Point 3: Transforming Adverse Circumstances into a Path to Enlightenment
The third point looks at transforming adverse circumstances into a path to enlightenment, and it’s divided into several parts. One concerns our thoughts and the other our actions.
Transforming our thoughts concerns the thinking behind our behaviour, and then our view or outlook on reality. First, the thinking behind our behavior:
When the environment and its dwellers are full of negative forces, transform adverse conditions into a path to enlightenment, by banishing one thing as (bearing) all blame and meditating with great kindness toward everyone.
I’m not going to go into tremendous detail about behavior, but the main emphasis is to realize that our difficulties come from cherishing ourselves, and that all positive qualities come from cherishing others. So we have to banish or rid ourselves of one thing, that is self-cherishing, which bears all blame for our suffering. Having realized the importance and benefits of cherishing others, we meditate with great kindness toward everyone. Thus, when suffering occurs, we try to see it as the fault and result of self-cherishing, or egoism.
What do we mean by self-cherishing and egoism? Well, let’s say that we’re invited for a meal at someone’s house, and they make something we really don’t like. We’re unhappy, and we suffer. So here’s a negative situation. How can we change this into a positive situation, to help further us along the path to enlightenment? We need to look at what the fault is, and why we’re suffering. If we start to think of the host as someone awful, and put all of the blame on them, then the problem is we’re actually just thinking of ourselves. We’re not thinking at all of the other person who wanted to make a meal that pleased us, the host or hostess who had no intention of making something that we didn’t like. Because we think of me and what I like, and what I want, we suffer and are unhappy. So in this kind of situation, we try to use the circumstance to attack the strong preoccupation we have with me and what I want.
The structure here is quite similar to tonglen. In the stronger tonglen visualizations, we take in vomit and diarrhea and so on, which we naturally resist because of our self-cherishing. We need to overcome our unwillingness to get dirty and suffer, and let it pass through us. Likewise, we don’t make a big fuss over what someone serves us for dinner. Because of our wish to bring happiness to the other person, we take on the suffering of eating something that doesn’t taste so nice to us. Of course there are exceptions, for example, if we’re allergic to a food that will make us sick. We don’t have to be fanatics. Still, there are ways of excusing ourselves that are more considerate than just thinking of what we want, and getting annoyed, thinking, “Are you trying to poison me?!”
Another way to change negative situations into positive ones is to see them as ways of burning off our negative karmic potentials – something we need to do in order to achieve enlightenment. We can think, “Let’s just get this over and done with!” It’s like going to the dentist; rather than have them do a little bit of drilling over five different sessions, we might as well get it over with all at once, and then it’s finished. Do the whole thing now, and then it’s out of the way, forever.
When we think of taking on others’ suffering, it takes the focus away from just thinking about “poor me,” which is basically self-cherishing and self-indulgence. We strive for that example of a mother whose baby has a cold, but wishes more than nothing in the world that they could have the cold instead of their baby. If we’re taking care of someone with a cold, we need to be totally willing to catch the cold ourselves. If we’re very uptight about it, it won’t work. Mother Theresa used to say this to the people who would come to work with her. She said that to work with lepers, we have to be totally willing to catch leprosy. If we’re afraid of catching leprosy, then forget it. In fact, the more afraid we are of catching it, the greater the chances are that we will catch it, which is ironic. We’ve all noticed how when we’re very tense about something going wrong, then often, things do go wrong.
Voidness, from meditating on deceptive appearances as the four Buddha-bodies, is the peerless protector.
We can also transform difficult circumstances into positive ones with our view or outlook, namely our view of voidness or reality. Deceptive appearances here refer to the appearance of our suffering as if it were self-established.
- Reminiscent of a Dharmakaya – the omniscient mind of a Buddha, namely the natural, pure state of the mind – which is not created by causes and conditions, our suffering never has a self-established arising, because there is no such thing.
- Reminiscent of a Sambhogakaya – subtle manifestations of a Buddha – which never stop teaching in pure lands, our suffering can never have a self-established ceasing.
- Reminiscent of a Nirmanakaya – forms of a Buddha that appear in our world – which never stay still, but are always helping others in continually changing ways – our suffering never has a truly established abiding.
- Reminiscent of a Svabhavakaya – the inseparability of these three Buddha Bodies – our suffering can never have a self-established arising, abiding and ceasing. Because suffering arises, abides and ceases dependently on causes and conditions, it is totally devoid of a self-established arising, abiding and ceasing.
This is how we transform difficult circumstances with our thoughts.
