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.
Lama Tsongkhapa said in The Three Principal Aspects of the Path:
Although you practise renunciation and bodhi-mind,
Without wisdom, the realisation of voidness,
You cannot cut the root of samsara.
Therefore, strive to understand dependent origination.
Although there are many inconceivable benefits and advantages to developing the altruistic intention to become enlightened for the benefit of all sentient beings, if we do not develop the wisdom that realises selflessness or emptiness, there is no way we can free ourselves or others from samsara (or cyclic existence), to achieve the state of enlightenment. Therefore, developing bodhicitta alone is not enough. We must also develop the wisdom that realises emptiness, because of the reason given by Lama Tsongkhapa in the above verse.
The very root of samsara is the self-grasping ignorance: our grasping at the self of the person, conceiving the person as existing by way of its own character and our grasping at the self of phenomena, conceiving phenomena as existing by way of their own character.
In order to destroy these self-graspings, we must develop a mind that can counter such ignorance, realising how its mode of apprehension is mistaken and wrong. This is the only way to cut the root of samsara.
These two are called the method and wisdom aspects of the path. In order to fly, a bird needs a pair of wings. Having one wing alone is insufficient. In the same way, in order to achieve the state of full enlightenment, we need method and wisdom.
Dependent arising & lack of inherent existence
Lama Tsongkhapa said in The Three Principal Aspects of the Path:
One who sees the infallible cause and effect
Of all phenomena in samsara and nirvana
And destroys all false perceptions
Has entered the path that pleases the Buddha.
First, we need to understand how all phenomena including samsara and nirvana arise dependently, i.e. they came about through depending on something else. Understanding that, we then understand that things do not exist in the way they appear to our minds. When we look at phenomena, we grasp at them as being truly existent. We have to understand that phenomena do not exist in this way. With this understanding, we would have entered the path that pleases the Buddha.
A good understanding of dependent arising enhances our ascertainment of the law of cause and effect - the better our understanding, the greater will be our ascertainment of the law of cause and effect, that when we engage in positive actions, we will experience happiness; when we engage in negative actions, it will lead to suffering.
Through understanding how all things do not exist inherently, we will see how the law of cause and effect work and exist conventionally. It will also help our understanding of dependent arising, that conventionally there is such a thing as dependent origination.
“Not existing inherently,” means that all phenomena exist by depending on something else and on that basis are given labels. This understanding of dependent arising would enhance our understanding of the working of the law of cause and effect. Believing things exist truly contradicts this law, that causes lead to effects.
It is very problematic when we believe phenomena exist inherently from their own side. For example, if the seed exists inherently, then it is very difficult to explain how it can transform into a plant. When we assert that lower realms or good rebirths exist inherently, it is difficult to explain how we can move from one realm to another. When we say sentient beings exist inherently, it becomes difficult to explain how sentient beings can become buddhas. In the same way, if a baby or young person exists inherently, then it is very difficult to explain how that person will age.
We must not leave things at that but really try to figure them out in our minds. For example, when we assert that a youngster inherently exists, it is tantamount to saying that that he will never get old. We have to understand why there is a problem with such assertions and how that problem comes about.
Through the merit created by preparing, reading, thinking about and sharing this book with others, may all teachers of the Dharma live long and healthy lives, may the Dharma spread throughout the infinite reaches of space, and may all sentient beings quickly attain enlightenment.
In whichever realm, country, area or place this book may be, may there be no war, drought, famine, disease, injury, disharmony or unhappiness, may there be only great prosperity, may everything needed be easily obtained, and may all be guided by only perfectly qualified Dharma teachers, enjoy the happiness of Dharma, have love and compassion for all sentient beings, and only benefit and never harm each other.
The Guru Yoga of Tushita’s Deva Host (Bla-ma’i-rnal-‘byor-dga’-ldan-lha-brgya-ma)
Today the teaching will be a brief discourse on the practice of guru yoga called Gan dän lha gyäi ma. Both Gan dän lha gyäi ma and the Guru Puja are guru yoga in connection with Lama Tsongkhapa. The only difference between them is in the elaboration of the words. In meaning they are exactly the same.
The qualities we need to develop most are wisdom, compassion and power. The practice of this guru yoga in connection with Lama Tsongkhapa is the best method to accomplish all three. Through the practice of this guru yoga we can accomplish these three attributes of the Buddha, particularly his wisdom. Since you have all come here with the will to practice guru yoga, if you listen carefully and practice every day it will be very beneficial for you.
In ultimate nature, Lama Tsongkhapa is form combined with the wisdom, power and compassion of every buddha. When Lama Tsongkhapa manifests in the wrathful form of a Highest Yoga Tantra deity, it is Yamantaka. When he appears in the peaceful form of a bodhisattva, a buddha, it is Manjushri. When he appears in the form of a human being as a master guru of many sentient beings, it is Lama Tsongkhapa. What we see on the altar is a statue of Lama Tsongkhapa.
The full life story of Lama Tsongkhapa is beyond explanation. It comes in such a big volume that it cannot be finished in a few hours. Also it is not necessary at this time to give you a full biography of Lama Tsongkhapa. Lama Tsongkhapa is one with Manjushri. Therefore, the actual nature, the essential nature of Lama Tsongkhapa is the wisdom attribute of the Buddha. There are various ways of accomplishing and increasing wisdom. But this method, the practice of guru yoga in connection with Guru Manjushri is the best method. It is the supreme method for the accomplishment of wisdom.
Many people think that this planet on which we live, this small Earth, is the only world, the center of the universe or the only world with beings. People may think this, but it’s not right. There are countless worlds smaller and larger than this; countless realms of beings other than this Earth on which we live. There are countless impure realms like this one, where beings are endowed with suffering; completely oppressed with suffering, karma and delusion and so forth. There are countless such worlds in the universe and also there are countless pure worlds, pure realms where beings are free from this kind of suffering.
Among these pure realms, the Buddha Heavenly Abode of Tushita is one of such pure realms where beings are separate from all the gross forms of suffering and their cause and even the word suffering does not exist. But it is not the Tushita that is a few yards away [Lama Yeshe’s Tushita Retreat Centre, Dharamsala]. Generally speaking, Tushita is a deva realm. There are many different deva worlds and ordinary Tushita is one of the deva worlds. Tushita Buddha Abode belongs to and is part of the ordinary Tushita deva land but it is separate and much higher—in reality and in essence.
It is in the higher realms of this Tushita of which we are speaking—the one that is separate from the ordinary deva land Tushita—that buddhas, bodhisattvas and many other beings live. They are all completely free from suffering. Of course, the buddhas are completely free from suffering, but even the bodhisattvas and other unenlightened beings are much higher and free from these gross obstacles. By the blessing of the environment itself it is easy for these beings to practice Dharma and to progress and develop their minds. Here, virtuous qualities of mind such as compassion, love and so forth are easy to generate and increase. So, it is a purely heavenly abode where the beings are free from all obstacles and suffering and endowed with everything necessary for spiritual development.
Also the qualities of the Tushita pure land, such as the beautiful flowers, lakes, mountains and so forth there, are not just ordinary substantial phenomena, but manifestations of the buddha mind, reflections of the great beings who live there. The qualities of this abode are beyond the comprehension of ordinary beings. Even the sound of the leaves blown by the wind gives teachings on emptiness, bodhicitta and so forth, and the songs of the beautiful birds in the trees are also Dharma teachings.
From here, in India, the direction of Tushita is to the north, high above us in space. At present, the lord of this abode is Buddha Maitreya. [Geshe Rabten points to his altar.] That painting up there is one form of Buddha Maitreya and that little statue to the left side of Lama Tsongkhapa is Maitreya Buddha. Buddha Maitreya is the lord of this abode Tushita but is not like a worldly lord, like a king or ruler of a country. He is the lama, the master of all those bodhisattvas and other beings who live in this world. He is constantly turning the wheel of Dharma for the sake of the beings who live in Tushita and the other bodhisattvas who come there from other worlds to receive the nectar of Buddha Maitreya’s teachings.
At present in this world in which we live, the Dharma of Buddha Shakyamuni is still flourishing. But this will gradually degenerate and completely end, after which a new era of Dharma will start. That will begin by Buddha Maitreya appearing in this world. Lama Tsongkhapa is, in one way, as I explained before, the combined form of all the attributes of Buddha Maitreya in nature. But at present, he is in Tushita in the form of a bodhisattva called Jampel Nyingpo, remaining there in that form as a chief disciple of Buddha Maitreya. Also, Lama Atisha is also there place in the form of a bodhisattva called Namkha Trimame, another chief disciple of Buddha Maitreya. But although Lama Sumati Kirti [Losang Dragpa, that is, Lama Tsongkhapa] is in Tushita at the feet of Buddha Maitreya, as disciple, as prince of the devas there, other manifestations of him are also in many different forms in many different worlds. Even in this world, there are countless forms of Lama Sumati Kirti helping sentient beings. There are many scriptural sources, stories and reasons to prove that Lama Tsongkhapa is presently with Buddha Maitreya, but I won’t explain them at this time as it would take too long.
Practicing the guru yoga of Lama Tsongkhapa is of great benefit because it establishes a great relationship with Lama Tsongkhapa, Manjushri and Buddha Maitreya as well. It becomes a preparation for us to be able to reincarnate at the feet of Buddha Maitreya when our present life ends and continue towards accomplishing our goal in Tushita.
When practicing this guru yoga, we invite, or invoke, Lama Tsongkhapa from the heart of Buddha Maitreya. I will explain from the beginning what we must do in this guru yoga, including the preparation.
To practice this guru yoga you should first clean your place, the environment in which you are going to meditate. Then, if you have a thangka, statue or picture of Lama Tsongkhapa to serve as a base, or an object, of your meditation, that would be highly beneficial. At the front of that you should arrange all your offerings nicely; place everything in a pure, proper and correct way…the water offering, flowers, incense, light, fruit and so forth.
Then sit facing the altar and begin your practice by inviting Lama Tsongkhapa from Tushita from the heart of Buddha Maitreya and then make the offerings, prostrations and the following limbs.
However, it is not enough just to invite the deity; you must also make certain preparations from within yourself. The best such preparation is to take refuge in the Triple Gem and generate bodhicitta.
Kön chhog sum la kyab su dro
Sem chän tham chä dag gi dröl
Jang chhub nä la gö par gyi
Jang chhub sem ni yang dag kye
I go to the Triple Gem for refuge
I will liberate all sentient beings
And lead them to (or establish them in) the stage of bodhi (full enlightenment)
I will perfectly generate bodhicitta
I will not explain refuge and bodhicitta in detail because I have already explained these in previous teachings.
First we take refuge in the Triple Gem. After taking refuge, what we wish and are willing to do is liberate all sentient beings from all suffering. Therefore, the second line is, “I will liberate all sentient beings.” By liberating all sentient beings from suffering, then where will we lead them; to what kind of stage? It is to liberation, or nirvana, that we wish to lead them. This nirvana is not the ordinary nirvana of the arhats but the ultimate bodhi stage of buddhahood. Therefore, the third line is:
And for that purpose, to liberate sentient beings from suffering and lead them to the stage of enlightenment, then what I want to do, what I am going to do, comes in the next line:
We should recite the above verse three times, not only repeating the words but contemplating the meaning deeply.
After this comes another verse blessing the place or the environment:
Tham chä du ni sa zhi dag
Seg ma la sog me pa dang
Lag thil tar nyam bäiduryäi
Rang zhin jam por nä gyur chig
Everywhere may the ground be pure,
Free of the roughness of pebbles and so forth
May it be in the nature of lapis lazuli
And as smooth as the palm of one’s hand
That is the blessing of the ground, the place where you are meditating. Then there follows another verse to bless the offerings:
Lha dang mi yi chhö päi dzä
Ngö su sham dang yi kyi trül
Kün zang chhö trin la na me
Nam khäi kham kün khyab gyur chig
May human and divine offerings
Actually arranged and mentally created
Clouds of finest Samantabhadra offerings
Fill the entirety of space
There are two purposes of meditation. One is to purify all obstacles and interferences; the other is to grow and develop all the inner qualities. Blessing of the environment—preparing the pure ground, or place, for your meditation—symbolizes purification of the obstacles, all inner roughness. Making infinite offerings to the buddhas symbolizes infinite development of all inner qualities and richnesses.
Now, the actual visualization of this guru yoga will be explained according to this illustration. If you can find such a picture it will be beneficial. The place above Lama Tsongkhapa is the Tushita abode, the abode of Buddha Maitreya. The actuality of this abode is beyond painting or drawing, but to symbolize this actuality we see some radiance, clouds and things like that around the palace. The Tushita pure land is not dependent on the light of the sun or moon. It does not have to be illuminated by some other astrological body; it is illuminated by the radiance of the beings that live there.
The central figure in Tushita is Buddha Maitreya. He is shown demonstrating the Dharmachakra mudra, the gesture of turning the wheel of Dharma. He is not sitting cross legged but on a chair. The significance of this special position is that it shows that he is prepared to get up soon—he is not fully relaxed, settled or firmly seated; he is just about to get up and come into this world as the successor of Buddha Shakyamuni. Showing the Dharmachakra mudra means that he is constantly turning the wheel of Dharma for the benefit of sentient beings, now and also after life in this world.
There are also some other smaller figures to each side of Maitreya Buddha: Atisha and Lama Tsongkhapa’s Nyingma lama, Lhodrag Namkha Gyeltsen. These are the chief disciples and there is also a great assembly of bodhisattvas and many other beings surrounding Buddha Maitreya, receiving Mahayana teachings from him.
After taking refuge, generating bodhicitta, purifying the place, blessing the offerings and so forth, we begin the actual guru yoga by inviting Lama Tsongkhapa from the heart of Buddha Maitreya.
Gan dän lha gyäi gön gyi thug ka nä
Rab kar zho sar pung träi chhu dzin tser
Chhö kyi gyäl po kün khyen lo zang drag
Sä d’ang chä pa nä dir sheg su söl
You who emanate from the heart of the savior of the hundred devas’ Joyful Realm
On the peak of a cloud (water holder) resembling clumps of extremely fresh white curd
The king of Dharma, omniscience Losang Dragpa, with your sons:
I request you to come to this place
This is the invitation. Ganden is Tushita in Tibetan and lha gyä literally means the hundred devas of Tushita, “hundred” being not literal but meaning very many buddhas and bodhisattvas. Gön means lord, or savior. So, the one who is the lord of the hundred devas of Tushita is Maitreya Buddha, who is lord not in the sense of a worldly lord leading a country but in the sense of being the spiritual master, leader or guide of all those beings.
When we meditate here, it’s not that we are inviting Lama Tsongkhapa with strong devotion but up there, Buddha Maitreya and the others are paying no attention to us and just keeping themselves busy with whatever they’re doing. It’s not like that. The way we should meditate is that they are all paying full attention to us, completely involved with what we’re doing. All the bodhisattvas, and Buddha Maitreya in particular, are looking directly down at us with radiant smiles, with much affection and love, looking at us, ready to help.
Thug ka nä means from the heart. This is where Lama Tsongkhapa comes out from. First a pure white radiant cloud, which is in the nature of compassion, emanates from Buddha Maitreya’s heart, or holy mind—the love that Buddha Maitreya has for the sentient beings of this world. It is not just an ordinary cloud but one with deep meaning, symbolizing the purity and perfection of his great compassion. It should be as white and radiant as possible and very thick, like a heap of fresh, white curd. The thickness of the cloud symbolizes Buddha Maitreya’s strong love and compassion for sentient beings. It springs out and rolls down and remains there in front of us. If you meditate and practice seriously, you sit quietly in your room, read the words slowly, then visualize as clearly as possible with all your effort. The cloud rolls down and stops in front of you. At its end there is a large heap of cloud. This is like preparing the way and the seat.
In front of you there are three big heaps of clouds. On the central cluster is a golden throne decorated with precious stones. To each side of it there is a lower, smaller throne. The golden throne is supported by eight lions and on it are a lotus and a moon disk. Then, after visualizing this cloud, when we recite the last two lines of this verse, Lama Tsongkhapa and his two chief disciples, or spiritual sons—Gyältsab Rinpoche and Khädrub Rinpoche—emanate from the heart of Buddha Maitreya. Lama Tsongkhapa is an emanation of the wisdom of all the buddhas; Gyältsab Rinpoche is an emanation of the compassion of Maitreya; and Khädrub Rinpoche is an emanation of the power of Maitreya. These three, master and spiritual sons, come down on the white cloud. They spring forth instantly and come down effortlessly, without any difficulty, like being completely tired after a long journey with heavy luggage on their backs; not like that. They come down instantly, suddenly; spontaneously. Lama Tsongkhapa and his two chief spiritual sons are one in nature, but when the compassion of Lama Tsongkhapa takes form it is on his right side as Gyältsab Rinpoche and when his power takes form it is on his left side as Khädrub Rinpoche. But all three are one in nature. Therefore, when we practice this kind of guru yoga it helps us accomplish all three attributes of the Buddha: wisdom, power and compassion.
Lama Tsongkhapa is called the king of Dharma not because he is some great monarch who rules over many subjects but because he is an emanation of the wisdom of all the buddhas. Fully accomplished wisdom is that which rules over all of Dharma. Therefore, Lama Tsongkhapa is called the king of Dharma. It is similar when he is called omniscient. In Tibetan, kün khyen means one who knows all—because Lama Tsongkhapa is an emanation of the wisdom of all buddhas, he is omniscient. Nothing is hidden from the Buddha mind. Losang Dragpa (Skt: Sumati Kirti) is his human name, his Dharma name as a human being. So, we are requesting the assembly of all three, master and spiritual sons, to come down and remain in front of us.
The actual way to accomplish wisdom, the method to employ, comes at the end of this guru yoga, where the guru mantra of Lama Tsongkhapa is recited.
Requesting to have a stable life
This second verse is the request to always remain in front of us.
Dün gyi nam khar seng thri pä däi teng
Je tsün la ma gye päi dzum kar chän
Dag lo dä päi sö nam zhing chhog tu
Tän pa gyä chhir käl gyar zhug su söl
In the sky before me, on a lion throne, lotus and moon disk,
The jetsun lama smiles with delight.
Supreme field of the merit of mind’s devotion,
I beg you to abide for a hundred eons to increase the teachings.
Dün gyi nam khar means in the sky, or space, in front of us—about two meters; not too high, not too low, but about the level of our forehead. At that spot there is the heap of cloud, which is in three parts, as explained before. On the center one is the golden throne with lotus and moon disk. On top of that sits Lama Tsongkhapa. On each side of the main throne are two smaller golden ones, also with lotus and moon disks, on which are seated the two chief disciples.
These golden thrones are supported by lions. Actually, they are lions in appearance, but in nature they have the quality of the enlightened mind. Among animals, the lion is king; the victorious one who is not afraid of any other animal. The throne of the lama is supported by four lions, which symbolize the four great qualities of the buddha mind called the four fearlessnesses.
On each golden throne supported by four lions is first a lotus disk, or seat, whose nature is Lama Tsongkhapa’s fully accomplished renunciation. On top of that is a moon disk, or seat, whose nature is Lama Tsongkhapa’s fully accomplished bodhicitta. On top of that sits Lama Tsongkhapa, who himself is in the nature of wisdom, the fully accomplished right view of shunyata. Thus, these three—lotus, moon and lama—symbolize the three principal aspects of the path.
The words in this practice are very simple and easy to read but have extremely profound meanings. Just the words je-tsün lama are highly significant. Je signifies the path in common with the small scope; tsün signifies the path in common with the medium scope; lama signifies the path of high scope. Lama Tsongkhapa, by practicing all these three stages of the path and gradually accomplishing them, finally accomplished the state of buddhahood.
Gye päi dzum kar chän means smiles radiantly with delight, with a radiant delightful smile, which means that Lama Tsongkhapa and his two chief disciples, the three lamas, are looking down on us, not in an unhappy or displeased way but in a radiantly smiling way full of compassion, love and affection. The way the lamas look at us delightedly rather than unhappily is an auspicious preparation for our always being able to please our lamas and never disappoint them and have a close relationship with them.
Dag lo dä päi means the faith and devotion of our mind; expressing the strong faith in and devotion to our lama in our mind. Out of strong devotion we want to accumulate great merit in connection with our lama. The supreme field for accumulating merit out of devotion is the lama, therefore, we request Lama Tsongkhapa to always remain so that we can create merit in the highest possible way.
Tän pa gyä chhir käl gyar zhug su söl. Apart from acting as the supreme field for accumulating merit out of devotion, there’s another reason for asking the lama to abide, which is for the dissemination, or flourishing, of the Dharma in the ten directions. For that purpose we also request you, the jetsun lama, to remain for a hundred eons (Skt: kalpa).
Since the flourishing of the Dharma and the happiness of sentient beings is the supreme request, there is no request superior to it, therefore, in this particular practice, it is placed here first. Generally in the seven limb puja, the request for the long life of the lama or the buddhas is the sixth of the seven limbs. But here, because it is such an important request, it is explained first of all.
As I explained before, the most important object—the Triple Lama—is visualized front and center, but also, all of space surrounding the lamas is filled with clouds of offerings, as we visualized at the beginning. So, when meditating on this, we visualize in space many offering deities—many offering gods and goddesses holding various offering objects—on the clouds to either side and above the three lamas.
She jäi khyön kün jäl wäi lo drö thug
Käl zang na wäi gyän gyur leg shä sung
Drag päi päl gyi lham mer dze päi ku
Thong thö drän pä dön dän la chhag tshäl
Your holy mind understands the full extent of objects to be known.
Your eloquent speech is the ear-ornament of the fortunate ones.
Your holy body is glowing and glorious with fame.
To you, who is meaningful to see, hear and remember, I prostrate.
Next, following the usual order of the seven limb puja, which here we are offering to Lama Tsongkhapa, comes the limb of prostration. We prostrate to the lama by expressing the qualities of his body, speech and mind. Usually when we prostrate to and praise the body, speech and mind of the Buddha, we do it in that order—body, speech and mind—but in this guru yoga, mind comes first, then speech, then body.
We start with mind instead of body because in essence, Lama Tsongkhapa is, in nature, the wisdom of the Buddha; wisdom is the essential aspect of the enlightened mind. Therefore, instead of body, we first praise the buddha mind, the mental quality of the Buddha, of the lama. She jäi khyön kün means the entire extent of knowable objects, everything that exists; jäl wäi means to realize or cognize. So the entire extent of knowable phenomena is realized or cognized by what power? It is realized by the power of the buddha mind, the omniscient mind of the lama.
The second line of this verse praises the qualities of Lama Tsongkhapa’s holy speech. Käl zang na wäi means the ear of the fortunate ones, those who have received the opportunity to practice Dharma in general and the Mahayana in particular. People who have the great fortune of following and practicing the Mahayana Dharma are the most fortunate ones. This ear ornament, gyän gyur, is not an ornament like the earrings Indian women wear. The true ear ornament of the fortunate is not material but is the eloquent speech, leg shä sung, the teaching of the Buddha that is well explained, vast and profound. This is the true ear ornament of the fortunate.
