In any event, it’s not so much what is appearing to you right now that’s the problem (if you have any problems), so much as your grasping at it as actually being there, solid and real.
This self-grasping ignorance gets us into all sorts of trouble and weighs us down. One example amongst countless (such as everything we’ve been upset about today) — if someone we like appears unfriendly, we can buy into that, dwell on it, make it more and more real, and get more and more unhappy.
As opposed to using wisdom to just let it go.
Breaking the illusion
We have this little window right now, with this precious human life, because we’ve met these teachings, and especially Buddha’s wisdom teaching on the illusory nature of reality, which is the ultimate Dharma Jewel and refuge.
Moreover, everything we see is a 3D virtual reality projection that we are buying into, as if we were obliviously wearing those glasses and thinking that it’s really going on out there. From the perspective of those not seeing our particular hallucinations, we can look quite mad. And they can look quite mad to us for not following the rules of our 3D game.
Until we realize the fakery of samsara, we are wandering around thinking: “All this is real and out there. I’m really limited. I’m really suffering. Things really are difficult for me. My body really is a horrible mess. And I am basically an angry person — perhaps I can practice a bit of patience here and there, or maybe I can get a little bit kinder, but basically this is how I am, and I’m fixed, and I’m limited. And I am really deluded, and my life is full of suffering and problems, not to mention irritating people.”
This is when we’re buying into the reality of our samsara. Believing it. Believing what we see, all those appearances or projections, thinking that’s the way it actually is, this is who I am, that’s who all these annoying people are, the world’s a mess, everything’s real, everything’s solid.
But with Buddha’s wisdom teachings, it’s a bit like we suddenly worked out we are preprogrammed, realizing, “My life is not my own — I’m being propelled from one situation to the next by the software of delusions and karma!” And we decide, “OK, I’m going to change this, because, although everything is kind of fake, now that I’ve realized this, it means I can ditch this program and take off these glasses.”
“We have everything upside down”
Fact is, there’s nothing real or solid or fixed about any of this. There is nothing existing objectively. There is nothing independent of the mind. There is nothing outside the mind. Even some quantum scientists are beginning to say this kind of thing:
Consciousness is what gives rise to our sense of there being an “out there” when, in fact, the world we experience around us is actually created in our consciousness.
I might add that it is our gross and subtle consciousness that creates this dualistic sense of in here and out there – our very subtle mind has a non-dual experience of reality. Check out this article if you’re interested.
Victims of our thoughts?
If things were inherently or objectively existent, we might as well give up right now. There’s no point practicing Buddhism if everything is solid and fixed and real. There’s no point at all, if we can’t change it.
But what Buddha is saying is that it is completely changeable because it’s not really there, at least not in the way we think it is. Everything is dreamlike and depends entirely upon our mind. We are projecting our world with our thoughts and then believing that it’s out there, coming at us, rather like a movie or an hallucination. But rather than remaining the victims of our own crummy thoughts without even realizing it, Buddha explained that we can transform our thoughts – which is the practice of Dharma – and therewith our reality.
It is not just a case of coping with the material, real world, by practicing a little bit of patience here with inherently annoying people, a little bit of contentment there with inherently attractive people. If we change our thoughts, we literally change our world. We change our reality from one of confusion and delusion to one of wisdom and positivity, with all the objects projected by our minds changing too, because they depend entirely one upon the other.
Buddha’s point is that we can do this because nothing is fixed, nothing is real. The ultimate Dharma Jewel IS those wisdom teachings, that nothing is real. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist at all, by the way – we’re all here reading this, Hello! But we’re not here in the way that we think we’re here. We’re not all separate, isolated individuals, for example. It’s not us over here, and everyone else over there, with this big gap between us. That duality is an optical illusion of our ignorance.
Ultimately we turn to wisdom, therefore, to get rid of our problems. In the mean time we also turn to the other Dharma jewels: compassion, love, patience, renunciation, faith, correct imagination, and so on. All these virtuous minds solve our problems — they solve our actual problems, such that those problems reduce straightaway and finally go away for good.
As explained here, we have an habitual urge to solve our problems out there – “Should I contact him? What should I say to get his attention? To make him love me again?!” It doesn’t work, usually.
But we don’t have to keep scratching every itch, or any itch. If we change our thoughts, the itch simply goes away. For good.
Even just allowing our mind to settle a bit relieves the pain of needing to go out there and fix the fixed or unfixable. Delusions such as attachment and aversion go outwards – we need to go inwards, where we’ll find all the peace, relief, satisfaction, and richness we’ve always wanted. Try this meditation to see for yourself.
On that basis, instead of developing anger, jealousy, disappointment, or unrequited attachment, we can learn to view others with genuine love. That way they are never separated from us and we feel a warmth of communion instead of the wrench of being torn asunder.
Everyone is a projection of our mind, so we can learn to project with love and wisdom rather than projecting people out there, nothing to do with us, fixed, who then won’t or can’t cooperate with what we think we need from them.
Over to you, would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.
One way we can understand the need for deeper refuge is by thinking about what ARE our problems, what are our sufferings, and whether our temporary sources of refuge are in fact good enough for us. If they are, fantastic. And if they’re not, then good to know, because we can then seek refuge in something more effective.
If you’re suffering at all, chances are you’re in samsara. Samsara is what Buddha called this state of existence where we have delusions and (usually) meaty bodies. Basically, in samsara we’re suffering, one way or another. Even when we’re happy, we’re not as happy as we could be.
Samsara doesn’t come from the places and people outside us, our job or our politics, our weather or our entertainments. It is the creation and mirror of the delusions in our mind, especially our ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing. This is why we can run but we can’t hide.
