Misunderstandings about Ngondro

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Basic Misunderstandings of How We Exist

There are, of course, many areas of misunderstanding in Buddhism; but they are not exclusively limited to our perception and understanding of Buddhism. This lack of understanding is a general theme that we find throughout the Buddhist teachings. We misunderstand reality; we misunderstand how we exist, how everyone exists, and so on. Because of that, we project all sorts of nonsense that doesn’t correspond to reality. Not only do we project that nonsense, but we also unknowingly believe it. We believe that it does correspond to reality. By clearing up misunderstandings about Buddhism, it can also help us start to recognize how we project all sorts of nonsense, not just on the teachings but in general on ourselves, on others, and on various situation that we face in life.

Misunderstanding Karma

One of the things that we have misunderstanding about is karma. Many of us tend to think that karma has to do with fate: if something terrible happens to us, we say, “That’s our karma.” We tend to think that we were naughty in previous lives or earlier in this life and now we deserve something terrible happening to us because we were bad, and we are guilty. This is a projection of certain conceptual frameworks from Western thinking that have nothing to do with the actual Buddhist teachings. But, because of having unconsciously accepted these frameworks, we feel quite terrible. Our belief in these frameworks just tends to amplify our belief in a solid self that is inherently bad. That certainly is not the Buddhist teaching.

If we ask what the term karma actually means, if we look at the Tibetan word, it is the colloquial word for “actions.” Often, when we hear teachings about karma, people will translate this as “actions.” If we think about that, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. This is because if one of the roots of out difficulties in life is our actions, it would absurdly follow that all we have to do is stop doing anything and then we would be free. We could just sit there, do nothing and all our problems would go away. Clearly, karma doesn’t mean actions themselves, although the colloquial Tibetan word for this means actions.

Actually, what karma is talking about is compulsiveness – the compulsion behind our actions that drives us to act, speak, or think in certain ways. We act in these various ways and it builds up potentials, tendencies and habits: in Western physical terms, neural pathways. These aftermath of our karmic actions ripen into many different aspects. We will get into that more deeply later in the lecture. However, one of the things that these ripen into is our feeling like doing something. We feel, “I’d like to do something; I want to say something.” When that happens, karma kicks in. Karma is the compulsiveness that leads us to actually do what we feel like doing. That is what we need to overcome.

We need to find that space between when we feel like saying something nasty to somebody and when we actually say it. If we can find that space, it gives us the opportunity to use discriminating awareness to decide if acting out what we feel like doing or saying will be helpful or harmful. Having this ability to discriminate if our actions or words will be helpful or harmful is what distinguishes us from animals so that we don’t just act out of instinct or habit. 

This is what karma is speaking about. It can be the compulsive impulse to repeat similar type of behavior that we had before or the compulsion to get into a situation. For example, we felt like going to the shopping mall, so compulsively we go to the mall and that might lead to being hit by a car. Compulsion can get us into a situation in which things happen to us. The difficult outcomes of this compulsion with which we do things is often not at all obvious. But, this is what karma is all about.

What we want to do is obviously to overcome being under the helpless control of our karma. We want to get rid of that and get rid of, as well, what causes us to build up these various habits. We may have destructive negative habits or even positive habits that can be quite neurotic: for example, being a perfectionist and always wanting to constantly clean, or constantly correct everybody, or acting like a grammar Nazi. This type of syndrome, perfectionism – when we project that, somehow, we can be perfect – can lead to a great deal of difficulties. The house is never clean enough; no matter how many times we might clean it, it always needs more, so our minds are never at ease.

Misunderstandings in Tantra: The “Easy” Path to Enlightenment

The main topic that we will be focusing on is tantra. Tantra is one of the methods that we use to overcome being under the control of the compulsiveness of our karma. One of the misconceptions is thinking that tantra or mahamudra or dzogchen are easy paths to enlightenment. No one ever said they were easy; and although they may be very efficient, they are very difficult paths. 

There is no way that we can bypass cause and effect, although tantra is known as the resultant vehicle. This is because we practice now in a manner that is similar to what we will attain as a Buddha. We imagine or pretend that now we are in the form of a Buddhist deity or yidam, a meditational figure, and that our behavior is like that of a Buddha in being able to help all beings. We imagine our speech is a mantra, our environment is a pure mandala, and our way of enjoying things is blissful and not associated with confusion. Although we practice now in a way that is similar to the result that we want to attain; nevertheless, in actuality that resultant state is not going to happen unless we build up the causes. 

There is no way to bypass cause and effect by any means; enlightenment is not going to happen instantly just like that. However, we hear a lot mentioned about tantra, particularly the highest class of tantra, that it will enable us to attain enlightenment in one lifetime. Even within one lifetime, we will be able to attain it in three years and three phases of the moon A moon phase is the period from new to full moon or full to new moon, so three such phases total one and a half months. We think that we would really like a bargain like this and get enightenment cheaply. Therefore we go for the tantra path.

Sometimes, His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls this “Buddhist propaganda.” It gives us encouragement that we will be able to attain enlightenment in a single lifetime but that is very rare. It could only happen on the basis of a tremendous amount of positive force and so on having been built up in previous lifetimes.

What is the explanation for the count of three years and three phases of the moon? It comes from the Kalachakra tantra. “Kalachakra” means cycles of time. We analyze the breath very carefully in that system. The breath shifts twelve times during the day between going primarily through one nostril and then the other. As it makes this transition between one nostril and the other, there are sixty-seven and a half breaths that go equally through both nostrils. When it does that, the subtle energy behind the breath goes into the central channel. 

We want to be able to bring all the subtle energy of the breaths – or what is referred to in Indian literature as prana or in Chinese literature as qi – into the central channel and dissolve them there. This is because the compulsiveness of our karma is actually driven by this “neurotic” energy, to use a Western term, that flows haphazardly through our bodies. This is what makes us feel nervous, stressed and tense. In the Kalachakra system, we call them the “winds of karma.” We want to be able to bring all of them into the central channel. 

Now we have to be very good in arithmetic. There are sixty-seven and a half breaths that go through the nostrils equally in the twelve shifts in a day. We then take the number of breaths that will go into the central channel in a one hundred year lifespan of such breaths and we divide it. If we were to have those breaths consecutively, that would cover a span of three years and three phases of the moon. That is where this figure comes from; it isn’t arbitrary. It is to represent that we really want to get all these winds into the central channel. 

When we understand that, it can give us encouragement; but we shouldn’t have the naivety of thinking that all we need to do is a three-year retreat and then we are enlightened. Chances are, we would be very disappointed at the end of the retreat, especially if we spent most of the time mentally wandering. We need to avoid the misconception that it’s going to be easy and so not be lazy about our Buddhist practice. Often, we want an easy and quick path because we don’t want to put in the hard work. We are very busy and we don’t have much time. Therefore, we want enlightenment cheaply.

The Common Preliminary Practices

If we look at all the teachings regardless of which tradition we come from, they all emphasize that before we can have any possibility of success in tantra, we need to practice the so-called “preliminaries.” There are always two sets of preliminaries and we can’t skip either of them. One is the shared or common preliminaries: those that are shared between sutra and tantra. If we hear the word “common,” we might associate that with ordinary as if we don’t really need them. But, the word really means shared. 

There are also the uncommon preliminaries, those that are exclusive to tantra practice. In general, a lot of the misunderstanding comes from translations. We have this term “preliminary” and we think that we can do without these things. We think we don’t need them, let’s just get on to the good stuff. A more accurate understanding of the term is “preparation.” These are preparatory practices and we need to prepare. The way that one of my teachers explained it was using an image from Tibet as an analogy. If we were going to go on a long caravan journey, we have to prepare very well. We would need to pack and organize everything so that it can fit on the backs of the yaks and so on.

