The Essence of the Practice: The Five Forces

How to Use the Five Forces in This Life

The fourth of the seven points is the condensation of the practices for one lifetime – how to condense all the practices into the essentials for a lifetime. This process is divided into two stages: what we do during one lifetime, and then what we can do at the end of this lifetime when we die. To begin our discussion, let’s review the practices that we can do in this life.

The text reads:

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

This refers to the forces that we can apply every day, all day long. These forces are the essence of the practice. The first of these is the force of the intention. When we wake up, it’s very important to set the intention for the whole day, which is to try to work with bodhichitta and strengthen our bodhichitta resolve. Our aim should be to always be kind and not to get angry. We can do this before we go to the supermarket, for example – we can make the strong determination that we will not be greedy, not buy things that we don’t need, such as candy, biscuits, or chocolate. We can also make this strong resolve when we have to be around people that are quite difficult to be with. Beforehand we can set the intention not to get irritated or angry.

The Kadam Geshes used a rather helpful technique to help set their intention. They would write such sayings as, “Don’t let your mind wander,” “Don’t get angry,” “Develop bodhichitta,” on the walls of the caves in which they meditated and lived.

The second force is the force of the white seed, which means to try to build up more and more positive force every day – the so-called “white karmic potential” – and to purify ourselves of negative potential, which means to rid ourselves of it. This practice acts as the seed for changing our circumstances. It is said that a brave person can’t kill enemies with just bravery. A brave person needs weapons, a shield, helpers, and so on. Although we need to increase our positive force and to diminish our negative potential, we can’t only rely on the basis of the resolve, “I want to be able to overcome my negativities; I want to be able to benefit everyone.” We also need the right kind of practices to build up these abilities.

The third force is the force of habituation. We need to build up the mind training practices into a habit by applying them more and more every day. To do this, then no matter what we are doing, we can use it as an opportunity and habituate ourselves with having concern for others, and not just concern for ourselves alone. For instance, when we eat, we can think, “I’m eating in order to make myself strong and healthy, so that I can help others.” When we put on warm clothing, we can think, “By doing this, may my body be more fit and not sick, so I can help others.” Further, when we help somebody, we can think not just in terms of the trivial help that we might be offering, but we can have the strong desire, “May I help them reach enlightenment.” These are all examples of the force of habituation. We can habituate ourselves like this every minute of every day. This way we’re able to transform even completely neutral actions into things that can help us on the path.

The fourth force is the force of eliminating all at once. Sometimes it’s translated as “disgust,” but it literally means “to get rid of something at once.” For example, we become so disgusted when our self-cherishing and our selfishness arises during the day, that the strong desire develops, “I can’t wait to get rid of it,” or, “I just want to get rid of it all at once.” It’s like if there’s a mosquito or a fly buzzing around our face, we don’t have much patience or tolerance whatsoever. We think, “I want to get rid of it immediately so that it stops bothering me.” That’s the kind of attitude we’re talking about. It’s quite effective to think that our self-cherishing is like a mosquito or a fly buzzing around our face. Furthermore, the more we reject our selfishness, the weaker it becomes. If we think of all the disadvantages of selfishness when it arises, we are better able to reject it.

I think more and more we can appreciate how advanced these practices are. These are not at all beginner practices. In fact, these are real bodhisattva types of practices that we need to learn and do. We can’t only have a comfortable practice, where “Everything is just nice, pleasant, and so easy.” Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey used to say, “If we want that, it’s a sign of our laziness.” It’s as if we want to get enlightenment cheap.

The fifth force is the force of prayer. At the end of our meditation sessions and at the end of the day, we pray, “May I never be separated from the two bodhichittas.” As an example of this, Kadam Geshe Ben Gungyal used to have a collection of white and black stones. He used to put aside a white stone for every time he had positive thoughts or did positive actions during the day, and a black one for every time he had selfish and negative thoughts or did negative actions. At the end of the day he would tally them up to see how he had done. If there were more black stones, he resolved to try to do better, and if there were more white ones, he would congratulate oneself – although not in a prideful way. Then, he would pray that he would be able to improve more and more every day.

When we ask our spiritual teachers to pray for us, it’s not proper to ask for selfish or personal things, “May I have no sickness, may my business go well, may my daughter find a good husband, etc.” Instead, it’s best to ask our teachers to pray that we’re able to develop bodhichitta as quickly as possible.

How to Use the Five Forces at the Time of Death

At the time of death, we can also apply these five forces. This process is described in the next verse:

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

Deportment means how we act. We have good deportment if we act properly in this critical situation of our death. Overall, this verse is referring to the best type of Mahayana transference of mind at the time of death, which is called powa (pho-ba) in Tibetan. The best type of powa is not when we imagine that our mind shoots out of the body and goes to some pure land, but it’s to apply the five forces themselves. That’s the best transference of the mind into better circumstances at the time of death, as it allows us to follow the bodhisattva path in future lives. So, when we die it’s important to remember to apply these five forces again.