Although there’s good bits in our mind, and nice experiences that we have, overall we’re trapped in a state of uncertainty, in a state of no satisfaction, in a state of suffering. We’re subject to physical illnesses, we’re subject to mental pain — every day, if we check. Perhaps every hour.
I’ve had a rotten cold these past 10 days for example, along with half of New York; and it’s been making me feel sad for the people I pass with no homes to go to. I find it painful even to walk for ten minutes to the subway in these frigid temperatures, the cold searing my lungs – but I have a cozy bed and warm tea to welcome me at the end of my journey, as opposed to cardboard and indifference.
There’s rarely a day goes by when a body doesn’t hurt in some way. Yours is probably already a little uncomfortable in some way as you sit reading this — you’re thinking it’s time to get up and move around. (Not that I want to put that idea in your head … hold on.)
The problem with these bodies
You could be sitting right now on a lovely comfy sofa – we try to make our body as comfortable as we can, but it is challenging given that it is a bag of bones with lots of nerve endings. Reminds me … I was so pleased with a new massage chair gifted to me that I bought a similar contraption for my father with the hope that it’d ease his aching muscles. What it actually did though was crunch his old bones and make him hurt for weeks.
A good friend of mine texted this morning from England, a yogi monk known as Rainbow to his oldest friends — been practicing Dharma as long as I have, and really meditating a lot. Anyway, he texted me this morning just to say, “How are you? I’m doing well considering I’m imputed on a bag of bones.”
And that’s about as good as it gets in terms of physical comfort. Some days we’re relatively comfortable. Given that at the moment we identify so strongly with this bag of bones as “my body”, and even as me, it’s amazing we have any good days, really, because, and I don’t know if you have noticed?, these bodies are not set up for comfort. Everything in our body can hurt. Everything, except for maybe our hair. And even that, if someone pulls it …
There’s pretty much nothing about our bodies that can’t hurt, doesn’t hurt sooner or later. Like teeth. How many teeth do we have? 36? 2? 12? Anyway, it amazes me that every single tooth in our mouth is fine when it’s working, we don’t even think about it; but when it isn’t working, whoa, that hurts, that can ruin our day. And there’s 31 more where that came from.
And there’s nothing about our body that’s not potentially going to turn against us, either. We can get cancer all over our body, can’t we? (Maybe not in our fingernails.) And eventually the whole thing just gives out.
Incorrectly identifying ourselves
Samsara is basically when we impute ourselves on, or identify ourselves with, a meaty body and a deluded mind, thinking: “This is me, this is who I am, I’m this person, I’m a limited person. This is me, looking all ugly because of this cold. I’m capable of good things sometimes, but other times I hate myself. I’m inadequate, I’m unhappy, I’m irritated, I’m obsessed, I’m anxious, I’m sad, I’m sore, I’m hurting. Etc. etc.
Whenever we think like that about ourselves, we’re identifying ourselves with our meaty body and/or impure states of mind. But the fact is that these are NOT who we are. We are not really (or inherently) anything. We could instead identify with our extraordinary pure potential, and, if we go for refuge to Dharma, we can completely transcend mental and physical suffering with this human life that we currently possess, traveling the entire path to liberation and enlightenment.
What does taking rebirth in samsara mean? It means that in each of our lives due to ignorance we grasp our body or mind as our self, thinking, “I” “I”, where there is no I, or self. Through this we experience the sufferings of this life and countless future lives as hallucinations endlessly.
So, when we turn for refuge, that’s what we really want — protection from all the sufferings that come up within our samsara, understanding that samsara is just the experience of a deluded mind and a meaty body, wherever they may be. According to Buddhism we’ve had countless lives in these kinds of bodies. Often far worse bodies than the one we have now, and far more polluted or negative minds.
We’ve caught a bit of a break, according to Buddha, at the moment, in this precious human life. We have a little window to practice Dharma — our sufferings are not so crushing that there’s nothing we can do about them, but they’re enough to motivate us to do something about them. We can develop the ability to get to their root, to kind of deprogram or decommission our samsara, as it were.
Delusions remind me a little bit of preprograms that run in our minds. Maybe I’ve been thinking too much about artificial intelligence recently. It’s kind of like when robots run around all preprogrammed, our delusions are a bit like that. We’ve arrived with this horrible software from previous lives, and are being run around by it. So we need to reconfigure our software. In fact, we need to ditch it altogether, be free!
We need to be free. Our delusions don’t let us be free. They constrict us in so many different ways, and they cause us suffering in life after life. So we need to deprogram our minds by getting rid of our delusions while we’ve got this opportunity to do so, while someone is actually saying to us, “Hey, you can do this, and this is how.” Someone who is not part of this program, and understands exactly how it is set up and how we can dismantle it.
A Buddha has appeared in our life, extraordinarily, and, as we go about our daily lives — running around trying to find happiness here, there, and everywhere — he’s kind of striding along next to us, saying, “Hey, slow down a minute, look within. You’re preprogrammed. Just ditch the entire software, stop trying to make this work, it can’t.”
(Is this analogy working for anyone other than me?!)
I have quoted this before as it is one of my favorite Shantideva sayings:
We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking.
I think that’s exactly what we do — we let our deluded habits dominate our behavior, we DO act as if we’re kind of sleepwalking, we’re not wide awake. We’re conditioned or pre-programmed to act in certain ways. Conditioned by what? By our delusions and karma. And with our delusions we create our messy society, and this in turn conditions us further. It is endless mirror reflections.
So we’re trapped in this kind of Matrix hallucination. And Buddha really wants to unplug us all. He wants us to log out of this preprogrammed endless horror show of samsara.
