Understanding the Need for Spiritual Practice
When Kyabje Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche gave the Kalachakra Empowerment in New York City in 1982, it was the very first Tibetan Buddhist event Lama Karma Chötso ever attended. Following that weekend, she continued to take empowerments and teachings from Kalu Rinpoche at Kagyu Thubten Chöling (KTC) in upstate New York where he was preparing participants for the first three-year, three-month retreat in the USA. The Very Venerable Lama Norlha Rinpoche, Abbot of KTC, continued to guide Lama Karma Chötso and, along with His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, remains her closest teacher.
A Teaching by Kyabje Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche
Kagyu Thubten Chöling Monastery, 1986
In order to practice the Dharma taught by the Buddha it is necessary, at the outset, to establish confidence in its validity.
First we must understand that we have had countless lives in the past and will continue to have countless lives until we attain the level of a Buddha or Bodhisattva. Belief in the existence of previous and future lives gives rise to confidence in the truth of karma, the effects of actions. This confidence is based on understanding that unvirtuous actions lead to suffering and virtuous actions lead to happiness. Without this conviction, we will not abandon unvirtuous actions or perform virtuous ones.
We can reach this conviction by examining the signs of the workings of karma in the world around us. Although we are all born as human beings, each person experiences different circumstances, such as a long or short life, mental happiness or misery, and wealth or poverty. These variations in individual circumstances arise through previous karma accumulated in former lifetimes. Even animals have a sense that actions lead to results. They know enough to look for food when they are hungry, water when they are thirsty, and shade when they are hot.
If one has no confidence in the existence of past or future lives or in the truth of the effects of karma, then one will have no appreciation of Buddhism or any other religion. The practices of all religions are based on the intention to benefit oneself and others in a future existence.
The Buddha taught that sentient beings are subject to 84,000 mental afflictions; to remedy them, he gave 84,000 profound and extensive teachings. The point of all these teachings is to benefit the mind. One’s body and speech will automatically derive benefit since the mind is like the master, and the body and speech are like its servants. For example, through thoughts of generosity, we perform acts of generosity; and because of angry thoughts, we use harsh words or act unkindly. The mind is the source of the action while the body and speech enact the mind’s intentions. For instance, today you had the thought, “I must go to Kagyu Thubten Chöling to hear the Dharma,” and in response to that thought, your body and speech somehow managed to accomplish this.
If one practices the Dharma correctly, then the four types of obscurations that veil the nature of the mind—ignorance, habitual patterns based on dualistic perception, mental afflictions, and karma—are removed. Complete elimination of these obscurations—known in Tibetan as sang—causes the inherent qualities of the mind’s nature to manifest fully and spontaneously. This manifestation of the qualities and wisdom of the mind is called gye in Tibetan. Together these two form the word sang gye, which means Buddha or Buddhahood, the ultimate attainment.
It is necessary to practice Dharma because we are subject to impermanence. Born from our mother’s womb, we go through childhood, mature, grow old, get sick, and eventually die. None of us can avoid birth, old age, sickness, and death. We have no control over this. That is why we need to practice the Dharma.
Since no one lives forever, we have an underlying awareness that we are going to die. But we have only the idea “I’m going to die.” We don’t remember the suffering, fear and difficulty we experience at the time of death. We don’t really understand the nature of death because we don’t understand the meaning of Dharma.
If our whole existence just disappeared at death like a flame that has been extinguished, or like water that evaporates, then everything would be fine. But the mind’s nature is empty, clear, and unimpeded. Because it is empty it does not die. Our mind does not disappear, but goes on after our physical death to experience the confused appearances of the interval between death and the next rebirth (Tib. bardo). We then take rebirth in one of the six states of existence. This cycle repeats again and again. Since the nature of cyclic existence is impermanence, it is a source of only suffering and not happiness.
Everyone is concerned about having a long life and freedom from sickness. It is good to have these things, but people neglect to provide themselves with good circumstances for future lifetimes. We should recognize that the mind that experiences future lifetimes is the same mind we have now, so we should therefore be concerned with providing for the future experiences of that mind.
How can we ensure happiness in future lifetimes? By practicing virtue with body, speech, and mind. When engendering Bodhicitta we pray, “May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness; may they be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.” The cause of happiness is virtue and the cause of suffering is nonvirtue. It is therefore necessary to practice virtue and avoid unvirtuous actions to the best of our ability. Since we have the ability to choose between virtuous and unvirtuous actions, our future happiness or suffering is in our own hands.
There are two practices that I find extremely important and beneficial. The first is the vow of refuge, which by instilling faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha forms a foundation for attaining Buddhahood. The second is the meditation on the Bodhisattva Chenrezi. This practice is the essence of all the teachings of tantra, and Chenrezi the essence of all yidam deities.
Many people in the West are interested in the teachings on Bodhicitta and benefiting others. This is very nice, but the root of cultivating Bodhicitta is being able to take all suffering, loss, and defeat for oneself and to give all happiness, profit, and victory to others. If one does not practice this within one’s own family, then talking about applying this ideal to all sentient beings is merely words.
Reflecting on the kindness of our parents is how one begins to practice mind-training (Tib. lojong). We realize that they are suffering now and will continue to suffer in the future, and that until they attain liberation from samsara, they will go from life to life experiencing pain. If we reflect in this way, we begin to understand that it is unfitting for us to allow beings who have been so kind to us to experience so much suffering. This recognition is the beginning of loving-kindness and compassion. Next we must resolve to do whatever we can to free them from suffering. We expand on this contemplation by including all the people that we care for—our children, friends, and relatives. We then include all those whom we neither like nor dislike, and then people we dislike, even those we consider to be our enemies. Finally, we include all sentient beings, who fill all of space, and we imagine that we take on all their suffering and offer them all our happiness and virtue. In particular, we should make the aspiration that this meditation may serve as a cause for their attainment of Buddhahood and liberation from the sufferings of samsara. That is the way in which Bodhicitta is developed.
If we can practice Bodhicitta, develop patience, and pacify all disharmony in our own home, then we have prepared the way leading to the development of limitless Bodhicitta. If, on the other hand, we cannot maintain patience and harmony in our own home with our own family, then it is very unlikely that we will be able to do this with respect to all sentient beings, who are infinite in number. So if, after hearing these teachings, you go home and eliminate all disharmony in your home and family, I will proclaim you all male and female Bodhisattvas!