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The Second Day of Gyalwang Karmapa’s Lineage Practice Teachings

Thursday January 1, 2009

The morning session was devoted to the Refuge Vow, which was given in Tibetan, Chinese and Korean. His Holiness began by explaining the meaning of refuge and why we needed a refuge. First he pointed out that from the time of our birth until our death we were dependent on others. The very nature of our lives meant we had to rely on other people. These people, including family and friends, who protected and cared for us were a form of refuge. Also, everyone wished to be happy, as witnessed by the many people who wrote to him or sought audiences to ask for help – failing businesses, illnesses, and other unhappiness.

It seemed we were unable to free ourselves from suffering and problems. Thus, we needed to look for a way to free ourselves completely. We needed to find the ultimate refuge. Someone like a doctor might be able to help us temporarily but in the end we still suffered sickness, ageing and death – and we had to experience these lifetime after lifetime.

So what would an ultimate refuge be? It had to be one which could help us rid ourselves of the root causes of suffering, and this could only be done by someone who had already accomplished this. Prince Siddhartha had grown up in sheltered luxury but when he left his palace and encountered the four sufferings, he abandoned his comfortable life and the son he loved very much, in order to find liberation. He renounced palace life, practised austerities, and finally attained enlightenment. Thus the Lord Buddha has the qualifications to give us refuge.
The other two jewels are the teachings of Lord Buddha and the sangha.

Lord Buddha had taught all the external causes that could free us from samsara, not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of all suffering sentient beings.

The noble sangha were the people who were practicing the path the Lord Buddha taught. The extended sangha could include our dharma friends and those we practised with, the people who supported us in our practice.

With faith in the Three Jewels and practice we had everything we needed in order to liberate ourselves from samsara. Taking the Refuge Vow was to take the first steps on the path, and involved making a commitment to keep the precepts. His Holiness advised people that if they felt daunted by the responsibility of taking the Vow, they should think how marvelous it was to take refuge in the place where the Buddha had achieved enlightenment.
Having taken the Vow, three things had to be abandoned. The first was trusting in worldly gods. Going for refuge meant we had chosen to follow a genuine path in order to free ourselves, something which would bring us to ultimate, stable happiness.

The second thing to be abandoned was harming sentient beings. This meant harming them with the intention to harm them. Sometimes the very nature of our lives meant that we might harm others unintentionally. We harmed sentient beings intentionally because of attachment and afflictive mental and emotional states, so we had the responsibility to train our minds in order to tame them, to stop the causes which made us harm others.

The third thing to be abandoned was harmful and evil friends. These were the people who could influence us negatively and lead us away from the path. We needed to cultivate good friends from the sangha; in this context all our dharma friends are our sangha. His Holiness explained that because he had so many students, it was often impossible to give individual help and advice, so it was very important for his disciples to help and support each other.

Having taken the Vow, three things had to be respected: all Buddha images, every single syllable of Dharma, and every piece of yellow robe. It wasn’t the robe itself but it represented the noble ones who wore it. There were also the common precepts: reciting the refuge three times daily (His Holiness admitted that the recitation in the middle of the night was a little difficult these days)!; offering the first portion of food in remembrance of the kindness of Buddha and of the Three Jewels; helping anyone who wished to take refuge; never trivialising the Three Jewels.
The afternoon session focused on a question from the audience: how could lay practitioners combine busy lives with dharma practice.

His Holiness began by saying that this was a frequently asked question. People wanted to make progress in their practice, yet work often drained them of physical and mental energy. Practising in the shrine room was not enough; often we left our practice behind there! A new way was needed which brought work and practice together as complementary. People suffered from internal and external pressures, which could place them under such severe stress that they felt they were going crazy or they became sick or even committed suicide. It was important to be able to distance ourselves from such emotional pressure, so the question was how to use our practice to achieve this.

The word ‘practice’ (the Tibetan word is nyamlen) means a ‘feeling in the mind’, but it is more than a feeling; it has also to manifest through body and speech. Practice means to transform our minds and hence change our conduct and our speech. In this way we can also change the environment around us and our relationships with our families and friends. If we pray for world peace we need the impetus to work for world peace.

We all need a home; if someone is under a lot of pressure at work, returning home to a loving family, where they can relax, have a cup of tea, talk with the family, makes them feel relaxed and at ease. We also need a home for our minds: a place of contentment and rest. We have to build this for ourselves.

If we fail to give our minds a place to stay, they become like a street child – neglected, troubled, sad and getting into trouble. The nature of mind is clear and knowing, not ignorance, and we use these characteristics of the mind – its luminosity – to recognize its inner peace. When we die we lose all our possessions but we are not separated from the nature of the mind. When we look at our minds, we often just see discord and forget that the true nature of our mind is virtuous and good. In order to develop peace of mind we have to practice, but there are some mistaken views about what practice is.