Life without suffering is possible. But not samsaric life.
More later. Meanwhile, what do you think about all this?
Refuge is what we turn to to get rid of our suffering. We go for refuge because we need refuge, or protection, from our various problems, big or small. We arguably spend all day going for refuge, trying to get rid of one thing by turning to something else.
Like, just now I was feeling a big sleepy, so went to grab a coffee from my local NYC coffee shop. (Passing waves of people on the street seemingly on their way somewhere, no doubt in pursuit of relief just like me.) If we are feeling unwell, we turn to medicine; if we’re lonely, maybe we turn to friends or Tinder; if we’re hungry, we eat something if we can; if we’re bored, maybe we go online; if we’re uncomfortable, we shift our body into another position. Etc. Those are relatively tame things to do – we also have a large variety of more suspect things we turn to, such as opioids or the pursuit of power, status, and extreme wealth (check out this video:)
You know those sped-up movies? Watching them, we can see how we’re always on the go — going here, doing this, going there, doing that. Getting up, sitting down, propping ourselves up, lying down, walking around, sitting down again. Each day is a constant pursuit of little relief hits from what are basically physical or mental aches and pains. And we’ve been doing this our entire life. In all our lives, since beginningless time.
But the interesting thing is that we have just as many problems to solve as ever, don’t you find? We have just as many physical aches and pains, quite possibly more given that this body doesn’t get more comfortable as it gets older. Not to mention the near-constant mental aches and pains. So, we’re turning for refuge to other things all the time, but they are clearly only providing some temporary relief at best.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t eat, drink coffee, get a job, surf the internet, etc. That’s not Buddha’s point. His point is, are we finding the lasting happiness and freedom that we all long for? Are these temporary refuges sufficient for us, or could we actually be doing more? Could we be getting rid of our aches and pains more effectively?
And so far we’re not even talking about those BIG problems — namely ageing, sickness, major loss, catastrophes, and death — just the run of the mill irritations and discomforts. Coffee, the internet, power/status, and hot dates don’t even touch the big problems.
This is where we turn to the subject of refuge in Buddhism. This is a vast subject — all Buddha’s teachings are included within refuge one way or another, because basically Buddhist refuge means that instead of turning to worldly solutions, or sense pleasures, or indeed anything outside our mind, we turn inside to the practice of Buddhadharma.
The main object of refuge in Buddhism is our own efforts in practicing Dharma: such as increasing our inner peace, getting rid of our delusions (sometimes known, with good reason, as “afflictions”), practicing patience, love, compassion, and wisdom. We turn to Dharma experience because we appreciate that it is the effective and lasting protection from our problems.
There would be no Dharma without Buddha Shakyamuni, he taught it in our world; and Buddhas also emanate as Spiritual Guides who can guide us and bless our minds. Without Buddhas, or enlightened beings, it would be impossible to practice Dharma. And we also turn to Sangha, such as our fellow Dharma practitioners – others who are also interested in solving their problems, if you like, from the inside, not always from the outside.
At the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, when he was walking around in a form that everyone could see, he never used the word “Buddhism.” The word “Buddhism” is a new invention. It is one of those Western “ism” words — we took Buddha and added ism to the end of it.
Buddha instead would apparently call his disciples “inner beings.” Nangpa cho, if you want to know the Tibetan and impress people at parties; which I believe, though correct me if I’m wrong, literally means inner Dharma. Those who practice the teachings, go for refuge to the Three Jewels, are inner beings, because instead of turning outwards for solutions to their problems they are trying to turn inwards to transform the mind.
And the reason we practice Dharma is out of compassion, to free ourselves and others. To end suffering. To end suffering for everybody: humans, animals, insects, everybody. That’s the end goal in Buddhism — to ourselves become more and more of an object of refuge until eventually we ourselves are a Buddha.
Going for refuge to Dharma
Putting effort into practicing Dharma means that we take delight in it, really enjoy it. We see it as a real solution to everything that ails us and everybody else. We love it, we understand its benefits, we understand that it works. So we naturally turn to it with effort. Effort doesn’t mean straining and pushing, it means enjoyment — its full name is joyful effort. If we enjoy things, we do them, you’ve probably noticed.
Going for refuge to Buddha
We also put effort into receiving blessings and inspiration from Buddha. We can do this by just feeling close to enlightened beings, because from their side they’re already close to us, indeed one with us. By tuning into blessings, our minds experience huge amounts of power and inspiration.
Going for refuge to Sangha
And then we put effort into receiving help from Sangha, which means we allow ourselves to be encouraged and inspired by other people who are practicing Dharma. They’re all trying to gain the experiences of cherishing others and patience, for example, and all trying to get rid of their attachment and irritation. The fact that they haven’t managed it all yet doesn’t matter; we’re still motivated by them because they’re trying. They can be very good examples for us. And we can make an effort not just to receive help from Sangha but to help them too.
My feeling is that Sangha don’t have to be signed-up Buddhists – I find anyone who is relying on inner refuge, for example compassion in the face of adversity, can work as refuge and inspiration for me.
Over to you. Any thoughts to contribute on the subject of inner being?
You know, there is nothing fixed about you. You can change the narrative of yourself, go down a whole new road. For example, of these two, which to identify with?:
I am now middle aged with all those affairs of the gorgeous young me with the beautiful young lovers behind me, increasingly wrinkly and achy and irrelevant, and heading for the graveyard (via smelly old folks’ home).
= dead end street, no happy ending in sight.
