Proper Friends, Safe Direction, Ethics, and Liberation

Verses 5 through 9

Brief Review

We have seen that Togme Zangpo starts his poem with a presentation of the main points that we find in the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. After paying homage to Avalokiteshvara, and the promise to compose the text, he talks of the importance of the precious human life, and the need to take full advantage of it. Togme Zangpo explains the circumstances most conducive to this, namely leaving out homelands and relying on seclusion. Then, as this precious human life doesn’t last long at all, there is a great urgency to take advantage of it. To help us realize this urgency, he talks about death and impermanence.

The Importance of Having Proper Friends

We’re now up to verse 5, which introduces the topic of the importance of having proper friends. It’s very important to have proper support in our Dharma practice. In that regard, we need to recognize what types of friends are misleading, the so-called “bad friends,” and which types of friends can really help us on our spiritual path.

(5) A bodhisattva’s practice is to rid ourselves of bad friends with whom, when we associate, our three poisonous emotions come to increase; our actions of listening, thinking, and mediating come to decrease; and our love and compassion turn to nil.

Bad friends, or misleading friends, are those who basically, in all good faith, lead us away from our Dharma practice. They say, “Come, have a good time,” or more pointedly, “Why waste your time doing prostration, meditation, or going to Dharma lectures?” They’re not basically evil people – I don’t think that is at all intended here – but they are those who really don’t value or appreciate what we’re doing with our spiritual path, perhaps making fun of it, and basically trying to draw us away from it.

As Togme Zangpo says, when we associate with them, our three poisonous emotions come to increase. Being with them, they encourage our first poisonous emotion, which might be in the form of desire and attachment to going out, getting drunk or high on drugs, partaking in meaningless types of entertainment and so on. Sometimes, of course, we need to relax and have fun. But, someone who encourages us to do that all the time, leaving us with no time for our spiritual path, is a misleading friend.

I have a student who was really into taking drugs, and he shared an apartment with somebody else who was also into drugs. He tried to quit but as much as he wanted to stop, nevertheless, under the influence of his roommate who was smoking all the time and constantly encouraging him, he always went back to smoking drugs because he didn’t want to reject his roommate.

Therefore, it’s very important which friends we choose, especially if we’re going to spend a great deal of time with them. When they go out and get angry and fight, we get angry and join in ourselves, increasing the second poisonous emotion, hatred. They also cause within us an increase in the third poisonous emotion, where we become naive, because we forget about the possible effects of our behavior, and go along and do anything they do. Consequently, as Togme Zangpo says, our actions of listening, thinking, and meditating come to decrease. We have less and less time to go to teachings, to study, to contemplate, to meditate, and our love and compassion turn to nil.

There are many other types of misleading, mischievous friends. For instance, there are those who lead us into activities like putting graffiti all over the walls of various buildings, or scratching automobiles and things like that. There are others who might always say terrible things about other people, and then we can become very easily influenced by that as well. When we’re with somebody who is constantly talking and getting excited and angry about politics and how bad the government is, then we tend to also become like that.

Especially when we are not well-established in our Dharma practice, the types of friends that we keep become absolutely crucial. If we have misleading friends like this, as the verse says, we need to rid ourselves of them. That doesn’t mean that we have bad thoughts about them. We still have the wish for them to be happy and not to be unhappy, but we don’t have to hang out with them.

This starts to become a very complicated issue when, for instance we’re married to someone who would be considered a misleading friend, especially if there are children involved. That type of situation is not very easy at all. In each of these relationships we need to decide, is it more beneficial to continue, or more beneficial to break the tie? The main thing to keep in mind if we do decide to break away is to try to do this on good terms, and not with ill-will or hatred. Even if our partner were to have a great deal of hatred and resentment toward us, at least from our side, we should try not to have that in return.