When the fortunate ones, those who practice the Mahayana Dharma, hear a teaching of the vast and profound Buddhadharma, it pleases their ear sense. Therefore, it is called an ear ornament. If that’s true for the Mahayana in general, what need is there to specify the teachings of Lama Tsongkhapa? They are unbelievably deep, profound, vast and clear; not indecisive, but extremely decisive and definite. They dig the depths of the Buddha’s teachings and make them clear. In Tibet, the Dharma masters used to say that if you’re undecided about the meaning of a teaching, look to the teachings of Je Tsongkhapa, because they are so decisive.
The next line praises the qualities of Lama Tsongkhapa’s holy body. Because of his omniscient mind and eloquent speech, as explained before, he became extremely famous in the Land of Snows, Tibet, for the glory of his being. Everybody praised him.
Since Lama Tsongkhapa came along later, he did not go to India to receive teachings from the Indian masters, but there’s not a single part of all hundred volumes of teachings of the Buddha in the Kangyur that Lama Tsongkhapa didn’t study and learn. There’s no way to explain in just a few words Lama Tsongkhapa’s qualities. If you are interested you can read his extensive biography, which explains in his life in great detail.
Not only was Lama Tsongkhapa extremely learned in all the texts but he was also highly realized, having gained many great inner experiences through the practice of tantra. If you are really interested, you can read another biography called In Praise of the Sacred Life: the Story of Lama Tsongkhapa, which makes all this very clear. If you can receive teachings on that text it will be evident. What I am giving here is just a very simple introduction. If you want to know these things more deeply, you’ll need to receive teachings particularly on his life.
So, drag päi päl means the glory of fame and lham mer dze päi ku means resplendent form, or that merely his appearance is very powerful and glorious. Just by his appearance he overshadows or overpowers all those who see the manifestation of his form. This power of his appearance is not external power; it is inner power. Through his inner realizations, his inner power, his appearance becomes so powerful to sentient beings that it completely releases them from their life sufferings.
His power not being external means that he has no high rank, social status or external superiority. As you probably know, Lama Tsongkhapa was born in Amdo in East Tibet in a poor family. In the same way that many students came from far eastern Tibet in those days—begging for food along the way and carrying their bedding and other small things on their back on a bamboo frame—Lama Tsongkhapa himself also traveled alone to Lhasa, in central Tibet. It took him about six or seven months. Once there, he met many great masters and not only put great effort into studying all the teachings of the Buddha, but he also meditated on them, realized their profound meaning, and became so glorious that he became like the sun, completely illuminating the whole of Tibet with the light of Dharma. There are many other things like this that could be explained, but we don’t have enough time to go into them now.
The fourth line of this verse tells us that because Lama Tsongkhapa is endowed with such a body, speech and mind, to see his physical manifestation, to hear his name or about his life or to listen to his teachings, and to remember him from our mind becomes beneficial, worthwhile and very fruitful for us. Of course we have to prostrate to the lamas, but first we should know the reason for doing so. If we don’t know why we are prostrating, then even if we do bow down, it won’t become particularly beneficial or be sensible to do so. When we bow down to someone, we need to know the qualities of the object of prostration to make it meaningful. Therefore, this brief explanation of Lama Tsongkhapa’s body, speech and mind are explained. The purpose of prostration is to express our respect and to accumulate merit; this is enhanced by knowing the details of the life and qualities of the object of prostration. Prostration is also an antidote to pride.
After prostration, the next limb is offering. The material offerings you are making should already have been placed on your altar before beginning the puja. The offering limb comes in these lines:
Yi wong chhö yön na tshog me tog dang
Dri zhim dug pö nang säl dri chhab sog
Ngo sham yi trül chhö trin gya tsho di
Sö nam zhing chhog khyö la chhö par bül
Beautiful drinking water, various arranged flowers,
Fragrant incense, light, scented water and so forth;
Actually performed and mentally transformed oceans of clouds of offerings
I offer to you, the supreme field of merit.
Yi wong means pleasing. That means the offerings should be pure, clean and good in appearance. Making an offering that doesn’t even please ourselves is not at all good for the accumulation of merit. Yi wong chhö yön actually means pleasing water offerings, but it doesn’t have to be only water. We can also offer tea, milk, yogurt or any other kind of liquid. However, in this practice it is not right to offer wine, beer, spirits and so forth because Lama Tsongkhapa was a bhikshu. Na tshog me tog means various flowers, many, many different kinds of flowers, some as individual stems, some as garlands and some as flowers for house decoration. There are many different ways to offer flowers. If we can get actual flowers we should offer them by placing them at the front of the altar, but if we can’t, we still have the right to offer all the flowers growing wild in fields and on mountains and cultivated flowers in people’s gardens and in the park. You can offer all these beautiful flowers mentally and make an immense offering of them to the lamas.
The next line talks about offering incense and so forth. We should offer incense that smells good, but the fragrant incense and scented water we offer should be natural and pure, like from sandalwood and flowers, not chemical perfumes and powders or the smell of soap or anything like that. If such natural fragrances are not available we can create them in our mind. Visualize that all of space, the whole environment, is filled with the fragrance of flowers, sandalwood and so forth. Dri zhim dug pö is fragrant incense and nang säl is light.
The light we offer is not only that of butter lamps, candles and so forth—whatever’s on your altar—but also the light of the sun and the moon. You can even offer the electric lights of cities and so forth. Basically, we offer whatever helps illuminate darkness. In the West, big parks, for example, are very beautiful at night, with all their light displays. All these beautiful appearances we take not for ourselves, for our own pleasure, but in order to make an offering of them to the lama. Take it mentally and, in this case, offer it to please Lama Tsongkhapa.
Dri chhab is scented water. This scented water is also natural: sandalwood water, rose water, saffron water and so forth. It is not artificial perfume. If we have this kind of natural scented water we put it in a cup or bowl and offer it. Although it is meant for the body of the lama, we don’t pour it onto the pictures or statues because it might damage them. Sog means and so forth or the like. Here, sog includes the food offerings, the music offerings, and all the other offerings, such as garments etc. These are explained in detail in the offering part of the Bodhicaryavatara.
In the next line, ngö sham means actually arranged, or performed, and refers to those few offerings that we have put on the altar. But we have to offer much more than that. Thus we have yi trül, which means manifested from or created by the mind, a huge collection of offerings that fills all of space. All these vast clouds (chhö trin) of offerings are like an ocean (gya tsho)—in other words, very many.
The last line of this verse refers to the fact that in order to attain buddhahood we need to accumulate vast stores of merit and the best means of doing this is with our guru, our lama; here, Lama Tsongkhapa who is, in essence, our own root guru. There is nothing superior to this, therefore he is referred to as the supreme field of merit, sö nam shing chhog. For example, by sowing grape seeds in a field we obtain a great crop of grapes. Similarly, by accumulating merit in relation to the supreme field of the guru, we obtain the greatest of all results, the supreme fruit of buddhahood. In this way, the lama is also a field that yields fruit, but the fruit we obtain is the supreme fruit, the ultimate goal, therefore the lama is referred to as the supreme field, very different from an ordinary, worldly field.
The next verse is the limb of confession. Here we confess all our downfalls, all the non-virtuous actions that we have accumulated, in front of Lama Tsongkhapa. This comes in these lines:
Gang zhig thog me dü nä sag pa yi
Lü ngag yi kyi mi ge chi gyi dang
Khyä par dom pa sum gyi mi thün chhog
Nying nä gyö pä drag pö so sor shag
Whatever non-virtues of body, speech and mind,
And especially, actions opposite to the three vows
That I have created from beginningless time,
From the bottom of my heart, I regret and fervently confess them all individually.
The first line is different in some texts, where it is dag gi thog me instead of gang zhig thog me but it means more or less the same thing. Dag gi is actually clearer than gang zhig. Gang zhig refers to the actual downfall itself whereas dag gi means “by me,” the one who actually accumulated these downfalls.
There can be another difference in some texts, where it says lü ngag yi sum, which means “by the three doors of body, speech and mind,” instead of lü ngag yi kyi, which means simply “by body, speech and mind.” It can be either way; it doesn’t really matter.
Thog me dü nä means from beginningless time. All the non-virtuous actions that we have accumulated in the past up to now, from time immemorial up to this moment, all that we have done in the past…this is what it means. What we have accumulated from time immemorial are so many non-virtuous actions—killing and so forth—by body. We have also accumulated countless non-virtuous actions of speech, such as lying. And by mind, we have created even more. To be very precise, we can say that almost every thought we have had has been non-virtuous. That is how much non-virtue we have accumulated through our mind.
We don’t remember most of the non-virtuous actions that we have accumulated in this life, but we should at least be able to remember the gross ones, the most important ones. But while we can be fairly sure of the major negativities we have created in this life, we might have some doubt about the non-virtues that we have accumulated in our past lives. However, we can see that we have a natural tendency to accumulate non-virtuous actions—nobody has to teach us and we don’t have to make any effort to learn them. Very naturally and spontaneously we accumulate many non-virtuous actions. This inherent tendency to create non-virtuous actions in this life is the fruit of past non-virtues, a clear sign of the great acquaintance we developed with non-virtuous actions in past lives.
For example, when actors or dancers they develop acquaintance with their parts and moves they become so accustomed to what they’re doing that their performances become very natural and spontaneous. They don’t have to think about what they’re doing at all. Every movement of their body, every song, comes without effort. Simultaneously, our present spontaneous tendency to create non-virtuous actions is the best proof of the existence of past lives and the accumulation of non-virtuous actions in those lives as well.
The next line says, “And especially, actions opposite to the three vows.” In other words, in addition to all the non-virtuous actions that we have accumulated in general, we also have some extra ones that we have accumulated in connection with the various vows we have taken. Most of us have taken all different kinds of pratimoksha vows: upasaka/upasika,shramanera/shramanerika and bhikshu/bhikshuni vows. In addition to those, many of us have also taken tantric initiations in which we have received bodhisattva and tantric vows. Anyway, each of us should know what vows we have taken. However, more—far more—than the number of vows we have taken, are the transgressions of those vows that we have accumulated; so many that they completely pour over us like monsoon rain. If we look at our daily life very precisely—for example, if we look honestly at what we have done from this morning up to this moment—we’ll find that even in this very short period we have already accumulated many transgressions of our pratimoksha, bodhisattva and tantric vows.
The final line of this verse reads, “From the bottom of my heart, I regret and fervently confess them all individually.” Nying nä means from the heart. Gyö pä drag pö means with very strong repentance. This means that simply uttering a few words while feeling nothing in our heart is not confession; this does not help us purify our non-virtuous actions. We need to confess non-virtuous actions with strong repentance from the depths of our heart. So sor shag has two different meanings: one is the confession of each negative action individually, one by one; the other is to confess again and again. So sor can be interpreted either way; however, interpreting it as again and again is deeper, more beneficial. It is not enough for us to confess our non-virtuous actions just once. We need to remember and confess them again and again.
Nyig mäi dü dir mang thö drub la tsön
Chhö gyä pang pä däl jor dön yö je
Gön po khyö kyi lab chhen dzä pa la
Dag chag sam pa thag pä yi rang ngo
In this time of the five degenerations, you strove for many listenings and realizations,
And made meaningful the perfect human rebirth
By renouncing the eight worldly dharmas.
In the savior’s extensive deeds I rejoice sincerely from the depths of my heart.
This is a time of degeneration of the Dharma. The great bodhisattvas and others who practice bodhicitta purposely take birth among sentient beings in such degenerate periods in order to help when it is really needed. The time of Lama Tsongkhapa’s birth was also during this period of the five degenerations, when
1. Beings’ lives are short;
2. There is much fighting and trouble among sentient beings;
3. Delusions are very strong and manifest grossly;
4. Wrong views about Dharma, karma and so forth abound among sentient beings; and
5. All energy, possessions and material power are deteriorating.
So, Lama Tsongkhapa appeared at a time when these five signs were flourishing. He was greatly learned and knew all the texts from India as well as their Tibetan commentaries. He had studied all Nyingma, Kagyü, Kadam and Sakya lineages and received all the practices and teachings of the different traditions. It is very beneficial to study his life.
Mang thö means he had much learning and drub la tsön means he made a great effort to practice. Lama Manjushri appeared to Lama Tsongkhapa and urged him to meditate, so he went directly to meditate as soon as possible. Some people may think that because Lama Tsongkhapa was a great guru and a famous master that he was of high rank and had many luxuries and things like that, but that’s not at all how it was. He didn’t lead that kind of life.
When he and his eight chief disciples left for meditation they went as hermits, without any belongings or possessions. Before they left for retreat Lama Tsongkhapa and his disciples collected everything that they had except their robes and monk’s bowls and sold them to use whatever money they got for offerings. Even so, they had very little money, just a few Tibetan tsang, which is like a few rupees. So, they made offerings by selling their possessions, then left completely for meditation.
First they put much energy into their preliminary practices, living on the mountain, each of them in a different cave. Lama Tsongkhapa himself put great effort into his preliminary practices because they are the foundation of all spiritual development. For example, he made so many mandala offerings using a flat piece of stone as a mandala base that his arm became so calloused that it was almost like a horn. Lama Tsongkhapa and his disciples sacrificed all worldly pleasures such as good food and so forth to live a very simple, meditative life. Some of them even fasted, living on just a few juniper seeds a day. They meditated with great effort for many years until each accomplished the goal of his meditation. Some accomplished the different tantric deities and received direct instructions from them, direct visions and so forth. Many of these deeds are in Lama Tsongkhapa’s great life story, but many are in the secret, tantric, life story of Lama Tsongkhapa, which is a separate text. It is not very long, so it would be excellent if you were to receive teachings on that. So that is the meaning of the line, “In this time of the five degenerations, you strove for many listenings and realizations.”
The next two lines say, “And made meaningful the perfect human rebirth by renouncing the eight worldly concerns.” Chhö gyä means eight dharmas; in other words, the eight worldly dharmas.
The first of these eight worldly dharmas is yearning for the pleasure and happiness of this life only. The second is yearning for praise. When someone praises us we enjoy it very much, so we’re always craving praise from others. The third is yearning for favorable speech, words. We are always seeking for something good, something nice and sweet to hear. The fourth worldly dharma is yearning for material gain in this lifetime—food, clothing, money and so forth.
The fifth worldly dharma is aversion to the suffering of this lifetime. The sixth is aversion to criticism and blame. The seventh is aversion to hearing unpleasant things, the opposite of yearning for pleasant words; a dislike of unpleasant words. And finally, the eighth worldly dharma is aversion to not getting material things.
Thus you can see that in the eight worldly dharmas there are four that we always seek out and four that we always wish to be separated from. They are called worldly dharmas because they are the principles of worldly people, those who do not practice Dharma at all or who do not practice it purely, beings whose whole lives are completely spent and sacrificed for gaining the first four and abandoning the second four. We are completely deceived by these eight worldly principles. They take us away from the true practice of Dharma. Not only do they interfere with our practice of Dharma but they also cause us much trouble and suffering.
All the fighting, death and other sufferings in the life of a worldly person are because of these eight worldly dharmas. From a quarrel between two or four people up to a war between great nations, all is for the purpose of the eight worldly dharmas. Although these eight worldly dharmas interfere with our practice of Dharma and cause us much trouble and suffering, if they didn’t always force us to accumulate non-virtuous actions, they might not be so bad, but the fact is that all the non-virtuous actions that we accumulate individually or in common, from childhood all the way through our entire life, are all incurred through our pursuit of the eight worldly dharmas.
Therefore, these eight worldly dharmas that give us so much trouble are completely unworthy of the attachment we have for them. They are deeply wrong for us to be involved in. But out of ignorance, we worldly beings, not knowing this, get purposely, voluntarily and completely involved in them. True practitioners of Dharma totally renounce the eight worldly dharmas and practice everything that is their opposite. All the great gurus of the past, such as Jetsun Milarepa and Lama Tsongkhapa, renounced the eight worldly dharmas, fought against them with all their might and gained victory over them.
Lama Tsongkhapa said, “Even from childhood I had a spontaneous tendency to be afraid whenever somebody offered me something or prepared a high seat for me, because I realized that all worldly gains are deeply impermanent.” So, chhö gyä pang pä means by renouncing the eight worldly dharmas. Däl jor dön yö je means making this perfect human rebirth meaningful and worthwhile: by renouncing the eight worldly dharmas he made the precious human life that he had obtained worthwhile and fruitful. Lama Tsongkhapa never wasted even a second of his precious life.
The next two lines read, “In the savior’s extensive deeds I rejoice sincerely from the depths of my heart.” Gön po khyö kyi means you, the savior. Lab chhen dzä pa la means in the great wave of your deeds, the vast and profound deeds of Lama Tsongkhapa, I rejoice from the depths of my heart.
Dag chag means I or we; sam pa thag pä means from the depths of our thought or mind; yi rang ngo means rejoice. All together, it means that we rejoice in the great, extensive deeds of Lama Tsongkhapa, not just paying lip service to them but we rejoice from the depths of our heart, from deep within our mind.
Rejoicing is the supreme practice for accumulating merit. Rejoicing counteracts all delusions in general but it is the direct antidote of jealousy in particular. Jealousy toward the goodness and practice of other beings causes our merit and development to degenerate. Rejoicing in the goodness and precious deeds of other sentient beings doesn’t take much effort but accumulates vast amounts merit. In other words, they put much effort into practicing Dharma but simply by rejoicing in their practice, we can create much merit for ourselves.
Requesting to turn the wheel of Dharma
The next verse is a request for the turning of the wheel of the Dharma, a request for teachings.
Je tsün la ma dam pa khye nam kyi
Chhö küi kha la khyen tsei trin thrig nä
Ji tar tsham päi dül jäi dzin ma la
Zab gyä chhö kyi chhar pa bab tu söl
Please, holy jetsun gurus,
From billowed clouds of compassion and wisdom in the sky of dharmakaya,
Make rainfalls of profound and extensive teachings of whatever is suitable
For the ears of sentient beings who are the objects to be subdued.
Je tsün la ma means venerable lama. I explained the meaning of that in Verse 2. Dam pa means holy, or supreme; the supreme guru. Lama Tsongkhapa has given us all the methods and prerequisites that gradually lead us to the attainment of the ultimate goal of enlightenment. Therefore, he is the supreme lama. Khye nam kyi means by you.
The next line says that all of space of dharmakaya is filled with the clouds of wisdom and love. Chhö ku means dharmakaya; kha la means space. Because Lama Tsongkhapa is a buddha, his mind is in the nature of the dharmakaya; his mind resembles space, infinite space. Gathering in this space of Lama Tsongkhapa’s dharmakaya mind are clouds of wisdom and compassion, from which falls rain. Khyen means wisdom; tsei means love and bodhicitta—the method side qualities of mind. Trin thrig nä means by gathering the clouds.
The next lines say, “Make rainfalls of profound and extensive teachings of whatever is suitable for the ears of sentient beings who are the objects to be subdued.”
Ji tar tsham päi means fittingly, or whatever is suitable. We are requesting the lama to turn the wheel of Dharma, to give teachings in a way that fits, or suits, the capacity of the sentient beings. This has a deep meaning. For example, a wise doctor gives medicine to different patients according to the strength of their body. A doctor does not prescribe strong medicine for a person who is very weak because the patient’s body cannot support it; therefore the doctor prescribes a milder medicine; for patients with stronger bodies the doctor prescribes stronger remedies. Like this, in a fitting way, the doctor writes the prescription. A doctor just thinking, “I have this really strong medicine,” and then immediately prescribing it without thinking about the capacity of the patient, may do more harm than good.
It is the same for patients as well. They should take the medicine that suits their body; they can’t just go out and buy the strongest medicine there is without taking into account the strength of their body. Therefore, in the same way, we request the lama to teach the Dharma according to our capacity, for the benefit of all sentient beings. If a lama gives a student of small capacity a very high and powerful practice, it might harm rather than help the student. Dül ja means disciple, the object to be subdued; dzin ma is another Tibetan word for earth, or ground—dül ja dzin ma la means on the field, or ground, of the disciples, the objects to be tamed. Zab means profound; gyä, vast, extensive; chhö kyi, of Dharma; chhar pa, rain; bab tu söl, let pour down. Thus, we are requesting the lama to let pour down the rain of profound and extensive Dharma fittingly on the ground of the disciples.
As I mentioned before, generally in the seven limb puja, the request for the long life of the lama or the buddhas is the sixth of the seven limbs, so normally it would come at this point, but in this practice, because it is such an important request, it is explained at the beginning.
Therefore, the next limb is that of dedication.
Dag gi ji nye sag päi ge wa di
Tän dang dro wa kün la gang phän dang
Khyä par je tsün lo zang drag pa yi
Tän päi nying po ring du säl je shog
I dedicate whatever virtues I have collected,
For the benefit of the teachings and of all sentient beings,
And in particular, for the essential teachings
Of venerable Losang Dragpa to shine forever.
We dedicate all the merits that we have accumulated since beginningless time up to now for two great purposes. One is for the benefit for the doctrine, the teaching; for the flourishing and stability of the Dharma. The other great purpose is for the benefit of all sentient beings. Then, in particular, since this is a guru yoga practice in connection with Lama Tsongkhapa, we dedicate all our merit for the flourishing and stability of Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings, the essence of which is the three principal aspects of the path: renunciation, bodhicitta, and the realization of shunyata. The essence of the teaching of Lama Tsongkhapa is these three principles of the path and the practice of tantra as well. We dedicate our merit for all that to flourish forever.
Actually, there isn’t any separate, independent doctrine or tradition of Lama Tsongkhapa. In reality, the tradition of Lama Tsongkhapa is the Kadam tradition, which was founded by Lama Atisha. But then we have this term “Gelug,” which makes it even worse. It is not only pronounced incorrectly but it’s also spelt wrong. It should be Ga, not Ge, because Lama Tsongkhapa founded the first monastery, the great monastery on the mountain, Gadän Monastery. Once Lama Tsongkhapa’s tradition became established, people started calling it the Gadän lug, Galug for short; lug means tradition. So, Galug means tradition of Gadän.
Now that we have invited Lama Tsongkhapa from the heart of Buddha Maitreya, requested him to remain in front of us as a field of merit and to this field of merit have made all the offerings, including the seven-limb puja, from prostration to dedication, we offer a mandala.
[Here offer a long or a short mandala.]
Recitation of the guru mantra
After the mandala offering comes the recitation of the lama mantra and the practice for accomplishing the three attributes of the Buddha in general and the wisdom attribute in particular.
There are many different kinds of wisdom. First we need great wisdom. But it is not enough simply to have great wisdom; we also need illuminating wisdom, a wisdom that is very clear. But neither are great wisdom and clear wisdom enough; we also need quick wisdom; wisdom that is very fast without taking time. Neither is it enough to have great, clear and quick wisdom; we also need profound wisdom, which can dig deeply into our practice. Superficial wisdom is not of much benefit or use; it understands and realizes only that which is on the surface. It cannot plumb the depths.