I am a spiritual practitioner with incredible opportunity and strong renunciation and compassion, like Buddha and all previous practitioners, heading closer and closer to the Pure Land and the ability to liberate all living beings. I am Heruka, trampling on delusions, wielding the wheel of sharp weapons to cut through the self-grasping of all living beings.
= liberating path to somewhere completely new and blissful.
Or whatever story line we like. You can figure something out, especially with the help of Dharma. Conventional truth depends entirely on mental perspective – that’s maybe why it is also called “relative truth”. So if we give ourselves a different perspective on whatever is going on in our lives, the meaning of our life changes. For example, in the context above, I have found in the past that periods of solitude or being fired from a job are not galling but a springboard to far, far greater things.
NKT Summer Festival 2016
The recent summer festival was amazingly inspiring in this respect because there were 4,000 people focusing on a vision of being enlightened, not ordinary, all in the same place at the same time. I hope I get a chance to share more about some of the actual teachings in future articles. But this is a bit of what I wrote down about the Festival in general at the time. I apologize in advance to those of you who may be new to the subject of Buddhist Tantra and wonder what on earth I am so rhapsodic about. Next year’s Summer Festival will be focused on the new version of Transform Your Life, Buddha’s Sutra teachings. (By the way, do check out the photo-journalism in these Festival Diaries, written by Kadam Morten.)
Wheel of sharp weapons
I’ve been having wonderful conversations and connections with an unusual assembly of cool people from all over the place. No one is normal around here. I have loved sitting in the temple with this huge Sangha, and there are plenty more practitioners back home too. I’ve been wondering about the causes and conditions we and others around the world must all have created to have met this fully realized Spiritual Guide, these ear-whispered instructions, this Tantric technology, this quick path to full enlightenment. It was feeling to me like we have done most of the work just to get to this point, perhaps in many previous lifetimes, and now all we have to do is fall off a log, spiritually speaking.
We can and usually do have pretty ordinary views of ourself and others, but there is nothing ordinary about any of this. There doesn’t have to be anything boring or ordinary about anything or anyone in our world. The key is to remember this every day, even when we are back home and at work.
The “Sangha” is not an exclusive club, by the way. There are no rules of entry. There is not a single person who does not equally have the potential to attain the happiness of enlightenment so, as soon as someone wants that, even a little bit, they are on their way. And who knows what spiritual work anyone has already done in this or previous lives?
As it says in Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:
Through the wheel of sharp weapons of the exalted wisdom of bliss and emptiness, Circling throughout the space of the minds of sentient beings until the end of the aeon, Cutting away the demon of self-grasping, the root of samsara, May definitive Heruka be victorious.
It is said that thousands of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples attained enlightenment. Despite my faith in the methods, and Geshe Kelsang’s oft-stated conviction that we modern-day practitioners can gain the same results, I admit I used to be a bit skeptical about this: “Steady on! That’s a bit unrealistic, surely! Maybe two or three people could go all the way?!”
(I still thought even two or three would be pretty good … after all, think of the power of even one more person in this world having Geshe Kelsang’s realizations of meaning clear light and pure illusory body?!)
A rising tide raises all boats
But you know that expression, “a rising tide raises all boats”? Of late I have been beginning to intuit that as some of us start to gain deep completion stage realizations, we might all start doing it. If you or me or any of the Sangha gain realizations, others around us will be raised naturally due to our karmic interconnections and the fact that our minds are not inherently separate. Let alone fellow practitioners, even our family and friends and colleagues will naturally experience benefits. I didn’t find it at all hard during this Festival to appreciate my rather epic fellow international Sangha, old and new, because I could tell that we are all in this together. We rise and fall together, aspects of Guru Vajradhara’s mind.
It is not the individual, isolated, separate me who will attain enlightenment after all – that is the me that has to dissolve away so that I can identify with my actual self. In Tantra we learn to impute ourselves no longer on a contaminated deluded mind and meaty body, but on our own indestructible, blissful very subtle mind and body. These, once purified by dissolving all phenomena into ultimate truth emptiness, will transform into the actual mind and body of a Buddha. How hard can that be? Once we’ve been shown how to do it?! As Nagarjuna says:
For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.
Like I said, even if one or two people were to gain the union of meaning clear light and illusory body and be like Geshe-la, this world would transform. So what about ten? Or a thousand!? It is degenerate times alright (thank you Mr. Trump, Isis, the age of distraction, and co.), but the blessings of Heruka and Vajrayogini become more powerful in degenerate times; so who is to say that collectively we cannot and will not transform this thing? When the distractions are few and the Festival blessings strong, it all seems perfectly doable. Now I just have to tune into this refuge in Sangha every day.
Over to you. Please share your experiences of this year’s Summer Festival if you were there. (And maybe you’d like to attend another international Festival some day if you were not there, the next one being the Fall Festival in Toronto.)
Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is coming up on April 15, and I, along with a lot of Kadampa Buddhists in places around the world, tend to celebrate it with two days of Drop of Essential Nectar, sometimes known as Nyung Nä. This is a purification, prostration, and fasting retreat in conjunction with Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion.
It’s the only time of the year that we seem to engage in some physical asceticism — for two days, starting at dawn, we observe the eight Mahayana precepts, which include not eating after lunch and, for those who do the full fast, not eating or drinking at all on the second day. The hunger pangs are helpful for reminding us about the gazillions of people who don’t get enough to eat or drink on any day, ever.
I do like Nyung Nä, with its emphasis on keeping compassion and bodhichitta in our heart all day long, and the transcendent power of Avalokiteshvara, his thousand arms reaching out to everyone without exception. Also, I find prostrations fun. I do, I’m not making that up! So I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve been doing today in case you are under the impression that prostrations are just hard work. (If you haven’t read pages 116 onward in the book Great Treasury of Merit, by the way, there is a beautiful explanation of prostrations in there.)
