Day 10: Authentic Dharma Practice

Day 10: Authentic Dharma Practice

Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings: 17th Gyalwang Karmapa on the 8th Karmapa Mikyö Dorje's Autobiographical Verses

April 9, 2022 

The Karmapa continued his discussion of the second part of the passage about meditating on relative bodhichitta according to Sangye Paldrup's commentary:  Taking adversity as the path in post-meditation. This section has ten sub-topics and today's teaching began with the eighth sub-topic: Taking things going well or badly as the path. 

Infinite are the kinds of barbaric beings.
When things go well, since things are going well,
They're ignorant of the means for liberation.
When things go badly, since things are going badly,
They're ignorant of the means for liberation.
I could not bear the thought of their deluded acts.
I think of this as one of my good deeds. (18)

During Mikyö Dorje's lifetime, the Karmapa explained, most people were uneducated. They hadn't been trained how to think. Their mindstreams were untamed and they were rough and often incorrigible, so it was difficult to change them. They included some "people who upheld, protected, and spread the teachings", people in whom others placed their hopes,  some of whom "were given lofty names". When things went well for them and their group, they had everything they needed and weren't concerned that there were few monks in the monasteries. Their work for their monasteries kept them busy day and night and acted as a distraction. Consequently, their characters became intractable and rigid, so it was extremely difficult for them to mix their mindstreams with the dharma. 

When things went badly for them and their group, they did everything they could to restore what they had lost. They were so distracted by their thoughts and busyness that they had no time to think about the means to achieve liberation and omniscience, nor were there many people who knew the path to liberation. When people had leisure time, they would relax and enjoy the pleasures of food, drink, sleep, and lolling about—very few thought about practising the dharma. 

When people came to see him, Mikyö Dorje would invariably ask questions in great detail about how old they were and what they had been doing. He grew immensely concerned when it seemed from their replies that they were wasting their lives. He would speak to them very directly with words that hit the mark. The Karmapa gave an example. Mikyö Dorje would ask, "Do you smell the scent of rot in your nose or mouth?" The students would be surprised and reply that they did not. Mikyö Dorje would say, "That’s really amazing! Everything inside you has rotted, and you don’t even smell it. That’s really strange.” He was pointing out to them very clearly that they had wasted the facilities of their human life.

Many people would come to ask for dharma teachings. He would admonish them:

Years, months, and days have gone by already. You are getting closer and closer to death. Likewise, this body, composed of the four elements, is changing. You used to be youthful, but now you are getting old and bent. Your close friends haven’t been of much help, other than fooling you, and up until now, you’ve only been focused on this lifetime. You haven’t thought about your future lives. You have come under the control of these negative friends who won’t bring you to the way of virtue. You have been distracted and deceived by temporary needs. Even if you only have a little wealth, you become really attached to it, and this prevents you from working for the benefit of others. Even when you’re practising dharma, you’re unable to stand; it’s as if you have lost all your control to the Maras. 

It was as if these people were trapped in quicksand; their dharma practice was questionable and they were under the control of their sponsors, the Karmapa commented. They might have accumulated some merit previously, but now they were losing it, and though they might be called “dharma practitioners” or “renunciates”, this was actually not true.

There are three main aspects to the eighteenth good deed:

  1. The understanding and way of thinking necessary for practice.
  2. What practising dharma really means.
  3. The best opportunities for practice are when things are going well or badly.

1. The understanding and way of thinking necessary for practice. 

Many people continue to think that practice means reciting prayers, offering pujas, reciting mantras, life releases, and so forth. Moreover, people often believe that practice only happens in the shrine room or sitting in front of the household shrine. Of course, the Karmapa clarified, reciting prayers, pujas and life release are part of dharma practice, but if you think that they are the sum of dharma practice, you have misunderstood. Practising the dharma goes much deeper and should not be confused with the external appearances of practice. While you are reciting prayers, your mind can be elsewhere and you might be harbouring a myriad of thoughts. Truly practising dharma is far more profound.

Some people think of dharma practice as a high-level activity and approach it as if it were similar to work, demanding application and meticulousness. Others believe that dharma practice is boring and have little interest in it. Some see practising dharma as very complicated and difficult activity that can be both challenging and boring, like having to read an old, historical document, so it’s difficult to be enthusiastic. Alternatively, they think it’s like studying mathematics which can be extremely demanding, so you have to work really hard and think hard—you have to meditate and focus on complicated visualisations. All these misconceptions put many people off practising dharma.

