An excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo from the Vow of Love Series
If we wish to enter onto the path of a Bodhisattva and become that which benefits beings, we must have a heart that yearns for compassionate activity. We must want to help, or we wouldn’t be able to receive teachings like this. This being the case, the first thing we have to do is let go of the concepts we have about how cool we are going to be when this process is finished. We cannot hold on to the rigid kind of thinking that honors only self. We must think of others.
How many of you are there? One, right? Look down, how many do you count? It’s easy. So far as you know, there is only one of you. Now look around at the human beings in your immediate environment. Then think about all the human beings on this earth: 5.9 billion, at least. If your mind is really that of a Bodhisattva, you couldn’t think for a moment of going around telling others how great you are. You couldn’t think for a moment that it could be in any way important that you do the dance, or sing the song, or appear in some certain way that satisfies you, because there’s only one of you, and there are 5.9 billion of them. If you have a mind that’s free of the attachment to self, free of the burden of believing strongly in self-nature, then you must realize that weighed against 5.9 billion human beings, you simply don’t weigh very much.
If you really wish to fulfill the idea of a Bodhisattva that is free of attachment to ego, free of the delusion that self-nature is relevant and important, and if you really wish to consider living a life of compassion, then serving others must become more important than even your own life. It is not that you become like a martyr. We’re not talking about the Christian concept of a martyr. It’s really different than that. It’s just mechanics. It’s just logic. It’s just math. There are more of them than there are of you, so they matter more. With that idea, you seek only to benefit others. That being the case, as an aspiring Bodhisattva, you must begin to examine what the mind of Bodhicitta really is.
An excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo from the Vow of Love series
If we studied Bodhicitta, or the mind of compassion, every single day for the rest of our lives, we wouldn’t even scratch its surface because it is so profound. There are many different levels at which we might come to understand its meaning. The word Bodhicitta can’t really be translated into English very well. It means enlightenment. It also means compassion. Compassion to us means something quite ordinary. We might think that we already understand compassion. We may think, “I don’t eat meat anymore, and I try not to kill things. I try not to hurt anybody, and I feel sorry for most everybody, you know. Therefore I fully understand compassion.” Unfortunately, if we think like that, we’re probably missing a lot, and we fail to understand the real meaning of enlightenment. If we think we understand enlightenment the way most Americans do, I’m afraid we don’t have a clear view of it, because we haven’t had teachings on what that mind, which is free of conceptualization as well as discursive thought, is really like. We just haven’t had that kind of teaching.
When we think of an enlightened being, we think of someone who dresses up a certain way. He or she wears robes and almost always has their eyes turned skyward. We have many different ideas about enlightenment and, unfortunately, none of them are true. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who are reported to appear in the world, for instance, take many different forms. They don’t have to be a Buddhist to be a Bodhisattva; they just have to have realization. They take whatever form is necessary in order to benefit beings, because that is how the mind of compassion works. That is how the mind of enlightenment functions. It does not cling to the idea of self. It does not cling to egocentricity. Literally, a Bodhisattva might appear in the world as food or drink, offering its body in that way to benefit beings. It might appear in the world as a teacher. It certainly might do that. It might appear in the world as an ordinary, funky-style person. I mean funky beyond belief! Unless you have traveled in India and Nepal, you don’t know what funky means yet! A Buddha or a Bodhisattva might appear in such a way that is funky beyond belief, and yet within the context of that life, has an incredible impact on many people, or on just two or three people who themselves go on to achieve realization and have an incredible impact on beings.
You see, the mind of the Bodhisattva is such that it doesn’t cling to the idea of greatness. There is no thought of greatness. The moment we think we have to be great, or have to wear a certain kind of robe, or look a certain way, or do a certain dance, we have lost the entire idea and the main reason why a Bodhisattva would wish to incarnate in the world. A Bodhisattva’s only purpose is to benefit beings, and that is done without attachment to form and content. It is done in whatever way is necessary.
An excerpt from the Mindfulness workshop given by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo in 1999
In practicing bodhicitta in a mindful and discriminating way, one has to understand first of all the faults of samsaric existence. One has to understand the basic logic if it. If we are giving rise to the aspiration to be of benefit to beings, it only makes sense if we understand why and what the connecting factors are. Otherwise it is just acting.
One of the greatest obstacles I’ve seen, is the current pop religion culture that says, “Everything is perfect; the world is perfect.” So many people are into the idea of seeking happiness that on some level they must realize that there is suffering, because they’re trying to cover up that suffering. They’re trying to affirm it away by saying that suffering doesn’t exist. They tell themselves everything is light and love and suffering doesn’t exist and that’s wonderful, and so the world is a great place. We don’t have to practice compassion, because everything is already blessed and very holy. The world is perfect. Can you hear the superficiality in that? What you need to hear next is what’s really going on in the world because if you’re in that mind state, you haven’t been watching, you haven’t seen.