Compassion and the lower realms
Whenever I am developing compassion and/or doing prostrations, I get myself out of the way first by remembering that the self I cherish doesn’t even exist. I am not my body, and I am not my mind — but take these away and I disappear (thankfully). That means I am free to lay down my boring burden of self-fixation and move into the vast expanse of everyone else.
Today during precepts I was meditating on the lower realms. I personally cannot tolerate even the slightest headache without popping two Advil, and am currently preoccupied with trying to navigate the bureaucracy of Obamacare before the looming deadline of April 15th as I fear any manner of human illnesses and accidents might empty out my bank account if I do not. However, human sufferings like these are a walk in the park compared with the unbearable sufferings of people in the hell realms. I read in some Lojong (mind-training) text recently that being stabbed 30 times in the hand with a spear does not even compare with a minute of suffering experienced by those in the black-line hell.
I know I don’t spend enough time thinking about people who have ended up in the hell realms, which is a shame because, when I do, it instantly gets everything into perspective. All rebirths are impermanent, and the realms of hell are nightmarish appearances to mind that have no more existence from their own side than this current life. But, and it is a big but, once someone lands up in hell, it takes an unfathomably long time to get out. The countless karmic appearances from lifetimes of negative actions don’t disappear overnight, and there is no refuge or chance to purify them; so it is like an interminable nightmare from which we cannot wake up.
Meantime, people in the hungry ghost realm are perpetually hungry, thirsty, sad, and exhausted. Moreover, we know close up and personal what a bad time animals have from the struggles and powerlessness of the thousands we can see around us, and there are tragically far more animals in their own realm.
What “prostration” means
The Tibetan word for prostrations is “chag tsel” – ‘chag’ means sweeping away delusions, negative karma, and obstructions, and ‘tsel” means requesting all good qualities. I don’t think prostrations work if we are holding ourselves as unworthy or at a distance from enlightened beings – they work best when our faith recognizes our own Buddha nature clear light, and connects to the holy beings’ clear light Dharmakaya, knowing we will become just like them.
The sky is the limit
When prostrating, we don’t need to be small-minded, thinking that it is just me in one meaty body making one feeble little distracted prostration onto the carpet (oooh, look at that dust! … at least I’m getting some exercise …) in front of some image of Buddha. No, there is a great deal more going on than that! The sky is the limit! The higher sky of the Dharmakaya, that is.
First thing we are encouraged to do, along with our mind of faith and respect, is to think that from every pore of our body we manifest another body, which in turn manifests countless more, until the whole universe is filled with our bodies all making prostrations. Already some mind-expansion is going on and you’re going to have more fun. It is inspiring to think that you are already in a very pure space, as you are in the company of all enlightened beings, and you are prostrating to all of them.
I like to think that I am also in the company of everyone in all six realms, and that they are all prostrating along with me – and it can be helpful to start by focusing on specific people in my life who are currently experiencing suffering, believing they are next to me prostrating. For example, today I thought a lot about an old university friend and Buddhist artist Graham Dyer, who was just saying, “Those treacle tarts look nice” to his best friend in Grange bakery last Thursday when he dropped to the floor and died. (Please pray for him and his wife and two sons).
I also thought about the kittens I am fostering, who are going to have to go back into the smelly crowded shelter, which they will not like at all, to wait for a home. They are trapped in their bodies and environments — they cannot even open the door — and are always at the mercy of humans being nice to them. So I imagine them prostrating along with me, in human form or even in the aspect of a Buddha, purifying all their negativity and accumulating vast good karma and blessings, also emanating bodies from every pore of their bodies for maximum effect.
These human beings and animals are in turn are surrounded by all the other human beings and animals in the universe, also prostrating. And so on. This takes the same amount of time as making one corporeal prostration on the carpet, but the outcome in terms of good karma and purification is altogether more extraordinary.
Prostrating all the way home
I find it blissful to feel as though I am prostrating directly into my Spiritual Guide’s actual heart, which is his clear light Truth Body or Dharmakaya. This feels like going home, finally going home – a profound relief. Everything is completely purified and transformed, and when I arise from the prostration I can do so as an emanation of my Spiritual Guide, inseparable from the Dharmakaya, to help others. I also imagine that everyone is doing the same as they prostrate with me, gathering into the clear light and arising completely purified and blissful.
The great Indian Buddhist Master Padampa Sangye said (and I’m sure it could apply to O People of Denver, Ulverston, Cape Town, etc too):
O People of Tingri, the Spiritual Guide will lead you wherever you wish to go. To repay his kindness, offer your faith. ~ Great Treasury of Merit p. 116
Geshe Kelsang comments on this:
If we wish for a human rebirth our Spiritual Guide will lead us there, if we wish for liberation he will lead us there, if we wish to be reborn in a Pure Land he will lead us there, and if we wish to attain enlightenment he will lead us there.
To my mind, this means my Spiritual Guide is here to take me home, where I belong, as I don’t feel I really belong in samsara, and nor does anyone else. And with this faith, I can prostrate my way home.
I have always been inspired for some reason by people who prostrate all the way up Mount Kailash and/or around Lake Manasarova, believing these mountains and lakes to be completely pure, part of the mandala, the home of enlightened beings. I’m quite sure that if I actually had to do it, my enthusiasm would wane, as it is not exactly carpeted and there are no hotels en route; but, still, I like the idea, and can emulate it in the comfort of my room. It is a pilgrimage — prostrating all the way to your actual home, the heart of the Buddhas, the heart of the mandala.