First of all practice isn’t like a job. Usually when we have a job there are fixed working hours. If we treat practice like a job we go to the shrine room, do our practice, but there is no habituation, no transference into our lives beyond the shrine room. To get rid of large obscurations we needed to start removing small ones, step by step, every day, all day The Tibetan word for ‘meditation’ is related to the word which means ‘to become accustomed to’, or making something a habit. If we don’t train ourselves in compassion, how can we sit in the shrine room and say, “May all sentient beings be happy.”?

Secondly, practice isn’t like homework set by the lama for his students. An example of this is the Ngondro (preliminaries). Some people become very expert at prostrations. They use a smooth board and they prostrate really fast, as if they’re doing physical exercise. What’s the point of doing it like that? Practice is about transforming our minds not completing 100,000 prostrations. In the end some people look back and say, “All I did was count!” Nor is practice something to show to the lama, like showing the teacher your work. We have to own the practice. We are doing it for ourselves and not for someone else. Some people go to their lama and say, “I’ve done my Ngondro.” And when the lama says, “OK. Now you can practise a yidam deity” they mistakenly view it in the same way as if a teacher was giving them a good grade.

The third fault is treating practice as ritual – reciting mantras, visualizing the meditation deity, making the mudras etc. The point of practice is to transform our minds, so we need to constantly check if this is happening. We often miss the profounder meanings, for example, in the four-armed Chenresig, his four arms represent the four immeasureables.

We can extend our practice beyond the shrine room by observing and reflecting on the world around us. Consider the four seasons. At one level wintertime might just mean time to put on warm clothes. But when we practise we can see the changes as a manifestation of impermanence. In summertime there are wonderful flowers, but they die, so, reflecting on this, we can really begin to understand that everything changes and everything is destructible.
Work could become part of our practice too. Many people work in manufacturing companies, in which case they could think: we make high quality products that will benefit the world. This becomes a form of generosity because generosity is not just giving things away (when the Buddha completed the paramita of generosity there were still plenty of beggars) but rather a mindset which wants to give. Thus dedication could also be a form of generosity.

These teachings, sponsored and organized by the Hwa-Yue Foundation from Taiwan, are the third in a series of teachings entitled: Lineage Practice Teachings. More than one thousand five hundred people filled the main assembly hall at Tergar Monastery to listen to His Holiness deliver the teachings in a mixture of Tibetan and Chinese. Chinese devotees from Taiwan and Hong Kong formed the majority of the audience. However, there were also disciples from the Americas, from Europe and from other Asian countries including Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia.

The morning and afternoon sessions began with prayers in Chinese, accompanied by traditional Chinese instruments – a wooden bell beaten to keep time, and a bronze bell. At the morning session, representatives from the audience prostrated along with the Gyalwang Karmapa.

His Holiness’ theme was teacher and student. He began by joking that these teachings, and the ‘English’ ones which would follow Monlam, were as much a test of his burgeoning linguistic skills as of his dharma knowledge and experience. He then congratulated the audience on attending the teachings in spite of the economic downturn and the recent terrorist bombings in Mumbai. Speaking confidently and fluently in Chinese, he proceeded to explore the concepts of teacher and student in Tibetan Buddhism, delighting his listeners with lively caricatures, humorous asides, and witty puns.

(Please note that what follows is a précis of the English translation of the teachings given in Tibetan, so that you can share some of the experience. We hope that a definitive translation from a full transcription of the Chinese and Tibetan will be possible later.)

Because so many different interpretations of the word exists, Gyalwang Karmapa began by clarifying the meaning of ‘lama’, the Tibetan rendering of the Sanskrit word ‘guru’, as meaning someone who is ‘heavy with good qualities’. Hence a lama was someone who possessed the qualities necessary to develop students. The characteristics of a spiritual friend and a lama were basically the same. They should be well-educated in the Dharma, able to teach the Dharma, hold Pratimoksha vows, and hold any other relevant vows, transmissions etc.

Gampopa mentioned three characteristics of a genuine lama. The first characteristic was to have cut the ties to this life. No attachment to this life meant being focused on more than this life and paying no attention to the eight worldly dharmas, but it was difficult to find someone who was completely free of attachment to this life. It was possible to talk of three types of worldly interests: the white worldly interest of the Bodhisattva, who could enjoy being praised; the mixed worldly interest when people sometimes focused on future lives, sometimes on this life; the black world ly interest when all activity was fixated on this life only. A person who could only focus on this life was not a genuine dharma practitioner. A dharma practitioner should think of future lives and the path of liberation.