However, I think it’s important that we at least try to stay in such a relationship. It might not always be possible to succeed, but we can try to explain and demonstrate that doing various Dharma activities is not a rejection of the other person. However, if most of the time spent with the other person is spent destructively, where you’re just arguing and shouting all the time, then it might be good to reconsider. This isn’t very simple. For example, what about the children if they come to blame the Dharma for the break-up of their parents? That could have a very negative effect on them in terms of their attitude toward the Dharma. So we need to watch out for that.

If an argument arises about spending time with Buddhism, then I think it can be helpful, if possible, to defuse that by not putting the blame on Buddhism. It’s more constructive to explain the break-up in terms of having different values, where we don’t specify it as Buddhism. As I said, this could have quite a negative effect, not only on the children, but also the attitude of our partner toward the Dharma. If we provide circumstances for someone to have a very negative attitude toward the Dharma that really is very disastrous for them. In fact, it doesn’t make any difference whether we are into Buddhism, Hinduism, or some Western religion or whatever. That really isn’t the point of contention. It isn’t the specific teachings that we’re following, but basically a difference in values in terms of the importance of a spiritual life.

(6) A bodhisattva’s practice is to cherish more than our bodies our hallowed spiritual mentors, to whom, by entrusting ourselves, our faults come to deplete and our good qualities come to expand like the waxing moon.

The word that’s translated here as spiritual mentors is more literally a “spiritual friend,” someone who is in complete contrast to a negative friend. Also, the word “spiritual” isn’t actually there. The phrase is a “friend for constructive behavior,” with the word “constructive” sometimes translated as “virtuous,” meaning a friend with whom our constructive behavior grows and grows. The whole relationship is constructive. The friend is constructive, and we become more constructive and positive by associating with them.

This usually refers to a great spiritual teacher, who leads us along the way, instructs us, and inspires us to act in a constructive Dharma manner. However, I think that we also need to include our regular Dharma friends. That doesn’t mean someone who comes to the center, and then we go to a class together and afterwards we go out and have a beer. Rather this refers to someone who suggests, for example, that we meditate together, or study or discuss this or that topic in Dharma. This is somebody who encourages us to go out and volunteer, to provide assistance at a hospital or soup kitchen, something like that.

Now in any type of friendship, there has to be some sort of karmic connection, so that one feels comfortable with the person. There can be people that come up to us and say, “Hey, let’s sit down and meditate,” or “Let’s do prostrations,” and somehow it doesn’t feel right. Perhaps we get the feeling that they think of themselves as holy-holy and it just makes us feel very uncomfortable. The real spiritual friend is someone with whom we feel totally comfortable and relaxed. It’s just natural and flows very, very beautifully when we do constructive things together.

Of course with this verse, the main emphasis is on the spiritual mentor or the spiritual teacher. In terms of that teacher, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always points out, we don’t rely just on the name of a teacher. There are many teachers with big titles, and big followings and so on, but that doesn’t necessarily mean in the slightest that they are qualified teachers; we always need to look at the qualifications of the teacher. His Holiness is referring primarily here to tulkus, or reincarnate lamas that carry the title “Rinpoche.” There are many of them, of course, who have a very famous name from their predecessors, but don’t do very much in this lifetime in terms of study or practice.

Then, even if a teacher is very qualified, that doesn’t mean necessarily that they suit us. Again, we have to look to the type of karmic relationship that we have with the teacher. Do we feel comfortable with them or not? Although a spiritual teacher gives us information about the Dharma, we can also get that from books. They can answer our questions, which a book can’t, but the main thing that the spiritual teacher gives us is inspiration. In reality most of the great spiritual teachers travel a lot these days. They have many students, and it’s quite difficult to get a lot of personal attention. Even if we don’t have that type of very close contact with a great teacher, we can still gain great inspiration from them. In addition, we need to put effort into trying to establish that close relationship. We shouldn’t just wait for the guru to fall from the sky. It is totally unlikely that such a guru will show up and say, “Ah, come, my dear, I have been waiting for you. Come with me.”

