Day 8: The Path is Paved with Good Intentions

Day 8: The Path is Paved with Good Intentions

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

4 April, 2022

On the eighth day of the Arya Kshema Spring Teachings, His Holiness began with the sixteenth of the good deeds from Mikyö Dorje’s Autobiographical Verses “Good Deeds.” Continuing under the sub-section “Taking adversity as the path in post-meditation”, according to the commentary by Sangye Paldrup, this stanza addresses the sixth of ten topics: “Taking the benefit and happiness of good intentions as the path”.

How could I bring all beings throughout space
The inferior and provisional benefits
And pleasures of existence and peace instead
Of the benefit of true enlightenment? 
I think of this as one of my good deeds. 

His Holiness noted discrepancies in both the root verse and the commentary between the versions obtained from the Drepung library (published by Vajra Vidya Institute, Varanasi) and the Potala palace, which may be examined and compared in the future.

Our actions need to have a good intention – the pure, altruistic intention of Buddhahood

 His Holiness explained: “If we are unable to dredge the depths of samsara and bring all sentient beings to the level of unexcelled buddhahood, even if we bring them to achieve the temporary pleasures of gods and humans or, even better than that, the levels of listener arhats and pratyekabuddhas, even that alone does not fulfill the intent of bodhisattvas, who have extremely great courage…” Karmapa Mikyö Dorje had the equivalent resolve of bodhicitta and courage as Avalokiteshvara and thus his greatest quality was his vastpure intentions. 

The Kadampa Geshe Tömpa said of his lama Atisha, “Atisha did not praise the listeners and pratyekabuddhas that highly”.  Similarly, Mikyö Dorje didn’t see much point in sentient beings achieving temporary happiness. Instead, he saw these beings as deserving compassion.  People may view the short-term gain of resources, wealth, and pleasures as good in their own minds, but from the perspective of one who sees the nature of samsara, their situation is still suffering by nature.  They are still under the control of karma and afflictions and hence deserve compassion and genuine affection.

In Tibetan society during Mikyö Dorje’s lifetime, many people may have considered themselves benevolent, thinking about helping others.  Some might consider preventing the loss of people’s physical well-being, health, possessions, and power to be very important, and would give as much aid as they could in those areas.  Meanwhile, some might consider benefiting the Sangha to be important, but would focus on the short-term needs of food and clothing, using their lives to look for sponsors for monks and nuns within monasteries. Others might consider avoiding the sufferings of the lower realms in future lives to be important, and would devote themselves to protecting the lives of sentient beings, particularly animalsthrough life releases, criticizing those who work for the sake of the teachings as lacking love and affection, “They eat meat; they drink their blood”.

And yet other people might consider the longer-term liberation of sentient beings to be important. “Samsara is just suffering by nature.  The sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, and death are extremely terrifying and their cause comes from our minds. If we can stop the stream of conceptions and thoughts, then we can stop the accumulation of karma and its subsequent ripening. So if we can stop thoughts, we can stop the continuum of birth”, they thought.  “What we need to do to stop thoughts would be to realize some pitch-black emptiness and meditate on that”. They’d go to some unpopulated empty valley and meditate on some limited blank nothingness, like the emptiness of pillars or jugs. Then they’d get others to meditate on limited emptiness too, and would say they were transmitting dharma, ripening and liberating others, bringing them to omniscience. At that time in Tibet, there were many such people who said they had pure intentions for the teachings and sentient beings in the long-term, acting in such ways.

However, Mikyö Dorje believed all sentient beings must be brought to complete liberation and omniscienceand would do whatever needed to be done, would sacrifice whatever needed to be sacrificed, to achieve this.  He was not satisfied with only the partial pleasures and riches of samsara and nirvana, nor was he satisfied with the partial liberation of a limited nirvana.  If we are attached to mere temporary pleasures and wealth, and consider these to be important, it impedes us from attaining great enlightenment.  There is also the danger that we could do unvirtuous things for the sake of this temporary human life, and then be cast back down into samsara and the lower realms. For these reasons, if Mikyö Dorje saw a situation that could bring beings to omniscience and liberation, he would take the opportunity. Yet seemingly good actions that only look virtuous on the outside, he would not do.

Some people criticized Mikyö Dorje, “Your ideas are too limited.  If embraced by the Mahayana resolve of bodhicitta and dedications, whatever virtue you do becomes a cause of great enlightenment. So you should consider the temporary benefit of giving food, clothing, and so forth to be important and a possible cause of great enlightenment and omniscience”.  In one aspect it’s true:  There are distant causes and direct, substantial causes of omniscience, His Holiness commented. However there is no certainly that actions that are distant causes will lead to enlightenment and they can actually obstruct working at the direct causes. If you are a bodhisattva who is not skilled in means, focussing on the distant causes may adversely affect the activity of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. For example, a skilled doctor with experience and intelligence will not give a patient alcohol, no matter how thirsty they may be.  Instead, a skilled doctor who understands causes and conditions will give something genuinely beneficial.

  His Holiness summarized the main point of this stanza: “In our lives, whatever action or task we are doing, we need to have a good intention – the pure altruistic intention of achieving the level of buddhahood”.  Within that we need to understand three points: (1) what is meant by benefiting others, or altruism, (2) what is meant by a pure intention, and (3) what is a quality or standard of a virtue, as opposed to a pseudo-virtue.

Altruism is practicing the dharma, so others achieve liberation and Buddhahood

Altruism is the aspiration to help things turn out well for other people. Firstly, we need to understand what is good and not good for others.  However, people employ their own criteria according to their own ideas. For example, money, a long and healthy life, fame, self-actualized empowerment, becoming a god or sage, or any combination of these may be alternatively valued as good by different people.  Moreover, what one person considers ‘good’, others do not necessarily view likewise, creating potential discord.  In addition, our own ideas may change over our lives; what we deem important when we are young may differ as we grow older, and this may further change when we are elderly. Once we achieve our wishes, they may again shift in turn.  We cannot identify ultimate good.

