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A compilation of advice about Dharma studies and practice
Advice from Khen Rinpoche Geshe Thubten Chonyi, resident teacher at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore. These teachings offer valuable advice related to our Dharma studies and practice: how to check whether our practices are Dharma, the need for study and constant reflection on the Buddha's teachings, and how to overcome our afflictions and problems so that we can truly benefit others. Transcribed, edited and prepared for publication by the editorial team at ABC, Singapore.

Daily Reflections is available as an ebook from online vendors.

CHAPTERS
Daily Reflections
i. Introduction and Biography
1. What is Dharma?
2. Studying the Dharma
3. Need for Reflection and Analysis
4. Overcoming Negative Emotions
5. Practising Pure Perception
6. Faith
7. Advice on Practice
8. Precious Human Rebirth
9. Death and Impermanence
10. Overcoming Attachment to the Body
11. Joyous Effort
12. Subduing Anger
13. Generating Bodhicitta
14. Wisdom Realizing Emptiness

Advice from Gungtang Rinpoche 

Gungtang Rinpoche said: “We can see with our own eyes that, at the time of death, there is no difference between the young and old. One has to go on to the next life.

"When people die suddenly, even though we may witness this with our own eyes, our minds remain unmoved. We continue to believe that we will live forever and that we will not die soon.  We have to overcome this mistaken conception.

" Until we are convinced, 'I will definitely die one day,' there is no way we can generate the path or any realisations in our minds. If we are unable to generate deeply from our hearts the realisation that death is certain and the time of death is most uncertain, our Dharma practice will remain only at the level of words.”

In other words, it is only when we have generated the realisation of our impending death and the uncertainty as to when it will happen will we be motivated to engage in wholesome activities and direct our minds towards virtue. Whatever practices we are doing – be it cultivating conscientiousness or trying to defeat our negative emotions – when we meditate on death and impermanence, we will definitely be able to do those practices.

We may be interested in the profound teachings on emptiness and the generation and completion stages of tantra. However, when we do not train our minds gradually in the proper way, when we do not put effort into the preliminary practices, such as this essential meditation on death and impermanence, then we will remain in a rut and never progress in our Dharma practice. Without this realisation of death and impermanence, we can forget about the subsequent realisations of the path, as they will not happen.

Reflecting on death and impermanence does not mean seeing how people are dying but using these experiences as examples for ourselves. The main thing is to reflect on how we will definitely die one day and how this is the very nature of our existence.

Without meditating on death and impermanence, even when we engage in virtue, that virtue will be imperfect and impure, as it will be mixed with the negative emotions. Our virtue will not become Dharma and, instead, become one of the eight worldly dharmas.

A compilation of advice about Dharma studies and practice
Advice from Khen Rinpoche Geshe Thubten Chonyi, resident teacher at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore. These teachings offer valuable advice related to our Dharma studies and practice: how to check whether our practices are Dharma, the need for study and constant reflection on the Buddha's teachings, and how to overcome our afflictions and problems so that we can truly benefit others. Transcribed, edited and prepared for publication by the editorial team at ABC, Singapore.

Daily Reflections is available as an ebook from online vendors.

CHAPTERS
Daily Reflections
i. Introduction and Biography
1. What is Dharma?
2. Studying the Dharma
3. Need for Reflection and Analysis
4. Overcoming Negative Emotions
5. Practising Pure Perception
6. Faith
7. Advice on Practice
8. Precious Human Rebirth
9. Death and Impermanence
10. Overcoming Attachment to the Body
11. Joyous Effort
12. Subduing Anger
13. Generating Bodhicitta
14. Wisdom Realizing Emptiness

“There is nothing to fear other than my mind” 

The Mighty One has said that all such things
Are (the working of) an evil mind,
Hence within the three world spheres
There is nothing to fear other than my mind
(Verse 8, Chapter 5, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by Shantideva)

All the fears of cyclic existence and the three realms, the suffering we wish to avoid and the happiness we are seeking arise from the mind. Likewise, all qualities depend on the mind.

When you check all the scriptures, this is also their main message – that there is a need to discipline our minds. We can understand this from our personal experience. When the afflictions – anger, attachment, ignorance, pride, jealousy and so forth – arise, suffering and unhappiness are always the result. The stronger the afflictions, the greater the suffering. On the other hand, when we have less discursive thoughts, when the three mental poisons arise infrequently, when the mind is concentrated or focussed on benefiting others, there is more mental peace and we tend to be happier with fewer problems.

By reflecting along these lines, we will understand why it is said that all fears and worries originate from the mind. Therefore, we should protect the mind against non-virtue and guide the mind towards virtue, with mindfulness and introspection. When we fail to do this, although we yearn for happiness, we run away from the causes of happiness. Although we wish to avoid suffering, we pursue the causes of suffering.

We are controlled by our minds that, in turn, are controlled by the negative emotions that disturb our mental peace and calm. That is why we feel unhappy and suffer. We need to immerse our minds in virtue instead, because when this happens, happiness is the result.

Realising the nature of our minds 

There is a saying by the great Kadampa masters: “The difference between cyclic existence and nirvana comes from whether we have realised the nature of our minds or not.”

