Kadampa Centers everywhere welcome everyone and provide communities in which to learn about and practice Buddha’s meditations and teachings as an effective way to solve our daily problems, grow spiritually, and transform our world.
On this very cool date of January 1st 2020, I want to share a beautifully made video of one of these 1400 Centers because it seems to be a good representative of all the others. Credit and thanks go to film-maker Josh Ruzansky.
I hope you like it. Do leave your comments and questions below.
To celebrate Buddha Shakyamuni’s Turning the Wheel of Dharma (Skt. Dharmachakra) Day, which also happens to be Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s birthday, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the study programs in Kadampa Buddhism. Today, these are turning the Wheel of Dharma at hundreds of Buddhist centers around the world.
There are 3 programs — General Program, Foundation Program, and Teacher Training Program. They’re all great, but I will mainly be talking about the last two.
As you may or may not know, Buddhism has always put an emphasis on (1) listening to lots of teachings, (2) contemplating them to check they work in our own experience and transform them into our own idea, and (3) meditating on them to bring them deep into our heart where they will be a constant joy and protection, leading us all the way to enlightenment. Buddha gave 84,000 teachings of Sutra and Tantra, and basically the idea is to learn the jist of all of these and put them into practice 😊
I will be quoting Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s words from a talk he gave called A Wishfulfilling Dharma Jewel, and you can read the whole thing here.
At present in our Centers we have a Foundation Program and a Teacher Training Program. This is not a new tradition. In the past there have been other programs specially designed for Dharma students according to their particular circumstances.
All these programs involved studying a certain number of texts, memorizing material, passing examinations, and being awarded a degree or certificate. For example, the ancient Kadampa Geshes had a program in which they studied six texts. Later Je Tsongkhapa introduced a program based on ten texts, and later still Tibetan Monasteries such as Ganden, Sera, and Drepung introduced a program based on five texts.
Even for the 1,000 years before Buddhism got to Tibet, deep learning and meditation had always been integral to the Buddhist tradition – for example the famous monastic university of Nalanda in Southern India produced generations of famous master practitioners from the fifth to twelfth century CE.
Now Geshe Kelsang has made all these teachings and meditations accessible to us in the unwieldy modern world through modern books, teachers, centers, temples, and study programs. Most of us definitely don’t have the same kind of time for formal study that they had in the old days, so he has made the time we do have incredibly efficient, and put more emphasis on sustaining and deepening these teachings and meditations through mindfulness in our regular daily lives.
Geshe Kelsang said:
Inspired by my own experience, I developed a strong wish to introduce a similar program for western Dharma students so that they could reap the same results. However, I understand very clearly that the program designed for Tibetan Geshes is not suitable for westerners.
For one thing, most western Dharma students are lay people …
Recently I asked some of my teacher friends to tell me what they thought were the main benefits of the Foundation Program (FP) in particular, as this is the program that most people tend to join. I wanted to hear what they had to say in particular about the commitments of the FP and why someone might want to take those on. So here goes, their ideas and mine, all jumbled together.
Becoming our own Protector
I agree with Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living. Studying Dharma consistently guarantees our getting to know ourselves and our lives a lot better, and overcoming all our faults and limitations. This gives our life a spiritual dimension, and a vision far less ordinary.
As Geshe Kelsang says:
With wisdom and Dharma experience we can bring our deluded minds under control. We can reduce our attachment, anger, jealousy, and so forth, and subdue our self-grasping and self-cherishing. By controlling our deluded minds we will come to experience permanent peace day and night. We will bring about a permanent cessation of human problems in particular and of samsaric problems in general. In this way we will become our own protectors.
The commitments of the FP involve attending every class for the enrolled book, reading ahead, memorizing the root text and main points of the commentary, discussing, doing pujas (chanted prayers), and taking an exam.
Their overall purpose is so that our practice is not stop/start but regular and consistent, leading to guaranteed results. Buddha’s example for this kind of steady effort is like leaving water in a pot on the stove to boil at a low heat rather than moving it on and off a high heat such that it never gets around to boiling.
Mixing our minds with Dharma
In a busy, distracted, ofter overwhelming world, it’s only too easy for other stuff to get in the way; so committing to attending each class (or catching up with the recording and study summary in a timely manner) moves us past that problem. It helps us fulfill our wish to help ourselves and others.
We go deeper than in drop-in General Program classes because each class can build upon the one before it, presupposing knowledge, and shifting the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student. And then we start to change.
This is good for the group, as we all literally stay on the same page. It becomes teamwork. The team is strong and unified and so everyone likes being on it. It is also good for the teacher as they don’t have to repeat the same points each week for people who weren’t there, and can take all the students more deeply into the material.
Reading ahead is a bit like toasting bread into which the hot butter of Dharma can easily soak during the class. That’s my analogy anyway! We come prepared with questions and looking forward to hearing the commentary on what we’ve already read and studied.
At the end of discussion the students come up with creative ideas together on what to practice in the meditation break to transform our everyday lives. We can troubleshoot how to practice Dharma throughout all our activities, lifestyles, and challenges. There are so many examples of people practicing Dharma in all walks of life, and we can learn from each other’s practical wisdom.
As Geshe Kelsang puts it:
The nature of western people is to study something one day and to want to put it into practice the next. This is a very good quality because they are always trying to gain practical experience of what they study.
Scale the highest mountain
One friend sent me this:
The Foundation Program is an opportunity to turn intellectual understanding into insights that authentically move our mind. For example, we understand intellectually that real or lasting happiness cannot be found outside out mind, and yet we still have a strong pull to find happiness from outside. FP is a chance to make a lasting change on our mind so that we genuinely want to find happiness from within.
We do this by giving more structure to our practice and spiritual development. FP is the opportunity to go through the training the mind teachings in depth, discuss, ask questions, and meditate on them. We make a commitment to study in this way so that, when difficulties come, we already have the structure in our mind to transform them. We have internalized the meaning. This means we will be able to actually transform adverse conditions in real time which is so much more difficult without this foundation.
