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. Samsaraneeds 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 ourordinary 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.
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.
From the start, Geshe Kelsang has been pretty visionary. Again, just from being in the right place at the right time, I was able to ask some questions and receive deep advice over the years about the role of women in Buddhism (because Tibetan society was pretty misogynistic), about the role of lay people (when there was a discouraging wrong view floating about that only monks and nuns could get enlightened), about LGBTQ (Tibetan society was antiquated), and about generally reaching people where they are at as opposed to waiting for them to come to us.
The New Kadampa Tradition started small and English and middle class and monochrome, because you have to start somewhere and England was a good choice; but as the years have flowed by I have watched with awe as Geshe-la has been finding more ways to include and promote women, lay people, children, LGBTQ, people of color, and so on and so forth. Not to mention adapting to countries and cultures all over the world, East and West, over 1200 Centers in 40 countries and counting.
Buddhism is a very forgiving religion because it teaches not to conflate people with their delusions – which is why the scriptures are full of stories of formerly evil people being given the chance to purify and make amends, such as Angulimala or Milarepa, and going onto attain high realizations. At the same time, it is so incredibly important that Buddhist traditions never condone systematic homophobia, racism, intolerance, or abuse. Over the decades, Venerable Geshe-la has produced and sometimes updated the so-called “Internal Rules” (quoted above), which are vital guidelines on how this tradition can continue to be run smoothly, harmoniously, democratically, and with discipline. He has also appointed nuns and other women to head and run this tradition. This is unheard of in Tibetan circles where privileged monks are the order of the day, rather like white men in the West. Geshe Kelsang has broken all manner of glass ceilings, and I am sure he has a lot more up his sleeve.
Moreover, every time he has brought Buddhism to new countries — whether that be to Spain or to the States or to Brazil or to Malaysia or to South Africa — or to new communities and demographics, our whole Kadampa tradition has gotten so much more rich, vibrant, relevant, and joyful.
Over the years he has modernized this tradition from many angles, clearing away all that is not necessary or useful for us without in any way diluting Buddha’s message. How many have managed to do what he has done in bringing Buddhism to the lives of so many thousands of people, showing how to transform all the appearances of modern life and make Dharma applicable to the issues of the day? There is nothing to stop us now from gaining enlightenment in the very midst of our regular lives.
No baggage (yet)
This tradition came via India and Tibet and, as mentioned, Geshe Kelsang has skillfully cut away cultural and political accretions that doesn’t serve us whilst keeping the teachings intact. One thing it’s important to take into account in the United States, for example, is that we don’t have the baggage of systemic racism (yet) because we are brand new. Therefore, the question would seem to be, who do we want to be? We have some choice here. As part of a letter received from the Education Council a few months ago, it said:
The NKT does not accept discrimination based on race, gender, background, age, religion, politics, sexual orientation, or otherwise. Everyone is welcome at Kadampa Centers around the world.
It would appear from most of the Kadampas I have spoken to that we want to totally embody our motto “Everyone welcome” by making active and sustained efforts to be thoroughly inclusive, diverse, equal, and so on, to go out of our way to do this. This is both in accordance with Buddha’s teachings and because our tradition will be infinitely stronger if we adopt this approach.
Dharma is for everyone and it works for everyone. This world could do with these ideas spreading everywhere, IMHO, because they can bring about peace wherever they flourish. I think we are nowhere near finished yet in reaching out and growing, boldly going places no one has gone before, and making Buddhism accessible and available to the people of this world. I for one am sure that Venerable Geshe-la is not yet done in finding ways to make everyone feel truly welcome — understanding and embracing the awesome diversity of races and cultures that make up our modern world; and that our tradition will be far more outstanding and dynamic as a result.
Oops, gotta stop there, but I’m not finished talking about Geshe-la yet 😊So in the next article I will explain a bit more about him in particular, and also how we can rely upon a Spiritual Guide in general per Buddha’s advice.
Over to you! Your comments and stories are most welcome. Seriously! Please write something below.
My dad said on Skype yesterday that we’d all get through 2020 if we stay cool, calm, and collected and if we are nice to everyone, lol. He added, “That is what you are telling everyone, isn’t it?”