There is such an extraordinary amount of suffering in all the realms of cyclic existence. In this world alone, just look at the human condition: the extraordinary, unconscionable suffering. How can you look at these people marching out of Kosovo and think that’s perfect? How can you watch children and innocent civilians being torn up, with no understanding as to how this could have happened to them? They are modern people like us. How can you look at that and say everything is love and light; that everything is perfect?
If you’ve had the good fortune of knowing one person throughout the course of your life, think of all the different ages and stages they’ve gone through. Watch what it’s like to be a child and to go through all the struggles that children go through? It’s tough being a child. They don’t really understand what’s happening to them. They don’t really understand why it is when certain things happen, other things happen. It’s tough being a child. That little brain is forming. It doesn’t work in its entirety yet. And then watch that person grow up to be a teenager. It’s tough being a teenager. It’s awful being a teenager. I remember being a teenager. I don’t think there are words for that! You have all these feelings and your body is all grown up and your head is still childish and nothing works. And then you grow up, and suddenly you’re supposed to be an adult. You don’t feel any different, though, than you did when you were a teenager or a child. You still feel like you don’t understand diddly-squat, and yet suddenly, because you have a child maybe, you’re supposed to be an adult. You think, “Wow, I’ve waited all my life to be an adult. This is great. Now I can vote. I can drink.” Yeah, you can also get up early every morning and go to work. You can also work every single day. You can also have very little fun.
Do you remember what it was like when you were just trying to build your life? There’s an obsession with that. You think, “Ooh, I’ve just got to do this. If I don’t do this, I’ll never be happy.” All that reactive delusion kind of beats you up. Then, when you get to the point of maturity and you realize that not all the things you thought really mattered actually matter, there’s a little spaciousness. Maybe you have a pause that lets you know that maybe now it’s time to relax a little bit about getting all these material things lined up; maybe now it’s time to stop and smell the roses and then even beyond that, plan for your maturity. Maybe you think, “I should think about my death. I should think about how to take care of my children.” So you get this glorious moment of thinking, “Yeah, okay. I’m pretty stable now. I’ve got a car, got a house, got some kids, so things are okay.” You have about five minutes of that before everything you have goes south, and I mean the body. This thing that we put so much energy into shining up and growing up and waiting until it is matured, and then everything you have from the waist up is now from the waist down.
As Buddhists we are required to study these images of a young woman or a young man, middle-aged or mature and then older, and then see that this is the same person. Understanding what that’s all about is the key. For us to not wander through life with everything happening to us unexpectedly. That’s the most amazing thing about us. Everyone around us gets old; everyone we see gets old; we’ve got old people everywhere, but it’s always a surprise when it happens to us. How can we possibly go through life in any meaningful way when it constantly surprises us? Instead, what we need to do is to really study the conditions that we are involved with and do so truthfully and honestly.
In the practice of bodhicitta, the first things that we can understand are the faults of cyclic existence. Cyclic existence is impossible. It’s ridiculous. It’s not only flawed and faulted, it’s a real pain in the neck. The amazing thing about cyclic existence is that no matter what you do in the material realm, in the realm of experiences, if it arises from samsara and is within the realm of samsara, it’s all going to come to nothing because anything that you accumulate, build, or create, you lose when you die. You won’t be able to take that with you.
The saddest thing and the thing that we have compassion about and try to become mindful about, is watching someone who is no different from us, wanting to be happy just like we do; spend all of their time pulling stuff together, accumulating or not accumulating, setting up their little gigs, their little power things, all their little personality dramas. We watch people that are so entrenched and lost in that, and generally, before we’ve had any training, we’d think that was normal. But having had training, we think, “Oh, maybe that’s not so good. Maybe that’s not the way to go.” We might judge that person as being superficial. We might have a lot of judgment about that person. But in order to be truly discriminating and mindful and to actually benefit our practice, we should be saying, “Yes, that’s what it’s like here. That is the fault of cyclic existence,” and feel compassion for them.
Creating mindfulness in the arena of practicing bodhicitta is like that. We have to constantly caution ourselves not to simply go down the road in the way that we ordinarily do, but instead, to be in a state of recognition and awareness. When we see ourselves act in a superficial manner, just going through the motions of life thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to have this money or this power or this fame or this fortune or this car or this family or this whatever” — instead of judging these terrible faults in ourselves or in each other, simply say, “This is the fault of cyclic existence.” Rather than saying that person is superficial or that person is lost or that person is damned, we ought to say, “What a fabulous opportunity to study the faults of cyclic existence.” You should look at that person, and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, because that’s how it is here. What can I do to help? How can I benefit sentient beings so that it is no longer the case?” It increases your bodhicitta practice rather than taking it down by judging others. To say, “They’re so material; they’re just about money” or, “I’m just about money, I’m just about material things.” is not beneficial because you are not contributing to mindfulness; you are contributing to judgment. Can you see the difference? You are not contributing to a state of recognition. You’re only recognizing appearances. Big deal! Dogs can do that! Do something dogs can’t do.
An excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called Turning Adversity Into Felicity
The result of poverty and not having enough is due, according to the Buddha’s teachings, to not having been particularly generous or forthcoming in our support or caring for others in the past, perhaps even before this lifetime. So we might look at our lives now with a sense of honesty. Is that the case now? Perhaps it’s also the case now, and we just haven’t thought of it that way. Or perhaps if we really look in our heart of hearts we might discover that there is a certain dark corner in there somewhere that has a strong element of selfishness and lack of giving. We might see it sneak out every now and then. Maybe not all the time, but it’s in there. Or we might discover that perhaps in our past, in our deep past, we have been less than generous.
So, in order to create the causes of having plenty, to open the doors and liberate the conditions under which support and wealth and prosperity would come to us, we would create the causes, by transforming our minds through practice into that which is supremely generous. If we have only $5 to our name, a good idea is to give maybe 50¢ of that, maybe a dollar of that, to somebody who doesn’t have 50¢ or a dollar. If you have nothing, I’m sure you can get it together to have enough to place a simple candle on the altar and make prayers that the merit generated by offering this light would help all sentient beings see their way through the darkness. A small offering like that and prayers to benefit sentient beings begins the process of creating the causes by which our suffering or lack begins to change, and as well our minds begin to transform into that which is filled with kindness. We begin to create the habit of caring for others, of kindness.
The idea is that we proceed with confidence in the teachings and in the teacher who has given them to us. That’s how you have faith in the Guru—not by making some bland statement with no depth, not by faking your way through samsara, not by controlling your mind with positive thoughts so that delusion only increases and you have no idea what you are perceiving—but instead by creating the causes through acts of generosity.
On the other hand, if we have experienced great disappointment in love, let’s say, the first thing that we think is, “Oh, now I’ve lost my boyfriend, or girlfriend or whatever, so I have to do everything I can to get them back.” Grasp, grasp, grasp! And when that doesn’t work—it doesn’t, you know—then what you do is you make prayers to the Guru: “Oh please, oh please, oh please!” And we hope and pray that the lotto will come for us on the romantic level. And then we even think stupid thoughts like, “Oh, please deliver him or her to me now! Along with the check, put him in the mailbox. I’ll pick him up tomorrow.” You know that’s the kind of thinking that we have. It’s like magical thinking, but that’s a different religion. That’s not our religion.
In our religion, if that had happened, we would look for the causes. What are the causes of such a loss? Perhaps I have not been kind and loving. I’ll tell you how it is, if no love is given, no love will be received. It’s like that. If we do not invest in generosity and caring and loving concern and regard for others in an unselfish way, there will not be a great deal of love forthcoming freely into our lives because we have not created the causes. We have not held up our part of the bargain. And so we begin, therefore, to create the causes: a real concern, a real interest in the welfare and well being of others. Not just the one you want back. That’s easy. Others, all others, with kindness and love and generosity coming forth from our hearts. That’s the investment that’s needed here, that we ourselves would be responsible for not abandoning and leaving without comfort, loved ones and friends, not just the one we want, but all our loved ones and friends. And then take it further than that. Not only our friends and loved ones, but also our not-so-friendly friends, maybe the people we don’t have much concern for, maybe even our enemies. A loving concern for them is what’s required here.
There are no sugar daddies in this world. You cannot be the conquering hero, the savior, because you cannot conquer someone else’s mind. Each of us must purify and conquer the hatred, greed, and ignorance we hold in our own minds. No one can do it for anyone else. You can however, liberate your own mind from all egocentricity. You can follow the Buddha’s teaching and take a vow as a Bodhisattva to eliminate all poisons from your mind until the very idea of self-nature is abandoned. You can decide to liberate yourself from all desire. And you can promise to return again and again in any form necessary to help sentient beings pull themselves out of endless suffering. As part of every practice you will say: “May I attain liberation in order to benefit beings.” The compassionate motivation to be of true benefit provides us with the strength to persevere until we ourselves are awake, until we have completely transformed or purged even the tiniest seeds of poison from our minds. The motivation to be a savior has no lasting value. It requires feedback, or “warm fuzzies.” You must get beyond that need. Your love should not depend on feedback.
How can you develop love which sustains itself? How can you cultivate a fire that burns self-sustaining wood? That fire is based on the courage to understand. If your mind has deepened to the extent that you can no longer bear to be idle, knowing the profound despair of all those beings who revolve in endless cycles of suffering—you can become truly committed. Then you can begin to renounce your own causes of suffering.