FP creates the “foundation” for lasting happiness in our life. It’s an opportunity once or twice a week to reconnect deeply with our intention to improve our mind. We learn to consistently rely on Buddha and his teachings to solve our inner problems. We learn to trust and grow with our Sangha friends who are on the path with us. It’s a much more enriching way of experiencing this inner transformation.
As Geshe Kelsang says:
Our present understanding and experience of Dharma is quite superficial. We are like someone who has entered a huge food store and seen many things but sampled only a few. We may have received many different teachings from many different Teachers, but we have taken in very little, just a few morsels. Therefore our actual experience remains superficial. There is a gap between us and the Dharma. It feels as if Dharma is there and we are here. Our mind is not mixed with Dharma and so we cannot apply it in our daily lives.
As a result our ordinary everyday problems remain. For example, we may have received many teachings on Lamrim and read many books. Intellectually we find it relatively easy to understand and we accept it all, but we find it difficult to integrate into our daily lives, and so we cannot use this Dharma to solve our daily problems. When we study Dharma our mind remains passive, like someone watching television. It does not engage in the subject and mix with it. Therefore our daily life and our Dharma remain completely separate and unrelated.
Why is this? It is because we are not studying systematically according to a specially-designed program. If we just pick at Dharma randomly we will never gain a deep and stable experience, and our wisdom will never become like a full moon.
Geshe Kelsang has always said we should not view commitments as “heavy luggage” (Ed: it’s more like a purse).
We are simply making time for the things we actually know are good for us and love to do. I read a study the other day where a large group of women were questioned on how much time they spent meditating and so on versus watching Netflix – they replied that although they felt far better when they were meditating, they still spent about 5x more time on Netflix.
As Geshe-la puts it:
We should try to memorize the important points of the subject and combine whatever we understand in a practical way with our daily activities. We also have to observe the various commitments of the program. These commitments are designed to help us accomplish our aim. Without them there is a danger that we will be distracted by laziness or other circumstances and not complete our studies.
Any meaningful relationship requires commitment. For example, what would a marriage be like without any commitment? Or our job? Or working to combat climate change, or improving social justice, etc.? I think we find things more meaningful or of benefit when we have some commitment to them; and we get more done.
The FP commitments are also largely a commitment to each other. If everyone turns up and gets with the program, the group becomes stronger. If attendance is sporadic, the group weakens and our fellow students’ Dharma experience suffers.
One friend puts it like this:
On FP we come to experience in our heart (1) who we truly are, and (2) who we can become, and (3) more importantly, who our family, friends, and everyone else can become. Not through hearing ideas that it’s easy to soon forget, through dropping in on General Program (GP), but through a relaxed, consistent, dynamic engagement and deepening experience of Dharma and meditation on FP. FP closes the gap between the teachings we hear and experiencing them in our heart.
If we signed up to be a doctor with the goals of (1) having a good life ourselves and (2) benefitting others, but then didn’t turn up to classes consistently or seal that understanding through exams, out in the field we’d quickly realize we’re not equipped to fulfil our goals. From this point of view our 7 years in medical school would feel meaningless, because meaningful just means we feel we have accomplished or are accomplishing our goals.
In a similar way, to derive the greatest meaning and fulfillment from the time we have chosen to spend on FP, the commitments and exams are not rigid rules, but rather helpful guidelines and opportunities to accomplish the goals of (1) having a good life ourselves and (2) benefiting others. Or, in Geshe-la’s words, 1) to be happy and 2) to make others happy! In this way taking the commitments to heart is the best way to make our time on FP FEEL meaningful for us (not to placate the teacher or program coordinators) and be beneficial for others.
As Geshe-la explains from his own experience:
I studied this program at Sera Monastery. When I completed it and was awarded my Geshe degree, I felt as if I had reached the summit of the highest mountain. My faith and experience had increased considerably and I felt great confidence in teaching others. My mind was very happy and I felt completely free from problems.
Become a really good meditator
We learn how to have a regular practice that is sustainable at home, know what to meditate on clearly through structured study, and build up self-discipline. Plus being there for other meditators in the FP group.
On the Foundation Program we can learn to meditate very well and always know what to meditate on — we learn how to do analytical meditation (contemplation) and placement meditation (single-pointed meditation) on every aspect of Buddha’s Sutra teachings. This leads to results, confidence, and joy.
The power of discussion
Discussion is a particularly important aspect of the program because we can help each other greatly by sharing our experience and understanding of Dharma.
Discussing with each other resolves our doubts, increases our understanding, and shows us what we don’t yet understand. Talking about gaining a realization of emptiness in particular, Geshe Kelsang says in The New Heart of Wisdom:
If we develop doubts or cannot accept what is taught we should discuss the matter with others. In this way, our understanding will become clearer and clearer. We should not keep doubts hidden inside our hearts — we need wisdom in our hearts, not doubts!
Geshe Kelsang has said that, in terms of his own understanding, he got 50% from the teachings and contemplations and 50% from his discussions with others! Which is quite a statement given how much he understands. He also gives some great advice on how to discuss in this talk.
The Foundation Program builds the spiritual community so everyone ends up with more friendship and support. Connections strengthen due to weekly study, discussion, meditation, and so on; and once an FP group has been studying together for a while, people connect with each other at a deep level (a bit like people who do retreats together). This is the true meaning of Sangha community. And, as Sangha are the third Jewel of Buddhist refuge, who can really help us to make spiritual progress, the more the better.
The study programs involve prayers as a support for the meditations. Sometimes people are a bit like, “I didn’t know Buddhists did prayers!” But we do, as explained more here. Prayers give us the opportunity to quickly purify our mind, accumulate merit or good karma, and bathe in inspiring blessings.