Thus, there are four wisdoms, and we can accomplish them all through the practice of the guru yoga of Lama Tsongkhapa. In order to do so we must first rid ourselves of interferences to the development of wisdom; we must purify all our impurities. Therefore, before reciting the lama mantra, we make a specific request:
De tar shug drag söl wa tab päi thu
Je tsün yab sä sum gyi thug ka nä
Ö zer kar po bug chän thrö päi ne
Chig tu dre nä rang gi chi wor zug
Thus by the force of strong request,
From the hearts of the venerable father and sons,
Hollow rays of white light emanate,
Combine into one and absorb into the crown of my head.
This verse means that through our having made the offering of practice and a mandala to Lama Tsongkhapa and by the force of our request made with strong devotion to Lama Tsongkhapa and his two main disciples, three hollow white beams of light, like tubes, emanate from their hearts, combine into one, enter the crown of our head and absorb into us.
Bug chän means hollow, like a tube; chig tu dre nä means combined into one; rang gi chi wor zug means absorb into the crown of my head.
Three light rays emanate from the heart of Lama Tsongkhapa and his two chief disciples. The central one comes from Lama Tsongkhapa, one from Gyältsab Rinpoche (to Lama Tsongkhapa’s right) and the other from Khädrub Rinpoche (to his left). You should remember this very precisely because in meditation you have to visualize all the details. The light rays that emanate from their hearts are radiant white in color. They are beams of light but hollow inside, like a tube; empty inside. One starts from the heart of each of the three lamas, but after a short distance they combine into one. The end of this single beam that is a combination of all three absorbs into the crown of your head.
So, when you meditate seriously, you have to make this visualization very precisely. Three radiant white light tubes start from the hearts of the three lamas, concentrate into one, and that very concentrated hollow beam of light absorbs into the crown of your head. Then:
Ö kar bu gäi jug ngog lä jung wäi
Dü tzi kar po o mäi dog chän gyi
Nä dön dig drib bag chhag ma lü pa
Trü nä rang lü dang säl shel tar gyur (or, shel tar dag par gyur)
Through the white light hollow beam of light flows
Radiant white nectar the color of milk.
All illnesses, spirit harms, defilements, obstacles and their imprints, without exception,
Are washed away and my body becomes as pure and clear as crystal.
Radiant white nectar, amrita, flows through the hollow tube of light that has emanated from the hearts of the three lamas. This ambrosia is much more radiant than milk and absolutely white in color. Although in appearance it is like a liquid, it is in nature the buddha mind. It starts flowing down the three tubes of light, which then combine into one—like three rivers that come from three different valleys and unite into one, which then becomes much more powerful—enters our head and flows down into our body.
When the amrita, whose nature is that of the buddha mind, comes into our body it completely washes away all interferences, illnesses—physical and mental—evil influences, downfalls, karmic obstacles, obstacles due to delusion and imprints; all gross, medium and subtle interferences are completely washed away.
Our body is completely rid of them, as it says in the last line of this verse, and our whole body becomes full of light and amrita and extremely radiant, like a light body, like light fills a bulb. Like that, our body becomes completely full of light and amrita, with no external or internal impurities left in it. But this light and amrita are not simply like ordinary water or some other liquid like that—in this light and amrita are tiny letters, tiny versions of the lama mantra, the syllables of the mantra and many different things mixed with and absorbed in it, which I will explain in detail.
If we practice this guru yoga purification very strongly it becomes exactly the same as practicing Vajrasattva meditation. The effect is exactly the same, sufficient for Vajrasattva purification. But when practicing this meditation—the light and amrita flowing down, entering us and purifying all our obstacles and filling our whole body—we should not do the visualization quickly but slowly, stage by stage.
During this time, we recite the lama mantra, this one-verse praise that is the lama mantra of Lama Tsongkhapa. We recite it again and again, all the while visualizing in our mind the entire process of purification. Therefore, if we practice this lama mantra, called the migtsema, correctly, with the right motivation and the proper visualization, it also fulfills many other practices, because it contains within it the profound meaning of many aspects of Dharma; many things are concentrated in these few words.
So, to summarize, we have reached the point of complete inner purification by the white light and nectar that emanates from the three hearts of the three lamas, which are combined into one. This light and nectar absorbs into the crown of our head and enters our body, purifying all our obstacles, external and internal. Our body is filled with light and amrita, then it becomes radiant and completely pure, inside and outside. At the end of the purification, our body becomes completely in the nature of light, like a light bulb which changes completely from the outside.
Our body is completely filled with amrita and light, and within this there are many syllables of the lama mantra. Those who can read Tibetan should visualize the syllables of the lama mantra, which are not as they are written, but are more in the nature of light. They are like light letters. When we say that our body is filled with syllables of the lama mantra, it is not like a bag filled with grain; rather, the syllables fill our body like rain in a fog. With this visualization in our mind, recite at least one mala of the lama mantra. During this one mala, visualize this process of purification, with light coming down from the chests of the lamas, entering our body, purifying the obstacles and filling it with light and amrita, and the lama mantra syllables.
The one-verse lama mantra starts with this line:
Mig-me tze-wäi ter-ch’en chän-rä-zig
Avalokiteshvara who is great treasure of compassion without apprehension.
Chän-rä-zig is Avalokiteshvara. Mig-me means without apprehension, without grasping. This refers to shunyata nature, which is without inherent nature, or void of inherent nature. This shunyata nature is called mig-me. Mig means apprehend and me means without. Mig-me means no true inherent nature to apprehend.
Compassion without apprehension means compassion which is accompanied or supported by the wisdom realizing shunyata. Compassion which is supported by the realization of shunyata is much greater, more profound and powerful than ordinary compassion without the support of wisdom. Tze-wäi is compassion and ter-ch’en means great treasure. The great treasure of this compassion which is supported by the wisdom of all the buddhas is Avalokiteshvara. When the compassion of every buddha appears in the form of a deity, it is none other than Avalokiteshvara. In this prayer we are saying, “Lama Tsongkhapa, you are in the nature of Avalokiteshvara who is the great treasure of the compassion of all the buddhas.” Many scriptural sources and reasons have proven completely that Lama Tsongkhapa is the manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, but there is no need to explain this in detail now. Therefore, this practice of guru yoga will be sufficient for a person who wishes to develop compassion through the practice of Avalokiteshvara meditation.
The next line is:
Dri-me kyen-pä wang-po jam-päi-yang
Manjushri, the lord of wisdom without defilements
Dri-me is without defilement or impurity. Ky’en-pä is wisdom or comprehension, cognition. Dri-me is realizing everything in a pure sense without any mistake or wrong view. The wisdom of every buddha, without defilement or illusion, is the very nature of Manjushri. In other words, Manjushri is the very form of all the wisdom of every buddha. This means, “Lama Tsongkhapa, you are also the very Manjushri who is the lord of wisdom without defilement, the wisdom of every buddha.” As I explained in the beginning, although Lama Tsongkhapa appeared in human form as a spiritual master, in his ultimate nature he is Manjushri.
The next line is:
Dü-pung ma-lü jom-dzä sang-wäi-dag
Vajrapani who destroys the force of mara without exception.
When the power of all the buddhas appears in the form of a deity, it is Vajrapani. Dü-pung means the force of mara and refers not only to some fierce demons, but also includes both external and internal forces of mara. The external forces of mara are the evil forces and the internal mara is the real mara, which is the force of delusions and the imprints of delusions. This means, “Lama Tsongkhapa, you are also the very Vajrapani who is the destroyer of all evil forces.”
In short, Lama Tsongkhapa is the combined form of all three deities; Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani. In other words, Lama Tsongkhapa is the concentrated form of all three attributes of Buddha: compassion, wisdom and power. There are people who wish to practice meditation in connection with Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani and there are those who wish to develop compassion, wisdom and power. If we practice this guru yoga seriously, it will be sufficient. Through this guru yoga, we can accomplish all our goals together.
The fourth line is:
G’ang-chän khä-pä tsug-gyän tsong-kha-pa
Tsongkhapa who is the crown of the sages of the Land of Snows
Although there were countless masters in Tibet, when Lama Tsongkhapa appeared in the Land of Snows he became the crown of all the sages or masters in Tibet.
The next line is,
Lo-zang drag-päi zhab-la sol-wa-deb
I request to the feet of the Lama Lo-zang dr’ag-pa
Lo-zang drag-päi is Lama Tsongkhapa’s personal name. What are we requesting? We are requesting Lama Tsongkhapa to bestow upon us the blessing of the three attributes of Buddha, so that we will receive these three attributes within ourselves; so we will generate, grow and accomplish these three within ourselves. With this meaning in our mind and with the visualization as explained before, we practice the recitation of the lama prayer.
Thus, first we purify all the obstacles and interferences that are within us. After the purification, when all these obstacles and interferences are purified, we must begin the actual practice for the development of wisdom. There are three stages of wisdom. First, we must develop great wisdom. Previously there was radiant white light emanating from the chests of the three lamas, combining into one and absorbing into the crown of our head and purifying us. Now this light suddenly changes color. For the development of great wisdom, the color of the light suddenly changes into yellow. It is not absolutely yellow; it is more like orange. Actually, the amrita flowing in the light tube is this color, so by changing the color of the amrita, it also changes the color of the tube, the light itself. So, everything turns a light orange color.
There is a particular recitation that starts with:
Again the great wisdom comes in the form of orange amrita that fills our body. This means the great wisdom of all the buddhas is transformed into orange-colored amrita which emanates from the chest of Lama Tsongkhapa, comes down through our head and fills our body. If a bottle is filled with orange liquid, from outside and inside the color is completely changed to orange. In the same way, our body is filled with orange amrita. This is not exactly like filling a bottle with an orange water, because it is not only amrita liquid but also, as explained before, it is radiant, orange light. So from outside and inside we become completely in the form of orange light.
The atoms of amrita appear in the form of Manjushri. Here we visualize that the atoms of amrita are in the form of small Manjushris, so our body contains countless small forms of Manjushri. From these Manjushris in our body, light emanates and goes out in all ten directions. This invites and brings back to us the great wisdom of all the buddhas in the form of countless Manjushris in all sizes. They absorb into us through all parts of our body, like rain on a lake. It’s as if all the raindrops are completely absorbed into the lake. We must meditate strongly that we have received the power of the great wisdom of every buddha within us.
Light emanates and goes out to the ten directions. The great wisdom of the Victorious Ones and their sons comes in the form of the deity and fills our body.
With this visualization, the orange-colored amrita and light comes down from the chests of the lamas, then enters and fills our body. All the atoms of that amrita are in the form of countless Manjushris. From these Manjushris, light emanates and goes in the ten directions, inviting the great wisdom of every buddha in the form of countless, different-sized Manjushris. These completely absorb into us, thus we receive the power of the great wisdom of every buddha within us. With this visualization and meditation we make one mala of recitation of the lama mantra.
The next stage is the development of the clear wisdom of every buddha. For the development of clear wisdom, again we visualize the lama with light emanating from his chest and absorbing into us. It is the same colored flow of amrita as previously, but instead of the form of Lama Manjushri in the amrita, it is now the Manjushri mantra. All the atoms of the amrita are not in the form of the body of Manjushri; instead they are in the form of the mantra of Manjushri, OM AH RA PA TSA NA. So, all the atoms of the amrita are in the form of the mantra syllables, which are of very strong radiance. The light of even one syllable can completely illuminate the whole universe, it is so powerful. They are luminous syllables. Because this is for the development of clear wisdom, we should also visualize as clearly as possible that all the lights and everything else are radiant, clear and luminous. These syllables, as I explained before, are not like painted, drawn or written letters. They are all in the form of light letters, absolutely luminous. The light of all the mantra syllables emanates to the ten directions and the clear wisdom of all the buddhas is invited in the form of the letters OM AH RA PA TSA NA in countless numbers, and these absorb in us. So with meditation we recite the lama prayer again with another mala. That is the meaning of the following verse, which we recite before the second mala of the lama mantra.
This is the same prayer as the previous one for great wisdom, but there have been just a few changes. In the first line, it is now säl-wäi ky’en-rab, which means clear wisdom. The second line is exactly the same. In the third line, instead of Manjushri’s body, it is a-ra-pa-tza-näi. The fourth line is the same. Again the fifth line is changed to säl-wäi ky’en-rab, which means clear wisdom. The second line is exactly the same. In the third line, instead of Manjushri’s body, it is a-ra-pa-tza-näi. The fourth line is the same. Again in the fifth line, change to säl-wäi ky’en-rab, clear wisdom. In the last line, there is now zung-ngag, which means in the form of mantra. Having rejoiced in this verse, begin the lama mantra again and recite another mala, doing the visualization that has already been explained. When you have finished one mala of the lama mantra for the development of clear wisdom, then go to the next stage.
Now is the time for the development of speedy or quick wisdom. For that, again the visualizations are similar. The light and amrita are all as before, however, the atoms of amrita are not in the form of the deity’s body nor in the form of the mantra, AH RA PA TSA NA. They are all in the form of the essential syllable of Manjushri, DHI, which is the syllable of the mind of Manjushri. Therefore, for the development of clear wisdom, all the atoms of the amrita are visualized in the form of this seed syllable DHI. From outside, we can see everything very clearly. Our body becomes very radiant outside and inside. From the DHIs in our body, orange light emanates and goes out to the ten directions inviting the quick wisdom of all the buddhas in the form of countless DHI syllables, which absorb into us. Thus we receive within ourselves the quick wisdom of every buddha. With this meditation we practice another mala of the lama prayer after we have recited the following verse:
Again, this is the same verse with a few little changes. Now it is nyur-wäi ky’en-rab which means quick wisdom. The next change is to DHI-yig mar-ser gy’i which means the orange syllable DHI. Again, line five is changed to nyur-wäi ky’en-rab, the quick wisdom of the Victorious Ones and their sons. In the last line, sa-b’ön nam-par means in the form of the seed. After you have finished one mala for the development of clear wisdom, stop and recite this verse; then with this visualization, recite one mala of the lama mantra for the development of quick wisdom.
Still another wisdom is left—profound wisdom. For the development of this wisdom, the visualization is basically the same except the atoms of amrita are in the form of the sword and the scripture—the symbols in Manjushri’s hands. You don’t have to feel any discomfort from visualizing many swords in your body, because all these swords and scriptures are in the nature of light. As before, light emanates from the swords and scriptures and goes into the ten directions, inviting the profound wisdom of every buddha in the same form. A countless number of swords and scriptures absorbs into us; thus we receive the power of the profound wisdom of every buddha in the same form within us. We receive the blessing of the profound wisdom of every buddha, so that our wisdom can penetrate to the very depth of every object of analysis. With this visualization we practice the lama mantra and another mala, after reciting the following verse.
So, if we practice one mala for each, this makes five malas altogether. The first mala is for purification, then there is one mala for each of the four developments of wisdom. If we can practice more than that—hundreds of thousands and ten-thousands or hundred-thousands, it is even better.
The first change is to zab-päi ky’en-rab, which is profound wisdom. The next change, in line three, is to leg-b’am ral-dr’i-yi, which means scripture and sword. All the atoms of amrita are in the form of scriptures and swords. Again, line five changes to zab-päi ky’en-rab. Finally, line six starts with ch’ag-tsän which means the hand symbols. With this visualization, we recite one mala of the lama prayer.
Therefore, if we practice the guru yoga in this way, this practice will be sufficient for many other practices. After five malas of recitation of the lama mantra, if you have time and want to practice more of the lama mantras that is better. When we have finished the lama mantras, we conclude the visualization is with these lines:
Päl-dän tza-wäi la-ma rin-po-ch’e
The glorious precious Root Lama Dag-g’i ch’i-wor pä-däi teng-zhug-la
Remain on my head on the lotus and the moon disk. Kadr’in ch’en-päi go-nä je-zung-te
Hold me out of the great compassion, great kindness Ku-sung t’ug-kyi ngö-drub tzäl-d’u-söl
I request you to grant me the siddhi of body, speech, and mind.
We are requesting the lama to come down on our head, to remain on our head and bestow upon us the blessing of all the qualities of the body, speech and mind of the Buddha. In our visualization, first Gyältsab Rinpoche, who is on Lama Tsongkhapa’s right side, absorbs into him, then Khädrub Rinpoche, who is on his left side, also absorbs into him. From the bottom of the seat of the throne, gradually the golden throne is absorbed to Lama Tsongkhapa, then he comes down and remains on our head, facing the same direction as we are. At that time, Lama Tsongkhapa’s body must be visualized as so radiant and so beautiful on our head. We must visualize that Lama Tsongkhapa has completely accepted and promised to give us all the powers.
The next verse is similar to the preceding one:
Päl-dän tza-wäi la-ma rin-po-ch’e
The glorious precious Root Lama Dag-g’i nying-g’ar pä-möi teng-zhug-la
Remain on the lotus in my heart. Ka-dr’in ch’en-pöi go-nä je-zung-te
Hold me by your great compassion, great kindness J’ang-ch’ub nying-pöi b’ar-du tän-par-zhug
Remain steadily up to the essence of bodhi, buddhahood
We are requesting Lama Tsongkhapa to come down and remain in our heart always, steadily, until we reach buddhahood. So, Lama Tsongkhapa becomes smaller and smaller until he is the size of our thumb. When he is about that size, he enters through the crown of our head and slowly comes down to the lotus at the center of our heart and remains there.
There are much more elaborate forms of visualization but all these are not necessary at this time. This guru yoga and visualization can be so much more detailed, with many more things to visualize, but at the present time this might be too much. At this time, I am giving you a simple meditation especially for the development of the four wisdoms.
Now one short dedication is:
La-ma sang-gyä drub-gy’ur-na
Accomplish the state of Lama-Buddha
This refers to Lama Tsongkhapa who is the lama or spiritual master, and Buddha. He is both lama and Buddha in one. Through this practice we also accomplish this state of the Lama-Buddha, therefore this meditation is called guru yoga or Lama Näljor, or sometimes La Drub, which means to accomplish the lama.
By accomplishing this state of the Lama-Buddha, what is our purpose? That is the next line:
Dro-wa chig-gy’ang ma-lü-pa
All beings without exception D’e-yi-sa-la gö-par-shog
May I lead them to that state.
After we have accomplished the state of Lama-Buddha, then our task is to liberate all sentient beings from suffering and establish them in the state of buddhahood. That is the conclusion of the guru yoga. For those who especially want to practice seriously, if in the practice there are any questions, difficulties or doubts in the practice, or anything that is unclear, then you can come to me and I will solve the problem.
Geshe Rabten gave this commentary on the Praise to Manjushri in Dharamsala, India, in June, 1975. Translated by Gonsar Rinpoche. Edited by Sandra Smith and Ven. Gyalten Lekden, March 2013.
The Praise to Manjushri at the beginning of this commentary was provided by FPMT Education Services in January 2013. There are some differences between the FPMT translation of the Praise and Gonsar Rinpoche's translation of the Tibetan terms. Refer to the endnotes, where these discrepancies are discussed.
Praise to Manjushri (Gang-lo-ma)
La ma dang gön po jé tsün jam päi yang la chak tsäl lo
Gang gi lo drö drip nyi trin drel nyi tar nam dak rap sel wä
Ji nyé dön kün ji zhin zik chir nyi kyi tuk kar lek bam dzin
Gang dak si pä tsön rar ma rik mün tom duk ngel gyi zir wä
Dro tsok kün la bu chik tar tsé yän lak druk chü yang dän sung
Druk tar cher drok nyön mong nyi long lä kyi chak drok dröl dzä ching
Ma rik mün sel duk ngäl nyu gu ji nyé chö dzé rel dri nam
Dö nä dak ching sa chü tar sön yön tän lhün dzok gyel sä tu bö ku
Chu trak chu dang chu nyi gyän trä dak lö mün sel jam päi yang la dü
OM A RA PA TSA NA DHI
Tsé dän khyö kyi khyen rap ö zer gyi
Dak lö ti muk mün pa rap säl nä
Ka dang tän chö zhung luk tok pa yi
Lo drö pop päi nang wa tsäl du söl
Homage to my guru and protector, Manjushri!
You, whose intelligence shines forth as the sun, unclouded by delusions or traces of ignorance,
Who hold to your heart a scriptural text symbolic of seeing all things as they are,
Who teaches in sixty ways, with the loving compassion of a mother for her only son,
To all creatures caught in the prison of samsara,
Confused in the darkness of their ignorance, overwhelmed by their suffering.
You, whose dragon-thunder–like proclamation of Dharma arouses us from the stupor of our delusions
And frees us from the iron chains of our karma,
Who wields the sword of wisdom hewing down suffering wherever its sprouts appear,
Clearing away the darkness of all ignorance;
You, whose princely body is adorned with the one hundred and twelve marks of a Buddha,
Who has completed the stages achieving the highest perfections of a bodhisattva,
Who has been pure from the beginning.
To you, oh Manjushri, I bow.
OM A RA PA TSA NA DHI
With the brilliance of your wisdom, O compassionate one,
Illuminate the darkness enclosing my mind,
Enlighten my intelligence and wisdom
So that I may gain insight into the Buddha’s words and the texts that explain them.
According to the oral tradition teachings of the lineage gurus, like the junior tutor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Praise to Manjushri (Gang-lo-ma) was composed by 100 Indian mahasiddhis who had gathered together. Each one separately decided to say a verse of praise to Manjushri, who at that time blessed their minds. Ninety-nine of them wrote the same praise, which became known as Gang-lo-ma. The hundredth mahasiddhi wrote a slightly different praise, which became a supplementary prayer to Gang-lo-ma called Sheja-kha-yingpa. This is very, very famous and was recited by the pandit Vidyakokila the Younger. The text is now almost lost; it is extremely rare and it is something many people are searching for, because it is a very, very important praise to Manjushri.
Although the text begins with “I make prostrations to the lama and Manjushri”,1 in your visualization, in your own mind, the two should be inseparable. There should not be any separation of the lama and Manjushri, so whenever you see Manjushri, you should see the lama. There should be inseparability of the two. This is very important. In some other practices, whenever the word lama is mentioned—whether a deity is mentioned and visualized, or whether the sun is used, for example, there is no difference. Sometimes instead of using sun, they use moon, but it is the same thing, showing the clarity, or the total disintegration of physical and mental obscurations.
Ji nyé dön kün means “whatever you can find” or “whatever can be perceived,” and refers to the conventional truth. Everything that operates on the conventional level is perceived by Manjushri.
Ji zhin zik means “absolute truth” —not only the understanding of the conventional aspect of how things appear to us, the ordinary mode of existence—but seeing the absolute reality. The true mode of existence or absolute truth is understood by Manjushri.
Ji-zhin zik chir also references “absolute lama.” You should see there is no difference between Manjushri and the lama, according to the tantric texts as well as sutra texts. There is no difference of opinion and no difference in traditions. All the traditions of Buddhism agree on this.
