Transforming Adverse Circumstances with Four Actions

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Introduction

We have covered how to transform adverse conditions into a path to enlightenment with our thoughts, and now we’ll discuss it in terms of our actions, which is explained in the last line of this section:

The supreme method possesses four actions of use, (so) instantly apply to the meditation whatever I happen to meet.

In a way, this line summarizes the whole section. It means that we should use whatever happens as our practice.

There are four actions that we can apply in any type of situation: (1) building up more positive potential, (2) purifying ourselves of negative potential, (3) making offerings to spirits, ghosts, demons, etc. and (4) requesting the enlightening influence of the Dharma protectors. The first two actions are not so difficult to understand or apply. Basically, when we’re in difficult situations, we would do all sorts of constructive actions for building up more positive force – such as helping others, the seven-part practice, and so on. In order to avoid future suffering, we would also do various purification practices such as Vajrasattva meditation for purifying ourselves of negative potentials.

Making Offerings to Spirits and Ghosts

When it comes to the third action, making offerings to spirits and ghosts, this is not so easy for us as Westerners to do, because many Westerners do not believe in ghosts. But if we do believe in them, in addition to making offerings to them, we also thank them for causing us problems, and even ask them to give us even more, “Give me even more here! Thank you. Let me take on the sufferings of everybody.” These requests are a type of tonglen practice.

An example of an actual offering that we could do, which the Tibetans practice, is to put a little bit of bread or leftovers outside the door or on one of our windowsills. Tibetans give only leftovers to the harmful spirits, hungry ghosts, and so on, since such beings have karmic impediments preventing them from eating anything that is good. We make a big mistake at tsog offerings when we give a lot of our offerings – an entire apple, for instance. A hungry ghost could never eat something like that. We have to offer them a tiny piece of a leftover. For example, after taking a bite out of an apple, we would bite off another little piece as our offering. Hungry ghosts experience great difficulty with eating, so we need to give only a little bit of food. It’s usually food of the worst quality. Often, we hear descriptions like, they’re only able to eat snot that somebody blew out of their nose or something similar. Also, we don’t put the leftovers on a nice plate, we simply place them outside, and we imagine that they come to eat whatever’s there, but we really let dogs or birds eat them.

Another positive practice would be to feed our stale bread or leftovers to the birds outside instead of throwing it away in the garbage. For many people living in the city this would be difficult, but Tibetans do this practice. If all of this is too hard to do, we at least try to make some sort of offering to them, develop compassion, and work for their welfare.

To help relieve the problems or interferences we experience from harmful spirits, we would say something like, “Please don’t cause further interference.” “I make you an offering, so that you don’t cause more.” or “Thank-you, please give me more. Great, give me more!” I remember when Ngari Rinpoche, His Holiness’ brother, would get bitten by mosquitoes when traveling in India, Rinpoche just offered himself and would say, “Come on all of you, come and eat me.”

Similarly, sometimes we have these days when everything breaks down – our computer crashes and all sorts of things. Instead of getting upset, we should adopt the attitude, “Come on, give me more, what else is going to break today?” I find this kind of approach very helpful on days like these.

Returning to our discussion about making offerings, they are a way in which we transform our actions. It’s referring to offering food of bad quality to the hungry ghosts. We don’t think, “I don’t want to eat this part because it’s dirty or rotten. I’ll give it to the ghosts.” We give with compassion, because that’s what they would like, or that’s what they can eat. The point of this is not that we want to feed the birds that will most likely eat the offerings anyways, but to feed the ghosts that are causing us harm. Teachers say that we can even make an offering when we go to the toilet, that our waste is something that hungry ghosts can eat. So, every action can be transformed into something that can help us on the path to enlightenment.

One practice that I find very helpful in relation to making offerings was developed from the chöd (pronounced “chö”) practice by a friend of mine, the Western teacher Tsultrim Allione. Chöd means “cutting up and giving.” She calls it “feeding your demons.” It’s an excellent practice. Let me explain it briefly:

We focus on our big problems, those that are haunting us – whatever that particular problem might be – loneliness, fear, or the feeling, “Nobody loves me,” or “I’m not good enough.” Then, we imagine that our problems take the form of a demon, and we envision what that demon looks like – whether it is large, small, or slimy, or whether it has many arms and legs, big fangs, horns, etc.

