Transforming Adverse Circumstances with Four Actions

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We have covered how to transform adverse conditions into a path to enlightenment with our thoughts, and now we discuss it in terms of our actions, what we can actually do. What we can do is explained with the last lines of this section:

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

That sort of summarizes that whole section – we practice with whatever happens. There are four actions that we can use, or apply, in any type of situation. These four are: (1) building up more positive potential; (2) purifying negative potential and disturbing attitudes; (3) making offerings to spirits, and ghosts, and demons, and this sort of thing; and (4) requesting the enlightening influence of the Dharma protectors.

The first two are not so difficult to understand or to apply. In order to avoid suffering in the future, we would do all sorts of actions to build up more positive force – helping others, the seven-part practice, this type of thing. So, when we’re in difficult situations, use that as a circumstance to work more toward doing positive things, and also to purify ourselves of negative potentials, do the various purification practices, which there is no need or time at the moment to go through all of that – Vajrasattva purification and so on.

Making offerings to spirits and ghosts – this is not so easy for us as Westerners to get into. Basically, we make them offerings, thanking them for causing us trouble, for causing us problems, and we ask them to give us even more, “Give me even more here! Thank you. Let me take on the suffering of everybody,” this tonglen type of practice.

For this, an actual action that we can do, and Tibetans do this, is put a little bit of bread outside the door, or some leftovers. Usually the Tibetans will give leftovers to the harmful spirits – hungry ghosts and so on can’t eat anything which is good. People make a big mistake at tsog offerings when they give a lot of their offerings, a whole apple or something like that. A hungry ghost could never eat something like that. You have to give something that is a leftover. You’ve taken a bite out of it and you give a little bit. They’re obstructed from being able to eat, so you give a little bit, of the worst quality – you hear the descriptions – they’re only able to eat snot that somebody blew out of their nose or something like that. That’s what they’re able to eat, so you give them what they can eat, not the most magnificent meal. You put it not on a nice plate – this type of thing, and you imagine that they come, and they eat this little piece that’s left over, and you let the dogs or the birds or whatever eat it.

That, as opposed to, which would be a positive practice, the first thing, which would be to – your stale bread, feed it to the birds outside, don’t throw it in the garbage; or your leftovers as well, rather than throwing them away, as many people do, give them out to the insects or the pigeons or whatever. For many people living in the city that would be difficult, and many people would find that difficult to do, but Tibetans do this practice here. If it’s too hard to do that, at least we make some sort of offering to them, and try to develop compassion, and feel to work for their welfare.

“Please don’t cause further interference” – when we’re experiencing interference and problems, they are causing that, so “I make you an offering, so that you don’t cause more” – if it’s too difficult for us to say, “Thank-you, please give me more. Great, give me more!” That would be the full version of it. I remember Ngari Rinpoche, His Holiness’ brother, was staying one place, we were traveling with His Holiness in India and he’s getting bitten by mosquitoes and he sort of just went out and just offered himself, “Come on, all of you, come, eat me,” he really yelled at them, sort of, “Come and get it.”

Sometimes you have these days, I have these days, where everything breaks – your computer crashes and all sorts of things – and so the attitude is, “Come on, give me more, what else is going to break today?” Thinking in terms of the harmful spirits, “Thank-you, give me more. Let’s get it all over with.” I find that very helpful on days like that. “Come on, what else is going to break, bring it on,” and then you laugh.

This is referring to an action, a way in which we transform our actions, it’s referring to actually putting out offerings for them, but offerings of bad quality, what they can actually eat. You don’t think, “Well, this is the part that I don’t want to eat, because it’s dirty. I’ll give it to the ghosts.” It’s with compassion for them, because that’s what they would like, that’s what they can eat. The point of this is not to feed the birds, who are the ones that will actually eat it, but to feed the ghosts that are causing you harm. Teachers say that we can even make an offering when we go to the toilet, that this is what the hungry ghosts can eat. So, every action can be transformed into something that can help us on the path to enlightenment.