Gang gilo-drö means “whose wisdom”, referring to Manjushri as just like the sun in clear space without any obstructions and obstacles of clouds. If there are clouds, the rays of the sun will not shine on us directly; there are obstructions. The wisdom of Manjushri is clear of the two types of obstacles, drip nyi, kleshavarana (the obstacle of disturbing emotions) and jneyavarana (the obstacles to knowledge). He has freedom from ordinary and instinctive delusions, and he has the true qualities of an enlightened being.
There is no difference whether the moon or the sun is used to represent truth; he has the wisdom of understanding the dual truths. In order to signify this great transcendental wisdom void of all obstacles, which is not visible in any kind of physical form, he holds a book with his left hand at his heart. Holding the book at the heart signifies that he has these mental qualities. Physical qualities can be expressed by the marks and signs, and by what he does, by the compassionate deeds; but in order to show how his psychic qualities, he holds the book, signifying the wisdom of understanding the two levels of truth.
The basic qualities of enlightened beings are wisdom, compassion and power. Next is the quality of compassion. Gang-dag refers to sentient beings. Si-pa tsön-rar means “in the prison of samsara.” This refers specifically to the two kinds of obstacles: grasping at the true existence of phenomena and grasping at the true existence of the personality. These two types of grasping are what prevent us from getting beyond the cycle of samsaric existence. The physical world does not prevent us from getting out of samsara. We are prevented only by these two main faculties of the mind—grasping at the true existence of phenomena and grasping at the true existence of the personality, the false ego and such things. This is what is referred to as the prison of samsara.
Ma-rig mün-thom means “completely bewildered by ignorance.” The cause of our bewilderment is these two kinds of grasping. By this bewilderment we do many wrong things and make no discrimination between white and black actions. Due to doing more black actions, it’s almost as if we are intoxicated by the sufferings. In addition to “being overwhelmed,” zir-wa also means intoxicated.2
Manjushri has great compassion—like a mother’s compassion for her only child—for sentient beings who have this bewilderment of the two basic mistaken qualities or faculties of the mind. Bu-chik means “only child.” Manjushri’s compassion for sentient beings is just like a mother with only one child. The mother gives all her attention and loving care to that child, so it becomes like a jewel and a focus for her. Actually Manjushri’s compassion is much greater than what we can imagine or explain by any means or examples. Although the example of a mother’s love for her only child is the best we can use, it is quite limited. Sometimes our care and compassion is for the self-cherishing attitude—for our own self.
Manjushri’s unimaginable compassion is expressed by druk tar cher drok, which means “like the roar of a dragon’s thunder”. He makes the Dharma teaching known over a great distance with a loud sound. This is an expression of his kind concern and compassion for sentient beings. The ultimate way of benefiting sentient beings is not to improve their physical standard of living, but to improve their spiritual standard.
Nyön mong nyi long means “we are awakened from our sleep of ignorance”,3 just as a loud alarm clock awakens us completely from a peaceful sleep. Manjushri’s teachings are like the thunder of a dragon, completely disturbing the sleep of ignorance. Sometimes we sleep during meditation, and we need to be awakened.
Lä kyi chak drok means “fetters of karma.”4 We are bound and committed to our own previous actions, so what we do now has been mostly determined. The thunder-like actions of Manjushri cut the rope of ignorance of our karma.
There are many things we cannot do on our own because we have made certain rules for ourselves—the rules of delusions. We can consider this as karma which prevents us from doing many things that we would like to do. We have to break through these kinds of actions which keep us very limited and confined to a narrow point. Once we break through these, we become free from accumulating or forming further karma.
Our own actions are our limitations, like the handcuffs or legcuffs on a prisoner. When a prisoner has iron bars across his legs, he cannot go anywhere. We create these things in our own minds, but our positive action can prevent us from accumulating further karmas. This is by means of our own control, it’s usually determined by us. We should not allow this kind of continuation of past actions to determine our future.
Manjushri holds the sword of wisdom, indicating his power. This is an expression of his compassion, which cuts the rope of actions and the rope of ignorance and delusion of sentient beings. This is not something he has no means to do; he has a great deal of power to do this, as indicated by the sword in his right hand.
Dö nä dak means “pure from the very beginning”. This refers to the definitive form of Manjushri. The interpretive form of Manjushri can be the bodhisattvas who are not pure from the beginning, but who have worked and purified themselves. However, the definitive form is the manifestation of the Buddha’s wisdom. This aspect of Manjushri was pure from the beginning.
“He who has been pure from the beginning and who has traveled all the ten stages and has reached the stage of buddhahood, yet who manifests himself as the son of the buddhas.” 5
Gyal-sä tu-wö-ku actually means “the son of the Buddha who can do many things.”6 This explains his power of attainment, of manifesting according to the needs of sentient beings—sometimes as an enlightened king, sometimes as a prince of the Buddha, a bodhisattva.
When the Buddha’s qualities of wisdom, compassion and power are described, wisdom is the quality of his mind, and compassion is described by its expression—the teachings, the quality of his speech. Then there are his physical qualities; the qualities of his body.
Chu trak chu means “ten times ten” and dang chu nyi “plus twelve.” This refers to the 112 physical attributes of the Buddha; the 80 minor and 32 major attributes. These are like the natural ornaments of an enlightened being, which are without any burden. Silver and gold ornaments have tremendous weight; they may look nice but you get tired because of their weight and the care that you have to take.
Dak lö mün sel jam päi yang la dü means “I greet Manjushri with the deep veneration of my body, speech, and mind, who will eliminate the total darkness of my mind.”7 It is now talking about the Buddha’s qualities of wisdom, compassion and power, and the qualities of body, speech and mind. We are praising Manjushri just by expressing these various qualities.
Dü means “to go down, to bend down.” This is like a fruit tree having very large fruit that will pull down the branch—this is called dü. When you notice certain qualities in someone, then your pride and conceit becomes bent. You no longer feel that you are great, but you see something about yourself in someone; something you can just naturally become. You just bow the head: this is how all the homages and respects are paid.
At this point the mantra OM AH RA PA TSA NA DHI should be said about a hundred times. If you say this mantra daily in connection with this prayer; if you really concentrate, then your wisdom can improve within a month. In one month you can feel the difference in your intelligence, and your wisdom really expands. This is the great mantra of Manjushri.
After saying the mantra there is the conclusion prayer.8
A very clever person who has never studied with any teacher could perhaps understand any text he picks up, but that would be a superficial understanding. He would only understand what is in the book, not the real deeper meanings which are hidden completely. Certain very special wisdom is needed for this, like the power of Manjushri, the transmissions of the lineages, the powers of the lamas and such things.
This is a daily practice we should do at home. The first thing we should do after getting up is rinse the mouth, then recite this prayer to Manjushri and the mantra. This is extremely beneficial; it makes a big difference to our day and gives us great wisdom. It can help, it can make a whole big difference.
Then it is good to make an offering of the mandala to Manjushri by using this verse: “In the place adorned with flowers and beautiful circumstances, on this great surface, the earth, I visualize all the continents, the sun and the moon. Together with my wealth, my body, speech and mind, I offer this to you.” It is a good practice to make a short mandala offering. There are two ways of saying this verse, for which the visualizations are slightly different. Sang-gyä zhing-la means you take the entire universe and make this offering to another place—to another pure land where the buddhas are residing. When you say zhing-du, you visualize this very place where you are now standing as a pure land and offer it to the objects of refuge. So if you see this spelled as zhing-la or zhing-du it is not a mistake, but a different visualization.
Je Tsongkhapa said of Manjushri “Just as the elephant longs for the river, so do I long for your good qualities.” In another world age, there was a person with the same stream of consciousness as Manjushri. The ruling Buddha was Dawa Kunzik,9 the King of the Dragon’s Sound. Manjushri was one of the four chakra emperors then, and had a large family whose only work was to look after the Buddha and his disciples. He made a continuous practice of offerings, year after year, but was not sure how to dedicate the merit. A voice from the sky said that he should dedicate the merit for enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Manjushri went to see the Buddha with a large party and Buddha said that the power of his merit would not fail for what he wished and dedicated them for. He advised the king to develop bodhicitta and take the bodhisattva vows. The king made elaborate offerings and vowed very strongly to destroy the self-cherishing attitude, because he might never enjoy results if he were to find himself cheating other sentient beings by having self-cherishing attitude. Many others took bodhisattva vows at the same time. The only one left was the Tathagata Sa-lha, the deity of the earth, who remained under the earth according to his bodhisattva promises. All the others went to other worlds.
It is Manjushri who will cause all the buddhas of this world age to take bodhisattva vows. His name then was Chö-gyäl-tsän, Banner of Dharma. He became the guru of 100 aspiring buddhas. Manjushri is the father of all the buddhas to come. He is always spoken of as a bodhisattva and his manifestations are those of a bodhisattva, but he is really a full buddha. He attained enlightenment many times to set examples, going through the twelve deeds. When he attained enlightenment, it was in this universe, several times in the south.
There are pure lands of Manjushri, which are hard to be born into. Even if all bodhisattvas made prayers to be born there, only 16 could be born there. There are only bodhisattvas in this pure land; not even arhats can go there. There is no suffering or lack of freedom, so there is speedy progress. The residing buddha, Kun-zik himself, looks after us and gives us teachings. To go there it is necessary to do Manjushri practice, the practice of dawa-para(?) and to have bodhicitta.
Manjushri should be visualized as just like the Buddha, but all yellow. His left hand is in the teaching mudra and his right hand is in the mudra of fearlessness. He should be visualized as miles high. Make many paintings or statues of Manjushri. We don’t need to make requests of him; just by being there, he solves all our questions and problems. Making devotion to Manjushri is like making devotion to all the Sutrayana and Tantrayana deities. It is better to recite Manjushri’s name than those of all the buddhas.
In Manjushri’s time, there was a king who had killed his father by hitting him in anger. He was overwhelmed with regret, and the present Buddha came down to him and said that Manjushri could deal with the problem, although he himself couldn’t. Mahakashek and Manjushri came with 499 disciples each. The king prepared offerings and food for 1,000 persons, but 100,000 manifestations of Manjushri came. The king was downcast, as it was so inauspicious to have inadequate offerings. Moreover, he didn’t have enough bowls, so Manjushri manifested begging bowls in front of his manifestations. The king wanted to offer clothing to Manjushri, but Manjushri, who took different forms, turned into light and said: “Are you square, circular, triangular or something else?” Thus he tricked the king into meditation on voidness.
Manjushri is the father, the method, bodhicitta, and the mother, the wisdom understanding voidness. The name of Manjushri is more powerful than that of other buddhas, not because of the quality of enlightenment, but because of the differences in expansiveness of the vows taken as a bodhisattva.
Most Indian pandits had Manjushri as their main deity. For example, Manjushri was the closest friend and advisor of Je Tsongkhapa. Manjushri does not discriminate when to appear; this depends on the enthusiasm of the disciple, as in the story of Asanga and the dog.
1 “Lama” could be seen as one object of praise and “protector Manjushri” as the other object of praise, thus Geshe Rabten comments that the two are inseparable. [Return to text]
2Zir-wa is usually translated as “afflicted”, but in the FPMT prayer above, it is translated as “overwhelmed (by suffering).” Applying the meaning “intoxicated” to this term must be an alternative or oral tradition. [Return to text]
5 Different from the FPMT translation of this prayer. The difference is important because of the use of the conjunction “yet” in this translation, absent in the FPMT translation. It is not technically there in the Tibetan, but it is verse and can be assumed, as long as there is consistency. [Return to text]
6 This means “the primary son of the Conqueror,” which is a euphemism for bodhisattva. This is an interpretation, not a literal translation. [Return to text]
7 Different from the FPMT translation. This is an interpretation, not a literal translation. The words say, “To Manjushri, who clears the darkness of my mind, I bend down.” [Return to text]
8 Lama Thubten Yeshe’s translation of this prayer:
Most compassionate Manjushri:
With your great kindness, please
Dispel through your magnificent light
Of understanding wisdom
My mental darkness of ignorance,
That I might comprehend fully all Lord
Buddha’s sutras and the Mahayana pandits’
Commentaries, by receiving the courageous
Vision of understanding knowledge wisdom. [Return to text]
9 This is a best guess, however, “Dawa Kunzik” is not even close to meaning “The King of the Dragon’s Sound,” so it’s possible that these two are separate entities. [Return to text]
To become a completely enlightened person, a buddha, we must fulfill two levels of achievement-the "level of perfect abandonment" and "the level of perfect realization." In order to achieve perfect realization we need to travel the structured spiritual path. We begin by cultivating great compassion. When great compassion arises in our mind, the Mahayana seed has been activated within us. We are then able to generate the altruistic mind of enlightenment, or bodhicitta, which we can also call the bodhisattva spirit. As we progress through the five spiritual paths-the path of accumulation, the path of preparation, the path of seeing, or insight, the path of meditation and the path of no more learning-we also progress through what are known as the "ten spiritual grounds of bodhisattvas." When we complete the five paths and ten grounds, we reach the state of highest enlightenment. We keep on discarding what are known as the "objects of abandonment" along the way-the things we must get rid of in order to progress-and we continue accumulating realizations. Eventually, we will have what is known as "omniscient wisdom," the all-knowing wisdom of a buddha. That is the perfect realization.
Perfect abandonment is something we can accomplish by way of eliminating the two major mental obscurations-the obscurations to personal liberation and the obscurations to the omniscient state. We should slowly try to purify the negativities we have already accumulated and try not to create new ones. We are not able to remember our past lives but we should try to understand the existence of former lives through inference from our present one. In this life, we do not find it difficult to do the wrong things. It seems so natural and easy to engage in negativities that it's as if we are magnetically drawn to them. From this we can infer that in many previous lifetimes we created and accumulated tremendous negativities that we need to purify.
If we just keep on repeating negative actions without purifying them, after some time we might lose all hope and think that nothing can save us. It all feels too much. It seems impossible to purify our negativities and to stop creating more because it has become a way of life. Let's say we have taken out a loan. If we don't pay back anything, the interest keeps on accumulating and after some time the debt becomes totally unmanageable. The wise thing to do is to pay the loan back slowly in small installments. If we do this, then one day we will have paid back all the money we borrowed and we won't need to worry any more.
In the same way, we need to purify our old debt-like negativities and not acquire new loan-like negativities. If we don't do that, but let them go on piling up, they become so powerful, so intense and captivating, that we may lose faith in our ability to purify them. These negativities then precipitate our rebirth in any one of the three unfortunate states, where we remain for eons. It is better not to fall into that kind of state in the first place. Strive instead for perfect abandonment and perfect realization.
INTEGRATING BODHICITTA AND THE WISDOM OF EMPTINESS
If your goal is just to be liberated from cyclic existence, then the wisdom that perceives emptiness is the essential realization because that is the liberating path. If you don't have that wisdom, this cycle of compulsive rebirths will keep on spinning like a wheel and you will just keep wandering around within it. However, in order to follow the complete path that can lead to perfect abandonment and perfect realization, you have to integrate bodhicitta with the wisdom of emptiness.
Bodhicitta is even more essential than the wisdom of emptiness for reaching buddhahood. Cultivating the wisdom that realizes emptiness is certainly wonderful and powerful, but if that kind of wisdom is not integrated with the altruistic mind of enlightenment, you won't be able to fulfill the two types of collection-the collection of merit and the collection of wisdom-or to attain the two enlightened bodies-rupakaya and dharmakaya.
You must learn how to cultivate bodhicitta, the bodhisattva's attitude, and you must follow and meditate on this way. It is not enough just to pray and hope that you may some day be able to experience bodhicitta. Nor is it enough to simply recite mantras and do your daily prayers. Of course, by doing prayers, reciting mantras and making such aspirational wishes, you are no doubt creating positive energy or merit, but if you don't cultivate the techniques for actually generating bodhicitta, you will never ever experience it. If you don't have the experience of bodhicitta, you must make every effort to cultivate it, and those of you who do shouldn't just stop there-you must make every effort to enhance this mind of enlightenment further.
At the same time, you must remember that the wisdom realizing emptiness is the only antidote to all your delusions, and without getting rid of your delusions, enlightenment is just a daydream. Again, simply making prayers, reciting mantras and sitting in a beautiful posture is not going to do the job. Until you achieve the paths of the transcendental beings-the path of seeing and beyond-you cannot stop creating new karmic actions that precipitate your rebirth in cyclic existence. When you have gained direct experience and realization into emptiness, you will be able to see the law of karmic action and result as if it were functioning right under your nose.
Someone with excellent eyesight is not going to make the mistake of falling off a cliff. Likewise, when you have direct experience of and realization into emptiness, you will no longer create any new negative karmic actions that send you over the cliff's edge into bad rebirths. This is not something that you should just keep at the back of your mind. It is something that you must clearly understand and in which you must develop confidence.
In an abbreviated version of the Wisdom Gone Beyond, or the Perfection of Wisdom, we find that of the six perfections, it is the perfection of wisdom that liberates us from our delusions. If the perfection of wisdom is eliminated, the remaining five can no longer be called perfections. The other perfections of giving, ethics, enthusiastic perseverance, patience and concentration are like auxiliary practices that enable us to develop this wisdom. The perfection of wisdom is likened to someone with perfect eyesight, while the other five are compared to five blind friends. The perfection of wisdom is the guide that can lead the others to their destination.
PREPARING TO MEDITATE ON EMPTINESS
The wisdom realizing emptiness as the final mode of existence ultimately arises through meditation practice, so we need to learn the techniques of meditation. When we enter this spiritual path, it is not enough just to study and listen to teachings. It is more important to do our practices. This also includes the practice of purification and the practice of the two accumulations of merit and wisdom. To be able to meditate on emptiness, we must first study or listen to teachings on the subject. Another important part of the process is to cultivate the causes and conditions that will prepare us to be suitable practitioners of emptiness. We have already reviewed the preliminaries that are covered in Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun. In particular, there are four preliminaries that we must understand and cultivate before proceeding with our study and meditation on emptiness.
We should contemplate the preciousness of our human life, which is characterized by all kinds of freedoms and enriching factors.
We need to contemplate the inevitability of our own death and the impermanence of all phenomena.
We have to study the infallible law of karmic actions and their results.
Based upon all these contemplations, we should cultivate the determined wish to be liberated from the repetitive cycles of existence.
Of these preliminaries, perhaps the most important is cultivating the determined wish to be liberated from cyclic existence. Having studied and practiced these to a certain extent, we should then focus on the practice of emptiness. We always need to reconnect to our spiritual goal; remember that the reason we are studying and trying to engage in spiritual practice is because we want to become buddhas for the sake of all other sentient beings. As we have seen, even if we have the wonderful attitudes of immeasurable love, immeasurable compassion, immeasurable equanimity and immeasurable joy, without the wisdom realizing emptiness, we cannot eliminate our root ignorance. Only this wisdom can cut through our innate self-grasping. Some people may think, "Maybe if I go for some profound tantric empowerments, that will do the magic for me." However, simply attending and receiving initiations is not going to do the job either. When we take empowerments we commit ourselves to certain practices and vows that we are required to keep. If we break these commitments, we will take a bad rebirth. Therefore, if we are unprepared, receiving empowerments can become an obstacle instead of a benefit.
Let's say there is a source of water but the amount of water is far greater than you need and you lay a pipeline to drain off enough for yourself. Keeping the commitments of empowerments or initiations is as important as keeping that pipeline intact. If any cracks, holes or blockages appear in the pipe-in other words, if you break your commitments -you may think that you have maintained the connection to the source, but you are not going to receive any benefits or blessings from it. These will all seep out of the cracks and holes or simply not get through at all. Although it is good to receive tantric empowerments, keeping the accompanying commitments is much more important.
OBSTACLES TO MEDITATION-LAXITY AND EXCITEMENT
There are two major obstacles to meditation-laxity, or mental dullness, and excitement, or distraction. It is very important to learn to recognize laxity and excitement in both their coarse and subtle forms. If you don't, you can end up doing the wrong kind of meditation. Many Buddhist meditators have failed to recognize subtle laxity as an obstacle and have thought their meditation to be very advanced, thus wasting a lot of time. In his lam-rim text, the Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Lama Tsongkhapa emphasizes the importance of recognizing precisely what the subtle forms of both laxity and dullness are.
Our mind should have clarity as well as a good grip on the object of meditation. If we don't have clarity, coarse laxity sets in. Sometimes we may have good clarity but our grip, our mental hold, on the object of meditation is loose. This means that our problem is subtle laxity. Laxity can be caused by many things, and as we identify these causes we can make the necessary adjustments to deal with them. For example, we experience coarse laxity if we eat too much food. The result is that we feel heavy and start to fall asleep. Eating at improper times or eating foods that are too rich can also cause laxity, as can depression or disappointment.
At such times we need to inspire ourselves not to get stuck in this state. One of the ways to do this is by remembering the pre-eminent qualities of the enlightened beings and how much effort they have made to become what they are and to help us, who are still trapped within samsara. In this way, we are reminded how much harder we need to work in our practices. Another way of dealing with laxity or mental sleepiness is to try to bring what we call the "brilliance of light" into our mind-to switch on the internal light of illumination. If that doesn't work, we should go and wash our face or take a walk. In short, to deal with laxity we should refresh ourselves.
Excitement or distraction happens when our mind is not really staying on the object of meditation. When we are sitting on our meditation cushion, we may begin to think about many things, either good or bad. There is a mental agitation that churns out all kinds of thoughts and ideas, such as all the things we have to do that day. When we do a good meditation we notice pins and needles in our feet and pain in our knees, but when we are distracted for the whole session, we don't feel any pain at all. When our mind wanders in this way, ego, pride and arrogance emerge and become a cause of excitement. Our minds become totally distracted and we are no longer meditating. We may begin to think about how other people see us or about our own personal history. We should not let such discursive thoughts enter our mind. We should not think about our profession or family matters, or about food, drink or gossip. It is better to think about these things before we start our meditation and take care of them then. If any such thoughts arise during meditation, we should stop them then and there and not allow them to function in our mind.
MEDITATING ON EMPTINESS
In his concluding verse of a stanza in the Three Principal Paths, Lama Tsongkhapa writes, "Just like that, when you have understood and realized the vital points of the three principal paths, you should seek solitude, generate your power of enthusiasm and strive for the ultimate goal." The three principal paths are:
The determined wish to be liberated, sometimes simply described as "renunciation."
Bodhicitta, the altruistic mind of enlightenment.
The wisdom perceiving emptiness.
We must study these points, contemplate the teachings on them and then cultivate them through meditation. It takes time to gain spiritual realizations. When you study or listen to the teachings you don't get experience. You can only get experience through meditation. Without meditation you can never experience the wisdom of emptiness, and without this wisdom you can never counteract your delusions. The whole purpose of meditation is to achieve stability of mind, to enhance its potential and to gain freedom from difficulties and unwanted problems. Basically, there are two types of meditation- single-pointed, or stabilizing, meditation and analytical, or insight, meditation. Meditation means familiarizing our mind with whatever the object of meditation is. In order to practice meditation we must have an object to focus on. As we focus on this object, we try to keep our mind unperturbed and undistracted. In this way, we cultivate some intimacy and familiarity with the object of meditation. As I mentioned earlier, you can't simply sit keeping your mind free from all thought and imagine you are meditating. You are never going to achieve anything out of a blank mind.
