Precious Human Life and Giving Up Obsession with This Lifetime

Verses 2 through 4

Today, you are going to listen to me talk. But the words coming out of my mouth have already been spoken by the Buddha himself many times, and by His Holiness the Dalai Lama many times. Gyalse Togme Zangpo, the author of the text, is teaching us indirectly. 

Here, as Dharma friends, we have listened to His Holiness and our other teachers multiple times, but still we are like rocks. Not much change! When we recite the refuge prayer, try to think about the Three Jewels and the reasons for taking refuge. We go for refuge because we feel that it is necessary, not just to benefit ourself, our family, our country, but to benefit all sentient beings. All sentient beings have the right to be happy and the right not to be unhappy. Keep this in mind. This is how we keep all sentient beings in our heart. Then, when we recite the refuge prayer, it won’t be just empty words from the mouth, but it will really come from the heart. Now let’s set our motivation by taking refuge.

I take refuge, till my enlightenment, in the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Highest Assembly. By the positive force of my giving and so on, may I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.

Taking Advantage of Our Precious Human Life

(2) A bodhisattva’s practice is to leave our homelands, where attachment to the side of friends tosses us like water; anger toward the side of enemies burns us like fire; and naivety so that we forget what’s to be adopted and abandoned cloaks us in darkness.

We can say that there’s nothing particularly wrong with loving and having attachment to our family and disliking our enemies. But it’s all relative. We need to be able to set boundaries. Of course, there needs to be some love and attachment involved in taking care of our families. Otherwise, why would we even bother? And certainly, if someone says bad things about us or our family, falsely accusing us of doing something wrong, we can say, “No, I didn’t do that! You are falsely accusing me!”

This verse is all about attachment and clinging, which all of us have. The problem is that we simply can’t let go. What we need to do is let go, but we just can’t. A good example comes from one of my teachers. His sister was married, but the relationship was going badly because her husband was cheating on her. She was heartbroken and called my teacher one time when I was sitting there with him. They started talking and he was listening very carefully. He indicated that he wanted me to listen in, even if the phone call was very personal, and I was wondering whether he was trying to teach me indirectly! So, she complained, and he listened. And then, he asked her only one question, “Do you love your husband very much?” She responded, through her tears, saying, “Of course I do.” He said, “Then, if he is happy with someone else, why do you not let him go?” 

This is such a hard thing to do, but, actually, that is pure love. These kinds of things are going to happen to us and most likely have already happened in our own lives and our family’s lives. If the person is not a practitioner, then it can be hard to explain this teaching. If you give this sort of advice to a friend, they will probably think that your heart is made of stone! So what is the cure when we are facing big problems like my teacher’s sister? Well, when we face any problem, there are always two ways: clinging or letting go. Whenever we feel lost and hopeless and lonely, it doesn’t have to be this way. The problem is that we always cling. We can’t let things go. This is samsara.

My teacher advised his sister many times, and she eventually decided to give up her clinging. She told her husband, “Ok, if you want to be with another woman, go for it, be free!” Now, six or seven years later, her husband really appreciates her and has pure love for her. I met her husband and we talked about my teacher’s advice and how she practiced, and he cried a lot. He felt that he’d done something terrible. This is the power of practice. It is not easy, but we can do it too. 

The verse says that our attachment to family and friends acts like a torrent. Attachment brings everything together. The Buddha said that we attained our body because of attachment. Our mind is constantly thinking, “I like this, I need this, I want this, I don’t like this,” and on and on. This is our attachment. It is so strong. Even when we get angry, it is often because of attachment, to ourselves or our possessions. We see somebody messing with our things and immediately, we get angry. After we cool down, we probably realize, “How foolish I am, I shouldn’t have done that.” All these physical and mental actions come out to “protect” us from something. That’s why we fight. Somebody says something bad about us, and we can’t control ourselves. All we want to do is to destroy that person. 

