Tag Archives: enlightenment

OPL4: Chapter 1: The cause: buddha nature

In truth, anyone who practices with great effort cannot fail to reach enlightenment. Why? Because all forms of conscious life, including ourselves, possess its prime cause. Within us is buddha nature.” ~ Gampopa OPL, translated by Ken Holmes.

We got the bad news right off the bat in Gampopa’s introduction to OPL: the confusion and suffering of samsara will never clear up without hard work on our part. Fortunately, he leads off the first chapter with the good news: if we do that work, the result is guaranteed. In this chapter, “we” includes not only present students of the dharma, but all humans whatever their material situation or belief system; and not only humans, but all beings, from the highest gods to our cherished pets to the earthworms in our garden to the most miserable denizens of literal or psychological hell. We all meet the first and most important of the three prerequisites for buddhahood. We all have the potential to wake up.

Why should we believe this? Gampopa backs up his guarantee with three categories of evidence:

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37 practices: verses 23 and 24

23. To give up attachment to positive experiences

When I encounter something that’s delightful / such as a rainbow on a summer day,

To give up all attachment to its beauty / and never cling to it as truly real:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 23 audio above (note change from “in the summertime” to “on a summer day”)

24. To regard adverse circumstances as delusion

All forms of suf-fer-ing are just like dreaming / that my belov-ed child has passed away.

Appearances like these are just delusions; / to take them as true drains my energy.

When I encounter adverse circumstances, / to see them as delusions of my mind:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 24 audio above (note change from “real” to “true”)

Audio for verses 23 and 24 will be updated to reflect the edits. Meanwhile, thanks for your patience.

Commentary for verses 23 and 24 will be up soon, following our next class on March 15. The class will be on hiatus Thursdays March 22 and 29 as I will be at PTC for Lama Norlha Rinpoche’s memorial service. We’ll resume April 5.

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37 practices: ultimate bodhicitta overview 22-24

22. To remain free from subject-object fixation

All appearances are my own mind; / mind’s nature from the start is concept-free.

To know my own mind’s nature and refrain / from grasping onto subject-object signs:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

23. To give up attachment to positive experiences

When I encounter something that’s delightful / such as a rainbow on a summer day,

To give up all attachment to its beauty / and never cling to it as truly real:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

24. To regard adverse circumstances as delusion

All forms of suf-fer-ing are just like dreaming / that my belov-ed child has passed away.

Appearances like these are just delusions; / to take them as real drains my energy.

When I encounter adverse circumstances, / to see them as delusions of my mind:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Audio of verses 22-24 together, above: note changes in verse 22 line 3 and in verse 23 line 1. Audio will be updated soon.

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37 practices: verse 9

9. To strive for unchanging freedom

Like drops of dew upon each blade of grass / The three realms’ happiness evaporates.

In contrast, the supreme and highest state / Of liberation doesn’t ever change.

To strive in all my efforts just for that: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 8 audio above. Audio for verses 8-10 is here.

So…. in verse 8 we begin to practice the dharma in order to become free from the intense, outright sufferings of the three lower realms, which result from harmful actions motivated by the corresponding poisons of anger (hell realms), desire (hungry ghost realm) and ignorance (animal realm).

The motivation of verse 8 is the essential foundation for any progress on the path, and it’s important not to gloss over it. But the point of verse 9 is that as we begin to progress along the path, we realize that freedom from outright suffering isn’t enough — the kind of happiness, pleasure, and comfort samsara has to offer even in the higher realms of humans, gods, and not-quite-gods is in fact the three types of suffering in disguise. At the very least, the highs of samsaric happiness don’t last very long (this is the all-pervasive suffering of conditioned existence, that it is deteriorating moment by moment). At worst, they turn at some point from pleasure to pain (the suffering of change — our old friend, outright suffering, e.g., Hurricane Harvey, August 2017).

With this realization comes the second, middle level of motivation: to attain freedom not only from suffering but also from the entire cycle of confusion that is samsara —the good, the bad, and the ugly. In this verse, Togme Zangpo instructs himself (and us) to direct all efforts in this life toward “the supreme and highest state of liberation.” Yep, he said all!