Calm abiding, or single-pointed meditation, is where you simply try to set your mind on a chosen object. You can use anything you like as your focus and you then try to concentrate on that object without getting distracted by anything else. Calm abiding (shamatha) meditation is a very stabilized state of mind. In itself, it is not a really great achievement. You might attain some higher level of consciousness or develop some psychic abilities through calm abiding, but that's about it. In Buddhist practice, we don't feel complacent when we have calm abiding but use it more like a vehicle in which we can ride to the state of enlightenment. Our purpose for cultivating singlepointed concentration is not just to have a calm mind, but to use this mental stability to be able to practice much higher things and ultimately reach the state of enlightenment.
Calm abiding alone cannot counteract our afflictive emotions, our deluded states mind. We have attained calm abiding many times in previous lives. In this present life, we should try to use it in a more meaningful way-to deeply penetrate the ultimate nature of reality, the way in which everything actually exists. With this stable mind, we use analytical meditation to cultivate insight into and realization of emptiness. Calm abiding is very helpful for this, because our mind is so stable and firm that it can really focus on emptiness without distraction. Lama Tsongkhapa states that "riding on the horse-like calm abiding and using the sharp weapon of the middle way, you can cut through the net of distorted perceptions and grasping."
This example comes from ancient times when warriors would ride into battle on horseback. They had to have a good horse, sharp weapons and a strong, healthy body. Thus equipped, they could win battles. Putting this into a spiritual context, we need to ride on the good horse of calm abiding; if you're riding a bad horse, it will throw you off. The sharp, sword-like wisdom realizing emptiness is the real weapon we need. As well, we have to maintain the healthy body of pure discipline, or ethics. With these qualities we can overcome our actual enemy-the delusions within ourselves.
In the text, we find three major outlines dealing with selflessness and illusory perception. First we have to establish the view of the selflessness of a person. Then we have to establish the selflessness of phenomena. Once we have directly perceived both types of selflessness in meditation, when we come out of the meditative state we can see all persons and everything else that exists as illusions.
With respect to emptiness, we should practice analytical meditation more than calm abiding, especially at the beginning. We need to establish what emptiness is-what it is that we're going to meditate upon-so we start with analytical meditation. We have to go through a process of reasoning in order to establish what emptiness of inherent, or true, existence actually is. We do this by developing an understanding of dependent arising. We then use this understanding to establish what emptiness is. We then fix our mind on emptiness as our object of meditation and concentrate single-pointedly upon it. If we try to concentrate on emptiness without first understanding what it is, our meditation will not work.
We do meditation for a purpose, and we must try to bring that purpose to mind when we meditate. Some people think that meditation is simply a good way to relax from the everyday stresses of life. That is not what meditation is for. At the very least, our motivation should be to gain freedom from the pains and problems of samsara. If you want to have a higher kind of motivation, then based upon your own experience of not wanting pains and problems and wishing for peace and happiness, you should think about how all other sentient beings have the same wish. You should then practice meditation in order to liberate all sentient beings, yourself included, from all forms of suffering and bring lasting peace and happiness to all.
It doesn't matter what kind of meditation you are going to do, if your mind is excited and distracted, you must first try to bring it to a peaceful level. This is why we need calm abiding. We all have to breathe. So, based upon the natural vehicle of breath, try to contain your mind and deal with its excitement. When you breathe out, remain aware of the exhalation of breath and when you breathe in, remain aware of the inhalation of breath. One exhalation and one inhalation constitute what is known as one round of breath; count from seven to twenty-one rounds to calm your mind.
Use your own natural rhythm. Don't exaggerate the process by breathing more heavily or strongly than normal. That would be artificial. When you breathe in and out, that gentle or natural breath should be through your nostrils not through your mouth. If you mess up in your counting, it means that your mind got distracted. If you try to do this focused meditation on your breath right after you return home from work, it might prove a little difficult, but you should be able to do it after taking a little rest. Through this kind of focused meditation on your natural process of breathing, you are basically trying to bring your mind back to whatever is your object of meditation. Once your mind is brought to a certain relaxed state, you can begin your actual meditation. Maybe you want to meditate on the impermanence of life, on death and dying or on the infallible workings of the law of karmic actions and results. Maybe you want to do guru yoga meditation, where you visualize your guru or teacher. The same preparation should be done for any other kind of meditation including meditation on bodhicitta or the perfect view of emptiness.
Many people have the notion that meditation is easy, that you just close your eyes, sit properly and put your hands in a certain gesture.
Sitting like that is just a posture. It's not meditation. We must know how to meditate. The Indian master, Acharya Vasubandhu, in his Treasury of Knowledge, states that you should be abiding in ethical discipline and should have received teachings on the practice you are trying to do and contemplated their meaning. When you have really understand the practice, you are ready for meditation. It's a process. If you do it that way, you won't go wrong.
The text states, "In between meditation sessions, be like a conjurer." How can we be like a conjurer? Our usual perception of things is that they appear to exist from their own side. They seem to have a kind of solidified and fixed nature. However, there is a disparity between the way phenomena appear to our perception and the way they actually exist. So, between sessions, we should try to understand that the way things appear to us as fixed and independently existent is like a magician's trick. We must also understand that we ourselves are the magician who created this trick, for it is our own faulty perception that sees things as existing independently. We should always try to see through this illusion, even as we interact with it. Most people perceive all things as if they existed inherently and grasp at and cling to that perceived inherent existence. There are other people who perceive the appearance of inherent existence but don't grasp at it-things appear to them as if they existed in and of themselves, but they are aware that things don't really exist in that way. Then there are people who are free of both appearance and grasping. Not only do these people not grasp at things as if they existed independently but to them, things don't even appear to exist in that way. The difference between these kinds of people is illustrated in the following example.
In ancient India (and still today in some parts), there were magicians who created optical illusions to entertain people. Using only rocks and sticks, they could create beautiful magical illusions of horses and elephants. The spectators, whose visual perception was influenced by the magician's incantation, would actually see horses and elephants and believe them to be real. The spectators are like those people to whom phenomena appear as inherently existent and who also grasp at things as if they existed in that way. The magician himself would also see the horses and elephants, but the difference was that he knew the tricks he was playing; he knew he had created them. The magician is like those people to whom phenomena appear as inherently existent but who know that things don't actually exist that way. There would also be people whose consciousness had not been affected magical incantations-they wouldn't see any horses or elephants, so they wouldn't grasp at them. They are like people for whom there is neither the appearance of nor the grasping at the inherent existence of phenomena.
Ordinary people like us-ordinary in the sense that we have not realized what the ultimate nature of phenomena is-experience both the appearance of and the grasping at true and inherent existence. Things appear to us as if they exist truly, objectively and independently and we grasp at this perceived mode of existence because we think that things really do exist in this way. On the other hand, those who have gained direct insight into emptiness may also experience the appearance of inherent existence of phenomena, but they don't grasp at this appearance because they know the truth of how things actually exist. Then there are the aryas, transcendental beings who have directly and non-conceptually experienced what emptiness is. When they are in meditative equipoise on emptiness, neither does inherent existence of phenomena appear to them nor is there grasping at such existence.
The reason you keep going round and round in this compulsive cycle of rebirths is that you do not understand ultimate reality. When you engage in your practices, you shouldn't do so with the idea that maybe, in some mysterious way, your practice is going to make you enlightened in the far distant future or that perhaps it will help ward off some negative influence. You must do your practices for the purpose of cultivating bodhicitta and the wisdom realizing emptiness.
When you make offerings, recite mantras or help the poor and needy, you should dedicate the merit of such actions to gaining these realizations. To really understand emptiness, you must meditate consistently over a number of years and continually do purification and accumulation practices. But don't let this dishearten you. Through constant effort and with the passage of time, you will definitely come to understand emptiness.
We need to properly dedicate the merit we have gained through studying this teaching. Let us dedicate our collective merit for the flourishing of Buddhadharma, the source of benefit and happiness for everyone throughout the universe, and for the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all the other great masters from any spiritual tradition. May they live long and be successful in fulfilling their visions and dreams for sentient beings.
May spiritual communities throughout the world and spiritual practitioners of all kinds remain healthy, happy and harmonious and be successful in fulfilling their spiritual aspirations. May this and other world systems be free from all kinds of unwanted pains and problems, such as sickness, famine and violence, and may beings experience peace, happiness, harmony and prosperity.
Last, but not least, let us dedicate our collective spiritual merit for all sentient beings to be free from the fears and dangers of the two types of mental obscuration and from all kinds of pains and problems and may we all quickly reach the state of highest enlightenment.
Khensur Rinpoche: When we say "cyclic existence", because we often talk about the ocean of samsara or the ocean of cyclic existence, what do you understand by that expression, "cyclic existence"?
Student: The process of birth, aging, sickness and death?
Khensur Rinpoche: So you are saying that cyclic existence is birth, aging, sickness and death?
Student: Yes, shaped by ignorance.
Khensur Rinpoche: Ignorance forces us to appropriate or take a set of aggregates. So, to be precise, cyclic existence refers to the aggregates which are taken under the control of ignorance. In more general terms the aggregates are taken under the control of karma and the mental afflictions.
The aggregates are characterised by birth, sickness, aging and death. Cyclic existence implies circling, and we are circling in the stream or continuity of the four or five aggregates.1 With the aggregates come birth, aging, sickness and death which occur under the influence or control of karma and afflictions.
This means that the only way to be free of cyclic existence and achieve liberation is through the wisdom realising emptiness. We are in cyclic existence because of karma and mental afflictions, in particular the latter. From amongst these mental afflictions the specific root cause compelling us to take birth again and again in cyclic existence is ignorance - self-grasping, true-grasping. The only way to be rid of that is by realising emptiness.
No matter how powerful one’s love, compassion and bodhicitta, without wisdom realising emptiness, there is no way to achieve liberation from cyclic existence. No matter how strong one’s altruistic attitudes are, without that wisdom one cannot sever the root of cyclic existence which is the true-grasping mind. What binds one to cyclic existence is ignorance. In order to sever that bondage one needs the wisdom realising emptiness.
Beyond such realising, one is tied to the peace of personal liberation by the self-cherishing mind. To cut through that bond the altruistic attitudes of love, compassion and bodhicitta are required.
The two types of mental obscurations are the afflictive obscurations and a subtler set of obscurations called knowledge obscurations. Hearer and Solitary Realiser Arhats, the Foe Destroyers2, are amazing because, through having thought about, understood and meditated on emptiness deeply, thereby realising it, they can destroy the foe - the mental afflictions. Of the two obscurations they can eliminate the afflictive obscurations.
However, they are not free of all faults. Not having overcome all obscurations, they still retain the knowledge obscurations. This is because they have not taken full responsibility for benefiting others. Not having developed a sufficiently powerful sense of love and compassion towards others, they still have that fault or obscuration in the mind.
Because they can improve themselves further the arhats have not yet completely accomplished their own welfare. Theirs is not the most perfect experience a person can achieve. This is because of the self-cherishing mind. They experience only their own liberation and have not accomplished the ability to perfect the welfare of others. They remain in their own peace. The peace of that freedom from cyclic existence is much like a person that has gone to sleep. They cannot accomplish the welfare of others, or benefit others greatly because of still having the self-cherishing mind. They have not generated the altruistic attitude.
Both extremes must be overcome. The extreme of cyclic existence is vanquished by meditating on and realising emptiness while the extreme of remaining in one’s personal peaceful liberation is defeated by generating the altruistic mind.
The Importance of the Wisdom Side
Wisdom without the method side of bodhicitta and compassion binds one to the peace of personal liberation. This is the situation of the Hinayana arhats - the Hearer and Solitary Realiser Foe Destroyers, who are bound to the peace of their own liberation because of not having engaged in the practice of the perfections based on bodhicitta, which is in turn based on the altruistic attitudes of love and compassion.
Depicting the position of the Hinayana arhats like that does not mean denigrating them. Nevertheless, when the arhats are compared with the Buddha it becomes evident that they have become sidelined in the extreme of personal peace. Thus they are unable to benefit others extensively as can bodhisattvas and enlightened beings. They have not reached even their full personal potential.
Furthermore, one is tied down, bound or fettered with either wisdom divorced from method or method divorced from wisdom. In the latter case one is bound to cyclic existence. practicing the method side without wisdom leaves one unable to escape from cyclic existence. With only the first five perfections of generosity, morality, patience, enthusiasm, and concentration, but without the sixth perfection of wisdom, no matter how much one practises one cannot possibly achieve liberation.
A scriptural passage gives the example of a group of blind people who can reach their destination only with a sighted guide, whereas without one they are stuck. Similarly, the first five perfections can take one beyond cyclic existence to reach enlightenment only with the practice of wisdom. Without the practice of wisdom, which is like their eyes, the first five are unable to reach their destination.
To get somewhere you need legs to carry you and eyes to see where you are going. The first five perfections are like legs and the sixth perfection, wisdom, like eyes. [Walking is used to illustrate this point because when these scriptures were taught there were no cars and aeroplanes to travel by.]
With a complete set of eyes and legs operational one can go wherever one wishes and can even undertake a very long journey which would be impossible without them both. With all six perfections, one may handle the long journey to enlightenment. On the other hand, Hearers and Solitary Realisers with the practice of wisdom, but without the other perfections, lack the method side, like having no legs. Therefore they simply cannot manage the long journey to enlightenment which is too difficult for them.
These are some of the benefits of the practice of meditation on emptiness. It is very useful to reflect on these benefits because it gives one the energy to put into the practice of understanding, meditating on and thereby realising emptiness.
A sutra called, The Door of Entrance into Faith says that if a person were to provide each sentient being in the three realms - the desire, form and formless realms - everything needed for their whole life until death, there would certainly be a huge amount of merit or benefit. It is hard to grasp (if it were possible) how much merit there would be from that, yet there is even more merit in meditating on emptiness even for a short while. This does not mean even to have realised it.
Of course if one has realised it and meditates on it for one session, there is certainly far greater merit. However, even in the case of not having realised it but seriously thinking about, reflecting and meditating on it, there is far more merit than from providing all sentient beings of the three realms with everything they need for the rest of their lives.
To understand this it helps to look at another of Buddha’steachings which states that even though one kept pure morality and meditated one-pointedly for tens of thousands of eons, there is no way one could achieve liberation. This is because only with pure morality and stable concentration but without the realisation of emptiness, even meditating for tens of thousands of eons does nothing to harm ignorance, the root of cyclic existence. Despite having meditated with such stability for such a long period, one would finally have done nothing to harm ignorance, the true-grasping mind which is the root of cyclic existence. Hence, one would still be a samsaric being, meaning a person in cyclic existence just as before.
Although such a long period of meditation would not even touch that self-grasping mind of ignorance, it is said that even having doubts about self-existence in the sense of thinking "maybe things are empty of self-existence", completely undermines cyclic existence and inflicts very heavy damage on its root. The teachings use the image of reducing a piece of cloth to rags or tatters, making it very weak, so that were one to just pick it up it would fall to pieces.
The importance of practicing wisdom is illustrated towards the end of the three Mother Sutras where Buddha presented a section called "the complete entrustment". At that point in the Perfection of Wisdom teachings the Buddha said to Ananda that even if he were to forget everything else Buddha had taught, as long as Ananda could retain, memorise and remember all he had taught concerning the words, content and meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, he would not feel that Ananda in any way disrespected him as his teacher. However, were Ananda to remember absolutely everything else the Buddha had taught, but were to forget just one word or a single aspect of the meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, the Buddha would not even consider Ananda to be his disciple. In that case, the Buddha said, Ananda should not consider himself to be his student, nor consider the Buddha to be his teacher. Furthermore, were he to forget any element of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, the samaya3 between Buddha Shakyamuni and Ananda would have been completely destroyed.
This underlines how important the Buddha himself considered the Perfection of Wisdom to be. Of course it is so important because without wisdom, there is absolutely no way of going beyond the suffering of cyclic existence.
We consider Ananda to be very important in Buddhism; such beings are considered to be most precious. Similarly the seventeen pandits of Nalanda, the six "ornaments" of India and the two sublime beings are considered to be highly important and precious. The reason for this is that it is due to them that the teachings the Buddha gave so many centuries ago still exist in a pure and complete form for us to use today.
In conclusion, the importance of wisdom is that none of us sentient beings could possibly gain liberation from cyclic existence without the wisdom realising emptiness. Therefore it is highly praised and many scriptures describe the importance of this practice in various ways. One scripture says that were one to seriously meditate on the actual meaning of emptiness for only a minute or two, again not necessarily having realised it, the merit would be far greater than spending eons either listening to teachings on or reciting the Perfection of Wisdom, or practicing the other five perfections of generosity, morality, patience, enthusiasm and concentration. Therefore, although practicing the first five perfections for eons would create a huge amount of merit, meditating on emptiness for just one or two minutes would make far more merit.
The main reason why there would be so much more merit is that even if you spent eons engaged in listening to or reciting the Perfection of Wisdom or practicing the first five perfections you would still be in cyclic existence. Being tied down in and bound to cyclic existence, you would still be compelled to take birth repeatedly in cyclic existence. You would not have escaped cyclic existence at all.
I am sure you know that you cannot expect to be able to practise perfectly right from the beginning. practicing in general and specifically here thinking about and trying to understand emptiness is something that will get better and better but only if you apply yourself to it. As Shantideva says, there is nothing that will not get easier with familiarity. Therefore, if one keeps trying, it will get more and more familiar, and as that happens it will become easier and easier.
Unlike in the past, we now have a great many texts translated into English. So much hard work by so many people has been done to make the teachings available in English. We are able to read. We have the intelligence to pick up these books, to read them through and to go back and forth to compare what it says earlier in the book with what it says later and so on. Thus we definitely have the means to improve our understanding.
It is well worth getting, and spending time on reliable books such as those written or based on teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Other books by certain extraordinary beings are also worth buying and reading and if one cannot judge for oneself it is worth asking around and finding out other people’srecommendations.
Having reflected on the advantages of emptiness, do not think it unimportant to meditate on love, compassion and bodhicitta and so on. On the contrary, you should also maintain efforts to understand and practise these.
1 Most sentient beings in cyclic existence have the five aggregates of form, feeling, discriminative awareness, compositional factors and consciousness. However, those in the formless realms have only four aggregates since they lack form. [Return to text]
To begin with please review your motivation for studying this topic because without an appropriate attitude and motivation, activities are less useful and meaningful, and might be neither Dharma1 nor spiritual practice. Three scopes of attitude are considered appropriate.
If the motivation for an action such as coming, going or meditating is to avoid one's own rebirth after death in the unfortunate realms of existence, this is Dharma or spiritual practice of the most modest or least scope. The motivation is of middle scope if the aim is to avoid rebirth anywhere in cyclic existence thereby achieving one's own liberation. Finally, the highest motivation, of a person of great scope is if one practises to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Studying the teachings with excellent attitude and motivation is very powerful, less good is of middling benefit and the least or weakest is not so significant.
The supreme attitude or motivation, embracing all living beings, is thinking "Everything I do until I achieve enlightenment is for the sake of all sentient beings. All I do from now until my death I dedicate to every single living being without exception. Particularly I dedicate everything I do this year, this month, this week and today for the sake of all living beings."
This highest motivation "To be of benefit to all living beings I shall use my time and energy to achieve enlightenment" is important for students and teacher alike. It is dreadful if a teacher's whole reason and mental attitude for teaching is to make money, become famous, be well thought of, make friends and so forth. Likewise, if students have these attitudes, their motivation for study and practice is completely wrong.
The Kadampa lamas, great Tibetan practitioners of the past, had a saying that two particularly important focal points of any activity are at the beginning and the end. At the beginning it is especially important to have a good kuenlong – an appropriate attitude or motivation. At the end, having performed a well-motivated activity, it is important to make prayers of dedication. By making such prayers, all the virtuous goodness created by engaging in the action with such a positive motivation is retained. For example, if subsequently one gets angry without having dedicated the good energy created by an action, the anger completely destroys the benefit. However, having dedicated, even if one gets angry later, it cannot destroy the goodness. Therefore, it is very important to dedicate.
There are traditional prayers like the jam.pel pa.wo that begins, “Just as the great bodhisattvas of the past like Manjushri and Samantabhadra, made dedication, I also dedicate.” With this one mentally transfers one's positive energy to the safe-keeping of these two bodhisattvas, entrusting them with the virtue created. Even without knowing the formal words of the prayer, it is sufficient to understand the main point which is thinking that "I dedicate exactly the same as whatever prayers of dedication all the buddhas and bodhisattvas, those great holy beings made in the past and are making now." Similarly, when setting the motivation, think, "With my life, time and energy, may I too engage in every action they did and are doing for the sake of all sentient beings! May I emulate them!"
The Heart Sutra: Emptiness and Lines of Reasoning
To examine the Heart Sutra word by word from the beginning would take too long and might become tedious for those who have already studied teachings on emptiness. With some experience of emptiness study there is already some understanding, so it could feel frustrating to start from the beginning without reaching the main point.
In general there are several methods to study and meditate on emptiness. The following are the best known lines of reasoning leading to an understanding of emptiness. The line of reasoning of being free from one and many analyses the very nature of things. The vajra slivers line of reasoning analyses causes. The line of reasoning analysing the results of things is the refutation of existing and not existing. The reasoning of dependent arising is known as the king of reasoning.
From the Supplement to the Middle Way (Skt. Madhyamakavatara) by Chandrakirti, comes the sevenfold analysis refutation of self existence. Another very important line of reasoning, the refutation of production from self and other is derived from the first verse of Nagarjuna's Fundamental Stanzas on Wisdom:
Neither from itself nor from another
Nor from both,
Nor without a cause
Does anything anywhere, ever arise.2
The Prajnaparamita Sutras
The title of this sutra is The Essence of Wisdom, often known as the Heart Sutra. Just as our heart is the most important part of our body, this sutra contains the heart or essence of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the most important teachings of the Buddha. Prajnaparamita means the Perfection of Wisdom, the Wisdom Gone Beyond or the Transcendental Wisdom.
Amongst the Prajnaparamita Sutras are the extensive, middling and concise Mother Sutras. The great or extensive one is the Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 Verses; the middling is that in 20,000 verses and the concise one is in 8,000 verses. The Essence of Wisdom sutra is so-called because it contains the essence of all of the wisdom sutras.
Different types of wisdom analyse conventional and ultimate phenomena. The ultimate here means emptiness. The wisdom intended when calling The Essence of Wisdom a sutra containing the essence of all the Prajnaparamita Sutras is wisdom analysing the ultimate which means wisdom realising emptiness. Various levels of this are wisdom from hearing or studying, wisdom from reflecting or contemplating, and wisdom from meditation.
Wisdom analysing the ultimate analyses and realises emptiness. This wisdom is the complete opposite of the ignorance which is the true-grasping or self-grasping mind, the root cause holding us in cyclic existence. Although this wisdom and ignorance have completely opposite ways of engaging they refer to the same object. Being directly contradictory, they are complete opposites.
