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.
I recently said good bye to Mimi Waring. On this occasion she was lying half in and half out of her bed, after a brush with extreme nausea lovingly cleared up by her husband Richard, and she was out of it. But I knew she could hear me ok, so I held her hand and brushed her cheek and said, “Bye bye Mimi. I know we’ll see each other again, one way or another. Send us blessings from the other side.” To which she half-opened her eyes, smiled, and nodded her head. And I added, “You know what to do.” To which she responded by nodding her head even harder.
I had spent longer with her a few days ago. I visited her at her house for, in a stroke of good timing, I happened to be in Seattle. She had saved her energy up for this visit, not seeing anyone all week, heroically making it out of the bed she had been bound in for days and, leaning on her special rolling chair, walking out to the deck where we had lunch in the sunshine. Delicious lunch, actually, vegetarian BLT sandwiches made by the aforementioned Richard. Did I mention too that that man is a saint? (He even made me more BLT sandwiches today for my flight because he knew I loved them, as if he had nothing better to do while his wife is dying.)
We three had a very meaningful conversation, I thought; this was not a dead flowers’ visit as Sue Hulley would have said. I asked Mimi where she thought she was going, where she wanted to go; and, in response to some of her concerns, suggested that she spend these next few weeks or so not feeling the need to say goodbye to everyone, for she has done that already and everyone knows she is off, but instead getting ready for her trip. Mimi is a very faithful disciple of Geshe Kelsang and has deep refuge in her Sangha and Dharma too. She has also been very generous to her Kadampa Meditation Center in Seattle, and helped them buy their beautiful buildings. So, she has already started packing well for this next trip, where a new assignment awaits her.
Time for your next adventure
I think of Mimi’s departure as a bit like when Geshe Kelsang calls one of his disciples and asks them to go teach or administrate in some far-flung part of the world where they have never been before and where they don’t even speak the language. “Oh, and can you go next week?!”
If you get that phone call, you don’t spend the whole last week saying goodbye to everyone. Pretty immediately you start trying to figure out what you are going to need, you start to get ready and pack, you start to imagine where you will be and what you will be doing and who you will be relying upon. I think death is a bit like that. And if you are a Dharma practitioner, as Mimi said herself, you want to end up in a place where you can meet the same Spiritual Guide and the same teachings and help lots of people; that is what she wants most. It’s a good thing there are so many of her fellow Sangha building centers and temples all over this world — we are ready for her. Watch out for a baby coming somewhere soon in the Kadampa mandala, a baby with a glint in her eyes.
We’ve done death countless times before, of course. Amazing, as Richard said to me today as I was leaving, how we forget that, how it is so normal and yet still so challenging. As I shuffle through the Fall leaves, I am reminded that none of us stays in one place for long — wherever we are and whoever is next to us, it is only a matter of months or days before we are blown by the winds of karma to somewhere completely different.
Before I left our lunch date, Mimi wanted to show me the sign that is prominent on the shrine in her room, currently next to the commode: “Welcome, adversity!” Adversity, she told me, has been invaluable to her.
It’s the heart that counts
I wrote the above in late August. Today it is October 31, and Mimi passed away this morning at 3am. I heard last night that she was dying, so she has been in my thoughts and prayers constantly ~ and I feel good about where she is now, that her Spiritual Guide really does have her safe. Tributes and prayers are flowing in.
Mimi had brain cancer and, despite her formidable intelligence, was not always able to use her gross mind very well toward the end, as might be expected — though she did incredibly well with that.
And someone asked me the other day about what happens when we lose our ability to “think,” is that disastrous for a mindful death? A lot of people ask this question, is it possible to die peacefully if you have “lost your mind”, as it were? So I thought I might address that question here, Mimi won’t mind. In fact, Mimi asked me umpteen curious questions 😍 — it was one of the things I loved about her. Feel free too, please, to jump in the comments if you have any input on this.