One of my friends says he puts it like this to his students: If you don’t think you like prayers, perhaps let go of what you think about them until your growing experience of them reveals a far deeper knowing. Buddhist prayers are just another form of meditation. We are so used to skimming the surface of life (caught up in busyness and trivia, numbing the pain of ordinary life) that we can miss out on the opportunity to experience something far deeper and incredibly rich. Prayers empower us to connect to and directly experience the greater depth that life has to offer, such as our pure potential and connection to enlightenment. They provide refuge.
So if you are new to a study program and faced with the prospect of doing prayers, for now just sit back, relax, and enjoy. We don’t have to understand all the meaning of the words of a beautiful song to enjoy the experience. We don’t go into existential meltdown because we don’t get it! It’s the same with prayers — just enjoy the experience of the peaceful resonance of the prayers for now, which is connecting us to our pure nature and enlightenment, whether we know it or not. Over time their meaning unfolds in any case.
There is a commitment to try and attend a weekly puja (chanted prayers) at the Center. Many people don’t even know what a puja is yet; so don’t sweat this one. It will come gradually and be explained over time. The main thing to know about pujas is that they are beautiful and saturated with blessings, and people always seem to leave a puja feeling better than when they arrived.
Plus group pujas increasingly bless the center or temple so that these become refuge zones for everyone who visits them, which is providing a beautiful service to this troubled world.
Memorization and examinations!
Now we get to the commitment that generally freaks modern-day disciples out the most 😄. A dollar for everyone who says, “I left school years ago, I can’t memorize a thing, I’m way too old for this,” and variations on that theme.
It can be helpful to think of the exam at the end of the book as a self-assessment in six questions. They are marked, but no one but you knows your score (candidates have numbers, so even the marker doesn’t know.)
One teacher told me that with exams he likes to encourage people to regard it as a retreat rather than as preparing for a test. The exam is not the important part. The important part is the reading and contemplating. We can just have fun with it.
As mentioned earlier, if we are training as a doctor we need all the essential knowledge in our hearts, not on a dusty bookshelf. So this is Geshe Kelsang’s skillful way to encourage us to take the time to study – for when else are we going to be sufficiently motivated to do that?!
Another teacher says: “Don’t worry about it. This is a wonderful opportunity to study, get lots of Dharma — the cause of happiness — into your mind. Ask people who have taken exams – they have initial resistance sometimes but once they do it they realize why. Don’t be a perfectionist American (if you are) – remember Geshe-la’s advice:
Try, don’t worry.
And no one cares how you do on your exam.
If none of that works, how about regarding exam prep as an excellent way to ward off senility in a culture that is overly dependent on Google. Memorizing beautiful Dharma greatly improves our mindfulness.
We recite the Root Text and Condensed Meaning every week in class as well, so we find that we pick a lot of it up naturally.
The Kadampa way of life
Another friend, when I asked him what the benefits were, said succinctly:
This made me think of the old Kadampas and the Kadampa way of life. Foundation Program is training in a way of life. Transforming our life into Kadampa life. This takes real training – mindfulness, blessings, discipline. Do you wish to become a Kadampa?
By studying all five subjects (in six books) on FP, we come to know all of Buddha’s Sutra teachings, joining the illustrious company of tens of thousands of modern-day Sangha around the world. We will help provide hope for our society in the form of practicing and sharing Buddha’s teachings with the people around us, which amount to profound common sense that can be applied usefully to most of their everyday problems.
You can see some of these programs and students around the world in this video:
The six FP books are like jewel mines, and the FP allows us to delve deep. In this context the word ‘foundation’ does not mean basic or for beginners. It means we are constructing a strong and stable foundation for our daily Dharma practice and for attaining high realizations in the future.
If you want to train as a Kadampa Buddhist teacher, you can join the Teacher Training Program, which adds extra subjects and books including all of Buddha’s Tantric teachings, and has more of a retreat commitment.
Final encouragement from Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
Sometimes five years or seven years may seem like a very long time, but if we practice steadily every day without giving up, gradually we will reach our goal. If we start today, tomorrow we shall already be a bit closer to completing! We should think like this and then one day we shall have completed our training.
How wonderful that will be! We shall be able to give pure teachings with confidence on any subject we have studied, and people will believe us and develop faith in us because we have prepared so well. They will appreciate us from many points of view: our teachings, our personal experience, our ability to help them solve their problems, and so forth.
These are benefits that we shall experience just in this life. In reality, future lives are much more important. We shall experience the beneficial results of studying on this program for life after life until we reach enlightenment. The benefits are inexhaustible.
Over to you please! From your own experience, would you like to add anything?
Happy Dharmachakra Day! May Dharma flourish, may everyone be happy, and may our world be peaceful.
I was thinking of our big temple in Ulverston, England, for example, the original temple for world peace based on the mandala of Heruka. This seems to have a very clear structure, with pillars and chairs in rows, ordained at the front and lay at the back, orderly rules for behavior, and even security. However, it’s also clear that this temple is the home of the Dakinis — they’re everywhere. If you look up at the walls, you will see that they have escaped from the glassed-in shrine cabinet and are flying around the room 😉
The Heroes and Dakinis who are the emanations of Heruka and Vajrayogini pervade everywhere throughout this world, and people receive their blessings and special care.
Relating to the unobstructed power and blessings of the Dakinis and Dakas, what is it and where does it come from? Bliss and emptiness — ecstatic compassion and non-dual wisdom. Not super reality, just reality.
Remembering them and how they have our back gives us immense freedom, an immense feeling of flight. We can think, I am a Space Goer. Or a Sky Dancer. As mentioned earlier, that is the meaning of “khandro”, the Tibetan word for Dakini.