When we entrust ourselves to a hallowed spiritual mentor, as Togme Zangpo says, our faults come to deplete. The word “hallowed” simply means someone very respected and, here, the word “entrust” is something important yet not easy to understand. Often it’s translated as “devotion,” as in guru devotion, but I find that term extremely misleading, because at least in English it implies basically worshiping the teacher mindlessly. However this term is actually a verb and it’s used not just with spiritual teachers, but also with doctors. In other words, we entrust ourselves to their care. It implies that we trust them, based on having examined their qualifications and feeling that they are competent and can help us. When we’re sick and we trust the doctor, then we entrust ourselves to his or her care. In other words, we’ll do what the doctor tells us to do in order to get better. It’s the same type of attitude with the spiritual teacher. Just as we don’t worship the doctor, we don’t worship the teacher either.

That becomes a delicate situation because often all sorts emotions come up with a spiritual teacher, and although we have great love for the person, that doesn’t mean we’re falling in love with them. When we have a healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher, the emotions are very uplifting. One aspect of confident belief in the teacher is that it makes our mind clear of disturbing emotions. This is a very interesting point. In many ways our emotions are clearer, in the sense that the disturbing emotions settle down, like muddy water settling down, so that our emotional state is without murkiness. But, we’re not attached to the teacher. We don’t have longing desire, feeling that we desperately have to be with them. We don’t have jealously of the other students. We don’t have anger and disappointment when the teacher doesn’t have time for us. We don’t have naivety that the teacher is some sort of god who doesn’t sometimes require rest or comfort or things like that.

As it says here in the text, our faults come to deplete. Our disturbing emotions quiet down and, by following the teachings of our spiritual mentor, likewise we’re able to slowly eliminate the faults that we have. All of this implies of course that we’re already very mature when we get into a relationship with a spiritual teacher. We shouldn’t imagine that at the start the teacher will all of a sudden perform some magic and our disturbing emotions quiet down. We ourselves have to put the effort into this relationship, which clearly depends on being mature enough to establish a healthy relationship with the spiritual teacher. An unhealthy relationship can have many unfortunate consequences.

The last line describes how our good qualities come to expand like the waxing moon. When we actually spend time with the teacher, we do begin to develop our good qualities. Our personalities begin to improve by helping the teacher, being generous, and these sorts of things. Our good qualities come to grow more and more. Naturally, the more we follow their teachings, the more our love, compassion, and understanding grow as well.

In regard to our spiritual teachers, the text states that we should cherish them more than our bodies, but what does that mean? One level of this is that we think more of their comfort than of our own physical comfort. We are willing to help them and particularly help them to be able to help others, even if we’re very tired and it’s very inconvenient for us to do so. With my own teacher Serkong Rinpoche, I used to have to go down from Dharamsala to Delhi very frequently to get all the visas for his travels. This was a very unpleasant task to do. But nevertheless I was happy to do that, because it helped him to be able to help others. We disregard our own physical discomfort in doing such things.

Safe Direction (Refuge)

In verse 7, Togme Zangpo describes how we can take advantage of our precious human life. In the context of the initial scope of lam-rim motivation in the lam-rim, our aim is for improving our future lives. First of all, we need to put a safe direction in our life, also known as taking refuge. This is the foundation for all levels of our Buddhist practice.

(7) A bodhisattva’s practice is to take safe direction from the Supreme Gems, by seeking protection from whom we are never deceived – since whom can worldly gods protect when they themselves are still bound in the prison of samsara?

I prefer to use the term “safe direction” rather than “refuge,” because refuge seems a little bit too passive. When we take refuge, it sounds as though we’re taking something from somebody else, but this isn’t actually the case. Actually, we’re doing something very active by putting a safe direction in our life, and that safe direction is indicated by the Three Supreme Gems. When we think of the Three Jewels, or the Three Rare and Supreme Gems, we’re thinking of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

The Dharma is the main thing that we’re aiming for. The actual Dharma Jewel combines the third and fourth noble truths on the mental continuum of any highly realized being or arya, up to a Buddha. This is what is really giving us this direction. They have accomplished this state that exists in their mental continuums in which some, in the case of a liberated being, or all, in the case of a Buddha, of the obscurations, disturbing emotions, and unawareness are removed forever. That’s the true stopping, the third noble truth. The fourth noble truth presents the true pathway minds that lead us to liberation and enlightenment. These states of mind are the understanding of the four noble truths in general, or voidness specifically. They bring about true stoppings, and they are the result of true stoppings as well. This is the direction that we want to go in. We want to achieve those true stoppings and those true paths. That’s the safe direction we take ourselves.