The intention refers to the best dying prayer to make on our deathbed, “May I be able to develop bodhichitta and keep it firmly in the bardo realm in between lives and in my next lives.” This is the best way to transfer our consciousness to a rebirth state conducive for developing bodhichitta further.

In fact, this is how Geshe Chekawa died. He had an even stronger bodhisattva intention, which was, “May I be reborn in one of the hell realms in order to be able to help others there.” This prayer, though, has to be really sincere. What usually happens as a result of such a prayer is that we’re born in one of these hell realms just for a very short time, and then immediately after that we get a very wonderful rebirth because of all the positive force that we have built up. However, if the ultimate aim of the prayer is to just bounce into a hell briefly and then get a really good rebirth after that, this is not going to count as a bodhisattva practice, as this kind of intention is just for our own selfish purposes. We have to really want to be reborn in one of the hells and have a real desire to help the beings there.

Despite his prayers, when Geshe Chekawa died, he received signs that his prayer was not going to be fulfilled. He had indications that he was going to be reborn in some wonderful situation, so he was quite sad at the time of his dying. His disciples asked him why he was sad, and that’s how the story came out. He said, “I was always praying to be reborn in a hell, and now I see it’s not going to happen.”

A rebirth in a wonderful state is the result of such altruistic thoughts as Geshe Chekawa had, of course, but still we need to be willing to go to a terrible place full of suffering and hardship. In this lifetime as well, Serkong Rinpoche always went to the worst places to teach – places that nobody wanted to go, like to the Tibetan soldiers that were part of the Indian army on the Himalayan border. Even though he was old, he used to go on a yak up to the high mountains to teach these Tibetan soldiers. It was with this tradition in mind that I also traveled around to teach Dharma in communist countries (when they were communist), and then around South America, Africa and the Islamic Middle East in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I would go to the most difficult places, where nobody wanted to go. So, at the time of death, we could have the wish, “Even if not in the hell realms, may I be born in a place where there is no Dharma, to be able to help and teach others there.”

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

The third force is the force of habituation. As we’re dying, what we try to do is stay habituated with bodhichitta. As our consciousness gets more and more subtle as we go through the process of dying, we need to try to keep our focus, as much as possible, on bodhichitta. That means to concentrate on our own individual future enlightenments that we’re aiming to achieve. We do this with the intention that we set before, “I want to work toward enlightenment in all future lives so as to be best able to help everyone.” As we go through the dying process, we try to keep close acquaintance with this intention if we’re able to do so with some clarity of mind – but of course only if the death process happens slowly, not quickly like being hit by a truck.

It’s very important that we habituate ourselves with this force of habituation during our lifetime as well, because often what happens is a truck might be coming right toward us, and the first thought that comes to our minds is “Oh, shit!” This is not such a wonderful thought to have as our last thought. If we’re really habituated with taking refuge and bodhichitta, then in times of real danger, when we don’t have so much time, particularly at the time of death, we will be better prepared and not think, “Oh, shit!” As we can see, we need to be careful about our last thought so that we are not reborn as a fly on a pile of shit, if I may be a bit graphic.

Instead of using this explicative, “Oh, shit!” the Tibetans say “konchog sum,” which is the “three jewels of refuge.” It’s a bit equivalent to saying “Jesus Christ!” when we’re in some difficult situation. Although this saying isn’t often said in the most positive state of mind, it is a far better thought to die with than “Oh, shit!” That’s because at least with taking refuge there is the hope, the possibility that our death will end with more of a positive meaning.

The fourth force at the time of death is eliminating all at once. This applies to self-cherishing our own bodies. It is said that we should try to die like a bird taking off from a rock – just fly off without looking back. Before we die, we should feel regret about our past negative actions, try to renew our bodhisattva vows, or if we’ve done a tantric retreat, do the self-initiation to try to purify ourselves of the negative force of having broken our commitments, and then just leave.

The fifth force is the power of prayer at the time of death. It could be, as we suggested before, a prayer that we are reborn in the hells, to take on the suffering of all others there. But what might be a little bit easier is the prayer not to be separated from bodhichitta and the opportunity to work toward enlightenment in all our future lifetimes.

While giving importance to my path of deportment.

This line refers to what we’re actually doing while we’re dying. The Tibetans consider the physical position in which we die to be quite significant. It’s advised that our head faces north and that our face is turned toward the west. It’s also recommended to die in the same position as Buddha did, on our right side, as well as to try to sleep in that position. Usually, the position involves having our right hand underneath our head, our left hand along our side, and our left leg on the right one, forming a straight line with our body. We also try to die with all these thoughts of the five forces while also doing tonglen. Actually, Serkong Rinpoche died doing tonglen in this position, although he had his hands crossed in a tantric version of it.