I have noticed that the Dakinis always laugh when I take myself or anyone else too seriously. We can get wrapped up with appearances, even or especially if they seem to be virtuous — and this can make us rigid and/or judgmental of ourself and others. If we begin to feel heavy, even a little, then we need to remember our Dakini nature, remember who we really are at heart. Wild, that is untamed by ordinary conceptions, and compassionately blissful.
The still point of the turning world
I’ve always loved this quote by TS Eliot:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.
In the sphere of emptiness anything is possible. Everything is a momentary manifestation of the emptiness of our blissful clear light mind, like a pure dream, a pure dance. Our Spiritual Guide and the Sky Dancers will give us everything we ever wanted, providing from our side we are doing the daily work of loving all beings and overcoming self-grasping and hallucinations. That’s the deal.
“Don’t squeeze me!”, a lover once told me, because, as it turned out, he had a broken rib. Like a moth enjoying a flame without feeling the need to fly right into it, we can learn to blissfully enjoy the mere appearance of everything providing we give up the grasping.
Our Spiritual Guide and Dakinis will take us wherever we want to go, so where exactly is that?!
What is the deepest compassion?
Another name for Dakini is “khachö”, which literally means “space (or sky) enjoyer”! (Same “chö” as in Buddha’s Enjoyment Body (chö ku) for those of you interested in etymology or impressing people at parties.) Dakinis and Dakas are always enjoying themselves. That is surely what we want for ourselves and everyone?
I have noticed in the past some survivors’ guilt, “How can I aim at being all happy and cheerful inside when so many people are suffering so grievously?” But I’ve come to see that I don’t need to be drowning as well in order to commiserate with others who are drowning – no, it’s better to be happy, it’s ok to be blissful, and that joy is meaningful. The best, or in fact only, place from which to help pull people out of the wretched ocean of samsara is the dry land of reality; and reality IS bliss and emptiness.
What is real compassion, what do we really want for everyone? If your Spiritual Guide, for example, only wanted you to be free from this headache or from this financial quandary, would that be enough for you? I doubt it. He is our Spiritual Guide because he wants us to be free from ALL delusions and mistaken appearances, in other words to be free from suffering and experience the reality of enlightenment day and night. I think we have to want that for everyone. That seems to be real love and compassion.
Jewel in the box
Je Tsongkhapa revitalized the organization and moral discipline of the spiritual communities of Tibet. And he did this not to create an assembly of goody two shoes just for its own sake, let alone an organization of uptight practitioners; but in order to help everyone everywhere realize their outer, inner, and secret natures, ie, get enlightened. Venerable Geshe Kelsang has been doing exactly the same since he arrived in the West in 1977.
If we get caught up in the appearances of our organization such that we become institutionalized, I think we run the danger of losing the plot. To me that would be like having a jewel box without a jewel inside it. What is the jewel of our tradition? Bliss and emptiness, enlightenment. This lies at the heart of our tradition and is our common destination. So, if we want to fly in the sky, we don’t repress that feeling, believing that we are not ready for it or that it is somehow dangerous.
In that meeting with my teacher, he also talked about the importance of women practitioners and Dakinis – and then he transformed into a Dakini and walked around the room. On the surface he is a pure, kind, reliable Buddhist monk. Inside he is always motivated by universal love and compassion. And deep down, who is he secretly?!
So, Dakinis are trying to get us up into the sky, we just have to go with it. If you’re ever feeling a bit squished, a bit rigid or repressed, worrying what other people are thinking of you, for example, don’t be. Or if you’re pushing, stop. If you have a chip on your shoulder, stop. All those worldly concerns, let go of them. That’s not what our tradition is about. If you ask me, anyway.
Instead, we need to remember our outer, inner, and secret natures: we need to be outwardly ethically kind and a relatable, trustworthy example, inwardly deeply loving, and secretly FREE.
If we practice like this, we will be receiving joyful blessings day and night – and blessings lift our mind and help us see that everything is in fact ok. Even delusions and mistaken appearances are ok because they are not really there, and therefore we will overcome them. Whenever they arise, they are helpfully reminding us that they are there to be dissolved away, like mist in the sunshine of wisdom and compassion.
We talk about “the precious celestial mansion as extensive as the three thousand worlds” – and I believe that this is what we are doing with the New Kadampa Tradition. We are building Heruka and Vajrayogini’s powerfully blessed mandala everywhere, for everyone; and the Dakas and Dakinis are simply longing to help us.
Today, October 25th, is Je Tsongkhapa Day ~ you can read more about it in this talk. In it, Geshe Kelsang says:
Although Je Tsongkhapa had the highest realizations of Highest Yoga Tantra he never physically showed that he was a Tantric yogi. He lived like as an ordinary pure practitioner, emphasizing by his outward appearance the pure practice of moral discipline. However, his daily life was that of a Bodhisattva, and his inner realization of experiencing the union of great bliss and emptiness day and night was the very essence of Highest Yoga Tantra.
Practicing Buddhism on different levels at the same time
So here are some short musings of what this day means to me.
Our main object of refuge in modern or Kadampa Buddhism is Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka – our Spiritual Guide is appearing as Je Tsongkhapa, with Buddha Shakyamuni at his heart, and Buddha Heruka (or Buddha Vajradhara) at his heart.
This reveals our outer, inner, and secret Dharma practice through which our Spiritual Guide is drawing us all into his heart of bliss and emptiness. We want to and can become just like him.
Guru Tsongkhapa is the embodiment of moral discipline and renunciation and, totally trustworthy and relatable, represents the visible or outer structure for helping others, such as the organized centers, ordained community, and lay Pratimoksha community. Not to mention practically helping people each day.
Je Tsongkhapa emanates from Guru Buddha Shakyamuni at his heart, who is the embodiment of his inner realizations of love, compassion, and bodhichitta, which flow effortlessly throughout the whole world of living beings.
And Buddha Shakyamuni in turn emanates from Heruka and Vajrayogini at his heart, who are the embodiment of the secret or hidden Tantric practice of bliss and emptiness that sources and pervades all phenomena, that is reality itself, that already exists as the solution.