Until you reach supreme Buddhahood, you must continue courageously to develop the mind of compassion at every moment. You must aspire to be of true and lasting benefit. You must offer yourself again and again. The prayer of St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace,” is a good example of the aspiration of a Western Bodhisattva. Eventually, your commitment may take the form of saying: “Let me be reborn in whatever form necessary, under whatever conditions, so that beings might not suffer. If there is a need for food, let me return as food. If there is a need for shade, let me return as a tree. If there is a need for a path, let me return as a teacher. If there is a need for love, let me return as arms.”
Your job then is to purify your mind through strenuous activity. The path of Dharma is difficult. Any path that leads to enlightenment will be strenuous because enlightenment is a long way from here. You are not after a psychological “Aha!” You are aspiring to the state of Buddhahood. Your first thought should be that suffering must end. Your only concern should be that sentient beings achieve liberation.
There is a profound and simple practice that anyone can do to develop this great compassion. It turns ordinary activity into vehicles for extraordinary love. When you awake in the morning, think: “May all beings rise from the state of ignorance and be liberated until there is no more suffering.” As you brush your teeth and bathe, think: “May the suffering and seeds of suffering be washed from the minds of all beings.” Or: “May all beings be showered with the blessings of a virtuous path.” As you enter a door: “May all beings enter the door to a supreme vehicle and finally walk through the door of liberation.” Everything you do should have meaning in this way. Your entire life should be understood as a vehicle for practice.
You should dedicate all your virtuous activity, no matter how small, to the liberation of all beings. Learn to dedicate everything you do, everything. Train yourself to the point that this aspiration is constant. Once your motivation is firm, you can begin training in actual practices, in practical compassion. If you have decided to accept and follow the Buddha’s teachings, you will begin the actual practice of Dharma. If you choose not to be a Buddhist, you must still find a way to purify hatred, greed, and ignorance from your mind and the minds of others. Free of these poisons, you can become awakened; in other words, you can position yourself to be of true benefit to others.
A word of caution: some practitioners take solemn vows and make vast aspirational prayers, but then they turn around and act unkindly to others. As His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche has suggested, practicing Dharma without kindness is like trying to get light from the painting of a lamp.
Beware also of what I call “idiot compassion.” Do you know a needy or troubled person, someone who is psychologically or emotionally disrupted? We often try to give such people what they say they need. This only increases their dependency. It gives them an opportunity to increase the garbage in their minds and lives. Sometimes compassion must be harsh. In Vajrayana, there are at least as many wrathful forms of the Buddhas as peaceful ones. Sometimes compassion must take a wrathful form. If you are pure in your motivation, you will know what to do. You will not get hooked on idiot compassion. It feels good to make others feel good. But feeling good does not always help.
If you can do anything to ease or end the suffering of beings, do it. But understand that these remedies are only temporary. Consider that your power is limited by the condition of your mind. Even though you have the karma to practice—which is very fortunate—you are still an ordinary sentient being. The Buddha, however, embodies the fully awakened mind. He does not experience the confusion or delusion arising from the belief in self. His enlightened intention is powerful in a way that yours cannot be. Despite your good intentions and efforts, if you constantly experience confusion and desire within your mindstream, you can be of little help. The best way to end the suffering of sentient beings is to liberate your mind from the causes of suffering. For if you become a realized Buddha and are then incarnated or experience rebirth in an emanation form, you can offer the means to accomplish Dharma by offering the blessing of a complete path leading to liberation. To follow the Buddha’s path requires a vast amount of merit and virtue, as well as a great deal of compassion, discipline, courage, and unselfishness. The path is arduous. To achieve the great result of Buddhahood requires great effort. But truly, there is no end to suffering except the cessation of desire. The only ultimately useful way to spend this precious human life is to attain enlightenment. You must consider from the depth of your heart that the aim of attaining enlightenment is not only to accomplish one’s own purpose but also the purpose of others. When you have seen that all sentient beings endure needless suffering, when you cannot bear even the thought of their condition and are determined to bring about its end, you are ready for Dharma.
The following is from a series of tweets by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo:
I have been told many times that I worry. I must say I disagree. I do study things, try to puzzle cause and effect, try to glimpse behind the curtain. I love to notice patterns and find their meaning. I like to study abnormal psychology, love to hear about case studies, what makes people tick. I find reactions fascinating! I’ve learned that each bit of phenomena is amazing.
So you may see me with a knit brow…but this life has taught me squarely that it is a dream. One moment you feel mortally wounded, then with a little tweaking it isn’t so anymore. I’ve found if we step back and breathe we can avoid getting all tied up in stuff, and bound in neurosis, insanity. It’s choices.
Life is a whirling colorful, mesmerizing dance with lights, sound and distraction, like a circus. And like a circus it soon packs up and disappears, leaving only dust and tracks in dirt.
