Gyalwang Karmapa’s Teaching on The Torch of Certainty
31st December – Bodhgaya.
The correct way to practise the Buddhadharma
Gyalwang Karmapa arrived in procession. He prostrated three times and then took his seat on a low throne, an adaptation of an armchair design, surrounded by his lamas, with Gyaltsab Rinpoche on his right and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche on his left. The translator Ringu Tulku sat at the head of the first row of lamas, and lounging behind him, cheeky little Drupon Dechen Yangsi could be clearly seen on the all-revealing monitors.
Gyalwang Karmapa explained that he had chosen this text, written by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye, because the theme of the Monlam was the commemoration of the Jamgon Kongtrul lineage. He did not plan to go through the whole text this year as there was no benefit in rushing, but he hoped to be able to cover refuge and Vajrasattva, particularly as those who had taken the Vajrasattva empowerment would then have everything they needed to do the Vajrasattva practice.
[What follows is a summary of the main points.]
What counts as a genuine dharma practice? It seems that many who think they are practisingdharma aren’t.
When we study the scriptures they describe the ideal way to practice dharma, and then it is up to us to practise to the best of our ability, step by step, depending on our situation. However, we should always make the effort to aim as high as possible rather than feel unconfident and underestimate our potential. Our viewpoint should be that of understanding the ideal and fixing our sights on it.
Although some of the things we regard as important practices such as going on pilgrimage, prostrations, mantra recitation, and circumambulations may be part dharma practice, it is questionable whether these alone can be termed a pure practice.
To begin with, we should have full devotion and trust in the three jewels, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, but have to examine the nature of that devotion and trust. Devotion has to come from the depths of our hearts – it’s not just a matter of folding our hands together and repeating the words!
Devotion and blind faith are not the same: To develop such devotion and trust does not happen automatically, except for a few who have very strong imprints and karmic connections. Rather, generating this devotion and trust is a slow process, but both are essential for the path to liberation. Devotion has to come from a clear understanding. First we have to find a genuine lama and receive genuine teachings. From this comes clarity of mind – so that we can understand cause and effect, and understand how dharma practice can transform us. It is not enough to blindly follow what the teacher says.
We need understanding and clarity not blind faith.
An understanding of causality is the foundation of Dharma practice. We need to understand the effects of practice, what to do, what not to do, and the consequences. This is true dharma practice. When we have this clarity and certainty we can decide independently what we should do, and it adds depth to anything we do do, such as prostrations. Likewise devotion
Dharma practice should become a way of life. True devotion arises when we become clear and certain that we have no option but to act in that way. That is the basis of true devotion, practice and study. We need to have a teacher and receive teachings and instructions from that teacher. These teachings and instructions may be long or short. The important thing is that when we put these teachings and instructions into action our dharma practice becomes a way of life, not something compartmentalised into the times when we sit on our meditation cushion or practice sessions.
The guru is essential: though some people think that they can practise without a teacher. We may think we know how to do prostrations, but it is the teacher who helps us understand the nature of the practice so that our practice transforms our minds. We need three things: instructions from a teacher, study and reflection. In the end, no one attains enlightenment by completing a certain number of prostrations or circumambulations!
Ultimately, the measure of the success of our practice lies in the transformation of our minds.
The value of the ngöndro is to turn our minds towards the Dharma.
Reflecting on the first two common preliminaries – the precious human life and impermanence– counteracts attachment to this life. When we have reflected on them sufficiently, we move to the second level, reflecting on karma, cause and effect, and on the intrinsic suffering of samsara. The purpose here is to dissuade us from attachment to future lives, and to develop genuine renunciation of samsara.
Successfully completing the ngöndro is not about doing 100, 000 prostrations. If we want to know whether the ngöndro are working or not, we should check the state of our minds. Are negative emotions still controlling our mind or are they diminishing? At all times we need to apply the best antidotes to counteract negativities in our mind.
A genuine Dharma practice is not about:
• Following rules or emulating anyone; it is about transforming ourselves and we are the only ones who can do that by working on our negative states of mind.
• External things and rituals; it concerns our minds and internal transformation.
Transforming ourselves is not about changing our outward appearance or aspects of our external behaviour such as our speech. It is not about suppressing our anger and dislike so that it no longer shows. That is not genuinely practising Dharma. Rather, when we transform our minds by getting rid of negative states of mind, our external appearance, speech and behaviour automatically change too. Transformation comes from within.