The Sangha does not actually refer to members of a Dharma center, which is a Western invention of how to use that word. The Sangha Jewel refers to all the aryas, those who have non-conceptual cognition of voidness, and thus have attained some, but not necessarily all, true stoppings and true pathway minds. It doesn’t matter whether they are monastics or laypersons.

The causal Three Jewels are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as we have explained here. Once again, it’s those who have achieved these true stoppings and true pathway minds and that acts as a cause to inspire us to go in this direction. But, we can also take what’s called the “resultant direction,” which is this safe direction from the Three Jewels that we ourselves will attain when we become an arya and go on to become a Buddha.

When Togme Zangpo states, by seeking protection from whom, this is referring to them. We are never deceived by the Three Jewels, but actually, how do they protect us? Again, the emphasis here is not on some almighty being protecting us, and all we have to do is open up and surrender to their protection, and then we’re saved. Rather, when we work toward achieving these true stoppings and true pathway minds, we will be protected from suffering. In other words, we ultimately protect ourselves. We will never be deceived, because if we do achieve these true stoppings and true pathway minds, like the Buddhas and aryas have achieved, these states will protect us from suffering. We actually get rid of the causes of suffering forever.

By way of contrast, the worldly gods can’t really offer us that type of help. As the text questions, since whom can worldly gods protect when they themselves are still bound in the prison of samsara? When we think of worldly gods, or perhaps even our modern-day god of money, these sorts of things can’t really protect us from anything. We find that people who are very rich can often have more suffering the more money that they have. They’re worried about how to invest that money and how to avoid having to pay a lot of tax on it, and they may always worry that other people will steal it. They suspect that people like them only for their money, not for themselves. It’s really amazing how many very rich people are very unhappy. Clearly, these worldly gods can’t protect us as they are still bound in the prison of samsara. They’re still bound and connected with all sorts of disturbing emotions, and cause our own disturbing emotions to increase.

On the initial scope of motivation, our main aim is to improve our future lives. It’s not that we want to go to heaven or anything like that, but to continue having precious human rebirths until we attain liberation or enlightenment. It is always said that the dividing line between someone who is a spiritual person and someone who is not, is whether they’re working for their future lives or not. This is the dividing line in terms of Dharma, but of course many religions teach working for the afterlife to be reborn in heaven, so it isn’t specifically Buddhist. To make it Buddhist, we need to think in terms of future lives within the context of safe direction.

What we’re really aiming for is liberation and enlightenment, or to be more precise, the true stoppings and the true pathway minds. We want to continue having precious human lives as a stepping-stone for being able to achieve these true stoppings and the true pathway minds, to eventually gain liberation and enlightenment. It’s not just practicing so we can go to heaven. Unless we have this initial motivation, we can’t really be sincere in our wish for enlightenment, because it’s very unlikely to gain liberation or enlightenment in this lifetime. It’s going to take a long time and so we need a lot of precious human rebirths.

In order to work for a precious human rebirth, we obviously need to actually believe in rebirth, because if we don’t, then how can we aim for liberation from rebirth, which is what liberation is all about? We want liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, so we have to work hard to understand the Buddhist teachings on rebirth. They’re not simple but actually very sophisticated. It all depends on our understanding of how the self exists and how cause and effect works. Without an understanding, at least on some level, of the voidness (emptiness) of “me” and cause and effect, then it’s really difficult to understand what Buddha’s teachings on rebirth are all about.