Similarly, although we obviously don’t go on yak caravan journeys in Norway or in the West, but if we are going to undertake a great spiritual journey, we need to prepare for it. We need to pack our bags. On this journey, we need to have with us our understanding of the basic teachings. This provides the context with which we are going to practice tantra. Without it, tantra just seems like absolute insanity. We might as well be imagining that we are Mickey Mouse or the Red Fairy and leading everybody to Disneyland or something like that. This is not at all what tantra is about.

Premature Ngondro Practices

These common or shared preparatory practices are absolutely essential. Skipping them leads to the next misunderstanding, with which people instantly start to do the uncommon preparatory practices known as “ngondro.” The meaning of the Tibetan word is literally “something that comes before.” Ngondro is usually thought of as the sets of a 100,000 prostrations and a 100,000 this and a 100,000 that. Actually it becomes a big problem when we engage in these practices without the shared preparatory practices. In the Kagyu tradition these shared preparatory practices are presented as the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma. These are very crucial. Without them, our Dharma practice doesn’t make any sense.

Brief Overview of the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind

Just to review these four thoughts a bit, we have a precious human rebirth and we need to think in terms of death and impermanence, so we don’t waste our time. These are the first two thoughts. We need to appreciate all the positive things that we have in life and not spend all our time complaining about difficulties and so on. Of course, samsara is difficult and less than ideal, but it doesn’t help to complain about it. We need to look at the positive things that we have and take advantage of them. This precious life isn’t going to last forever; so don’t take it for granted. This is essential in terms of any practice we undertake.

Next, we have the laws of karma, the third thought that turns our minds to the Dharma. We need to understand the basic workings of behavioral cause and effect. That leads to our understanding of karma and the need to refrain from acting destructively. We have built up so many negative habits. If we review the time spent each day with either useless or negative thoughts and behavior or with kind thoughts and behavior, the negative far outweigh the positive. This is especially evident if we compare these two over our entire lifetime, let alone over previous lifetimes. Therefore, we need to refrain strongly from destructive behavior when we feel like doing something negative, acting under the influence of greed, selfishness, anger and so on. For instance, we might be naive, interrupting people all the time with text messages, assuming that we are the most important person in the world and others should drop everything and answer us instantly. Otherwise, if they don’t, we get very upset and angry. We need to discriminate. Is our behavior helpful or harmful? Using this example, we need to consider whether a person is busy or not, rather than just interrupting them whenever we want. This builds up discipline, which of course is going to be necessary to our tantra practice. 

On the basis of our understanding of karmic cause and effect, we have taking refuge. Refuge is very important and again there is a lot of misunderstanding about this. We tend to trivialize it, when it is not something trivial at all. It’s not just cutting a little piece of hair, getting a Tibetan name and wearing a red string. That is not at all the significance of refuge. It isn’t that now we have joined the Buddhist club. Taking refuge refers to putting a positive and safe direction in our lives, indicated by the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. These three are what we are aiming for. These are our examples and role models. We have the conviction that we can actually attain theme ourselves and therefore we put their direction in our lives. This gives our lives meaning. 

It is important that we have some goal and meaning in our lives and that our lives aren’t pointless. Refuge then becomes a firm foundation for all of our Dharma practice. Certainly, in tantra we need a strong sense of refuge that isn’t passive. Refuge is not passive at all and not a matter of “Oh, Buddha save me,” and then we just sit there, open ourselves and wait to be saved. That might be in other traditions but not in Buddhism. 

In the Buddhist tradition, if we want to help others and attain enlightenment or just liberation, we have to put in the causes in order to experience an effect. It is not going to happen unless we build up the causes. We have to do something. We have to actively go in that direction to take refuge. It means to actually put that direction in our lives and go in that direction as indicated by the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Next, we think of the disadvantages of samsara, the fourth thought that turns our minds to the Dharma. If we are really going to practice tantra and the Dharma in any sort of serious way, it is very important that we start to really take rebirth seriously into consideration. We can practice what I refer to as the Dharma-lite version, just thinking in terms of this lifetime and working to overcome as best as possible our disturbing emotions and projections and to be kind to others. This is perfectly alright; but, that is not the full version of the Dharma. There are many shortcomings and problems that come when we misunderstand the Dharma to just be speaking about this lifetime.

For example, let’s imagine that we have a baby and the baby dies. The baby certainly didn’t do anything negative or terrible; why did this happen to our baby? This is a great problem because karma doesn’t make any sense in terms of causality if we limit things to just this lifetime. Again, it is not that the baby was naughty in a previous lifetime and deserves this as a punishment. It is not that at all. Karma is much more sophisticated and complex than that.

From a Buddhist point of view, we have beginningless lifetimes and although this isn’t easy to understand, if we don’t understand this, it leads to difficulty understanding the nature of the mind and the purity of the mind. Was there a creator of the mind? If so, there are numerous logical contradictions that come from that. It becomes very difficult to understand the teachings on emptiness or voidness if we think just in terms of an absolute beginning in this lifetime and an absolute end when we die.

Therefore, when we think about the disadvantages of samsara in these four thoughts that turn our minds to the Dharma, we begin to understand the whole process of rebirth. This is crucial to the practice of tantra because in the highest class of tantra we want to transform and get rid of the whole process of death, bardo, and rebirth. If we don’t believe in bardo and rebirth, then it doesn’t make any sense to try to transform or rid ourselves of this uncontrollably recurring cycle. This is what samsara actually means: uncontrollably recurring rebirth with all the problems that come with this type of limited body and mind. We get sick; we grow old, weak, and frail. Our minds are very confused. It takes so long to grow up from infancy and being helpless. It’s awful. 

We have uncontrollably recurring rebirth under the influence of karma and this is all to be understood in terms of the disturbing emotions that we have and our limited minds. We have anger and so on and these trigger our compulsive behavior. It is necessary, therefore, for us to understand the twelve links of dependent arising because these explain the entire process of how rebirth works. 

We also need to understand the four noble truths, and through that understanding, recognize the deepest type of suffering, the deepest cause, and the fact that we can rid ourselves of them. Based on understanding the purity of the mind, we gain the confidence that it really is possible to get rid of all suffering. That state of being rid of all that is the third noble truth. In addition, we need to understand the path that will actually get rid of this suffering, the fourth noble truth. If we don’t have this confidence, what are we doing with any type of Dharma practice, let alone tantra practice? It is essential to have that strong confidence and know what we are aiming for and that attaining the goal is possible. Then, we won’t start to have doubts later on about practicing and visualizing ourselves in a really weird form, thinking this is crazy, and wondering what are we doing this for. That will happen unless we have the firm basis of these preparatory practices.

Renunciation and Bodhichitta

Based on understanding the disadvantages of samsara, we need renunciation. We want to get rid of acting under the influence of anger and compulsive negative behavior. They just generate more and more problems and they repeat not only in this lifetime but in future lifetimes as well. The syndrome is going to go on and on if we don’t do something about it. Therefore, we need renunciation: the determination to be free of all of this. But we are not in this alone and we also need to have concern for others. Our lives aren’t isolated from others. What are we doing tantra practice for? It is to be of benefit to others; that’s why we want to achieve the enlightened state of a Buddha. Bodhichitta is absolutely essential here. 

