The Essence of the Practice: The Five Forces

The fourth point of the seven points is the condensation, or gathering of the practice in one lifetime, condensing it all down into the essence of the practice. This is divided into what we do during one lifetime, and then what we can do at the end of this lifetime, when we die. So first, during our lifetimes. The text reads:

In brief, the essence of the guideline instruction is applying the five forces.

This is talking about forces that we can apply every day, all day long. It’s the essence of the practice. The first of these is the force of the intention. When we wake up, it’s very important to set the intention for the whole day to try to work with bodhichitta and strengthen my bodhichitta resolve, or aim to always be kind, not to get angry. We can do this before we go shopping to the supermarket – not to be greedy, not to buy things that I don’t need, just because I’m right there, I see some candy, or biscuits, or chocolate. Or when we have to be with people that are quite difficult to be with, we set the intention not to get angry.

The Kadam Geshes used to help themselves with this. They would write on the walls of the caves in which they meditated and lived, “Don’t let your mind wander.” “Don’t get angry.” “Develop bodhichitta” – these sort of reminders to help set the intention. Put on the refrigerator, “Don’t eat, Fatty!”

The second force is the force of the white seed. This is to try everyday to build up more and more positive force – the so-called “white karmic potential” – and to purify and get rid of negative potential. This will act as the seed for changing our circumstances. It is said that a brave person can’t kill enemies with just bravery. A brave person needs weapons, a shield, helpers, and so on – Buddha belonged to the warrior caste, so Buddhism always is using these images of warriors, it’s not surprising – and so we need this positive force and we need to diminish our negative potential. It can’t just be on the basis of the resolve, “I want to be able to overcome it and I want to be able to benefit everyone.”

The third force is the force of acquaintance. We need to acquaint ourselves more and more and more with this everyday. Whatever we do, we use that to help us to build up the habit, this acquaintance, of concern for others, not just concern for ourselves. So, when we eat, we think, “I’m eating in order to make myself strong and healthy, so that I can help others.” When we put on warm clothing, we think, “By doing this may my body be more fit and not sick, so I can help others.” As we said before, when you walk into the room, “May I bring all beings into liberation,” and when we help somebody, and not just the trivial help that we might be giving them, but, “May I help them reach enlightenment,” and all of that. The force of acquaintance. We can acquaint ourselves every minute. This way we’re able to transform even very neutral actions into things that can help us on the path.

The fourth force is the force of eliminating all at once. Sometimes it’s translated as “disgust,” but literally it means “to get rid of something at once.” We’re so disgusted during the day when our self-cherishing and our selfishness arises, that “I can’t wait to get rid of it,” and, “I just want to get rid of it all at once.” It’s like if there’s a mosquito or a fly buzzing around our face, so “I can’t wait, I just want...” just totally disgusted with it, “I want to get rid of it immediately so that it stops,” We have no patience with it, no tolerance of it. We won’t rest until we catch it and get rid of it. That’s the attitude we’re talking about. The more we reject our selfishness, the weaker it becomes. If we think of all the disadvantages of selfishness when it arises, we’ll reject it. It’s quite effective if you can think of that when you’re acting selfishly, self-cherishing, that it’s like a mosquito or a fly buzzing around your face.

I think more and more we can appreciate how advanced these practices are. These are not at all beginner, easy practices. These are the actual real bodhisattva type of practices, what we need to do. Not that, “Everything is just so nice, and so pleasant, so easy.” Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey used to say, “If we want that, that is a sign of our laziness.” We want to get enlightenment cheap. It’s on sale today.

The fifth force is the force of prayer. At the end of the session, at the end of the day, we pray, “May I never be separated from the two bodhichittas.” As an example of this, Kadam Geshe Benkungyal used to have a collection of white and black stones, and he used to put a white stone for every time that he had positive thoughts or positive actions, and a black one for every time he had selfish and negative thoughts or actions. And at the end of the day he would tally it up and see how he had done. If there were more black, he resolved to try to do better, more white – congratulate oneself, although not be proud of it, and make prayers like that to be able to improve more and more.