The supreme method entails four actions to us, (so) instantly apply to meditation whatever I might happen to meet.
Transforming adverse circumstances with our actions entails four actions or methods we can use.
1. Building up positive force – often this is translated as “collecting merit,” which is a bit of a misleading translation. We’re not collecting points or stamps and if we get enough, we’ll win a prize. What it refers to is how we can strengthen our networks of positive potential, by acting in constructive ways and using our positive qualities. In this way, we can transform negative circumstances into positive ones. For instance, if there’s an accident, instead of becoming depressed or frightened, we can use it as an opportunity to help as much as possible those injured. This builds up further positive force within us, and changes the whole situation.
2. Purifying our negative force – if we’ve acted in a negative way and hurt someone, for instance, we might feel guilty afterwards. We can change this circumstance into a positive one by doing more purification practices. Rather than feeling guilty, we acknowledge what we’ve done and see that it was a mistake. What we did doesn’t make us a “bad person,” but we still regret that we acted how we did. We make a decision to try and not repeat it, reaffirm our safe direction in life, and then do something constructive to counteract it.
3. Making offerings to harmful spirits – to bring us more suffering. This is a bit difficult for us Westerners to understand. There is a very lovely practice that the Western Dharma teacher Tsultrim Allione, a friend of mine, developed based on the Buddhist practice of chod (cutting). She calls it “feeding the demon.” Let’s say things aren’t going well, and we’re miserable, unhappy and depressed. We imagine that our problems are caused by a harmful spirit or demon inside of us, in whatever we form we want, that comes out and sits on a cushion in front of us. We ask the demon, “What do you want?” and it tell us what it wants: “I want people to pay attention to me. I want people to love me. I want good health. I want to be young again,” or whatever it is that’s haunting us. Then we feed the demon giving it what it wants. It wants love, we’ll give it love. It wants youth and energy, we’ll give them. It’s a very powerful and helpful practice. When the demon has had its full, most people find that it goes away. Although in many texts we pray for harmful spirits to give us even more harm, this way of feeding the spirits is also extremely effective. It shows us that we already have inside of us the things we feel we are lacking and in need of, we just need to draw on our own inner strength to provide them for ourselves.
As with any practice, the way we enter and finish it is important. Just like a computer program, if we don’t do it properly, the computer might crash. Likewise, when doing meditation practices that deal with powerful emotions, we have to enter and exit gently, or we might crash! The way to enter and exist is to focus on the sensation of the breath going in and out of the nose, or the sensation of the abdomen going up and down as we breathe. This connects us with our body and the earth, and is really helpful if we’re dealing with really negative or terrifying emotions. If we’re working with a very strong emotional experience, it’s best to focus on the abdomen. The abdomen is where the navel chakra, the earth center – what we might call in the West the center of gravity of the body – is located, and so it grounds us more.
This is a really interesting exercise. Although on the surface, some of the teachings might seem strange, it’s good to go deeper into them. If in fact we do take safe direction or refuge in the Dharma, then we’ll be confident that there is something that makes sense, and that it’s not just some strange superstitious Tibetan trip. It’s something we can try when we’re tormented by feelings, like “I want to be accepted. I want to be successful. I want to be loved.”
4. Requesting the enlightening influence of the Dharma protectors – to bring more suffering and destroy our self-cherishing. A less skilful way of working with these protectors is to make offerings to help our positive potentials to ripen – in other words, to make things go well for us. This isn’t the best way to work with Dharma protectors because then that positive potential will be finished, and we’ll crash and be left with negative potential. The better way is to make offerings and perform pujas to help our negative potentials ripen, but in a minor way. In this way, obstacles that might come in a bigger form get burned off in a more trivial way. Then we’re left with our positive potentials, and things will go well.
My teacher Serkong Rinpoche again provides a perfect example of how this can work. I used to travel with him as his interpreter all over the world, and before travelling, he’d always have a big protector puja done. Then, at the beginning of the journey, something would always go wrong, but it would be trivial. Once, we took the overnight train from Pathankot to Delhi, to go to the airport, but something was wrong with the train reservation. The only place we could sleep was the berths right beside the toilet, in third-class sleeper. There were only two berths and so Rinpoche and I each had one, and the two Tibetan attendants had to sleep on the floor. So there was a negative situation, but it wasn’t a big deal – it only smelled bad and was uncomfortable – and it burned off obstacles. The rest of the trip went very well.