The Prajnaparamita Sutras explicitly teach or reveal the stages of profound emptiness. Implicitly they explain the grounds and paths, the various realisations produced or arising sequentially in the mind of the practitioner gradually progressing through the path, and the methods of practice.
Lama Tsongkhapa wrote The Brief Explanation of the Way of Discerning the Difference between the Sutras of Definitive and Interpretative Meaning more commonly known as the Dependent Arising Praise in which he explained emptiness by stating that the Buddha based all he taught on everything which exists being a dependent arising. Buddha taught emptiness never losing the perspective of it totally fitting with everything being a dependent arising.
Tsongkhapa made the point that, in the multiplicity of teachings Buddha gave, everything was taught in terms of dependent arising. In other words, Buddha never taught so that you could possibly lose sight of the view of everything being a dependent arising.
Furthermore, by teaching like that, absolutely everything the Buddha taught was aimed at helping all sentient beings to overcome all inner mental afflictions and every fault and problem deriving from those afflictions. In other words, absolutely everything the Buddha taught was aimed at bringing all sentient beings to the state of nirvana. What the Sanskrit term nirvana means is "the state beyond sorrow." This means beyond the sorrow of the mental afflictions.
By what method can beings achieve this peaceful state which goes beyond or completely transcends all inner mental afflictions? One can achieve the state beyond sorrow with the wisdom realising emptiness. At present, sentient beings are unable to see the true nature of their own minds. The wisdom realising emptiness will enable them to see this.
The presence of mental afflictions prevents us from seeing the true nature of our minds. By meditating on that nature we can overcome those afflictions, (Tib. nyon mongs; Skt. kleshas) and thus achieve the state beyond sorrow. It is said that by extinguishing karma (action) and the kleshas (mental afflictions) we find liberation. Mental afflictions impel us to engage in harmful destructive actions that lead to our experiencing suffering in the future. Karma (action) refers to destructive actions engaged in through the force of mental afflictions.
Suffering arises due to karma, and karma arises due to mental afflictions. Because of mental afflictions we engage in harmful karmic actions. Where do they come from? Tsongkhapa's text makes the point that karma and afflictions come from a particular kind of conceptualisation, the true-grasping mind (ignorance). Destructive actions (karma) come from mental afflictions derived from this true-grasping conceptualisation (Tib. nam.tok) or "superstition" - in other words, the mind of ignorance or true-grasping.
The way to eradicate this true-grasping mind is by reflecting upon and understanding dependent arising. "Dependent arising" refers to the fact that everything arises (comes into being or existence) through depending on other factors.
The Setting and Structure of the Heart Sutra
The prologue to the Heart Sutra is called "a basis for the discussion" (Tib. ling.shi), meaning the background or setting for the sutra. For example, in the case of some of the monastic precepts there is an explanation about how a particular precept came to be given. This can include a description of how a certain monk made a mistake and how, when the Buddha came to know of this he said, “This is something that the monks and nuns should not do.” From that point on the monks and nuns had to follow that precept. The background to how and why it came about is called the ling.shi or prologue.
The prologue to this sutra begins with:
Thus I have heard at one time: the Lord was sitting on Vultures Peak near the city of Rajgir. He was accompanied by a large community of monks as well as a large community of Bodhisattvas.
This is the common prologue. The next two lines form the special prologue,
On that occasion the Lord was absorbed in a concentration called the profound appearance.
The common prologue describes how the Buddha was sitting with a great community of monks and bodhisattvas. The special prologue, that he was absorbed in a concentration called the profound appearance means that the Buddha was himself reflecting or meditating on emptiness.
Meanwhile the bodhisattva, the great being, the noble Avalokiteshvara was contemplating the profound discipline of the perfection of wisdom. He came to see that the five aggregates were empty of any inherent nature of their own.
The Buddha meditates on emptiness and throughout most of the rest of the sutra starting from "Through the power of the Buddha", he blesses and causes a change to occur in the mental continuum of two of his disciples, Avalokiteshvara (Tib. Chenrezig) and Shariputra. He blesses their continuums so that Shariputra asks Avalokiteshvara a question. The rest of the text is Avalokiteshvara's answer.
Both question and the answer arise through the blessing of the Buddha and are called the holy word of the Buddha. There are different types of word or teaching of the Buddha and one is called the holy word that comes through the blessing of the Buddha. Although spoken by Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara, with the question coming from Shariputra, and Avalokiteshvara giving the answer, it is still referred to as the Buddha's word. Specifically in this case it is the Buddha's word that comes through his blessing these two beings. At the very end of the sutra it says,
At that time the Lord arose from his concentration and said to the noble Avalokiteshvara, “Well said, well said, that is just how it is my son, just how it is. The profound perfection of wisdom should be practiced exactly as you have explained it, then the Tathagatas will be truly delighted.”
This is the Buddha's holy word spoken from his own mouth. Although more detail is possible, this gives a rough idea of the structure.
To recap, a question comes from Shariputra followed by Avalokiteshvara's answer, and both are the word of the Buddha called the "blessed word". Later where the Buddha says, “Well said, well said,” he confirms that what Avalokiteshvara said about emptiness is absolutely faultless. That is also the Buddha's word, specifically that spoken by the Buddha.
Thus there are three sections. In brief, the Heart Sutra, has three points - the question from Shariputra, the answer from Avalokiteshvara and finally the Buddha's approval.
This teaching was given at Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre, New Delhi, on October 31, 1979. First published in Teachings at Tushita, edited by Nicholas Ribush with Glenn H. Mullin, Mahayana Publications, New Delhi, 1981. Now appears in the 2005 LYWA publication Teachings From Tibet.
Making Dharma practice effective
The antidote to delusion, ego and every other problem we face is the wisdom of Dharma; Dharma wisdom provides the deepest solution to every human problem. Whoever has problems needs Dharma; Dharma wisdom is the light that eliminates the dark shadow of ignorance, the main source of all human afflictions.
Dharma philosophy is not Dharma; doctrine is not Dharma; religious art is not Dharma. Dharma is not that statue of Lord Buddha on your altar. Dharma is the inner understanding of reality that leads us beyond the dark shadow of ignorance, beyond dissatisfaction.
It is not enough merely to accept Dharma as being true. We must also understand our individual reality, our specific needs and the purpose of Dharma as it relates to us as individuals. If we accept Dharma for reasons of custom or culture alone, it does not become properly effective for our minds. For example, it’s wrong for me to think, “I’m Tibetan, therefore, I’m a Mahayanist.” Perhaps I can talk about Mahayana philosophy, but being a Mahayanist, having Mahayana Dharma in my heart, is something else.
You may have been born in a Dharma country, in an environment where religion is accepted, but if you do not use that religion to gain an understanding of the reality of your own mind, there is little sense in being a believer. Dharma cannot solve your problems if you do not approach it pragmatically. You should seek Dharma knowledge in order to stop your problems, to make yourself spiritually healthy—in religious terms, to discover eternal happiness, peace and bliss.
We ourselves are responsible for discovering our own peace and liberation. We cannot say that some other power, like God, is responsible—if we do, we are weak and not taking responsibility for the actions of our own body, speech and mind. Buddhists understand that they are personally responsible for everything they do: it’s in their own hands whether their actions are positive or negative. Therefore, although we might find ourselves in a religious environment—in India, Tibet or even the West—becoming religious is something else.
External cultural aspects do not indicate the presence of Dharma. Dharma is that which leads us beyond delusion, beyond ego, beyond the usual human problems. If we use it for such purposes we can say, “I’m practicing Dharma,” but if we don’t, there’s little benefit in reciting even the most powerful mantras.
One of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings is to renounce samsara. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t drink water when we’re thirsty. It means that we must understand samsara such that even when we’re caught in a samsaric situation, no karmic reaction ensues. The application of skillful method and wisdom is the real renunciation; as long as we have grasping and hatred in our mind, we have not renounced samsara.
You can change your clothes and shave your head, but when you ask yourself, “What have I really renounced?” you may find that your mind is exactly the same as it was before your external transformation—you have not stopped your problems.
That’s why we call samsara a cycle; cyclic existence. We do things—we change, change, change, change—we enjoy the novelty of every change, but actually, all we’re doing is creating more karma. Every time we do something, there’s a reaction that makes our bondage in cyclic existence even tighter than it was before. That’s samsara. To loosen this tightness we need the wisdom that illuminates the darkness of ignorance. It’s not enough to think, “I am Buddhist; Buddha will take care of me”; “I am Christian; God will take care of me.” Belief is not enough; we have to understand the reality of our own mind.
To this end, Lord Buddha taught many meditation techniques to wake us up from ignorance. First we have to understand our needs as individuals; according to Lord Buddha’s teachings each of us has different needs. Usually we ignore these and, without discriminating wisdom, just accept whatever comes along. As a result, we end up in a situation from which we cannot escape. That is samsara.
Moreover, it is important for us to recognize that even if right now some of our habits and attitudes are wrong, it’s possible to change and transform them. Grasping at permanence makes us think that we’re unchanging. This negative thought pattern is very strong and prevents us from developing or acting in a Dharma way. To help us overcome our wrong conceptions, Lord Buddha taught the four noble truths. [See His Holiness the Dalai Lama's teaching on the four noble truths.] As the first characteristic of the noble truth of suffering, he taught impermanence.
It is very important to understand impermanence. When we understand the impermanent nature of things, their non-stop change, we give ourselves the time and space to accept whatever situation comes along. Then, even if we are in a suffering situation, we can take care of ourselves; we can look at it without getting upset. Otherwise, our upset or guilty mind prevents us from waking from confusion, from seeing our own clarity.
Clarity always exists within us. The nature of our consciousness is clear. It is merely a question of seeing it. If you always feel dirty, negative and hopeless, as if you’re somebody who could never possibly discover inner peace and liberation, you’re reacting to a deluded, negative mind, a fixed conception. You’re thinking beyond reality, beyond the nature of phenomena; you’re not in touch with reality. You have to eradicate such preconceived ideas before you can cultivate tranquility and peace, before your intelligence can touch reality.
Check up right now. Ask yourself, “What am I?” “Who am I?” Even on the relative plane, when you ask yourself this you find that you’re holding a permanent conception of your self of yesterday, the day before yesterday, last week, last month, last year…. This idea of the self is not correct. It’s a preconception that must be broken down and recognized as unreasonable. Then you can understand the possibility of ceaseless, infinite development and spiritual growth.
The beauty of being human is that you can continuously develop inner qualities such as peace, the energy of the enlightenment experience and bliss and eventually transcend your dualistic mind. When you come to understand this inner beauty, you’ll stop grasping at external objects, which can never bring eternal satisfaction. This is an important sign of spiritual progress. You cannot simultaneously be religious and grasp at material things; the two are incompatible.
We see people getting more and more confused and dissatisfied the more possessions they get until finally they commit suicide. Sometimes the poor don’t understand this; they think that materially wealthy people must be happy. They are not happy. They are dissatisfied, emotionally disturbed, confused and immersed in suffering. Suicide rates are much higher in affluent societies than in economically undeveloped ones. This is not Dharma philosophy—this is present-day reality, our twentieth century situation; it’s happening right now. I am not suggesting that you give up your material comfort; Lord Buddha never said that we have to give up our enjoyments. Rather, he taught that we should avoid confusing ourselves by grasping at worldly pleasures.
The underlying attitude that forces us to chase after unworthy objects is the delusion that causes us to think, “This object will give me satisfaction; without it life would be hopeless.” These preconceptions make us incapable of dealing with the new situations that inevitably arise from day to day. We expect things to happen in a certain way and when they don’t, we can’t cope with them properly. Instead of handling unexpected situations effectively we become tense, frustrated and psychologically disturbed.
Developing our Dharma experience
Most of us are emotionally unstable, sometimes up and sometimes down. When life is going well we put on a very religious aspect but when things go bad we lose it completely. This shows that we have no inner conviction, that our understanding of Dharma is very limited and fickle.
People say, “I’ve been practicing Dharma for years but I’ve still got all these problems. I don’t think Buddhism helps.” My question to them is, “Have you developed single-pointed concentration or penetrative insight?” That’s the problem. Simply saying, “Oh yes, I understand; I pray every day; I’m a good person” is not enough. Dharma is a total way of life. It’s not just for breakfast, Sundays, or the temple. If you’re subdued and controlled in the temple but aggressive and uncontrolled outside of it, your understanding of Dharma is neither continuous nor indestructible.
Are you satisfied with your present state of mind? Probably not, and that’s why you need meditation, why you need Dharma. Worldly possessions do not give you satisfaction; you can’t depend on transitory objects for your happiness.
When we refugees fled Tibet we left behind our beautiful environment and way of life. If my mind had been fixed in its belief that my happiness and pleasure depended solely upon being in the country of my birth, I could never have been happy in India. I would have thought, “There are no snow mountains here; I can’t be happy.” Mental attitude is the main problem; physical problems are secondary. Therefore, avoid grasping at material objects and seek instead an indestructible understanding of the ultimate nature of the mind.
Developing concentration and insight
Dharma practice does not depend on cultural conditions. Whether we travel by train, plane or automobile we can still practice Dharma. However, in order to completely destroy the root of the dualistic mind, a partial understanding of the reality of our own mind is not sufficient. Dharma practice requires continual, sustained effort; just a few flashes of understanding are not enough. To fully penetrate to the ultimate reality of our own mind, we have to develop single-pointed concentration. When we have done so, our understanding will be continuous and indestructible.
Lord Buddha’s teachings on single-pointed concentration are very important because they show us how to transcend worldly conceptions. However, single-pointed concentration alone is not enough. We have to combine it with penetrative insight. What’s the difference between the two? First we develop single-pointed concentration, which leads us beyond worldly emotional problems and gives us a degree of higher satisfaction. But a certain amount of darkness remains in our mind. In order to reach the depths of human consciousness we also have to cultivate penetrative insight, which is the only thing that can lead us totally beyond the dualistic view of all existence. From the Buddhist point of view, the dualistic way of thinking is the real conflict. Meditative concentration can bring us a certain degree of peace, but if the dualistic view remains, we still have conflict in our mind.
The object of insight meditation, the experience of emptiness, is realization of non-duality, where the flashing of sense objects and images disappears and we experience the total unity of absolute reality. There’s a difference between the experience of emptiness and its philosophy. Philosophically speaking, sense objects exist, sense pleasures exist, and there’s a relationship between the senses and the external world. But in the experience itself, there is no awareness of a duality, no perception of the sense world, and no sense of conflict to irritate the mind. Normally, whenever we perceive objects in the sense world, we see two things: we perceive the thing itself and immediately compare it with something else. Society is built on the dualistic mind. Eventually it comes down to, if my next door neighbor gets a car I’m going to want one, too. Two forces are at work, and one becomes the reason for the other.
From the Buddhist point of view, any information received through the five sense consciousnesses is always distorted by dualistic grasping. It’s like an optical illusion. It registers in our consciousness and we believe that what we’re seeing is true. Actually, it’s an unreal distortion and it gives birth to every other delusion.
Consequently, the Buddhist attitude towards data received through the five sense consciousnesses is one of mistrust. You cannot rely on the judgments of good and bad that come through your senses—they always give you a dualistic, distorted impression. You’re be better off going around with your eyes closed!
Anyway, always question and be critical of the information that comes in through your senses. That’s the way to eventually transcend ordinariness, karmically-created actions and the inevitable reactions of dissatisfaction.
Q. Are you saying that we are able to fully realize emptiness? Lama. Definitely! How? By examining the nature of your own mind, repeatedly asking yourself, “What am I?” “Who am I?” Eventually, you’ll come to see the falseness of your instinctive ego-model and how it projects itself into your life, causing you to misinterpret every experience you have. When you discover this wrong view, you’re close to understanding emptiness. Until you discover how ego-grasping works within you, realization of emptiness is a long way off.
Q. What is the relationship between emptiness and consciousness? Lama. Consciousness is not emptiness. But when you understand the nature of consciousness, the clarity of mind, you have an experience very similar to that of the perception of emptiness. Therefore, in the Tibetan tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, we emphasize contemplating your own consciousness as a preliminary leading to the experience of absolute emptiness.
Q. You spoke of sensory awareness disappearing in the experience of emptiness. How can we perceive the world without the five sense consciousnesses? Lama. Well, there are both absolute and relative worlds. In the beginning, you meditate on the nature of the relative world and this then becomes the method by which the absolute is discovered. Look at the sense world but don’t be entranced by it. Be constantly analytical, always checking to see that your perception is clear and free from ego-based exaggeration. Relative reality is not the problem; the problem is that in your perception of things, you exaggerate and distort the various aspects of an object. Therefore, you must continually question your experience. You can’t simply say, “It’s right because I saw it and wrong because I didn’t.” You have to go deeper than that.
Q. When you put a question to your mind, to whom do you put the question? Lama. When you question your own consciousness, you question your wrong conceptions, your belief in nonexistent entities. When you see a red glass, you recognize it as a red glass, but inside you raise doubts: “Maybe it’s red, maybe it’s white.” Whenever you question, answers come. Usually we just accept whatever happens without question. As a result, we’re deluded and polluted. To question is to seek, and the answer lies within you. We feel that our consciousness is small, but it is like a mighty ocean in which everything can be found. When I talk you may think, “Maybe this lama will give me some realization,” but there is no realization to give. To talk about Dharma is to throw switches here and there, hoping to wake people up. Belief in Buddha, Krishna or whomever is not enough; you must take responsibility for your own body, speech and mind. We all have a certain degree of wisdom; this must be cultivated. All religions use bells—Buddhism and Hinduism included. The bell symbolizes wisdom. At the moment, the bell of wisdom is lying unused within us. The ring of the ritual bell is a reminder: “Use your wisdom!”
Q. Admittedly we should not be overly passive in our responsibilities, but sometimes taking karmic responsibility seems to heighten our sense of ego. There seems to be a choice between responsibility and outward energy as opposed to passive, inner wisdom. Lama. Intellectually, we understand that there are Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This is positive. Buddha is OK; Dharma is OK; Sangha is OK. But what is Buddha to me? When I totally develop myself, I become buddha; that is my buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha is his buddha, not mine. He’s gone. My total awakening is my buddha. How do you awaken to your own buddha? The first step is simply to be aware of the actions of your body, speech and mind. Of course, you should not be egotistical about it, thinking, “Buddha and Dharma are OK, but I don’t care about them—I am responsible.” And also you should not have pride: “I am a meditator.” The whole point is to eradicate the ego—don’t worry about whether you are a meditator or not. Just put your mind in the right channel, don’t intellectualize, and let go. Your question is very good: we have to know how to deal with that mind. Thank you.
Q. You said that suicide rates are higher in the West than in the East. But it is also true that death from starvation is commoner in the East than in the West. It seems to be instinctive for the Easterner to renounce whereas materialism appears to be natural for Westerners. So may I suggest, skeptically, that renunciation has led the East to poverty while materialism has brought the West to affluence? Lama. That’s also a very good question. But remember what I said before: renouncing this glass does not mean throwing it away, breaking it or giving it to somebody else. You can eat your rice and dhal with a renounced mind. It’s very important for you to know that.
It’s true that most Eastern people are culturally influenced by their religious tenets. For example, even when we are three or four years old, we accept the law of karma. Then again, most Eastern people also misunderstand karma. Somebody thinks, “Oh, I’m a poor person, my father is a sweeper—I too have to be a sweeper.” “Why?” “Because it’s my karma—it has to be that way.”
This is a total misconception and has nothing to do with the teachings of either Hinduism or Buddhism; it’s a fixed idea totally opposite to the nature of reality. We should understand, “I’m a human being—my nature is impermanent. Maybe I’m unhappy now, but I’m changeable—I can develop within myself the mind of eternal peace and joy.” This is the attitude we should have.
The incredible changes we see in the world today come from the human mind, not from the world itself; the affluence of the materialistic West comes from the Western mind. If we Easterners want our standard of living to equal that of the West, we can do it. At the same time, however, we can have renunciation of samsara.
In order to develop renunciation, you have to understand the actual value of material goods and their relationship to happiness. Most Westerners grossly exaggerate the value of material things. They are bombarded with advertisements: “This [object] gives you satisfaction”; “That gives you satisfaction”; “The other gives you satisfaction.” So they become psychologically convinced, “I must buy this, I must buy that, otherwise I won’t be happy.” This conviction leads them to the extreme of materialism—and ultimately to suicide. Similarly, Easterners misconceive the teachings of religion and fall into the extreme of passivity, laziness and apathy: “Karma—it’s my karma.”
Q. What is the difference between moksha and nirvana? Lama. There are several levels of moksha, or liberation. One of these is nirvana, which is beyond ego and is endowed with everlasting peace and bliss. Higher than nirvana is enlightenment, which is sometimes called the “great nirvana” and is the fruition of bodhicitta, the determination to reach enlightenment for the sole purpose of enlightening all the infinite sentient beings. You can lose interest in samsara, undergo spiritual training and attain nirvana, but you have yet to develop bodhicitta and realize full enlightenment.
Q. You spoke about non-duality. Do love and hate still exist in that state? Lama. The experience of non-duality itself is in the nature of love. The emotional tone of love is lower during meditative absorption on non-duality but its nature is essentially present. Most people’s love is biased and dualistic. Love characterized by non-duality feels no partiality. The lam-rim teaches us to meditate on how every single sentient being—including animals, birds, fish and insects—has repeatedly been a mother to us in our infinite previous lives. Moreover, without exception, they all want happiness and seek to avoid suffering. If we meditate and expand our objects of knowledge, we’ll come to know the nature of other beings and our love will become vast.
Q. Nirvana seems to be a duality because it implies non-nirvana. Lama. Linguistically, this is true. If we label something “nirvana,” we create an entrance for the label “non-nirvana.” But in the minds of those perceiving non-duality, there are no labels. They just experience nirvana and let themselves go into it.
Q. I always visualize nirvana as the LSD experience. Lama. Then I guess there’s not much nirvana, here in the East.
His Holiness Zong Rinpoche came to stay at Kopan Monastery for a few days during the Sixth Meditation Course, March-April 1974. He gave this talk to almost two hundred Western students on April 17. It was translated by Lama Thubten Yeshe and edited by Nicholas Ribush.
Read the transcript of Lama Zopa Rinpoche's teachings from the Sixth Kopan Course on the LYWA website.
His Holiness Zong Rinpoche (1905-84) was born in Kham, Tibet, studied at Ganden Monastery, gained renown as a learned geshe and great debater and served as abbot for nine years. He fled to India in 1959 and later served as principal of the Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath.
[Zong Rinpoche chants]
Rinpoche says that he’s just given you the rlung, or oral transmission, of the Avalokiteshvara mantra, and that there’s a Dharma relationship between all of us from the past; we’ve all known each other before.