Buddhism does indeed explain how we can be IN the world, as it were, without being OF the world – helping others in a practical way but without feeling helplessly swept along by everything and everyone that seems to be going wrong. We need not be dangling like a puppet on the strings of aversion, uncontrolled desire, and confusion, but more like a Weeble that bounces back to center however hard it is pushed.
And rather than being stymied by the guilty dualistic thought, “I am not doing enough,” we need the contented feeling of wholeness that sources a steady stream of action, “I am doing enough.”
Firm, stable refuge in our heart starts with a knowledge that underneath the chaos we have deep hearts of gold; there sanity lies. We have everything we need inside us and nothing truly to be worried about. If we steadily grow our reliance on wisdom and love, we come to possess an inner calm and coolness under pressure. This also has us automatically tuned in to the inspiring wisdom, bliss, and protection of all enlightened beings.
Question is, how can we deepen this reliance? I find it interesting that at both the International Spring AND Summer Kadampa Buddhist Festivals this year, Venerable Geshe-la shared this as his message to us all:
Hello to the International Kadampa community. I would like to offer you the following message based on The Stories of Rebirth by Arya Sura. I would like to explain the benefits of listening to Dharma teachings.
Why the emphasis on listening to Dharma? Partly, for reasons I talked about in this last article, I think it may be because at least some of us might be spending a bit too much time listening to things that are NOT the Dharma of wisdom and compassion, and that could even indeed be the opposite.
Are you doom-scrolling?
We need to be responsible, educated citizens, for sure, with an election coming up here in the USA for example and age-old injustices to be addressed. But with fewer IRL places and people for us to hang out with these days, we may be getting too helplessly sucked into the endless virtual noise, speculation, and inappropriate attention that just seem to take us further and further from the truth. I have seen that tendency in myself and had to nip it in the bud a few times, so I know what I’m talking about.
In fact, there is even a new word for it, “doom-scrolling”. Or, it’s even worse cousin, “rage-scrolling.”
As the great Indian Master Atisha puts it:
Avoid places that disturb your mind, and always remain where your virtues increase.
I would submit that we could apply this advice not just to physical but to virtual places. Less time on CNN/Fox News, more time on Buddhist TV! Less time in our echo chambers, or vainly talking at people, and more time doing practical things to actually make a difference in the lives of our families, community, and country. As the saying goes: “Less drama, more Dharma.”
Less drama, more Dharma
I thought in this article it’d be nice to go over some of these benefits. Please feel welcome to add your own commentary in the Comments Box below.
1. Listening to Dharma teachings is a great light that eliminates the darkness of our own and others’ ignorance.
We have been in this discombobulating darkness since beginningless time! It’s way too long. Way too long. To break out of the dystopian worlds we keep projecting for ourselves with self-grasping ignorance, we need to listen to Buddha’s teachings on reality more and more deeply.
It is hard to see that this light is even there, however, if we get stuck down a rabbit hole.
2. Listening to Dharma teachings is the best wealth that cannot be stolen by thieves and which gives great meaning to our human life.
Our external resources have always been unstable and subject to decline, which seems more obvious than ever in these days of economic uncertainty. But increasing the inner wealth of spiritual experience can come to help us so much more than any amount of outer wealth could ever do – in the short term it gives us the riches of contentment (that we can also take with us through death), and in the long term it leads us to lasting happiness and freedom.
Listening also includes reading Buddhist books – for example, you could start working your way through the 23 totally inspirational works by Venerable Geshe-la. How about that for a meaningful and fool-proof life plan to acquire the best wealth?!
3. Listening to Dharma teachings is a weapon that destroys our enemy of confusion.
We need a wisdom sword to cut through the never-ending hallucinations of samsara. One bit of advice I find useful: When reading or listening to stuff that I find confusing or provocative on the internet etc, when I am not sure who or what to believe, one thing I ask myself is:
What would Buddha believe?
Or “What would Geshe-la believe,” if that works for you too. We are Buddha’s followers, so follow Buddha.
4. Listening to Dharma teachings is our best friend who will never deceive us and from whom we receive our best advice.
“Time is running,” as Geshe Kelsang says, and it’s all too easy to waste it. Unlike the greatest conspiracy theorist of them all – our own self-grasping mind – listening to the advice of enlightened beings will only ever reveal things we need to know for greater happiness and freedom. We might come to prefer hanging out with Dharma more than anything else. We will never feel lonely again with this friend around.