But if you think about it, when someone says harsh words and we want to fight the person, it’s the words we’re upset with. So, shouldn’t we fight the words? But we don’t think clearly, and we lose control. In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Shantideva says that we would get so angry if someone were to beat us with a stick. But we don’t get angry with the stick – the actual thing that hurts us physically – we get angry with the person wielding the stick. Shantideva goes on to say that, actually, just as we don’t get angry with the stick but the person holding it, we should direct our anger to what is controlling the person: their own unawareness, anger, and attachment. This is what makes logical sense, but it’s difficult for us to think this way.

When we feel anger and aversion, we can’t see the situation clearly. When we have strong attachment, we cling and feel hopeless. I have problems with attachment, and so I always ask one of my teachers about it. I never ask him to give me teachings on the lam-rim! I say, “I have feelings for this or that woman. I have already tried applying some of the teachings, but it is not helping much, give me some tips.” Not every teacher can give direct answers to such questions, but he understands me, human to human. And I say, please don’t give me a speech on impermanence! The typical advice is to think of impermanence and the way that the body is made of blood and bones and so on. Come on! Even if you go to an open cremation and the brains come out, it won’t help. I have so many friends who are doctors and who cheat on their wives. Every day, they perform operations and take out organs, but still they have strong attachment to the human body! 

So, this very kind teacher always says to me that attachment is our worst enemy. When we talk of attachment, our mind should automatically see the disadvantages. The first disadvantage of attachment is that we try so hard to get something, but there is no guarantee that we will succeed. We fall in love but then see the object of our affection dating other people, and there is so much pain. This is the first pain of attachment. 

The second thing is that even if we do get something, there is no limit to our attachment. Look at how many relationships fail after just a few months or even after many years. We always grasp for something new or exciting, and not only with relationships – food, gadgets, electronics, clothes. This is why Apple is doing such a great job, thanks to our attachment! Even if we already have so many things to wear, we see some new fashion and think, “I have to have that, too!” We are never satisfied, and this means we can never “win.” We will never get to the point where we are satisfied and say, “Enough is enough.”

My teacher said that, of course, none of us think like this when we are in the thick of attachment, but this is how we must try to train. It’s not that we shouldn’t fall in love or buy a new phone, but that we need to be aware of the disadvantages and be ready for them.

Gyalse Togme Zangpo says that we should leave our homelands. What does this mean? Should we abandon our families? Give up our passports? Should I move far away from my homeland of Spiti, India? No, it doesn’t mean that. It actually means to give up our clinging and attachment and anger. And when we feel them arising, we let them go. Then, if our friend says something good or bad to us, we are ready to accept it and not act crazily. If our friend annoys or hurts us – well, we’re not perfect, so why should our friend be perfect? If our enemy hates us and says bad things about us, there is the distance to be able to take it in our stride. Leaving our homeland means to leave behind the rut of our usual ways of reacting with attachment and anger.

It’s like when I say my prayers and do my practices. There’s a tendency to think especially of the happiness of my parents and attendants and sponsors. But that’s not the right thing to do. Our motivation when doing our prayers should be unbiased, just like those of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas are. If I pray only for my family and those dear to me, and forget about all the other countless beings, then that is clinging. That is building up our homeland. So leaving one’s homeland is a mental thing, not a physical thing.

Attaining Mental Stability Through Seclusion

(3) A bodhisattva’s practice is to rely on seclusion where, by having rid ourselves of detrimental objects, our disturbing emotions and attitudes gradually become stymied; by lacking distractions, our constructive practices naturally increase; and by clearing our awareness, our certainty grows in the Dharma.

We normally do this, don’t we? When we have family or work problems, we want to run away to some solitary place, and go hiking or whatever. And the weekend is very important in the West. You want to spend it well, by visiting the beach or forest, or having a barbecue. Saturday goes very fast. And Sunday too! I studied in Canada, so I know this. The weekdays are spent at work with our boss and colleagues. So, on the weekend, we feel the need to run away to a solitary place with our family, or maybe even without our family. We want to find some kind of peace of mind there. On the one hand, this is a step in the right direction, but it’s not really enough. It is a bit like getting drunk and passing out, then after a few hours everything is back to normal again and we have to face reality. But we do it over and over again.