The point is, I think, that you haven’t really lost your mind, just some conceptual thoughts. The mind which counts is the mind at our heart. One case in point is an elderly Buddhist monk called Trinlay who died a few years ago in Southampton. Trinlay lost his memory and was bedbound with lots of physical complications. But in the last year of his life, even when he had pus oozing from his painful legs, he managed to stay positive. He would say, “I get happier and happier every day. I am a monk living in a Buddhist Center.” He also would say “I am a millionaire; I have said millions of mantras.” The day before he died, he removed the mask over his mouth in response to the question “How are you feeling” and smiled, “I am tired but inspired.” He was a love bomb, complimenting anyone who came near him, even if he didn’t remember who they were, making everyone around him feel happy. He died very peacefully.
So, is it possible to have a good death and lead-up to death if you have lost your brain functions? I think so, yes. If you are in your heart. If you have given up malice. If you have faith and/or love. If you have peace. All these things are in the heart, not the head. The important thing for all of us is to practice now, to learn how to enter the refuge zone. And Mimi, who died peacefully surrounded by her husband and close Sangha friends, is a beautiful demonstration of that.
Suffering has good qualities
Mimi has been a force of nature these last 7 years, defying all doctors’ expectations, showing that suffering can indeed have good qualities, insisting on flying to festivals and celebrations and retreats even in the midst of treatments for brain cancer, never regretting any of her foolhardy but totally virtuous exertions. Always wanting to learn, and devoid of self-pity.
I will let her tell you about this journey herself, posthumously, in her wonderful blog This Mountain, That Mountain. If you want to know how to cope well with your own adversity, illness, and death, her blog will give you many inspiring ideas.
Please pray that Mimi comes back safely and soon to our world, in a brand new healthy comfortable human body, so that she can keep on inspiring us all with her faith, quirkiness, and sheer joyful (yep, bloody-minded) perseverance.
Tessa Logan died today at 5am GMT. She has left a lot of friends (I am just one of them) and a very kind, decent family, including a ninety-year-old mum who has nursed her for a long time. Her tiny “bird-like” mom, with the same mop of hair as Tessa, stroked her daughter’s now bald head so gently three times to allow her consciousness to leave through the crown because she knew that this is what she would have wanted.
It is not possible to do Tessa justice in one article so I’m not going to try. (Though I think it’d be lovely if you wanted to contribute in the comments.) Truncated “facts”: She was one of Geshe Kelsang’s earliest disciples, meeting him at Manjushri Centre in 1979, and a reassuring, steady presence in our tradition. Bold and smart, she helped organize Manjushri Centre in the early days, she helped organize Festivals, she helped in Tharpa Publications, and over the years she taught a lot in the UK and in America, including Saraha Center in San Francisco where I once spent the best three weeks with her. People loved her. Tributes have been flowing in all day to describe with gratitude how much she meant to people with her discerning kindness, clear teachings, and reassuring constancy.
In the last five years she inspired a lot of us with her no worries attitude and growing strength in the face of the relentless ups and downs of her cancer. She seemed to be practicing everything she had spent the decades learning at the feet of her Spiritual Guide, turning what could have been a disastrous five years into something else entirely. She may not have been perfect all the time, she had stuff like the rest of us; but through her reliance and patience she was getting closer, and it was actually a joy to watch. Patience seems to be an essential practice for all of us since we all get fed up from time to time; and for me Tessa’s example has been an illustration of its power.
And I am by no means alone in this experience, but even in the midst of grueling treatments (and she had many), she would always ask about me with genuine interest, find out how I was in detail if she could, always have time for that, for others. She would praise me for whatever she could praise me for, for transforming even the slightest adversity, even though she was the one who was always being the heroine. I would laugh with her about her deflections, she was pretty much always up for a laugh.
I sort of think that if Tessa does not now end up in the Pure Land, there is no hope for the rest of us. I am kind of hoping she might send us a sign. Please help wend her on her way there with a prayer.