What is bodhichitta? Often, the misunderstanding is that bodhichitta is just the same as compassion. It’s not. Compassion and love are causal factors that lead us to have bodhichitta. Bodhichitta itself is focused on our own individual enlightenments. It is not Buddha’s enlightenment, not general enlightenment, but our own individual enlightenments, which have not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of our Buddha natures. We are focusing on that not-yet-happening enlightenment and want to achieve a presently-happening one in order to benefit everybody, because our lives are totally interdependent and interconnected. We don’t live in an isolated vacuum. We are dependent on the kindness of others in order to survive. 

Our own individual enlightenments that we are aiming to attain are represented by these Buddha figures. What are we aiming for? We are imagining what has not yet happened but which can happen on the basis of the Buddha nature factors. That is what we are doing. The practice of tantra is absolutely tied with bodhichitta. We visualize and imagine helping everybody with lights going out and freeing everybody from suffering; but, if we don’t have any feelings of love and compassion for others, why are we doing this? This would be silly.

The Six Paramitas or Far-reaching Attitudes

There are also the six far-reaching attitudes or paramitas. We want to be generous and give to others. Discipline is absolutely necessary. There are many vows involved with tantra; if we don’t have the discipline to be able to keep those vows, we are never going to be able to help others. There are not just vows to refrain from acting negatively. There are also close-bonding practices – samaya in Sanskrit, damtsig in Tibetan – to act positively and we need this discipline to help others. It’s not just that we imagine helping others or imagine being generous, but when it comes to actual live people we don’t want to get involved. That’s not at all proper practice. Proper practice is applying things in real life and not just imagining it on our meditation cushion. Our meditation cushion is where we rehearse so that we have some idea of how to proceed. But, we don’t just rehearse. We have to actually perform in real life.

Additionally, we have to have an understanding of emptiness – I prefer to call it “voidness” – otherwise what we’re doing in our practice is crazy. We’re like some sort of schizophrenic person that thinks that they are Jesus Christ or Cleopatra. They might think instead that they are Tara or Avalokiteshvara, Chenrezig. This is quite crazy unless we really understand what is involved and that this form of Tara and so on is dependently arising on the basis of our Buddha nature factors, causality and so on. Our actually being Tara is not actually happening right now. We have to understand the reality of what we are doing. Otherwise, misunderstanding can lead to very serious psychological problems.

Preparing all of these ingredients is like preparing our luggage for the journey. We want to be able to use all of this. This is our preparation.

The Unshared Preparatory Practices or Ngondro

The unshared preparatory practices entail sets of 100,000 prostrations and so on. The misunderstanding is that these are going to bring about miracles, as if all we have to do is 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 mandala offerings and all our problems will be gone. Some might really expect miracles to happen and when they don’t happen, some people can get very disillusioned about the whole Dharma practice. We have to understand the purpose of these ngondro practices. 

We are doing them to build up our positive force and weaken our negative force. When we talk about karma, as a result of our behavior we build up positive or negative force or potential. It may be positive in the sense of either neurotic positive force, as in the example of a perfectionist, or it can be positive force dedicated with bodhichitta to be able to act as a cause for enlightenment. We need to differentiate these two forms in this regard. What we want to do with our ngondro practice is to start to build up, speaking in scientific terms, more positive neural pathways dedicated to enlightenment. 

We all have neural plasticity with which the brain can, in a sense, re-wire itself. Think about the negative pathways that we have from the habits that we have built up, especially if we think in terms of beginningless lifetimes. We have been acting under the influence of anger, selfishness, greed, and naivety, thinking we are the most important one and should always get our way. We need to think about all the negative habits of things like ignoring the fact that other people have feelings, just as we have. Ignoring others like that is a type of naivety about reality and the effects of our actions as if we can always treat others terribly and it doesn’t matter. For example, we can argue in front of the baby and the baby doesn’t understand so it doesn’t matter. 

These neural pathways, which make us act in habitual ways are incredibly strong. They are very deeply ingrained because we have done these things repeatedly. This way of analyzing is understanding on a different level the disadvantages of samsara, our uncontrollably recurring behavior. This is karma, uncontrollably recurring and compulsive. Because of this, we want to build up positive neural pathways. And that is not easy. That requires a great deal of repetition. Repetition is how one builds up neural pathways. Therefore doing something 100,000 times isn’t enough or a magic number; it’s just a lot and that is what it means. 

Such repetition starts to build up more positive pathways and that is what we want to do. That is why we do these ngondro practices. These preparatory practices start to build up that positive force and weaken the negative force or potential. If we just do our practices in a nonchalant sort of way, sometimes meditating, sometimes not, there isn’t enough repetition. It requires constant, consistent repetition to begin building the new pathway. In sutra terms, we speak of how we have to build up this force over three countless eons. “Countless” is the name of the largest number in the Indian mathematical system, so we can also call it three zillion eons, although it is a vague word in English as well. We have to build up a lot of this to counter the fact that we have built up countless beginningless negative force and potential. We are going to have to put in a tremendous amount of time.

The Encouragement in the Mahayana Sutras

Just as an aside, the Mahayana sutras are filled with praises to the power of reading them or of reciting specific mantras and that doing so will purify, for instance, 60,000 eons of negative force. They are filled with all these fantastic numbers like this. This might appear crazy and we might wonder what this is all about and feel almost ashamed about it. If we think about it, however, Buddha wasn’t stupid. There is a purpose for all of this. Although some people may take these numbers of eons literally, but the way that I think it makes sense is to give us encouragement. When we hear about three zillion or countless eons of positive force and we think that if we recite a particular mantra that it will take care of at least 60,000 of these, we can make a dent in this large number. That gives us encouragement. 

It’s important not to go to the extreme of the build-up of sufficient positive force being too easy; but also to avoid the extreme that it’s going to be impossible. These Mahayana sutras help us to start to think in very vast numbers. These sutras report Buddha teaching to these incredible numbers of beings of all different realms that were there and present. We can think that it is a fairy tale or we can think that this is a way to open our minds to think about all sentient beings. We need to start to think in very large numbers and very large scope; and that it is possible to have this purification and to build up this positive force. But we have to do it by our own efforts. Therefore, we have these preliminary preparatory practices.

How Not to Practice Ngondro

It’s important not to do the prostrations as just a physical exercise with nothing going on in our minds. That doesn’t produce very much of an effect. If that were the case, we might as well do 100,000 push-ups or something like that. This is certainly not what prostration is all about. Also, we need concentration. If we are doing prostrations with our minds all over the place, wishing that the session was over, that also isn’t going to be very effective. We want to build up a positive pathway. Doing something with our body and our speech at the same time as doing something with our minds is very helpful for avoiding mental wandering.

It’s very easy to get into the habit of doing all our practices just in our heads, mentally. I am guilty of that and I speak from experience. It’s much more difficult to concentrate if we are only doing something with our minds. If we are actually doing something physical at the same time, plus reciting something simultaneously, there isn’t that much room left for mental wandering. It really is quite skillful to join together body, speech and mind. Inevitably, as a Buddha, we want to have our body, speech and mind fully integrated. 

Therefore, it is very helpful to get into the habit of integrating our body, speech and mind in our practices, especially in doing these ngondro practices. It’s not just physically doing something and reciting blah, blah, blah. In each tradition there is going to be something different that we recite. There isn’t only one way of doing it. If we think of the Dharma and the way that Buddha taught with skillful means and different methods to different people, then of course, there are going to be many variations of how to practice. That’s okay. It’s a big misunderstanding to think that ours is right and everybody else is wrong and to bring this competition mentality into our Dharma practice.

