A precious opportunity

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Part of a series of teachings on The Easy Path to Travel to Omniscience, a lamrim text by Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen, the first Panchen Lama.

  • The conditions that comprise a precious human rebirth: the eight freedoms and 10 fortunes
  • How to meditate on a precious human rebirth to cultivate the motivation to practice
  • The 16 intrusive conditions and incompatible propensities that interfere with practicing the Dharma

Easy Path 07: Freedoms and fortunes (download)

07 The Easy Path to Omniscience: Our Precious Human Rebirth 07-18-14

In the space in front of you visualize Shakyamuni Buddha. The whole visualization is made of light. He’s seated upon a throne that is supported by eight great lions. On top of the throne there’s an open lotus flower and then the moon and the sun disc. The lotus, moon and sun together represent the three principal aspects of the path: renunciation, bodhicitta, and the correct view. To show his mastery of this, you imagine your spiritual mentor in the form of Shakyamuni Buddha. His body is made of golden light. On his head is the crown protuberance, symbolizing the great merit that he created. He has one face and two hands and his right hand touches the earth and the left is in meditation posture in his lap and it holds and alms bowl full of nectar. He wears the three saffron-colored robes of a monastic, and his body is adorned with the signs and marks of a buddha. It emanates a flood of light going in all directions. You can think: on top of all these light rays emanating out there’s a little Buddha going out to each and every sentient being. He’s seated in the vajra position and is surrounded by all of your direct spiritual mentors—so those who are your spiritual mentors—and also the lineage lamas, deities, buddhas, bodhisattvas, heroes, heroines and an assembly of Dharma protectors.

In front of him, on exquisite stands, are all of his teachings of sutra and tantra in the form of books of light. Think that the Buddha, all the spiritual mentors, all of the figures in the merit field are looking upon you with acceptance and with compassion. And because they look at you in that way, naturally what comes up in you looking at them is a feeling of trust and confidence that makes your mind very open to receiving the teachings. Focus on the visualization of the Buddha and also imagine that you’re surrounded by all the sentient beings for as far as the eye can see. We’re all looking together at the Buddha and the other holy beings with a mind that seeks safety, that seeks refuge, that seeks instructions on how to free ourselves from cyclic existence, and how to attain the happiness and peace that we wish for ourselves and others. [Silent meditation]

And then we recite the verses together, and really focus on the meaning of the verses as you’re reciting them:

Refuge and Bodhicitta

I take refuge until I have awakened in the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha. By the merit I create by engaging in generosity and the other far-reaching practices, may I attain Buddhahood in order to benefit all sentient beings. (3x)

The Four Immeasurables

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes.
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes.
May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss.
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.

Seven-Limb Prayer

Reverently I prostrate with my body, speech and mind,
And present clouds of every type of offering, actual and mentally transformed.
I confess all my destructive actions accumulated since beginningless time,
And rejoice in the virtues of all holy and ordinary beings.

Please remain until cyclic existence ends,
And turn the wheel of Dharma for sentient beings.
I dedicate all the virtues of myself and others to the great awakening.

Mandala Offering

This ground, anointed with perfume, flowers strewn,
Mount Meru, four lands, sun and moon,
Imagined as a Buddha land and offered to you.
May all beings enjoy this pure land.

The objects of attachment, aversion and ignorance – friends, enemies and strangers, my body, wealth and enjoyments – I offer these without any sense of loss. Please accept them with pleasure, and inspire me and others to be free from the three poisonous attitudes.

Requesting Inspiration

Glorious and precious root guru, sit upon the lotus and moon seat on my crown. Guiding me with your great kindness, bestow upon me the attainments of your body, speech and mind.

The eyes through whom the vast scriptures are seen, supreme doors for the fortunate who would cross over to spiritual freedom, illuminators whose wise means vibrate with compassion, to the entire line of spiritual mentors I make request.

Tayata om muni muni maha muniye soha (7x)

Really feel that purifying light from the Buddha coming into you, purifying all negativities, bringing with it the inspiration and blessings of the Three Jewels.

And then let’s make the request to the Buddha:

The fact that I and all other sentient beings have been born in samsara and are endlessly subjected to intense dukkha is due to our having failed to attain a superior realization of the great potential of freedom and fortune and of the difficulty of attaining these. Guru-deity, please inspire me and all sentient beings so that we may attain a superior realization of the great potential of freedom and fortune and of the difficulty of attaining them.

The opportunity to practice the perfect teaching is called freedom. The presence of all inner and outer favorable conditions for the spiritual practice is called fortune. In brief, the life with freedom and fortune that we have attained carries great potential because on its basis we can create the causes of a high rebirth with excellent body and resources—these causes being generosity, ethical discipline, fortitude and so forth. In particular, on this basis we can generate the three kinds of ethical codes and in a short life of this degenerate age easily accomplish buddhahood. May I not waste, in useless activities, this life complete with freedom and fortune that is difficult to attain and carries great potential; and instead may I take full advantage of it. Guru-deity, please inspire me to be able to do so.

And then, contemplating this, imagine:

In response to your requesting the guru-deity, five-colored light—white, yellow, red, blue and green—light and nectar stream from all parts of the Buddha’s body into you through the crown of your head. It absorbs into your body and mind and into the bodies and minds of all sentient beings, purifying all negativities and obscurations accumulated since beginningless time; and especially purifying all illnesses, spirit interferences, negativities and obscurations that interfere with attaining the superior realization of the great potential of freedom and fortune. Your body becomes translucent, the nature of light. All your good qualities—lifespan, merit and so forth—expand and increase. Think, in particular, that a superior realization of the great potential of freedom and fortune has arisen in your mind stream and in the mind streams of others. Concentrate on this visualization and on thinking like this.

Then recall your motivation for listening to teachings, placing it very firmly within being of benefit and service to sentient beings and wanting to attain buddhahood in the long term in order to do so.

