Won’t get fooled again  

8 mins read. 

What you been up to today? Has it been a blissful care-free day! or have you been worried about things? Have you felt a bit burned out or annoyed or sad? Have you been craving or missing anyone lately? On top of your own personal selection of things that are not quite working out, have you felt overwhelmed at all by any of the seemingly impossible problems experienced by people all over the world? How real and solid has everything seemed?

If today has not been a perfect day, we know we’re not alone. I think it is fair to say that most of us get very caught up with the appearances of this life – sucked in one minute, desperate to escape the next – day after day after day. Yet, none of these things that we normally see exists. Whereas we see everything as solid, real, and existing from its own side, out there, everything is mere appearance not other than emptiness, and the same nature as our mind.

I was just driving through Suffolk this morning, like you do, and after a while wondered if I had reached Norfolk yet. How would I know?! Only if someone put a sign there “NORFOLK”. Norfolk is just another label, another imputation of mind, another idea if you like. And for it to exist and function we have to collectively agree that it is Norfolk and not, for example, Klofron.

However, if we try to point to Norfolk behind that sign or label, whether within the individual parts – trees, roads, pigeons, and rather cute cottages, etc – or within the collection of all of these, we’ll never ever be able to find it, we will only ever be pointing at things that are not it.

Like the blue of a clear sky, the more we go looking for something the more it disappears. That vivid blue above me is just the clear sky appearing as blue — if I fly through it I quickly discover that not one atom of that blue exists from its own side. Likewise, this screen is just the emptiness of your screen appearing as a screen. Your body sitting there is just the emptiness of your body appearing as a body. Same for everything we normally see, no exceptions.

But that is not of course how it appears normally. Due to the beginningless imprints of self-grasping ignorance, everything we see appears to be really there, existing from its own side; and we believe that appearance to be the truth. This belief is self-grasping ignorance, and it creates yet more imprints for these virtual-reality-like mistaken appearances to arise. A brief sojorn in Norfolk may or may not be a benign episode in my personal Truman show; but what about all those suffering appearances, such as sick and ageing bodies, famines, lower realms, and so on? Do I really want mistaken appearances to shift and change forever without me even knowing it??!

If we realized that we are effectively trying to live and work in an hallucination, this would clearly would have far-reaching implications.This stuff is profound! Yet given the tenacity of mistaken appearances, how are we supposed to realize this?! I don’t think we can without a lot of help from someone who has already seen so totally through the illusion that they can never fall for it again.

In Ocean of Nectar, Venerable Geshe-la invites us to imagine that a magician or illusionist has conjured up the appearance of a horse:

In the case of an ordinary member of the audience who is taken in by the spell, the horse appears to be real and he conceives it to be a real horse. In the case of the magician himself, a horse also appears to his mind but he is not taken in my the spell, and so he does not conceive it to be a real horse. In the case of a member of the audience with great wisdom whose mind is not affected by the spell, there is no appearance of a horse to his mind, and he does not conceive there to be a real horse.

If we are still sucked in by appearances because we believe they are real, we are like an ordinary member of the audience. If we have more wisdom and, although we still see the horse, know directly that this horse is not real and that we in effect created it, we are like the magician. We already have more control over the appearances of our life, rather like someone flying around in a lucid dream. If we don’t even see the mistaken appearance of a horse, much less believe it, we are like an enlightened being. We can never get fooled again. We are utterly free. And to help others, we can appear whatever we want to from our mind of great bliss.

To me, this analogy shows how much we need an enlightened Spiritual Guide. They can show us that these mistaken appearances do not exist and so there is no point in continuing to grasp at them with ignorance, anger, attachment, anxiety, and so on, all our actions or karma contaminated by this ignorance; and there is literally no point in suffering the needless endless way that we do. Once we have found this person, there are various ways in which we can rely upon them. This carries straight on from the first way I talked about in this last article.

(2) Practice the instructions

We can practice the instructions and teachings of Buddha as revealed to us by our Spiritual Guide. Nothing helps us or pleases him more

Once we have met a qualified Spiritual Guide, the way to rely upon him or her is basically very simple. All we have to do is to develop faith in him (or her) and put his instructions into practice to the best our ability. If we do this, our Dharma realizations will naturally increase and we will quickly attain enlightenment. ~ Great Treasury of Merit 

Teaching this in the recent International Spring Festival, Gen-la Khyenrab said:

Whatever is your ability, whatever that is, just try. A realization is a stable understanding of a virtuous meaning that will protect us from suffering — for example, love will protect us from anger.

We can do that today. Then we do the same tomorrow, doing our best. Gradually our wish and capacity to do this will improve and we’ll be moving ourselves along the spiritual path. Something in my heart works much better when I actively want to rely on a Spiritual Guide and take on board the instructions he has given me.