Who is supposed to be looking after all these animals?
Most of the animals we can see are in our human realm, of course, because that is where we are. But there are countless more. According to Buddha’s explanation of the six realms of samsara, the vast majority of animals are packed together in the animal realm. In Washington DC a few weeks ago, at the Smithsonian museum, I watched a short documentary showing the outlandish creatures not long ago discovered right at the bottom of the ocean, under the seabed, all stacked one upon the other, much like the scriptural description of the animal realm.
And we don’t have to look far to see that most animals inhabit a terrifying and hostile world. In the summer of 2009 I went to the aquarium in Plymouth with my good friend Kelsang L, and I wrote at the time: “I need to remember these images. A large flat fish with a distinct face is flailing out of the water at L, perhaps some part of him recognizing her robes, who knows, and working his mouth as if to cry “Help me!” Tiny sea horses, the size of a fingernail, have no future to write home about. Sharp-teethed sharks move incessantly around a large tank above our heads, avoided for dear life by the terrified fish forced to share their space. L and I didn’t realize we had come across the tank for fighting crabs until we spotted their body limbs strewn all over the ground, all the remaining crabs lying on top of each other in exhaustion. Limpets and other crustaceans are stuck fast to the rocks, with such settled ignorance of their surroundings that they could be the very epitome of self-cherishing. Enormous salamanders and eels are confined in cruelly tiny spaces. Unsuspecting prawns are dumped in the tanks with the anemones, to serve as their supper.
The “HOMES” display is a poignant reminder of how every creature in the sea desperately wants one – they try to make their homes on rocks, under rocks, under the sand, even in the waves of the water itself. In samsara, we all have attachment to places, enjoyments, and bodies — but real estate in the Ocean is hard to come by, and most people down here are not able to keep their home even when they do manage to find one.
“Who is looking after these living beings?”, I find myself asking, as thousands of mouths open and shut in a Munchian scream for help. “How am I going to get you out of this lower realm?”
Buddha Tara, you are needed
Tara is the embodiment of swift compassionate action, so it seems to me that to become more like her we need to ripen our potential for this by taking on others’ suffering both in and out of meditation. As Geshe Kelsang says in The New Meditation Handbook:
We should alleviate others’ suffering whenever we can and happily accept our own suffering as a method to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way … the power of our compassionate activities will strengthen.
Taking away everyone’s suffering is Tara’s very nature. As a Buddha, she has already exchanged self with others, imputed her I on all living beings, including the prawns; so living beings’ suffering IS her suffering and she has already happily accepted it, purified it, and transformed it into bliss. We can do that too, generate ourselves as a Buddha, purify everyone through imagination that becomes reality. Everything starts and ends in the imagination. We need to be part of that creative solution if samsara is ever to stop.
During meditation, we mentally take on the suffering of others upon ourself, using imagination. Having gained deep experience of this meditation, we shall then be able happily to accept our own suffering in order to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way, we are physically taking the suffering of others upon ourself. ~ The New Meditation Handbook
Tara’s legs remind me that it is pointless rushing around like a headless chicken – one of her legs is out, showing her readiness to leap up to help, but the other is drawn in, showing that she can help others precisely and only because she is an ever-present manifestation of bliss and emptiness. In fact, she only ever need take one step.
Please give me that!
To be like Tara, we can learn to take on others’ burdens, first mentally, then physically — “Hey, let me carry that for you!” “Give me your suffering!” Walking one day up one of those notoriously steep hills in San Francisco, and seeing an old hunched woman trying to ascend an even steeper set of stairs to her front door carrying two huge shopping bags, I ran up and carried them the rest of the way for her. However, although it worked that time and she seemed relieved, a friend’s similar but different story reminded me that we need to be happy to help others in the way that they want, without imposing our ideas of what that may be. In his case, seeing a homeless man pushing a trolley with three wheels that got stuck on the tarmac he also ran up, only to be greeted with outrage: “I don’t know you! I don’t want your help!” It’s best to pray to be whatever it is others may want, for example a fourth wheel. People want their suffering solved in a certain way, so we want to be that, remembering that it is after all OUR OWN suffering, we are the one pushing the trolley.
Suffering sticks to a real me – ageing, sickness, death, and so on – and it is hard to stop obsessing on that for long enough to focus on others. To develop a depth of compassion, we need to realize that the self we normally see and cherish does not even exist, so we can get it out of the way.
And as we can impute whatever we want — choose how we discriminate the world as Geshe-la says in Understanding the Mind — we can impute that others are our mothers, that they are kind, that they are more important than me, that they ARE me. We can make that work, as Buddha Tara does.
Once we share her realizations, we will also be completely free from any mistaken appearances or hallucinations (and hallucinations don’t get much weirder than those to be found at the bottom of the ocean or in the Plymouth Aquarium). We will be able to bestow blessings/peace on each and every living being every day, including every forgotten sea creature in existence. They need this. We all need it.
I wrote this article a few years ago … the NKT has probably doubled in size and impact since then 🙂 I’ve added a couple of bits. There are lots of great comments on this article, and I’d love you to share your own.
Today I asked the question on Facebook “What, if anything, does NKT day mean to you?”
A lot of you reading this have never heard of NKT Day, so it means absolutely nothing to you 😉 If the rest of you are anything like me, you might give it no thought until the actual day is upon us, unless you’re in charge of organizing events around it. But it is a day that people who like Kadampa Buddhism celebrate on the first Saturday of every April, and is in its own way as important as Easter or Christmas is to Christians. I like celebrating holy days, even those in other traditions (the more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned – “holiday” after all means “vacation” in British English.) So I thought it might be good to do a short article* on what it is people are actually celebrating this Saturday, with input from Facebook friends and others.