The second characteristic was that they could guide their students with their great wisdom; without wisdom and intelligence a lama was unable to teach the dharma to a range of students with different needs. A lama needed to know what things to abandon and what to practise, and had to be able to teach in a way that students could understand.

The third characteristic was endowment with great compassion, so that a lama never gave up on their students, supporting them however bad they were. Without this great compassion, a lama might well abandon a very difficult student. The ideal was that a lama would want to keep their students from falling into the lower realms, even at the cost of his or her own life.

In short, a lama’s good qualities should exceed their faults. An uneducated person able to help students focus on the dharma and future lives, could be a lama, in the same way a mother who loves and cares for her children tries to pass on her best traits to them, in spite of her lack of education.

Then how could a student assess a lama’s qualities? Gyalwang Karmapa warned that, except for a few extraordinary individuals, it was very difficult to assess a person’s qualities, and impossible to know what they were thinking, so the only method was to observe the lama’s words, deeds and conduct, checking that they were in harmony, and that they did not contradict the dharma. Although a skilled imposter might fool people for a short time, they wouldn’t be able to fool all of the people all of the time!
In assessing a lama, we could also reflect on whether the lama was helping us, whether our minds were becoming clearer or calmer, whether we were engaging with the dharma more. If the mind of a student turned more to the dharma under a lama’s influence, then that was a genuine lama. A further sign was to feel joy at encountering a lama.

If a lama had only a few good qualities it was still possible to take them as one’s lama, because it might be that their qualities exceeded their faults, or that they held the altruistic intention. Gyalwang Karmapa referred to the First Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche who travelled across Tibet, receiving instructions from many lamas. Some of these were only village lamas, uneducated and illiterate, but he received transmissions and empowerments from them. In some cases he even had to teach them the alphabet first! So, although the rule was to find a lama who possessed more qualities than we did, this may not always be the case, if we had a special purpose.

Finally, there should be a mutual connection between the teacher and the student.
Gyalwang Karmapa then turned his attention to what it means to be a ‘student’.
According to Gampopa, a student should possess three characteristics: they needed to be able to ‘bow down to the lama with respect that has no pride’, the student must follow the lama’s instructions joyfully, and finally the student must engage in actions that are pleasing to the lama.

First, Gyalwang Karmapa explored what it means to be able to bow down to a lama with respect that has no pride. He reminded us that often, out of ignorance, we believe we have qualities that we do not possess, and this makes us vulnerable. We need to be protected from ourselves. The role of the lama is to teach us the path, otherwise we will be prey to our own afflictive mental states and emotions.

Our very birth is the product of these afflictive mental states, and our karma controls when we will die. The four sufferings of birth and death, ageing and sickness are beyond our control. What we often call happiness is not true happiness but only a change in the degree of suffering or a temporary relief, similar to someone going from extreme heat into a cool place. At first it is a great relief from the heat, and then you begin to feel cold, and finally you are freezing. Feelings of happiness end up as suffering. Thus, we have to rely on a lama to teach us the Four Noble Truths which will lead us on the path of liberation.

The Sutras teach that the lama is similar to or equal to the Lord Buddha. In the Diamond Vehicle teachings the lama is Buddha, and so we have to train our minds, like exercising the body, in order to habituate ourselves to see only the good qualities and not the faults of the lama. In the Sutras Buddha promised that he would appear as Vajradhara to help sentient beings, and the lama is the only one who can fulfill the activities of the Buddha.

All buddhas and bodhisattvas ‘woke’ out of the wish to help sentient beings, but sentient beings had to be open to this help, and the key was faith. Regarding an ordinary lama as Buddha was to treat the lama as the representative of the Buddha, in an unbroken lineage passed down from the Buddha. The lama was like a magnifying glass on a pile of cut hay in sunlight. Without it the hay would not catch fire, but if you used a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays, it would catch fire.
We had to be careful because we could not always see people as they really were. Naropa thought Tilopa was a fisherman when he first met him. Mila thought Marpa was a farmer. Appearances are deceptive, often affected by our karma. Even a street dog might be a buddha. We could never be sure.

The second requirement was to follow the lama’s instructions. Since the lama is the one who shows what is to be abandoned and what is to be adopted, it is important to put into practice whatever the lama says. However, if in some instances we are unable to do the practices given us, it is permissible to go to the lama and give clear reasons why one is unable to do it, and in this case there would be no degeneration of samaya. If, on the other hand, we knowingly decide not to do what the lama has instructed then there would be degeneration of samaya.

Finally, His Holiness commented on ‘actions that please the lama’. He explained that this did not mean praising the lama or making material offerings, as people sometimes seemed to think. Rather, it meant practicing the dharma teachings and oral instructions. That is an offering to the lama.