If we study life and think in sane full equations that add up, we can manage well. If we sink into reaction, rage, fear, despair, we will be ground into blood and guts and will always be a bee in a bottle. Round and round with no rhyme or reason or true purpose. And certainly with no accomplishment. Meditation, mantra, and prayer, all help soothe and deepen the mind, increases our view, relaxes our ego-clinging, helps us expand our thinking and being into something beautiful. Extraordinary! We can “be” to the degree that we can laugh with pure joy. Dance. Howl at the moon… cry, mourn and recover well. No, I don’t worry about life or death. I am into knowing, connecting, loving, laughing and recovery for all from trauma. I don’t take it so seriously. And I never worry anymore! I’d call that a victory of view!
An excerpt from a teaching called How to Pray by Being by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo
As we realize that others need our help, we begin to heed their calls. We begin to turn to what is real, what is profound—the brilliance of the great bodhicitta. The great bodhicitta is the first movement from the void—from the absolute, uncontrived, undifferentiated spontaneously complete emptiness. Bodhicitta is the arising of the Buddha nature in a gossamer-thin, seemingly phenomenal, form. Bodhicitta contains all potential. It is the big “yes.” Separate from nothing, containing all potential and all accomplishment, the great bodhicitta is the first movement of the absolute. Bodhicitta is also called compassion. Compassion is our nature.
We have deprived ourselves of the deliciousness, the comfort and the happiness of compassion for so long that the bodhicitta seems like something we have to work on—like an outsider that we have to bring into our home. How sad, because compassion is our nature. When we are self-absorbed, we are denying ourselves the nectar that is the first movement of our very nature. And so if the great bodhicitta is really the first appearance of any kind of phenomena, if it is the underlying reality of any phenomenon, then compassion is also our nature. In fact, compassion is the nature of the meanest little bug in the world. It is the nature of spiders and lions and tigers and bears—and everyone else too.
All sentient beings have that nature and yet they live in a state of sleeping. We, on the other hand, are practicing to be awake. We wonder, “How do I see the bodhicitta? How do I develop the unconstricted, uncontrived, non-dramatic, undecorated view?
The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Faults of Cyclic Existence”
Today then I will talk about something that is necessary as a foundational understanding in order to begin the Buddhist path. In order to understand what the Buddha is talking about, in order in fact to begin to meditate or accomplish anything spiritual, on any level, there has to be, of course, a motivation. This motivation varies from culture to culture and certainly it varies from individual to individual.
I have stated this before and I will state it again. In third world countries there is a tremendous amount of very visible suffering. Of course, we have suffering here too. And I believe in my heart that the suffering is actually equal, but it is a different kind of suffering. Our suffering is not as visible. We are sophisticated and therefore we hide certain aspects of our culture. There are certain particular, very obvious forms of suffering that we traditionally put away and hide in institutions, or hide in certain parts of town that we never go to. There are certain ways in which we deal with suffering that third world countries do not have. In third world countries, and it really isn’t fair but I don’t want to spend too much time naming a specific situation, suffering is often seen very visibly on the streets. I remember when I went to India, landing in Bombay, and never having seen a case of leprosy in my life, suddenly seeing hundreds of people on the street with different degrees of leprosy, different levels of advancement—some without arms and legs scooting around on little carts, because leprosy had done away with their limbs, and others with just the beginnings of leprosy and open sores and different extremities beginning to show decay. Poverty is unbelievably evident. I am a little on the hefty side, as you may have noticed, and I remember being unbelievably ashamed of that when I saw that on the streets of Bombay, you could count everyone’s ribs. It was completely unbelievable that hunger is so prevalent there and so much a part of society. The suffering of the lack of education, of ignorance, of hunger, of sickness, these are all very obvious and they are right there in front of us. People literally do lay down and die in the street. The suffering of the animals there, the bullocks that constantly have to, from dawn to night time, pull huge carts that are so much greater than their body weight. And seeing that is quite shocking because we don’t have that here.
So in a culture like that when we look at the motivation to accomplish Dharma, it is very simply that the people in that culture do not wish to suffer anymore. They are very much aware that they are suffering. They are very much aware that this suffering is constantly with them. They are very much aware that it is completely possible to be reborn as a human being and still experience terrible suffering. They are very much aware that they don’t have a sense of control; they feel that having been born into a certain situation there is really no way out. In America, we are taught from birth that there is a way out. We can take education or we can do one thing or another. If we really work hard, we can achieve the American dream. We can build a better mouse trap and sell it to the American public and become rich. And we can work for Amway or whatever it is that we do and have a geometrical progression into wealth. We always have that hope. But people in these cultures do not have that hope. They are trying to survive from day to day, and the tremendous amount of suffering that goes with that is very evident to them.