Liberation may seem external, like a distant place. But it can be achieved on the basis of our minds. In the same way, cyclic existence is not an external phenomenon. It abides in our minds. As long as our minds are under the control and bondage of the afflictions, we remain in cyclic existence. We achieve liberation at that very moment when our minds are freed from the control of our afflictions. So liberation is not something far away or external, and once liberated, we will experience everlasting bliss and happiness.

With reference to the paths and grounds – from the path of accumulation through to the path of preparation, followed by the path of seeing, the ten bodhisattva grounds, the path of no more learning and, finally, enlightenment – the difference between each level and each ground is primarily based on the qualities of the mind and its development. We assert that someone has achieved and is abiding in a specific path on the basis of their mental development, not their physical transformation. How do we differentiate between a bodhisattva and a non-bodhisattva? The difference does not lie in their external appearances but on whether that person has developed bodhicitta or not.

Another way of looking at the quotation is this: As soon as we have realised the ultimate nature of the mind, its lack of true existence, we are liberated from our afflictions.

Engaging in physical and verbal virtues (or positive actions) contributes to our mental development and this helps us one day to realise the emptiness of our minds. When we achieve the wisdom realising emptiness, we destroy cyclic existence. This is one of the benefits of realising emptiness.

When our self-cherishing attitude is very strong, it is very difficult for our actions to be virtuous. Furthermore, during the course of engaging in virtue, other afflictions such as competitiveness, jealousy and pride arise.

For example, arrogance and conceit may arise when we are doing retreat, “I am in retreat and they are not.” Also, during the course of this five year Basic Program, we have acquired some knowledge and understanding of the Dharma. That knowledge can be the condition for us to feel superior to others, thinking, “I know more than you do.”

It is important that our actions do not become the conditions for the development of jealousy, competitiveness and pride. These afflictions are harmful and therefore, we must learn how to apply the antidotes to overcome them.

Advice from Gungtang Rinpoche: Check the state of your mind day and night

Guntang Rinpoche advises, “If we want to make our days and nights meaningful, we should always check the state of our minds.” No beneficial actions can result from a mind that is under the control of the three mental poisons (ignorance, anger and attachment). Therefore, we should always strive to keep our minds in a positive state, thinking constantly of how to benefit others. When our actions are motivated by a negative mind, it is questionable whether those actions can be beneficial.

It is important to set a proper motivation before we begin any virtuous activities, such as doing our daily commitments. We are advised in the teachings to begin always with the meditation on the breath to bring the mind to a state of equilibrium, especially when we find that our minds are agitated by anger or attachment. Otherwise, it is difficult to generate a positive state of mind while doing the practices.

When the mind is in a state of equilibrium, it is easier to prevent negative thoughts from arising, even though we may not yet be able to eliminate our attachment or anger from the root. It becomes possible for us to consider those we normally think of as enemies or objects of aversion as pleasant and as friends. When engaged in virtuous activities, we should pay heed to the objects of desire and the objects of aversion. We should sincerely dedicate the merit we accumulate from our practices to their welfare from the depths of our hearts. It is easy to habituate ourselves to dedicating our merit in this way compared to giving away material things such as our bodies.

When we dedicate all the roots of our virtue to our enemies, does that mean there is nothing left for us, that we are not going to experience the beneficial effects of those virtues? I don’t think so. So, don’t worry.

When we dedicate our roots of virtue sincerely in this way, it is difficult to say how much benefit will actually be received by the objects of our dedication but, without a doubt, we will benefit and see the improvement in our minds. We will definitely benefit because we can see that all our problems and sufferings arise from attachment and anger in our lives.

When we neglect checking the state of our minds, then no matter how profound or extensive our prayers may be, it is difficult for those practices to be beneficial even for ourselves. When we do not benefit from our practices, then it is difficult for us to benefit others.

Gungtang Rinpoche also said: “If you wish, however, to make your life meaningless and empty, then by all means, please continue to spend your whole life being conceited and arrogant and spend your time partying, gossiping and shopping.”

Developing the virtuous mind 

This is advice from the Kadampa masters: When our minds are virtuous and our motivation positive, then our physical and verbal actions will naturally be virtuous and positive. We will not harm but instead benefit others. Conversely, when our minds are in negative, non-virtuous states, it is very difficult to generate positive behaviour. We are most likely to give problems to others and be harmed by them in return. The Kadampa masters therefore advise us to generate a good heart and develop a positive mind and motivation.

We are now studying the practice of exchanging ourselves for others and developing bodhicitta,  the main point of which is to develop the virtuous, positive mind. A positive state of mind leads to positive and beneficial behaviour that helps us to become good-hearted, virtuous people. It is very difficult to change our minds overnight. We have to start reducing negative physical and verbal actions by reducing our negative states of mind. While we may not be able to completely remove such negativities, we can work towards reducing them.

What are the benefits of being good-hearted people? We will be protected by the worldly gods who delight in virtue and receive blessings from the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Temporal goals are easily achieved. When death comes, we will move on easily to the next life and achieve enlightenment very quickly.

The internal enemy 

Lama Atisha said, “When we can subdue our minds, then no external enemy can harm us. But if our minds waver, with the external enemy acting as the condition, our internal enemy will burn our minds. Therefore, defeat and destroy this internal enemy.”

We cannot be harmed by external enemies when our minds are loving and compassionate but if we succumb to the three mental poisons, our mental peace is destroyed. It is not the external enemy, who acts only as the condition, but our afflictions which are responsible for the destruction of our mental peace.