Precious human life

We’re going to start on the topic of precious human life. Last week we talked a little bit about rebirth and the possibility of being born in different realms of existence and so on. I hope you really contemplated that because that will help you understand different qualities of a precious human life. In our verse it was saying that the opportunity to practice the perfect teaching is called freedom and the presence of all inner and outer favorable conditions for spiritual practice is called fortune.

Eight conditions of freedom–The four non-human states

In The Friendly Letter Nagarjuna went through the eight conditions of freedom. Four of them are non-human states. So we are free from being born in: the hell realm (a place of intense suffering due to doing extremely negative actions); the preta realm or hungry ghost realm (where there’s a lot of hunger and thirst and dissatisfaction); the animal realm (that is characterized by ignorance and inability to defend oneself very often); and then to be born as a long-life god. This last one includes all of the form realm gods and the formless realm gods—but especially the gods in the fourth form realm called “Great Result.” Here they lack discrimination and they only recognize when they’re born and die—so sometimes translated as “perceptionless gods.”

If you’re born in any of those states—as a hell-being, a preta, an animal—you’re so busy just trying to stay alive and dealing with your constant suffering that you have no time to turn towards the Dharma. Also you lack the intelligence to be able to hear teachings and understand them. As a long-lived god the mind is too spaced-out in your samadhi [meditative concentration]—you only recognize when you’re born in that realm and die from that realm. So again, there’s no opportunity to practice. If you really spend some time thinking, “In past lives I’ve been born in all those kind of states,” and you imagine what it’s like? Then you think, “And this life I’m free from those kinds of rebirths!” That really brings you a sense of, “Whoa! I am fortunate to be free of all this!”

If you can’t really think of all the different realms, think at least of the animal realm that we’re familiar with. What would it be like being one of the critters that lives in the garden, one of our birds; or being one of our cats. You have a big garden with lots to eat. As a kitty in this monastery you have so much love, but no ability to understand the Dharma. No ability. And as much as we talk to them about being kind and not killing, they just look at us…So just to have the human intelligence is really quite a wonderful thing and it gives us so much possibility.

Eight conditions of freedom–The four human states

Then there are four human states that we’re also free of being born as. The first is as a barbarian amongst uncivilized savages or in a country where religion is outlawed—so being born in some place with a society that has no regard for religion. At times that also could sound like consumerist America, doesn’t it? A place where there’s no regard for spiritual practice. Or you’re born in a place where religion is outlawed.

Before the Soviet Bloc fell apart, one of my friends used to go to the Soviet countries to teach the Dharma. I think it was in Czechoslovakia which wasn’t even the most stringently Communist place. He was telling me they would have the teachings at somebody’s house. Everybody had to come separately because you can’t make it look like there is a group gathering because you might be plotting to overthrow the government. After everybody got there they set up a card table in the front room and had the cards and beverages and everything all dished out. Then they went in the back room and had the teachings. But in case somebody knocked on the door they could easily go into the front room and sit down and be playing cards.

Now imagine for a minute what it would be like to live in a country where you have so little religious freedom even to hear teachings. Or imagine during the Cultural Revolution in Tibet or in China where even if you were moving your lips saying mantra you could get beaten or imprisoned—extremely dangerous. Or where they made the monks and nuns disrobe and scorned them publicly and did horrible things. Just imagine being born in that kind of situation. You can’t practice the Dharma with that kind of stuff going on. You’re just trying to stay alive.

Think about being born in a country where there’s constant warfare—very difficult to practice the Dharma there. Again, you’re just trying to keep safe and get enough to eat. Who knows what’s going on around you, with the bombs going off and whatever. We’re free from that kind of situation. There are a lot of people on this planet who are living in that situation. Then think how incredibly fortunate we are.

The second of the human states that we’re free from is being born in a place where the Buddha’s teachings are unavailable, or where the Buddha hasn’t appeared. For example, the Buddha appeared in the sixth century BCE—but there were human beings before that. So you’re born in that kind of situation where the Buddha hasn’t appeared, the Buddha hasn’t taught. Or you’re in a place where there’s absolutely no access to the Buddha’s teaching. It’s outlawed. Maybe the country only permits one religion. Everybody has to be that religion and if you aren’t, too bad. There are many countries like that. So how incredibly fortunate we are not to be born in that kind of situation. We get emails from all over the world from people in far-out countries. They have no access to the Dharma teachings where they live. They write to say, “Thank you so much for putting the Dharma on the web and for streaming these teachings,” or having the written ones on the website or whatever—because otherwise quite difficult for them.

Then third freedom is we’re free of being mentally impaired, deaf, dumb, or blind. In ancient times being deaf or dumb or blind was much more of a handicap than it is today. Today you can find Dharma books in braille. If you’re deaf, you can read. I think in ancient times this was much more of a hindrance than it is now. But being born mentally impaired is a hindrance in whatever time period it is, because if we don’t have some kind of basic human intelligence, we wouldn’t understand the teachings at all.

I remember some years ago I was invited to Denmark to teach. One woman at the center worked for a home for children that were born with birth defects that affected their mind, their mental capacity. Denmark is quite a wealthy nation. So I asked her, “Can I go and meet some of the children?” She took me and I remember going into this huge room. My first impression was just like bright colors—cheerful bright colors—and toys, and building blocks, and paints, and you name it all around. Then I started hearing wailing noises and all kinds of strange sounds. When I looked closer I saw that among all these toys and cheerful things there were the children. Some of the children couldn’t walk.

I remember one of the children was on like a little platform with wheels. He could push himself around on it. Others who were maybe seven or eight years old were still in cribs. So much wealth around them and yet the mental capacity wasn’t there to hear the Dharma. It was really sad. I engaged with the kids as much as I could, but it was sad—so many other conditions, good conditions, and that one missing. So if you think, “What it would be like to be born like that?” And really imagine it and how limiting it is; and then rejoice with the freedom we have from that condition right now. In previous lives we’ve been born in all these kinds of unfortunate situations. In future lives we may be born that way according to our karma if we’ve created a lot of negativity. But at least right now we’re free from that kind of rebirth. That gives us incredible opportunity to practice. So again, something not to take for granted.

