10 mins read.
Like a lot of people I’ve had trouble falling asleep a few times in the last year, and also like a lot of people it was probably from unwisely looking at news headlines just before heading to bed, then lying awake wondering how on earth to solve my own problems, my family and friends’ problems, the world’s problems.
If we’re not careful, inappropriate attention kicks in – we think this is all real, we exaggerate the problems – and the next thing we know we’re in a state of anxiety, even panic. Each time, I went for refuge to Dharma and my Spiritual Guide and ended up feeling fine again. It is a question of getting the Dharma from our heads into our hearts at times like this so that we see everything entirely differently – whether through the lens of refuge, compassion, wisdom or whatever.
If we can remember refuge, that all the countless Buddhas are rooting for us and see us as already pure, already ok, already enough, we start feeling more peaceful.
In the midst of our own anxiety, if we can get past ourselves to empathize with others’ often far worse worries, already our mind starts to lighten.
Or, going deeper still, rather than wrestle with a real world that isn’t actually there, we can let the seemingly solid intractable problems dissolve away into their emptiness — their absence of intrinsic existence, their unfindability — and reboot from there.
Whatever Dharma we turn to, it’s always worth remembering what we have understood so far about the world not being fixed, static, or real. When we go for refuge in Dharma and see things differently, we are not just seeing something objectively out there in a different way so that we can somehow better cope with it. As a mere appearance or reflection in our mind, everything depends 100% upon our perspective; therefore, as soon as we change our mind, the world itself changes — just as a reflection in a lake changes along with every ripple of the water. That’s why Dharma can solve problems permanently.
One simple example: if I get upset with someone for not agreeing with me, I am holding them to be intrinsically annoying. But if I change those thoughts of annoyance into thoughts of compassion and concern for them, for example by remembering their good qualities or kindness, I may still disagree with their point of view and tell them so, but I no longer have a problem with them.
If we can remember any Dharma at all, we can restore our equilibrium. One measurement of having trained our minds is:
One is trained if one is able to do the practice even when distracted. ~ Training the Mind in Seven Points
If we keep wanting to help people despite our own overwhelming problems, that’s deep, that shows we have what it takes. I’ve been spending some time recently with people who are helping the unhoused and/or who are unhoused. There are some incredible stories of dedication and kindness, such as the story of Bear who helped people up to his final days despite his own serious health problems. Or the mother who is simply concerned about her children and how she is going to be able to keep home-schooling them during a pandemic when she no longer has a kitchen table. This is because she lost both her jobs in the pandemic and no longer has a kitchen. Not to mention a roof. These are two of anywhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million people estimated to be without shelter in the United States, a number that is steadily growing.
Teacher of wisdom
“There’s so much suffering in this world. People need wisdom. We have so much intelligence. It seems like we could make anything, and then we just keep improving it, because we’re never satisfied. Our technology just keeps increasing. Our material development keeps increasing. But there is not a corresponding increase in human happiness. In fact, it’s the opposite. Our world is becoming more problematic, more dangerous. So this shows us something very important. We must learn from this appearance. We are intelligent people but we have used our intelligence mainly to improve material conditions and we have never fulfilled our deepest wishes for happiness and freedom — in fact, the opposite. And then a teacher of wisdom appears in our modern world, who is in the lineage of Je Tsongkhapa, Atisha, Buddha Shakyamuni – the same nature. He appears in our modern world and he gives us the instruction of Lamrim and shows us how we can integrate it into our modern busy life. He doesn’t deny our modern life. He respects us and so he gives us Dharma that we can use, that is suitable for us, acceptable, that fits with our modern way of life. We have met a teacher of wisdom, a Kadampa master of modern times, who is giving us the most precious Lamrim instructions.”He is talking about Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, who is also my Spiritual Guide. As I talk about here, our Spiritual Guide can be anyone. It doesn’t matter who they are as long as they are able to guide us along the spiritual path because they’ve been there themselves, always showing us an inspiring example of what is possible. That is our Spiritual Guide, that person. We have complete choice over that – everyone in Buddhism always chooses their own Spiritual Guide, that’s how it works.
Practicing Lamrim, which is all the stages of the path to enlightenment, is the way we can go for refuge to Dharma and solve our problems. We need to get our Lamrim instructions from someone who knows them inside out and has complete realizations of all of them. A book alone does not have that living lineage.
One’s own living Buddha
Would it be pretty amazing to have our very own living Buddha to ourselves?! Someone who wants to lead us all the way to enlightenment? Someone who looks reassuringly normal on one level — whom we can see, communicate with, and learn from directly — but who is at heart an enlightened being who comes bearing the blessings and teachings of all enlightened beings?
