During Life and at Death: The Dharma Is Our Guide
We will now continue with the Training for How to Meditate on Impermanence, Written in Verse:
(24) The Dharma is your guide on a path unknown; the Dharma is your food on a journey, arduous and long. The Dharma is your protector in a dangerous realm, so engage in Dharma – with body, speech and mind – from now on.
This is a way to describe how important Dharma is in our life. When we speak about Dharma, we can go very deep and vast. People always prefer portable things, easy to take around. Otherwise, it takes lots of effort. The most portable thing is our mind – we carry that around with us all the time. The most beautiful thing in regard to Dharma is none other than to recognize how our minds work. As the Buddha said, once we can hold this mad elephant, our mind, with awareness, then there won’t be any harm. If we leave the mad elephant unleashed, then certainly there is big trouble. To recognize just how powerful the mind is, just look at all of the conflict in the world. Almost everything, maybe 90% of our problems, is made by our human brothers and sisters, by their attitudes and ways of thinking. Especially brothers!
Wherever we go, the mind is with us. Even if we change our body – which we have no choice but to do when we are reborn – still, the mind is there. With Dharma practice, our behavior creates positive imprints in our mind. Our consciousness carries on to the next life with these imprints. That is how sometimes even a small child can remember their past life. Or how, in a family with identical twins, one is very gentle while the other is naughty. There are so many different things that science still has difficulty in describing. One benefit of recognizing the nature of the mind is that even when people have no wealth, they can be happy by studying the mind.
Recognizing the Value of the Mind
I have a close friend who works for me. A few days ago, he had a problem with his mobile phone, and he told me how he wished he had a phone with a screen. I told him that I would give him one. Then, without the permission of my attendants, I gave him one. Before that, he was very happy. He would come to work on time. All of my attendants admired him: talented, punctual and so on. I gave him this device and then he became spoiled! He hasn’t come to work on time since then. Now he has more worries than before. He constantly requests me to recharge his phone. This morning, I gave him some advice, “Before, you had nothing, and you were happier. Now you have this phone, you are really suffering.” Then he said, “That’s true, but I can’t accept that!” So, a big problem!
Once you recognize the inner value of the mind, it is forever with you. That’s the only hope. All other things are very temporary. Since beginningless time and up to full enlightenment and beyond, we all have a mind. Through this, we can know what real happiness is. If we don’t recognize the nature of the mind, it’s very difficult.
If you can recall, I said that I will put the stanzas into three categories. This is the last category, which is feeling ourselves unworthy. How often do we say, “I’m not worthy,” or “I’m really lonely?” We depend so much on our friends and family, other people. If our friend is not there for us, we feel lonely. If we don’t have the person we love so much nearby, we feel very sad. Why? Because we depend too much on them! If we depend and focus on our mind, we can think, “I have this within me always.”
Our minds can do so much. Whether we can live with our enemy or not depends on our attitude, our mind. Even whether we can survive without food, sometimes that also depends on the strength of our mind. There was once a famine in Tibet, with nothing growing in the fields, nothing to eat. A mother with two children encouraged them by saying, “Look around at all those who have died. We mustn’t give up. We have something to eat in this pot, but we won’t open it until we feel like we are on the verge of dying. Don’t give up.”
She took the clay pot and tied it on a rope. She went off to look for food and didn’t return for two or three days. The children were waiting at home, starving hungry. Suddenly, there was a gust of wind, which released the pot from the rope, throwing it to the ground. The broken pot revealed that there was only sand inside. Immediately, the children passed away because of losing hope.
I don’t know if this story is true, but for sure it shows how strong the mind is. For the most part, we don’t focus on our inner value. We focus on other things, which come and go. This is reality. And it’s the main reason behind our loneliness and fear.
A Stable Mind Is Important at the Time of Death
(25) If, at this time, when you have the power for ultimate happiness, you don’t build a safe base, what will you do as you draw your final breath, and your hysterical mind finds no resting place?