The following is an edited summary paraphrasing the Karmapa’s teaching:
Study, reflection, meditation are interconnected when following a genuine path. What exactly are study, reflection and meditation? The wisdom that arises out of study does not mean collecting various types of teaching. When we just listen to teachings we tend to forget them. This is not the kind of study we are talking about.
Study and the wisdom that arises from study are separate. The wisdom that arises from listening comes first from remembering the words. When the meaning of the words remains in our mind-stream, this is called the wisdom that arises from listening. This wisdom is generated in us with the help of some other person. It can be a teacher or something else.
Reflection is based on careful listening and understanding. When we have complete understanding from listening, we reflect on it. We do not rely on someone else’s power. We reflect again and again and try to understand it deeply.
After examination and reflection, we gain a clear understanding that if we train in this way, certain experiences will arise. The certainty thus gained through understanding and investigating, is what we call the wisdom that is generated through reflection.
Similarly we can divide reflection into just reflection and the wisdom that arises from reflection. When we develop the wisdom of reflection we understand the meaning of all the studies we have done and how it leads to transformation. We then become highly motivated and inspired to practise the teachings. That is called the wisdom generated from reflection.
The result of investigation and the wisdom arising from it is that it becomes so important to practise immediately that we feel we must go away to a quiet place and practice without delay.
However, without meditation, study becomes static. If you understand intellectually but this does not interact with your experience, it doesn’t become transformative.
The word meditation means to become familiarised. We try to use what we understand to subdue our rough mind. When we make it a habit, then it becomes our life. Dharma practice is not separate from our life. We become the dharma. Dharma becomes our life. Bodhicitta is not outside, separate from our mind. Mix your experience with bodhicitta. Merging study with meditation right from the beginning is very important.
Meditation is there to improve the mind. That is dharma practice. There is nothing more to it than that. We have attained this precious human life and entered into the dharma. When we enter into the practice we need to make it true. To do that we need to turn our mind towards the dharma. We develop devotion, trust and certainty in buddha, dharma and sangha.
Death and impermanence
Everybody fears death, even animals, and barbarians who have wrong view. It is not in itself very special. Reflecting on impermanence, however, means knowing that now we have this precious human life which will not last forever. We do not have much time. When we realise the preciousness of our time right now, we need to do something at this very moment. I must do something now. I cannot delay. It becomes the most important thing to do in life.
If you have generated bodhicitta it becomes even more urgent to act because you have the capacity to work for sentient beings and do something very strong right now. The strength of that motivation brings enthusiasm and the wish to act immediately. When we do something for ourselves only, it’s not that urgent, but when there is a chance to benefit many people it becomes more urgent.
A true understanding of impermanence cannot arise unless we have a strong experience of our precious human life. This frees us from too much attachment to this life’s activities.
16 unfavourable states.
Reflect on the favourable conditions we have attained to practise dharma and make this life useful. Most of us have all these right conditions. If we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t be here at this moment.
Even if we have the right opportunities, all the positive states and freedoms, we still don’t do the practice because of the 16 unfavourable conditions.
8 of these are based on present circumstances:
1. strong negative emotions disturb us too much;
2. we are under the influence of corrupting companions;
3. we hold false views and practice;
4. we are subject to extreme laziness;
5. due to previous bad deeds a flood of obstacles advances;
6. we are under the control of other people;
7. we enter the dharma because we need food or clothing;
8. we may seemingly be in dharma but it is for profit or renown.
8 conditions are based on the mind:
1. we have too much attachment to the body or wealth;
2. our character is extremely coarse and all our acts are very mean;
3. no matter how much the teacher explains, we have no fear of the lower realms;
4. we have no faith in the blessing of liberation;
5. we enjoy doing unwholesome things;
6. we don’t want to practice dharma like a dog is disinclined to eat grass;
7. we violate the roots of bodhisattva and other vows;
8. we break the sacred commitments to guru and vajra brothers and sisters.
We have all the right conditions because we have a special intelligence to act for long term benefit. We have the capacity to understand and formulate the thought to do something beneficial. We should not use it to harm or destroy others. In the end we destroy our own race. We need to use our special intelligence to help each other and do something great.
Look at how we treat animals: we eat their flesh, take away their habitation and make them extinct.