I think we take a lot for granted, don’t we? Because this feeling of being who I am right now is so strong that we can’t imagine, “Oh, I would be born as animal,” or “I would be born in a country where religion was outlawed,” or “I would be born mentally impaired.” We can’t even imagine it because the grasping at who we are right now is so strong. But why not? There are other beings born that way—if we create the cause, very easily it could occur.

Then the fourth human state we’re free from is actually the worst one. This is somebody having wrong views. It might be somebody with a PhD from a university, because secular intelligence has not much to do with Dharma intelligence. You could think of somebody—of some very prominent figure—but their values are completely upside down, their views are upside down. They believe that there’s a permanent unitary independent person. They may believe there’s no such thing as karma and its effects; in other words, denying that our actions have any kind of ethical dimension whatsoever. Many people have the view: “Just do what you want and don’t get caught and that’s good enough.” True? Or people who have the view, “Well, make as much money as you possibly can and forget about everything else.” That’s kind of the core value of our society and what many people do; and they cheat others and caused a whole financial debacle here in the US a few years ago—because of wrong views. Or people thinking, “If I kill the enemy, I will get some kind of heavenly rebirth,” or “If I force people to convert to my religion, I get more merit or more brownie points.” And so they force people to convert. There are an incredible number of wrong views.

People who have those kind of wrong views, they may meet the Dharma, but it’s like water pouring on steel—nothing gets absorbed. Their mind is so resistant because of the wrong views. And not only being resistant, but often being critical and criticizing the Dharma instead. We may even know some of those people; they may in fact be our family and friends. But if you think about how their lives are being lived…is it possible for them to create any merit with the kind of views that they’re holding? We see that it becomes very difficult. The reason wrong views are said to be the worst is that wrong views will impede us from doing virtuous actions—because we don’t understand why in the world we should do them. So it becomes quite dangerous.

Meditating on the eight freedoms

When we meditate really imagine these eight kinds of states of being. We put ourselves in that kind of situation and see what it’s like. Then ask yourself, “Can I practice?” Next come back to being who you are now and go through listing those states again and see, “I’m free from them!” Really cultivate the feeling of, “Wow! How fortunate I am. This is unbelievable.”

They say when you do this meditation that you should feel like a rich person who just found a jewel in the garbage. I modernize it and say you should feel like a poor person who just found Bill Gates’ unlimited credit card use and his permission to use it. You can go out—you know that feeling of, “Wow! I can do anything! How fortunate I am.” And yet, a person with that kind of wealth is not as fortunate as somebody who’s free of those eight conditions—because you can have a lot of wealth yet still have a lot of wrong views or other impediments to practice.

The ten fortunes: Five personal factors

A precious human life also has ten fortunes. Asanga talks about these in his Sravaka-bhumi or Hearer-Levels. There are five personal factors and then there are five factors from society.

Five personal factors: First of all, we were born human. So think, “What would it be like to be born as one of the yellow-jackets flying around here?” And “Wow! How fortunate I am to be a human being.”

Second: we’re born in a central Buddhist region. This has various definitions, various ways to discern what is a central land or a central Buddhist region. Geographically it could be defined as our continent according to the old Indian cosmology (or our earth, I guess you could say—especially our earth with the vajra seat of Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained full awakening. So geographically Bodhgaya and the earth around that is called the central Buddhist land.

But to decide what is a central land according to the religious criteria—according to the Vinaya it would be the presence of the fourfold assembly. The fourfold assembly is (1) fully-ordained monks (bhikshus), (2) fully-ordained nuns (bhikshunis), (3) lay women who have refuge and the five precepts, and (4) lay men who have refuge and the five precepts. Those are called ‘the four assemblies.’ After the Buddha first attained awakening Mara was pressing him, “Why are you going to hang around here? Better attain parinirvana.” The Buddha replied, “I’m not going to do that until I’ve established the fourfold Sangha.” So that’s a place where you have fully-ordained men and women and lay men and women with refuge and the five precepts.

When you’re talking about the fully-ordained monastic community, you are talking about having a community. In a central land that usually means that there are ten people at least. In a far-away, not central land, it could be four or five. So it’s actually having the community. That’s one of the reasons why, when we set up the Abbey, when we got to having four bhikshunis we had a little celebration because then that was making this area a central land. Of course, in America there were already four bhikshunis from different Buddhist traditions, but not so many in the Tibetan tradition.

According to Vinaya the religious definition is the fourfold assembly. According to Mahayana Buddhism the religious definition is where there are Buddhas and bodhisattvas and the Prajñaparamita. So it could also mean where you can receive Dharma teachings, the Mahayana Dharma teachings.

Then the third condition, or the third of the five personal factors, is being born with complete faculties, especially having a sound mind, and all of our other faculties operating properly.

Fourth is not having committed any of the five heinous actions. These five heinous actions create so much negative karma that generally it’s said that upon your death, if you have committed any of one of them, then you go immediately to the hell realm. Tantra says that you can purify these five and not have to experience the result in the next life. But according to the sutra teachings these five are quite severe. These are (1) killing your mother, (2) killing your father, (3) killing an arhat, (4) causing schism in the Sangha community and (5) drawing blood from the Buddha—so physically harming the Buddha. We’re free from those. We’re also free from doing any of ‘grave’ actions that contradict the Dharma. For example being a fisherman, being a butcher, flying bombing planes in the military—these kinds of things where you create really a lot of negative karma. So we’re free of that. Having said that, it’s quite interesting that Ajahn Sumedho, who is quite well-known in the Ajahn Chah Theravada tradition, actually met the Dharma because he was a pilot in the Vietnam war. He’s American and was operating planes in the Vietnam War and went to Thailand for R&R and met the Dharma.