In brief, NKT day commemorates the founding of the New Kadampa Tradition ~ International Kadampa Buddhist Union by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in 1991. Kadampa Centers worldwide hold all sorts of enjoyable celebratory events.
The centers, the 22 genius books, and so on all originate from the kindness and skill of this physically tiny but spiritually gargantuan man who arrived in the West 35 years ago with nothing except his robes, his rosary, and two texts.
Through his inner experiences of Buddha’s teachings, his powerful wish to help, and the blessing and permission of his teacher, Trijang Rinpoche, Geshe-la has created something truly epic. The Kadampa Buddhist tradition was close to extinction in Tibet and through his (and others’) efforts there are now over a thousand centers in the West, and some thriving monasteries in the east.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books
Why is it that these books are so effective? Why has Modern Buddhism been downloaded over 150,000 times in the last 10 months, for example? Why have millions of people now read his books? Here are just a few of my ideas on that.
These teachings come from someone who, you quickly figure out, has complete experience of what he’s talking about. All of them are based on a 2500 year old tradition that has been tried and tested by many generations of meditators, including him. They are not just someone’s new idea.
Geshe Kelsang is an expert. He has consistently been discovering better and better ways to introduce the entire teachings of Buddha to a worldwide audience without diluting them down, and I think it is fair to say that it has never been done on this scale before. (The NKT is supposedly the fastest growing Buddhist organization.) I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time so I could help prepare a lot of these books, so I’ve read them all many times. But I still find new and spine-tingling insights in them whenever I pick them up to read them again.
Geshe Kelsang is happy. I think it is very rare to find someone so happy, or to find a book written by someone who’s always happy. Other books can do a lot for us, but not necessarily make us so happy.
The books cover the entire array of Buddhist teachings and practices, from A to Z. Some of them are like thick text books, containing extremely detailed investigations on, say, Buddha’s teachings on ultimate truth or the profound creative practices contained within the Highest Yoga Tantra teachings. Geshe Kelsang has explained absolutely everything with a clarity, skill and practicality that I can barely fathom. And he has done this all in our own language(s).
Geshe Kelsang has managed to explain vast and profound topics in increasingly accessible books, the latest being Modern Buddhism. This manages to contain every single meaning of Sutra and Tantra within its 400+ pages without it becoming incomprehensible, in fact quite the opposite. It is so rich, and yet so simple at the same time. No one could pull this off unless they had direct experience of all the subject matter combined with a skill formidable enough to be able to relate it to a new audience. And Geshe-la is offering this book for free to everyone in this world who wants it.
I could go on and on about the books. Don’t get me started. In truth, I cannot imagine my life without them.
NKT study and meditation programs
Based on the books, Geshe Kelsang has arranged three study and meditation programs that are proving to be a very effective way for people to take Buddha’s teachings to heart and make continual, steady progress. He has laid the foundations for modern-day Buddhist practice on whichever level people choose to participate, and without contradicting their culture or politics — from northern Europe to Kwa-Zulu Natal. Based on these programs, the NKT has been able to establish thousands upon thousands of centers and groups worldwide in response to demand.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s background
Just the briefest potted history for now… Geshe Kelsang was born in 1931, auspiciously or suspiciously enough on Dharmachakra Day, or Buddha’s Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day. He entered the monastery aged 8 and, according to accounts by his classmates, was a very kind child who also spent a lot of time meditating on Lamrim, even meditating through the night on many occasions. He studied and meditated on all Buddha’s teachings.
In 1959 the Chinese invaded Tibet and he fled to India with nothing but his robes and a couple of texts, but he apparently stayed happy, transforming adverse conditions into the spiritual path. He entered deep meditative retreat for 18 years until his teacher, the great Trijang Rinpoche, asked him to teach in the West. So he came to Manjushri Institute in 1977.
When he was flying over the sprawl of greater London he asked his translator: “How many people are down there?!” When the answer came back “about ten million,” he replied in surprise, “There are only five million people in Tibet!” And it looks like he is trying to help them all and more — I and many others are a product of that.
Geshe Kelsang has helped bring Buddhism into the modern world stripped of its cultural overlay and separated from politics. He learnt English as quickly as he could, discreetly got British citizenship so he was free to do what he wanted, and started to help people through his teachings, books, example, and personal advice. To begin with, his audience was small – we could all fit comfortably in the so-called North Wing gompa of Manjushri Centre. Now, of course, it is rather large. In Portugal next year, I have no idea how everyone is going to fit. (Update: Over 7,000 received teachings and empowerments in Portugal, many saying that it was the most magical time of their lives.)
Geshe Kelsang from Day One has trained equally four types of teacher – lay, ordained, male, female – in a radical departure from the male- and monk-centric way things were done in Tibet. As you may know, the current General Spiritual Director of the NKT is a nun. So, in fact, is the Deputy Spiritual Director! The tradition is run by women! Generations of monks are turning in their graves…
When I got interested in the early 1980s, I thought it was a bit of a stretch when Geshe-la asked me to begin teaching a branch in Bath, South England, considering we were based in Yorkshire (and was foolish enough to tell him so) – but luckily my own complete lack of vision did not make a jot of difference. Down to Bath I went each week, and branches were started all over England in response to requests. Nowadays Geshe Kelsang is bringing Buddhism to the entire world – the corpus of all Buddha’s teachings are being translated into many different languages, and, because Geshe Kelsang has emphasized the training of qualified modern teachers, this looks set to continue.