Once, at an environmental conference the monks were puzzled why we should try to protect the tiger. The tiger is cruel and eats gentle herbivores such as deer. However, there is a Jataka tale of the bodhisattva who offered his body to the hungry tigress. If the tiger were not important, why would the bodhisattva sacrifice his body? We are very afraid of tigers but they are not as dangerous as humans.
We destroy and inflict harm on so many beings and animals. We have created weapons that could eliminate billions of beings in one second. We are the most powerful on this earth and we have to think about our responsibilities. Not only do we inflict pain on others, but we also create causes to harm ourselves and future generations. When we see this clearly we have to take responsibility.
Impermanence and remembering death
[What follows is an abridged version of his talk.]
This is the first day of the first month of 2013 and I would like to offer my tashi delek and wishes for an auspicious year to everyone here. I offer my prayers that all of you will have good health and that all your activities for the Dharma and in the world go well. I also wish to express through you my good wishes to everyone close to you—all your family members and close friends.
In the past months here in Bodhgaya, I have been praying to the Buddha. When I was quite young, I was thought to be a lama or a tulku. I cannot say myself what kind of a reincarnation I am, but since I have received this title of being an incarnation of the Buddha Karmapa, I take it as an opportunity to be able to serve and help. I pray that in this life as well as all lives to come, making all the effort I can through body, speech, and mind, I will be able to benefit every form of life.
And this is not only for myself. I would also like to pray for all of you that you will also be able to engage in many good works and become useful to many living beings. This prayer is my gift to you as I have nothing else to offer. I wish that all of you could be like the Karmapa. So I pray that just as I have this opportunity to help everyone, may all of you have a similar chance, and also the ability, to actually benefit others.
[The Karmapa then read aloud the section from The Torch of Certainty on impermanence and remembering death.]
Past Kadampa masters have taught about impermanence in five aspects. The first is that nothing lasts. Everything changes minute to minute as the clock ticks on and on. We, however, impose a continuum onto these changing moments, thinking, for example, that we are the same person we were as a baby, which is, of course, not true. Melding everything together, we confuse ourselves, and this is what prevents us from seeing impermanence—the reality that is happening all the time.
Secondly, we can see how changes take place outside of us. How many people have died? What famous person is now unknown? What poor person is now rich? Life is constantly shifting. What we perceive outside, however, is actually the basis for the arising of what is inside, and we should understand the experience of impermanence from within our own minds.
Thirdly, we do not know when death will come. Being young is no guarantee. Anyone can die suddenly. The fact that we are born means we must die. But we do not want this, so we surround death with fear and anxiety. What we can do instead is to prepare ourselves. If we understand death as something completely natural, we can face it with a greater peace of mind.
We could consider one day to be a whole lifetime. When we wake up, we are born; when we wash ourselves, we’re cleansing a newborn; when we eat breakfast, we’re drinking our mother’s milk. As the day passes, we go through every stage of life: growing into an adult, becoming old, and when we go to sleep, dying. The next morning we are born again. This way of thinking has three benefits. We learn to value one day in our life, which we usually waste. Secondly, when we die, we could think that’s the end; there’s darkness and we’re done. But actually, every moment is an opportunity, so there’s hope. If we have done something wrong or have not been a good person, we have the chance to change.
Fourthly, thinking about impermanence becomes a preparation for death itself. If we can do it repeatedly, then death doesn’t come suddenly as a great surprise. We’ve thought about it, have some experience of how changes happen, and developed a certain fearlessness.
Finally, we need to think about what will happen after death. Not being able to see something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Life after death can’t be proven with our present-day scientific instruments and knowledge. But looking at the history of science, we can see that what couldn’t be proven or understood in the past could be known at a later time.
If it is the case that death is followed by nothing, it’s not a problem. But if there is a life after this one, we should prepare for it. When we die, we can’t carry our body with us nor our wealth. What we do take are the results of our actions and our habitual patterns which determine what our future life will be. So we need to prepare for the very long term and plan what we will do to benefit others.
We should contemplate karma, the pattern of cause and effect, not once or twice but again and again, reflecting on where positive or negative deeds will lead us. We should do positive deeds like poor people. If we give them a small thing, they care for it and keep it well. In the same way, we should appreciate every positive thing we do. Rich people feel that unless it’s something monumental, it’s not enough; they do not value the small, good things. But we can’t do everything on a vast scale; we have to do small things and appreciate them.
We also need to get rid of what is negative, mainly the many afflictions we have—aversion, pride, and so forth. These do not disappear all at once, so we start by identifying our strongest fault, working with it, and all the rest, step by step. This is a good way to prepare for death.