Refraining from Destructive Behavior

In order to ensure that our future lives are going to be with a precious human rebirth, we need to pay attention to cause and effect, specifically in terms of our behavior. To address this, Togme Zangpo speaks about refraining from destructive behavior:

(8) A bodhisattva’s practice is never to commit any negative actions, even at the cost of our lives, because the Able Sage has declared that the extremely difficult to endure sufferings of the worse states of rebirth are the results of negative actions.

This verse is about karma, which is of course a very complex topic, but we can generalize here. When we act destructively, it brings unhappiness, and when we act constructively, it brings happiness. Specifically, what we have to do to make sure that we aren’t reborn in worse rebirth states is to refrain from acting in a destructive manner. Acting destructively builds up a great deal of negative force on our mental continuum and that negative force or potential leads us to worse rebirth situations, from which it is difficult to escape.

What do we mean here by negative actions or destructive actions? What would be the opposite of that? What would be constructive? The way that it’s explained is that constructive behavior is where we refrain from destructive behavior, which we need to thoroughly understand. We might totally dislike hunting or fishing and therefore would never go out hunting or fishing, for example. In this example, just to not go hunting or fishing is not really refraining from a destructive type of action, even if it is not committing the action. Rather, what it refers to here is when that mosquito is buzzing around our head and we want to kill it, and we refrain from doing so because we want to avoid the karmic consequences. We think of the negative force that is built up by responding to something that annoys us with just wanting to destroy it. Constructive behavior is the restraint not to kill and to find a more peaceful way of removing the mosquito from our room.

I think we all can understand that this type of constructive behavior is far more difficult than the other – like, for instance, if we don’t like cake at all, or somebody serves a cake that we really find not appealing. Not to eat it is not such a big deal, because we don’t want to eat it anyway. But if they serve a cake that we find absolutely delicious, our favorite cake, then to refrain from eating it, because we’re on a diet or something, that’s much more difficult, and it’s also much more constructive if we can do that.

So, constructive behavior is refraining from acting negatively when we want to act negatively, when that is the habit or tendency that we have. We don’t do it, because we think of the negative consequences in terms of karma, our future experiences, not just because “I want to be a good Buddhist,” but because we think in terms of the consequences that we ourselves would have to experience in the future.

Now we often see this type of phraseology in texts to never to commit any negative actions, even at the cost our lives, but I must say that this is a difficult one to really accept! If we think about it, how would we really deal with such a situation? I live in Germany and sometimes I discuss this with my German friends. What would we actually have done, for example, if we were the age of going into the army at the time of Hitler, and if you didn’t go into the army, we would be shot? What would you do? This was a serious life or death issue. It wasn’t like the United States during the Vietnam War, when someone could just run off to Canada to avoid being drafted. In Nazi Germany, they shot you if you didn’t go into the army, so what would you do? I think that we really need to think about something like that seriously when it says at the cost of our lives. It’s a wonderful ideal, but could we really do that? I don’t know.

Some people, of course, were very fortunate because when they went into the Nazi army they were cooks. Somebody had to be the cook or the person who washed the clothes and things like that. Of course, when shooting at the enemy, a soldier doesn’t have to aim very well and could miss. But then the soldier is running the risk that the others shooting at him are not going to be of a similar mind, and will aim very well. Again, although these are great ideals, I think we need to evaluate ourselves quite seriously in terms of this. If we are able to avoid heavy negative actions even at the cost of our lives, that means we’re willing to actually sacrifice our lives, and that’s really quite an achievement.

We certainly see people who are willing to die and willing to be tortured for their principles. I’m thinking of many of the monks and nuns in Tibet willing to endure torture and 20 or 30 years in concentration camps because they will not denounce His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This sort of gets at what’s being referred to here. Do we have that strength of principles to be like that? This is a question for what we call in the West “soul searching”!