As someone (whose name I have misplaced) put it a few years ago:
“The real genius is for someone steeped in the Buddhist tradition that arose in a completely different culture and time to be able to translate that perfectly so that it is accessible to those raised in a completely different culture, a modern culture. And to do this without in any way diluting it or losing its profundity and lineage. That’s the genius. And I think we can say that Geshe-la has pulled it off rather masterfully.”
Why does everyone call him “Geshe-la”?
Kadampas regularly refer to Geshe Kelsang as “Geshe-la.” This is like an informal title, or a term of endearment. “Geshe” is short for the Tibetan Ge way shey nyen, which literally means “spiritual friend,” and “la” denotes affection or respect.
The Founder of Buddhism in our world, Buddha Shakyamuni, appeared at a time of upheaval in India (eg, a migration from the countryside into the cities), when he could bring in his radical ideas and they could take root. To my mind, Ven Geshe-la has appeared in our world at another time of upheaval, just in time to catch the wave of globalization (including the internet) so that he can spread modern Buddhism not just in India, not just in Tibet (as his predecessor Je Tsongkhapa did), but throughout the entire planet. There are now centers in over 40 countries and Temples for world peace going up everywhere, including Texas, and you can’t get much further West than that. Buddhism’s transcendent understanding of reality — its far-reaching, devastating, yet utterly do-able wisdom and compassion — is more needed than ever. Modern Buddhism is an idea whose time has come.
Meanwhile back East …
Since I first wrote this article, The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra in Tibetan was written in response to repeated requests over many years by Tibetan Lamas, who respect Geshe-la as the main holder of the Mahamudra lineage transmitted by Trijang Dorjechang (Ven Geshe-la’s Guru, and the Guru of all the greatest Lamas in Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition of the last century).
Hundreds of monasteries and centers in Je Tsongkhapa’s Kadampa Tradition are now flourishing because Geshe Kelsang stood up for these practitioners at their time of greatest need, empowering them to wrest themselves and their religion away from Tibetan politics. These Centers are not part of the New Kadampa Tradition as they follow Tibetan cultural traditions (though not politics), but they are our spiritual brothers and sisters. Geshe Kelsang is now revered in India, Nepal, and Tibet, his picture can be seen everywhere, his teachings studied widely.
The Oral Instructions are being translated into our own languages too 🙂 And will be transmitted at 2016’s Summer Festival in England.
What people are saying on Facebook so far in response to the question above
From my point of view, NKT is a representation of Geshe-la’s kindness to present Buddha’s teachings to our modern world. His teachings captivate the western audience and encourage us to finally put Buddha’s teachings into practice. ~ Geronimo Esparza-Dykstra
NKT is a buffet of small bites that allow me to fill my life to capacity with digestible portions of wisdom catered to the Western world. ~ Toby Tullis
Yes, a MUCH happier mind thanks to Geshe-la. Buddha was right, pass it on! ~ Sara Pitt
Well, NKT has meant to me a much calmer mind to allow me to be who I truly am. ~ Rita Marie Loy
It means balance. ~ Gail Dyson
The practice of universal love for all living beings (seen and unseen). ~ Brenda McI
NKT Day means a celebration of the path towards mental freedom and more compassion in the world, one heart at a time! ~ Ike Lichtenstein
To celebrate our good fortune of having such a wonderful tradition and web of kindness. Thanks Geshe-la! ~ Kelsang Chokyi
As time goes by the meaning goes deeper and is less easy to express in words. I’ve always liked the idea though… as I learn to relax and be natural, how more & more the warmth of my Guru’s blessings seep in, and slowly each one of the 1,000 petals of the lotus of my heart start to open. ~ Kelsang Lekpa
Wisdom and compassion. ~ Francesca Gallo
Appreciation for these wonderful teachings, teachers and Sangha… off and online. ~ Bill Purchase
NKT: giving Westerners a rare access point to the precious Buddhadharma since 1991. ~ Thomas Ythan Jones
I think NKT Day is like King Yeshe O day. It reminds me of the effort and sacrifice made by Geshe-la and many others to keep pure Buddhadharma alive in the world. ~ Sally Carter
Every day is NKT day for me. Every day I thank Geshe-la and request him to keep me in his service for as long as space exists. ~ Hank Ford
Geshe Kelsang’s life and deeds are a powerful example of how tremendous the effect even just one person’s pure practice can have.
I live in a small town in the UK that has very little culture or religious diversity. There is a beautiful New Kadampa Tradition centre in the town with 2 shrine rooms. Other than this there is no sign of Buddhism or Buddha’s teachings nearby, so I feel very grateful for Geshe Kelsang’s hard work in spreading Dharma in so many places in this modern world. Without his efforts there would be no Dharma in this area.
Geshe Kelsang must have gone through a lot of difficulties in the beginning when he first arrived in the western world. It was a completely different environment for him, the weather, the food, the culture, the language etc. Despite the difficulties he faced, he managed to spread the Dharma so far and wide.
NKT have grown from strength to strength and become so much of an inspiration for so many other centres around the world. My own Lama and center refers often to the works of Geshe-la and use his books as study materials. So it’s not just the people who are his direct students from NKT. I hope people know that it is also many other Buddhists around the world, like my own little Sangha, who are benefitting from his teachings and compassion.
Why Kadampa Buddhism is modern Buddhism, not Tibetan Buddhism
*Okay, I know, “short” is relative 🙂
There is plenty more where all this came from, and please add to the comments. And here is a recent tribute I found to Geshe Kelsang, a brief sketch of some of his life and deeds so far.
Your turn: What, if anything, does NKT Day mean to you?