When we ask the guru to pray for us, what’s not proper is to just ask for a prayer, “May we have no sickness, may my business go well, may my daughter find a good husband.” But it’s best to ask the guru to pray for us, a teacher to pray, that we’re able to develop bodhichitta as quickly as possible.

At the time of death, we also can apply these five forces. That is described with the next verse:

The guideline instruction for the Mahayana transference of mind is the five forces themselves, while giving importance to my path of deportment.

Deportment means how I act, referring here to how I act at the time of death. So, one has a good deportment if they act properly in a situation.

This is referring to the best type of Mahayana transference of mind. Transference of mind is powa (‘pho-ba) in Tibetan. The best type of powa is not when you imagine your mind shoots off the body and goes to some pure land, but to apply these five forces themselves. That’s the best transference of the mind into better circumstances for following the bodhisattva path in future lives. It’s important to remember actually. So, when we die, we apply these five forces again.

The intention – dying prayer, “May I be able to develop bodhichitta, and have bodhichitta in the bardo realm in between lives, and in my next lives – even if I haven’t developed it so fully in this lifetime.” That’s the best way to transfer the consciousness to a rebirth state conducive for developing bodhichitta.

This is how Geshe Chekawa died, even with a stronger bodhisattva intention, which was, “May I be reborn in one of the hell realms in order to be able to help others there.” But the prayer has to be really sincere, because what usually happens as a result of such a prayer is that you’re born in one of these hell realms just for a very short time, and then immediately after that you get a very wonderful rebirth as a result of all the positive force that you built up. But if that’s the aim with the prayer, to just bounce into a hell briefly, and then get a really good rebirth after that, then this is not going to count as a bodhisattva practice. This is just for one’s own selfish purposes. One has to be really sincere with this type of practice, that one really wants to be reborn in one of the hells and really wants to help the beings there. Then it really is a bodhisattva practice. That’s very, very advanced. That’s very difficult. “Even if not in the hell realms, may I be born in a place where there is no Dharma, to be able to help and teach others there.” That’s the force of intention at the time of death.

Question: Does the text mean that we practice these five forces at the moment of death, or does it mean practicing them until we die?

Answer: This is referring to what we do at the time of death. We die with that intention, to try to develop bodhichitta in the bardo, to try to develop it further in future lives, and the stronger form: to be reborn in the worst situations so I can help others there.

Question: And Geshe Chekawa did not succeed, did he?

Answer: He did not succeed. He was very unhappy – when he died he saw that his prayer was not going to be fulfilled, because he had signs that he was going to be reborn in some wonderful situation, so he was quite sad. His disciples asked him why he was sad, that’s how the story came out. He said, “I was always praying to be reborn in a hell, and now I see it’s not going to happen.” The rebirth in this wonderful state is the result of the altruistic thought, of course, but still you want to be willing to go there. In this lifetime as well – Serkong Rinpoche always went to the worst places to teach, places that nobody wanted to go to, like the Tibetan soldiers that were on the border, it’s part of the Indian army. He used to go on yak – he was old and fat – up to the high mountains to teach these Tibetan solders. It was in that tradition that I started, when I was traveling around to go try to teach Dharma in the communist countries, when it was communist, and then around South America, and Africa, and the Islamic Middle East, and so on – go to the most difficult places, go to the place where nobody wants to go.

The second force is the force of the white seed at the time of death, which is to give everything away to others, so that we don’t die with heavy luggage, as it were. Because all our possessions and so on are just going to be considered junk and thrown in the garbage by our relatives who don’t want to have to deal with this. It’s much better to give it away now, while we can; and to not be attached to our own bodies – to give it away to the worms, or whatever it is that’s going to eat our bodies if we’re going to be buried in the ground, rather than being attached to it. If we’re very attached to our bodies – to use a horrible example – then we can be reborn as a worm ourselves, crawling in and out of our skeleton, and eating our flesh. To avoid that type of situation, it’s best to give now, while we can. That’s the force of the white seed.