Working for Liberation

The ninth verse brings us to the intermediate level of motivation in the lam-rim, which is working toward liberation:

(9) A bodhisattva’s practice is to take keen interest in the supreme never-changing state of liberation, as the pleasures of the three planes of compulsive existence are phenomena that perish in a mere instant, like dew on the tips of grass.

The term “compulsive existence” refers to samsara: our continuing existence with the uncontrollably recurring rebirths that we take compulsively. There are three planes in which we could be reborn: (1) the plane of desirable sensory objects, (2) the plane of ethereal forms, or very subtle forms, and (3) the plane of formless beings, beings who don’t have a gross body and who stay in very deep meditative trances.

For most of us, it’s quite difficult to think of all these planes of existence and the different type of rebirths that are possible. We have difficulty understanding the trapped beings in the joyless realms, in other words the hell creatures, or the clutching ghosts. Other realms include the creeping creatures or the animals, the divine beings or celestial beings, the gods, and then the would-be divine or quasi-divine, the so-called “anti-gods” that are jealous, fighting, and wanting to be gods. I think one way that makes all of this a little bit more understandable is to think of the spectrum of the experiences that we can have.

For example, in terms of vision, as human beings we can only see a certain part of the spectrum of light. We can’t see ultraviolet, infrared and so on, but maybe other life forms can. For instance many animals can see in the dark even if we can’t. In regard to hearing, we can only hear a certain range of sounds, while dogs can hear much higher sounds than we can. By analogy, if we look at the spectrum of happiness and unhappiness, pain and pleasure, then we find that as human beings, when the pain or suffering reaches a certain level, we become unconscious, and when the pleasure reaches a certain maximum peak, we destroy it. It’s like when you are approaching the supreme pleasure of orgasm, you just rush to have that, which is basically destroying or ending it. When we investigate an itch and really analyze it objectively, we find that it’s actually pleasure and not pain. It is a very intense pleasure, but it’s too much pleasure and being too intense, we scratch it. We have to destroy it.

If there are life forms that can experience other parts of the spectrum of light and sound, why can’t there also be life forms that can experience further points on the spectrum of pain and pleasure and happiness and unhappiness? In fact, the mind-stream of every being is perfectly capable of experiencing the entire spectrum of happiness, unhappiness, pleasure and pain. It’s just a matter of which life form we’re going to be reborn in that will determine which part of that spectrum we will experience in that lifetime. I think the point with these other life forms is not so much where are they located and what they look like, which is actually secondary and quite trivial. The important point is not to just reduce them to human psychological states, but to realize that the mind is capable of experiencing far more on that scale of pleasure and pain or happiness and unhappiness than our human apparatus will allow.

The point here is that we want to get liberated from all of that, because regardless of what portion of that spectrum of pleasure and pain, or happiness and unhappiness we experience, it’s not going to last. Unless we are an arhat, all of these life forms and experiences arise from confusion, and are simply going to bring more confusion. Because of this self-perpetuating nature of samsara, our experience of this pleasure and pain, happiness and unhappiness is constantly going up and down all the time with no security and no certainty at all. What we want to aim for is the never-changing state of liberation, in which it’s not going to change. Then, we’ll always have the type of happiness that is not mixed with confusion, and will not go up and down.

It helps us to aim for liberation when we realize that any pleasures that we find in these three planes of compulsive existence are, as Togme Zangpo states, phenomena that perish in a mere instant, like dew on the tips of grass. These pleasures never last, we never know what’s going to come next, and they never truly satisfy us. In order to gain liberation, we need to get rid of this unawareness that we have all the time, this confusion. If we were to get rid of this, then we would get rid of the disturbing emotions and attitudes that arise from it, and we will no longer activate our karmic tendencies and potentials. We will no longer build up any further karma by acting compulsively or impulsively, and we will no longer experience this so-called “tainted happiness” and unhappiness that ripen from karmic potentials.

In order to get rid of that unawareness and gain liberation, we need to follow the three higher trainings. The first is training in higher ethical self-discipline. We begin by restraining our bodies and our speech specifically because restraining the mind is a little more difficult. However, if we can at least restrain our bodies and speech from acting destructively, that gives us the strength to be able to restrain our minds with higher concentration. With higher concentration we work to gain control over mental wandering, dullness, and so on.