In doing prostrations, we understand refuge and that we are going in a positive direction of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and they are the objects to which we are prostrating. We want to achieve this state of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha ourselves and we are paying respect to it. It is helpful to think of refuge and prostration in terms of the result, those who have achieved it; the path, our own enlightenment that we are aiming to achieve with all these practices; and the basis, our Buddha nature factors on the basis of which we can attain that. Then, we show respect with our minds focused on why we are doing what we are doing.

Vajrasattva Purification Based on Renunciation

Another major ngondro practice is that of Vajrasattva. Vajrasattva practice has to be based on renunciation of the first two noble truths. What are we trying to purify with Vajrasattva practice? It is suffering and the causes for suffering. We need to understand this and have confidence in the third and fourth noble truths. We need to be certain that it is possible to actually get rid of all the negative potential. We are going to do this by applying opponent forces. Vajrasattva practice is a provisional purification, however. The only thing that will really get rid of this negative potential is our understanding of voidness so that we don’t just repeat negative behavior. We can sort of clean the slate with Vajrasattva, but that doesn’t guarantee that we aren’t going to behave negatively again. 

We need to have full confidence in the four noble truths. Therefore, we apply opponent forces like Vajrasattva and so on to purify. Without this, what are we doing? We are just reciting a hundred syllables and that doesn’t make any sense. That’s why we have this elaborate Vajrasattva practice and we imagine the purification occurring in a graphic type of way.

Mandala Offering

It’s very important to do the next ngondro practice, mandala offerings, with love, compassion, and generosity. We are making an offering and what we want to offer are most conducive circumstances to everyone so that everyone can attain enlightenment. The standard traditional recitation, as I translate it, is:

By directing and offering to the Buddha fields this base, anointed with fragrant waters, strewn with flowers and decked with Mount Meru, four islands, a sun and a moon, may all those who wander be led to pure lands.

What in the world does that mean? What it means is may everybody be able to practice in a pure land, which we visualize in a traditional Indian way with Mount Meru and so on. The geographical features of this land aren’t the point. The point is that we are imagining and offering to everyone the most conducive circumstances for being able to attain liberation and enlightenment. In a pure land, may everything be perfect for everyone to be able to practice the Dharma 24/7. It’s not just that we just hang out in a pure land and enjoy ourselves. All the time ther, we are practicing and hearing teachings and so on to attain enlightenment.

In this way we are practicing generosity, wanting everybody to have this. Otherwise, we would be just like a child playing with rings and rice and so on and it wouldn’t make any sense.

Guru Yoga

The ngondro practice of guru yoga only makes sense when we have bodhichitta, otherwise it’s a personality cult and can be pretty weird. It can go way off into a very negative direction. We want to gain inspiration in terms of body, speech and mind, usually from the founder of our tradition or some great figure. What are we doing? This person is representing our not-yet- attained enlightenment. We want to attain that enlightenment with bodhichitta. We see this reflected in the guru. “May I have the inspiration to be able to attain that enlightened state that you represent.” This is directed toward the guru, yidam or Buddha. It is guru yoga, not guru worship. That’s not what it is.

Understanding the Purpose of Ngondro

These basic unshared preparatory practices are all based on the shared ones: the four thoughts that turn the mind toward the Dharma, with refuge, the perfections and bodhichitta based on them. Ngondro is not a miracle cure for our problems. It’s not a way of paying our nasty dues, getting it over as quickly as possible, so that we can join the in-crowd and get to the good stuff. It is not done with the idea that we are sinners and this is our punishment that we have to do in order to make up for our sins so that Buddha will forgive us. That is a complete misunderstanding of the Buddhist path. 

Try to understand the purpose of ngondro. It is to build up more positive neural pathways and not just going down on the ground and prostrating. That’s not the point. The physical actions and verbal things that we are saying are aids to keep us focused on positive mental states.

Taking Initiations and Undertaking Tantra Practices Prematurely

When initiations are given, it is important not to attend just because everybody else is going and we feel that we have to follow along or else people may think badly of us. We shouldn’t go like that. It’s very important, and stressed over and over again in the teachings, to examine beforehand the teacher and the specific tantric practice. “Is this practice something that I really want to do? Am I ready to do it? Is this a teacher that I can trust? Is this a teacher that I have confidence in?” 

Don’t just go by the teacher’s big name or their being charismatic. Hitler was charismatic; but that doesn’t mean that we follow someone just because of fame or a charismatic personality. Not everybody is going to feel a close connection to every teacher, even every great teacher. We are individuals. We have to feel inspired by the teacher and have some sort of a connection with him or her, otherwise it doesn’t really work. Although other people might feel that connection with a particular great lama giving an initiation, we might not. That’s okay. Don’t feel obligated that we need to go to initiations just because they are happening.

What is stated in the teachings is that if we aren’t prepared and yet take an initiation and get into tantra practice without some developed stage of bodhichitta – not necessarily unlabored bodhichitta when we have this all the time, but some deep level of bodhichitta – it just results in being reborn as a ghost in the form of one of these tantric deities. Why? It’s because the positive potential that we might be building up is not dedicated to enlightenment. It’s just samsaric positive potential. Samsaric karma potential is going to lead to some samsaric rebirth. We are imagining that we are in the form of this deity, so it’s a rebirth in the form of a ghost-form of this deity. 

That’s pretty horrifying if we think about it. The point is not to really get involved with tantric practice until we really feel prepared. That doesn’t mean that we can’t attend these initiations. It can be a very inspiring thing. But, as stated by many traditional masters in the literature, if we attend an initiation, unless we take the vows, we haven’t received the initiation. We have to take the vows. The bodhisattva vows are in all classes of tantra. In the two higher classes of tantra, we have the tantric vows as well. And, as Atisha stressed in Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, we need to have a basis in at least some level of pratimoksha vow for individual liberation – either lay or monastic vows – in order to have a container for being able to receive and keep the bodhisattva vows.

Just being there at an initiation and not knowing what is going on, we haven’t taken the vows. This is a misunderstanding that people have. “I was there and I didn’t know what was happening. There was no translation or I didn’t understand the translator and now I am stuck with this,” That is not the case. Unless we consciously take the vows, we haven’t received them. Therefore, we can be there, as what His Holiness the Dalai Lama describes, as a “neutral observer.” This is perfectly fine. Westerners call that “going for the blessings.” That’s okay; there is nothing wrong with that. But, don’t feel that just because we have been there for the inspiration as a neutral observer that now we have taken the vows and commitments and are now going to practice tantra.

Vows

As for taking the vows, as one of my teachers said, “It’s very fortunate that there aren’t more sets of vows because we would take them too and not keep them as well.” If we take the vows, we need to be very serious that we are going to try to keep them and not see the vows as punishment or restrictions. They are, in fact, very helpful guidelines. These are the boundaries or limits that we don’t want to go beyond. They give a certain shape to our behavior. It’s very helpful to have some sort of a guideline of what type of behavior or attitude would be the most detrimental to our being able to help others. 

For example, with the first bodhisattva vow to refrain from praising oneself and putting down others because of attachment, jealousy and so on, if we are always acting as if “I’m the best and everybody else is no good,” then people won’t really trust us. People feel that something is wrong and that they are being sold something or that the teacher is selling him or herself as a teacher. This isn’t helpful. If we are saying bad things about some person, people will think maybe next we will be saying bad things about them when they’re not present. It causes mistrust and that would prevent us from being able to help them. In this way, we need to understand the vows. 

The tantric vows aren’t easy to keep – for instance, meditating on the correct view of voidness six times a day. If we don’t have some idea of the correct view, how can we do that? There are serious considerations to take when we attend initiations. Have we really examined if we want to do this practice? That is the whole point of taking an initiation for a specific practice. It’s that we want to do that practice; otherwise, why are we there? For blessings and inspiration? That’s fine; but not if we are not really there to be able to engage in the practice. It might be that we are not planning to immediately engage in the practice, but perhaps it is a very old lama and someone for whom we have tremendous respect and they might not be around until we are ready to actually practice it. Therefore, now we plant the potential to be able to do it later on. That’s OK. But we are going to have to keep the vows all the way up until then.