If we reflect well on the precious human life and impermanence, it will free us from being locked into this life and seeking success on its terms. The great masters of the past taught that a preoccupation with getting the good life is the greatest obstacle to our Dharma practice. We cannot mix mundane success with success in the Dharma: the two have to be separate.
There are practitioners like Milarepa who went into the high mountains and wore only a simple shawl and ate very little. This was fine for him, but that doesn’t mean it would work for us. If we tried to emulate him, we could not survive even one day. To give up worldly concerns does not mean that we should not eat, have clothes to wear or good things. We simply have to operate within the domain of who we are, within the boundaries of our particular traits or qualities.
We are too attached to the concerns of this life, and business people understand this, so they manipulate us through their advertising, which has an especially strong affect on young people. They suffer thinking that if they don’t have the latest thing, life is meaningless. If they have it, they will be beautiful and something great will happen. They do not question: Is all this true? Will it really make me happy? Actually, it is they themselves who have to make things good and create their own happiness.
In the Dharma we use our intelligence to think about our situation and see clearly whether something is necessary or not. What benefit or problems will it create? Is this good for me in the short term? In the long run? We question to find out the truth and then live by that. If we blindly follow what others do, we cannot live our own life or discover its real purpose. If we do what benefits ourselves and others, we are actually practicing Dharma. Since we seek to become a genuine, noble person, we are not entirely concerned with this worldly life and more concerned with the Dharma.
This completes a talk on the first two preliminaries—the precious human life and impermanence and remembering death—which are the most important. We often think that once we have finished the preparation, we can just leave it behind and move on to the main practice. But that’s not the case. “Preliminary” means we need to do this at the start, because it is the most important. So whatever practice we are doing, we need these two thoughts from the very beginning through to the very end. If they are not present, then the practice will not go well, so keep them in mind during the beginning, middle, and end. The great yogi Milarepa said that if we do not remember impermanence and death, our practice will not be profound. The main point is that practice has to work on our minds and transform us.
During this session, Gyalwang Karmapa continued the reading transmission of the text and his commentary. This account is based on Ringu Tulku’s translation.
Gyalwang Karmapa began with a résumé of the teachings so far on the common preliminaries.
By meditating on the precious human life and impermanence we can counter attachment to the pleasures of this life and focus on future lives. No one wants to be born in the lower realms.
This leads us to reflection on the immutability of the law of karma—action, cause and result—so that we understand the effects of negative thoughts and actions. However, ultimately, it is the understanding of impermanence which leads to the realisation that there can be no lasting happiness within samsara, and this will generate the desire in us for liberation and strengthen our resolve to escape.
Action, cause and result
The Buddhadharma, he explained, is a description of reality. It describes the relationship between causes, conditions and their results. When we understand this cause-effect relationship, the actions which cause suffering and pain and those which result in benefit and happiness, we try to abandon the former and adopt the latter. That is the practice of Buddhadharma
How does this causal relationship work? It is difficult to know the detailed and very precise connection between causes and their results; it’s very subtle and not straightforward. However,generally, a good cause has a good result, and a bad cause creates a bad result. The key always is motivation; whether an action becomes negative or positive depends on our motivation. The intention is perhaps more important, he suggested, than the action itself.
If our mind is not in its natural clear state but is overpowered by the kleshas – disturbed states of mind – and by the root cause of ignorance, we create negative actions which result in further suffering. The most important factor is how our mind functions. For example, killing is one of the ten non-virtuous actions, the causes of samsara. However, if we accidentally or unintentionally kill somebody, though it is still a negative action, it is not considered to be one of the ten non-virtuous actions, because the motivation to kill is absent. For it to be non-virtuous the intention has to be there.
The four common preliminaries are essential
At first we may try to accumulate positive deeds which will be the cause of a better life next time; longer life and so forth, but later our goal becomes enlightenment and liberation.
These four contemplations that turn the mind to the dharma— the precious human life, impermanence, the law of karma and the suffering of samsara —have to be understood. We need to gain some insight into them and some experience; otherwise, when we try to do the uncommon or special ngöndro practices, they will not become a cause for our liberation. If we are still driven by attachment to this life and the eight worldly concerns, we will have no genuine interest in working for the benefit of future lives. If we are only concerned about this life and this life’s cravings and attachments, doing prostrations, Vajrasattva practice or mandala offerings will not really transform us. According to the Abdhidharmako?a laypeople and monastics face different challenges in this respect. The former find it hard to change their basic view and the latter have to compromise because they depend on donations for their livelihood.