So when you bring to a culture such as that a philosophy such as the Buddha brought where he clearly taught that all sentient beings are trying to be happy. They wish to be happy, yet they do not have the means to accomplish happiness. In a culture like that, it is understood. When the Buddha teaches that all sentient beings are suffering and even if they feel temporary happiness, even if we are able to accomplish an entire life time of temporary happiness, that because we are involved in cyclic existence, and because it is cyclic that that happiness is impermanent. It is always coupled by the other side of the coin which is suffering; that, in cyclic existence, suffering is inescapable. In a culture like that it is clearly understood. It is very evident to them that there is always suffering. Even if we managed to get enough firewood, get enough food, and even store it for awhile and even have a little celebration and even if we lose ourselves temporarily in the phenomena of life, such as falling in love, getting married—all of the different things that bring us temporary joy—that still we are very much involved in suffering. That is evident there.
But here in our culture, I have found it personally very difficult to convince Westerners, Americans at least, that this is a good reason to practice. And I understand why this is. We are brought up with the idea that we don’t have to suffer. We are brought up with the idea that here in America one need not suffer. Here in America the streets are paved with gold. Literally, there is a wonderful and golden opportunity. And if you are willing to buy a book, there is a book about how to have that opportunity. There are all kinds of books about how to have those opportunities. The sufferings that we have are very hidden. What they don’t tell you in those books is that even if you get rich, even if you become popular with the opposite sex, even if you learn to make friends and influence people, even if you become politically powerful, even if you become well educated that these things do not bring ultimate happiness. Or what happiness that they do bring is very impermanent. That often the people who accomplish these things never feel a sense of fulfillment, never feel truly happy, never feel as though they had aced it, always feel a sense of longing and a kind of suffering that is very hard to describe. In fact there is another book that is written, the book that I know personally is Passages. It talks about different periods in one’s life during which one traditionally breaks down, and breaks down because all of your life they told you, in these other books, that you could be happy doing these various things; and you could be happy if you were popular with the opposite sex, and you could be happy if you made lots of money, and you could be happy if you did all these things. But right around 35 or 38, somewhere around there, you discover that in fact you have done all these things and you are not happy.
And so it becomes traditional to break down at that time. So that is another book that we write. But we do it in such a crafty way that we don’t even realize that this is a cyclic thing, that this is a constant event. That we constantly strive and work very hard and accomplish these things that seem as though they are going to be the answer; and then ultimately they are not the answer. Ultimately we continue to suffer, but the way that our society is structured these things are very hidden. So, for Americans, for Westerners, I have found that it is very hard to convince them of this. The expression that we use in the Buddhist tradition is hook, or hook of compassion. Sounds devious, I know. Americans are afraid of hooks. If you think of it as a hook of compassion, maybe you will be more comfortable. But the hook that seems to really work for Westerners is compassion.
In order to understand the Buddha’s teachings one has to understand cause and effect relationships, and in order to understand cause and effect relationships, one has to understand the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism. In this nation we are actually afflicted with both nihilism and eternalism. Culturally we have absorbed them. They are part of our mindstreams, they are prevalent throughout our culture, and they are hard to spot.
Eternalism is the belief that we will continue as we are, based on a belief in our self nature and its continuation. It is like postulating a stick with one end: it begins at some place and then continues on forever. Nihilism is the belief that nothing essentially exists. It says that things come together in some sort of natural, physiological way or through some chemical means, but that there is no real order to it or no context within which an evolutionary pattern exists. It is the belief that there is nothing outside what one sees with one’s eyes or feels with one’s hands or smells with one’s nose. It is the belief in the possibility, in our case, of experiencing cause without experiencing effect.
This is not the textbook definition of nihilism, but it is the description of nihilism as we experience it within our minds. For instance, it is possible for us to know the teachings of the Buddha and to see their logic, yet have our actions and lifestyle be inconsistent with that belief. We may understand that compassion reaps good results and brings us closer to enlightenment, so we exhibit kindness and have faith. Yet within our minds we think judgmentally about others and hold hatred and desire. We think that it is acceptable to act kindly toward a person even if at the same time we are thinking we would like to have that person’s clothes or that we don’t like that person. This is actually a form of nihilism, because we feel that what matters is what people see, not understanding that even what remains in our thoughts and feelings also produces results. We don’t really understand that cause and effect relationships occur from the subtlest levels to the grossest of levels, and are the underlying fabric of cyclic existence. We do not understand, therefore, our own nature and that all things are an emanation of our minds. We practice nihilism constantly because we believe that the only thing that is counted somehow in the book of countings (whatever that might be) is that which is seen and can be judged by others.
We are content to live with that kind of thinking, never realizing the terrible results that it produces. We continue to engage in activity that is not conducive to enlightenment, because we do not understand the depth and profound effect that cause and effect has upon us. We may act in a kind way when people are watching but in our minds, in our secret places where no one is watching, we are selfish, judgmental, uncaring, and jealous. All of these qualities we allow to exist within our minds, and we do not understand that if they exist within the mindstream they will also somehow appear in our physical reality. Holding hatred in our mindstreams, or jealousy, selfishness, grasping, feeling needy constantly, feeling that we must have something in order to be content, acting in a selfish way that is inconsistent with the Buddha’s teaching, these things produce the same results that physical activity of that kind produce, even though we may not see right away the effects that will surely ripen.