Then the fifth fortunate personal condition is that we have instinctive belief in things that are worthy of respect. That is, we have faith in the Buddha’s teachings [also called] the Tripitaka: the Vinaya, the Sutra and the Abhidharma. We have faith in ethical conduct. We have confidence in the path taught by the Buddha. Having this kind of faith and confidence is really an incredible blessing in our life because if you lack it you could be born in a place where there’s lots of Buddhism, but you have zero interest in it. Or even you receive teachings, you think, “What kind of nonsense is this?” When you look around and you think of these ten—you meet many people who are perfectly nice people, but they have these kind of obstacles in their life. Just being a nice person isn’t good enough to get us to enlightenment. I mean, being a nice person you can create good karma, that’s great. But to really be able to practice the Dharma we need to have the receptivity in our mind. Oth- erwise you’re like the people who come to Bodhgaya just to sell Buddhist trinkets. They meet so many teachers there—they don’t care. They just want to overcharge them because they’re foreign tourists.

The ten fortunes: Five social factors

Then there are five factors from society that help constitute these ten fortunate states. The first one of those is living where and when a Buddha has appeared. So right now, actually, the Buddha has appeared; but he’s also passed away. But the presence of our spiritual mentors makes up for it. So the sixth of these conditions is being born where and when a Buddha has come.

The seventh is where and when a Buddha has taught the Dharma. The Buddha taught not only the sutra vehicle, but he also taught the tantra vehicle. Of the thousand Buddhas in this fortunate aeon they say that only four of them are going to teach tantra. We’re actually quite fortunate that we’re born at a time also when the tantric teachings have been taught and are available.

The eighth fortune is living or being born where and when the Dharma still exists. In other words, where the teachings are stable and where they’re flourishing. For example, most of Central Asia at one point was Buddhist, now zip. In fact, the Taliban blew up the big Buddhist statues. So, having been born in a place where the Dharma still exists and where the teachings are stable and flourishing. Here, too, there are different ways of defining what this means. One way is saying where there is the transmitted Dharma and where there is the insight Dharma. Sometimes they translate it as ‘the Dharma of scripture’ and ‘the Dharma of realization.’ Scriptures—sometimes we think just of texts, but what it’s actually meaning is…they use the word ‘loong.’ ‘Loong’ means when you hear the teachings and they get passed down; so the teachings being transmitted. So it’s when we can come in contact with the teachings and the scriptures in that way—not just that the books are there, but that we can really hear teachings and read texts. That’s the transmitted or the scriptural Dharma.

The insight or realized Dharma are the realizations gained from practicing the Tripitaka. This includes: The realizations from practicing the three higher trainings of ethical conduct, concentration and wisdom; the realizations of the third and fourth noble truth—true cessations and true paths. The presence of the transmitted and the realized or insight Dharma—that’s one way to say that Buddhism is flourishing in a certain place. That’s certainly happening now and we have access to all of this. We’re not born in some faraway place, in poverty, with no transportation, in a war zone, where it’s difficult to meet the teachings.

A flourishing of the Dharma

According to the sutra, a place where the teachings are stable and flourishing is where there’s a Sangha community that does the three principle practices. The Sangha community—you know it has to be the four fully ordained nuns or four fully ordained monks—and then they have to do these three practices. That’s again why this year we were so excited at the Abbey because for the first time we were able to do all three of these practices. One of the practices we have been doing for many years now ever since we’ve had four bhikshunis. That practice is called posadha. That’s the fortnightly confession and the restoration of precepts that the Sangha does. Some of you have been here on the days that we have our posadha: the Sangha—we do our thing—and then the lay people gather and recite their five precepts and take refuge.

The second is called varsa; and this is an annual retreat. In ancient India it was held in the summer because of the monsoon rain. At that time the sangha could just stay fixed instead of wandering around in the rain. We changed the varsa to make it a ‘snows’ retreat instead of a rains retreat, because we have a different climate here. So we have it in the winter when it’s snowy and you don’t want to go out anyway.

And then the pravarana is—literally translated it means invitation. It’s the ceremony at the end of this annual three month retreat that the Sangha does, in which you invite the other bhikshus or bhikshunis to point out any transgressions you may have committed. So you put yourself out there; and if you haven’t made amends for some kind of transgression that was committed during the three months of the varsa, then the other Sangha members can point it out to you. Again, these three ceremonies are the fortnightly confession, the annual retreat, and then the invitation for feedback—or posadha, varsa, and pravarana. Now we have a Sangha here in rural Eastern Washington. Whoever would expect? That makes it become not only a central land, but a place where the Dharma is flourishing.

The importance of Dharma teachers

According to the tantra the Dharma flourishing is a place where the Guhyasamaja tantra is taught and where people listen to it. In all these things it’s emphasizing that we need a living tradition of practitioners and teachers who can impart the Dharma to us orally and by example. It’s really emphasizing that reading a book—well, I’m sure many people started out reading books—which is wonderful. Certainly after you’ve started practicing we’re supposed to read and study the scriptures and everything. But this is really emphasizing getting this transmission from somebody who has it from their teacher, from their teacher, from their teacher, going back to the Buddha—so having that transmission. Then also having a live person (or persons, you can have more than one teacher), who embodies the Dharma who you can look to as an example of how to behave as a practitioner. That’s quite important. We need role-models, don’t we? And so having that lineage of teachers who have realized the teachings so that we can also be assured that we’re meeting the Buddha’s pure teachings. In other words, they haven’t been put in the blender and mixed up with all sorts of other things.

Lama Yeshe used to call that “making soup.” You take a little bit from this, and a little bit from that, and a little bit from the other. You always take things—the points from different religions or philosophies—that agree with your own opinions. We take all those things that already agree with our opinions and we mix them up. We come up with spiritual soup that is great because we chose all the different things that we want to believe; and it already agrees with all of our opinions. So it doesn’t challenge us in any sort of way at all—whereas actually, a spiritual teaching should really challenge us.