It is the very nature of our afflictions to do this, so our real enemies are the internal ones, our afflictions, which are the real trouble-makers. We should therefore put effort into destroying them.

We need both mindfulness and introspection to protect and guard the mind. Mindfulness protects our minds by not forgetting what is to be abandoned and what is to be cultivated, and introspection is the part of our minds that checks to see whether our minds are up to virtue or non-virtue.

It is important to protect and guard our minds because only we know our own minds. No one else does. We are our own masters because only we know what is going on in our own minds. We need to check to see whether our minds are in a virtuous or non-virtuous state because only by protecting our minds will we be able to prevent ourselves from being stained by downfalls and faults and guard our three doors.

Need for constant and persistent effort (1)

The great Indian master, Chandragomin, said that when someone is very sick with a serious disease, e.g., leprosy, but does not take the proper medicine continuously over a period of time, then that patient will never recover from his illness.

This is analogous to the situation we are in. We have been controlled by the three mental poisons for a very long time. In order to free ourselves from this bondage, we have to familiarise ourselves with and meditate on the antidotes continuously for a very long time. Meditating occasionally when we feel like it will not work.

We also need to train in the complete path, not just doing the virtuous practices we enjoy and then hoping or expecting those afflictions to just weaken or disappear. It does not work like that. We have to meditate on the complete path.

We do engage in virtuous practices, but sometimes we feel that, despite doing all sorts of practices, we are not getting anywhere, we are not improving. This is how we may feel sometimes. Actually, things are getting better but we should not expect to see instant results. Sometimes, when we engage in certain practices, we expect to see results in a day, a month, a year or even a couple of years. It does not work like that. We may not be able to see very tangible results for quite a while.

Our afflictions are like the very heavy sicknesses of a patient. We have been harbouring these afflictions, the three mental poisons, in our minds for a very long time.  In order to heal ourselves of these afflictions, we need to meditate and rely on the antidotes continuously for a long period of time. If we rely on the antidotes every now and then, as and when we feel like it, then we are not going to reap much benefit from them.

Need for constant and persistent effort (2) 

The great Indian master, Chandragomin, said that the fruits of a fruit tree whose roots are always submerged in a pool of sour muddy water will be sour and not sweet. If we want the fruit tree to bear sweet fruits, fertilising it with just a few drops of sweetener will not work.

In the same way, we have been controlled by the three mental poisons since time without beginning. That being the case, hoping for a major mental transformation by doing a little daily practice and some small virtues, and expecting fantastic results and a huge reduction in our suffering is completely unrealistic.

In order for us to attain the fruit of the state beyond sorrow, the cessation of all our suffering, we need to remove our afflictions from the root. Hoping to achieve this by some small exertions on our part is like expecting a harvest of sweet fruit in the above analogy.

Removing our mental afflictions is extremely difficult and requires reliance on continuous effort for a long period of time. Sometimes, we may feel this  is an almost impossible task. It is natural for us to think in this way because it is true that the negative emotions have been with us since beginningless time, not just a few lifetimes.  We are thoroughly familiar with them. It is as if the afflictions have merged with the very nature of our minds, making it impossible to separate our minds from them.

Although this may be the way we feel and how things appear to us, if we critically analyse the situation, we will find that this is not the case, because if we apply the appropriate antidotes, we will definitely be able to free our minds from these negative emotions.

Look at our lives. What are we doing everyday? Are we actively doing something to weaken our afflictions or are we actually strengthening them? If we are honest with ourselves, we find that not only are we not doing anything to overcome our afflictions but in fact, we are allowing them to become stronger as we encounter the objects and conditions which cause them to arise.

In order to destroy our mental afflictions, the only way is to put effort continuously into weakening and destroying them.  If we do not do this, there is no hope of the negative emotions ever becoming weaker or being destroyed.

Reflection on impermanence 

The great Nagarjuna once said that someone who would put rubbish or vomit into a precious golden bejewelled container would be considered very foolish indeed. We should reflect on how this statement applies to ourselves.

Having achieved the precious human rebirth and met the teachings of the Buddha, we call ourselves Buddhists and take on the different levels of vows and commitments. Yet, instead of accumulating virtue, we spend our time committing negativities. That is both very unskilful and unwise and if that is our situation, we must do something to overcome it. Those negative activities arise due to the three mental poisons in our minds which we must work to subdue.

The stronger the negative emotions – our attachment to friends and loved ones and aversion and hatred towards our enemies - the more powerful will be the resultant negative actions generated by them. It is, therefore, very important that we work very hard to reduce the strength of the three mental poisons. We are not suggesting here that friends or enemies do not exist but we are trying to reduce the negative emotions we generate towards them.

One of the best ways of doing this is to reflect on impermanence. For example, to reduce our hatred towards an enemy, we should reflect on his impermanent nature, how he will definitely die one day and the uncertainty of that time of death. Our enemy will probably be very fearful both at the time of death and during the intermediate state. He may also be reborn in the lower realms because of his own negativities. Reflecting how our enemy is controlled by his own afflictions and negative karma, it becomes possible for us to generate compassion instead of hatred towards him.

We can reflect in the same way to reduce our attachment towards our loved ones. They will also die one day and it is uncertain when death will come. They will experience suffering and fear at the time of death and in the intermediate state and take rebirth in the lower realms.  Reflecting in this way, we substitute our attachment and desire for them with compassion.