And anyone can do this, regardless of their history and background – even if they are a mass murderer! There is the famous example of Milarepa to give us hope:

To begin with, Milarepa was very evil. Using black magic he killed 36 people before he met his Guru, Marpa. Later, by relying sincerely upon Marpa he was able to purify his mind completely, accumulate merit and wisdom, and finally attain enlightenment in that same life.

The whole point of finding and relying on a Spiritual Guide is to make spiritual progress so that we can at long last get rid of all the causes of suffering and bondage in the mind and be able to help others do the same. This sickness and ageing stuff to which I currently have a front row seat (until I’m called to join the actors on the stage) is only going to be followed by rebirth, and then more of the same. It’s been this relentless grinding cycle since beginningless time, when will I have had enough?!

If we meditate on the stages of the path to enlightenment with the help of an enlightened Spiritual Guide, we can break this cycle and experience endless bliss. And just a reminder that in Buddhism we don’t trust blind faith. Relying on a teacher’s wisdom gives us the the tools to explore our own sense of truth from every angle, questioning and researching every step of the way – we have to do the work.

Enlightenment is reality; we are in unreality. I find this passage from Venerable Geshe-la’s Festival teachings on the Kadampa Way of Life incredibly encouraging in this respect:

“What is enlightenment? Enlightenment is not external light, it is inner light, the nature of omniscient wisdom. Our ignorance is an inner darkness that obscures our understanding of the ultimate truth of phenomena or reality.

Because this inner darkness is so powerful, all our environment, the place or house where we live, our enjoyments, food, drink, clothes, friends and other objects and necessary conditions, our body and our mind are polluted by this  inner darkness. Because of this all our environments, enjoyments, body and mind are contaminated phenomena and their nature is impurity and suffering. This is because of the inner darkness of ignorance.

To destroy this we need to engage in spiritual paths as mentioned in Lamrim teachings such as The Meditation Handbook where 21 meditations are listed. Each one of these meditations is very practical. If we develop 21 realizations through these meditations, these are the spiritual paths to enlightenment.

By engaging in the spiritual path and developing these realizations we will gain a good heart such as great compassion and the mind of bodhichitta, and we will definitely gain the wisdom understanding ultimate truth directly. Through further improving these two, eventually our inner darkness will completely disappear, together with its imprints. Nothing will be left except the inner light of omniscient wisdom.

Our mind will become inner light, the nature of omniscient wisdom and bliss. Our environments, enjoyments, and everything we perceive will become inner light, the nature of omniscient wisdom and bliss. We will only experience wisdom and bliss; this is enlightenment. This is our ultimate happiness. When we attain this enlightenment, we experience wisdom and bliss day and night life after life without ceasing.”

Coming soon … 3 more ways we can rely upon a Spiritual Guide. Meantime, I’d love to hear from you below.

Related articles

All the previous articles on the Spiritual Guide in one place

How enlightenment is reality 

There is no depth other than emptiness 

Intimations of mortality

5.5 mins read.

Not just anyone can be a Spiritual Guide, of course — it has to be someone who can guide us along the spiritual path. As a reminder of some of their necessary qualifications:

A pure Spiritual Guide must have authentic spiritual attainments, hold a pure lineage, cherish the Buddhadharma, and with love and compassion give unmistaken teachings to his or her disciples. If we meet such a Spiritual Guide we should consider ourself to be very fortunate.

Carrying on from this article, What if Buddha was around today

Once we feel we have found a reliable source of spiritual guidance, here are 5 simple practical things we can do to rely on them.

(1) Feel happy

We can just feel happy about it, for a start. As it says in Great Treasury of Merit:

We should try to feel close to him [or her], maintaining a happy and affectionate mind towards him at all times. We should regard our Spiritual Guide as our mother who cares for us and cherishes us, as our father who provides us with all we need and protects us from danger, as the moon that cools the heat of the delusions in our mental continuum, as the sun that dispels the darkness of ignorance in our mind, and as a kind benefactor who gives us the priceless gift of Dharma.

Why feel happy? Because:

Geshe Potowa says that if a pure disciple meets a pure Spiritual Guide it is not difficult for him or her to reach enlightenment. ~ Great Treasury of Merit

We can hopefully see from these articles that relying on a Spiritual Guide is not about having another authority figure in our life – who wants one of those, really?! Not me. Relying on a Spiritual Guide helps US make spiritual progress – there is a lot more in it for us than for our Spiritual Guide. We can keep reminding ourselves of the benefits until we feel lucky to have found ourselves in this position.

If through relying upon a Spiritual Guide we develop the realizations of the stages of the path to enlightenment within our mental continuum, we will be truly rich, even if we have no material possessions.

No other wealth is going with us. Only our faith and/or spiritual realizations can truly protect our mind when old age ravages our body and death comes knocking.

Not long ago Venerable Geshe-la said something along the lines that ten years goes very quickly. I have been finding this a helpful way to feel the brevity of this human life.  