Then there are some people who say they want to practice the dharma but they need perfect conditions in order to practice. They need to feel comfortable; it mustn’t be too hot, like in India sometimes, or too cold. However, before they can begin, there’s a lot of work to be done. They need to check all their WhatsApp or WeChat messages, and their Facebook, count the number of ‘likes’, and write replies. Then, they must also eat because their stomachs have to be full. Basically, after everything that needs to be done has been done, when they have a little bit of free time, only then do they sit down on their meditation cushion and try to do a little dharma practice. It seems as if they lead really busy lives, when, in fact, they are not doing much of value. Yet, they never have time to practice the dharma.

There are several faults to seeing dharma practice in this way, the Karmapa warned, and illustrated his point with two stories. 

During the later spread of the teachings in Tibet, the one with the greatest activity on behalf of the Buddhadharma and the broadest influence was Jowo Atisha. He had many students, but one in particular was known as Naljorpa Chenpo [Great Yogi]. He was a fully ordained monk and served as Atisha’s attendant. 

Shortly before Atisha died, Naljorpa Chenpo said to him, “After you have passed away, I’m going to practice the dharma just as you have taught. I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to meditation.” 

Usually, if someone told a lama that they would spend the rest of their life in meditation, you would expect the lama to be happy and commend them, but Atisha didn’t praise him. Instead, Atisha posed this question: “Can your meditating actually become dharma?” 

Naljorpa Chenpo reflected on this: ”If meditation cannot become dharma, then perhaps I should teach others dharma. How would that be?”

Atisha replied, “It’s fine to teach dharma, but will teaching dharma really become dharma?”

Confused, Naljorpa Chenpo asked, “So what is the best thing for me to do? What can I do that would actually become dharma?” 

Atisha told him, “All of you should follow Geshe Tӧnpa as your teacher.” 

This was an extraordinary command because Geshe Tӧnpa  [Dromtӧnpa] was a layperson and only held the lay vows, whereas Naljorpa Chenpo and many of the other students were bhikshus. 

Atisha gave him a second piece of advice, “You have to give up on this life.” 

This is the crux of whether what you are doing is dharma practice or not: if you haven’t given up on this life, nothing you do will become dharma. If you put this life out of your mind, whatever you do becomes dharma.

The second story concerned Dromtӧnpa. 

After Atisha died, Dromtӧnpa went to the Reting Tsampo Valley north of Lhasa, where he founded Reting monastery, the monastery which became the seat of the Kadampa tradition.

A certain monk came to stay at Reting. Each day this monk would perform the longer more-demanding outer circumambulation of the monastery. One day, while he was performing his circumambulations, Dromtӧnpa came outside and met the monk.

“It’s very good that you are circumambulating,” said Dromtӧnpa, “but would it not be better if you actually practised the dharma?” This seems a very strange thing to say, because many people viewcircumambulation around a sacred place as dharma practice.

The monk pondered Dromtӧnpa’s comment and decided that prostration must be better and more beneficialthan circumambulation. So, he found a spot within the monastery and began prostrating all day long. “Like we do when we complete the 100,000 prostrations in the ngӧndro,” the Karmapa added. Then, one day, Dromtӧnpa came by while the monk was prostrating. “It’s very good that you are prostrating,” said Dromtӧnpa, “but would it not be better if you actually practised the dharma?”

The monk was very puzzled. If prostration wasn’t dharma practice, what should he do instead that was dharma practice? He decided that it must be better to study the great sacred texts, so he went to the monastery library and began reading the Kangyur and Tengyur. Then, one day, Dromtӧnpa came by and saw the monk sitting there reading. “It’s very good that you are reading the sacred texts, said Dromtӧnpa, ”but would it not be better if you actually practised the dharma?”

By now, the monk was totally confused. Circumambulation wasn’t dharma practice. Prostrating wasn’t dharma practice. Reading the sacred texts wasn’t dharma practice. He decided that the best dharma practice must be meditation, so he began to meditate, hoping that Dromtӧnpa would now commend his dharma practice.

And finally, one day, Dromtӧnpa passed by while the monk was meditating.