From this verse, we can infer that at the time of death, what we need is a stable mind. A stable mind depends on having a daily practice, something we do every day. So many people do practices for their whole lives, doing many good deeds. However, their practice may not be very stable. At the time of death, which I said yesterday is the final test, they may fail. And this will create big problems. But the power is in our hands. We should think that when we leave this world, we will die in a more extraordinary way. This should be our commitment. This commitment then becomes very strong in our practice. Every night when we go to sleep, it’s as if we die each time. There are so many similarities between sleep and death. Going to sleep, into the darkness, is a gift for us.
I read in an article that if the person should live to 80 years old, and sleeps for eight hours a night, how many years have they slept? I think almost thirty years! The best gift we can give ourselves is to try and keep our awareness when we go to sleep, of our consciousness gradually dissolving into something which we don’t know, a kind of darkness, and slowly entering a stage of dreaming. For me, dreams don’t come often. Sometimes I have very good dreams of His Holiness giving teachings. Other times, I fall asleep after watching a movie and have horrible dreams. Before going to sleep, I’d say we have about 80% control of the kind of dream we can have. We don’t have full control over our dreams, and we don’t have control over our next lives. But still, we can try to influence them. This is our hope.
Remember the Canadian woman who was in the hospice? I encouraged her to do this kind of practice. This was so she would not worry if she went into a coma. Remember, we are talking about impermanence. If we are in a car driving very fast and the brakes stop working, then we are in trouble! In this situation, there is no time to stop and think about Dharma or to prepare for anything. Our only hope is that we have made some influence on our minds. We need to have some experience and strong determination.
That is why the great Konchog Tenpe Dronme is explaining that whether or not we want to practice Dharma, once we do practice it, we should do so seriously and build a safe base. If we are more or less doing what our gurus and the Buddhas advise us to do, then it becomes easy for them to reach us. When we talk about samaya, a close bond, between a guru and a student, it comes from the student doing what the gurus and Buddhas advise. If that bond is there and the guru prays, the students get even more benefit from their practice. I think it works this way. Energy does not come from God’s hand to give us a good rebirth. It’s not like that. It all depends on causes and conditions, right? This is how I understand it.
Recalling Impermanence to Build a Strong Motivation to Practice the Dharma
(26) This is a song of impermanence, a meditation, “A Great Light for the Middle Way’s Illumination.” Its purpose is to strengthen the mind’s determination for Dharma from the start, in the middle, to ultimate liberation.
As I mentioned before, the purpose of having this class is to talk about something very beautiful, a tool we can use to hold on to the precious teachings of His Holiness and other great lamas. Something that helps us to keep in mind all the advice of the great gurus. If we don’t have the motivation to do something, then we will lose everything. It will be like having a machine that makes gold in my house, but I’m so lazy that I don’t even use it. And then, I still say, “I’m so poor, I don’t have anything!” Instead, with strong motivation we should think, “I know the nature of the mind,” and, “I know the true nature, which is voidness.” Then we can think, “This precious thing, the ultimate truth, I can use to achieve liberation and full enlightenment in order to share with and guide others.” There are all these beautiful things that we can think and introduce into our daily lives.
Sometimes we go to His Holiness’ teachings and strongly feel that we should implement them. But after two or three hours, we say, “Oh, let’s go for coffee,” and go straight back to our normal behavior. So, we need some more encouragement. In the prajnaparamita teachings, there is the path of preparation. It talks about needing two tutors to reach that path. One is the outer tutor, and one is the inner tutor. The outer tutor is to help you reach enlightenment. But the inner tutor is the most important because it is always with us: the self-tutor of awareness. This makes us stop, “Now I shouldn’t say this. I shouldn’t do this. I shouldn’t think like this. Now I should practice.” But without thinking of impermanence, it’s very difficult.
When discussing bodhichitta, we might think it’s very beautiful but not really easy to achieve. I’m 100% sure, because if you are like me, every time I receive the bodhisattva vows from His Holiness, a few minutes later they’re gone! This happens every time. And on the topic of voidness, I have studied with my teachers who are all superb. Sometimes, I feel like if I have these teachers’ guidance, I don’t need the Buddha. When my teachers talk about voidness, I can really feel something. It is one of my favorite subjects. I am always pleased when they say something about voidness, I feel that they’re so kind to explain it. Right after the teaching, I feel very different. And then I look at other people, and I pity them, “They really don’t know the ultimate truth!”