I knew Tessa for 35 years. And now Tessa has gone. Lekma said that the body lying there this morning was unrecognizable and certainly not her. Not even hers, it never was. Like a hair pulled from butter, her very subtle mind has left this body and this world to experience the dream-like appearances of the next life. It happens to all of us. It is as Shantideva says, we become nothing. Tess is like a rainbow that has passed. When we die, our now seemingly solid lives will be marked by Facebook likes, comments, and emojis too, before people quickly move on. However, me and Lekma agreed that her life will not easily be forgotten. Senior students of the Spiritual Guide are very precious, an object of refuge, for are they not real Sangha from whom we can continue to receive help? Just like the disciples of other great Masters in the past, part of the ongoing lineage of blessings, Tessa will still encourage me on my own journey out of suffering and into the Guru’s heart.
So, if you feel like sharing how Tessa touched your life, write as much as you like below, it could be inspiring for the rest of us.
Transference of consciousness puja (powa) will be held for Tessa at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre this Saturday at 7.30pm, everyone is welcome.
Equalizing self and others is cherishing others as much as we cherish ourselves.
Just as I wish to be free from suffering and experience only happiness, so do all other beings. In this respect, I am no different from any other being; we are all equal. ~ The New Meditation Handbook
When we can stand in others’ shoes, we have a big world to walk around in – a world that is so much more interesting than being holed up in the fortress of self-absorption. With self-cherishing we have no choice but to ward off loneliness by pulling others obsessively across a narrow drawbridge, or to defend ourselves by slamming closed the gates.
We are like a snowflake. Sure, no two snowflakes are exactly alike, but it is also pretty hard to tell them apart. In the ways that count most, they are practically indistinguishable – they are made of ice and air, they are bound to perish sooner or later, and on their own will perish even faster for they cannot survive on their own. In the same way, we pride ourselves on our uniqueness, and our own problems and suffering are just that much more interesting than everybody else’s; but when it comes right down to it we are far more similar to others than different. We are made of flesh and blood, we are bound to perish sooner or later, and we cannot survive on our own for even a minute.
Imagine one little snowflake putting up its hand and declaring, “Hey, look at me! I’m special! I look like intricate lace!” And another goes, “No, look at me, I look like a flower!” And a third chips in, “That’s nothing, I look like a pointy star!” In a white blanket of snowflakes, they are all equally important or unimportant. No objective judge is going to say that one snowflake is superior to another, or more unique, or more deserving of happiness.
In meditation I sometimes imagine an alien coming down to earth and seeing millions of people all with their hands up, “Hey, look at me! I’m special.” As far as the alien is concerned, we are all the same. Let alone the aliens, as far as everyone else is concerned we alone are not the real deal. It is only our own self-cherishing that thinks otherwise.
Everybody without exception wants to be happy – I mean look at this world, how many are we, six, seven billion?, anyway, lots, and that’s just the humans, there’s all the animals too. There are so many — countless — living beings, and if we look into the heart of every single one of them, whether they are the good guys or the bad guys, without exception they are all yearning for happiness. But basically, more or less without exception, they are NOT experiencing enough happiness! There is a lot of pain right now in this world, isn’t there? And I think it’s very clear that our ordinary methods of striving for happiness aren’t working particularly well – and if we can’t see that, then it could be because we’re not looking.
What is love?!
I think we are all definitely interested in love, and we have this idea that if I am to be happy, if I am to have fun and meaning, I need love. But generally speaking in the West we also have this idea that in order to have love you have to fall into it. Which involves a lot of dating in the hope that somewhere along the line we will fall into it, and then have it, and then as a consequence be happy. But there are problems with that perspective, as you may have guessed.
One being that we don’t really understand what love is – “Oh, I’m feeling something, is it love?! I don’t know! What’s going on?! Love’s a mystery! Man, why does it have to hurt like this?” A backdrop to our scheming, indulging, and recovering, we play endless songs about “love”, trying to figure it out yet again as our heart is yanked up and down like a yo yo. So from a Buddhist perspective there is a basic confusion between love and attachment. Attachment is a delusion yanking our heart and causing pain, but love is a peaceful, positive, warm mind that opens our heart to greater and greater happiness and bliss. One of the kindest things Buddha did for us is point out the many differences between them.