Think globally, act locally
This always reminds me that we can and do practice on different levels: outer, inner, and secret.
It helps others a great deal if we are practicing renunciation, contentment, and ethics. We need to be observing the ten virtuous actions, for example, whoever we are, and trying to keep our word and avoid pretension and deceit. Whatever our walk of life, we can’t show crazy examples even if we have powerful realizations — no one can follow those, especially in these degenerate times; and, thanks to self-cherishing, everyone’s moral discipline goes to pot given half an excuse. Along with kindness and basic decency.
Whoever and wherever we are (high profile or low key) and whatever we do every day (high powered or below the radar), we are always acting moreorless locally, as it were. Geshe Langri Tangpa paid a lot of attention to one mouse, for example, and I have seen Geshe Kelsang spend many minutes blessing a bee that was dying next to his window one hot summer day.
When he first got to England, also, in the late seventies, Geshe-la would routinely be teaching the profound perfection of wisdom to an audience of … 7 people! But with the same enthusiasm with which he later taught 7 thousand.
We generally only have a certain limited number of people we are practically able to help on any given day, especially when we compare that number to countless living beings. You could say that it’s never enough, that there’s always more to be done, even if we practically die trying.
Perhaps à propos nothing, but it seems relevant to me, Joe Di Maggio was once asked by a reporter why he always played so hard, even if there were only a few people in the stands. He replied:
Because there might have been somebody in the stands who’d never seen my play before, and might never see me again.
And that reminds me of that starfish story … you know the one, I also repeat it here, but the point being that even helping one person makes all the difference to them.
So we try to help everyone in our path each day, and the more the merrier on one level. But on another level it doesn’t really matter how many people we can meet and help directly because our heart can always be in the right place, always vast with bodhichitta, encompassing all living beings. In that way we are also making a difference on a deeper level, heading toward enlightenment rapidly so that we can help everyone all the time through emanations and blessings. Sure, Geshe-la could have been teaching thousands of people in the same amount of time he spent looking after one bee; but the fact is that this bee action was just as significant in some ways.
And if we have a big heart, each of these seemingly limited actions is a like a portal into helping everyone, so it becomes limitless.
Get out the vote! I was just thinking about voting, for example. The way to make my vote really count is to cast it with a mind of renunciation and bodhichitta, wishing for all beings to live in the freedom of bliss and emptiness. And, while I’m at it, I can pray for our dear leaders, whoever they end up being, to have wisdom and compassion.
Secret (blissful wisdom)
Then there is the solution that always lies at our hearts and at the heart of reality. If we remember that we and everything else is the nature of bliss and emptiness, we are making a difference on an even deeper level – we’re already in the process of drawing everyone into that state. We can remain tethered in the solution, and therefore in hope and refuge, as described a bit in this last article.
This way of practicing on outer, inner, and secret levels is the union of Sutra and Tantra — something else Je Tsongkhapa’s Kadampa tradition is famous for.
Everywhere we look these days there seem to be insurmountable problems – sped up climate change, factory farming, politicians and populace gone wild, mental health crises, not to mention all our own stuff. This can be immensely discouraging if we stop there, if we never get off social media and the 24/7 news cycle.
But true refuge involves not just understanding the doom and gloom of it all, but that it is all mere name, not as real and fixed as it appears deceptively to our sense awarenesses. Not an atom of it exists from its own side, so a lasting solution is possible; even though we will have to dig deeper than the delusions and karmic hallucinations to get to it.
True refuge involves not just a reasonable and woke fear of our own and others’ suffering, but faith in the solution – liberation and enlightenment — and the holy beings who have already attained it or who are on their way. Faith in enlightenment and holy beings — especially in our Spiritual Guide who is showing us an actual alternative to suffering — is crucial. We need this faith to be able to bring ourselves and others to that state, not to mention to stay sane and positive in the process.
Today I think lots about how kind my Spiritual Guide is for managing to appear in my life despite these challenging times to show me exactly how to get us out of here. There is a verse in Offering to the Spiritual Guide that expresses this for me perfectly:
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;
O Compassionate Refuge and Protector, to you I make requests.
When I think about Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka, and especially when I allow him to enter my heart and mix with my mind, it fills me with inconceivable hope. It fills me with refuge. It fills me with the energy to keep going despite the crazy appearances at every turn.
That is what Je Tsongkhapa Day means to me. I’d love to hear what it means to you, if it does. And to conclude with Geshe Kelsang’s words:
Today we remember Je Tsongkhapa’s great kindness and dedicate all our virtuous actions so that his Dharma will flourish throughout the world and provide many living beings with the great opportunity to attain liberation and full enlightenment.
Our guest author is a single parent and a professional based in London, UK.
When my husband and I first met we had a lot in common — mutual friends, common interests, same sense of humour, we laughed all the time at the silliest of things — but I clearly remember the moment when we really connected, like I had never connected with anyone before. It was when we both admitted that we had often in our lives seriously contemplated suicide.
If any of our mutual friends had been present at that conversation they would undoubtedly have been deeply shocked, as externally neither he nor I showed any signs of having such thoughts. It was at this point that our relationship moved on to a much more committed level, as though we had shared our darkest secret and still been accepted by the other. Not long afterwards we were married, and soon there was a baby on the way.
You see we were not without hope, we still thought we could ‘get it right’; but at times we just couldn’t work out what the purpose was in life and why we couldn’t make life turn out the way we wanted. I think we both had a sense that we were somehow ‘owed’ happiness but someone ‘up there’ didn’t seem to have got that memo; instead our lives had been complicated and painful, very painful.