We ourselves are also impermanent and we should reflect on the fear that we will encounter at the time of our own death. When we give in to our negative emotions, we create negativities that lead to great suffering and fear in the intermediate state, which will only throw us into the lower realms.

By reflecting on these different points, we develop renunciation. Of course, it will be very difficult for us to remove our afflictions from the root now, but by reflecting on these points, we can at least reduce the strength of those afflictions when they manifest. This is something we must do.

At this time, we have achieved this precious human body and the opportunity to listen to and discuss the Mahayana teachings. We understand that if we were to engage in negative actions, we would have to take rebirth in the lower realms. We accept the existence of the hells and the lower realms. We also accept the possibility of higher rebirths as humans and gods. Therefore, we are more knowledgeable than those who have no exposure to such teachings.

In spite of having such knowledge, when it comes to the actual practice of working to overcome our afflictions, instead of our reducing them, they actually become stronger. If this happens, we will be exactly as Nagarjuna said – very foolish and stupid. We must do something about this situation.

When we meet with difficulties, we should try to apply and reap some benefit from our Dharma knowledge.  It seems that, sometimes, we are unable to do this, so that when problems come, our suffering seems to be even more intense and the bad experiences seem much more difficult to handle. This should not be the case.

Advice from Gungtang Rinpoche: Overcoming the stubborn mind of self-cherishing 

Guntang Rinpoche points out how we always cherish ourselves. It is this evil mind of self-cherishing that is our downfall. Only when we are able to overcome this very stubborn self-cherishing mind, which is as hard as wood, then enlightenment will not be very far away.

In the same way, we are always controlled by our three mental poisons which only lead to misfortune and our downfall. We desperately want happiness but our afflictions bring only problems and suffering.

The essence of Rinpoche’s advice is that enlightenment can only be achieved when we are able to subdue our stubborn minds. Whatever virtues we do with our bodies and speech, they must ultimately lead to subduing our minds. If this does not happen, then there is no way we will achieve enlightenment.

There are students who say they have been practising for a long time – for 10, 20, 30 years – but they do not see any progress. This is the fault of not transforming their virtuous actions of body and speech into methods that will help them to subdue their negative minds. It boils down to this failure to transform their minds.

Our narrow-minded outlook 

Mental suffering can only be reduced through adopting the correct mental perspective. The more we are able to think from different perspectives, the better equipped we will be to deal with our mental difficulties. Our mental unhappiness can never be solved by wealth, possessions or medication.

The reason why we experience mental unhappiness is because of our narrow-minded outlook. We tend to fixate on some small aspect of the problem. When we think in such a way, the mind will always remain narrow, tight and stressed. We need to widen our minds, make them bigger, more expansive and relaxed, by considering the problem from multi-faceted angles. Although it is difficult to experience immediate benefits from the mind-training techniques given in the text we are now studying, when we continue to listen, critically analyse and familiarise ourselves with the teachings, we will definitely experience some benefits and be able to reduce our mental suffering over time.

Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche

New Delhi, India, 1979

A teaching on renunciation, first published in Teachings at Tushita

Dharma protects us from suffering

The Sanskrit word Dharma [Tib: chö] means to hold, or uphold. What is it that Dharma upholds, or maintains? It is the elimination of suffering and the attainment of happiness. Dharma does this not only for us but for all other sentient beings as well.

The sufferings we experience are of two types: those immediately visible to us as humans and those we cannot see without psychic powers. The former include the pain involved in the birth process, the unpleasantness of occasionally becoming sick, the misery experienced by growing old and aging, and the terror of death.

The sufferings that come after death are not visible to an ordinary person. We might think that when we die we will probably be reborn as a human being. However, this is not necessarily the case. There is no logical reason for us to assume that such an evolution will occur. Nor is it the case that after we die we will not take rebirth at all.

As for the particular type of rebirth we will take, this is very difficult to predict; it’s not within our present sphere of knowledge. If we generate positive karma during this life, it will naturally follow that we will take happy forms of rebirth in the future. Conversely, if we create mostly negative karma, we will not take a happy rebirth but experience great difficulties in lower states of being. This is certain. That’s the way rebirth works. If you plant a wheat seed, a wheat plant grows; if you plant a rice seed, a rice plant is produced. Similarly, if you create negative karma, you’re planting the seeds of rebirth in one of the three lower states as a hell being, a hungry ghost or an animal.

Although the sufferings of the hell beings and hungry ghosts may be invisible to us, we can see those of the animals with our own eyes. If we wonder what it would be like if we ourselves were to be reborn as animals, we can just look at those around us and imagine what it would be like to be in their condition. Dharma is that which holds us back and protects us from experiencing the suffering of the three lower realms.

However, the entire wheel of rebirth, the whole of cyclic existence, is in the nature of suffering. Dharma safeguards us from all of it. Moreover, the Mahayana Dharma, the teachings of the great vehicle, protects not only ourselves but also all other living beings.

In Buddhism, we hear a lot about the Three Jewels of Refuge—Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The first of these includes all the fully enlightened beings who teach the Dharma. For us, Buddha Shakyamuni, who first turned the wheel of Dharma at Sarnath by teaching the four noble truths, is the most significant. The last of these four truths—the truth of the path—is the Dharma that we must practice in order to achieve liberation. This is the refuge object called the Dharma jewel.