But compassion is really helpful. I want to share something with you. When we talk about compassion, there are three types. Here, we are talking about great compassion. The compassion which we have at the moment is just ordinary. There’s not much capability with this type of compassion. So, we say, “Oh, that poor dog doesn’t have a leg.” Or we think, “Poor so and so in a difficult situation.” This is ordinary compassion because it won’t reach a rich man we see stepping out of a BMW. We don’t think, “Oh, poor rich man.” But this rich man is also subject to impermanence. And then there’s ultimate truth: because he doesn’t know about ultimate truth, he has to cycle uncontrollably within samsara. Thinking like this, then tears will fall from our eyes when we really think of this rich man. So, compassion is very precious, I think.
It is important for us to remember the teachings on death. As I mentioned, the Buddha has left us. The great masters are no longer with us. The biggest message we can take from this is that they are born, and they die, but they did so in a good condition. We should follow the same path. Before we die, the best way to bring about a strong motivation is to think about impermanence.
Having a Non-Biased View of the Dharma Teachings
(27) As your mind becomes well inclined toward the Dharma, many paths make claims to be profound. But the authentic tradition of the Victor Lozang Dragpa shows the essential intention of each puissant Buddha.
(28) From oral explanation and deep meditation of the teachings of sutra and tantra, know the path well, in all of its aspects, fully intact, without error, and then every day, without interruption, create positive imprints with firm meditation.
Here, Konchog Tenpe Dronme is saying, “I am a Gelugpa.” Gelugpas have their own specific qualities. When we see specific qualities in something, usually our mind thinks, “This is the best.” Within Dharma, if you make this kind of judgment, don’t be biased! I am a Gelugpa, but I don’t only study and practice Gelugpa teachings.
One of my teachers is Nyingmapa, with a strong devotion to Guru Rinpoche. The first time I walked into his room, I noticed a large Guru Rinpoche thangka. At that time, I thought, “I am the real Gelugpa,” although I had no knowledge. Well, I still have no knowledge, but at that time it was worse! I went inside to look at his shrine. I noticed Guru Rinpoche. I walked into his bedroom and saw an image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama wearing Guru Rinpoche’s hat. I thought, “Oh, this is a strong Nyingmapa!” I went to him because he had studied at the IBD (Institute of Buddhist Dialectics), whose curriculum is based on Gelugpa studies. He gave a full explanation of Je Rinpoche’s viewpoints and those of many other masters.
Gelugpas often remark on how Nyingmapas describe various points. So, I had a strong curiosity to know how Nyingmapas would describe the Gelug viewpoints. He kindly shared all of his knowledge with me. One day he said, “I really respect Lama Tsongkhapa. Through him, my devotion to Guru Rinpoche became very strong.” I exclaimed, “What?! This can’t be happening!” Because historically, there has been quite a bit of conflict.
Over time, I studied Chandrakirti’s Clarified Words with him. The explanation was very difficult to understand, and he explained some parts of it in a very Nyingma way. Sometimes I really wasn’t sure what he was talking about, because Gelugpas don’t describe it in the same way. So, I asked, “Is this the Nyingma style?” He replied, “Yes.”
In the Heart Sutra, when we come to analyze voidness and say, “No nose, no ear, and so on,” I have a strong Gelugpa habit. We focus on an object and say that it does not exist inherently, but it does exist as a dependent arising, so it is there! But before studying with my Nyingma teacher, my knowledge of voidness wasn’t much help in my life.
In Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses, it is said that if we don’t have the right person to explain voidness to us, then we might understand it incorrectly. If we do have the right teacher and we understand correctly, we will have no fear of voidness. But if we understand it just a little, we might develop fear of it. For me, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, even twenty years of studying voidness: nothing, no fear inside! I asked some of my friends too, and they all said: no fear. I was wondering whether I was a good student, or maybe the dumbest student who had understood nothing. Then I met this teacher who showed me the Nyingmapa style, and wow! For a moment, with this teacher’s inspiration and blessing, I also came to have some fear. And still this kind of fear comes sometimes.