The Body of a Buddha

It’s very important to understand what we are doing with taking these initiations. Without bodhichitta, as I said, visualizing ourselves as one of these yidams, these Buddha figures, builds up causes to be reborn as a ghost in the form of these Buddha figures. But with bodhichitta, we are dedicating the positive force of our practice to enlightenment. Again, we come back to karma. Instead of being reborn with a samsaric body and all of its limitations, we want to assume the form of the body of a yidam. A yidam is a meditational figure, or as it’s sometimes called a deity. Why? What misunderstandings occur about that? Isn’t it pretty weird? Is this what we want to do, become this figure with all these arms and faces and legs and so on, holding all these different implements? What is that?

The form body of a Buddha, in other words, the form that a Buddha appears in, is for fulfilling the aims of others. The Dharmakaya fills a Buddha’s own aims to have a true stopping of all obscurations, be omniscient, have equal love for everybody, and so on. A Buddha’s aim is to be able to help all others, but then it’s with a body and speech that we actually help others. Assuming the form of these yidams or Buddha figures is a method to be able to benefit others. How does it benefit others? Every arm, every face, every leg represents a different insight, a different realization or understanding in the basic teachings. For example, six arms are the six perfections. Three faces are body, speech and mind. Everything represents something. These Buddha-figures, then, are infographics. They are forms that help us to integrate all the various teachings and be mindful of them at the same time. This is what we want to be able to do as a Buddha. We are manifesting in these various forms as methods that others can practice as. This is quite important to understand. 

Rather than positive force ripening into a nice samsaric environment, we want it to ripen into a perfect environment ideal for practice. This is the mandala. Again, every architectural feature represents some aspect of the Buddhist path and helps others to keep mindful of all these things. 

Instead of compulsively repeating samsaric habits, we want the enlightening activities of a Buddha that are actually helping others and inspiring others. Rather than our ordinary happiness coming from samsaric positive potential, we want a blissful awareness of a Buddha that isn’t associated with any confusion and has no limitations. 

It’s very important, if we are going to undertake tantra practice and take an initiation, to have some understanding of what tantra is all about. We need to have confidence in the tantra method in order to actually undertake it. It should not be just on the basis of a teacher praising it or the propaganda that it’s easy or fast and we need a quick thing because we don’t have so much time. We need a basic understanding of what we are getting involved with.

The Teachings of the Seven Arya Gems

For this, I always find the teachings and presentation of the seven arya gems very helpful. Atisha emphasizes this quite a lot in his Bodhisattva’s Garland of Gems

(1) First of all, there is confidence, sometimes translated as faith, but that doesn’t really convey it. We need confidence in the teachings. If we don’t have confidence in the tantra methods and that they are effective and that we can actually achieve enlightenment, it’s not going to work. We need confidence in what we are attaining and that it is attainable, and that we can actually do it.

(2) The second one is discipline. Without taking the vows and having the discipline of refraining from negative behavior and engaging in positive constructive behavior, and the discipline to actually meditate and do all the practices, there is no tantra

(3) The next arya gem is generosity. We have to give our time to this practice. Also, we are imagining that we are helping everybody, so that takes being generous with our time. That has to be there. We can’t expect a rush job. This is going to take a lot of time and effort.

(4) We also need listening. We have to get the proper instructions and think about them so that we have confidence in our understanding. Listening basically means to study; whether it’s reading or whatever so that we have all the Dharma information and we think about it, understand and digest it. Then, with confidence we can put it together with the tantra methods

(5) There is also a sense of moral self-dignity. We don’t transgress the vows and have enough respect for ourselves based on Buddha nature that we are not going to act in some crazy way. As stressed over and over again, we keep the practices secret, as it is often translated. “Secret” doesn’t give quite the right flavor. Really, the connotation that is the most helpful is to keep them private. We don’t advertise to people what we are doing. We don’t put up pictures of fearsome Buddha figures or naked ones in our living room where whoever enters the room sees it and then wonders what it is or starts to belittle it or think that we are doing something very strange. Nothing will be more discouraging than other people criticizing or making fun of what we are doing. Keep it private. It is nobody else’s business what we are doing with our practice. Take that seriously.

There is part of an initiation that states that we need to keep the practice hidden and private and describes all the terrible things that will happen if we don’t. We might take these things like “our head smashes” quite literally; or, we also can understand it as it completely destroys all our confidence and energy during our practices. If we are doing this method and everyone is making fun of us and criticizing, we don’t want that. Our practice is something that we want to be able to cherish as something very special and precious that we are doing. Don’t just advertise it with a Kalachakra t-shirt for example. 

(6) Another Arya gem is to care for how our actions reflect on others, especially our teacher and our lineage. We are practicing tantra, for example, but then we get drunk and get in fights and cause all sorts of nasty upsets. This will never do. Especially relevant is if we can’t get along with our parents and don’t take care of them. It reflects badly on Buddhism, and on our teachers.

Sometimes, I ask my students why they don’t go out and steal. Why? Is it because they are afraid of going to hell? Nobody thinks that. Usually, it’s just that it doesn’t feel right. They just wouldn’t do something like that. Why? It’s because we have enough self-respect. That is this factor being talked about in this Arya gem. We have enough self-respect that we wouldn’t act in that way and we consider how it would reflect on our teacher and lineage.

(7) The last Arya gem is discriminating awareness of voidness in terms of the self who is practicing, what we are practicing and the practice itself. All three arise dependently on each other. It’s not that we are like this pathetic worm down here and the teacher is so wonderful up there and the practices are so special. The thing is to just do the practice without being self-conscious about it. It’s not that we are such a great yogi doing this or that; or, that we are so terrible and such a bad practitioner and so on. Don’t make it dualistic, just do the practice with an understanding that everything is going to arise dependently based on cause and effect, back to our basic teachings on karma. Everything happens according to cause and effect and dependent arising.

The Mistake of Over-Emphasis on the Details of Visualization and Rituals

The final topic that I wanted to address is thinking that the most important part of tantra practice is doing rituals and visualizing all the details correctly. This can be quite a mistake, especially in the beginning if, for example, we are wondering about all the jewelry that the deity is wearing and what it looks like with all the tiny little details of that. We can’t really get all of that going in our visualization at first. It’s impossible at the beginning to get all the details. As a result of trying to get all the details correctly and failing, we get totally discouraged. That doesn’t help at all. On the other hand, if we are just doing a ritual with nothing going on in our heads, it’s just like a child playing doctor or house. It’s just playing and that doesn’t have very much of an effect either.

Although we need to have some general idea of what we are doing, and some general idea of the details, don’t get obsessed with those details. They’re not the most important thing. The most crucial thing is our understanding of what we are doing. In the highest class of tantra, we want to transform the death, bardo and rebirth process. We need to understand how that happens and instead of uncontrollably recurring rebirth happening, in a parallel way, we arise in the form of an actual Buddha. That is the essential part of the practice. 