The Six Realms of Cyclic Existence
The Buddha teaches us that there are different causes that we hold within our mindstreams that create the circumstances by which we are reborn in the six different realms of cyclic existence.
Contrary to the popular New Age philosophy that says we always achieve a higher rebirth, or that since we are human beings now we can always count on being human beings in future incarnations, the Buddha teaches that we achieve rebirth according to the content or fabric of our mindstreams. For example, if we hold a great deal of hatred or anger, we can be reborn in the lowest realms called hell realms. These realms are extremely uncomfortable; they have a great deal of heat and fire or extremes of cold that are unbearable. It is so unbearable there that it is impossible to practice. It would be like trying to meditate while someone is sawing off your knee. All you can think about is yelling and screaming and how to get out of there quickly. That is the nature of the hell realms.
If you experience a great deal of desire, grasping, and neediness, you will be reborn in what is called the hungry ghost realm. This realm is so filled with longing that the nonphysical beings there have mouths as tiny as a pinhole and their stomachs are as large as Mount Mehru. It is impossible to satisfy them. It is the experience of insatiability. Beings there are so empty and unable to take in what is needed.
If we experience dullness, stupidity, or ignorance, we will be reborn in the animal realm. Animals are considered to be incapable of the kind of thought necessary to make fully aware decisions. They fall prey to whatever sufferings man might visit upon them. Oxen that must pull heavy carts all day with very little nourishment, animals that must endure testing, these animals are unable to save themselves and they suffer horribly. Animals in the wild are eaten or helplessly pursued by bigger animals. Even our pets do not know how to take care of themselves. If we feed them they are fed, if we forget them they are forgotten.
To be reborn in the human realm is considered the most auspicious of circumstances because here it is possible to practice the Buddha’s teaching and experience true awakening, Although it takes a great deal of merit to be reborn in the human realm, there is also a negative cause for human rebirth, and that is doubt. As humans we constantly experience doubt. It is so pervasive that we do not understand how great our doubt is. If we really examine ourselves, we will discover that we think and feel differently from the way that we believe intellectually. We may follow a certain philosophy, but we never follow any philosophy consistently because we are so filled with doubt. It is the same in following Buddhist teaching. We will follow it externally, but not consistently until we have come very close to realization and can understand for ourselves fully and completely about cause and effect relationships.
If we experience a great deal of jealousy and competitiveness, if we have a warlike quality to our minds, we will be reborn in what is called a jealous gods’ realm. Beings there have a great deal of power with super-normal experiences. They are very strong, competing constantly in war. There is no peace, no security, no time to think or feel or love. There is only a constant need to guard oneself against hurt and attack, and a compulsive need to be aggressive about maintaining whatever you have that seems to be yours.
The last of the six realms is the gods’ realm. It is considered to be the highest realm because it is the most pleasurable and the most blissful. The beings there are extremely beautiful with gorgeous fragrances, brilliant colors, and music that is so pleasurable that if we were to hear it, there would be instant healing. Bodies of the gods are pure and perfectly sweet. There is not a bit of decay, sweat, bacteria, aging or any processes that produce the foul smells we have. It is beauty beyond what we can understand, completely free of ugliness or decay. Pride is the main cause for being reborn here, and even though the gods live for thousands of years, life is not permanent there. It actually takes a tremendous amount of good karma and pure virtue to be reborn in the gods’ realm, but while there you use up all your accumulated good karma very fast, like a big V8 engine burning gas going up hill. Suddenly after a very long life span, decay sets in. One’s accumulated virtue becomes exhausted and death approaches. It is horrible to them because they who have experienced nothing but beauty, sweetness, bliss, gorgeous music, and celestial food are about to experience terrible suffering. This impermanence is the predominant suffering of the gods’ realm.
We as humans have within our mindstreams all of the seeds of the peculiar sufferings and the unfortunate qualities associated with the six realms of cyclic existence. The Buddha cautions us not to take this teaching symbolically, but to take it absolutely. He could actually see the six realms and could remember having lived in those realms. Having achieved the precious awakening, he was able to recall how he moved from these realms into enlightenment The head of our lineage, His Holiness Penor Norbu Rinpoche, has said that if you could only part the curtains of your inability to see, if you could only see for one moment what the six realms of cyclic existence were like and how you have come and gone in each of the realms, and what you have experienced and what you are yet to experience because of the qualities inherent in your thinking if you could understand this you would do nothing but recite the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM again and again. You would never stop.
The mantra of Chenrezig is OM MANI PADME HUM. Chenrezig is the Buddha of Compassion, and has within his mindstream a clear and pure crystal awareness, which is the same as the mind of enlightenment. Inherent within that mindstate are the qualities that bring about the end of rebirth in all of the six realms. Constant mindfulness of Chenrezig, and learning to generate one’s mind as Chenrezig through the use of visualization, mantra, recitation and pure intention, can bring about the end of rebirth in cyclic existence, even in one lifetime.