When we married, the UK was in the middle of the economic crisis of the late 80s. As mortgage rates soared, my husband’s business disintegrated and finally collapsed, and we faced a mountain of debts as well as the understanding we would have to move out of our lovely home. One night, having gone to bed before my husband after what I thought had been a positive discussion of plans for our future, I was woken by a continuous ringing on our doorbell.
The two policemen informed me that my husband had been killed by a train — a train that he was kneeling in front of as it came around the corner. Our daughter was seventeen months old.
This story is shocking I know, but not unusual. All those statistics about suicide are about people like you and me. All those deaths devastate the lives of the people left behind, people like you and me.
I thought I had known pain before, but it was nothing like this — so powerful that my mind would turn to stone to protect me, or I would find myself gasping for breath, feeling that the pain would, in fact, kill me.
The recovery was very long, many years, with good times when everyone thought I was ‘over it’, followed by deep, dark troughs of grief and confusion. But significant things happened along the way. The first came two weeks after his death when I took my daughter to the park on a beautiful, sunny, spring morning. She laughed, the sun shone, the crocus bulbs bloomed, and I realised he would never see any of these things again: no changes in the seasons, no child growing into the beautiful young woman she is now, no opportunity for the sadness and confusion to heal and happiness to arise again.
In that moment I realised that ‘everything changes’ and that, no matter how terrible things may seem, they will change. ‘This too shall pass.’ In that moment I decided that no matter how bad things seemed I would stay for my daughter, that I no longer had the choice my husband had taken, that she needed me and I would live my life for her.
People would say to me, ‘It must be so much harder for you with a child to look after,’ and I would think, ‘She is what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other.’ This is how compassion and love work. By thinking of her and wanting her to be happy, by wanting to protect her, I was no longer paralysed by my grief. My love for her took me away from my pain.
Wherever you go, there you are
I am sorry if the next few paragraphs are a bit ‘out there’ for some of you. I am in general a very practical Dharma practitioner, not ‘airy fairy’. I believe Buddha’s teachings are scientific; if you create the causes the effects will happen, and Buddha teaches us how to create the best possible effects. However, the following ‘out there’ things did happen, and I am telling you about them in the hope it will help others.
A couple of years after my husband died I was fortunate enough to be offered a teaching job in the Bahamas (I know!). Such idyllic conditions for myself and my daughter, good friends, great job, beautiful beaches with white sand and sapphire seas, and an incredible social life with millionaires and rock stars. And yet one day I found myself sitting on a beach feeling the familiar crushing sense of despair. I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. Apart from the joy of my daughter, I could not find a happiness that wasn’t superficial and short lived; everything led me back to pain.
I was sitting on the silky, white sand, looking at the jewel-like sea, knowing I couldn’t die but not knowing how I could find the energy, or wish, to go on. Then, as clearly as if the person was standing right over me, I heard:
‘I will always take care of you.’
I quickly turned but there was no one there. I even stood up to look all around — no one. I just knew in my heart that what they said was true, that I would be alright; and I went home and booked us on a flight back to England.
Over the coming years I found myself moving quite a lot and not finding what I was looking for – difference being that I now had a sense that there was something to look for. I wanted to find the source of the voice. I ended up in Brighton, and in the local paper I saw a photo of the teacher at the newly opened Bodhisattva Centre. I knew nothing about Buddhism, but immediately had an overwhelming sense that I knew this teacher very well, that I loved him dearly. It was like finding a long-lost brother. I had to go to the class. The feeling of knowing him never left me but, out of shyness, I never spoke to him. It seems like he was one of the lamps to the path.
I loved the statues in the Centre, the prayers, but I particularly loved the practical nature of the teachings. To be told that samsara was the nature of suffering but that a spiritual path could take us out of it was such a relief for me. After attending classes for a few years, I was persuaded to attend the Festival in Portugal for Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s last teachings. The best two weeks of my life, I spent most of it crying with joy. I was home.
While I was there I noticed a young mum with a little girl in the video link tent who seemed to be without help, so I offered to look after the child the next day so that she could go into the temple itself. The girl slept as I held her and, looking down at her, she seemed just the same as my daughter in the weeks after my husband’s death. The same warmth against my skin, the same weight in my arms, the same peaceful sleeping expression and soft curling hair — it was beautiful and painful at the same time.
Later I paused under an ancient tree in the park next to the temple, and the moment I sat and my hand touched the root of the tree, the last years of my life played across my mind like a film. The death, my daughter, the recovery, the beach, the voice, Bodhisattva Centre … all the way through to me sitting under the tree, next to the temple where Venerable Geshe-la was teaching. Then I knew, as clear as day, that Venerable Geshe-la was the source of that voice. He had been guiding me all the way along, gently and imperceptibly leading me to this moment, to this temple, back to him.
Someone told me not long ago that when their girlfriend met Geshe-la for the first time, he took her hand and told her, ‘I have been taking care of you since you were a little girl.’
‘Yes,’ I thought when I heard that, ‘he was.’ He was looking after her, and me, and indeed all the people who end up meeting him through his centres, books, disciples, and so on. So that even when we thought we were alone and isolated in our suffering, he was blessing us and drawing us closer.
The way out
Now, through meeting him, I understand that in samsara no one is owed happiness and the only happiness we experience is temporary. That instead of seeking death what I was really seeking was renunciation, the desire to get out of samsara channelled in the right direction.
I pray often that people who are having suicidal thoughts and fantasies should come to know renunciation. They are correct that this contaminated life is the nature of suffering, that their own and other people’s suffering is sometimes too painful to bear. It’s just that the solution they think they have found is no solution. The escape from the suffering is not death – it is seeking permanent mental freedom for ourselves and others through liberation and enlightenment.
If you are suffering today, please remember that no matter how bad it appears to be now, everything changes. ‘This too shall pass.’ Remember that you are always being taken care of by spiritual guides such as Venerable Geshe-la — he is praying for us and our families. Remember that you will always find the solution if you go for refuge to the Three Jewels.