The cause of suffering

Dharma practice entails two things: recognizing and eradicating the root of samsaric suffering. What is the root of cyclic existence? It is the grasping at a truly existent self and at truly existent phenomena. Therefore, we need to develop revulsion for this grasping that brings us all our suffering and an understanding of the antidote to it. The antidote to grasping at true existence is the wisdom realizing selflessness; a deep understanding of selflessness will liberate us from suffering.

The sufferings we experience in cyclic existence are caused by the karma created by our acting under the influence of the delusions. When we understand this, we aspire to obtain the antidote to self-grasping. Why have we not yet developed this antidote in our mind stream; why don’t we understand selflessness? One reason is that we are not sufficiently aware of impermanence and death.

Contemplating impermanence and death

The only possible outcome of birth is death. We are inevitably going to die. There has never been a sentient being whose life did not end with death. People try many methods to prevent death from occurring, but it’s impossible. No medicine can cure us of death.

But just thinking “I’m going to die” isn’t really the correct way to contemplate death. Of course, everybody is going to die, but merely recalling this fact is not very powerful. It is not the proper method. Similarly, just thinking of the fact that our body is constantly disintegrating and deteriorating and will eventually fail is also not enough. What we have to think about is how to prevent all this from happening.

If we think about the fear that we’ll experience at the time of death and how to eliminate it, our meditation on death will be effective. People who have accumulated much negative karma during their lives become very frightened at the time of death. They cry, drool, excrete into their clothing and are completely overwhelmed—clear signs of the fear and suffering that occur at death because of negative actions created during life.

Alternatively, if during our lifetime we refrain from committing negative actions, death will be very easy to face. Death can be a joyous experience, like that of a child coming home. If we have purified ourselves, we can die happily. By abstaining from creating the ten non-virtuous actions and cultivating their opposites, the ten virtues, our death will be easy and, as a result, we won’t have to experience rebirth in conditions of suffering. We will be assured of rebirth in more fortunate states.

If we plant seeds of medicinal plants, we get trees with medicinal powers; if we plant seeds of poisonous trees, we get poisonous fruit. Similarly, if we plant the seeds of virtuous actions on our consciousness, we will experience happiness in future rebirths; we will experience good fortune, both mentally and physically. This basic Dharma teaching of avoiding the ten non-virtuous deeds and cultivating the ten virtues is given not only in Buddhism but also in many other religions.

If simply thinking “I’m going to die” is not very beneficial, how then should we contemplate death and impermanence? We should think, “If I have created any of the ten non-virtuous actions, when I die I will have to face great fear and suffering and will be reborn into unimaginable misery. If, on the other hand, I have created virtue, when I die I will not experience much fear or suffering and will be reborn into a fortunate state.” That is the correct way to think about death.

This meditation is not thinking gloomily and pessimistically, “I’m going to die and there’s nothing I can do about it,” but rather contemplating intelligently, “Where will I go after death? What sort of causes have I created? Can I make my death a happy one? How? Can I make my future rebirths happy? How?”

When contemplating future rebirths we should remember that there is no place in cyclic existence that is reliable. No matter what body we obtain, it must eventually pass away. We read accounts of people who have lived for a hundred or even a thousand years, but no matter how fantastic their stories, they have all had to die. All samsaric bodies are subject to death.

Moreover, there is no place to which we can run to escape death. No matter where we are, when the time comes, we’ll have to die. At that time, no amount of medicine, mantra or practice will help. Surgery can cure certain diseases, but it can’t prevent death.

No matter what type of rebirth we gain, it will be subject to death. The process is ongoing. Contemplating the long-range effects of our actions and the continuity of the process of birth, life, death and rebirth will help us generate much positive karma.

Even though we sometimes plan to practice the Dharma, we usually plan to do so tomorrow or the day after. However, we can’t tell when we’re going to die. If we were guaranteed a hundred years to live, we’d be able to plan our practice long-range, but we have not the slightest certainty of when we’re going to die. Therefore, it’s very foolish to put our practice off. Some people die in the womb before they’re even born; others die as small babies before they’ve even learned to walk. There’s no logic in thinking that we’re going to live long.

Furthermore, our body is very fragile. If it were made of stone or iron we could be excused for thinking that it was very stable, but we can easily see that it’s very weak and liable to go wrong at any moment. It’s like a delicate wrist-watch made of countless tiny, fragile parts. Our body is not to be trusted. And there are many circumstances that can cause our death: food that has become poisonous, the bite of a small insect or the prick of a tiny thorn. Such seemingly insignificant conditions can kill us. Even the food and drink we ingest to extend our life can become the circumstances that end it. There’s no certainty as to when we’ll die or what will cause our death.

Even if we feel certain that we’ll live a hundred years, many of those years have already passed and we haven’t accomplished much. We approach death like somebody asleep in a railway carriage, constantly getting closer and closer to the destination but unaware of the process. Of course, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We just constantly get ever-closer to death.

No matter how much money, jewelry, houses or clothes we accumulate in life, it makes no difference whatsoever at the time of death. When we die, we go to the next life empty-handed; we cannot take even the tiniest material object with us. Even our body must be left behind; our mind and body separate and our mind goes on alone.

If at death we have to leave our body, our friends and all our possessions, what, then, accompanies our consciousness at that time? Is there anything that can go with it to the next life? Yes, there is. When we die, the karmic imprints that we have accumulated during our life accompany our consciousness.