When we’re 10, 20 seems a zillion miles away, and 30 positively ancient. When we’re 20, 30 on the horizon signals the end of youth but is still a long way ahead, we’ve got this, and there’s no way we’re ever going to be fat and middle-aged let alone old. At the slightly alarming age of 30, time is speeding up, but being 40 and middle-aged is still at a safe distance. Until all of a sudden we rather shockingly hit 40, where even looking at a chocolate donut puts on 5lbs and we are now the lucky recipient of those hilarious “Haha, not enough candles!” birthday cards. We now have to kid ourselves that people are not really middle-aged until they reach 50. At that slightly surreal half-century milestone — “No way can I be 50?!!”– wrinkly 60 seems like the beginning of old age and we are beginning to sense that we might, after all, end up one day being one of those bent-over old people. (Luckily “50 is the new 30!”, only of course it’s not, and you won’t find any 30-year-old agreeing.) When we’re 60, the illusion of youth and beauty — or even middle-age and being relatively presentable — is rapidly slipping, yet we tell each other that old age doesn’t begin until we’re 70. When we reach 70, the decrepitudes of the 80s and 90s are now just around the corner, we’ve seen what happens to people when they hit this wall, but we’re still not too old yet, we still have time to get our acts together … don’t we?!

Point is, don’t these decades actually fly past?, and we only have 8 of them, give or take. We can count them on both hands. It seems like mere months since my friends and I were at those earlier milestones, commiserating or joking with each other about how old we were becoming and how the heck did that happen?! And it was just months.

Nowadays when I look at someone and think “They’re pretty old”, there is an increasing chance that they are younger than me. And I can see from Facebook that younger friends are racing through the decades at the same speed, always relatively young but also undeniably, well, middle-aged. None of us gets away with it, no matter the glamor, wealth, or good genes. The sufferings of sickness and old age get all of us in the end, if we don’t die first. The meaty body and brain always wear out. In Sutra Addressed to a King, Buddha says:

Ageing is like an immovable mountain.
Decay is like an immovable mountain.
Sickness is like an immovable mountain.
Death is like an immovable mountain.

Now in London this summer helping my dad take care of my mom, who just got out of hospital, it is very easy to think back to the time when they were both fit and forty and traveling the world — yet here they are now largely stuck inside. This is increasingly the same for the dwindling number of their friends who are still alive, eking out their health and pleasures as long as they can. This is entirely normal. And my generation is next in line. If ever there was a good time to get a move on, that would be now.

Luckily we are not our bodies, our brains, or even our gross minds, not even close. There is an incredibly blissful clear light within all of us, our real home whence life after life we forgettingly arise and return, that totally transcends all these ravages of time. The spiritual path is at its essence being gradually guided to the clear light of bliss by our Spiritual Guide’s teachings and blessings so that we can enjoy it forever.  I must say that my mom surprised me at breakfast this morning by quoting word-perfectly Wordsworth’s mystical Intimations of Immortality:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.

Out of time (as I might soon be saying on my death bed 😳) The remaining four ways of relying upon a Spiritual Guide are coming up in the next article. Meantime over to you, I would love to hear your comments below.

Related articles

All the articles on the Spiritual Guide in one place 

Making the most of time 

 

What if Buddha was around today?

Happy Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day! June 4 marks the anniversary of Buddha Shakyamuni’s first ever teaching in this world.

A question: if you knew that Buddha was alive and wandering this Earth, what would you do? …

… I know what I would do, I would be right there! I would find him. I would follow him. I would offer my services to help him bring the medicine of Dharma to everyone who wanted it. I would feel this was something unimaginably epic!!!

I would do the same if I knew, for example, that Je Tsongkhapa was around, or Nagarjuna, or Saraha, or Atisha …

And Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso IS around. A fully accomplished Buddhist master of the same caliber as these great practitioners of yore, he IS alive and wandering this Earth. He has done an extraordinary amount for Buddhism and Buddhists in the world today, continuing to turn the Wheel of Dharma for a huge and growing number of modern people. His life and works are epic.

Today also happens to be his 90th birthday and Kadampa Centers everywhere are doing long-life practices for him to stay on this troubled Earth as long as possible. That way, people can still find him.

Carrying on from this article. 

If you’ve read the biographies of the great Buddhist masters I mention above, you’ll know that most people had no real clue who they were or how influential they were going to be until later in their lives or even after they’d passed away (if ever). It seemed to dawn on people over time just how incredible these people were. That is not unique to Buddhism – don’t we often only fully appreciate people’s greatness after the fact?

In particular, whenever I read anything about Je Tsongkhapa or by Je Tsongkhapa it feels like I’m reading something about or by Geshe-la. Here’s what it says about Je Tsongkhapa in Great Treasury of Merit, for example:

Although Je Tsongkhapa was an emanation of Manjushri who possessed clairvoyance and miracle powers, he did not appear as a special, exalted being, but manifested as an ordinary, humble practitioner.

Geshe-la is truly humble – he has lived simply in modest surroundings all his 90 years, just practicing what he preaches, helping others all day long, completely uninterested in any status or other worldly concerns.