“It’s very good that you are meditating,” he said, “but would it not be better to actually practise the dharma?”

By this point, the monk had no idea what he was supposed to do. He had done everything he considered to be dharma practice, yet Dromtӧnpa had said categorically that they weren’t dharma practice. The monk begged Dromtӧnpa, “Please tell me what dharma practice I should do.” And Dromtӧnpa replied, “You need to put this life out of your mind. Put this life out of your mind. Put this life out of your mind.”  He repeated it three times.

External forms are not dharma practice. The important thing is your state of mind. If your way of thinking is correct, no matter what you do, everything can become dharma practice. If your state of mind is not correct, though there might be the external appearance of dharma practice, it is not dharma. The question is whether your practice is transformative, whether it can transform your mind, and whether it can benefit your mind or not. Judging by the external appearance can be misleading. Someone chanting manis seemingly with devotion could be wishing harm on others in their minds.

A significant fault arising from a mistaken view of dharma practice is that it minimalises dharma practice. When your life is going well, when you are enjoying life, you won’t have much wish to practice. The converse is also true. When things are going badly, when you have great physical or mental suffering or great sorrow, you do not want to practice dharma, and you may seek out other ways to alleviate your pain such as drugs and alcohol. It’s difficult to remember to practise dharma or even to find the energy to practise dharma in these situations.

Sometimes, people finding themselves in a hopeless or desperate situation, when there is nothing they can do, remember that they should pray to the buddhas and bodhisattvas. As the Chinese saying goes, “When there’s nothing to be done, you cling to the Buddha’s feet.” Normally they don’t remember the buddhas but now they recite mantras, pray, and hope that the buddhas will grant their power and blessing to remove their difficulties. When their backs are up against the wall, they will resort to anything —divinations, astrology, or the like. They search the Internet or look for books that might help, and they read what the Buddha said, looking for comfort in his words. It’s as if they are using the Buddha’s words as “chicken soup for the soul”: something that will give them relief in times of suffering. 

Then, one day, life gets a little better and they are no longer suffering so much. Now they have a little time and leisure to practise dharma but it’s not certain that they will. If they do decide to start practising dharma, they will often find excuses to delay: “It’s best to begin on an astrologically auspicious day”, or “Today I’m a little tired; I’ll rest a bit; I can start tomorrow.”  They find so many excuses for postponing that in the end they never practise. 

There is a famous ancient Chinese poem that says: 

There’s a tomorrow after tomorrow:
There’s never an end to tomorrows. 
If you say “tomorrow” and wait,
All your actions will fail. 

If you postpone things until tomorrow, you will never accomplish anything.

2. What “practising dharma” really means.

Having explored what genuine dharma practice is not, the Karmapa now discussed what dharma practice actually should be.

The first thing we have to understand is that dharma practice is not just a cure-all to make yourself feel better, he explained. The buddhas and bodhisattvas are not like first responders or paramedics giving treatment in a medical emergency. Nor does practising dharma mean performing rituals and traditions. Nor is it a duty that you are obliged to do without any choice. And it’s not like travellers in old Tibet who would happily sing folk songs along the road on the plains until they reached a dangerous route over a pass. They would immediately begin to chant prayers to Guru Rinpoche for protection. 

If you really and truly want to practice dharma, you first have to understand what we actually mean by “practising dharma” —what the way is to practise dharma.

His Holiness said that he had already spoken about this at length previously so there was no need to say much more. 

The main point you need to know is that practising dharma is not something you do in the shrine room or sitting on a meditation cushion. That’s not how you should think. Practice should be understood as something to be done all the time, day and night, twenty-four hours a day. It should be something which is able to change and improve your mind. That’s what we mean by practice.

The first step is to identify the reasons we need to go for refuge and become a dharma practitioner. Across the Himalayas, many people grow up in a Buddhist cultural environment, so they never ask such questions; they simply follow the family tradition, but we need to consider the reason for ourselves. Although everyone has their own particular reasons why they need to enter the gate of dharma and go for refuge, we should all share a primary aim—to take Lord Shakyamuni Buddha as an example and have the intention, “Someday may I become someone like him who has realised the true nature.”  That should be the greatest hope for all of us. In order to accomplish this aim, we need to become an even better person than we were before, and then, gradually, become a good dharma practitioner. Then we need to become a bodhisattva and finally a buddha. 