Of course, it is also crucial to try to restrain from destructive mental behavior such as thinking with great covetousness, “I’ve got to get what everybody else has.” Covetousness includes plotting how to get it. We also need to restrain from thinking with malice, plotting how to get revenge. Of course, if we can refrain from these, then it also helps us refrain from any type of mental wandering. Still, the mental side is far more difficult than the physical and verbal side. On the basis of our training in higher concentration, we can apply that concentration to higher discriminating awareness. In other words, we can then focus on voidness (emptiness), which will actually get rid of unawareness forever.

Questions

Why is it, according to Buddhism, that from one life to the next we can’t remember what we’ve learned in our previous lives in terms of spiritual studies and so on that would make our practice more effective?

Firstly, there are actually some people who remember certain things. The main thing that we carry with us are very strong tendencies, so if we have practiced a lot it will create strong habits that in a future precious human rebirth, will make it very easy to meet with the Dharma again. When we study, we’ll only have to basically remind ourselves. In other words, we are told something once and we just know it, in a sense. My teacher Serkong Rinpoche was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and he told me that never, in any of the lessons that His Holiness received, did anything ever have to be repeated a second time. All you had to do was tell him once and he knew it.

We might be able to relate to this experience if we’ve studied a language as a child or young adult, but then haven’t used it for most of our life. For instance, I studied Chinese in my youth but stopped about 40 years ago. I used to be quite fluent, yet now I can hardly remember the words. But all that someone has to do is to tell me the Chinese word for something and then I will remember and know it. For most of us, that’s the best we can hope for. Obviously, there are some great lamas who, without being taught anything, can remember and recite something that they’d memorized in previous lives, but this is very rare.

Many of us Westerners seem to meet the Dharma when we’re already quite old. Of course it would be ideal to have the time to first learn and understand the different topics and explanations and then to meditate upon them, but often we have the urgency of needing to deal with emotional turmoil in our minds and we lack the ability to deal with it all. We then don’t really understand the different things presented in the teachings, and don’t have contact with teachers. How can we deal with this situation?

At present, there are so many more books available than there were 40 or 50 years ago. Even if there aren’t teachers, there are good books available to read. On top of this we have the Internet and websites like this one that have many teachings and audio files to listen to in a variety of languages.

Of course the largest amount of material is available in English, so if we don’t understand it, it might be a good idea to learn some. Still, there’s even more stuff available in Tibetan, so English speakers are missing out too. Of course, if we’re really serious we need to put in a great deal of effort to become enlightened. One of the aspects of that effort might be to learn another language.

With the Dharma, we’re trying to train our personalities, and one of the big things we have to build up is the perseverance to work hard. Liberation and enlightenment are by no means easy, nor are they going to be spoon-fed to us. No matter which biography we read of the great Tibetan and Indian spiritual masters, we learn that all of them underwent a great deal of hardship in order to study the Dharma. So why should it be any different for us?

Westerners tend to have low self-esteem, and so we get discouraged. Because of this it’s helpful to give them encouragement, like “You can do it!” teachings on Buddha-nature. But it’s not helpful if it minimizes the amount of hard work that liberation and enlightenment require. It’s the way it is! Our disturbing emotions and negative habits are really strong and we can see it ourselves if we look honestly. There’s no easy way out. We’re really fortunate now that we don’t need to walk all the way from Tibet to India to get teachings; instead, all we have to do is turn on the computer and connect to the Internet. When you look at it like this, there really is no excuse!

One of the most inspiring stories is from the biography of Marpa, the translator. It was his first time in India and he’d learned the language and translated a whole load of texts. He was on his way back to Tibet with his translations and as he was crossing the Ganges River, his boat overturned. He lost all of the translations, and he had to go back and do them all over again, and so he did. When our hard drive crashes, we can think of Marpa!