Scratch my back
The affectionate love that comes from equalizing is not conditioned by what the other person looks like, what they say, what they do, because it is other-centered. At the moment, because so much of our love is mixed with desirous attachment, it’s very conditional – meaning that for as long as you look attractive to me I am going to like you but, Oops! you’re no longer attractive, so therefore I am not going to like you. Or for as long as you keep saying things that make me happy I’m going to like you, but now you’ve gone all weird and are saying things that aren’t making me happy any more, so I don’t like you. See what I mean? I’m scratching your back and you’re scratching mine = the best we can hope for. Doesn’t leave much room for maneuver. Very quickly dissatisfaction can set in ~ “I don’t want my back scratched this way, I want it scratched that way.”
In other words, it’s all about ME! I’m judging my reality and discriminating between people based on ME. That guy is a great guy, he makes me happy. That guy bores me silly, he’s a boring guy. It’s like we become a universal arbiter of reality: “You want to have the real load on reality, you come to me cos I say it straight – this is a good person and this is a bad person (or, ermm, at least this person was a good person until they became a bad person …) etc.” It is all based on ME. “What have you done for me lately?” This self-focus and self-concern and self-obsession is self-cherishing. It’s a pain. Thankfully it is totally undermined by equalizing self and others.
Everyone needs Dharma
In an oral transmission on his latest book that he gave in London last summer to a representative group of Kadampas, Ven Geshe Kelsang reiterated what he has said many times, that our actual problems are our own unpleasant feelings, such as discouragement, depression, unhappiness, and other unpeaceful states of mind. Our mind becomes crazy with so many internal problems, and even if we live in a very quiet place with nothing interfering with us, still due to self-grasping or self-cherishing inside we are tightly holding. Which means there is no peace, we are experiencing discomfort day and night. To solve this, he says, everyone needs Dharma — religious or not, Buddhist or not — because Dharma is the way to solve our unpleasant feelings.
That is why Dharma means, literally, “protection”, ie, protection from suffering. And this Dharma of equalizing self and others, which anyone can try out, I believe always has the power to solve unpeaceful feelings, my actual problems. At least it seems to work whenever I bother to do it 😍
Over to you ~ do you have familiarity with this meditation? Do you have, or have you overcome, any difficulties in doing it?
This summer my parents asked if I could write a “short, simple guide” to answer the main questions they and their friends have about Buddhism. They kindly sent me the list of quite excellent enquiries, so I am going to have a go now.
What is Buddhism in one sentence?
Buddhism is learning to live from a peaceful mind and a good heart as the best way to solve our own inner problems of anxiety, depression, fear, etc.; finding a deepening sense of happiness and freedom from within; and in time helping and inspiring others to do the same.
(Thank goodness for semi-colons.)
Or how about this:
“Buddha says be nice to people and animals and then you feel good.” ~ a 4-year-old Buddhist
What is meditation in one sentence?
Meditation, literally “familiarizing ourselves with positivity”, lies at the heart of Buddhism, and by practicing it we (1) are protected from the suffering caused by unpeaceful, uncontrolled states of mind such as anger, attachment, and ignorance that give rise to suffering; and (2) learn how to develop and maintain our peaceful, beneficial states of mind such as patience, love, and wisdom, in this way fulfilling our innate potential for lasting happiness and freedom, as well as the ability to help others.
Hmm, that might have been stretching the one sentence thing a bit. So how about this quote from Buddha instead:
Learn to do good,
Cease to do evil,
And control the mind.
Do Buddhists believe there is a God?
Short answer: No. Not a creator God. But we do believe in the existence of completely perfect holy beings.
If there is a creator God who is omnipotent and has compassion for his creation, why is there suffering? It would seem that a creator God must either have no compassion or not be omnipotent, one can’t have it both ways.
Buddhists do not believe that one single mind, namely God’s, created the world, but that we are all creating our own reality with our own minds continually. Nonetheless, we all have the potential to purify our minds of all obstructions and attain omniscience, if not omnipotence. And so Buddhists do believe in the existence of countless enlightened beings who have attained complete freedom and omniscience in order to help everyone else do the same, and we pray to them for guidance and blessings.
So, like Christians and so on, we believe in the existence of omnipresent compassionate holy beings and in the power of prayer and blessings. Just not in an omnipotent creator God.