The third force is the force of acquaintance. What we try to do is – as we’re dying – stay acquainted with bodhichitta, so as the consciousness gets more and more subtle, to always keep our focus – as much as possible – on bodhichitta, which means to keep our focus on our individual future enlightenments that we’re aiming to achieve, with the intention that we set before, that, “I want to continue to work toward it in all future lives.” We try to keep that acquaintance with it, as we go through the dying process, if we’re able to do that with some clarity of mind, and it happens slowly, rather than just being hit by a truck.

It’s very important that we do this acquaintance during our lifetime as well, because often what happens is a truck might be coming, and the first thought that comes to my mind is “Oh, shit!” And to die with the thought “Oh, shit!” is not the most wonderful thought to have as our last thought. If we’re really acquainted with taking refuge, safe direction, in terms of bodhichitta, then – in times of real danger, when we don’t have so much time, particularly at the time of death – that’s the thought that’s going to come up, rather than “Oh, shit!” and then we’re born as a fly in a pile of shit, if I may be a bit graphic.

The Tibetans, instead of accustoming themselves in having this explicative “Oh, shit!” what they all say is “konchog sum” (dkon-mchog gsum), which is the “three jewels of refuge.” So, it’s a little bit equivalent to say “Jesus Christ!” in some difficult situation. And although that certainly isn’t done with the most positive state of mind, yet it is a far better thought to die with than “Oh, shit!” because at least there is the hope, the possibility of it being with a little bit more positive meaning. That’s the power of acquaintance.

The fourth force at the time of death is eliminating all at once. This is the self-cherishing to our own body. They say we should try to die like a bird taking off from a rock, without looking back – just fly off; [feel] disgust with our past negative actions before we die, try to take bodhisattva vows again freshly, or if we’ve done a tantric retreat, then we can do the self-initiation – try to purify ourselves and just leave.

The fifth one is the power of prayer at the time of death. It can be, as we suggested before, to be reborn in the hells, to take on the suffering of all others. But what might be a little bit easier is the prayer not to be separated from bodhichitta and the opportunity to work toward enlightenment in all our lifetimes – prayer at the time of death. Doing this, it says:

While giving importance to my path of deportment.

This refers to what we’re actually doing while we’re dying. The Tibetans consider the position in which we die as quite significant, and I really forget, I don’t have written down here why. But it’s best if our head faces north and our face is facing toward the west; and to die in the position the way that Buddha died and also to try to sleep in that position, on the right side. Usually it’s the right hand underneath the face and the left hand along the side, and the left leg on the right leg, forming a straight line with the body; and to try to die with all these thoughts while doing tonglen. Actually, Serkong Rinpoche who died doing tonglen died in that position, although he had his hands crossed more in a tantric version of it.

Obviously, this way of dying is only appropriate for somebody who has practiced all of this type of attitude-training and bodhisattva practice very intensively during their lifetimes, not somebody that is unacquainted with all of this. This is the fourth point then, which is the gathering together of all the practices for one lifetime, or condensation of the practices of one lifetime.

Question: Isn’t it also OK to be reborn in a pure land?

Answer: Prayer to be reborn in a pure land is a pure land practice. That’s another practice. So, there are many, many practices that we can do, which are considered bodhisattva practices, but that’s not the tradition of lojong.

Question: In the lojong tradition, we don’t pray to be reborn in a pure land?

Answer: No, you pray to be reborn in a hell.

Question: Or to have a human life?

Answer: Well, there are the prayers to continue to have the precious human life to be able to benefit others, but, “May I be a bodhisattva strong enough to be able to go to the hells and help everybody there.”

Being reborn in a pure land – which of course is a whole big topic of discussion of what that actually means – is basically like having a time out from having to deal with all the difficult situations of samsara to do intensive practice non-stop, so that one can really make further and further progress, more unhindered. But that’s in many ways the opposite of the lojong tradition, which is to not take time out, but to transform the negative and difficult circumstances. But obviously both [practices] are done to benefit others, so it’s just a different practice, a different tradition. So, which one you do? That’s your choice.

Question: But it’s such a great risk to be born in samsara...