But my fear is reduced when I look at Lama Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim chenmo. It helps you to understand the essence of dependent arising. We say, “Because of dependent arising, there is voidness. Because of voidness, there is dependent arising.” From that point on, my respect for Guru Rinpoche is very strong. It’s as if Lama Tsongkhapa and Guru Rinpoche are working together in my brain. This is amazing for me. All the parts of my experience mixed up.
For those already practicing for many years, you have experience. For Western beginners, you should be very careful. I won’t say, “I’m a Gelugpa,” because there is no importance in saying this. When we become a Gelugpa, Nyingmapa, Kagyupa, or Sakyapa, there’s a limitation, I think. There is no one saying, “I’m an Umapa (follower of the Middle Way)!” Nobody says, “I’m Semtsampa-pa (Follower of Chittamatra)!” Why? After all, people do say, “I’m a pure Nyingmapa,” or, “I’m a pure Sakyapa,” very emphatically.
This is something we should work together to change. There is nothing wrong with being a Sakyapa, Gelugpa, Kagyupa, or Nyingmapa. But the danger is that we develop an egotistical view about the tradition we choose, and we cannot see beyond that. Who knows, in our past life we might have been a great practitioner of the Sakya tradition. Before passing away, we might have prayed that in the future, we meet the right teacher so in the next life we can continue. Then we’re reborn and now follow the Gelug school. If we become sectarian and shut ourselves off from everything else, including the Sakya teachings, we leave ourselves with no access to all the work done in our past life. No way! We should be very careful about these things.
The Practice of Tantra Requires the Foundation of Sutra Teachings
From oral explanation and deep meditation of the teachings of sutra and tantra – it is very clear here when this verse mentions tantra. As His Holiness and the other great masters always tell us, if we really want our practice of tantra to be very pure, it will not work without the help of the sutra teachings. Without the foundation of the sutra teachings, if we do tantric practice, it’s like we are practicing Hinduism. His Holiness always tells us that back in Tibet the great masters would give many commitments with tantric initiations. Now, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very compassionate. He doesn’t give too many commitments because he knows that, in the beginning, we will fall asleep doing them. We will do them without any knowledge. But once we get a taste of bodhichitta and voidness, we will not fall asleep but want to practice more and more. That’s for sure.
That’s why, when His Holiness gives initiations, he says this or that mantra includes the practice of bodhichitta and voidness without separation. In sutra, bodhichitta and voidness are taught to be practiced in union. In tantric practice, they are taught as inseparable. This is something hidden in here.
(29) Right from the preliminaries until the conclusion, perform well the words of Je Lama. Thereby you’ll take the very heart-essence of this life of leisures and endowments.
Je Lama is Lama Tsongkhapa, but it doesn’t matter which sect or tradition you follow. If you have more devotion to Guru Rinpoche, put him in the verse in place of Lama Tsongkhapa. Or for Sakyapas, you can use Sakya Pandita. For those following the Kagyu tradition, maybe the Karmapa, Marpa or Milarepa. Whatever you do, before you put them there, you need to focus strongly on the unique qualities that that guru has. It’s not just, “Because I am Kagyupa, I have to put the Karmapa there.” Seeing their qualities first and then placing them there is perfect. But most of us just put the main lama of whichever sect we belong to and forget the rest. One very shameful thing is that we forget to put Shakyamuni Buddha! That’s very stupid, right? Because the lineage starts there. We forget the Buddha and forget our brothers and sisters.
One reason that it is taking India so long to develop is because there is no unity. Unity depends on education and sincerity. Without this, we can see it is not developing very well. We Buddhists all gather in Bodh Gaya, with the Sakyapas in one place, Nyingmapas in another. There’s no unity. This is true, from the depth of my heart. There’s no unity. His Holiness always says, “The Tibetan tradition is the same as the Nalanda tradition.” This is the unity actually. Think about it. The great Kagyu master Marpa, his guru was Naropa, who was at Nalanda. For Nyingmapas, Guru Rinpoche. All come from there. If we value the Nalanda tradition, then this is the unity. Once this unity works together, Buddha Shakyamuni will shine once again.