If we listen, not to the Dharma, but we listen to some teachings and those teachings just reaffirm all of our afflictive mental states because the teacher is teaching, “Well, anger is good, because if you don’t get angry you can’t tell the difference between right and wrong and you can’t stop injustice. And greed is good because if you don’t look out for yourself, nobody else is going to take care of you.” If you hear some teaching like that and it makes all your afflictions feel very good, then that’s the time you should have a lot of doubt. Of course, we’re the opposite: We hear those teachings and go, “Oh yes—that sounds very good.” Then we hear the Dharma teachings that talk about the defects of self-centeredness, and then we have so much doubt. “What? Not be self-centered? Then everybody’s going to walk all over me. What’s this person talking about?”

Then the ninth criterion is being born or living where and when there’s a Sangha community following the Buddha’s teachings—so those with like minds who give us moral support and inspire us. Here we have to talk about what the word ‘Sangha’ means.

The meaning of Sangha

Sangha, in its traditional usage—if we talk about the Sangha Jewel that is what we take refuge in. The Sangha Jewel refers to any individual, who can be a lay person or a monastic, but they have to have realized the emptiness of inherent existence directly. So the Sangha Jewel that we take refuge in is somebody with very high realizations. They realize the nature of reality—so they are a reliable refuge.

The representative of this Sangha refuge (or the Sangha Jewel) is the community of four or more fully ordained monastics. So not even one person; it has to be a community. That’s because there’s a certain energy that comes about when you have four or more monastics together that you don’t have in another situation. People here have sensed it because we started out with one monastic and two cats, and then gradually the monastic population increased. The cat population increased by one—we have three cats now (and one of them is feral). But the monastic population increased, and so you can feel the difference when there’s that many people who are living and practicing together. That is called the sangha community and an individual there would be a sangha member.

Nowadays in the West many people are using the word sangha to indicate any group of people, mostly lay people, who come together and learn the Dharma. That’s a usage of the word sangha that is not one of the traditional usages. It’s actually, I think, quite confusing for people. This is because many people, at least in the West who go to Buddhist centers, may not even be Buddhist. They may not have correct views. They’re going because they want to learn some meditation so they aren’t so stressed, or who knows? So to say, “Oh, we come here and we take refuge in the Sangha”—meaning everybody who goes to the Buddhist center—is very misleading. First, not all those people are highly realized; and second, some of them haven’t even taken refuge in the Buddha. It’s confusing for new people who come in because you hear, “Oh, we take refuge in the Sangha”—all these other people—but Joe over here is married and he’s dating Cathy over here (because his wife doesn’t go to the center but Cathy does). So he’s seeing Cathy on the sly and not keeping the five precepts. Then there’s Herman over here, after the teachings goes out with Susie over there; and they go smoke a joint together. And then these other two people…

You’re getting what I mean? It’s like you can’t say that just because somebody goes to a Buddhist center that they’re a viable object of refuge for you. That’s why I don’t agree with calling anybody who goes to a center a sangha member or even calling the group the sangha. What I find very interesting in this whole thing is that some of the groups who use the word sangha to refer to themselves are the same groups that want to be modern American Buddhists. They don’t want to be traditional Asian Buddhists who use all this traditional language and traditional concepts; but they want to use the word sangha to refer to themselves.

Audience: So it’s New Age Buddhism?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Kind of. In general Buddhism is still finding its feet in the US and in Europe. You have some groups that are very stable with really good teachers and really good practitioners. You have other groups that are not so stable, where you kind of see what’s going on and you scratch your head. Buddhism is still quite new here. We shouldn’t think that 20 to 30 years and it’s well rooted—not so. It’s going to take a while.

The tenth quality of a precious human life is living or being born where and when there are others with loving concern—so patrons, people who are sponsors. Especially if you’re a monastic having people who can sponsor you so that you have the four requisites: food, shelter, clothing, and medicine—because you need those to stay alive. So there are patrons or sponsors. There are teachers; there are people around who can teach you the Dharma. You have food, clothing, and all the other conditions that you need to practice. Being born in that kind of situation, too, is great fortune, because again, if we don’t have it, then it’s very difficult.

When we meditate on this we go through each of these conditions. With the first eight we imagine being born like that and then come back to where we are now and say, “Whoa, am I fortunate!” With these ten, going through them, and you can think, “Do I have this condition or not? And what kind of benefit does it bring to me if I have it? And what if I didn’t have it—would I be able to practice?” Really thinking like that—and then again, feeling very fortunate at the end that we have many, if not all, of the suitable conditions.

Eight intrusive conditions from Longchenpa

Longchenpa listed 16 additional conditions which could preclude any opportunity to practice the Dharma. In addition to the 18 above, he spelled out 16 other ones. First he describes 8 intrusive conditions—these are things that can even pop up in a meditation session or in the break time. They can destroy one or more of the 18 qualities of the freedoms and fortunes that we were just meditating on. Here are the 8 intrusive circumstances—check if you ever have them.

First: Turmoil from the five emotions—attachment, anger, confusion, arrogance, jealousy. These emotions dominate your mind so you can’t practice. Do you ever have that?

Second: Stupidity—lack of intelligence so you can’t understand the teachings.

Audience: Check!

VTC: What? Check! Okay.

Third: Being dominated by evil influences. For example, relying on teachers who teach in a perverted manner, or relying on bad friends who lead you away from the Dharma.

Four: Laziness [pretends to yawn], like “I think we’ll finish this tomorrow.”

Five: Being inundated by the effect of past negative actions—one’s non-virtuous actions are such that, in spite of all the effort you put into the Dharma, you can’t develop qualities very easily. There’s this whole backlog of non-virtuous actions from previous lives that obscures our mind so we try and listen to the teachings—we don’t understand. We try and meditate—we’re distracted. Very often what happens is then we lose confidence in the teaching without knowing that losing our faith is due to our own non-virtues. Instead we think, “Oh, I’ve lost my faith because the Dharma isn’t the right path.”

Audience: When you do the prostrations, when you want to purify, where do you put your mind? What do you say that you regret doing?