The logic here is that in the practice you are the one who generates yourself as the Bodhisattva Chenrezig. You accomplish this pure mind state in order to be of benefit to sentient beings. The real end of suffering therefore can be understood as your capacity to generate yourself as that Bodhisattva of Compassion, thereby becoming the cause for the end of all suffering. In so doing, one brings about the end of one’s own suffering as well.
The mantra of Chenrezig, which is OM MANI PADME HUM, has six syllables. Each syllable has the ability to eradicate causes for rebirth in each of the six realms, because the mantra itself and each of the syllables is considered to be a miraculous condensation of wisdom. Through the activity of Guru Rinpoche we are able to experience in the hearing or reciting of the syllables and visualizing ourselves as Chenrezig, the perfect purification of the causes for rebirth in all of the six realms of cyclic existence. This is absolutely possible. It is promised that if you practice this every day you can achieve the end of rebirth in the lower realms. And if practiced in conjunction with other practices it is part of a proven technology to end suffering in all of the realms.
The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “This Time is Radical”
I’ve been watching my own patterns, and I’m going to share with you my great ‘Aha!’ I realized recently in my own practice that for the past few years, unbeknownst to myself (although maybe on some intuitive level, I understood. Yeah I did. But not in my brain, not where it registers. You know what I’m talking about?), I realized that I have been making myself stronger; and I have been gathering my courage. Things have happened to me in the last few years that I wouldn’t dare the infinite, but when life changes and experiences come that would have terrified my little jellyfish heart before, they don’t phase me at all now. Things that used to scare me half to death, don’t scare me at all now. And I realized that I’ve been gathering my courage.
I started practicing more deeply about a year and a half ago. Not that I didn’t practice before that, but when I started to practice more deeply, just going in, going into my practice, everything outward changed, quite naturally without any effort. ‘Aha.’
There’s an understanding. If you’re mind is right and if you practice accordingly, and if you walk the path appropriately, you don’t have to worry about the outside stuff so much. It tends to take care of itself. Not if you are going, ‘Ah!’ the whole time. You’ve got to have the mind of Dharma. That’s not the mind of Dharma. If you practice four hours a day even, and the rest of the time you’re going ‘Ah,’ that’s not the mind of Dharma. If you are really into it, if you are really deep, honest, and in touch with your practice and it is a relationship in your life, more important than any other, it fills a category that nothing else can fill; and it prepares you for anything, which is good, because anything is just about to happen.
I’ve been gathering my courage and causing myself to change in ways that I never thought I could have. And though I wouldn’t want to do it over again, it’s okay. It’s always okay because it is for the benefit of sentient beings, and in my mind decisions have already been made. Whatever I can do to benefit sentient beings, I will do. I will do it. No matter what I think about it or whether I like it, or whether I feel like it, I will do it. And that’s what I have been preparing myself for, that kind of certainty.
I knew there was a time when I’d have to look samsara in the eye and say, ‘This is enough.’ And this is that time. I feel that for each and every one of us, this must be a time of courage. If we can’t gather our courage together at this time, it will be very hard to gather it together later. Right now at this time, we have a certain leisure to practice. For those of you who have full time jobs and are practicing on the go, you may say, ‘I beg to differ.’ But let me tell you the old proverb, ‘It could always get worse.’ And if in some way we end up with obstacles that cause us to have to live differently, or to scramble for existence the way much of the world has to do, then we’ll find a way to practice then too, but now’s the time to be strong. And this is the time when we can really commit to being an active Dharma presence in the world. The thing that I have come to understand is that this is no time for us to hang out in our comfort zones. And I am just about to leave mine, like Monday actually. Some of you know what I’m talking about. I think that in this time, we’ve got to give it all we’ve got. If you can give renunciation, if you can really do that, do it. This is it. Everything in samsara is falling apart, and it is time to be what you can be.
I feel that we all should take a posture of Dharma warriors. Not a warrior to harm anyone but a warrior for the path, a warrior who cares for the path, who guards the path. This is when we generate the deity. When we generate the different buddhas and bodhisattvas, we realize that each of them has qualities and activities; and it is just as important to establish their activities in the world as it is for us individually to engage in their qualities. The activity aspect of the Buddha nature is not method. It is something. So we prefer to sit on our cushions and say, ‘Ti-do-ti-do-ti-do. I’m practicing, and I look stunning doing it.’ But really we should also be active. We should not only be engaging in the extraordinary kindness of practice, but also in the ordinary human kindness of everyday caring for those around us, caring for the world at large, caring for beings who are suffering—animals, people, whatever, anything that lives—doing all that we can to end suffering. To engage in that kind of practice in this world today is very, very powerful practice.