In this aspect he showed an immaculate example to others, gave pure teachings, and led thousands of people into correct spiritual paths. He spread a very pure Buddhadharma throughout Tibet, showing how to combine the practices of Sutra and Tantra, and in particular how to practice the Vinaya and Highest Yoga Tantra together.

Is this not what Venerable Geshe-la has been doing his entire life? What else has he been doing? Except that instead of his activities being confined to Tibet, due to the wonders of globalization and modern technology the Kadampa Buddhist teachings are now starting to reach the entire world.

The meditation on relying upon a Spiritual Guide

It says in Great Treasury of Merit:

Our Spiritual Guide is any spiritual Teacher who sincerely leads us into spiritual paths by giving correct instructions. Thus our Spiritual Guide can be eastern or western, lay or ordained, male or female.

And so on. They can be anyone.

It was Buddha Shakyamuni who first taught the importance of relying upon a Spiritual Guide (Skt. Guru yoga). For example, in the Condensed Perfection of Wisdom Sutra he said:

Good disciples who respect their Spiritual Guide
Should always rely upon their wise Spiritual Guides.
If you ask why, qualities of wisdom arise from them;
They reveal the perfection of wisdom.
The Conqueror who possesses all supreme good qualities says
“The qualities of a Buddha depend upon the Spiritual Guide.”

As with any other teaching of Buddha, it is good to ask ourselves about the validity of relying upon a Spiritual Guide — is it true, does it work, does it make sense to me, how will it help? Buddhism is not about blind faith, including — perhaps especially — when it comes to relying upon a Spiritual Guide.

The first question is probably why would I want to rely upon a Spiritual Guide? The great Indian Buddhist Master Padampa Sangye (who I’m guessing taught in a place called Tingri) said:

O People of Tingri, the Spiritual Guide will lead you wherever you wish to go.

So where is that exactly? If we don’t mind staying in samsara forever, including in the lower realms, we don’t need an enlightened teacher to show us the way out. But:

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. No one is kinder than our Spiritual Guide.

What is a Guru?

As explained here, the actual Spiritual Guide (Skt. Guru) is not like a person we normally think of, but is the omniscient wisdom of bliss and emptiness.

In Vajra Cutting Sutra Buddha says that those who think is body is a physical object and that his speech is sound are mistaken because his actual body is the Truth Body. ~ Great Treasury of Merit

The idea of what a Guru actually is can be hard to understand, and developing this understanding of his or her real nature is a huge part of a Buddhist’s spiritual journey.

Ultimately the student or disciple is seeking union with that state of compassion and wisdom, which is enlightenment, so as to become enlightened themselves. Guru yoga provides the technology for this.

It is also a doorway into seeing everybody in a pure way, as a Buddha, including ourselves, so as to manifest our own boundless potential for enlightenment. For as Venerable Geshe-la says in How to Transform Your Life:

Because we cannot see others’ minds, we do not know who is actually a realized being and who is not. Someone may not have a high position in society, but if in his heart he maintains loving kindness to all living beings, in reality he is a realized being.

(This also includes fellow practitioners within our spiritual society, I might add. If the past is anything to go by, there are probably plenty of highly realized beings lurking amongst us, not teaching from high thrones, no reputation at all, simply pulling the weeds, preparing publicity, or sitting around doing seemingly nothing. Think of Shantideva or Geshe Jayulwa or Biwawa or a lot of the Mahasiddhas, for a start — no one had a clue who they really were.)

When we are relating to our Spiritual Guide in this ultimate sense, we are not relating so much to a personality as to omniscient wisdom and compassion appearing for us, and our mind mixes with this, receiving blessings or inspiration. (Blessings are not that mysterious – check out these articles.)

Moreover, we develop faith in the context also of having faith in our own potential for enlightenment – without that, there is not much point in developing faith in enlightened beings.

The goal of Buddha’s teachings on Sutra and Tantra is to transform us from an ordinary, limited, deluded being, who suffers and can only benefit in a limited, temporary way into an enlightened being, who can genuinely protect countless others and lead them to perfect happiness. Our ability to make that transition depends upon blessings to transform our mind. Those blessings come when we shine the sun of our faith on the snow mountain of our Spiritual Guide. In the International Spring Festival this week, Gen-la Khyenrab said that our Spiritual Guide is the focus or lens through which all the blessings of the Buddhas come into our heart. He quoted:

The ultimate goal of human life is to attain enlightenment, and this depends upon continually receiving the special blessings of Buddha through our Spiritual Guide. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Four reasons why our Spiritual Guide is a Buddha

As Gen-la Khyenrab also explained, the object of the Guru yoga meditation as presented in Lamrim is our faith believing that our Spiritual Guide is an emanation of all the Buddhas of the ten directions.