VTC: So when you want to purify these kinds of things, what do you regret doing? We can’t necessarily remember our past lives, but what we can do is this. In various texts there are lists of different kinds of negative actions. That’s why in the prostrations to the Thirty-Five Buddhas there’s a whole list of negative actions in there that we confess—if you pay attention. In the prayer it comes after the line, “Woe is me.” In the prayer that follows that line there’s a whole list of negative actions. So you think, “Who knows what I did in my previous life?” When you read the book The Wheel of Sharp Weapons, there are so many negative actions explained in there. Or you read The Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish. You don’t have to remember specific actions, and you don’t have to even be sure that you did these things in the past. But because we may have or because we even the possibility to do them in the future—because we’re not realized yet—then it’s very good to confess these things.

Audience: I thought it would have been more specific…

VTC: Yes, but some of the actions are quite specific: Stepping over Dharma books, being disrespectful to your Dharma teacher, stealing from the Sangha, lying to sentient beings. This is kind of specific, isn’t it? So this is why it’s good to purify.

Sixth: Being enslaved to others so that you have no autonomy and the person who dominates you doesn’t allow you to practice. So we’re not slaves and we’re not in a bad marriage with a spouse that controls us. There are lots of people who want to come to Dharma teachings and the spouse has a fit.

Seventh: The hindrance of seeking protection from the dangers—so we take up the Dharma because of fear of lacking food and shelter and something in this life. We have no deep convictions and we just basically give ourselves up to our old habits, and ordain with a bad motivation or practice with a bad motivation because we just think, “If I do this, I’ll get some kind of support.”

Eighth: This is hypocritical practice. In front of others we assume the manner of being a great practitioner who is calm and relaxed and compassionate. Yet basically what’s going on in our mind is the eight worldly concerns that want sense pleasure and approval and praise and reputation and possessions and stuff—so, hypocritical practice.

Eight incompatible propensities from Longchenpa

Longchenpa also talks about eight incompatible propensities that separate one’s mind from liberation and awakening.

First one: Being bound by one’s worldly commitments—wealth, pleasures, children, job, family commitments and so on, so that you’re preoccupied with these so that you don’t have any time to practice. That’s a very real one for many people. You have to work so many hours on a job, and then you have to support your kids, and then you have you social obligations, and then your family obligations, and then your hobbies, and at the end you have no time for a spiritual practice.

Second is flagrant depravity—having a bad character and a lack of a sense of humanity—so just being really messed up in terms of your values and your behavior.

Three is lack of dissatisfaction with samsara. So we’re quite satisfied with samsara. We don’t feel bad. We don’t have any special feeling when we hear about unfortunate rebirths or the faults of samsara. We just go, “Oh, samsara is okay. I have enough food. I have a nice family. I’m popular. I have this and that. I have nothing to complain about. Samsara is great. I can tweak it a little bit; maybe make it a little bit better.”

Fourth is absence of faith in the Dharma or faith in our Dharma teacher. Again, when you lack this kind of faith or confidence, then you don’t follow anything. But on the other hand, you can’t make yourself have faith and confidence. It has to come through understanding. It has to come through your own wisdom.

Five: Taking pleasure in bad actions—you love to go gambling and drinking and smoking, hunting, fishing, etc.

Six is lack of interest in the Dharma. “Dharma’s so boring! Much rather read a sci-fi book.”

Seven is being heedless of precepts—so just no conscientiousness, not caring about your precepts.

Eight is being heedless of your samayas. Samayas are tantric commitments. Not caring about your tantric precepts or any kind of commitments you made. Just, “Oh well, I went to that initiation, that was great! They passed out this kind of sweet little pills at the end of it, and they gave me some holy water, and wonderful!”—without having any kind of reverence or understanding of what’s going on.

So those are the eight intrusive circumstances and the eight incompatible propensities. Do you have any of those?

I think we have a little bit of time for questions.

Audience: What are the tantric teachings?

VTC: So what is tantra? When we talk about the Buddha’s teachings we often divide them into the fundamental vehicle and the bodhisattva vehicle. The fundamental vehicle—you are aiming for arhatship to get yourself out of cyclic existence. The bodhisattva vehicle—you’re trying to become a fully awakened Buddha for the benefit of sentient beings. Within the bodhisattva vehicle there are many sub-traditions. In all of the sub-traditions you do practice the general Mahayana teachings. Tantra is one of those subdivisions. In tantric practice—that’s where you have visualization and mantra recitation, and it’s a much more advanced practice—so there are special precepts that you keep, special commitments that you make.

Audience: What are karmas that we have created that result in mental impairment in the next life?

VTC: Well, calling people stupid; insulting other people’s intelligence. I think disrespecting Dharma books and Dharma materials makes you quite ignorant. Let me just extrapolate and guess: Maybe being a researcher who destroys the brains of different animals in the laboratory; destroying the intelligence and the mental faculties of others. Things like that, I think.

Audience: To overcome a specific affliction does it matter which purification practices you do? Or is it okay to just choose practices that you feel an affinity for?

VTC: Well, first of all, there are two things: there’s overcoming the afflictions and there’s overcoming the destructive actions. Overcoming the afflictions we have to apply the antidotes to the afflictions. The ultimate antidote is the realization of emptiness. And then other antidotes are affliction-specific; so, meditating on impermanence for attachment, meditating on love to overcome anger.

If you’re talking about purification, we’re usually purifying the destructive actions that are done under the influence of the afflictions. There are a variety of different practices to do and which one to do—well, all of them have the four opponent powers. To be a complete purification practice you have to have the four opponent powers. These are: first, regret; second, restoring the relationship by taking refuge and generating bodhicitta; third, making a determination not to do it again; and fourth, some kind of remedial action. Then, within that, you can do those four opponent powers with the prostrations to the Thirty-Five Buddhas, with the Vajrasattva practice, with this meditation we’re doing on Shakyamuni Buddha. You can do those four opponent powers mixed in with that. Sometimes it’s good to consult with your teacher—your teacher may think that one or another of these is better for you at a specific time.