We can also find common ground on a more mystical (perhaps sort of holy spirit level) if we take God to be the clear light mind possessed by all living beings, which is called the basic Dharmakaya or Truth Body. This very subtle mind that goes from life to life is the basis or creator of both samsara and nirvana, and, when purified, will become the bliss and emptiness of the actual Truth Body of a Buddha, omniscient wisdom.
Is Buddhism a religion or a faith? Are they different?
Buddhism is a religion, according to the dictionary definition. It is also a faith, in so far as Buddhists grow their faith in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Faith is a positive state of mind that is quite clearly defined in Buddhism – it goes hand in hand with experience and includes (a) believing faith, where we simply believe in the existence of holy beings, pure states of mind, etc.; (b) admiring faith, where we admire their good qualities; and (c) wishing faith, where we wish to gain those qualities ourselves.
What happens when you die? What is meant by reincarnation?
We take rebirth, which means the same as reincarnation moreorless. Our mind is formless awareness whereas our body is made of flesh and blood; so though the body dies, the very subtle mind continues. Buddha documents the entire process of dying and taking rebirth from the subjective point of view of the person dying, it is fascinating. We pass through different levels of consciousness. It is a bit like falling asleep, dreaming, and waking up, though we wake up into an entirely new body and world. What body and world that is depends on the quality of our mind and our actions, or karma. I have written several articles about this subject here.
A surprising number of Western thinkers too have believed in rebirth over the centuries, including early Christian Gnostics; and I like Voltaire’s words on the subject:
It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.
Being born once is no less weird than being born lots of times. Dying once is no less weird than dying lots of times.
For as long as I remember I have believed in rebirth, so that kind of says something right there. I remember telling you, Dad, that your father was going to be reborn as a human and not as an animal because he was a good man (a vicar) and died peacefully. I was all of six years old at the time, I wonder if you remember, it was in the kitchen in Guildford. I also knew without being told, aged 4, that our daschund Rozy was already on the way to her next life when you drove her away in the boot of our car in Sri Lanka after her accident. Stuff like that.
What is a Buddhist’s relationship with everyday life? For instance, can a Buddhist be a soldier? or kill anything?
Buddhism is based on compassion and its chief refuge commitment is: “Not to harm others.” So Buddhists avoid killing as much as they can, and also try to have careers that don’t involve harming others if possible. The main thing always is the motivation, however, so there are no external laws or strict rules for living per se; each Buddhist has to be pragmatic and figure out for themselves why they are doing what they are doing, and what results it will have for themselves and others.
Moreover, Buddhists believe that everyday life can be transformed into a spiritual path by changing our minds:
Activities such as cooking, working, talking, and relaxing are not intrinsically mundane; they are mundane only if done with a mundane mind. By doing exactly the same actions with a spiritual motivation they become pure spiritual practices. – Eight Steps to Happiness
Do Buddhists aim to make the world a better place by the personal example of their Way of Life rather than by direct action?
Another good question. It’s a bit of both. Bodhisattvas have two main methods to make the world a better place, which are reflected in the vows they take – (1) to develop their minds so they can attain enlightenment as quickly as possible to help all living beings, and (2) to help others directly whenever they can. What form that help takes depends on the individual, there is a lot of diversity.
For example, my main aim is to practice Buddhism and help it to flourish so that it reaches lots of people and inspires them also to become more peaceful, happy, patient, etc. This involves both a way of life and direct action. But I also do other types of direct action, as you may be meaning it, in the form of helping an animal shelter and trying to promote kindness to animals. But again, it is the motivation that counts. Direct action motivated by, say, a mind full of hate or intolerance, is counterproductive.
Buddhists’ main goal to make the world a better place by helping each other develop the capacity of our minds, realizing that everyone has powerful spiritual potential for lasting peace and freedom. We have been creating our own suffering for a very long time, and in the same way we can create our own happiness; we just need the methods. Geshe Kelsang puts it like this:
Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough.
A friend on Facebook put it rather nicely I thought: “We could bandage people up and give them tents and a bowl of soup, and it is great if we can do that; but if they are in a whirlwind of self-destruction they will run out with the bandages on to fight again. The whirlwind is the delusions. Until these are stopped, we can keep rebuilding houses but the uncontrolled mind will keep smashing them down again.”