I would be grateful if after reading this you would turn your thoughts and prayers to those affected by suicide.
I pray that my husband and all those who take their own life find the everlasting peace of enlightenment. May everyone be happy. May everyone be free from misery.
I want to tell you a story. Not one that I’ve told very often.
I moved to Florida in November 1999, into an apartment with N, my then partner. The same month a couple moved into the apartment next door, Cheryl and Bob, who hailed from the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. We didn’t seem to have anything in common, but for whatever reason we all liked each other. Bob called us “the beautiful people.” And one day as I was watching him drink at some kind of social event, a strong sense washed over me, “I am supposed to be protecting him.”
I assumed this meant that at some point he’d get into Buddhism or meditation. Seemed to me that this was going to take a very long time as he was not remotely interested. But, hey, I could be patient. And I started to keep him in my prayers.
One evening the four of us went to a movie, the Green Mile. Bob became very agitated at the (admittedly disturbing) execution scenes, and several times fled the auditorium to smoke in the foyer. He said afterwards he didn’t know why he found it all so terrifying, he was used enough to violent movies.
Two days later, around 7am, we found a note pushed under our door. It said, simply:
“It is 5am. Bob has had a brain hemorrhage. Please come to Sarasota Memorial Hospital. I don’t know where to turn.”
Our friend Losang was staying with us at the time, so all three of us rushed over there.
We arrived at intensive care to a surreal encounter – Cheryl was hastening towards us with a face blotchy and red from tears, but right behind her walked Bob, who seemed completely fine …
We must have looked startled, for she quickly said, “This isn’t Bob. This is his twin brother Rick.”
Rick, a long-distance truck driver, could not bear to be in the same room as his brother. So Losang sat and talked with him in the waiting room. He helped him a lot that day.
When N and I entered Bob’s room, he was lying in bed with a huge blown-out bandaged head. As I greeted him, to everyone’s surprise he raised up from the pillow in my direction, as if trying to hear me.
So I guessed that he must still be able to hear things, even though he was supposedly in a deep coma.
N sat quietly by his bed meditating and praying, and I sat the other side talking to Bob about going to the Pure Land. I asked Cheryl if he believed in Jesus and, hearing that he did, I guided him through a visualization of Jesus sitting above him and how he was going to Jesus’s heart through the crown of his head. I talked about heaven and what it was going to be like for him there. I basically guided him in the Buddhist transference of consciousness to a Pure Land (Tibetan: powa) practice, but using Jesus instead of Compassion Buddha Avalokiteshvara.
Cheryl was listening but still deeply distraught. So, leaving N by Bob’s bedside, I accompanied her outside for her cigarette break to encourage her that this was Bob’s time and it was important he didn’t see her upset. She could help him enormously, but she had to be strong and peaceful. Her own time for grief could come later. I explained about transference of consciousness, even though we’d never had a spiritual conversation before in our life, and described how she could help him do it. I suggested she tell him how much love there was all around him from holy beings and from her, and that she describe heaven for him, including all the things he loved seeing and doing. He need have no fear because he was going straight to Jesus’s heart, and from now on would always be happy and safe.
Bless Cheryl, for she listened attentively, and then did exactly this, talking to Bob tirelessly and with deep love for all the remaining hours of his life. The three of us had to leave for work, but we left her there at Bob’s bedside, and eight hours later he peacefully passed away. By all accounts, the room felt utterly blessed.
Rick was deeply upset, but Cheryl felt strangely okay, as if Bob had not really left. One day she saw white light at the end of her bed. She often felt as though he was communicating with her and trying to let her know that he was alright. This presence went on for a few weeks until, one day, her curiosity drove her to consult a medium. She said this was a first for her, doing something like this, for she had not previously given a lot of thought to life after death. Though I suspect she was always a deep thinker.
The medium was told nothing about Bob’s death nor about me. But this is what happened.
“I am hearing from someone called Bob, do you know him?” Cheryl nodded yes. “He is telling me something that I don’t understand, something about a sister. Shall I just repeat what he’s saying?” Cheryl nodded yes again.
“When Bob was dying, you were with him in the hospital. And there was a woman there you were close to, was it a sister? You both were helping him, telling him what to do. And he wants you to know something …
Cheryl is not given to drama and hyperbole. When she told me this afterwards, it was plain as day that Bob had made it to the Pure Land. Bob also went onto say that we had done everything right, that he was in a pure beautiful place, happy, with no more suffering. He said Cheryl need never worry about him again, and he thanked us both.
Cheryl has gotten even kinder and more spiritual over the years. And this month, February 2018, she has just helped another fiancé, Mike, through the death process. (Perhaps this is why I’m finally sharing Bob’s story.) She wrote to me today of her own memories of those last hours with Bob, which she says she understands better now:
“In hindsight, I came into acceptance of his pending death, which helped his soul complete his transition journey in a peaceful, loving way. I was happy for him to release his body to rebirth to pure spirit … I think we have to put our own grief or situation aside and remember that this can be a wondrous and beautiful time for them. You can choose to be a part of that journey in a loving and peaceful manner.”
As for Mike’s death, she says:
“I am much more present today than I was all those years ago with Bob. I will share what happened with you soon. When I am very low and grieving, I go back to that experience because there was no sadness during that time … only peace and pure unconditional love.”
Please pray for Mike. And for everyone else who is dying (all of us). When the time comes, may we all have someone who can leave their own grief aside and help us die peacefully. May everyone have powa done for them.
It makes all the difference.
Helping each other to die well
Ever since that day in 1999, not surprisingly, I have had a lot of faith both in the importance of helping someone die well if possible, and, regardless of how people die, in the astonishing power of powa practice. I hope this has increased your confidence in all this too, because, as my teacher Geshe Kelsang has said, there is nothing kinder we can do for humans or for animals than to help them reach the Pure Land when they die.