Bodhisattvas go off to solitary places in order to prepare themselves to get ready to fight against problems and obstacles. In the absence of distraction, we naturally gain strength. That is why the Buddha laid out the path of being a monk and nun, because generally there is less distraction with samsaric life when you’re a monk or nun. The Buddha set down quite a few restrictions, so many things that you can or cannot do. All of them help our practice go smoothly. 

Bodhisattvas need to go to solitary places and stay in meditative equipoise, but they can’t stay like that forever. The Buddha said so. Bodhisattvas can go into meditative equipoise to fight with disturbing emotions, focusing on voidness. They can stay like that for weeks and months, but not years or eons. In the sutras, it says that bodhisattvas in deep meditation are woken up by the Buddhas. It’s sort of like a snap or an alarm clock. Not a real alarm clock, but it’s like set up in the bodhisattva’s mind already. Sometimes we notice that we wake up before our alarm goes off. It happened to me today. Maybe five minutes before. It is the same thing for bodhisattvas. They are very committed. Their main purpose is to help others. Their practice is to help others. So, they cannot go off and stay in meditation forever. 

We are trying to follow in the footsteps of the bodhisattvas. We need to examine our negative emotions and try to understand how they arise. What is the antidote to our disturbing emotions? We start with developing shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind. What we’re lacking is beneficial habits. But luckily, everything is temporary, so we can change. It’s like the bubbles in the ocean. There are so many beautiful bubbles in the ocean, they arise for a few seconds, and then they’re gone. When we listen to the teachings of great teachers like His Holiness, we hear them in the morning, but by the afternoon they’ve all disappeared from our minds! To be able to hold on to the teachings, we need to focus with shamatha. To develop shamatha, we cannot continue living life the way we normally do. We really need to focus. That’s why bodhisattvas go to solitary places. Unwholesome and disturbing emotions gradually fade away, and they have the opportunity to focus more on the advantages of bodhichitta and voidness. That is really putting effort into shamatha. 

As we practice virtue, we automatically gain strength. With the clear focus of shamatha, we gain conviction in the teachings. You don’t need to try it for a long time. Just try it, maybe every day for an hour or thirty minutes. But do it every day, and then come back to His Holiness’ teachings. 

I once talked with a friend, a layperson, about what His Holiness advises us to do. He listened and practiced. Actually, he should be my teacher. After a year, he came back and said, “Rinpoche, now that I listen to His Holiness’ teachings, I think he has improved so much.” I said, “What are you saying with this?” He said, “Two years ago when I listened to him, I didn’t notice much, but this time I feel so connected with him, and the teachings he gave make me feel so incredible that I cannot explain.” He said, “Maybe His Holiness improved as a teacher.” Actually, His Holiness is the same person. It’s my friend who changed through his practice.

We can do it too. If we focus, so many beautiful things can happen within our own mind. Yesterday, I talked with a friend. Somebody had said something very bad to him and he couldn’t sleep at night. All he wanted to do was fight with him. There was nothing much I could do. He became very narrow-minded and biased, so I had to wait until he cooled down. But if we have our own practice, we don’t need to listen to others. Often, when friends are being supportive of us, their help is actually negative. We might say to our friend, “That person said something bad to me,” and then they say, “Yes, that person is very bad!” They want to help us and be supportive, but they don’t really help us. Maybe someone did say something bad to us, but once our friends come and support us, the person becomes 100% a bad person. We don’t need this kind of help from others! 

I’m not saying that our friends trying to help us have bad intentions. Not at all. But the way they help is totally the wrong way. When we have our own practices, we can face these problems. Some of my friends have problems with their “enemy,” and I say, “No, no, he isn’t like this, he said it because he felt like this, and you also did something wrong.” Then they will say, “OK, there is some truth in your advice, so tomorrow I will try to smile at him.” One of them later said, “I only smiled at him when he was not looking at me.” Well, it’s a start, at least! 

Giving Up Obsession with This Lifetime

(4) A bodhisattva’s practice is to give up being concerned totally with this lifetime, in which friends and relations a long time together must part their own ways; wealth and possessions gathered with effort must be left behind; and our consciousness, the guest, must depart from our bodies, its guest house.

We build up everything so strongly in our minds. He is my family, she is my friend, they are our enemies. When we make everything so solid, it’s a sign that we are preoccupied with permanence. We think that everything is permanent. We have to let this go. 