Creating positive and negative karma

If we have created any of the ten non-virtuous actions, a negative karmic debt accompanies our mind-stream as it evolves into the future rebirth. By killing other beings, stealing others’ possessions or indulging in sexual misconduct, we leave karmic imprints of these negative physical actions on our consciousness. By lying, slandering other people and causing disunity among them, gossiping or speaking harshly, harming others with words, we leave karmic imprints of these negative verbal actions on our consciousness. By harboring covetous thoughts, wishing to have the possessions of others; generating ill-will towards others, wishing them harm; or holding distorted views, such as “there are no past or future lives,” “there’s no such thing as cause and effect” or “there’s no such thing as refuge,” we leave karmic imprints of these negative mental actions on our consciousness. All these negative karmic debts travel with and direct our mind into future rebirths.

The reverse is also true. If we turn away from negativity and create virtuous actions of body, speech and mind, the karmic seeds of these positive actions also travel on our mind-stream and produce better circumstances in our future lives.

If we really think about the situation we’re in we’ll resolve to try to generate positive karma and eliminate its opposite in whatever way we can. In other words, we should try to create as little negativity as possible and purify the seeds of past negative actions so that not even the smallest karmic debt remains to be repaid in our future lives.

We also need to look at the kinds of result that can happen within the law of cause and effect. For example, there’s the story of a person who had many good qualities but was harsh in his speech. Once he abused another person by saying, “You talk like a dog.” As a result, he himself was reborn as a dog five hundred times. Seemingly small negative actions can bring devastating effects.

Similarly, however, small positive actions can also produce great results. For example, there’s the story of the young child who made a humble offering to the Buddha and as a result was reborn as the great king Ashoka, who built thousands of stupas and performed countless other sublime activities.

Developing renunciation

Contemplating the various non-virtues we have committed and their results is a very effective way of ensuring our welfare and happiness. When we think of the suffering we ourselves will have to bear as a result of our negativities, we’ll give birth to the strong, indestructible wish not to have to experience all this misery and will have developed what is called renunciation.

Acquainting ourselves with this type of thinking is itself a form of meditation—analytical meditation. First we develop mindfulness of our own suffering; then we extend this mindfulness to the suffering of all other sentient beings. Considering deeply how all beings want to be completely free of all suffering but are caught in a net of suffering from which they cannot escape leads to compassion.

If we don’t develop the wish to be free from all our own suffering, how can we develop the wish for others to be free from theirs? We can put an end to our own suffering, but this in itself is not ultimately beneficial. We need to extend this wish to all living beings, who also desire happiness. We can train our mind to develop the wish for all sentient beings to be completely parted from their sufferings. This is a much wider and more beneficial way of thinking.

Why should we concern ourselves with the suffering of other living beings? It’s because we receive so much from others: the milk we drink comes from the kindness of others, the warm clothing that protects us from the wind and cold, the house we live in, the money we receive, our precious human body—all these things come from the kindness of others; the list is endless. However, just these few examples should be enough to show us why we should try to find a method that can eliminate the suffering of all the kind mother sentient beings.

No matter what kind of practice we do—the recitation of mantras, any other kind of meditation, whatever it is—we should always do it with the thought, “May this benefit all living beings.” Not only will this help others; it will naturally benefit us as well. Ordinary life situations can give us an appreciation of this: somebody who is very selfish and always works for his or her own gain is never really liked by others whereas somebody who is very kind and always helping others is usually very popular.

The thought we must develop in our mind stream is, “May all beings be happy and may none of them suffer.” We should try to incorporate this thought into our own thinking by remembering it again and again. This will be extremely beneficial. Those who in the past developed this thought are now great buddhas, bodhisattvas or saints; all the truly great people of the world based their lives upon it. How wonderful it would be if we could try to generate this thought within ourselves.

Q. Are we advised not to defend ourselves when somebody tries to harm us?
Serkong Rinpoche. That question introduces a very extensive subject. If somebody hits you over the head with a stick, the best response is to meditate that you experienced this because of your own past negative actions. Think how this person is allowing that particular karmic debt to ripen now rather than at some future time. You should feel gratitude that this person has eliminated that negative karmic debt from your mind stream.

Q. What if somebody attacks my wife or child, who are under my protection? Should I not defend them? Would it be negative to do so?
Serkong Rinpoche. As it is your duty to protect your wife and child, you must try to do so as skillfully as possible. You have to be clever. The best way to protect them is without harming their attacker. In other words, you have to find a method of protecting them whereby you do not inflict any harm.

Q. He can he harm my children but I cannot harm him? Is it not our duty to defend our children against barbarous and cruel acts? Should we just lay down our lives?
Serkong Rinpoche. In order to handle this situation skillfully you need a great deal of courage. There’s a story about a previous life of the Buddha in which he was a navigator who went to sea with a group of five hundred people in search of buried treasure. One of these people had very greedy thoughts of murdering all the others and stealing the jewels for himself. The bodhisattva navigator became aware of the man’s intentions and thought it incorrect to let a situation develop where one man killed five hundred. Therefore, he developed the courageous thought of saving the five hundred by killing this one man, willingly accepting upon himself the full responsibility of killing. If you are willing to be reborn in hell in order to save others, you have a greatly courageous thought and can engage in these acts, just as the Buddha himself did.