So, with Dharma protectors, the main thing to request is, “Bring me suffering; bring on the ripening of my negative potentials. I can handle them!” Our willingness to experience what ripens acts to lessen our suffering, and then the obstacles are finished. When things go badly, we ask for more, so we can get rid of the whole thing. We’re not praying to God or the Dharma protectors or the Buddha to give us these things, but our wishes and prayers help to create the conditions for our own karma to ripen. It’s actually quite practical!
Point Four: Condensation of the Practice in One Lifetime
The fourth point is to condense the practice in one lifetime into five forces. It can be done in this life itself, and also at death, and it’s also really quite practical.
In brief, the essence of the quintessence teachings is applying the five forces.
1. The force of intention – in this life, in each day that we have, we can have a proper intention. When we wake up in the morning, we can frame our intention, “May I be able to help everyone; may I be able to achieve enlightenment to help everyone fully.” This is important not just when we wake up, but when we encounter any difficult situation. For example, the kids are screaming and we’re going into their room to quiet them down. First we should set the strong intention, “May I not lose my temper, and may I treat them in a kind, loving way to stop their fighting.” It must be done in a way where our motivation is to really benefit the children, not just done for our own peace of mind. Before we go shopping, we could have the intention to buy only what we need, “I will not buy chocolate and cookies just because I’m greedy or have an urge at that moment.”
2. The force of the white seed – the intention to strengthen our network of positive force and to try and get rid of our negative potentials. If things are going well now, it’s the result of our previous constructive actions and the positive potential from them; when things go poorly, it’s due to our previous destructive actions and the negative potential left from them. The seed of our difficulties is our destructive behavior, and so we try to get rid of that seed and replace it with a seed of constructive behavior.
3. The force of habituation – whatever we’re doing, we should try and use the situation to further build up the positive habit of concern for others. This can include any neutral act we’re doing, like eating. We can eat to become strong so that we can help others. We can wear warm clothes so that we don’t get sick and unable to help others. Even if we go to sleep early or go to watch a movie, we can have the thought that we’re doing it to relax, so we’re able to build up the strength and energy to help others more. In this way, even relaxation can be turned into an incredibly positive action. Of course we need to be sincere about it. We can’t just say, “I’m going to stuff my face with this huge tub of ice cream so that I can benefit others.” That’s just an excuse to eat all the ice cream! Anything that we do, think in terms of doing it for the benefit of others.
4. The force of eliminating all at once – as soon as disturbing emotions such as greed, attachment and anger arise in our minds, we try our best to get rid of them as soon as possible – immediately if we can – like we would do if the cat jumped on the table and was about to eat some of our food. We chase it away at once. Tibetans love using animals to illustrate teachings in this manner, and often it can be quite helpful.
5. The force of prayer – to be able to accomplish our practice. It’s not like, “God, may I be able to do this,” but rather that we ourselves have the strong wish to do it. There’s also the implication of being so disgusted and fed up with our self-cherishing and selfishness that we can’t wait to just get rid of it. It’s like when a fly is buzzing around our heads; we get so annoyed that we make huge efforts to get it out of the room. The more we reject our selfishness by being disgusted with it, the weaker it becomes.
At the end of the day, we can pray, “May I never be separated from bodhichitta.” Serkong Rinpoche said that we should not ask our lamas to pray for us to not have sickness, or that our businesses go well. Rather, the best request for prayers from a lama is to pray that you’re able to develop bodhichitta as quickly as possible. Again, it needs to be sincere, and not just to impress the lama! This type of prayer is really important because normally, we’re in the habit of just making prayers for the worldly things that we want.
The quintessence teaching for the Mahayana transference of mind is the five forces themselves, while giving importance to my path of deportment.
At the time of death we can also apply these five forces, and this is considered as the best type of powa, or transference of consciousness, rather than some dramatic method of shooting our minds off to some Buddha land, that might not have much feeling behind it. If there’s no understanding at all of what we’re doing, then our level of motivation will be rather superficial.
1. The force of intention – the best thing to keep in mind when we die is the aspiration, “May I be able to develop bodhichitta further and may I continue this practice in all my future lives so that I may help others.” It is very, very, very important to have this intention when we’re about to die. What is powa, and where do we want to transfer our minds to? We don’t want to go to paradise – that’s not Buddhist. We want to transfer our consciousness to enlightenment.