Sometimes they say that the prostrations to the Thirty-Five Buddhas purifies faults in your bodhisattva practice and that Vajrasattva specializes in purifying breaches in tantric commitments—but actually they all work for everything I think. But sometimes you can consult with your teacher to see if there’s one you should emphasize. Or very often people do both the Thirty Five Buddhas and Vajrasattva on a daily basis.

Audience: Do you have to be accepted into a true Sangha as a lay person or are there steps to do so?

VTC: What I was just describing was that the only situation in which a lay person would be considered Sangha is if they have realized emptiness directly and they are an arya. But normally people who go to Buddhist centers are not considered Sangha. Maybe that person who wrote the question wants to reword it – maybe there was some kind of misunderstanding there?

Audience: Can you attain Buddhahood in the demigod realm?

VTC: They say that human beings and desire realm gods can attain the path of seeing; I don’t know about buddhahood—human beings can attain buddhahood. So the demigods—they are considered desire-realm gods, so I guess maybe they could attain the path of seeing. But it’s usually said that they are very jealous and they’re very busy fighting with the gods, so hard for them to take out some time to listen to teachings and practice. It’s not a realm that you want to pray to be reborn in, put it that way.

Audience: Is the mind nonself? What is the heart?

VTC: The consciousness is not the person—if that’s what the question was. The consciousness is not the ‘I,’ it’s not the self or the person. In Buddhism they use the word ‘citta’ [pronounced chitta]—and sometimes it can be translated as ‘mind’ and sometimes as ‘heart.’ So from a Buddhist perspective, there’s not mind [indicating in the head] and heart [indicating in the chest], and brick wall in between; but it’s mind and heart. They use the same word to refer to that cognitive experiential part of us.

Audience: In our discussion group this afternoon we talked about how to maintain hope. In listening to some of the things you’ve just said and seeing myself in so many of these, I’m just wondering—how do we not get discouraged when we see that we may fall into so many of these categories?

VTC: Okay, so when we hear, especially these eight propensities and so on, and we see they apply to us, how do we keep from getting discouraged? You practice, you remedy them! It’s like in your life if you have a problem—I suppose many people when they have a problem, they sit there and go, “Oh, woe is me, I’m so discouraged.” But if you do that, you don’t solve your problem. So you have to get up and do something. It’s the same—like if you have financial problems, do you sit there and get so discouraged, “Oh, I’m not as rich as these people. I don’t have the same reputation. I don’t have as much money. My whole life is worthless. Oh, this is terrible. I can’t even afford to go to a therapist.” You know? I mean, it’s like, give yourself a break. You have the potential to become a fully-awakened Buddha, so use it. Discouragement, according to the Buddha, is a form of laziness. If you look in your life—what you’ve done so far—so you have some of those things. You can overcome them, or at least you can lessen them. What’s this thing about “I have to be perfect, and if I’m not perfect then I’m not worthwhile”? What are we doing to ourselves in our culture that people get so discouraged over things that are pointless to get discouraged about? Who cares if we’re perfect? Doesn’t matter. What’s important is—we’ve found the path that works, practice it!

Audience: When we were talking about our emotions—I’m about to go back to Mexico and it’s like, half of me is happy because I’m going to be with my family and friends again, but the other half is, like, afraid to go back because all these situations. So how can I have the courage to go back to that life and not be afraid?

VTC: So you’re saying you have to go back to your own country and you’re concerned about the environment that you’re going to be in. What is it that concerns you about the environment?

Audience: About all that’s happening right now—drugs, assassinations…

VTC: Okay, so all the narcos and everything…okay. So you’re worried even about your physical safety? I would say cultivate loving kindness towards all the people, even towards the people who you could be afraid of—because if you can see that what they’re doing is because their own minds are obscured and overcome by confusion and ignorance and afflictions…and so have some kind of compassion for them that they’re in such mental states. Either that, or don’t go back. Change the situation. You don’t have to go back!

Audience: But my whole family is there and I don’t want to leave them.

VTC: Okay, so then half of you wants to go back because your family is there, and half of you doesn’t want to go back because of the situation—and you want to have everything that you want! So if you stay here, you don’t have your family. If you go there, you don’t have the safety. And you don’t want to give anything up. Well, I guess you could live on the border! [laughter] Except then, actually, you wouldn’t have either! I mean, sometimes we just have to realize that if in a choice we make we have to give something up, we can’t have everything. There’s no choice that is going to give us everything we want. So then we have to weigh: What is more valuable to us? What is more important to us? And if this is my priority then I have to accept that I have to give this up; if this is my priority, then I have to accept that I have to give that up. Even if you’re giving something up, you can still apply the Dharma. Like I was saying, for the situation in Mexico meditating on love and compassion, and keeping your mind in a virtuous state—so that you are not filled with fear and anxiety all the time. You do that in your practice to keep yourself steady.

Audience: And to be at peace with whatever decision you make.

VTC: Yes! To be at peace, “I’ve made this decision. And if doesn’t work out, then change!” Then you change. Your life isn’t cast in concrete.

Audience: I have a question about the precious human life. I’ve heard of this idea that it’s like a pure land or something like that…How does that fit in?

VTC: Pure lands are not in the human realm. They’re places where we can get born when we’ve created a lot of merit and have a lot positive aspirations to be reborn there. They’re places where there are a lot of good conditions for practicing Dharma and not as many distractions. So it’s a good place to be born if you have the proper motivation.

Audience: How should a beginner approach complex practices like dzogchen and chöd?

VTC: By putting them on the back burner, recognizing they are advanced practices and that you are in kindergarten. You are not a university student, you are in kindergarten—so you play with your blocks, you learn your ABCs—you do what a kid in kindergarten does. I mean, let’s be practical, folks. If you’re in kindergarten, what are you going to do? Say, “I’m going to the college course”? And you’re five years old and you go plunk yourself down at MIT in a Physics class? Because I’m too good for kindergarten; kindergarten is for baby stuff. I want to do dzogchen and chöd and mahamudra and all the fancy stuff; but meanwhile, you don’t know the ABCs? It’s like, let’s be practical.