We always plan our lives as if everything were permanent. Gyalse Togme Zangpo says that even if we are so close with our best friend that we share a single plate and exchange our clothes with them, there will come a time when we have to part. No matter how much we earn, no matter the tears and effort put into earning money, whatever we have collected we will have to be parted from. The hardest thing is when our consciousness leaves our precious body. Our body is just like a guesthouse, but we never want to hear these words, let alone believe them. But our bodies are guesthouses, and we get to stay in them for 60 or 80 or so years. 

If you look at life, friends change one by one, the things we have get old and we buy new ones, our body changes, our mind changes. This is already a sign that we will have to leave everything behind. We buy a house, and then after some time we buy a better house. We can change all of these things without any pain. But when our consciousness has to leave the guesthouse of this body, that causes great pain. We still haven’t learned the lesson. Our ancestors and grandparents, and even people who are younger than us, have passed. We feel sad but never think that this too, one day, will happen to us. We always feel permanent. 

If you watch the news, they always talk about this or that accident, where however many people died. We might watch it and feel some strong feelings, but if we don’t put ourselves in the situation, we feel pretty safe. But all of those people in the accident have also watched the news before and thought exactly the same thing: this will not happen to me. We never know what might befall us. But usually, even if we think about the possibility of some accident happening to us, we just block it out. No more thinking.

There was a great master in Tibet who wrote amazing poems. He wrote one about impermanence, where it says that we humans are rather stupid. More stupid than goats and sheep. These animals are taken by the butcher, who will chop the head off the first one. The next one in line will shiver with fear knowing that they will be killed. But we humans go to funerals with black coats and just say, “Rest in peace.” Still, we don’t have any fear. So, in some ways, we are more stupid than animals.  

What is the point of fear? I’m not saying that we should be fearful of death. Here, Gyalse Togme Zangpo is saying that we should fear wasting our precious human life. We can actually do such amazing things with our life, but often we are too lazy. Our laziness takes over and then, all of a sudden, our life ends. Think about all the good things we could be doing. If we look at the reason behind us not doing them, it’s because our minds are full of the idea of permanence. We think that we will last forever. This is totally the wrong way of thinking. We should think of sickness and disease and death, not so that we are scared, but so we don’t waste the precious opportunity we have with this life. It also allows us to feel ready for when something does happen. We should be ready to die. We should be ready to leave our families behind in a very positive way. 

I have a good example from when I lived in Canada and was invited to a hospice. There was a lady in her 50s who had a brain tumor. She’d heard that there was a rinpoche in the area and wanted to meet me. I thought that maybe she was afraid of dying. I went there and talked about not needing to be afraid of dying. She listened very carefully. You know how I go on and on and I don’t stop. Eventually I stopped and she said, “I have been studying Buddhism for 30 years and I have used all my energy to practice, and I have not a single fear of death. I am ready to die. My fear is that because of the pain in my body, the doctors give me drugs. On these drugs, I cannot think about my practices. If I die without thinking about Dharma, what will happen to my future life?” 

I was not expecting this from her. I learned from this lady. I sat there for five minutes in silence, thinking a lot. And then I remembered one of His Holiness’s teachings, a wonderful teaching. His Holiness said the influence of our practice is incredible. When we have something very precious in our hands, let’s say we have the newest, most expensive iPhone, even if we fall asleep, we automatically keep hold of it. This has happened to me! Even though our focus is not there, but automatically there is the influence of, “I cannot let it go, I have to keep hold of it.” When they launch a new iPhone, the covers and the cases are already for sale too. They know how our mind works. After spending so much money on a new phone, you will also buy a case. You want to keep hold of it, not let it go. It’s the same thing with our practice. Once you feel bodhichitta or voidness, you don’t let it go. This is not about clinging here. It is more about seeing how precious it is. When you pass in an accident, you don’t have time to practice. No thoughts about Dharma. But the influence of your way of practicing is there. You are holding it. I said this to her. She had tears in her eyes. She thanked me for coming and said she was expecting this answer. She knew the answer. Somehow, she just needed someone else to come and say it. This is something I wanted to share.