There are two factors that are involved in any visualization. Visualization means to imagine – and don’t think that it is just visual. It’s misleading to just call it visualization, because we are imagining with all our senses. Imagination is a very strong force that we have and we harness that in tantra. Many meditation manuals and instructions state there are two factors needed for successful visualization. The first factor is clarity. Clarity means to actually have something appear in our imagination, though not necessarily clearly in focus. The second factor is the pride of the deity. The pride of the deity means that, with a bodhichitta motivation and correct understanding, we take this visualization as the basis for the imputation of “me.” This visualization of ourselves as a Buddha figure represents the enlightenment that we haven’t achieved yet, but that we can achieve on the basis of the Buddha nature factors that are part of our mental continuums. Just as “me” is an imputation on our ordinary forms, “me” is also a valid imputation on our mental continuums way down the line when we are going to be a Buddha. On the basis of that imputation, the pride of the deity is the feeling that we are this Buddha-figure, but with the understanding of voidness and not solidly identifying a solid “me” with this figure. Actually becoming this figure can only arise dependently on causes and conditions.

In terms of that pride of the deity and a correct understanding of voidness and dependent arising, we feel that this is “me.” This feeling is not something crazy, because we understand that actually being a Buddha in the form of the deity is not happening literally right now. Regarding the clarity of all the details, the texts say that the pride of the deity is the most important. The visualization can be quite vague, but the important thing is to feel that “I am this,” and this is something that we can attain. As our concentration increases, more details of the visualization will come into focus. Know the details, but don’t be obsessed with getting, for example, all the jewelry right, and remembering all the things held in the arms. It can drive you crazy.

Advice for the Moment of Death

It’s very interesting when we think about our deaths in terms of what practice to do when it comes. We are simulating in tantra what will happen when we die. We want to to be able to die sustaining the clear light state of the mind with the full understanding of voidness and then arise in the form of a deity. That is very wonderful, but as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, unless we are super trained to be able to do that, it’s just going to freak us out when we are dying if we try to visualize that but can’t remember all the details and what we are holding in this or that hand. Being stressed like that, we are going to ruin that entire opportunity of being able to die in a calm, clear state of mind, because we are worried about all the details of what we are holding in our hands in the visualization. His Holiness advises that it’s much better to focus with bodhichitta, love and compassion while we are dying. “May I be able to continue to have a precious human rebirth so that I can continue to work toward enlightenment and benefit others.” Also, think of our gurus and die like that, unless we are super trained in our tantric practice. If super trained, that’s fine; but, most of us aren’t. 

This is very helpful advice and fits into the advice not to think that the most important thing in tantra is getting all the details correct.

The Three Principles of the Path

Renunciation

For successful tantric practice, Tsongkhapa emphasizes that we need the three principle paths of renunciation, bodhichitta and the correct understanding of voidness. Why do we need renunciation? Renunciation means the determination to be free of something. The Tibetan term literally means that we are very strongly determined to do something. We become certain about it. What are we determined to be free of? We are determined to get rid of and be free of samsara and all our limitations. More specifically, the mind projects all sorts of garbage or duality or whatever onto everything and we believe it corresponds to reality. That is what we are renouncing in tantra. It is the ordinary appearance-making of the mind and believing that it corresponds to reality. We believe that we and everybody has self-established existence, existence established all by something itself, independently of its context. 

The easiest and most clear example of seemingly self-established existence is a website. When a website page appears on the screen of our phone, it looks as though it’s arisen there just by its own power. It seems to come out of nowhere and it’s seems complete unto itself. There it is, wham, self-established all by itself. It doesn’t appear as if it depended on tens of thousands of hours of work by a hundred people or more to make this thing. It doesn’t appear as if it required the huge amount of money and time that it took to construct it. It doesn’t appear like that at all, does it? Why doesn’t it? How it appears to us comes from our minds; and our minds are limited. They make it appear like that, as if self-established.

The actuality is dependent arising. The website page has arisen on our phones dependently on all its causes and conditions as well as on the parts inside the phone. It is amazing how much it depends on. This is also an example of the teachings on karma. Things don’t arise from just one cause, but from a combination of many causes. Buddha said it nicely: a bucket of water is not filled by the first or the last drop. It’s filled by the collection of all the drops. Whatever happens arises dependently upon countless causes and conditions. Nothing just self-establishes itself under its own power. 

We want to renounce that deceptive, false appearance of self-established existence and also our minds making such appearances. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is always very interested in quantum physics and has a lot of discussions with scientists. With quantum physics, although not exactly analogous, there is a similarity with voidness theory. For example, we have a quantum field, meaning that there are all these simultaneous possibilities. It’s only with the interaction with an observer that the field collapses into either a particle or a wave, or into the particle being here or there. 

In quantum physics, the quantum field can only collapse once; but, here it’s like we have a quantum field of dependent arising. This is what a Buddha perceives, this quantum field containing everything interconnected with everything: all causes and conditions past, present and future, all beings and so on. A Buddha perceives the whole field of dependent arising simultaneously. This is the omniscient mind of a Buddha. Our limited minds collapse it into just one thing, dependent on our projections and our hardware. But what our minds collapse it into is an appearance that just we perceive, and it appears to us as being self-established. Furthermore, what we see through the hardware of our human type of eye, and what a fly sees through its multi-prism insect eye, are very different. What is the reality? How we collapse this field is dependent on what we see it through. It is the same thing with our conceptual frameworks and so on. Our limited minds collapse this field into a seemingly self-established appearance with a lot of projections thrown onto it such as “I’m no good” or “This is terrible,” and then we complain.

We renounce all of that and we want instead to collapse the field into a mandala and Buddha figures, yidams and all the deities. This is because it is very useful for others to be able to practice with them. As a Buddha, we want to appear as these Buddha figure bodies and mandalas and offer them to others for them to use on the path, because all these different arms and legs represent different aspects of the path. It helps them to integrate all aspects of the path simultaneously. 

Once we collapse this quantum field into just one appearance, if we take that appearance to be self-established, this is incorrect, whether we collapse it into our ordinary appearances or the appearances of a Buddha-figure. That’s why the understanding of voidness is essential, to deconstruct any appearance as being self-established, concrete reality. Nevertheless, we still want to renounce the ordinary appearance-making of our minds and use its ability to make appearances collapse the quantum field into a pure land and these various visualizations that we do. Renunciation as well as the correct understanding of voidness is essential here.

Bodhichitta

What we are visualizing and imagining is what we are aiming for because that represents our own enlightenments that haven’t happened as yet. With bodhichitta, we want to attain this not-yet-happening enlightenment and we are aiming to attain it in order to benefit all others. By practicing now, we are rehearsing. Doing that builds up a stronger potential to achieve it more efficiently than just sutra practice alone.

The Correct Understanding of Voidness

The correct understanding of voidness is that this not-yet-happening enlightenment with these Buddha-figures and mandalas don’t exist already, just sitting inside of us and waiting to pop out when we have built up enough positive force and deep awareness. That is a big misconception. Buddha nature isn’t just sitting inside our heads waiting to pop out. Enlightenment is not there already, but we just didn’t realize that we were already enlightened. That’s not a correct understanding of Buddha nature. There is a difference between what is happening now and what’s not yet happening, but which can happen. It’s not that enlightenment is impossible or that it is non-existent. 

For example, we can think about tomorrow, can’t we? Tomorrow isn’t happening today but we can’t say that there is no tomorrow and that it doesn’t exist. There is a big difference between something that doesn’t exist and something that is not happening now. Our future enlightenments are not happening right now; but, they’re not something that is totally non-existent. It’s not that enlightenment comes from nowhere and it’s not just sitting there in our heads waiting to pop out. It’s not going to come from nothing; it doesn’t exist in a dualistic way of being totally separate from our minds and our mental continuums and all our potentials. It’s not that we are over here and enlightenment is over there and we can’t possibly attain it. 

