Seeing the divine in everyone

9.5 mins read.

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

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

The Dharma Wheel still turns …

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

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

Carrying on from this article, Living Buddha.

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

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

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

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

Will there ever be a biography of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who isn’t a manifestation of Buddha?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who needs you to be ordinary?

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

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

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

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

Applying this to our Spiritual Guide

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

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

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

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

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 Celebrating a great Buddhist Master on his birthday

A Spiritual Guide

When the student is ready, the teacher appears

Trust in the infinite

3.5 mins read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weirdly, this Supertramp song Babaji just came on:

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

Over to you, comments welcome!

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More on the Spiritual Guide 

More on mere imputation 

More on unfindability 

More on faith 

More on Planet Earth 

 

 

 

Why do bad things happen to good people?

8.5 mins read.

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

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

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

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

Following on from this article.

A natural law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do bad things happen to good people?

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

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

What would you have replied?

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

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

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

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

Internal locus of control

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

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

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

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

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

This isn’t fair!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related articles

Making karma work for us 

Living beings have no faults 

Precious human life