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Compassion versus Wisdom

OK, the title is a trick–as we know, compassion and wisdom are complementary, and in the end of course there is no difference between them at all. Buddhahood, enlightenment, full awakening is the ultimate development of both, and they are ultimately undifferentiable, like any qualities we may ascribe to the nature of mind for the purpose of discussing it. Buddhahood is sometimes likened to a bird with two wings–both wings have to function fully for flight to take place.

I hear a lot about the importance of engaged Buddhism, putting compassion into action, not thinking it is enough to sit on our cushion or chair and meditate. Sometimes there seems even to be an implication that sitting on the cushion is indulgent compared with being up and about to help others in active ways. Why waste time in solitude when so many are suffering?

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Lo Sar Tashi Delek!

“There is no problem other than the thought.” –Lama Norlha Rinpoche 

When I was running a household and raising my daughter, I eventually learned to streamline the more mundane aspects of my life, such as housework and meal preparation, with the help of an online housekeeping maven who emphasized the importance of having household routines—things you do automatically on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis without thinking about them.

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In a Nutshell

Three-year retreat, year one.

“The three realms of existence are as fleeting as autumn clouds.” ~From The Extensive Sport Sutra, quoted in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa.

A few years ago, when I lived in rural New Hampshire, I was taking a walk on the most gloriously perfect early fall day you can imagine, just feeling on top of the world, la la la la la, when I passed a neighbor’s pig pen. Mr. and Mrs. Pig were friends of mine, and I always stopped to say a few mani’s if they were out and about. But today Mrs. Pig was standing there all alone looking very, very upset. Where is Mr. Pig? As I passed the driveway, why, there was Mr. Pig—laid out on the asphalt, freshly slaughtered and about to be hung up for bacon. Mrs. Pig was next on the list.

Lama Norlha once asked his students, “If you don’t practice now, when will you do it? When you’re a cow grazing in a field?” He always said the best advice he got from his first root lama in Tibet was, “Always remember impermanence.”

A Western teacher I studied Tibetan with back in the 1980s used to say, “We already fell off the building. We’re hurtling toward the ground.”

OK, our time on earth is limited and could end at any moment without warning. But while we’re still here, aka today, how to find the time to practice?

Circa 1980, the first personal computers were behemoths with one font, no graphics, no color, and no mouse, and the most popular game was Pac-Man. An innovative computer game came out based on the 1960s TV show The Prisoner about a renegade British secret agent mysteriously exiled to “the Village,” a relentlessly cheerful island designed to drive a sophisticated Londoner mad. In the computer game, the player typed in words and used the cursor keys to move around in order to solve a series of more and more complex and seemingly illogical puzzles and eventually “escape”—something Number Six, the hero of The Prisoner, never managed to do.

I remember clearly the moment we finally arrived at the solution to the last puzzle: “Unplug the computer.” So simple…yet we never thought of it on our own!

OK, so maybe you need your computer, but what if you just turned it off and meditated for a half hour, or even 15 minutes? Or, don’t turn it off—just walk away and meditate for ten minutes, or five, and come right back.

Or, stay at the computer and just swivel your chair around and let thoughts go for a few minutes. Or, don’t even turn around—just lower your gaze and focus on your breath. Don’t try to change it, just notice it, while gently letting go of any thoughts that arise. You can even look like you’re working!

If you don’t have five minutes, and I’ve been in that situation many times myself, maybe you could follow Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice and take three slow, mindful breaths, relaxing and letting all thoughts go just for that short amount of time.

If you don’t even have time for three breaths, then Mingyur Rinpoche has a suggestion: just rest your mind for ONE SECOND! He says we can do this any time, anywhere. Once while teaching meditation in New York City he stopped and talked to himself for a moment to see if it’s possible to meditate while conversing. He reported to his highly amused audience that yes, it is! In the one-second technique, you just focus for that second on whatever you’re doing; let all thoughts and feelings go, and be present where you are, vividly—feeling tactile sensations, hearing sounds, noticing your breath, or relaxing into the vastness of space.