Q. Under such circumstances, is killing still considered to be a negative action?
Serkong Rinpoche. Nagarjuna says in his Friendly Letter that if one commits negativity in the name of protecting one’s parents, children, Buddhism or the Three Jewels of Refuge, one will have to experience the consequences. The difference is in whether or not you are aware of the consequences and are willing to take them upon yourself in order to selflessly protect your wife and child. If you harm the enemy, you are going to experience a suffering rebirth. However, you should be willing to face this by thinking, “I will take that suffering on myself so that my wife and child don’t suffer.”

Q. Then according to Buddhism it would still be a non-virtuous act?
Serkong Rinpoche. Protecting your wife and child is virtuous but harming your enemy is not. You have to be willing to accept the consequences of both actions.

Q. You said that those who create negative karma will suffer in the future but those who do good will experience happiness. Can these good actions lead to complete liberation, in the sense of not having to experience rebirth?
Serkong Rinpoche. If you want to gain complete liberation from cyclic existence, you have to follow the teachings of the Buddha completely and precisely. If you do so correctly, liberation from cyclic existence is definitely possible.


Lama Zopa Rinpoche explains about Heart-Spoon:

"What is a heart-spoon? When you're eating, you use a small spoon to extract the very best portion of the food in front of you. Similarly, this teaching on impermanence and death by Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo helps you extract the most precious essence from this human life: the ability to secure the happiness of all future lives, liberation from cyclic existence, and enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings."

The evil thought of the worldly concerns—supported by the concept of permanence—is constantly attacking us, interfering with our practice of Dharma, and preventing the actions of our daily life from becoming pure Dharma. The advice of the great Gelug lama Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo contained in this teaching (translated by Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Jampa Gendun) is extremely powerful in destroying the concept of permanence and the evil thought of the worldly concerns. Reading this teaching is similar to seeing a corpse: it brings your mind back to earth from its usual state of distraction, thoughts scattered like leaves in a gale. Instead of being distracted by hallucinations and wrong conceptions, you are caused to think deeply about your forthcoming death and what will happen to your consciousness at that time, what kind of life your next one will be. Such thoughts lead to the realization that you must practice Dharma continuously from now on. This is the only way to ensure a happy death.


Heartspoon: Encouragement through Recollecting Impermanence

Ah, the hurt!
Kind Lama, look to this pitiful one—
How I behave and how I’ve cheated myself my entire life.
Please, look upon this mindless one with compassion.

The essential advice to give yourself—Heart-Spoon
Keep it deep within your heart.
Don’t be distracted; don’t be distracted!
Reflect upon the state of your life from the essential drop at your heart.

Since beginningless cyclic existence, which hasn’t ended up to now,
Though you’ve experienced countless cycles of rebirths—
Just so many variations on happiness and pain—
You’ve achieved not the slightest of benefit from them.

And though at present you’ve attained leisure and fortune so difficult to find,
Always till now, they’ve finished and been lost, have been empty and without meaning.
Now, if you care about yourself,
The time has come to practice the essence of future happiness— virtuous actions.

You appear so capable, smart, and clever, but you’re a fool
As long as you cling to the child’s play of the appearances of this life.
Suddenly you’re overwhelmed by the fearful Lord of Death
And, without hope or means to endure, there’s nothing you can do.
— This is going to happen to you!

Because you think, “I’m not going to die for some time, I’m not going to die for some time,”
While you’re distracted by the never-ending activities of this life,
Suddenly the fearful Lord of Death arrives,
Announcing, “Now it’s time to die.”
— This is going to happen to you!

Though you make arrangements, saying “tomorrow” and “tomorrow,”
Just then, suddenly, you have to go.
— This is going to happen to you!
And without choice, leaving behind in disarray
Your left-off work, left food and drink, you have to depart.
— This is going to happen to you!

There’s no time other than today to spread [your bedding] and go off to sleep;
Upon your last bed you fall like an old tree,
And others, unable to turn you with their [lily]-soft hands,
Tug at your clothes and blanket.
— This is going to happen to you!

Even if you completely wrap [your body] in last under and outer clothes,
Still you have no freedom to wear them other than just today,
And when [that body] becomes as rigid as earth and stone,
You behold for the first time your own corpse.
— This is going to happen to you!

Though you struggle to speak your last words,
Your will and expressions of sorrow,
Pitifully your tongue dries up, and you can’t make yourself clear—
An intense sadness overwhelms you.
— This is going to happen to you!

Though others put your final food, holy substances, and relics
With a trickle of water into your mouth,
You’re unable to swallow even a single drop,
And it overflows from the corpse’s mouth.
— This is going to happen to you!

Though surrounded by a circle of close relatives, heart-friends, and those near to your heart,
And even though they’re loving and distressed at the ending of your being together,
While crying and clinging,
Just then, you have to separate forever.
— This is going to happen to you!

Though you [experience] horrific hallucinations like a turbulence of waves
And are overcome by unbearable, excruciating pain,
Pitiful though you may be, there’s nothing to be done;
The appearances of this life are setting [like the sun].
— This is going to happen to you!

Though with unbearable compassion your lama and vajra-friends
Plead in your ear for a critical virtuous thought to arise,
And even though they do so with loving minds,
There’s no hope; it’s unthinkable.
— This is going to happen to you!