It is essential to understand dependent arising. Things arise dependently on many causes and conditions and that is the only way that our enlightenment can happen. It is the only way that we can have a meaningful tantra practice. We need to understand what is going on and that we are going to have to put in the hard work and be prepared for it. Tantra practice is not something that we start our Buddhist practice with. It’s not for beginners. It’s quite an advanced type of practice.

Transforming Our Lives

If we are already involved in tantra and we feel that we are really not ready or that it is premature, we need to make more effort in the basic teachings. We shouldn’t think of the basic sutra teachings of the four thoughts as kid stuff. The basic teachings are what really transform our lives and the entire point is to put them into practice in our lives. It is not just to rehearse them on our meditation cushions. The real practice is life. In difficult situations we need to practice patience and tolerance and understanding. We need to understand, when someone is acting in a very horrible way, that this has arisen from causes and conditions. We aren’t responsible for everything that happens in the universe or that we can control everything. That is a complete myth, isn’t it? We can’t get everything under control but we can contribute. However, everything arises dependently on many causes and conditions.

Questions

This is what I wanted to present about tantra and ngondro, some clarification on basic misunderstandings and just some advice about how to make our practice meaningful and effective. If there are other topics that you would like me to speak about, perhaps other areas of misunderstanding concerning spiritual teachers, whatever, please ask.

The Language of Practice and Putting Meaning into Our Practices

I have a question about language. In Tibetan Buddhism is it important to do the practices in Tibetan or can it be in our native languages? Some people stress it is important to use our own languages so it can be meaningful and come from our hearts and others suggest that the Tibetan language or original language has some spiritual qualities and that shouldn’t be under-estimated. Can you tell us your thought on this?

In terms of the language of practice, first of all, Tibetans do not do their practices in Sanskrit. They do it in Tibetan; so, Tibetans already have translated everything. Some mantras they keep in Sanskrit, but aside from mantras and a few names of flowers and things like that, everything is translated into Tibetan. The one great lama who emphasized doing all the practices in Tibetan was the previous Kalu Rinpoche. He insisted that everybody do their practices in Tibetan because he had many Dharma centers in different countries and he felt that if everybody was doing it in the same language, Tibetan, then people could practice together from all these different countries. It wasn’t that the Tibetan language was magical. Reciting in Tibetan was emphasized on a very practical level for building a community.

However, His Holiness the Dalai Lama says it’s best to understand what we are doing. We can understand it best in our own languages; but, the language should also be poetical and rhythmic, which is not so easy in many languages. It needs to flow easily when we recite something as a recitation practice. If we are reading a text, the language needs to be clear enough so that we understand the meaning. 

Dzongsar Khyenste Rinpoche put it very nicely when speaking recently in Germany. He said that if the Tibetans had to do all their practices in German, written phonetically in Tibetan letters, he doubts that any Tibetans would do any practices. It’s very helpful to look at it from the other point of view on how weird it is to insist that we recite things in a language that we don’t know. There are pros and cons of each point of view of whether we all do it in the original Tibetan language or we do it in our own individual languages.

My own personal experience as I studied and understand Tibetan is that in the earlier years of my Dharma practice, I did everything in Tibetan. But, then, because time was short, and I did it very quickly in my head, my practice turned into an act of almost just turning the pages rather than actually doing anything or adding any meaning into what I was speed reading in Tibetan. Therefore, after a while, I switched to English because that had more meaning for me. However, no matter what language we are doing our practices in, they can easily become an exercise of turning pages and speed reading. 

If our main problem isn’t mental wandering – and that is the biggest challenge – but if that isn’t the most challenging for us, the next problem is putting any meaning into what we are saying or reading. That is very difficult to actually do and to do it quickly. Serkong Rinpoche used to always say that we should be able to go through the entire graded stages of the path in the time it takes to put one foot in the stirrup of a saddle and put the other leg over the horse. He would say that death doesn’t wait for us to settle our posture and go through things nice and slowly. When death comes, we need to be able to get things together instantly.

This is what we are aiming to be able to do, not only at death but in life. If there is a situation that comes up, someone starts yelling at us or something like that, we can’t say, “wait a second,” while we sit in the proper position, count our breath to calm down, then go through a whole line of reasoning about the person having been our mother in a previous life and all of that, and then finally, we get up and have patience and wish them well. We don’t have time for that. Our patience has to be instantaneous.

We need to put meaning into what we are actually doing. If we are doing tantra, a lot of the practice includes these recitation practices. The recitation is like the script of an opera. We go through the four immeasurables and refuge. All the ngondro is there in the beginning section of any sadhana. In the longer forms of the sadhanas everything is included. There is always Vajrasattva, guru yoga and mandala offering. The real practice is to be able to actually generate the state of mind for each of these and not speed through and just turn pages. Regardless of whether we are doing the recitation practice in Tibetan or in our own language, it’s quite possible to do it with no meaning in either case. Just because it’s in our own language doesn’t guarantee that we are adding any meaning to it. That is where the real work is and it’s tough to actually feel something, to actually feel love, for instance, and then just go on to the next step of the recitation text. Do we really feel love?

Collective Responsibility and Karma

My question is about group or collective karma due to events happening globally and locally. How does Buddhist collective karma work? Aren’t we connected somehow as Buddhists to what’s happening in Burma, for example, in some way? Until I was confronted by someone recently, it had never even occurred to me that someone would assume I was like those Buddhist fanatics in Burma too, persecuting minorities.

The question is about collective karma and our responsibility in terms of that. First of all, there is the myth that all Buddhists are nice people. We can’t say that with any group of people everybody is like this or like that. We are all individuals. We can have a certain data analysis of the percentage that are nice and when they are nice, but this isn’t terribly helpful.

In terms of individual responsibility, if we look in the abhidharma literature at the list of mental factors that are always present in every constructive act as the basis of Buddhist ethics, they include the sense of moral self-dignity and care for how our actions reflect on the larger group, whether it is our parents or Buddhism. Each of our actions reflect on others, as theirs reflect on us as Buddhists. In that sense, we are not responsible for their behavior; but their behavior reflects on Buddhism and we follow Buddhism and this is very damaging for sure.

But, just because someone says that they are Buddhist or Christian doesn’t mean that they follow the teachings of Jesus or the Buddha. It is also a myth that all monks are enlightened and all Tibetans are Buddhas. People are people and everyone has their own samsaric garbage to deal with. 

In terms of collective karma, are we responsible for how they act in Myanmar? No, we are not responsible for that. Are people going to say that this reflects on Buddhism and therefore it reflects on “me?” Yes; but we can’t really defend their behavior, although we can explain that religion isn’t the only factor. These are also different ethnic groups involved and there is a history of conflict between Bengalis and Burmese. There are a lot of historical factors and it’s not so simple. But we don’t excuse what is happening and don’t say that it is good or condone it. But we do need to explain to others not to think that this behavior is actually following the Buddha’s teachings.

We need to explain that these are just ordinary, confused people carrying out persecution. As His Holiness says in regard to Islam, just because there are some “mischievous” people, as he says, there are “mischievous” people in every religious group. To say that everybody is a terrorist because of a small group of people that don’t really represent the religious teachings is a mistake. This helps us to not project that onto people of other religions when they have misdeeds in their communities. We can just explain to others that yes, this is terrible and that we agree and Buddhists condemn that. We can say that is a very complex situation and not just good against evil. What else can we do?

I think your question deals more with collective responsibility than karma. Collective karma is another topic. Why is this particular group of people injured in a natural disaster? That is something else.

Setting an Example and Teaching Children Universal Values

As Buddhists, hasn’t the time come to speak up more about actual Buddhist beliefs in compassion and peace because the world needs to know this?