Many years ago during a teaching at PTC, a student asked the great meditation master Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche how often we should meditate. Without hesitating, Rinpoche replied, “Whenever you realize you’re not meditating, then you should meditate.”

Listen! The banshee is already wailing on the mountainside! There’s no other time than now.

Autumn Clouds PTC

You Can Do It!

Enlightenment seems so…unattainable. Why even sit down to meditate, when the goal is so far away? You can watch a whole movie in two hours, bake a cake in one.

But wait! The Buddha says it can be done; he did it himself with no instruction manual. He trained with teachers along the way, but found their systems ultimately inadequate, so finally he sat down under the Bodhi tree and resolved to just stay there until he got it.

Fortunately for us, he did, and thus we don’t need to reinvent the wheel (that’s not a bad pun, if you happen to be Buddhist). The Buddha left detailed, step-by-step instructions, and we have teachers who have traveled the path themselves to help us follow them. The Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism is designed to accomplish enlightenment in a single lifetime, which is what distinguishes it from the many others that lead to the same goal. Of course, there’s no reason to go for speed…no hurry at all…the cycle of samsara is endless, and we are welcome to wander in it as long as we please. (No disrespect to the many other genuine spiritual traditions…each has its own compelling reason to be, and it’s best to choose the one you are most comfortable with.)

Our shining example of enlightenment in a single lifetime is the great eleventh-century yogi Milarepa: he practiced black magic and committed murders early in his life to exact revenge on relatives who had mistreated him and his mother and sister, thus creating enormous obstacles for himself; yet once he put bone to the stone, as the Tibetans say, he reached the goal with time to spare and left behind a substantial collection of enlightened poetry to inspire and instruct subsequent generations of practitioners.

In case we aren’t prepared to take the word of a saint who passed away a millenium ago, we have the living example of realized teachers within our tradition, who have traveled the path and embody the goal in their every word and action. That’s what inspires most of us to practice: we have clear evidence that the path works.

So then how do we know WE are up to the task? The Buddha taught that all beings, from gods, kings, and queens to earthworms and ghosts, have the same potential, which he called Buddha Nature. What this means is that we are already Buddha, already enlightened, in our basic nature; we just have to wake up and recognize it.

As Tai Situpa puts it in his book Awakening the Sleeping Buddha: “Ultimately, there is no difference between sentient beings who are suffering in samsara and a Buddha who is completely enlightened and free from all limitations. They are the same. It is good to contemplate this paradox.” Or, as he also phrases it in the same chapter, “Every moment we are enlightened, but we don’t recognize it.”

What this seems to mean is that it’s just a matter of looking at the same old things and seeing them differently…clearly…the way they really are. Apparently, this ultimate truth is staring us in the face all the time, we are immersed in it, eating and sleeping and breathing it, it’s like looking for our glasses when they’re on top of our head: a cosmic joke!

On top of that, I think we have a lot of invisible support in our quest: bodhisattvas and other enlightened beings all around us all the time, throwing things in our path, from material objects that appear just when we need them to situations that can help us recognize our patterns and break through them.

So why can’t we see it? Because we are used to not seeing it; we are so entrenched in our habitual patterns of perceiving, thinking and reacting, built up over many lifetimes of thought, word, and deed,  that we view everything through a filter, and can’t see clearly what’s right in front of our nose (or on top of our head). We need a teacher to point it out, and then we need to put our own bone to the stone and start chipping away at those habitual perceptions through practice so we can truly see for ourselves.

It all comes down, once again, to meditation. Like putting the key in the ignition, as Lama Norlha Rinpoche has said…someday, we will be able to drive right off!

Efficiency Expert

February 2008

As Buddhists, we are encouraged to spend a lot of time contemplating the impermanence of all phenomena and, in particular, the inevitability of our own death. We realize that if we are going to reach enlightenment, we had better get started right now! There is not a moment to waste. Our opportunity might end before this paragraph is over—by death, disability, or a life-changing phone call—and if we don’t attain mental freedom in this lifetime…we will have to do the whole thing over again, all the confusion and suffering, lifetime after lifetime, sort of a cosmic version of the movie Groundhog Day.