When hardships arise, too many householders rely on mundane deities and ask for rituals related to them. This shows both a lack of understanding and a lack of trust in the objects of refuge. Basically, such people have blind faith and don’t truly or completely understand refuge or the law of cause and effect.
The real meaning of going for refuge
Because it is said that once we have gone for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha we should not go for refuge to anyone else, there can be confusion. If you’re sick, can you visit a doctor or not? Actually, this is not what taking refuge means. Nor is refuge a plea for help from a position of helplessness or powerlessness.
The real refuge is a deep understanding that until and unless I myself have actualized myself as Buddha, or reached enlightenment, I cannot completely be free from the sufferings or fear or dangers of samsara….Therefore it is not about just praying to somebody, seeking somebody’s help or kindness. It’s to attain it for ourselves, knowing that we ourselves can attain this power; this state where there is no suffering…it’s an inner refuge.
The Gyalwang Karmapa explained,
The true meaning of taking refuge and going for refuge is that it’s myself, I need to go to for refuge, I want to actualize that state of Buddhahood and I need to do something about that and I need to work towards that. That’s taking refuge.
Of course there is an outer refuge – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha- because of its existence we can study and practise the Dharma. Ultimately, however, it is the inner refuge to which we need to go for refuge; we need to assume responsibility for ourselves. Some people give away all personal responsibility to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha or to their lama and say “I have faith and devotion, so now it’s all up to you,” then they do as they want. But if we commit negative deeds, we will inevitably suffer negative consequences; there is nothing that the lama can do to stop that happening.
This attitude is not to be confused with genuine faith and devotion to a lama. The lama or spiritual friend is essential on the path to liberation. He or she gives us instructions and guidance:
When you say rely on the teacher, have complete trust in the teacher, that means that, yes, I have trust in the teacher, I rely on the teacher, so therefore I do what the teacher asks me to do and I follow the guidance of the teacher. Thereby I assume my responsibilities.
Milarepa completely relied on Marpa, and gave everything to his teacher, but he did whatever he was told to do. He acted diligently exactly according to the teacher’s instructions. Likewise we have to take responsibility, not give all the responsibility to the teacher.
The shortcomings of samsara
Gyalwang Karmapa then read the next section of the 1st Jamgon Kongtrul’s text and concluded his explanation of the four common preliminary contemplations with the fourth one, the shortcomings of samsara. Under the power of negative karma and disturbed mental states we are never free, and we go from suffering to suffering. This is the nature of samsara. We have to do whatever we can to free ourselves from the control of these negative states and actions. That’s the whole point!
The four special preliminary practices
Although there was not time to go into great detail, Gyalwang Karmapa then gave guidelines on how to practise the four uncommon ngöndro according to the long Kagyu ngöndro text: Refuge and Prostration, Vajrasattva Recitation, Mandala Offering and Guru Yoga. He also gave the reading transmission of his own compilation of a short ngöndro.
Dedications and thanks
Gyalwang Karmapa concluded the session by first dedicating the merit from the last few days:
…whatever positive deeds we have accumulated, whatever positive things we have done, I would like to dedicate them for all the sentient beings throughout space, that they may find lasting peace and happiness and great enlightenment. And I request you also to do the same…
Then he specially thanked Kyabje Jamgon Rinpoche and Kyabje Gyaltsab Rinpoche , followed by all the khenpos, the tulkus, the sangha, and people who had come from very far away places, facing lots of difficulties and problems, and overcoming all of them. Moving on, he thanked those who had joined the Monlam via the webcast.
Finally, he thanked the Government and people of India:
The Government and people of India have always been very gracious and have been very kind to all of us, so I would like to thank the Government and people of India in general, especially the Government and the people of Bihar, particularly the administration and the concerned authorities and the local people in Bodhgaya. Because for us Bodhgaya is a very, very important place and we believe that not only the land, but all the people are actually blessed by the Buddha. So, therefore, you have created and you have given us this great opportunity and space and positive environment to perform this great Monlam, so therefore I would like to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart. And not only that, but I would also like to dedicate whatever positive results or positive karma we’ve generated, for the wellbeing of this country, the government, and all the people of India and Bihar, and especially of Bodhgaya.