Obviously, this way of dying is only appropriate for somebody who has practiced all of these types of mind training and bodhisattva practices very intensively during their lifetimes. It is not recommended for somebody that is unacquainted with these advanced practices. To conclude, this has been an overview of the fourth point, which is the gathering together and condensation of the practices for one lifetime.

Discussion: Praying to Be Reborn in a Pure Land

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

Prayer to be reborn in a pure land is another kind of bodhisattva practice, but it’s not part of the lojong mind training tradition.

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

No, we pray to be reborn in a hell.

Or to have a human life?

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

Being reborn in a pure land – which is, of course, another big topic of discussion of what that actually means – is basically like having a time out from having to deal with all the difficult situations of samsara. We want that in order to do intensive practice non-stop, so that we can really make further progress without any hindrance. But that’s in many ways the opposite of the mind training tradition, which is to not take time out, but to transform negative and difficult circumstances into positive ones conducive for practice. But obviously both pure land and mind training practices are done to benefit others, so it’s just a different practice, a different tradition. So, which one do we do? That’s entirely an individual choice.

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

That’s why I’ve said several times that these practices are very advanced, not at all for beginners, and not at all for the weak-hearted, or for those who are not already stable in their practice. However, the whole practice of tonglen is to develop the courage and the willingness to do all of these advanced practices we’ve discussed. Whether we’re able to do them or not, as the saying goes, a fox doesn’t jump where a lion can leap. That means we shouldn’t attempt to do practices when we’re not ready, those that are much too advanced and difficult for us to do.

Mind training, lojong, is a very advanced practice, yet people trivialize it, “Oh, this is sutra.” That’s really sad that they don’t understand and appreciate its profundity. But if we’re at the stage where we can practice it, it’s unbelievably effective, and it’s certainly what the great masters do.

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

That’s OK, but only if that’s a sincere intention. Often, however, it’s mixed with a misunderstanding of pure lands. The wish to be born in a pure land becomes mixed with the wish to go to a paradise, where everything is nice and easy. We don’t think that we’re going to have to work there in intensive non-stop practice, twenty-four hours a day. We think we’re going to sit and relax by the swimming pool and enjoy ourselves, playing cards with our friends – like retiring to Florida. However, it’s not like that at all. It’s not a paradise in that sense. We don’t go there to have a good time. We go to do work, the unbelievably hard work of intensive Dharma practice.

The wish to be born in a pure land, though, entirely depends on the person. Like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I personally have never been attracted to pure lands. What I find more attractive is having a precious human life over and over again, so that I can work to help others as much as possible now, on the way toward enlightenment. It doesn’t matter if it takes three countless eons, at least I try to benefit others as much as I can right now. To continue having a precious human life is something that I’ve always been more attracted to.

So, yes, there’s a danger both in wanting to go to a pure land and wanting to stay in samsara to help others. In terms of staying in samsara, the danger is we get caught in really difficult situations and act poorly or give up. But that’s why we train in these practices, to transform difficult situations. And as I say, the big danger of practicing powa to go to a pure land is that it may be with a wish just to go to a paradise, which is basically self-cherishing.   

But I think it’s not necessarily so?

No, of course neither of these tracts of practice have to be like that.

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

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

When we’re learning one particular method, like from the lojong tradition, we try to just learn it for itself, not think, “Wouldn’t working on another method be better or more suitable for me?” Maybe another method might suit us better, but that’s not the point. The point is to learn this method so that we have that in our repertoire. Then, according to the circumstance, we see what is fitting for us to personally practice. The more possibilities we have, the better – the more flexibility we have. Who knows what level of development we’ll be at when we’re about to die?

“May I be reborn in one of the hells” – that’s the most advanced level, but normally we say the best prayers to die with is, “May I never be separated from bodhichitta. May I never be separated from fully qualified, perfect gurus in all my lifetimes. May I always have a precious human life all the way to enlightenment. May I always work toward reaching enlightenment for all.” Those are the prayers to say at the end of every day and after all of our practices when we dedicate the positive force built up. These are the basic prayers.

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

Yes, then it’s open, and it’s the same wherever you’re reborn if you have bodhichitta, then you can work toward enlightenment and benefiting others. Whether it’s in a pure land, on earth, wherever, it’s OK.

Yes, “May I be reborn wherever would be the most efficient and beneficial for me at this point in my development.” And if we pray to go to a pure land, but we end up in a difficult situation, we better have trained in lojong beforehand, so that we can handle it.

Even if we can’t practice these lojong methods effectively now, if we’re not yet at that level, at least we can pray to be able to reach a level where we can sincerely practice like this. We do that because we see how powerful they can be. If we’re born in a situation in which things are too easy, similar to what’s described in the god realms, we’ll become very lazy and not be motivated to do anything. It’s when we’re really in more difficult situations and really challenged that we grow.