Rinpoche says that he’s much attached to Dharma wisdom because he’s been practicing it since he was six or seven years old, and he’s very happy that all of you are acting in accordance with it. However, you should make sure that you’re sincere in trying to understand the Dharma and not just on some trip. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that he’s seen some people study Buddhism quite deeply but then not put what they have learned into action so that after some time they disappear without an atom of wisdom.
He says he has known Lama Zopa Rinpoche for a long time and although Rinpoche has not had that much time to study, he has something, he knows something that is as valuable as scholarship. He sees what Rinpoche’s doing for you people and thinks it’s beneficial, especially since you have come from so far away, seeking Dharma knowledge-wisdom. It’s difficult but of course, your searching for the Dharma means you have a tremendous level of morality within you, and therefore he’s very glad. But of course, in general, whenever anybody practices Dharma it’s very good.
In particular, those who have renounced samsara in order to put all their energy into the Dharma path are very fortunate to have come to that decision. That’s most worthwhile. And those of you who have taken ordination as monks and nuns—which has been your own decision; nobody else has made you do it—please try to put all your energy into the Dharma path of liberation according to your decision and become continuously successful. That’s really worthwhile.
Lord Buddha himself said that this decision of wanting to take ordination and then keeping your body, speech and mind pure, not harming any other sentient being, is much more beneficial these days than it was in Lord Buddha’s time. In fact, keeping the ordination for one day of this twentieth century is much more beneficial than keeping it for a whole lifetime back then.
Now, you hear many teachings at this meditation course but the main, fundamental thing you need to know is how to take refuge, what the essence of refuge is, what karma is and how it’s created. Those are the main things you need to know. You can’t spend your life sitting in the lotus position meditating. So taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, actualizing your practice continuously and following karma strictly are important. I’m sure Lama Zopa Rinpoche has explained all this and I’m sure you know it too.
The root of what we call Dharma is the mind, your mental attitude, therefore, even if you create negative karma you can purify it; we have the methods for doing that. And also, you should always have pure thoughts and generate a pure motivation, whatever Dharma practices you do. That, too, is important.
We’re always so busy that we don’t have time to meditate every day, but each night, before you go to sleep, you should take refuge, reflect on the excellent qualities of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and try to sleep with a pure, positive motivation. In that way your sleep itself becomes Dharma practice and your positive energy automatically increases.
Then, when you get up in the morning, instead of thinking about samsaric things, again think about the good qualities of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. So in the morning, get up, make three prostrations, take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and generate a pure motivation for whatever you’re going to do that day. This is very important and worthwhile since you can’t practice perfect single-pointed concentration because of your busy life. If you do this continuously every morning it will be very effective in helping you integrate every day of your life with Dharma knowledge-wisdom.
Of course, life is difficult—it’s hard not to create any negative actions—but there’s a solution. You can purify them with understanding knowledge-wisdom. So instead of being discouraged, thinking, “Oh, I can’t do anything; I’m so negative,” know that knowledge-wisdom is a powerful antidote to negativity and stop feeling sorry for yourself and hanging onto your old habits and uncontrolled energy. So make a strong effort to purify your negativities with wisdom.
I know it’s hard for you to practice only Dharma and not engage in any samsaric activity, but try as much as you can to do some of the things we’re doing here, such as prayers, mantras and so forth. Do your best to bring Dharma wisdom into whatever situation you’re in and, slowly, slowly, you’ll continuously develop. Then, even if you don’t reach levels of perfection in this life, there’s hope that you might do so in the next. It’s possible.
Another thing is that rather than hating people who practice Dharma you should be glad and rejoice in their actions. Sometimes your friend might do something good, some meditation or something, and you look at him sideways, “Hmm….” Instead of being jealous, be happy. That, too, is very important. It becomes wisdom.
Remember how Lord Buddha spent years actualizing knowledge-wisdom while he was on the path to enlightenment and finally gained perfect liberation, and be happy; rejoice instead of feeling hatred. Doing so creates the cause for you to also reach that level.
Similarly, when you see people reciting mantras, doing prostrations—there are many different ways of actualizing Dharma knowledge-wisdom—instead of looking at them funny, “What’s she doing, why is she trying to be different?” try to feel glad. Or when you see somebody who has taken ordination trying to keep his or her body, speech and mind pure, instead of feeling dislike and jealousy, rejoice that the person is trying to do something positive.
When you rejoice at others’ positive actions you also create merit. That’s better than looking critically at what others do and putting them down, thinking they’re just trying to be different. When you rejoice at others’ positive actions you generate positive energy within yourself. And not only at others’ positive actions—you can also rejoice at your own positive actions. Be happy that you have found the chance to gain Dharma wisdom, which is very difficult to find. It’s not easy to have the opportunity to open your mind, develop awareness and discover the true nature of your internal world. This truly is most difficult.
You can see this for yourself. Look at the members of your own family and the people in your own country and abroad. It’s extremely difficult to come to the conclusion that it’s important to search for the inner truth and develop knowledge-wisdom. So feel that you are very, very fortunate to have come to that conclusion yourself—when you do, that itself increases the energy of your Dharma wisdom.
During the meditation course you might sometimes feel that developing Dharma wisdom is difficult but try not to think that way and feel fortunate instead. Of course, when you practice Dharma problems might arise but instead of thinking, “This is a problem, this is bringing me down,” try to make it a positive experience. Transforming negative experiences into Dharma wisdom is very important.
We think, “I’m suffering, I’m agitated,” but if you really look at this agitated life you’ll see how short it is. When actualizing Dharma wisdom on the path to liberation it’s natural for samsaric problems to arise; you have to expect them. But this life itself is short, transitory and illusory and you should not be attached to samsaric happiness, which lasts just a day or two. There’s no point clinging to that and it really doesn’t matter whether you’re samsarically happy or sad; it doesn’t matter. Rather than being up and down all the time, you’re better off continuously actualizing Dharma wisdom.
When everything’s going well you say, “Oh, I like practicing Dharma,” but when you encounter problems you say, “It’s too hard.” Some little problem arises, perhaps with a friend, you’re up and down, and for that small reason your practice suffers. You shouldn’t let small samsaric agitation upset you; your wisdom should be stronger than that and you should not so easily lose energy and give up your practice. That’s wrong.
Rinpoche says that he has had contact with us before and we have met this time in order to develop Dharma wisdom, not simply for this life’s happiness. Similarly, you’re taking this meditation course because of your tremendous past connections with Lama Zopa Rinpoche; there’s a strong karmic link between his energy and yours and you’re extremely fortunate to have that contact. It hasn’t happened accidentally or because of something that happened just last year.
He also says that he’s glad that you can see the possibility of actualizing the path to everlasting peaceful liberation and is happy to be able to talk to you for this short time. He feels he doesn’t have to explain too much because Lama Zopa Rinpoche is doing that and there’s much you know already.
So, please actualize what you know and feel is worthwhile, and he will pray for you to continuously actualize knowledge-wisdom on the path to liberation. Thank you so much.
Geshe Lhundub Sopa (1923-2014), a great scholar from Sera Monastery renowned for his insight into the emptiness, was one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's debate examiners in Tibet, 1959, just before fleeing the Chinese occupation of Tibet for India. He went to the USA in 1962 and joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1967, where he remained until his recent retirement. He was the spiritual head of Madison's Deer Park Buddhist Center.
Geshe Sopa gave this teaching at Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre on July 30, 1980. It was first published in Teachings at Tushita, edited by Nicholas Ribush with Glenn H. Mullin, Mahayana Publications, New Delhi, 1981. Published in 2005 in the LYWA publication Teachings From Tibet.
Searching for happiness
The great eleventh century Indian master Atisha said,
Human life is short,
Objects of knowledge are many.
Be like a swan,
Which can separate milk from water.1
Our lives will not last long and there are many directions in which we can channel them. Just as swans extract the essence from milk and spit out the water, so should we extract the essence from our lives by practicing discriminating wisdom and engaging in activities that benefit both ourselves and others in this and future lives.
Every sentient being aspires to the highest state of happiness and complete freedom from every kind of suffering, but human aims should be higher than those of animals, insects and so forth because we have much greater potential; with our special intellectual capacity we can accomplish many things. As spiritual practitioners, we should strive for happiness and freedom from misery not for ourselves alone but for all sentient beings. We have the intelligence and the ability to practice the methods for realizing these goals. We can start from where we are and gradually attain higher levels of being until we attain final perfection. Some people can even attain the highest goal, enlightenment, in a single lifetime.
In the Bodhicaryavatara, the great yogi and bodhisattva Shantideva wrote,
Although we want all happiness,
We ignorantly destroy it, like an enemy.
Although we want no misery,
We rush to create its cause.2
What we want and what we do are totally contradictory. The things we do to bring happiness actually cause suffering, misery and trouble. Shantideva says that even though we desire happiness, out of ignorance we destroy its cause as if it were our worst enemy.
According to the Buddha’s teachings, first we must learn, or study. By asking if it’s possible to escape from suffering and find perfect happiness, we open the doors of spiritual inquiry and discover that by putting our effort and wisdom in the right direction, we can indeed experience such goals. This leads us to seek out the path to enlightenment. The Buddha set forth many different levels of teachings. As humans, we can learn these, not just for the sake of learning but in order to put the methods into practice.
The real enemy
What is the cause of happiness? What is the cause of misery? These are important questions in Buddhism. The Buddha pointed out that the fundamental source of all our problems is the wrong conception of the self. We always hold on to some kind of “I,” some sort of egocentric thought, or attitude, and everything we do is based on this wrong conception of the nature of the self. This self-grasping gives rise to attachment to the “I” and self-centeredness, the cherishing of ourselves over all others, all worldly thoughts, and samsara itself. All sentient beings’ problems start here.
This ignorant self-grasping creates all of our attachment to the “I.” From “me” comes “mine”—my property, my body, my mind, my family, my friends, my house, my country, my work and so forth.
From attachment come aversion, anger and hatred for the things that threaten our objects of attachment. Buddhism calls these three—ignorance, attachment and aversion—the three poisons. These delusions are the cause of all our problems; they are our real enemies.
We usually look for enemies outside but Buddhist yogis realize that there are no external enemies; the real enemies are within. Once we have removed ignorance, attachment and aversion we have vanquished our inner enemies. Correct understanding replaces ignorance, pure mind remains, and we see the true nature of the self and all phenomena. The workings of the illusory world no longer occur.
When ignorance has gone, we no longer create mistaken actions. When we act without mistake, we no longer experience the various sufferings—the forces of karma are not engaged. Karma—the actions of the body, speech and mind of sentient beings, together with the seeds they leave on the mind—is brought under control. Since the causes of these actions—ignorance, attachment and aversion—have been destroyed, the actions to which they give rise therefore cease.
Ignorance, attachment and aversion, together with their branches of conceit, jealousy, envy and so forth, are very strong forces. Once they arise, they immediately dominate our mind; we quickly fall under the power of these inner enemies and no longer have any freedom or control. Our inner enemies even cause us to fight with and harm the people we love; they can even cause us to kill our own parents, children and so forth. All conflicts—from those between individual members of a family to international wars between countries—arise from these negative thoughts.
Shantideva said, “There is one cause of all problems.” This is the ignorance that mistakes the actual nature of the self. All sentient beings are similar in that they are all overpowered by this ego-grasping ignorance; however, each of us is also capable of engaging in the yogic practices that refine the mind to the point where it is able to see directly the way things exist.
How the Buddha practiced and taught Dharma
Buddha himself first studied, then practiced, and finally realized Dharma, achieving enlightenment. He saw the principles of the causes and effects of thought and action and then taught people how to work with these laws in such a way as to gain freedom.
His first teaching was on the four truths as seen by a liberated being: suffering, its cause, liberation and the path to liberation.3 First we must learn to recognize the sufferings and frustrations that pervade our lives. Then we must know their cause. Thirdly we should know that it is possible to get rid of them, to be completely free. Lastly we must know the truth of the path—the means by which we can gain freedom, the methods of practice that destroy the seeds of suffering from their very root.
There are many elaborate ways of presenting the path, which has led to the development of many schools of Buddhism, such as the Hinayana and Mahayana, but the teachings of the four truths are fundamental to all Buddhist schools; each has its own special methods, but all are based on the four truths. Without the four truths there is neither Hinayana nor Mahayana. All Buddhist schools see suffering as the main problem of existence and ignorance as the main cause of suffering. Without removing ignorance there is no way of achieving liberation from samsara and no way of attaining the perfect enlightenment of buddhahood.
Utilizing the four truths
Buddhism talks a lot about non-self or the empty nature of all things. This is a key teaching. The realization of emptiness was first taught by the Buddha and then widely disseminated by the great teacher Nagarjuna and his successors, who explained the philosophy of the Middle Way—a system of thought free from all extremes. Madhyamikas, as the followers of this system are called, hold that the way things actually exist is free from the extremes of absolute being and non-being; the things we see do not exist in the way that we perceive them.
As for the “I,” our understanding of its nature is also mistaken. This doesn’t mean that there is neither person nor desire. When the Buddha rejected the existence of a self he meant that the self we normally conceive does not exist. Yogis who, through meditation, have developed higher insight have realized the true nature of the self and seen that the “I” exists totally in another way. They have realized the emptiness of the self, which is the key teaching of the Buddha; they have developed the sharp weapon of wisdom that cuts down the poisonous tree of delusion and mental distortion.
To do the same, we must study the teachings, contemplate them carefully and finally investigate our conclusions through meditation. In that way we can realize the true nature of the self. The wisdom realizing emptiness cuts the very root of all delusion and puts an end to all suffering; it directly opposes the ignorance that misconceives reality.
Sometimes we can apply more specific antidotes—for example, when anger arises we meditate on compassion; when lust arises we meditate on the impurity of the human body; when attachment to situations arises we meditate on impermanence; and so forth. But even though these antidotes counteract particular delusions they cannot cut their root—for that, we need to realize emptiness.
Combining wisdom and method
However, wisdom alone is not enough. No matter how sharp an axe is, it requires a handle and a person to swing it. In the same way, while meditation on emptiness is the key practice, it must be supported and given direction by method. Many Indian masters, including Dharmakirti and Shantideva, have asserted this to be so. For example, meditation upon the four noble truths includes contemplation of sixteen aspects of these truths, such as impermanence, suffering, and so forth. Then, because we must share our world with others there are the meditations on love, compassion and the bodhicitta, the enlightened attitude of wishing for enlightenment in order to be of greatest benefit to others. This introduces the six perfections, or the means of accomplishing enlightenment—generosity, discipline, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom. The first five of these must act as supportive methods in order for the sixth, wisdom, to become stable.
Removing the obstacles to liberation and omniscience
To attain buddhahood the obstacles to the goal have to be completely removed. These obstacles are of two main types: obstacles to liberation, which include the delusions such as attachment, and obstacles to omniscience. When the various delusions have been removed, one becomes an arhat. In Tibetan, arhat [dra-chom-pa] means one who has destroyed [chom] the inner enemy [dra] and has thus gained liberation from all delusions. However, such liberation is not buddhahood.
An arhat is free from samsara, from all misery and suffering, and no longer forced to take a rebirth conditioned by karma and delusion. At present we are strongly under the power of these two forces, being reborn again and again, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. We have little choice or independence in our birth, life, death and rebirth. Negative karma and delusion combine and overpower us again and again. Our freedom is thus greatly limited. It is a circle: occasionally rebirth in a high realm, then in a low world; sometimes an animal, sometimes a human or a god. This is what samsara means. Arhats have achieved complete liberation from this circle; they have broken the circle and gone beyond it. Their lives have become totally pure, totally free. The forces that controlled them have gone and they dwell in a state of emancipation from compulsive experience. Their realization of shunyata is complete.
On the method side, the arhat has cultivated a path combining meditation on emptiness with meditation on the impermanence of life, karma and its results, the suffering nature of the whole circle of samsara and so forth, but arhatship does not have the perfection of buddhahood.
Compared to our ordinary samsaric life, arhatship is a great attainment, but arhats still have subtle obstacles. Gross mental obstacles such as desire, hatred, ignorance and so forth may have gone but, because they have been active forces within the mind for so long, they leave behind subtle hindrances—subtle habits, or predispositions.
For example, although arhats will not have anger, old habits, such as using harsh words, may persist. They also have a very subtle self-centeredness. Similarly, although arhats will not have ignorance or wrong views, they will not see certain aspects of cause and effect as clearly as a buddha does. Such subtle limitations are called the obstacles to omniscience. In buddhahood, these have been completely removed; not a single obstacle remains. There is both perfect freedom and perfect knowledge.
The wisdom and form bodies of a buddha
A buddha has a cause. The cause is a bodhisattva. The bodhisattva trainings are vast: generosity, where we try to help others in various ways; patience, which keeps our mind in a state of calm; diligent perseverance, with which, in order to help other sentient beings, we joyfully undergo the many hardships without hesitation; and many others.
Before attaining buddhahood we have to train as a bodhisattva and cultivate a path uniting method with wisdom. The function of wisdom is to eliminate ignorance; the function of method is to produce the physical and environmental perfections of being.
Buddhahood is endowed with many qualities—perfect body and mind, omniscient knowledge, power and so forth—and from the perfection of the inner qualities a buddha manifests a perfect environment, a “pure land.”
With the ripening of wisdom and method comes the fruit: the wisdom and form bodies of a buddha. The form body, or rupakaya, has two dimensions—sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya—which, with the wisdom body of dharmakaya, constitute the three kayas. The form bodies are not ordinary form; they are purely mental, a reflection or manifestation of the dharmakaya wisdom. From perfect wisdom emerges perfect form.
As we can see from the above examples, the bodhisattva’s activities are based on a motivation very unlike our ordinary attitudes, which are usually selfish and self-centered. In order to attain buddhahood we have to change our mundane thoughts into thoughts of love and compassion for other sentient beings. We have to learn to care, all of the time, on a universal level. Our normal self-centered attitude should be seen as an enemy and a loving and compassionate attitude as the cause of the highest happiness, a real friend of both ourselves and others.
The Mahayana contains a very special practice called “exchanging self for others.” Of course, I can’t change into you or you can’t change into me; that’s not what it means. What we have to change is the attitude of “me first” into the thought of cherishing of others: “Whatever bad things have to happen let them happen to me.” Through meditation we learn to regard self-centeredness as our worst enemy and to transform self-cherishing into love and compassion, until eventually our entire life is dominated by these positive forces. Then everything we do will become beneficial to others; all our actions will naturally become meritorious. This is the influence and power of the bodhisattva’s thought—the bodhi mind, the ultimate flowering of love and compassion into the inspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all other sentient beings.
Love and compassion
Love and compassion have the same basic nature but a different reference or application. Compassion is mainly in reference to the problems of beings, the wish to free sentient beings from suffering, whereas love refers to the positive side, the aspiration that all sentient beings have happiness and its cause. Our love and compassion should be equal towards all beings and have the intensity that a loving mother feels towards her only child, taking upon ourselves full responsibility for the well-being of others. That’s how bodhisattvas regard all sentient beings.
However, the bodhi mind is not merely love and compassion. Bodhisattvas see that in order to free sentient beings from misery and give them the highest happiness, they themselves will have to be fully equipped, fully qualified—first they will have to attain perfect buddhahood, total freedom from all obstacles and limitations and complete possession of all power and knowledge. Right now we can’t do much to benefit others. Therefore, for the benefit of other sentient beings, we have to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible. Day and night, everything we do should be done in order to reach perfect enlightenment as soon as we can for the benefit of others.
The thought characterized by this aspiration is called bodhicitta, bodhi mind, the bodhisattva spirit. Unlike our usual self-centered, egotistical thoughts, which lead only to desire, hatred, jealousy, pride and so forth, the bodhisattva way is dominated by love, compassion and the bodhi mind, and if we practice the appropriate meditative techniques, we ourselves will become bodhisattvas. Then, as Shantideva has said, all our ordinary activities—sleeping, walking, eating or whatever—will naturally produce limitless goodness and fulfill the purposes of many sentient beings.
The life of a bodhisattva
A bodhisattva’s life is very precious and therefore, in order to sustain it, we sleep, eat and do whatever else is necessary to stay alive. Because this is our motivation for eating, every mouthful of food we take gives rise to great merit, equal to the number of the sentient beings in the universe.
In order to ascend the ten bodhisattva stages leading to buddhahood we engage in both method and wisdom: on the basis of bodhicitta we cultivate the realization of emptiness. Seeing the emptiness of the self, our self-grasping ignorance and attachment cease. We also see all phenomena as empty and, as a result, everything that appears to our mind is seen as illusory, like a magician’s creations.
When a magician conjures up something up, the audience believes that what they see exists. The magician, however, although sees what the audience sees, understands it differently. When he creates a beautiful woman, the men in the audience experience lust; when he creates a frightening animal, the audience gets scared. The magician sees the beautiful woman and the scary animals just as the audience does but he knows that they’re not real, he knows that they’re empty of existing in the way that they appear—their reality is not like the mode of their appearance.
Similarly, bodhisattvas who have seen emptiness see everything as illusory and things that might have caused attachment or aversion to arise in them before can no longer do so.
As Nagarjuna said,
By combining the twofold cause of method and wisdom, bodhisattvas gain the twofold effect of the mental and physical bodies [rupakaya and dharmakaya] of a buddha.
Their accumulation of meritorious energy and wisdom bring them to the first bodhisattva stage, where they directly realize emptiness and overcome the obstacles to liberation. They then use this realization to progress through the ten bodhisattva levels, eventually eradicating all obstacles to omniscience. They first eliminate the coarse level of ignorance and then, through gradual meditation on method combined with wisdom, attain the perfection of enlightenment.
The keys to the Mahayana path
The main subjects of this discourse—renunciation, emptiness and the bodhi mind—were taught by the Buddha, Nagarjuna and Tsongkhapa and provide the basic texture of the Mahayana path. These three principal aspects of the path are like keys for those who want to attain enlightenment. In terms of method and wisdom, renunciation and the bodhi mind constitute method and meditation on emptiness is wisdom. Method and wisdom are like the two wings of a bird and enable us to fly high in the sky of Dharma. Just as a bird with one wing cannot fly; in order to reach the heights of buddhahood we need the two wings of method and wisdom.
The principal Mahayana method is the bodhi mind. To generate the bodhi mind we must first generate compassion—the aspiration to free sentient beings from suffering, which becomes the basis of our motivation to attain enlightenment. However, as Shantideva pointed out, we must begin with compassion for ourselves. We must want to be free of suffering ourselves before being truly able to want it for others. The spontaneous wish to free ourselves from suffering is renunciation.
But most of us don’t have it. We don’t see the faults of samsara. However, there’s no way to really work for the benefit of others while continuing to be entranced by the pleasures and activities of samsara. Therefore, first we have to generate personal renunciation of samsara—the constant wish to gain freedom from all misery. At the beginning, this is most important. Then we can extend this quality to others as love, compassion and the bodhi mind, which combine as method. When united with the wisdom realizing emptiness, we possess the main causes of buddhahood.
