Riverside Church, New York, New York
May 29, 2018
On this Tuesday afternoon, the Gyalwang Karmapa continued his discussion of the path of the three types of individuals, now focusing on the greater path or the path of the great individual. “From among the three, the lesser, intermediate, and greater path,” the Karmapa said, “the path of the great individual occupies the larger portion of this text.”
“In this text, the path of the lesser individual is presented fundamentally as the abandonment of all wrongdoing motivated by the fear of suffering lower rebirths. Though there are many practices on this lesser path, this description is what the text emphasizes.
“Correspondingly, the intermediate path is presented as a path of someone who seeks liberation from all of samsara because they recognize that all of the three levels of existence or realms, in short all of samsara, are states of suffering. By contrast, someone on the greater path seeks the achievement of omniscience—a state of buddhahood that is beyond both samsara and nirvana—through a path that integrates emptiness and compassion.
“The presentation of the greater path is divided into two phases: the first is the presentation of the vast intention of bodhichitta. And bodhichitta itself is presented in two sections: the cultivation of relative bodhichitta and the cultivation of absolute bodhichitta.”
Thus the afternoon session began with the presentation of relative bodhichitta, which occupies stanzas 10 and 11.
Stanza 10 says:
From beginningless time my mothers have loved me.
If they suffer, how can I worry about my own happiness?
Therefore, in order to liberate sentient beings that are infinite,
To give rise to bodhichitta is the practice of a bodhisattva.
“What is described here is how we cultivate relative bodhichitta in actual meditation practice—the stages which culminate in the ability to exchange oneself for others. This begins with reminding ourselves of the many reasons for finding beings pleasing, such as they all have been our loving mother, and so forth. And one cultivates this attitude of finding beings worthy of affection until it culminates in great impartial love. Then, on that basis we cultivate the desire to free them from all suffering, which is compassion, and this culminates in the readiness or ability to actually exchange our own happiness or well being for the suffering of others.
“The 11th stanza, the second stanza concerned with the cultivation of relative bodhichitta, describes how to implement relative bodhichitta once we have gained the willingness and ability to actually exchange our happiness for another’s suffering.
All suffering without exception arises from the desire for our own happiness.
Perfect Buddhahood comes from the wish to benefit others.
Therefore it is the practice of the bodhisattva
To completely exchange our own happiness for others’ suffering.
His Holiness said that we could look at this stanza as presenting the application of our practice in post-meditation, in particular it shows us how to respond appropriately to adversity by transforming it into the means of the path. The idea here is that in post-meditation, when we conclude a session of formal practice, rather than leave the practice behind in the shrine room, we can carry it with us training ourselves to see that the suffering of others is at least as important as our own. The Karmapa commented, “At this point you would be willing to sacrifice your own happiness in order to alleviate the suffering of others.
“These two stanzas describe different stages in the cultivation of bodhichitta, primarily through even-placement.
“Following that, stanzas 12, 13, 14, and 15, describe how in post-meditation we learn to transform four types of adversity, or the four undesirable circumstances, into aids on the path.
“The first of these four types is described in stanza 12 when it says:
Even if someone out of intense desire steals all my wealth
Or makes another do so,
To dedicate body, possessions, and all virtue of the three times
To them is the practice of a bodhisattva.
“This describes how to bring onto the path the situation of loss, which could be material, as well. And then stanza 13 states:
Should someone sever my head,
Even though I did not do the slightest wrong,
Through the power of compassion
To take on their misdeeds is the practice of a bodhisattva.
“This describes how to relate to the situation of suffering physical pain through the aggression of another.
“Stanza 14 states:
Even if someone should proclaim unpleasant things
About me throughout the billion worlds of the universe,
With a mind of loving kindness, to speak only of their qualities
In return, is the practice of a bodhisattva.
“This describes the appropriate response to the third undesirable circumstance, which is calumny or slander.
“And then stanza 15 adds:
Even if some people in the midst of a crowd
Should reveal my hidden faults and speak harsh words to me,
Holding them to be my spiritual friends,
To bow to them with respect is the practice of a bodhisattva,
“This describes how to take criticism and verbal abuse onto the path.”
The Karmapa noted that usually we are extremely attached to praise and averse to disrespect, attached to profit and averse to loss, attached to pleasure and averse to pain, and we have a great desire for all the things we are attached to. This verse teaches that we should be free of craving for these things.
“The words are easy to understand, but it is harder to put them into practice,” the Karmapa explained. “The point is that in order to pursue the bodhisattva path effectively, we should not make a big deal out of temporary experiences of pleasure and pain. In that sense, the bodhisattva training is difficult. It requires a great deal of courage and confidence, which do not arise out of nothing but come with gradual training. It is not the case,” the Karmapa said, “that just because we adopt the Mahayana dharma, we suddenly become courageous bodhisattvas. We have to put ourselves through a process of rigorous training and study.”
“The next two stanzas, 16 and 17, describe how to bring what are called the two intolerables onto the path. These are two things that we would normally find unbearable. The first of these, being betrayed, is described in stanza 16:
Even if someone I cared for like my child
Should act as though I were an enemy,
Like a mother towards her child stricken with illness,
To love her even more, is the practice of a bodhisattva.
“Then stanza 17 describes a second thing that we normally find intolerable, which is disparagement or disrespect by an equal or supposed inferior:
Even if someone, my supposed equal or inferior,
Should belittle me influenced by pride,
Like my guru to place them with respect
On the crown of my head is the practice of a bodhisattva.
“The following stanzas 18 and 19 go together as a unit because they present how to bring the situations of great loss or unprecedented prosperity onto the path. Stanza 18 states:
Even if I were made destitute and constantly berated
Struck by grave illness and by evil spirits, too
Still to take on the suffering and misdeeds of all beings on myself
Without losing heart is the practice of bodhisattvas.