You can find out more about transference of consciousness — as well as other ways to understand and transform your own and others’ death — in the book Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully.
A guest article by a modern Buddhist and full-time worker who aspires to become an actual Mahasiddha soon.
Realized teachers of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition have taught that it is possible to attain full enlightenment in a few short years. In the 16th century, Khedrub Sangye Yeshe explained that thousands of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples accomplished this. How many practitioners must have done the same since then?!
An even more important question to ask, I think, is whether we believe that modern disciples of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition have done the same? Is it possible that any of our teachers and Sangha friends have these realizations? If the answer to these questions is not a resounding ‘yes’, then we may have to consider this further. In my mind, there are two clear reasons why yes is the only answer to these.
It is likely that your Sangha have reached their full potential
First, ordinary minds can only perceive ordinary appearances. This means that as our mind draws closer to purity, the purity of those around us will appear more clearly to our mind.
For example, when we become a Bodhisattva who can meditate with our very subtle mind, our teacher will still be able to guide us further on the path. At this point, will we have any doubt that they have followed this inner path to its completion? Since this will soon be the case for us, wouldn’t it be helpful if we adopted this recognition now?
Second, modern Kadampa practitioners can’t talk publicly about their completion stage experience. This is not because they don’t have deep experience, but rather so that they can remain a humble example of a practitioner whom others can emulate. What did the thousands of disciples of Je Tsongkhapa do after they attained enlightenment? They remained as humble practitioners and teachers to help others follow the same inner path to freedom and happiness.
The quickest meditation for reaching our full potential
Now we agree that our Sangha may have attained enlightenment (or be well on their way), we need to understand how they did it. Modern Tantric master Geshe Kelsang explains the blessed meditation below as one of the quickest paths to enlightenment.
This is the actual meditation as explained in Modern Buddhism, Part 2:
First we find the object of this meditation, that is, the clear perception of our indestructible wind and mind, by contemplating as follows:
Inside my indestructible drop is the union of my indestructible wind and mind in the aspect of a tiny nada, which symbolizes Heruka’s mind of clear light. It is reddish-white in color and radiates five-colored rays of light. My indestructible drop, located inside my central channel at my heart, is like a cave, and the union of my indestructible wind and mind is like someone living inside this cave.
Meditation tip: stop relying on your ordinary self
The self we normally see and relate to simply cannot do this meditation — it is too subtle, rich, blissful, etc. for our ordinary self to orchestrate. (Plus that self doesn’t even exist!) That’s one reason why generating ourself as our personal Deity is a preliminary for this meditation.
We never rely upon our ordinary self to internally guide these meditations, but instead upon our completely pure self as the Guru Deity and our connection to blessings. Relying in this way is a lot more important, I think, than focusing on meditation technique.
To receive blessings and make smooth progress, we feel that the nada (or HUM if you are following The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra) is our own teacher inseparable from Heruka. That is why another essential preliminary for this practice is dissolving our teacher into our heart. It allows us to connect with his or her experience of these meditations, which he or she has already completed.
Here we are recognizing that the HUM or the nada is our teacher’s clear light mind, which is the synthesis of all Buddhas’ clear light minds. It is the clear light mind of all of our Sangha friends who are Heroes and Heroines. The purified blissful true nature of all things is appearing inside the drop at our heart. Nothing other than this bliss and emptiness appears to our mind, and we hold this awareness with deep faith and concentration.
The union of appearance and emptiness in completion stage
Our practice of completion stage is based on the foundation of our practice of generation stage. In the generation stage meditations, Geshe Kelsang often emphasizes the union of appearance and emptiness. We don’t leave behind this experience, but instead can learn to integrate it into our practice of completion stage. This is a perfect way to stop the grasping and pushing in our mind.
Meditation tip: stop grasping by recalling emptiness
To stop grasping at our subtle body (the central channel, indestructible drop, and indestructible wind), we can recall how its true nature is emptiness. One skillful way of doing this is applying the same lines of reasoning that Geshe Kelsang provides for the emptiness meditation on our gross body to our subtle body.
The channels, winds, and drops of our body exist but are all unfindable upon investigation. They have no true existence, and if we search for the subtle body or any of its parts with wisdom, their true nature, emptiness, will appear to our mind.
Meditation tip: stop pushing by recalling mere appearance
Pushing in our practice of completion stage is something that Geshe Kelsang cautions against in many of his books. I find that one skillful way to stop pushing is by recalling the words from the Yoga of Buddha Heruka sadhana:
My subtle mistaken appearance of all phenomena, including the channels, winds and drops of my body, is purified.
This means that our central channel, drop, and nada are just a mere appearance not other than emptiness.
Inside this space of emptiness, we recognize these objects are the mere appearance of the Guru Deity’s subtle body and a blissful imputation of our pure mind. With this recognition, everything will be a blissful appearance, and there will be no basis for pushing in our mind. Instead we can simply allow our mind and winds to absorb into this blissful, empty appearance at our heart.
This is so easy, even I could do it
If you made it this far into the article, I will let you in on a little secret buried in Part 4 of The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra. In here, Geshe Kelsang says that once we are able to reach the second mental abiding on this meditation, our winds will enter into the central channel. This is incredible, seeing as the second mental abiding only requires five minutes of single-pointed focus!
If we do this meditation repeatedly, when we attain the second mental abiding our inner winds will enter into our central channel. ~ page 126
Once we develop this blissful experience, we can continue to meditate with it and it will not be hard to reach the fourth mental abiding. At this point, not only will our winds enter, but they will also abide and dissolve within the central channel. As a result, we will be able to manifest our very subtle mind, attain tranquil abiding, and use that incredibly blissful concentration to remove the two obstructions from our mind.
What are we waiting for?! Let’s go do this meditation and keep doing it until we unlock the full potential of our mind and liberate all living beings …
Over to you: Comments and questions for the guest author are most welcome.