Buddha attained enlightenment with the sole intention of leading all living beings along the stages of the path to enlightenment through his emanations. ~ How to Transform Your Life

So the question is:

Who is his emanation who is leading us along the stages of the path to enlightenment?

This is the jist of the meditation. And there are a lot of things we can ask and contemplate to increase our understanding and experience of Guru yoga, letting our faith grow naturally over the months and years. This seems like the perfect day to say a quick something about the four main considerations given in the Lamrim teachings, which you can read about in detail in the big Lamrim book called Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

  1. Buddha Vajradhara said that Spiritual Guides are Buddhas

He said this in Two Examination Tantra:

In degenerate times, when the practice of Buddhadharma is in decline, I shall manifest as a Spiritual Guide … I shall appear as an ordinary being, and I shall come in many forms.

If our Spiritual Guide isn’t this seemingly ordinary being who is an emanation of Buddha Vajradhara, then who is? It also occurs to me that a transcendent being can appear as ordinary, but an ordinary being cannot appear as transcendent.

  1. Our Spiritual Guide performs the enlightened actions of a Buddha

As Geshe-la says in Great Treasury of Merit:

The Buddhas have spent aeons investigating which is the best way to help sentient beings, and they have concluded that it is to manifest in an ordinary form as a Spiritual Guide, demonstrate a perfect example, and guide sentient beings by giving Dharma teachings.

Let’s think about this for a moment … if all the Buddhas right now wanted to appear in your life to help guide you to enlightenment — which they do — how would they do that? “Ok, Luna’s ready. What do we have to do?!”

Discussing this with each other, they might well conclude that it would make sense to appear as a monk in the notoriously Buddhist country of Tibet, who studies and practices Buddhism for decades in the well-established monasteries, manages to escape when the Chinese invade, goes into a 16-year retreat, and then is invited by his own highly regarded teacher to fly to the West deliberately to help modern people like you. There he teaches and translates and sets up Centers, and you encounter him, read the books, and meet other practitioners. Through this you realize that everything he says is incredibly helpful and liberating and that you want to practice it. So you do. And you are guided along the spiritual path.

What would a Buddha do differently?

Our Spiritual Guide has given us literally everything we need – there is nothing we don’t have when it comes to traveling this path to liberation or enlightenment. Why is nothing lacking? Why is everything appearing for me? Where is it all really coming from?

  1. In these degenerate times Buddhas continue to work for the benefit of all living beings

Benefiting others is the very meaning of becoming a Buddha – it is the whole reason why they attained enlightenment! It is why we ourselves are training for enlightenment, and Buddhas have already been there and done that.

To the coarse beings of these impure times who, being so hard to tame,
Were not subdued by the countless Buddhas of old,
You correctly reveal the excellent path of the Sugatas. ~ Offering to the Spiritual Guide

Who knows what Geshe Kelsang really thought in those first few years as he met his first spiritually bedraggled and clueless Western disciples (speaking for myself). Yet, whatever he thought, he didn’t leave us to our own degenerate devices, but has been consistently gentle and understanding, just like Je Tsongkhapa:

Je Tsongkhapa was like a mother teaching her children. A mother patiently teachers her children everything they need to know, from how to eat and how to walk, through to how to read and how to write. In the same way, Je Tsongkhapa patiently taught the Tibetans everything they needed for their spiritual development, from the initial step of entering into a spiritual practice through to the ultimate attainment of Buddhahood. ~ Great Treasury of Merit

  1. Appearances are deceptive and our own opinions are unreliable

As I write this outside in a café, a man at the next door table is hacking and coughing – he is reminding me of the pandemic that is not over yet, despite my complacency that has set in on this warm summer’s day, and that people are still hacking and coughing and dying all over the world. Who is he, really? For that matter, who is the homeless dude who swore at us yesterday as he swigged his whisky, before bicycling away fast on a green bike that he stole from right under our noses? Amongst other things, he reminded me how crazy it is that we don’t have affordable housing in this wealthy country, how easy it is for me to take my home and resources for granted, and how much I want to become a Buddha to help everyone find shelter (mind you, it wasn’t my bike, hahaha!.)

In How to Transform Your Life, Geshe-la says:

We cannot say for sure that our closest friend or worst enemy, our mother or even our dog, is not an emanation [of Buddha]. The fact that we feel we know someone very well and have seen him or her behaving in deluded ways does not mean that he or she is an ordinary person. What we see is a reflection of our own mind. An ordinary, deluded mind will naturally perceive a world filled with ordinary, deluded people.

Therefore, naturally this must also apply to someone who actually seems to check the boxes for being a suspected emanation. We are advised in general to check out a Spiritual Guide’s qualifications, of course. In Great Treasury of Merit, Venerable Geshe-la says:

A pure Spiritual Guide must have authentic spiritual attainments, hold a pure lineage, cherish the Buddhadharma, and with love and compassion give unmistaken teachings to his or her disciples. If we meet such  Spiritual Guide we should consider ourself to be very fortunate.