Answer: That’s why I said it’s a very advanced practice, a very, very advanced practice. I’ve said this several times. This is a super-advanced practice, not at all for beginners, not at all for the weak-hearted, or those who are not stable already in their practice – but the whole tonglen is to develop the courage to do all of this, the willingness. Whether you’re able to do it or not, as it says, a fox doesn’t jump where a lion can jump. Don’t attempt to do practices that are much too advanced and difficult for you when you’re not ready. Lojong is a very advanced practice, not an easy practice – people trivialize it, “Oh, this is sutra” – an incredibly difficult and profound practice. But if you’re at the stage where you can do it, it’s unbelievably effective, and it’s certainly what the great masters do.

Question: What if we train in lojong, but at the time of death we realize that we’re not ready for a difficult rebirth, but we and all beings would be better off if I went to a pure land...

Answer: If that’s sincere – but often it’s mixed. The wish to be born in a pure land is the wish to go to a paradise, where everything is nice and easy, and we don’t think that there we’re going to work in intensive practice non-stop twenty-four hours a day. We think we’re going to sit and relax by the swimming pool and enjoy ourselves, play cards with our friends – retire to Florida. It’s not like that. It’s not a paradise in that sense. You don’t go there to have a good time. You go to do work, unbelievably.

But it depends on the person. I personally have never been attracted to pure land things. What I find more attractive is a precious human life over and over again, so that you can work to help others as much as possible now, on the way. It doesn’t matter if it takes three countless eons, at least try to benefit others as much as you can now. Continue to have a precious human life. I’ve always been more attracted to that.

So, yes, there’s a danger in both, that you get caught in really difficult situations, but that’s why you train in these practices, to transform difficult situations. As I say, the big danger of powa to a pure land is just to go to paradise, which is self-cherishing, basically.

Question: But I think it’s not necessarily so?

Answer: No, of course it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be pure.

Question: If you work for others, you can also do it for your ego; and sometimes it’s better to say, “No, it’s better to rest and work on myself.” I think also we need to check different situations to see if we’re really fit for a particular situation.

Answer: Absolutely. Sometimes when we’re working to help others it can just be a big ego trip, and we certainly need to work on overcoming that; and everything depends on the person, the situation, and so on, absolutely. That’s why we learn many, many different methods.

When we’re learning one particular method, this lojong method, we try to just learn it for itself, not think, “Well, but wouldn’t applying another method be better or more suitable for me?” That’s not the point. The point is to learn this method so you have that in your repertoire. Then, according to the circumstance, you see what is fitting for you personally to practice. The more possibilities you have, the better; the more flexibility you have. Who knows what level of development you’ll be at when you’re about to die.

“May I be reborn in one of the hells” – that’s the most advanced level, but normally we say the best prayer to die with, “May I never be separated from bodhichitta. May I never be separated from fully qualified, perfect gurus in all my lifetimes. May I always have a precious human life. May I always work toward reaching enlightenment for all.” That’s the dedication and prayer to say at the end of every day and all your practices. Those are the basic prayers, absolutely.

And “May I be reborn in whatever situation would be best for that. Whether it’s a pure land, whether it’s in a hell, whether it’s in... wherever – without specifying, because what do we know what’s going to be best? What do we know? We don’t know. So, leave it open. In other religions you’d say leave it in God’s hands, but leave it up to what would follow appropriately from our karma and level of training, what would naturally follow next. That’s an important way to make the prayer, “May whatever would be the best circumstance, the most conducive circumstance, whatever it might be, I’m happy to accept it.” I think that’s the best, and then it’s open.

Question: Yes, then it’s open, and it’s the same if you have bodhichitta, then we can work, whether it’s in a pure land, on earth, wherever, then it’s OK.

Answer: Yes, “Whatever would be the most efficient and beneficial for me at this point in my development, because I don’t know. Because what happens if you’re not successful? You pray to go to a pure land, and you don’t, and you end up in a difficult situation. You better have trained in lojong beforehand, so that you can handle it.

Even if we can’t do it now, if we’re not at that level, at least prayers to be able to reach that level where we can sincerely practice like this, because we see how powerful it can be. Because if we’re born in a situation in which things are too easy, like it’s described for the gods realm, you’re not motivated to do anything, you become very lazy. It’s when you’re really in a more difficult situation and really challenged that you grow.