5. Listening to Dharma teachings is a relative and friend who remains loyal even when we are impoverished.
6. Listening to Dharma teachings is the supreme medicine that cures the disease of uncontrolled desire, anger, and ignorance.
Indirectly, listening also helps us overcome all physical diseases. It certainly helps us deal better with them.
7. Listening to Dharma teachings is a powerful opponent that destroys great faults.
8. Listening to Dharma teachings is the best treasure because it is the foundation of all fame and resources.
By listening, we create positive mental actions that are “hundreds of times more powerful than verbal and physical actions,” according to Venerable Geshe-la. These create the karmic causes for anything and everything we could ever want.
9. Listening to Dharma teachings is the best gift through which we can benefit all living beings.
I think we’d all like to help as many people as we can, given the choice? Through listening to Dharma, we become a source of refuge and strength for others, and a good example of how to be happy and carefree. Eventually we become a Bodhisattva and then a Buddha, helping everyone every day.
10. Listening to Dharma teachings is the best method to make countless living beings happy.
Summer is winding down and Kadampa Centers everywhere are about to embark on their Fall scheduling. (Here in Colorado, high temperatures and sunshine are set to plunge 50 degrees and snow next Tuesday!) Longer nights and colder days give us the perfect opportunity to cozy up to our local Buddhist TV station or read more Dharma books. It’s a great idea to make a schedule that we can stick to.
If you haven’t done so already, for example, maybe now would be a good time to join in with a consistent in-depth study program such as Foundation Program? And those of you who have been around Kadampa Buddhism for a while, have you considered joining a Teacher Training Program? – for all the reasons listed above, our world could do with more Dharma teachers. Here is more info on on the study programs of Modern Buddhism.
To finish the message started above:
Please memorize, contemplate the meaning again and again and then put it into practice day by day, month by month, year by year.
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 on its way. Meantime, please share comments, stories, or anything you like in the box below.
Yesterday 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.
… 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, 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”.
Just 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.
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.
It’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 specific 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.
Back 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.
The 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!
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.
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:
His 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.
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.
Although we see an unusual situation which is causing people to be worried and to suffer, I would like to suggest that through using our wisdom we try to make ourself happy and everyone happy, which means we should stop worrying.
I will personally pray for you all and your families.
With much love and blessings
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
April 4th 2020
(As relayed by Gen-la Dekyong during her worldwide NKT Day Talk.)
Here is a quick article to share something that has been helping me of late and that might help you if you’re anything like me. Coincidentally, sitting in one of my favorite cafés, enjoying a coffee as big as my head, and eavesdropping as usual, I just heard:
“Everyone is supposed to do what they want to do.” “Agreed. We are all free agents.”
Which is what I wanted to talk about. Geshe Kelsang often says:
Everybody has freedom.
Well, on one level, we really don’t because we are bound and trapped by our delusions and karma. But on the other hand everyone needs to follow their own wishes and has to follow their own karma, and meditating on this has been helping me to stop feeling discouraged that I can’t help more people.
Yeah, you heard that right. There are always some people who “get” us and listen to our wise words of counsel or follow our fantastic example, and there are others who just don’t and won’t. And all power to them. Why should they.
Always rely upon a happy mind alone
In general, I love that Lojong commitment to “Always rely upon a happy mind alone” because it alerts me to when a delusion is brewing, even when it is masquerading as love or superior intention. How do I know? Because I stop feeling so relaxed. I personally prefer to feel super relaxed day and night, so I have learned to tell when tension is beginning to simmer.
Recently, I was wondering where some inner tension was coming from. And I detected an old culprit. Over the years, every now and then I want to control people. It is not obvious, not even to me; but when I look carefully I notice that I am becoming discouraged or disappointed because people I feel some responsibility for give up their meditation practice or stop going for refuge or whatever it is. Alternatively, they don’t get interested in meditation in the first place, even though I have tried as painstakingly and skillfully as I can to explain how great it is.
Disappointment only comes from attachment, in this case attachment to them doing what I think they should be doing because it would be good for them. I can’t give any examples, I’m afraid, because that would be too obvious. You know who you are! (Kidding, you have no idea.)