However, it is also worth remembering that nothing exists outside our mind. Therefore:

While my mind is impure I shall continue to experience hallucinations and mistaken appearances. Only a completely pure mind can perceive things the way they really are. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

Everything we see right now is relatively faulty and ordinary (speaking for myself). Which means that even if all the Buddhas were to appear right in front of me – and perhaps they are – I would see them as ordinary or not at all. As Geshe-la says in Joyful Path:

Before they purified their minds many of the Mahasiddhas and Yogis saw their Spiritual Guides in low and imperfect forms.

It’s true, they did! Check out the various biographies. It’s not just us!

Asanga saw his Spiritual Guide, Maitreya, as a dog. Naropa saw his Spiritual Guide, Tilopa, as a fisherman. Devadatta and Bhikkshu Legpai Karma saw the completely perfect Buddha as a very limited being.

Like them, to overcome ordinary appearances we need faith that our Spiritual Guide is a Buddha appearing in this ordinary form so that he or she can actually benefit us. This pure view gives our mind a transcendent focus and we are able to reach for the sky. Then over the years as our mind gradually clears, we will come to see our Spiritual Guide more and more unmistakenly. One of my favorite quotes is from Oscar Wilde, as it happens:

We are all of us in the gutter. But some of us are looking at the stars.

Point is …

In Essence of Vajrayana, Venerable Geshe-la quotes Geshe Potowa, one of the great Kadampa Geshes:

 Whether or not our Spiritual Guide is precious depends upon us and not upon our Spiritual Guide. If we view our Spiritual Guide as a Buddha, we will receive the blessings of a Buddha. If we view him or her as a Bodhisattva, we will receive the blessings of a Bodhisattva, and if we view him or her as an ordinary being, we will receive nothing.

So it is up to us – and it is also for us, not our Spiritual Guide. He doesn’t need us to seem him as pure. He already has everything he needs.

It is very helpful to understand that all we ever perceive is a reflection of our mind. An impure mind can only perceive an impure world. If we are waiting to see an objective, truly existent Buddha, we are never going to see one. We need to reach beyond our appearances, beyond the impure, suffering appearances that are capped by the karma we have, to tune into something transcendent and pure.

Geshe-la goes onto say:

Knowing this is very helpful because for as long as our mind remains impure it is impossible directly to perceive anyone, including our Spiritual Guide, as a real Buddha. Our task at the moment therefore is to use our imagination, and the many valid reasons explained in the book Joyful Path of Good Fortune, to train in the recognition that our Spiritual Guide is a living Buddha. Through continually training in this recognition our faith will increase and our mind will become purer and purer, until eventually we will directly perceive our Spiritual Guide as a real Buddha.

If we consider and meditate on these four points, we will develop a conviction that our Spiritual Guide is a Buddha; and with this recognition we will feel very guided. And since we have never travelled to enlightenment before, this guidance is exactly what we need.

Thank you Geshe-la. I will dedicate myself to the flourishing of Kadam Dharma.

Over to you – I’d love to read your comments and stories on this auspicious day 😇😍

Further reading if you still have time 

A Spiritual Guide

 

When the student is ready, the teacher appears

 

A light in the darkness

 

Modern Day Kadampas

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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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!

Related articles

More on the Spiritual Guide 

More on mere imputation 

More on unfindability 

More on faith 

More on Planet Earth 

 

 

 

Living Buddha

10 mins read.

Like a lot of people I’ve had trouble falling asleep a few times in the last year, and also like a lot of people it was probably from unwisely looking at news headlines just before heading to bed, then lying awake wondering how on earth to solve my own problems, my family and friends’ problems, the world’s problems.

Refuge

If we’re not careful, inappropriate attention kicks in – we think this is all real, we exaggerate the problems – and the next thing we know we’re in a state of anxiety, even panic. Each time, I went for refuge to Dharma and my Spiritual Guide and ended up feeling fine again. It is a question of getting the Dharma from our heads into our hearts at times like this so that we see everything entirely differently – whether through the lens of refuge, compassion, wisdom or whatever.

If we can remember refuge, that all the countless Buddhas are rooting for us and see us as already pure, already ok, already enough, we start feeling more peaceful.

In the midst of our own anxiety, if we can get past ourselves to empathize with others’ often far worse worries, already our mind starts to lighten.

Or, going deeper still, rather than wrestle with a real world that isn’t actually there, we can let the seemingly solid intractable problems dissolve away into their emptiness — their absence of intrinsic existence, their unfindability — and reboot from there.

Whatever Dharma we turn to, it’s always worth remembering what we have understood so far about the world not being fixed, static, or real. When we go for refuge in Dharma and see things differently, we are not just seeing something objectively out there in a different way so that we can somehow better cope with it. As a mere appearance or reflection in our mind, everything depends 100% upon our perspective; therefore, as soon as we change our mind, the world itself changes — just as a reflection in a lake changes along with every ripple of the water. That’s why Dharma can solve problems permanently.