In retreat, I am learning how to harness this quickly passing time and make it work for my benefit as long as it lasts. I won’t be able to transpose this lesson entirely into my post-retreat life (assuming I live that long), but I think I am learning a few valuable tricks. Mostly they have to do with habitual patterns I wasn’t even aware of.

Retreat is an exact inversion of my previous agenda. I would plan for everything else in my life, and maybe even program in a daily slot for some meditation, but in general, Dharma practice was reserved for whatever free time I had left at the end of the day…unless I wanted to watch a dvd…or read the New York Times online…or chat with a friend on the phone, or attend a really important meeting, etc,. pretty much ad infinitum. In short, not much time for Dharma practice at all!

In retreat, it is all about Dharma practice. We have four meditation sessions a day, beginning at 4:00 a.m. and ending at 8:30 p.m., for a total of more than 8 hours of solitary practice in our rooms, plus additional practice to finish up each session after it officially ends, totalling over an hour; plus 4 hours of group chanting practices—in short, 13 hours of scheduled practice daily: that’s five more hours than a full-time job. Everything else has to be fit into the spaces between practice sessions—that includes eating, sleeping, exercise, showers, laundry, brushing your teeth, getting dressed or undressed, cleaning your room, communal chores, dealing with pieces of paper, writing letters, studying, reading, getting out for some fresh air, etc.

At first it seemed completely impossible—on most days we have less than two hours of unscheduled time, most of it in increments of 15 minutes or less, in which we have to fit all of the above activities and anything else we might need to take care of.  And most breaks are usually just enough time to visit the bathroom, get a cup of tea, adjust clothing, and take care of any preparation that’s needed for the next session. (There’s an additional hour and a half of “free” time after lunch, but it is usually taken up by work or classes. There’s also an hour after the 8:30 p.m. gong—but it includes a half hour of follow-up practice, and anyway I am toast by then and just go to bed as soon as possible.)

If it sounds grim: it’s NOT! It’s quite wonderful to wake up every morning and live the same day over again, a day devoted almost entirely to the very thing I thought I most wanted to do and considered the most important before, but never found time for. Every day is Groundhog Day in retreat … with the potential to get it right every day, and still do it all over again the next.

An additional benefit: I have become an efficiency expert. I plan in minutes and seconds; I know precisely how long most things I have to do take, when pared of most of the thoughts, daydreams and spacing out that fill up so much time in our ordinary lives. I shower in five minutes flat, get dressed in about a minute, eat in ten, wash my dishes in one. If I find myself in the basement with my toothbrush in my hand and my tea cup empty one minute before I’m due formally dressed in the shrine room (2 floors up) to begin the 6:00am chanting session…no sweat! I fill my cup from the perpetual hot water pot, dash up the stairs, put my toothbrush away, put on my zen (monastic shawl) with all the folds properly in place (or, occasionally, not), grab my mala (prayer beads), turn off my light, and make it upstairs just before the shrinekeeper sounds the first, wrathful blast of the conch.

An interesting and previously unsuspected thing about time: when your mind is really focused, time becomes spacious. Five minutes to spare now seems generous and relaxed; a minute or 30 seconds is enough time for any number of things, without rushing. It turns out, there is plenty of time for Dharma practice (13 hours a day!) if inessential activities are eliminated and others reduced to the minimum time actually needed to do them.

Of course, I have a much simpler life now than I did outside retreat: no shopping, errands, medical appointments, family and social obligations, or income to produce, and most meals are prepared for us. Those things do take up a lot of time, so it wouldn’t be possible to spend 13 hours in formal practice in my ordinary life. But I hope I will find a lot more time when I go back to it than I did before. One less movie is two more hours of meaningful time; 5 minutes less in the shower adds up to over 30 hours in a year. And what do I really get from browsing the political commentary in the New York Times, besides more spinning thoughts?

The more time we have for meditation and Dharma study, the quicker we will start to deactivate the habitual patterns of thought and perception that keep us confused and in pain. The Vajrayana path says complete mental freedom can be attained in this very lifetime, if we play our cards right.

So… enlightenment…or a long, hot shower?