The true dharma is the method by which we can become someone who can better help ourselves and others. That is why we need to study the true dharma and then put it into practice. If we do this, we will naturally become a better person and we won’t be so foolish either. We will know how to think and use our intelligence. Why? Because the Bhagawan Buddha possessed the prajna that realised the true nature and he taught the true dharma on that basis. Because he had that experience, he was able to teach the true dharma. If we are able to study the dharma and put it into practice correctly and assiduously, we will definitely  achieve a good result, without any doubt. We can become happier and more content. 

The main point, however, is that everything depends upon mind. We have to be in control of our minds; we have to take ownership of our minds. There’s no point just going through the external appearances of dharma practice. Nor should dharma practice be rigid and intractable. It should be flexible and open to change according to the time and situation. Similarly, it should be connected to our daily life and the nature of the world in which we live. The dharma can bring us infinite benefits, like a treasure chest that is never empty no matter how many jewels you take.

3. The best opportunities for practice are when things are going well or badly

No matter who we are, life sometimes goes well and sometimes goes badly. It is constantly changing. Within a single day even, we might feel depressed in the morning, but by the evening we are happy. 

At times such as when someone wins the lottery or gains promotion to a powerful position, they might become arrogant, as the Tibetan saying goes—"The sky is their scarf and the clouds are their headband”. They become very proud and look down on everyone. Or else their greed increases, or they lose any caution and self-control. Many such problems can occur. Abraham Lincoln once said, “If you want to test a person’s character, give them power.” When a person’s power increases, their true character is revealed and their faults begin to show. 

But from the perspective of someone who practices dharma, it is said that when things are going well, it is an excellent opportunity to practise the dharma. The more external wealth and connections you have, the more opportunities you have to be generous. You can also be generous with the dharma. For example, during Ashoka’s reign in ancient India, he used the power of being a great emperor to spread the dharma throughout all of India, neighbouring countries, and even as far away as Greece. He used his position, power, and fame to be very generous with the dharma. We are not like Ashoka, but we can use our power, wealth and influence in our monasteries and communities to prepare plans and methods for helping people and creating benefit.

To think about it in terms of the mind, when we gain status, wealth, and so forth, we need to turn our attention inwards and examine ourselves even more closely than we did before because of the danger that we might develop new faults. Are we getting prouder? More arrogant? Careless? Do we want even higher status or more power? Is our greed for wealth increasing? In brief, the time when everything is going well also affords the best opportunity for close scrutiny of ourselves. 

Here, “Things going well” does not only mean becoming powerful or wealthy. Ordinary people never have much power or wealth. However, when our lives are going well and we feel happy and are enjoying ourselves, we should not neglect our dharma practice out of carelessness or laziness. 

How then should we practice dharma? His Holiness advised that it is critical at such times to contemplate impermanence. We should not be deceived by our happiness and excitement, because one day the situation will change and we may lose that happiness. If we are not mentally prepared for such a time, it will be as if heaven and earth are turned upside down and we won’t know what to do. 

The coronavirus pandemic is a good example of this. Because of the pandemic, many people in the developed Western world, who were leading very comfortable lives, were faced with previously inconceivable difficulties. How hard has it been even to get them to wear a mask? In the Asian world, the habit of wearing masks was already established, but in the West some people became quite upset about it. We were completely unprepared mentally for the coronavirus pandemic because we had not taken on board the dharma teaching that everything is impermanent and subject to change. 

The Karmapa clarified he was not saying that we shouldn’t have happiness or enjoyment.  Rather, it is essential to maintain mindfulness and awareness at all times. We must not let ourselves think that these times of pleasure and happiness will continue permanently and unchanged; otherwise, if they change suddenly and we encounter unforeseen difficulties, we will not be prepared and it will be a great shock.

In his concluding remarks, the Karmapa briefly mentioned that there were other difficult incidents in the life of the Eighth Karmapa that he hoped to cover. One was a little-known part of Kamtsang history. It concerned the controversy over which of two candidates was the true reincarnation of Mikyӧ Dorje’s principal tutor, the Fourth Shamar Rinpoche, and how Karmapa Mikyӧ Dorje was able to reinstate Kunchok Yenlak as the rightful Fifth Shamar Rinpoche.