Making this life meaningful
Of course, to develop the three principal aspects of the path, we have to proceed step by step. Therefore it’s necessary to study, contemplate and meditate. We should all try to develop a daily meditation practice. Young or old, male or female, regardless of race, we all have the ability to meditate. Anybody can progress through the stages of understanding. The human life is very meaningful and precious but it can be lost to seeking temporary goals such as sensual indulgence, fame, reputation and so forth, which benefit this life alone. Then we’re like animals; we have the goals of the animal world. Even if we don’t make heroic spiritual efforts, we should at least try to get started in the practices that make human life meaningful.
Q. Could you clarify what you mean by removing the suffering of others? Geshe Sopa: We are not talking about temporary measures, like hunger or thirst. You can do acts of charity with food, medicine and so forth, but these provide only superficial help. Giving can never fulfill the world’s needs and can itself become a cause of trouble and misery. What beings lack is some kind of perfect happiness or enjoyment. Therefore we cultivate a compassion for all sentient beings that wishes to provide them with the highest happiness, the happiness that lasts forever. Practitioners, yogis and bodhisattvas consider this to be the main goal. They do give temporary things as much as possible, but their main point is to produce a higher happiness. That’s the bodhisattva’s main function.
Q. Buddhism believes strongly in past and future lives. How is this consistent with the idea of impermanence taught by Buddha? Geshe Sopa: Because things are impermanent they are changeable. Because impurity is impermanent, purity is possible. Relative truth can function because of the existence of ultimate truth. Impurity becomes pure; imperfect becomes perfect. Change can cause conditions to switch. By directing our life correctly we can put an end to negative patterns. If things were not impermanent there would be no way to change and evolve.
In terms of karma and rebirth, impermanence means that we can gain control over the stream of our life, which is like a great river, never the same from one moment to the next. If we let polluted tributaries flow into a river it becomes dirty. Similarly, if we let bad thoughts, distorted perceptions and wrong actions control our lives, we evolve negatively and take low rebirths.
If, on the other hand, we control the flow of our life skillfully, we’ll evolve positively, take high rebirths and perhaps even attain the highest wisdom of buddhahood—the coming and going of imperfect experiences will subside and the impermanent flow of pure perfection will come to us. When that happens we’ll have achieved the ultimate human goal.
Q. In the example of the river, its content is flowing water, sometimes muddy, sometimes clear. What is the content of the stream of life? Geshe Sopa: Buddhism speaks of the five skandhas: one mainly physical, the other four mental. There is also a basis, which is a certain kind of propensity that is neither physical nor mental, a kind of energy. The five impure skandhas eventually become perfectly pure and then manifest as the five Dhyani Buddhas.
Q. What is the role of prayer in Buddhism? Does Buddhism believe in prayer, and if so, since Buddhists don’t believe in a God, to whom do they pray? Geshe Sopa: In Buddhism, prayer means some kind of wish, an aspiration to have something good occur. In this sense, a prayer is a verbal wish. The prayers of buddhas and bodhisattvas are mental and have great power. Buddhas and bodhisattvas have equal love and compassion for all sentient beings and their prayers are to benefit all sentient beings. Therefore, when we pray to them for help or guidance they have the power to influence us.
As well as these considerations, prayer produces a certain kind of buddha-result. Praying does not mean that personally you don’t have to practice yourself; that you just leave everything to Buddha. It’s not like that. The buddhas have to do something and we have to do something. The buddhas cannot wash away our stains with water, like washing clothing. The root of misery and suffering cannot be extracted like a thorn from the foot—the buddhas can only show us how to pull out the thorn; the hand that pulls it out must be our own.
Also, the Buddha cannot transplant his knowledge into our being. He is like a doctor who diagnoses our illnesses and prescribes the cure that we must follow through personal responsibility. If a patient does not take the prescribed medicine or follow the advice, the doctor cannot help, no matter how strong his medicines or excellent his skill. If we take the medicine of Dharma as prescribed and follow the Buddha’s advice, we will easily cure ourselves of the diseases of ignorance, attachment and the other obstacles to liberation and omniscience. To turn to the Dharma but then not practice it is to be like a patient burdened by a huge bag of medicine while not taking any. Therefore the Buddha said, “I have provided the medicine. It is up to you to take it.”
Q. Sometimes in meditation we visualize Shakyamuni Buddha. What did he visualize when he meditated? Geshe Sopa: What should we meditate upon? How should we meditate? Shakyamuni Buddha himself meditated in the same way as we teach: on compassion, love, bodhicitta, the four noble truths and so forth. Sometimes he also meditated on perfect forms, like that of a buddha or a particular meditational deity. These deities symbolize perfect inner qualities and through meditating on them we bring oursleves into proximity with the symbolized qualities. Both deity meditation and ordinary simple meditations tame the scattered, uncontrolled, elephant-like mind. The wild, roaming mind must be calmed in order to enter higher spiritual practices. Therefore, at the beginning, we try to stabilize our mind by focusing it on a particular subject. This is calm abiding meditation and its main aim is to keep our mind focused on a single point, abiding in perfect clarity and peace for as long as we wish without any effort, wavering or fatigue.
As for the object to be visualized in this type of meditation, there are many choices: a candle, a statue, an abstract object and so forth. Since the form of an enlightened being has many symbolic values and shares the nature of the goal we hope to accomplish, visualizing such an object has many advantages. But it is not mandatory; we can choose anything. The main thing is to focus the mind on the object and not allow it to waver. Eventually we’ll be able to meditate clearly and peacefully for as long as we like, remaining absorbed for even days at a time. This is the attainment of calm abiding. When we possess this mental instrument, every other meditation we do will become much more successful.
When we first try this kind of practice we discover that our mind is like a wild elephant, constantly running here and there, never able to focus fully on or totally engage in anything. Then, little by little, through practice and exercise, it will become calm and even concentrating on a simple object like breathing in and out while counting will demonstrate the wildness of the mind and the calming effects of meditation.
1. According to Indian legend, swans are able to extract milk from water, that is, take the essence. The quote comes from Atisha's Entering into the Two Truths. A translation, including this quote, may be found in S. J. Richard Sherburne's The Complete Works of Atisa: Sri Dipamkara Jnana, Jo-Bo-rJe; The Lamp for the Path and Commentary, together with the newly translated Twenty-five Key Texts. Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2000. [Return to text]
This teaching was given at Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre on November 14, 1979. Edited by Nicholas Ribush from an oral translation by Lama Gelek Rinpoche. First published in Teachings at Tushita, edited by Nicholas Ribush with Glenn H. Mullin, Mahayana Publications, New Delhi, 1981. Now appears in the 2005 LYWA publication Teachings From Tibet.
Bodhicitta and wisdom
The enlightened attitude, bodhicitta, which has love and compassion as its basis, is the essential seed producing the attainment of buddhahood. Therefore, it is a subject that should be approached with the pure thought, “May I gain enlightenment in order to be of greatest benefit to the world.”
If we want to attain the state of the full enlightenment of buddhahood as opposed to the lesser enlightenment of an arhat, nirvana, our innermost practice must be cultivation of bodhicitta. If meditation on emptiness is our innermost practice, we run the risk of falling into nirvana instead of gaining buddhahood. This teaching is given in the saying, “When the father is bodhicitta and the mother is wisdom, the child joins the caste of the buddhas.” In ancient India, children of inter-caste marriages would adopt the caste of the father, regardless of the caste of the mother. Therefore, bodhicitta is like the father: if we cultivate bodhicitta, we enter the caste of the buddhas.
Although bodhicitta is the principal cause of buddhahood, bodhicitta as the father must unite with wisdom, or meditation on emptiness, as the mother in order to produce a child capable of attaining buddhahood. One without the other does not bring full enlightenment—even though bodhicitta is the essential energy that produces buddhahood, throughout the stages of its development it should be combined with meditation on emptiness. In the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, where the Buddha spoke most extensively on emptiness, we are constantly reminded to practice our meditation on emptiness within the context of bodhicitta.
However, the spiritual effects of receiving teachings on bodhicitta are quite limited if we lack a certain spiritual foundation. Consequently most teachers insist that we first cultivate various preliminary practices within ourselves before approaching this higher precept. If we want to go to university, we must first learn to read and write. Of course, while merely hearing about meditation on love, compassion and bodhicitta does leave a favorable imprint on our mental continuum, for the teaching to really produce a definite inner transformation, we first have to meditate extensively on preliminaries such as the perfect human rebirth, impermanence and death, the nature of karma and samsara, refuge and the higher trainings in ethics, meditation and wisdom.
What precisely is bodhicitta? It is the mind strongly characterized by the aspiration, “For the sake of all sentient beings I must attain the state of full enlightenment.” While it’s easy to repeat these words to ourselves, bodhicitta is much deeper than that. It is a quality we cultivate systematically within our mind. Merely holding the thought “I must attain enlightenment for the sake of benefiting others” in mind without first cultivating its prerequisite causes, stages and basic foundations will not give birth to bodhicitta. For this reason, the venerable Atisha once asked, “Do you know anybody with bodhicitta not born from meditation on love and compassion?”
The benefits of bodhicitta
What are the benefits of generating bodhicitta? If we know the qualities of good food, we’ll attempt to obtain, prepare and eat it. Similarly, when we hear of the great qualities of bodhicitta we’ll seek to learn the methods and practices for generating it.
The immediate benefit of generating bodhicitta within our mind-stream is that we enter the great vehicle leading to buddhahood and gain the title of bodhisattva, a child of the buddhas. It does not matter what we look like, how we dress, how wealthy or powerful we are, whether or not we have clairvoyance or miraculous powers, or how learned we are, as soon as we generate bodhicitta we become bodhisattvas; regardless of our other qualities, if we do not have bodhicitta we are not bodhisattvas. Even a being with bodhicitta who takes rebirth in an animal body is respected by all the buddhas as a bodhisattva.
The great sages of the lesser vehicle possess numberless wonderful qualities but in terms of nature, a person who has developed even the initial stages of bodhicitta surpasses them. This is similar to the way that the baby son of a universal monarch who, although only an infant possessing no qualities of knowledge or power, is accorded higher status than any scholar or minister in the realm.
In terms of conventional benefit, all the happiness and goodness that exists comes from bodhicitta. Buddhas are born from bodhisattvas but bodhisattvas come from bodhicitta. As a result of the birth of buddhas and bodhisattvas, great waves of enlightened energy spread throughout the universe, influencing sentient beings to create positive karma. This positive karma in turn brings them much benefit and happiness. On the one hand, the mighty stream of enlightened and enlightening energy issues from the wisdom body of the buddhas, but since the buddhas are born from bodhisattvas and bodhisattvas from bodhicitta, the ultimate source of universal goodness and happiness is bodhicitta itself.
How to develop bodhicitta
How do we develop bodhicitta? There are two major methods. The first of these, the six causes and one effect, applies six causal meditations—recognizing that all sentient beings were once our own mother, a mother’s kindness, repaying such kindness, love, compassion and the extraordinary thought of universal responsibility—to produce one result: bodhicitta. The second technique is the meditation in which we directly change self-cherishing into the cherishing of others.
In order to practice either of these methods of developing bodhicitta we must first develop a sense of equanimity towards all living beings. [See Lama Zopa Rinpoche's Equilibrium Meditation.] We must transcend seeing some beings as close friends, others as disliked or hated enemies and the rest as merely unknown strangers. Until we have developed equanimity for all beings, any meditation we do in an attempt to develop bodhicitta will not be effective. For example, if we want to paint a mural on a wall we must first get rid of all the cracks and lumps on its surface. Similarly, we cannot create the beautiful bodhicitta within our mind until it has been purified of the distortions of seeing others as friend, enemy or stranger.
The attitude of discrimination
The way we impute this discrimination upon others is quite automatic and, as a result, whenever we see somebody we have labeled “friend,” attachment arises and we respond with warmth and kindness. Why have we labeled this person “friend”? It is only because on some level or other this person has benefited or supported us. Alternatively, whenever we encounter somebody we have labeled “enemy,” aversion arises and we respond with coldness and anger. The reason is again because that person once harmed or threatened us in some way. Similarly, when we encounter somebody who has neither helped nor harmed us, we apply the label “stranger” and have no feelings for that person one way or the other.
However, if we examine this method of discriminating others we will quickly see that it is an extremely unstable process. Even in this life, people once regarded as friends become enemies and enemies often become friends. And in the countless lives we have taken since beginningless time while spinning on the wheel of life there is not one sentient being who has consistently been either friend or enemy.
Our best friend of this life could easily have been our worst enemy in a previous incarnation and vice versa. A friend who mistreats us quickly becomes an enemy and an enemy who helps us soon becomes a new-found friend. So which one is really the friend and which one the enemy? Instead of responding to others on the basis of the ephemeral benefit or harm they bring us we should meditate that all have alternately benefited and harmed us in the stream of our infinite past lives and, in that way, abandon superficial discriminations.
A root cause of this discriminating mind is the self-cherishing attitude, the thought that makes us consider ourselves more important than others. As a result of self-cherishing we develop attachment to those who help us and aversion to those who cause us problems. This, in turn, causes us to create countless negative karmas trying to support the “helpers” and overcome the “harmers.” Thus we bring great suffering upon ourselves and others, both immediately and in future lives, as the karmic seeds of these actions ripen into suffering experiences.
The benefits of cherishing others
A teaching says, “All happiness in the world arises from cherishing others; every suffering arises from self-cherishing.” Why is this so? From self-cherishing comes the wish to further oneself even at others’ expense. This causes all the killing, stealing, intolerance and so forth that we see around us. As well as destroying happiness in this life, these negative activities plant karmic seeds for a future rebirth in the miserable realms of existence—the hell, hungry ghost and animal realms. Self-cherishing is responsible for every conflict from family problems to international wars and for all the negative karma thus created.
What are the results of cherishing others? If we cherish others, we won’t harm or kill them—this is conducive to our own long life. When we cherish others, we’re open to and empathetic with them and live in generosity—this is a karmic cause of our own future prosperity. If we cherish others, even when somebody harms or makes problems for us, we are able to abide in love and patience—a karmic cause of a beautiful form in future lives. In short, every auspicious condition arises from the positive karma generated by cherishing others. These conditions themselves bring joy and happiness and, in addition, act as causes for the attainment of nirvana and buddhahood.
How? To attain nirvana we have to master the three higher trainings in moral discipline, meditation and wisdom. Of these, the first is the most important because it is the basis for the development of the other two. The essence of moral discipline is abandoning any action that harms others. If we cherish others more than ourselves we will not find this discipline difficult. Our mind will be calm and peaceful, which is conducive to both meditation and wisdom.
Looking at it another way, cherishing others is the proper and noble approach to take. In this life, everything that comes to us is directly or indirectly due to the kindness of others. We buy food from others in the market; the clothing we wear and the houses we live in depend upon the help of others. And to attain the ultimate goals of nirvana and buddhahood, we are completely dependent upon others; without them we would be unable to meditate upon love, compassion, trust and so forth and thus could not generate spiritual experiences.
Also, any meditation teaching we receive has come from the Buddha through the kindness of sentient beings. The Buddha taught only to benefit sentient beings; if there were no sentient beings he would not have taught. Therefore, in the Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva comments that in terms of kindness, sentient beings are equal to the buddhas. Sometimes, mistakenly, people have respect and devotion for the buddhas but dislike sentient beings. We should appreciate sentient beings as deeply as we do the buddhas themselves.
If we look at happiness and harmony we will find its cause to be universal caring. The cause of unhappiness and disharmony is the self-cherishing attitude.
At one time the Buddha was an ordinary person like us. Then he abandoned self-cherishing and replaced it with universal caring and entered the path to buddhahood. Because we still cling to the self-cherishing mind, we are left behind in samsara, benefiting neither ourselves nor others.
One of the Jataka Tales—accounts of the Buddha’s previous lives—tells the story of an incarnation in which the Buddha was a huge turtle that took pity on some shipwreck victims and carried them to shore on its back. Once ashore, the exhausted turtle fell into a faint but as he slept he was attacked by thousands of ants. Soon the biting of the ants woke the turtle up, but he saw that if he were to move, he would kill innumerable creatures. Therefore, he remained still and offered his body to the insects as food. This is the depth to which the Buddha cherished living beings. Many of the Jataka Tales tell similar stories of the Buddha’s previous lives in which he showed the importance of cherishing others. The Wish-Fulfilling Tree contains 108 such stories.
Essentially, self-cherishing is the cause of every undesirable experience and universal caring is the cause of every happiness. The sufferings of both the lower and upper realms of existence, all interferences to spiritual practice and even the subtle limitations of nirvana come from self-cherishing, while every happiness of this and future lives comes from cherishing others.
Engaging in bodhicitta
Therefore, we should contemplate deeply the benefits of cherishing others and try to develop an open, loving attitude towards all living beings. This should not be an inert emotion but one characterized by great compassion—the wish to separate others from their suffering. Whenever we encounter a being in suffering we should react like a mother witnessing her only child caught in a fire or fallen into a terrible river; our main thought should be to help others. With respect to those in states of suffering, we should think, “May I help separate them from their suffering,” and those in states of happiness, we should think, “May I help them maintain their happiness.” This attitude should be directed equally towards all beings. Some people feel great compassion for friends or relatives in trouble but none for unpleasant people or enemies. This is not spiritual compassion; it is merely a form of attachment. True compassion does not discriminate between beings; it regards all equally.
Similarly, true love is the desire to maintain the happiness of all beings impartially, regardless of whether we like them or not. Spiritual love is of two main types: that merely possessing equanimity and that possessing the active wish to maintain others’ happiness. When we meditate repeatedly on how all beings have in previous lives been mother, father and friend to us, we soon come to have equanimity towards them all. Eventually this develops into an overwhelming wish to see all beings possess happiness and the causes of happiness. This is great, undiscriminating love.
By meditating properly on love and compassion we produce what are called the eight great benefits. These condense into two: happiness in this and future lives for both ourselves and others and development along the path to full and perfect buddhahood. Such meditation results in rebirth in the three upper realms as a human or a god and fertilizes the seeds of enlightenment.
In brief, we should have the wish to help others maintain their happiness and separate them from suffering regardless of whether they have acted as friend or enemy to us. Moreover, we should develop a personal sense of responsibility for their happiness. This is called the “special” or “higher” thought and is marked by a strong sense of responsibility for the welfare of others. It is like taking the responsibility of going to the market to get somebody exactly what he needs instead of just sitting reflecting on how nice it would be if he had what he wanted. We take upon ourselves the responsibility of actually fulfilling others’ requirements.
Then we should ask ourselves, “Do I have the ability to benefit all others?” Obviously we do not. Who has such ability? Only an enlightened being, a buddha, has the ability to benefit others to the full. Why? Because only those who have attained buddhahood are fully developed and fully separated from limitations; those still in samsara cannot place others in nirvana. Even shravaka arhats or tenth level bodhisattvas are unable to benefit others fully, for they themselves still have limitations, but buddhas spontaneously and automatically benefit all beings with every breath they take. The enlightened state is metaphorically likened to the drum of Brahma, which automatically booms teachings to the world, or to a cloud, which spontaneously makes cooling shade and life-giving water wherever it goes.
To fulfill others’ needs, we should seek to place them in the total peace and maturity of buddhahood; to be able to do this we must first gain buddhahood ourselves. The state of buddhahood is an evolutionary result of bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is born from the special thought of universal responsibility—the thought of benefiting others by oneself alone. To drink water we must have both the desire to drink and a container for the water. The wish to benefit others by placing them in buddhahood is like the desire to drink and the wish to attain enlightenment oneself in order to benefit them in this way is like the container. When both are present, we benefit ourselves and others.
If we hear of the meditations that generate bodhicitta and try to practice them without first refining our minds with the preliminary meditations, it is very unlikely that we shall make much inner progress. For example, if we meditate on compassion without first gaining some experience of the meditations on the four noble truths, or at least on the truth of suffering, we will develop merely a superficial understanding. How can we experience mature compassion, the aspiration to free all beings from suffering, when we do not know the deeper levels of suffering that permeate the human psyche? How can we relate to others’ suffering when we do not even know the subtle levels of frustration and tension pervading our own being? In order to know the workings of our own mind, we have to know every aspect of suffering; only then can we be in a position to empathize with the hearts and minds of others. We must have compassion for ourselves before we can have it for others.
Through meditation on suffering, we can generate a certain amount of renunciation, or spiritual stability. This stability should be guarded and cultivated by the various methods taught on the initial and intermediate stages of training, which are the two main steps in approaching the meditations on bodhicitta. As we progress in our meditations on the suffering nature of being and the causes of this suffering, we begin to search for the path leading to transcendence of imperfection. We meditate upon the precious nature and unique opportunities of human existence, which makes us appreciate our situation. We then meditate upon impermanence and death, which helps us transcend grasping at the petty aspects of life and directs our mind to search for spiritual knowledge.
Because spiritual knowledge is not gained from books or without cause, its cause must be cultivated. This means training properly under a fully qualified spiritual master and generating the practices as instructed.
Merely hearing about bodhicitta is very beneficial because it provides a seed for the development of the enlightened spirit. However, cultivation of this seed to fruition requires careful practice. We must progress through the actual inner experiences of the above-mentioned meditations, and for this we require close contact with a meditation teacher able to supervise and guide our evolution. In order for our teacher’s presence to be of maximum benefit, we should learn the correct attitudes and actions for cultivating an effective guru-disciple relationship. Then, step-by-step, the seeds of bodhicitta our teacher plants within us can grow to full maturity and unfold the lotus of enlightenment within us.
This is only a brief description of bodhicitta and the methods of developing it. If it inspires an interest in this topic within you, I’ll be very happy. The basis of bodhicitta—love and compassion—is a force that brings every benefit to both yourself and others, and if this can be transformed into bodhicitta itself, your every action will become a cause of omniscient buddhahood. Even if you can practice to the point of simply slightly weakening your self-cherishing attitude, I’ll be very grateful. Without first generating bodhicitta, buddhahood is completely out of the question; once bodhicitta has started to grow, perfect enlightenment is only a matter of time.
You should try to meditate regularly on death and impermanence and thus become a spiritual practitioner of initial scope. Then you should develop the meditations on the unsatisfactory nature of samsara and the three higher trainings [ethics, concentration and wisdom] and thus become a practitioner of medium scope. Finally, you should give birth to love, compassion, universal responsibility and bodhicitta and thus enter the path of the practitioner of great scope, the Mahayana, which has full buddhahood as its goal. Relying on the guidance of a spiritual master, you should cultivate the seeds of bodhicitta in connection with the wisdom of emptiness and, for the sake of all that lives, quickly actualize buddhahood. This may not be an easy task, but it has ultimate perfection as its fruit.
The most important step in spiritual growth is the first: the decision to avoid evil and cultivate goodness within your stream of being. On the basis of this fundamental discipline, every spiritual quality becomes possible, even the eventual perfection of buddhahood.
Each of us has the potential to do this; each of us can become a perfect being. All we have to do is direct our energy towards learning and then enthusiastically practice the teachings. As bodhicitta is the very essence of all the Buddha’s teachings, we should make every effort to realize it.