For example, is a Buddhist Doctor a Buddhist first or a Doctor? We assume there is no dilemma or conflict but how do you explain?
I think that depends on the individual – some would say they were Buddhists first and then doctors, some would say it the other way around. There need be no conflict between being a Buddhist and being a doctor, especially if the doctor is motivated by the wish to relieve suffering and support happiness in his or her patients. As with any job, there may be certain dilemmas to navigate; but these in themselves can help someone become better at eg, compassion, patience, or taking responsibility. As one guest blogger put it in his article:
Being a social worker makes me a better Buddhist. Being a Buddhist makes me a better social worker.
Interestingly enough, Geshe Kelsang was a doctor in Tibet before he became a teacher. He came to feel that he could personally help people more by being a teacher (see point above), but there is no contradiction.
There are many different forms of Buddhism, do we need to know how to refer to the NKT?
We refer to the NKT as Kadampa Buddhism, “Kadampa” literally meaning “those who take all Buddha’s teachings as personal advice and put them into practice in their daily lives.” These days we also call ourselves “modern Buddhism”, because this tradition has spread more globally than most due to its accessibility to people in many countries and walks of life.
The NKT is a Mahayana Buddhist school founded by the great Indian Buddhist Master Atisha (AD 982-1054), practiced fully and passed down the generations through accomplished spiritual masters, including Je Tsongkhapa (AD 1357-1419), to the present day.
Is anyone or any type of Buddhism considered the founder of Buddhism? If so, how long ago did Buddhism start?
Buddha Shakyamuni is known as the founder of Buddhism – so from one point of view Buddhism started just over 2550 years ago in India and then spread from there. However, time is beginningless, and there are countless beings who have realized their full potential and become Buddhas; so Buddhism has actually been around (somewhere if not always here) forever!
In this world, a prince called Siddhartha in India (550 BC) found suffering unacceptable, so left his palace to bring an end to it. He discovered that the root of suffering lies within the mind, specifically within a mistaken understanding of reality, and he found a way to cut this root of ignorance with compassion and the wisdom realizing the illusory nature of things. He was then requested to teach, and gave 84,000 teachings to a very wide audience over a 40-year ministry, which became known as Dharma (literally, “that which holds us back from suffering”).
Interestingly, Buddha didn’t coin the term “Buddhism” or “Buddhist”; that was something we did much later. He called his followers simply “inner beings” because there were interested in attaining happiness and freedom by controlling the mind. Anyone can use Buddha’s teachings, therefore — for example on meditation, mindfulness, love, patience, and wisdom — without having to call themselves a Buddhist if they don’t want to. Geshe Kelsang, I remember, used to call some of his students in Dallas Texas “Christian Buddhists”, for example.
How many types of Buddhism exist? Or does no-one really know?
Buddhism can be grouped by country, by culture, by lineage, by teacher, by monastery, etc., so there are many types. At the same time you could say there is only one type of Buddhism, the teachings of Buddha.
Buddhism spread extensively because many countries and cultures saw that it deals with the mind so effectively; and, broadly speaking, in all these places groups would form with an experienced teacher at their center.
Basically there are two main “vehicles” of Buddhism – Hinayana (incl. Theravadan) and Mahayana, of which Kadampa Buddhism is the latter. Hinayanists’ goal is to attain liberation or nirvana, which means freedom from all delusions and suffering for themselves. Mahayanists’ or Bodhisattvas’ goal is to attain full enlightenment so they can lead all living beings to the same state. (Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism is included in the Mahayana.) Both traditions were taught by Buddha and they have many practices in common, including the four noble truths. All authentic traditions of Buddhism are able to trace their teachings back through an unbroken line of teachers and disciples to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni.
Thank you to Facebook friends who contributed to this article. I have attempted the impossible, ie, to keep my answers short. It is clearly not conclusive and plenty more could be said, so this article is like Cliff’s notes or something. Please feel free to contribute good stuff on any of these questions in the comments section below.