What I find is very helpful here is a practice that one Dharmacolleague, a friend of mine, the Western teacher Tsultrim Allione, developed from the chod (pronounced “chö”) practice, some people mispronounce it as “chot” practice, the “cutting up and giving,” which she calls “feed the demon.” It’s an excellent practice. Let me explain it briefly:

You focus on, “What is your big problem?” that’s haunting you inside, always bothering you. Identify that, and then imagine that it takes the form of a demon. Use your imagination to imagine what that demon must look like, whether it is large, or small, slimy, does it have many arms, many legs, big fangs, horns, or what does it look like? Whatever that particular problem might be – loneliness, or fear, or whatever; that “Nobody loves me,” or “I’m not good enough,” or whatever demon it is that haunts us. Then this demon comes outside and sits in front of you. You can put a pillow on the floor in front of you. It’s almost like a Gestalt therapy. You put the demon there, and the demon sits there, and you ask the demon, “What do you want?” and the demon says what it wants, “I want everybody to love me,” “I want people to pay attention to me,” “I want...” whatever it is that the demon wants, “I want more self-confidence,” whatever. Then you imagine feeding the demon, you imagine giving that to the demon. So, you love the demon, or you pay attention to the demon, or whatever it is that the demon wants you give to the demon, you feed the demon. And what you find is that, eventually what happens is, the demon is satisfied and goes away.

This is a very profound, very effective type of thing, because what it demonstrates is that you’re capable of giving that. You give it to yourself. You don’t need, “Oh, others should pay attention to me,” this type of thing. This, I think, is a very practical application of this “feeding the demon” practice that Tsultrim Allione developed and teaches. We may have many demons that we have to feed, not just one. Do one at a time.

The fourth action of use that we can use is requesting the enlightening influence of the Dharma protectors. This is requesting their influence to bring us more suffering and destroy our self-cherishing. Of course, as we were saying with tonglen practice, it’s just to provide circumstances for our own karma to ripen.

There are two ways in which Dharma protectors can help us: one which is a very dangerous way. An unreliable Dharma protector is one that provides circumstances for our positive potentials to ripen quickly. There are some Dharma protectors that are very unreliable. You rely on them, and you get a lot of money, and things go very well, very quickly. But what happens as a result is that the positive karmic potentials are burned off and then you crash terribly, because you’re left just with the negative ones. This is an unreliable type of Dharma protector.

The reliable ones are the ones that bring the circumstances for your negative karma to ripen first. They ripen in usually a very trivial, annoying but trivial type of thing, and then the obstacles, the bigger obstacles that could have happened during the journey or whatever it is that you’re undertaking, are finished – burn them off quickly like this and then you’re left with just all your positive potentials that allow for whatever you’re doing to go well.

For instance, this is the way with the Nechung (gNas-chung) protector, and Serkong Rinpoche always used to have a big puja done for Nechung before our world journeys. Just to give an example: we were going down to Delhi from Dharamsala to catch the plane. We take the train from Pathankot and there was some mix-up with our train reservation, and we didn’t have a reservation, and the only place that we could get on the train, because we had to get down to Delhi, was two sleeper berths were available in third class – those were the days when they still had third-class trains – right next to the toilet, and so we took those. Rinpoche took one berth, and I took the other berth, and 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.

The second journey, similarly, there was a mix-up with the train, and we couldn’t get on the train at all. We had to – it was in the middle of the night – take a bus to Chandigarh, and then about three o’clock in the morning change buses and bring down all the luggage and jump on another bus to go to Delhi, and it was very, very unpleasant, but ultimately trivial. Nobody slept that night, except Rinpoche who could sleep anywhere, and then everything went very, very smoothly.

This is the type of thing that we do – make offerings to Dharma protectors for, “Bring on the negative circumstances, let them burn off.” That’s what this practice is referring to. 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, you think that, “This is wonderful. This is the blessing of my Dharma protectors. They’re burning off obstacles in these more trivial ways so that things aren’t much worse.” That’s very helpful. Very, very helpful, if one thinks in those ways. And it’s not just pretending, but one actually has conviction in all of this; otherwise it’s complete nonsense if you don’t think in these terms, believe in them as it were. If you do, it’s an excellent way of transforming adverse conditions and circumstances.