually it becomes like a blacksmith’s anvil that, no matter how hard it is hit, remains unaffected.

I know, I know, this is easier said than done. (We just got COVID in da house, here, for example, and the daily news headlines seem to get more and more dire with each passing week — in fact I’m wondering whether to just get my news from The Onion or the late night comedians so I can at least laugh grimly.) But we gotta do it because the option, to remain a hapless victim of samsara, is not feasible.

Carrying on from this article, Dealing with fears

Fact is, all of us want to be happy all the time. It is our driving force, along with the wish to avoid even the slightest suffering.

We know that human beings want to be happy because we are one. But it’s not just us … the other day I saw hundreds of small fish in a lake, and all of them wanted to be happy too. When my shadow fell on the water, they swam away in fear. All they want is to eat and swim around with their friends and be safe, they don’t want to be eaten, chased, or impaled any more than we do.

Make a fish’s life meaningful …

There is nothing wrong at all with the wish to be happy all the time and avoid all pain and suffering; but if we want to fulfill these wishes we have to learn to master our minds. I don’t see any other way working, do you?

If we can learn gradually to prioritize a pure and peaceful mind over (or during) external striving, we can learn to stay happy even when bad things happen, and even when we are seriously ill and dying … imagine having that superpower! I have met and heard about plenty of people who can do this, including a number of practitioners who have died so far, such as Tessa and Mimi; and there are legions of inspiring stories in the scriptures.

Neither man nor woman …

I asked my eye doctor Dr. Kumara last week how I could stop my retina from getting thinner, and he replied that neither man nor woman has the power to stop ageing no matter how much they want to or how much kale they eat. He then explained the second law of thermodynamics. He is not a very ordinary dude.

Quick segue into divine synchronicities … My eye went wrong when I happened to be doing a one-week Dorje Shugden retreat, including requesting favorable conditions and the removal of obstacles, LOL. When my optometrist referred me to a specialist, the receptionist said: “Welcome to our five retina locations. It just so happens you will be seeing the principal.” (Dorje Shugden is the principal Buddha of five retinues for those of you wondering.) Upon meeting him, Dr. Kumara asked what I did, and then declared, “Meditation has never been more needed! You have never been more needed.” Just before he operated, he gave me a vajra instruction: “I need you to call upon the deepest reserves of your meditative experience while I do this operation on your eye.” His going home advice was, “I only want you to do one thing this week: meditate.” As you might imagine, the operation was a success. When I saw him again last week, he told me, “I was having a very good day when I fixed your eye.”

Sooner or later bodies and everything else entropies and falls apart because this is samsara, but if we learn to prioritize a peaceful mind in our daily lives it doesn’t matter nearly as much. In fact the more problems we have, the more opportunities we have to practice and the more quickly we make progress. The alternative, not to rely on a peaceful mind, is hopeless, leading to more suffering now and in the future.

How to have a happy life

Simply put, Geshe Kelsang advised in the Kadampa Festival in Brazil that (1) Everyone wants to be happy all the time. (2) If our mind is happy, we are happy, even if we are sick. (3) To have a happy mind all the time, we need a peaceful mind. (4) To develop and maintain a peaceful mind, we need two things: to tune into blessings and to practice Dharma. 

1. Got blessings?

So one of the two ways to get a peaceful mind, according to Geshe-la, is through blessings. Anyone can get these whenever they tune in with faith and prayer to any enlightened being they like, believing they are there and asking for their help and protection — for example, Buddha of fearlessness, Tara, or Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, or Buddha Shakyamuni, or Medicine Buddha, or a holy being from another tradition such as Jesus if you’re not a Buddhist.

Enlightened beings are always beaming their blessings — their blessings actually pervade space – but we’re like someone in a heavy suit of self-grasping armor, feeling all alone and cut off. We need to learn to lift that visor a little bit, let the light in.

The fully developed minds of enlightened beings are universal love and omniscient wisdom mixed with the true nature of all things – so they are everywhere, we simply need to tune in. We can feel their blessings flow into us, the nature of deep protective love and peace, and our mind lifts, becomes happier, is transported to a better place. We see the light! We are in effect mixing our minds with their minds, as explained more in this good guest article on blessings, and it works very well, we often get instant relief. Our anxiety or unhappiness feels far more manageable and may even go away entirely.

Here’s a great habit to get into: as soon as we notice the grip of anxiety or dread starting to tighten around our heart, stop what we are doing and tune into enlightened minds before the anxiety takes over our mind (at which point we normally have little choice but to wait it out.) One quick and effective way to get blessings from Buddha, day or night, is to use the Liberating Prayer. We can also do this traditional refuge prayer:

I and all sentient beings, until we attain enlightenment,
Go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Here is a short simple way to rely on Buddha Tara. Or we can just talk to holy beings in our own words, they’re listening. Their nature is that they have no choice but to respond instantly and spontaneously to our requests. Our only real job is to be open to their help.

Faith grows over time as we focus on the good qualities of enlightened beings. If we experiment with tuning into blessings, we notice we feel better, so our faith grows. Then we get more blessings and feel even better, so our faith grows more.

2. Apply Dharma

The other way to get a peaceful mind is to apply Buddha’s teachings, called Dharma, which pacify our self-cherishing and other delusions and transform our thoughts into compassion, wisdom, and other positive peaceful states. As Venerable Geshe-la says:

The purpose of meditation is to make the mind calm and peaceful. If our mind is peaceful, we will be free from worries and mental discomfort, and so we will experience true happiness. ~ How to Transform Your Life

BTW, meditation doesn’t mean just sitting on our cushion or chair with our eyes closed, but familiarizing ourselves with these peaceful thoughts during all our daily activities, identifying with them more and more.

Every Dharma mind is an effective antidote to some unpeaceful mind. For example, putting others first is an antidote to self-cherishing. Seeing everything as mere name, being less closely involved in the external situation, is an antidote to self-grasping. Renunciation with clear-sighted acceptance that we can’t expect everything to go our way all the time, at least not until we have permanent mental freedom, is an antidote to aversion and anxiety, and it makes our mind stable. Whatever Dharma we use, it has the effect of allowing our naturally peaceful mind to re-emerge and therefore stay happy.

As we get more and more used to turning to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we find we go there naturally when we are feeling scared or sad. Receiving blessings and getting used to relying on Dharma minds, we get better and better at staying peaceful, whatever else is going on. This really is the essence of spiritual practice, fulfilling our wishes to be happy and free.

So, are we “relying upon a happy mind alone” as the great Kadampa saying goes, or are we panicking the moment something doesn’t go our way?! If we are training in keeping a pure and peaceful mind, we have no basis for worry. There are countless people who have pulled this off, and you are next in line. 

And talking of fish … It’s bad enough being a human being in the age of COVID, I was thinking, but being a fish has always sucked. And what chance do they have to keep a peaceful mind and/or get enlightened if I as a relatively free and fortunate human am not even making the effort?

To conclude … all of Buddhist spiritual practice is designed to fulfill our wishes to be happy and not suffer. And as we become stronger and more peaceful, we naturally want to help others to be the same, to share what we know. Knowing from our own experience that suffering sucks, we don’t want others to suffer either. One day we decide to strive for enlightenment so that we can bring blessings and peace to each and every living being every day. Then, whether we are healthy or sick, in this body or the next, that is our priority, our actual path, and our mind and life really start to go new places.

Over to you! Please share ways in which you have been able to keep a peaceful mind even when ill, it would be so helpful.

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