Okay, one example, just to embarrass them. I was thinking about how much my mom and dad would benefit from meditation practice. This is not a new thought — I have had it on and off for almost 40 years. Truth is, however, they are just perfect already. Sure, they could maybe do with more refuge, like everyone else, who couldn’t. But I decided quite awhile ago to just let them be, mentally speaking, and just appreciate them and everyone else unconditionally. As always, I also handed them over into the care of Buddha Tara, reciting Tara’s mantra as a request to all 21 Taras to keep them safe and well.
(Quick seguey: This is not least because Geshe-la once told me that my parents have a strong connection with Buddha Tara. This happened to be on the same occasion that he suggested I stopped preaching Dharma to my parents and just have “normal conversations”. Funny thing is, I hadn’t told him I was preaching, not at all, so I was a bit taken aback when he brought it up. I was preaching, though. I was 18 at the time. I had found Dharma and I was preaching to everyone. Lol.
While on the subject of Geshe-la and my parents – after he met them in London some decades ago, he told me they were “very spiritual”, while closing his eyes and gently rubbing his heart. I have been meaning to let them know that for years, so there it is.)
In any event, during a Skype conversation that I had with these same parents about an hour ago (discussing amongst other things how there is no point people watching the stock market right now amidst all these coronavirus fears unless they want their minds to go up and down as quickly as the Dow), my 84-year-old dad volunteered out of the blue: “I have been saying that mantra “OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA”. He does it at the end of his Pilates class when they all sit “sort of cross legged” for a few minutes.
Abandon all hope for results
It never works to push. Not externally, obviously, as nothing is more off-putting than feeling judged or found wanting under the guise of someone being interested in your spiritual development. But just as importantly internally, tying our hopes into people responding to our attempts to help them in the way we think they oughta. It’s ridiculous, really, when you see it written down in black and white. We can barely control our own minds let alone anyone else’s.
This is where I love contemplating Geshe-la’s phrase “Everybody has freedom.” When I meditate on that, I lose all desire to fix outcomes. Instead I just want to be here for people if they need or want me and to offer what help I can while “abandoning all hope for results” as it says in Lojong. Everyone has their own karma and everyone sees a different world – I sometimes think we are all just going around looking in a mirror. As a friend Doug said to me the other day, “We are all doing the best we can based on what we know.”
Like I said, sometimes people “get you”, and see what you are trying to show them. Other times they don’t. But it doesn’t matter. They have their own freedom. They have their own path and journey. What I can control is my own mind. That’s it. I can practice all the stages of Sutra and Tantra instead of trying to fix this dream from the outside in.
Also, I doubtless disappoint people all the time in my failure to “get” them. Sorry!
Why do I have expectations of certain people and not the vast majority of others? That is just grasping at me and mine, nothing to do with pure love. As one example, I don’t mind that our current foster cat Fat Panda (real name Alissa) doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get much at all, to be honest. But I don’t care. She doesn’t have to get anything or do anything for me to respect her and wish her happiness. And if any of you are in need of a cuddly cat who lost her tail, she’s your girl.
If you find you have attachment to the people close to you (“me and mine”) responding in certain ways to your efforts, disappointed when they won’t or can’t, my suggestion is to try and let go of the grasping and let the chips fall as they may. Everyone has freedom. It is ok. This is a practice of patience, of welcoming wholeheartedly whatever arises without wishing it were otherwise. We can use every appearance, no matter how seemingly disappointing, as a motivation to increase our wisdom and attain enlightenment. This is hugely more relaxing, for a start, and I would argue that we need to be relaxed before we can fully generate all the other positive states of mind.
Over the decades, a lot of people have found Kadampa Buddhism and gotten really close to Geshe Kelsang and then, for whatever reason, gone away. I’ve had a chance to observe him sometimes when this has happened, and he has never seemed too bothered. He knows that everyone has freedom. I think he has a far more long-term view and confidence in his disciples and others, always relating to the future Buddha within. He just carries on offering Buddhism to whoever wants it, to whoever gets it, but with equal no-strings-attached love and respect for everyone. “Try, don’t worry” is one of his sayings. His relaxed and always light-hearted example is incredibly helpful to me.
That’s some quick thoughts on the subject. Over to you for any comments.
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.