In terms of these collective issues, do we need to think on a more global and universal level? I don’t think this is as much an issue of collective karma as it is an issue of dependent arising. We don’t just exist as individuals by ourselves. What happens in the world arises dependently on what each person does and the interaction between people. We can contribute to that, but we need to realize that there are so many other factors involved.

If there are so-called Buddhists acting in a very non-Buddhist way, as in Burma, we can try to set the example of what would be the proper Buddhist way. But we are only one individual and when we talk about a collective larger view, this is really an imputation, to use a technical term, on many individuals. We can look and see the trend, as almost a data analysis, of x number of people who are nice, x number who are not nice, and as an imputation, we can say there is a group of nice people and a group of not nice people. There are these trends, and statistics have a certain validity. But, statistics are made up by each individual person acting in a certain way.

I think the important thing is to set an example of what it means to actually put the Buddhist teachings into practice. Buddha taught in two ways, there are the scriptural teachings based on what he actually said and taught, and then there are the teachings indicated by his example based on his realizations. We too can teach in both ways, both verbally and in terms of the example we set. This can only be done individually. We can inspire others, and we can see a larger trend as an imputation on that, if more than one person is inspiring others by their examples. In that sense, we try to influence and make things better.

We have to be realistic. His Holiness the Dalia Lama is very wise in his approach. It’s very difficult to change the habits and patterns of adults at this point in their lives in terms of their ways of dealing with problems in the world with just aggression and violence and self-interest. What we need to do is change the education system so that rather than only teaching materialistic values, we also add on top of that what he calls “universal values” or “basic human values.” This is basic so-called “secular ethics” accepted in common by all religions and even by those who don’t accept any religion. This includes basic kindness, patience, forgiveness, being affectionate and taking care of others – such basic things. 

We can start to teach these values to very young children. There are programs being developed, such as one university in America and one in India, for a curriculum to bring this into the education system. This is done with very simple exercises. I’ve seen the material that they are working on and it’s brilliant. For example, they have an exercise for kindergarten children in which the children stand in a circle and the teacher stands in the middle. The teacher says, “Everybody who likes it when somebody is nice to you, come stand in the middle of the circle.” All the kids go into the middle of the circle. Then the children go back. Then the teacher says, “Everybody who likes it when someone is mean to you, come into the center of the circle.” Nobody comes into the center.

In this way, the children are taught the value of kindness and, simply put, that being nice is much better than being mean to somebody. There is a difference. Like that, we can gradually introduce these ideas in a non-religious context in the education system. The pilot projects thus far have been very successful. If we talk about collectively changing things, we have to start on the level where it can actually be effective. We need to be patient as this is going to take time. It is really about the future generation, these young children. 

With programs like this, there can be hope for the future; that is if we can get young people to lift their heads out of their phones and actually be involved with other people. That will be the big challenge. When virtual reality goggles take over, then it’s going to be really difficult for people using them to engage in the real world. I firmly believe that it is our responsibility as people who have confidence in the Buddhist teachings to try to explore ways in which we can help people in the future. We can see already what the problems are going to be with the younger generation. We need to think ahead about how we can help the future generations to avoid the dangers when most people will be replaced by robots and artificial intelligence. How will they deal with their lives and make them meaningful? 

We need to think about this now. Our collective responsibility is to future generations and the young children now, the ones who, at one and half years old, are already working with a tablet monitor. What are they going to be like when they grow up? This is the real challenge if we are going to be responsible Buddhists to help others.

Final Advice about Building Up New Beneficial Neural Pathways

In summation of what we have discussed, when we talk about meditation, it means to build up a positive habit, a better neural pathway. That is what we are doing. Of course, we have to quiet down to start with; but, just to quiet down is certainly only a start. That’s the preparation and the real work is to generate some positive state of mind. 

If we are going to be involved with these very effective and wonderful practices of tantra, for example, we need to be properly prepared. We need to think in terms of everything is going to arise dependently on causes and conditions. If we want to achieve a result, we have to build up the causes. Then things will follow from cause and effect. All the various pieces that we want to integrate within our tantra practice first need to be worked on individually. Then, gradually we try to bring them all together. 

Even if we just think in terms of compassion and wisdom, we need the two of them. But first we have to practice compassion and then wisdom or in the other order. Then, we learn to combine them. The thing that needs to really sink in is that practicing Dharma is serious work. As one of my teachers said, “If you practice fantasy methods, you get fantasy results. If you practice realistic methods, you get realistic results.” We need to approach our Dharma practice in a realistic way. If we want to achieve a goal, we need to do this, this, this, and this in an orderly fashion, with meaning and our hearts in it. The more that we accustom ourselves to practicing like that, the more our practice will sink in.

Often people ask about the difference between an intellectual understanding and a “gut” or emotional understanding. This has to do with how convinced we are of something. With intellectual understanding, we know something and can even be convinced it is true and beenficial. But, it isn’t only being convinced. We need to become so habituated to something that we actually feel it. That is the way that we get to a “gut” feeling of love or compassion, for example. We are so used to it. It’s not just thinking “I should love everybody, they have been so kind to me.” We can know that, but still get annoyed. We can even be convinced that developing compassion is constructive. We can agree that the whole world depends on the work of others and they are very kind. They do the work and we don’t have to do it. But, if we meditate, really cultivating this over and over again, it builds up the positive neural pathway and we feel it.

That’s what we have to do with neural plasticity. We need to change the way our minds are wired. The only way that we can do that is through cause and effect. The initial thing is to understand and become convinced that the Dharma teachings are correct. Then, we have confidence and can start to digest them. 

I should mention, as it comes from one of the instructions of Asanga, that to build up these beneficial habits, we might need remind ourselves with words. When we are trying to focus on something, there is a misconception that we have to quiet our minds completely and gain perfect concentration. There is an overemphasis on concentration completely devoid of all verbal thought. The text says reminding ourselves with words of the state of mind we are trying to generate is not a distraction. A distraction, or mental wandering, is to think about something completely different. In order to remain focused, sometimes we have to remind ourselves with a key word like “compassion” or “love” to help us stay focused. Otherwise, we might sit there and space out and that is not the point. When we start to space out and nothing is going on, we need to remind ourselves. It doesn’t have to be a long string of words, but just a key word.
Take a few moments to let that sink in.

Viewing Practice as a Mental Workout

I think that it is very helpful to view our tantra practice, especially sadhana recitation practice, as a mental workout. Many of us do physical workouts in which we do various exercises and repeat them over and over again so that we get physically stronger. Our tantra practice is mental exercise and it really is a workout if we do sadhana practice correctly. We have inspiration from the gurus, the four immeasurables, refuge, bodhichitta, Vajrasattva, guru yoga, and one thing after another. It is a workout. We can just go blah, blah, blah and turn the pages or we can actually use it as a mental workout to try to generate these states of mind one after another. However, we need to be prepared and this means that we have worked on each beforehand so it doesn’t require a tremendous amount of time to generate each part. We have to be familiar with it already; then, as a workout we go through all of these. It’s marvelous if we can do it. Just as a physical workout can make us stronger, on a mental and emotional level, these insights and realizations make us stronger.

If we look at our practice like that, then when we make the commitment to do a certain tantric recitation and visualization practice every day for the rest of our lives, we won’t think of it as something boring. It is tremendously challenging when we look at it that way. Our sadhana practice manual is our workout manual and it is going to take more than a lifetime to master it. But then we appreciate how great it is to have these types of practices and we have great respect for the tantric method.

Dedication

Whatever understanding and positive force has come from this may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everyone to achieve the enlightened state of a Buddha for the benefit of us all.

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