What do you reckon, if a Buddha was to tap you on the shoulder right now, or appear in front of you and say “Hello!”, would you see him or her?
In The Mirror of Dharma, Geshe Kelsang says:
All Buddhas attained enlightenment with the sole intention of leading all living beings along the stages of the path to enlightenment through their emanations.
And the point is, all those enlightened beings are still around, everywhere, pervading reality. So, Geshe-la goes on to ask:
Who is the emanation who is leading us along the stages of the path to enlightenment?
This is not intended to be a rhetorical question, we have to really think about who that person is. Probably we’ll conclude that the most likely candidate is:
our present Spiritual Teacher, who is sincerely and correctly leading us along the paths of renunciation, bodhichitta, and the correct view of emptiness by giving these teachings and showing a practical example for others to follow.
Who else could it be? (Answers on a postcard.)
You have no problems!
Human problems are not difficult to solve but people are not listening to enlightened advice. ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
One thing that is so interesting is how little Venerable Geshe-la buys into the details of our virtual reality of mistaken appearances. Of course he is sympathetic, but he knows that if we change our minds we can get rid not just of today’s glitches but all our sufferings; and so he simply keeps bringing us back to this. His view of us is sourced by blissful compassion and wisdom, and he is always relating to our potential and even seeing it actualized.
In Portugal in 2009, he said he saw and respected us all as Heroes and Heroines (aka Tantric Buddhas). Which means he never gives up on any of us, never loses hope or faith in any of us, no matter what manner of calamities we think are going on in our lives. Like Marpa didn’t give up on Milarepa, even though Milarepa had murdered 30 people – and, whatever else you’ve done, I doubt you’re a mass murderer? (don’t tell me). Or like Buddha Shakyamuni didn’t give up on Angulimala or Lam Chung, or any of the other seemingly hopeless cases. Scripture abounds with these stories.
Decades ago, when I was still a wee lass, I went to see Geshe-la with a long list of problems I really needed his help with solving. I was standing outside his room for a moment, silently remembering what these were so I could ask him, when he threw the door open, started laughing, and said, “You have no problems!”
He was right — the moment he said it I realized he was right. My list must have dissolved into emptiness because I couldn’t remember a single item on it. I started laughing too.
I have never forgotten this and it has helped me immeasurably at all the hardest times of my life. If something is wrong, I know I can take it to any Buddha and they’ll think it is no real problem at all. It’s a relief knowing that.
Think about if this wasn’t the case. If something goes wrong in your life and Guru Tara, for example, is like, “Oh no, don’t tell me that! That’s a real catastrophe! How on earth are we going to be able to help you with THAT?! You’re doomed!” that would be somewhat discouraging, would it not.
I am always with you
Geshe Kelsang is pretty cool, is all I’m trying to say. He has bought us centuries of wisdom, he has brought us unconditional love, he has brought us eternal hope. He is the real deal. I’ve never seen or experienced anything that indicates he is anything other than the real deal. And any of his numerous disciples would likely tell you the same thing. The more you get to know him and his teachings, the more you realize that this person is exceptional in so many ways. And utterly dedicated to us. He said not long ago “I am always with you.” And he is.
One of the ways we can generate bodhichitta is to imagine what it will be like when we are enlightened, how we will be able to emanate as whatever people need, including teachers:
Just as there is one moon shining in the sky whose reflections fill all the lakes and waters of the world, when I become enlightened my emanations will cover and protect every living being. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune
I think that there is one Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, according to our collective karma, the one we see in person or photos etc, whose Buddhist commentaries we study on the programs. But the fact is that we all have our own Spiritual Guide. (Our own Geshe-la, if he is whom we have chosen.) Sometimes people think, “My Spiritual Guide is so far removed! He knows some of his students really well, but he doesn’t know me! There are so many of us – how can he even know I exist, let alone have enough time to pay attention to me?”
All that is ordinary conception or view, right? So, per the moon example, have you ever had this experience … You are standing next to an ocean, the moon is shining, and the light is coming directly toward you. You turn to your neighbor two feet away and say, “Look, there is no light where you are, it is all coming directly to me. Take a look at that!” And they shake their heads, “No, you’re wrong, it is all coming toward me, the water is dark where you are.” And so on, all the way up the beach.
Buddha’s emanations appear for us, for each of us. There are as many Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s, for example, as there are people with faith in him. If you have a different Spiritual Guide, it’s the same principle. Even if you are in a different tradition, I reckon!
Over to you! Still more to come on this subject. Meantime, though, a lot of people love stories about Geshe-la, so if you happen to have any from the past 40+ years or have heard any from others, please share them below. Alongside his far-reaching life and works, personal stories might end up being the closest we can come to a biography.