I did the ngondro practice of 100,000 prostrations in Bodh Gaya two years ago. In the mornings, free breakfast was served regularly. One time, there was a danger of terrorism during His Holiness’ teachings. Security officers came to change the mats on which we were doing prostrations. They wanted us to change them to transparent ones, so they could check properly. They pulled up and changed everything.
Many people have pictures with protector images in front of their mats, and some with Tara, Lama Tsongkhapa, Guru Rinpoche and so on. So many pictures. An older man serving breakfast was working with security and said to everyone, “Don’t take this personally. All of you come to have time with Buddha, so I don’t know why you need to have a second object in front of you, and then add more and more. It’s personal and I don’t want to tell you not to bring it tomorrow, but please think carefully about this.”
I thought to myself, “Yes, this is right!” Sometimes all of this can be an obstacle to developing pure devotion. It becomes very narrow. Ego makes everything become very narrow. We have a Tibetan saying that goes, “If you put water on a rock, it won’t stay.” If a person has a strong ego, they cannot learn anymore. We should really check how our minds work. This is maybe veering off topic too much, so I won’t speak more!
The Realm of Deathlessness
(30) By the strength of the positive force built up like this, may the thief of the view of self-permanence lose all its power to grasp true existence and may all reach the realm of deathlessness.
This is the dedication. The question here is, how can we get to this realm of deathlessness? The answer is in the third line: Lose all its power to grasp true existence. Why do we continuously take rebirth in samsara? Because our ignorant mind grasps at true existence, even though no such true existence exists.
At the time of death we worry, what will happen to me now? We keep searching for what is coming next. We have attachment that is watered by grasping and craving, leading to rebirth. On the other hand, Buddhas and bodhisattvas take rebirth not with attachment, but through their prayers. There is no ignorance in their compassionate mind, with which they take rebirth.
The Vaibhashika school and I think also the Sautrantika school, they see the Buddha as an ordinary person who became fully enlightened after six years of hard work. Then he passed away, gone forever. But Chittamatra up, they believe that the Buddha is part of the Sambhogakaya, meaning the Buddha was already fully enlightened and came here to this world to set an example for us.
Once we have realized voidness directly, non-conceptually, we cannot take rebirth in samsara. There is no more samsaric rebirth. But still, bodhisattvas can return to help us. This is why we believe His Holiness is extraordinary. Look at his energy and vision. Beginning from the first until the present fourteenth in his line, he is the one who has suffered the most, and he is also the most famous of all the Dalai Lamas. In his situation, most people would be more concerned about Tibetans and what will happen to them. But he is now talking less about Tibetans and more about the whole world instead. This is wonderful, how expansive his compassion is.
When we talk about bodhichitta, there may be many explanations. In English, what do you translate “bodhichitta” as?
Mind of enlightenment.
Mind of enlightenment? Very simple. In Tibetan, we also say “semkye.” That refers to the mind that expands more and more. This is great. Having the mind of enlightenment for others with expansion. Expansion is missing in the English translation. That’s the big problem here. As Aryadeva said, having some doubt about true existence or inherent existence can itself crack the shell of samsara. Very powerful! Once you see directly that there’s no true existence on its own, a direct non-conceptual realization, then we don’t need to worry. We are freed from samsara. No more future rebirth. But we still have to worry a little bit about our past karma.
Do Not Let Our Knowledge and Practice Go to Waste
As Konchog Tenpe Dronme said in this verse, Right from the preliminaries until the conclusion, perform well the words of Je Lama. Thereby you’ll take the very heart-essence of this life of leisures and endowments – this is very important. This is not about belief. We take the essence of our precious life from using logic and reasoning. All of the great Nalanda masters were famous because of their logic and reasoning.