It’s fine to be in kindergarten, isn’t it? When you’re kindergarten capacity be in kindergarten—and love being in kindergarten and have a great kindergarten experience. By doing that you will learn your ABCs, you will learn the numbers; and then when you go to first grade you have a really firm foundation, so what they teach you in first grade you’ll understand. And then you enjoy being in first grade. Then you go to second grade, and that’s great being in second grade because you are learning according to your own level. That’s what we need to do.

All this high stuff—know it’s there, have an aspiration. You can be in kindergarten and aspire to go to Harvard one day. That’s fine. Have your aspiration. But be in kindergarten and learn; make a good foundation for yourself. That’s really the best way to go about it. The thing is, if you don’t have a good foundation and you build the roof—you can make this roof out of gold and decorate it with jewels—and where’s your roof going to be? Flat on the ground because there’s not even a foundation under it; it’s in the dirt. So same way, as Dharma students we have to do the practices at the beginning of the path. If you want to do dzogchen and chöd and all these things, start practicing on a daily basis what you’re learning right here, because this is already complicated enough for you, isn’t it?

Audience: The person who asked the question [online] says he enjoys your fierce compassion.

Audience: What were the four opponent powers again?

VTC: Regret; repairing the relationships which means taking refuge and generating bodhicitta; third is making a determination not to do the action again; and fourth is some kind of remedial practice. You can check. Most of my books have something about the four opponent powers.

Anything else? Nobody’s going to ask me about how to use the dorje and bell and the horn and the…? Nobody’s going to ask about mahamudra, no questions on mahamudra today? Okay!

Audience: Well, I think we asked one! [Laughter]

VTC: I think kindergarten is great. Isn’t it?

Okay, one more, one brave person. [Laughter]

Audience: How do you know if you’re having wrong views?

VTC: If you have very stubborn mind and you’re saying, “I just don’t believe in rebirth; no way, no how, that’s a bunch of junk.” So it’s not just doubt. It’s not just curiosity. It’s not just, “I don’t know.” It’s like, “Forget it.” Cynical views. Or if you’re saying, “I don’t believe Buddha, Dharma, Sangha exist. This is all hocus-pocus. I don’t believe that my actions have an ethical dimension. I can do whatever I want as long as I don’t get caught. Good enough.” And you firmly believe that. Or you think, “Human beings are inherently selfish. There’s nothing we can do to overcome our selfishness, so don’t even try.” Or if you think—well, any of these kinds of things: “If I kill all the people that are the enemy of the world, then I’ll be doing something good.” All this kind of stuff.

Audience: So then how do you know that the views that are opposite that are right?

VTC: Right, so the thing is here…Now you have a list of wrong views, and you’re going, “How do I know those are wrong views? Do I do it just because she said so, or just because Buddha said so?” That’s just blind faith rubbish, isn’t it?

You have to think about these things. Dharma is really a path where you have to think; and you have to really evaluate, and use reason, and assess, and figure out what is true and what is not true. You listen to the teachings and you don’t just go, “Oh yes, I believe”—because that can change in an instant. As soon as you have somebody coming tomorrow and telling you some great thing that they made up last Tuesday that’s going to lead you to enlightenment, you’ll believe them! That’s why it’s so important to really think about these things—and you evaluate for yourself.

Here’s another one: if you’re certain that the mind doesn’t exist, that there’s only the brain—there’s no such thing as mind. You take one of those things and you say, “Well, how do I know? Does it make sense? Do I think human beings are inherently selfish so why even try to change? Do I really believe that? What proof do I have of it? Well, everybody around me is selfish.” Yes, but does that mean everybody in the world is selfish? There’s nobody who’s been able to overcome their selfishness?

Audience: My relative is having depression and rejecting the Dharma given. Other than dedicating merit with him I don’t know how else to help. For example, he gives negative remarks on certain Dharma talks. Should I then avoid playing them (the talks that he dislikes)?

VTC: Well, you don’t want to force the Dharma on anybody. If somebody is not enjoying the Dharma talks, don’t force them to listen to them. If there’s something else—maybe some kind of general talk about being a good person, let your relative listen to a general talk about being a good person. That’s good enough. Don’t force people to listen to the Dharma.

Often in that kind of situation if you show, through your behavior, that Buddhism is having a positive effect on you, that is what will increase your relative’s interest in Buddhism much more than playing Dharma talks for them or telling that they have wrong views and preaching right views to them. You start becoming a kinder person. All of a sudden your relatives notice, “Wow! My son never washed the dishes, and now he’s actually washing the dishes! What happened to him?” What do you think?

Audience: Come to the Abbey, we’ll teach you how to wash dishes!

VTC: No, but really, if you become a kinder person in your family, that is so much more reason for your relatives to be interested in the Dharma because they see, “Wow, it effects some good change!”

Audience: But how do I not feel bad for not being able to help him?

VTC: Can you squeeze oil out of sand? Can you squeeze oil out of sand? No. Do you feel bad for not being able to squeeze oil out of sand? Do you feel bad for not doing something that you’re not capable of doing because the circumstances aren’t right? If the circumstances aren’t right, why are you putting it on yourself that you need to be able to convert this person to the Dharma? They have to have some receptivity on their own side. It’s not your responsibility. You be kind to them, be considerate to them. Be a nice person. Like I said, be helpful, be kind—that’s the best thing to do. It’s not your responsibility to make them into a Buddhist, my goodness!

My family is not Buddhist. I had to accept it. What am I going to do? There’s no way I could have turned them into Buddhists, my goodness! So I accept it. At least now they think Buddhism is kind of good. I think some relative said, “If I had to have a religion, maybe I’d be Buddhist. But I don’t have to have a religion.” You know? That’s good enough.

Let’s dedicate.

Note: Excerpts from Easy Path used with permission: Translated from the Tibetan under Ven. Dagpo Rinpoche’s guidance by Rosemary Patton; published by Edition Guépèle, Chemin de la passerelle, 77250 Veneux-Les-Sablons, France.

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