One simple example: if I get upset with someone for not agreeing with me, I am holding them to be intrinsically annoying. But if I change those thoughts of annoyance into thoughts of compassion and concern for them, for example by remembering their good qualities or kindness, I may still disagree with their point of view and tell them so, but I no longer have a problem with them. 

If we can remember any Dharma at all, we can restore our equilibrium. One measurement of having trained our minds is:

One is trained if one is able to do the practice even when distracted. ~ Training the Mind in Seven Points 

If we keep wanting to help people despite our own overwhelming problems, that’s deep, that shows we have what it takes. I’ve been spending some time recently with people who are helping the unhoused and/or who are unhoused. There are some incredible stories of dedication and kindness, such as the story of Bear who helped people up to his final days despite his own serious health problems. Or the mother who is simply concerned about her children and how she is going to be able to keep home-schooling them during a pandemic when she no longer has a kitchen table. This is because she lost both her jobs in the pandemic and no longer has a kitchen. Not to mention a roof. These are two of anywhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million people estimated to be without shelter in the United States, a number that is steadily growing.

Teacher of wisdom

Talking of refuge, I want to carry on from these articles about relying on a Spiritual Guide. In the Summer Festival teachings on Advice from Atisha’s Heart, Gen-la Jampa said: 

“There’s so much suffering in this world. People need wisdom. We have so much intelligence. It seems like we could make anything, and then we just keep improving it, because we’re never satisfied. Our technology just keeps increasing. Our material development keeps increasing. But there is not a corresponding increase in human happiness. In fact, it’s the opposite. Our world is becoming more problematic, more dangerous. So this shows us something very important. We must learn from this appearance. We are intelligent people but we have used our intelligence mainly to improve material conditions and we have never fulfilled our deepest wishes for happiness and freedom — in fact, the opposite. And then a teacher of wisdom appears in our modern world, who is in the lineage of Je Tsongkhapa, Atisha, Buddha Shakyamuni – the same nature. He appears in our modern world and he gives us the instruction of Lamrim and shows us how we can integrate it into our modern busy life. He doesn’t deny our modern life. He respects us and so he gives us Dharma that we can use, that is suitable for us, acceptable, that fits with our modern way of life. We have met a teacher of wisdom, a Kadampa master of modern times, who is giving us the most precious Lamrim instructions.”He is talking about Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, who is also my Spiritual Guide. As I talk about here, our Spiritual Guide can be anyone. It doesn’t matter who they are as long as they are able to guide us along the spiritual path because they’ve been there themselves, always showing us an inspiring example of what is possible. That is our Spiritual Guide, that person. We have complete choice over that – everyone in Buddhism always chooses their own Spiritual Guide, that’s how it works.

Practicing Lamrim, which is all the stages of the path to enlightenment, is the way we can go for refuge to Dharma and solve our problems. We need to get our Lamrim instructions from someone who knows them inside out and has complete realizations of all of them. A book alone does not have that living lineage.

One’s own living Buddha

Would it be pretty amazing to have our very own living Buddha to ourselves?! Someone who wants to lead us all the way to enlightenment? Someone who looks reassuringly normal on one level — whom we can see, communicate with, and learn from directly — but who is at heart an enlightened being who comes bearing the blessings and teachings of all enlightened beings? 

What do you reckon, if a Buddha was to tap you on the shoulder right now, or appear in front of you and say “Hello!”, would you see him or her? 

In The Mirror of Dharma, Geshe Kelsang says: 

All Buddhas attained enlightenment with the sole intention of leading all living beings along the stages of the path to enlightenment through their emanations.

And the point is, all those enlightened beings are still around, everywhere, pervading reality. So, Geshe-la goes on to ask: 

Who is the emanation who is leading us along the stages of the path to enlightenment?

This is not intended to be a rhetorical question, we have to really think about who that person is. Probably we’ll conclude that the most likely candidate is: 

our present Spiritual Teacher, who is sincerely and correctly leading us along the paths of renunciation, bodhichitta, and the correct view of emptiness by giving these teachings and showing a practical example for others to follow.

Who else could it be? (Answers on a postcard.)

You have no problems! 

Human problems are not difficult to solve but people are not listening to enlightened advice.  ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

One thing that is so interesting is how little Venerable Geshe-la buys into the details of our virtual reality of mistaken appearances. Of course he is sympathetic, but he knows that if we change our minds we can get rid not just of today’s glitches but all our sufferings; and so he simply keeps bringing us back to this. His view of us is sourced by blissful compassion and wisdom, and he is always relating to our potential and even seeing it actualized. 

In Portugal in 2009, he said he saw and respected us all as Heroes and Heroines (aka Tantric Buddhas). Which means he never gives up on any of us, never loses hope or faith in any of us, no matter what manner of calamities we think are going on in our lives. Like Marpa didn’t give up on Milarepa, even though Milarepa had murdered 30 people – and, whatever else you’ve done, I doubt you’re a mass murderer? (don’t tell me). Or like Buddha Shakyamuni didn’t give up on Angulimala or Lam Chung, or any of the other seemingly hopeless cases. Scripture abounds with these stories.  