To study this text about impermanence, one does not have to be Buddhist. One of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s greatest contributions is that he took the Kangyur and Tengyur and divided the contents into three categories. He says there is Buddhist science, Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhist practice or religion. Buddhist practice is only the business of Buddhists. But the first two, he says, are open to everybody. Buddhist science talks about the mind. Buddhist philosophy is about voidness and compassion. Compassion in my experience is always something beautiful. I have no doubt. Maybe I am brainwashed, because I always say, “Compassion is so great.”
Do you remember the earthquake in Nepal? I was in Canada studying at the time. My teacher there said, “Has anybody heard this bad news?” While driving to school, she had heard that an earthquake had struck Nepal. The students were discussing how horrible this was. It happened at night. Still, they were retrieving so many dead bodies. We talked about that for a long time, maybe thirty or forty minutes.
Then the teacher said, “Wrap it up. We have a lot of things to catch up on. Take this topic out of your mind.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Come on. I have so many things to worry about in my own life, I cannot take all of the suffering of the world onto my shoulders.” I wanted to say something to her, but I couldn’t. If people don’t have the kind of methods that Buddhism has, that show how to stop the cyclic existence of samsara, there’s no way to describe how to take all the suffering upon yourself. How could I explain that to her? So, I held my tongue. She then went on explaining so many things about grammar and it was very confusing. I was thinking, “How do I tell her? It would be really rude.” In the end, I didn’t say anything.
It’s a good question, actually. Why would you take on more suffering, if you have so much suffering already? This is something I learnt in Canada! I could not learn this in India, because all of my teachers and classmates naturally say, “Compassion is very great.” If we do not think like this, we cannot actually say, “We should always think about sentient beings and all the suffering.” Please check within yourselves how to respond to my teacher. Thank you in advance!
So, I’ve given a little effort explaining this to you. Whether or not it is really helpful for all of you or not, I don’t know. But it is really helpful for me. Remember this very beautiful quote from Shantideva? The message is “I’m writing this book to acquaint myself with virtue. I don’t have a motivation that will help many people. I wrote this to acquaint myself with virtue, making these things my own habit. Through this, there might be a little benefit.” It’s beautiful how he wrote it, so I’m sorry about my translation. Shantideva will be very angry with me!
We already have so much knowledge within us. Before it goes to waste, we need to water it. Compassion is such a wonderful thing. For beginners, we need compassion. In the middle, people on the path need compassion. And once you are fully enlightened, you need compassion. For the beginner it’s very important, as compassion is the base, like the earth. Compassion on the path is like watering the plants. Finally, the great compassion of the Buddha – if you don’t have it, you won’t give teachings to benefit others.
Even this practice of impermanence, we won’t practice it if we have no compassion. Without practice, we have to return to samsara with worse conditions. For practitioners, we need to think that way. For beginners, who really don’t care much about past and future lives, we also have to face this reality. We don’t have to be a Mother Teresa or even a religious person, but still we can do many good deeds. Then, at the time of death, with a calm mind, we can focus on the great things we have done in this world. With this calm mind, we can leave this world very smoothly.
Lots of benefit in this, right? This is the purpose of me requesting you all to think about impermanence. Maybe there will be some great benefit in the future. And the second purpose is that, for the people going to His Holiness Dalai Lama’s teachings, we will get so much information from him. We will get to hold it!
We have an expression from a Tibetan folktale. There is a great merchant who travels far into the ocean and brings back a wish-fulfilling jewel. It says that if you go far out into the ocean, don’t leave empty-handed. For all the people going to His Holiness’ teaching, you are going to get something to take with you. Now you have to keep it safe. For this, we need the help of this meditation on impermanence. Thank you very much for your attention and effort, and for spending your time here.
As parting advice, please remember this quote:
This gathering of dear ones, servants and dependents, is like a mound formed of leaves fallen from a tree – a gust of wind will scatter them through hill and vale, and once dispersed, they’ll never converge again.
Who knows whether we will meet again, or we won’t meet again. This is a really beautiful moment, isn’t it? Thank you very much.