Then this demon sits directly in front of us, and if we want, we can also put a pillow on the floor in front of us. It’s almost like a Gestalt therapy. We put the demon there, and we ask, “What do you want?” The demon then tells us what it wants, for example, “I want everybody to love me,” “I want people to pay attention to me,” “I want more self-confidence,” etc. Then we imagine feeding the demon exactly what it wants. We do this with love and attention. Eventually, what we find is that the demon becomes satisfied and goes away. We can even go on and then ask the demon, before it goes away, “What are you going to do with what I have given you.” This can make the practice even more beneficial.

This is a very effective and profound practice because what it demonstrates is that we’re quite capable of giving. In a way, we actually give to ourselves. Afterall, it never helps to just sit and complain, “Others should pay more attention to me.” This is a very practical way to deal with such depressing feelings of self-pity. We may, however, have many demons that we have to feed, not only one. So, we just continue with this practice, working with one demon at a time.

Receiving Help from Dharma Protectors

Finally, the fourth action that we can use is requesting the enlightening influence of the Dharma protectors. This means to ask for their influence to bring us more suffering and destroy our self-cherishing. As we previously discussed about the tonglen practice, requests of this kind provide us with the circumstances for our own karmic potentials to ripen.

Actually, there are two ways in which Dharma protectors can help us. One is actually very dangerous – turning to an unreliable Dharma protector that provides circumstances for our positive potentials to ripen quickly. For instance, we rely on them, we get a lot of money and things go very well, very quickly. But as a result, since our positive karmic potentials are burned off, we crash terribly afterwards because we’re only left with the negative ones. This is an example of an unreliable type of Dharma protector.

On the other hand, the reliable Dharma protectors are the ones that bring the circumstances for our negative karma to ripen first. They usually ripen in a very trivial, annoying way. In this way, the bigger obstacles that could have happened are finished off quickly. Then we’re just left with all of our positive potentials that allow for whatever we’re doing to go well. This is the way the Nechung protector helps, for instance. Serkong Rinpoche always used to have a big puja done for Nechung right before our world journeys.

Just to give an example, we were going down to Delhi from Dharamsala to catch the plane. We took the train from Pathankot and there was some mix-up with our train reservation. The only space that we could get on the train was two sleeper berths in third class. Those were the days when they still had third-class carriages, and the berths we got were in the corridor right next to the toilet. Rinpoche took one berth and I took the other, but the two Tibetan attendants had to sit on the floor by the toilet for the whole night. It was very unpleasant, very uncomfortable, but everything else on the trip went absolutely well.

Similarly, during the second journey there was a mix-up with the train, and we couldn’t get on the train at all. Since it was in the middle of the night, we had to take a bus to Chandigarh, and then about three o’clock in the morning change buses. In a big rush we had to bring down all of our luggage from the roof of the first bus, rush to put it on the roof of another bus going after a few minutes to Delhi and jump on before it pulled out. It was a very unpleasant, but ultimately trivial experience. Nobody slept that night, except Rinpoche who could sleep anywhere. However, after that, everything went very smoothly on our trip.

When these things came up on our journeys – with the train and the bus and so on – everybody was just absolutely delighted. They were so happy that this was happening, because it was clear what was going on. So, whenever things are going poorly, we think, “This is wonderful. This is a blessing from my Dharma protectors. They’re burning off obstacles in these more trivial ways so that things don’t get much worse.”

It’s to bring on these types of situations, then, that we make offerings and requests to Dharma protectors, “Bring on the negative circumstances, let them burn off.” It’s very helpful if we think in these ways, and it’s not just pretending, but we need to actually have the conviction in all of this. Otherwise it’s complete nonsense if we don’t think in these terms, and believe in them, as it were. When we do, it’s an excellent way of transforming adverse conditions and circumstances into positive ones.

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