With an [expelled rasping] sound, “sor…sor…,” [at the time of death]
The movement of your breath builds faster and faster,
Then breaks like the string of a violin
And the end of your life has come to its close.
—This is going to happen to you!

There’ll come a time when your cherished and sadly lost lovely body
Is called “corpse”—disgusting and rotten,
And a time when your body, which can’t bear even rough bedding and mattress,
Is laid out on bare ground.
— This is going to happen to you!

There’ll come a time when your body, which can’t bear even a thorn,
Is chopped to pieces and [from the bone] its flesh is torn,
And a time when your body, which can’t stand even fleas and lice,
Is devoured by birds and dogs till nothing’s left.
— This is going to happen to you!

Though you [go to so much trouble blowing] “pur…pur…,” in dressing your body in the finest of clothes,
There’ll come a time when that body is placed within a burning house,
And your body, which can’t tolerate even the fire of [a glowing stick of] incense,
Must be burned in the midst of a fiery conflagration.
— This is going to happen to you!

There’ll come a time when, entering into roaring flames, all your flesh and bones are burned
And [reduced to] a pile of ash;
Or a time when your body, which can’t bear even heavy cloth,
Is wedged tight in a hole in the ground.
— This is going to happen to you!

There’ll come a time of the announcing, “the deceased, _______, him- or herself,”
At the beginning and end of your sweet name.
— This is going to happen to you!
And a time when the area is filled with the sobbing sounds
Of your affectionate, close companions and circle of servants.
— This is going to happen to you!

There’ll come a time when your clothes, hats, possessions, and livestock will be divided up
With nothing left in the four directions and corners,
And there’ll come a time when, in total despair, alone,
You reach the passage to the intermediate state.
— This is going to happen to you!

The terrors of the four fearful enemies descending upon you are going to come:
The appearance of being trapped under a mountain of packed rock and rubble,
And buried beneath a furious avalanche of earth— what to do?
The appearance of being set adrift on the surface of a vast sea
And carried away by violent, swirling waves—what to do?
The experience of your heart and ears being split open
By the sizzling and crackling sounds of a fiery conflagration— what to do?
The fearful experience of being enveloped and swept away
By the swirling dark winds of the end of an eon— what to do?

When you’re driven by the powerful red winds of karma
And swallowed up by a terrifying darkness—what to do?

When you’re bound with a lasso by the messengers of Yama
And, in total despair, are led away—what to do?

When you’re tortured in so many detestable ways
By ox- and scorpion-headed karmic agents—what to do?

When you’re before the Yama king, the Lord of Death,
As he weighs up the whites and blacks—your virtuous and non-virtuous actions—what to do?

When Yama exposes your lie of having spent
Your human life in attachment, hatred, and deceit— what to do?

When at Yama’s court the punishment that is the ripening effect
Of your negative actions [is meted out]—what to do?

When your naked body is stretched out on the glowing red-hot iron
ground in the fires of hell—what to do?

Though your body is cut to pieces by a rain of weapons,
Still you must experience it without dying—what to do?

Though you’re cooked in molten iron until your flesh falls away and your bones disintegrate,
Still you must experience it without dying—what to do?

Though your body and fire burn inseparably,
Still you must experience it without dying—what to do?

When your body is pierced by a freezing cold wind
And cracks into a hundred thousand pieces—what to do?

Having fallen into the miserable state of a hungry ghost with its hunger and thirst,
You have to starve for many years—what to do?

When you’ve become one of those stupid, dumb, unfortunate animals
That eat each other alive—what to do?

When the unbearable sufferings of the evil-gone realms
Have actually befallen you—what to do?

Now! Don’t be distracted! [With the sounds of hurrying] “la…ur…la…ur…,”
Right this moment is the time to steel your will.

It’s not only time—it’s almost too late.
Right now! Right now! “La…ur…la…ur…,” [apply yourself with] great force!

Holy precept of the lama, kind father;
Heart of the authoritative scriptures of the Victorious Losang;
Practice of the pure path of complete sutra and tantra;
It’s time to place real experience upon your mindstream.

Who’s the faster:
Yama, the Lord of Death,
Or you in your practice of realizing the essence of your eternal dream—
The welfare of both yourself and others—as much as you can each day?
Unifying the three doors [of your body, speech, and mind],
Put the whole of your effort into your practice.

COLOPHON

In response to a request in the past from Ngawang Nyandrag, who singlepointedly dedicated his life to practice, and a recent request from the manager of the Potala, Pelshi Kunngo Sönam Kunga, I was persuaded [to compose] for myself and all others "Heart-Spoon: Encouragement through Recollecting Impermanence". I, with the incarnation name of Pabongka, wrote this text at Tashi Dechen Monastery at Drula in the district of Kong.

[It was translated into English from Tibetan by Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Gelong Jampa Gendun at Chenrezig Institute, Australia, on the auspicious occasion of its twentieth anniversary, September 1994.

Whatever merit may have been accumulated through the translation of these profound holy vajra-words of Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo—Heruka in human form—may they immediately and completely fulfill all his vast and profound wishes. And may anyone who touches this text, sees, hears, recalls, or practices it receive the blessings of holy Pabongka upon their mindstream and may they and all other sentient beings have the realization of impermanence in terms of death—the basis of the Lesser, Perfection, and Vajra Vehicles—and, quickly actualizing bodhicitta, may they all swiftly reach buddhahood.]

MAY GOODNESS AND VIRTUE FLOURISH