Decades ago, when I was still a wee lass, I went to see Geshe-la with a long list of problems I really needed his help with solving. I was standing outside his room for a moment, silently remembering what these were so I could ask him, when he threw the door open, started laughing, and said, “You have no problems!”

He was right — the moment he said it I realized he was right. My list must have dissolved into emptiness because I couldn’t remember a single item on it. I started laughing too. 

I have never forgotten this and it has helped me immeasurably at all the hardest times of my life. If something is wrong, I know I can take it to any Buddha and they’ll think it is no real problem at all. It’s a relief knowing that.

Think about if this wasn’t the case. If something goes wrong in your life and Guru Tara, for example, is like, “Oh no, don’t tell me that! That’s a real catastrophe! How on earth are we going to be able to help you with THAT?! You’re doomed!” that would be somewhat discouraging, would it not. 

I am always with you

Geshe Kelsang is pretty cool, is all I’m trying to say. He has bought us centuries of wisdom, he has brought us unconditional love, he has brought us eternal hope. He is the real deal. I’ve never seen or experienced anything that indicates he is anything other than the real deal. And any of his numerous disciples would likely tell you the same thing. The more you get to know him and his teachings, the more you realize that this person is exceptional in so many ways. And utterly dedicated to us. He said not long ago “I am always with you.” And he is. 

One of the ways we can generate bodhichitta is to imagine what it will be like when we are enlightened, how we will be able to emanate as whatever people need, including teachers: 

Just as there is one moon shining in the sky whose reflections fill all the lakes and waters of the world, when I become enlightened my emanations will cover and protect every living being. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

I think that there is one Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, according to our collective karma, the one we see in person or photos etc, whose Buddhist commentaries we study on the programs. But the fact is that we all have our own Spiritual Guide. (Our own Geshe-la, if he is whom we have chosen.) Sometimes people think, “My Spiritual Guide is so far removed! He knows some of his students really well, but he doesn’t know me! There are so many of us – how can he even know I exist, let alone have enough time to pay attention to me?” 

All that is ordinary conception or view, right? So, per the moon example, have you ever had this experience … You are standing next to an ocean, the moon is shining, and the light is coming directly toward you. You turn to your neighbor two feet away and say, “Look, there is no light where you are, it is all coming directly to me. Take a look at that!” And they shake their heads, “No, you’re wrong, it is all coming toward me, the water is dark where you are.” And so on, all the way up the beach. 

Buddha’s emanations appear for us, for each of us. There are as many Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s, for example, as there are people with faith in him. If you have a different Spiritual Guide, it’s the same principle. Even if you are in a different tradition, I reckon!

Over to you! Still more to come on this subject. Meantime, though, a lot of people love stories about Geshe-la, so if you happen to have any from the past 40+ years or have heard any from others, please share them below. Alongside his far-reaching life and works, personal stories might end up being the closest we can come to a biography.

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A Spiritual Guide  

When the student is ready, the teacher appears

A light in the darkness

 

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 homogenous, because you have to start somewhere and England was a very 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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What is modern Buddhism for?

When the student is ready, the teacher appears

 

A light in the darkness

7 mins read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Dharma, less drama.

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

Two practical suggestions

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

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

What IS “in fact” going on?!

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

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

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

What CAN we trust?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, would you look at that, I am out of space again! There’s more in this next article, Modern Day Kadampas. Meantime, please share comments, stories, or anything you like in the box below.

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What can we really know about anyone? 

When the student is ready, the teacher appears

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

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

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

Carrying directly on from this article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting Geshe-la

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

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

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

I am always with you

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

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

Modern Day Kadampas booklet

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

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

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

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

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

Geshe-la’s own Spiritual Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming to the West

Back in Modern Day Kadampas, it says:

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

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

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

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

mountains panorama

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

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

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

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

A bit more about him … 

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

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

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

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

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

Geshe-a in Tibet with child

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

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

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

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

Out of space! But there’s more in this next article. Please leave any comments you like in the box below.

A Spiritual Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal spiritual trainer

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

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

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

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

Joyful Path

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

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

As Gen Rabten put it last week:

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

Who benefits from this practice?

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

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

We progress towards enlightenment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We delight all the Buddhas

Buddha Vajradhara says:

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

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

We are not harmed by demons and other evil influences

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

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

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

We easily overcome our faults and delusions

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

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

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

Our experiences and realizations of spiritual grounds and paths greatly increase

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

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

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

We never lack spiritual friends in all our future lives

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

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

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

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

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

We do not take rebirth in the lower realms

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

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

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

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

All our wishes, temporary and ultimate, are easily fulfilled

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

Does any of this sound good to me?

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

When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

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

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

Meantime, please leave your comments in the box below!