2. The force of the white seed – giving everything away to others before we die, so that we won’t have attachment to money, possessions, or even our bodies. This, again, is important. It’s very sad what happens to peoples’ possessions when they die, as often those left behind squabble over the inheritance, causing lots of trouble. Or we might worry that they’ll just throw all of our “precious” things into the garbage, because it’s just junk to them and they want to get rid of it all. It’s much better to deal with all of this before we die. Give everything away, to our families and friends and the needy – that’s much better than everything being chucked into the garbage after we’re gone.
Overcoming attachment to our bodies, on the other hand, is not so easy to do. There are lots of intense practices that can be done for this purpose. For instance, if the custom in our culture is to be buried in the ground, we can make an offering of our bodies to the worms, “Worms, you’re going to have my body, so enjoy it. Have a good meal!” Tibetans use quite a horrible image, which is that if we are too attached to our body, we’ll be reborn as one of those worms crawling all over our decaying body. It’s pretty disgusting, so try not to be so attached!
3. The force of habituation – meditating on bodhichitta over and over again so that at the moment of death, as our mind becomes subtler and subtler, we’ll be able to stay focused on bodhichitta and enlightenment.
We need to recognize that this is also the teaching of the highest class of tantra as well. Enlightenment is a fully realized Buddha-nature or clear light mind. In anuttarayoga tantra, the highest level, we try to die with full awareness of our rough consciousness and conceptual minds dissolving into our subtlest clear light mind. We try to stay focused on that full dissolution that will be coming next, signalling our deaths. In tantric practices it’s the same, as we have to stay focused on the clear light mind in such a manner that it is a bodhichitta practice. It’s done with the intention to abide in and realize this mind in order to benefit others.
4. The force of eliminate all at once – overcoming, at the time of death, our tendencies of cherishing our own bodies. It’s taught that we should die like a bird taking off from a rock, without looking back. Then, with disgust about our past negative attitudes and actions, we try to take our vows and perform self-initiations before we die. This isn’t difficult, because even if we have a little bit of consciousness, we can reaffirm our bodhisattva vows.
5. The force of prayer – this is difficult because it’s a prayer to be reborn in a hell realm to take on the suffering of all others, and to not be separated from bodhichitta. How on earth could we be sincere about that?! Just as we ask the help of Dharma protectors to provide the circumstances to burn off negative potentials, likewise by being reborn in a hell realm, we would burn them off and get it over with. We need to feel that as long as we have the potential to be reborn in hell or as an animal, it’d be better to get that over and done with, so that with bodhichitta, we can continue on the path to enlightenment.
What is the wish to go to a hell? It’s not that we want to go because we’re bad people, or we deserve it. The wish to be reborn there is motivated by the desire to benefit others as much as possible, for which we need to get rid of our karmic obstacles. Instead of having fear and repulsion of difficult rebirth situations, we welcome them as chances to burn off our negative potentials.
We can also hold the aspiration, “May this suffice for everybody having to be reborn in a hell,” so we’re not just thinking about ourselves. Because of the positive motivation, the negative potentials will ripen into something very minor. It’s said that with a strong bodhichitta motivation, rebirth in a hell is like a ball bouncing. We’ll bounce into a hell realm for a few moments and then bounce out, but it still burns off lots of negative potential. Naturally, it only works if the motivation is sincere: “I really really really want to get rid of these obstacles so I can help others more. If we have the motivation of just not wanting a really long stay in a hell realm, then it won’t work.
Many people associate the idea of hells with non-Buddhist religions, and because they might have had difficult experiences with one of those religions, they don’t want to hear about hells in Buddhism. This is short-sighted. One way to understand the hells is to consider how as humans, each of our sense organs is limited in its ability to perceive the full spectrum of information in its particular sense field. For instance, we can only perceive visible light, but not ultraviolet or infrared light. We can’t hear as many sounds or smell as finely as a dog can. Similarly, there must be levels of pleasure and pain beyond what our body sensors of physical sensations can process. Beyond a certain level of pain, an automatic mechanism takes over that makes us pass out. A hell rebirth would be one with a body that has the sensorial ability to experience, with full consciousness, the furthest extremes of the spectrum of pain. To me, at least, that seems quite possible.
If we do fear rebirth in hell, however, then we shouldn’t do this practice by any means. It’s stated very clearly in the Buddha’s teachings, that a lower-stage bodhisattva should not attempt the practices of higher-stage bodhisattvas. The fox doesn’t jump where the lion can. These are very difficult and advanced practices. Of the five forces, we can certainly try to stay focused on bodhichitta as we die, and give our stuff away before so that we don’t have so much attachment. We don’t need to die and leave a mess behind us, but we can clean the whole thing up in advance. We can die with no regrets, and no unfinished business.