“And stanza 19 speaks of bringing prosperity onto the path:
Even if I became renowned and everyone pays me respect,
Or should I obtain wealth like that of Vaishravana,
I would see the wealth of samsara as having no essence.
To not have pride is the practice of a bodhisattva.
“The point of these two stanzas viewed together is that regardless of whether we experience unaccustomed prosperity or unexpected loss, we must not let the change in our circumstances damage our bodhichitta.”
The Karmapa continued, “Stanzas 20 and 21 are also a pair because they describe how to transform attachment and aversion into the path. Stanza 20, which concerns overcoming anger, says:
If I do not tame the enemy of my own anger,
I may subdue external enemies, but they will increase all the more.
Therefore, with the army of loving-kindness and compassion
To tame one’s own mindstream is the practice of a bodhisattva.
“And stanza 21 says:
The pleasures of the senses are like salt water,
However much you partake, that much your craving will increase.
Whatever objects of attachment arise,
To immediately abandon them is the practice of a bodhisattva.
“The point of these two stanzas,” the Karmapa commented, “is that obsessive attachment as well as anger or hatred can equally damage our bodhichitta. We should prevent them from doing so by recognizing the problem with both of these afflictions and seek to bring them onto the path by not obsessing about the object that excites a particular affliction.”
His Holiness said that these sections of the text describe the cultivation of relative bodhichitta in meditation and post-meditation, followed by a section describing the cultivation of absolute bodhichitta, which will be left for tomorrow. He added, “Actually, the bodhichitta that we seek to cultivate is relative bodhichitta. Absolute bodhichitta is the result—it is the wisdom that realizes emptiness. But this can only appear through the cultivation of relative bodhichitta. Therefore, when we talk about bodhichitta per se, we generally mean relative bodhichitta.”
Then His Holiness briefly discussed interdependence, one of his favorite topics and the subject of his recent book, Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society. He said, “Living in this world of the 21st century, which we’ve come to call the information era, we are able to see more than ever before how each and every one of us is interconnected with each other. The intimate and deep connection between every person and place has become more evident than it ever was, due to our technology, social media, and so forth. This enables us to see clearly how much of an effect we have on one another, and how we all rely on each other…. Each person is not really independent because our happiness and suffering depend on the happiness and suffering of others.
“When we fail to understand this, we increase our own suffering and that of others as well as our own selfishness and the problems we make for others. We do need a sense of self-preservation, but a problem comes when that sense of self-preservation becomes exclusive and excessive: it turns into a limitation because we are solely concerned about ourselves and utterly ignorant of the plight and feelings of others. When we allow ourselves to become that way, we are ignoring the fact that our very existence, let alone our happiness, depends entirely upon others. So it is extremely important to understand this interconnectedness,” he added emphatically.
And then segueing back to the text at hand he added, “You’ll notice that in our text, the cultivation of bodhichitta is taught as the integrated practice of both even placement and subsequent attainment or meditation and post-meditation. It is extremely important that our practice in post-meditation is blended together with our meditation practice on the cushion. Progress can only be made if we practice these two combined. For example, many people practice tonglen or ‘taking and sending.’ Basically, this is entirely an act of the imagination: we are practicing taking on the suffering of others and giving them our happiness. It is said that great masters are able to actually take on the sufferings of others and give them their own happiness and virtue, but for most of us, this practice is simply a conscious act of imagination that we do in order to train our minds, to increase our understanding and empathy, and to practice putting others first. So basically the imaginary practice that we do is really preparation for post-meditation.”
Therefore, the Karmapa said, after engaging in tong len as a meditation practice, if in post-meditation we turn our backs on it, doing exactly the opposite, trying to take other’s happiness and to give them our suffering in exchange, it simply is not going to work. “For this training to work,” he added, “our post-meditation application has to correspond to our meditation practice.”
Bodhichitta: the Choiceless Choice
Following up the morning’s teaching, the Karmapa used his own life as a poignant example to illustrate that applying bodhichitta to every situation is the only choice we really have.
He said, “If I use myself as an example, because I bear the name Karmapa, a lot of people regard me as a buddha in human form. And maybe that is how they perceive me, but in terms of how I perceive myself, I think I am just like everyone else. In fact I have problems that some other people don’t have, and I have faced a lot of challenges, and experienced a lot of ups and downs already, but basically I just keep on going, which for me means that I keep on pretending to be the Karmapa.
“What keeps me going? I suppose it is a kind of courage. People ask me, ‘How do you handle these situations?’ Some people believe that I handle them because I have divine powers or at least I must have some extraordinary inner practice. But I don’t feel that. Extraordinary practice comes from doing a lot of practice. Actually, how I handle all of this is very simple: I have no choice. I am out of options. I have no choice whatsoever but to continue. And I have experienced that in some ways, choicelessness, having no other options at all, can be helpful. Because in the midst of all of our experiences—giving rise to attachment and aversion and dealing with what we like and don’t like and what we want to hear and don’t want to hear and so on—we often look for an excuse in these situations that allows us to respond to them with our kleshas.
“In practice, there is actually no excuse for kleshas. Because practice, finally, especially the cultivation of bodhichitta described here in our text, is choiceless. You cultivate it because there is no other option. There is nothing else you can do. So I guess some of this training comes down to stopping ourselves from looking for excuses. We are very clever at rationalizing things that we know we shouldn’t do when there is in fact no real reason to do them to begin with. And with these evasions, of course, we deceive ourselves.”
The session concluded with the dedication and aspiration prayers and a church full of satisfied students.