In Buddhist terms, is it best to liberate beings from the lower realms? Or to liberate them from samsara? To help we must know what is best for others, before we can bring about that good. Our own opinions are not necessarily correct. Thus we need to take a humble approach and consult those who have greater prajna and experience than we do. His Holiness stressed that we can look to the Bhagavan Buddha and the dharma he taught.  The instructions on what to do and what not to do have been passed down from the Bhagavan Buddha to our guru or our spiritual friend, from whom we can take advice. 

The Buddha had the prajna of realizing the nature of the world. He said that what is most beneficial for ourselves and others is the dharma, and therefore we need to practice it. The Buddha explained that the reason for practicing dharma is to achieve liberation or the level of Buddhahood. Therefore, if we believe in the Buddha, the greatest benefit for ourselves and others is to follow this advice and develop certainty about this within ourselves. If achieving liberation and omniscience is the ultimate aim and greatest benefit, then implicitly what this teaches is that ways of helping and doing good that do not have this aim are not the best ways to help others, nor are they the ultimate benefit and happiness. Altruism is practicing the dharma, so others achieve liberation and Buddhahood.  This is not a case of ordinary people discussing and debating what’s best; it is what the Buddha taught.

A pure, excellent intention should focus 100% on benefiting others 

When we say “a pure, excellent intention,” whatever action we may be doing should not be for our own self-interest and should focus 100% on benefiting others.  We should think “what can I do to help this sentient being”? If we do not understand the importance of a pure, excellent intention, something might seem virtuous from the outside, but in actuality may not become a virtuous or beneficial activity.

For example, if we perform a life release for an ox, is this task virtuous or not? Outwardly, it appears to be a virtuous action, but action alone does not indicate virtue. When we release the ox, in addition to the external manifestations of the action, there is the internal motivation and intention. Although others can bear witness to the external manifestations of our body and speech, we alone are privy to our own motivation, so there is a great danger of ignoring this aspect. Motivation and intention are actually more important than physical and verbal actions. 

Why do we want to release the ox? This can only be answered by our motivation and intention.  Body and speech are merely the tools we use to accomplish our intentions, which are in charge.  Similarly, if you are struck by a car, you’re not going to ask the car (a tool) why it hit you; you ask the driver who is in charge.  So examine your motivation.  What is the purpose of saving the ox’s life?  Are you thinking about this particular ox?  Is it out of love?  Are you thinking “It wouldn’t be right if this ox dies”?  If instead you are trying to show off, so that others perceive you as a good person and a good dharma practitioner, your virtuous action becomes a “pseudo-virtue” due to the motivation.

We need to accomplish virtues that are quality and meet a standard 

Although the actions of our body and speech may be identical, whether the result is a virtue or a pseudo-virtue depends on our motivation and the level of the action. Motivation includes the causal motivation and the immediate motivation. The causal motivation is our aim when we first think about doing the action, while the immediate motivation is our thinking while we do the action. In contemporary language, the level of the action is the quality and the quantity of the action. 

The quality, or authenticity, will depend upon our motivation and aim. Pure, excellent intentions relate to clear, stable, causal motivations. Are we performing the action to make someone else rich and powerful, or to bring them to higher states and true excellence? Or to bring them to buddhahood?  The aim must be unequivocal in our minds to achieve results.

As dharma practitioners, there are many different things that we need to do.  But there is just one ultimate aim: achieving the state of Buddhahood. When you die, you exchange your body for the next life, but you don’t exchange your consciousness – it continues. Therefore, you need to make your consciousness meaningful.  The essential purpose for your consciousness is to transcend birth and death and reach liberation and achieve the level of buddhahood.

Stable aims lead to perfect results

His Holiness told a story of a Chinese Zen master and his students, who in the olden days had independent lives and lived off their own means, growing their own food. One day, the master brought his students to plant rice.  Each rice seedling must be planted individually in the paddy, in straight rows.  After planting, the students’ rice was crooked: some seedlings were in front, others behind, and the rows went this way and that.  Meanwhile the master’s rice was planted in a perfectly straight line.  

The students wondered about this, and asked the master, “How could you plant rice in such an incredibly straight line? Our rice doesn’t look like that”.  

The master started to laugh, “It’s really easy!  When you’re planting the rice seedlings, you need to pick a reference point, and focus unwaveringly on that one thing as a target, drawing a path from there. Plant the rice seedlings along that path toward the target”.  

The students thought “OK!” and continued planting.  After more rows were planted the students noticed another problem: now their rows of rice seedlings curved in arcs and meandered.  

The master noticed and asked the students, “How did this happen?”  

The students replied, “Oh master!  You said to focus on a reference point.  There was an ox in the distance, so we used that as the target for planting the rice.”  

The master scolded, “You students do not understand!  The ox is going to move here and there.  When the ox moved, your target moved and consequently the rows of rice arced.  The target reference point wasn’t stable.  You need to focus on something unmoving and stable.”

The students noticed a big tree and focussed on that for their measure, once again planting the seedlings.  Finally, their rows of rice became perfectly straight, like the master’s.

Similarly, our own aims need to be not only clear, but also stable and unwavering.  If we don’t have a stable aim then sometimes we may be performing virtue, sometimes non-virtue, sometimes pseudovirtue.

We also need pure, excellent intentions. We should have the clear intention of devoting ourselves 100% to the benefit of others in a way that is unconnected with our own individual needs and self-interest.  If the deed is connected with our own benefit, even a little, it is not pure.  We also need to ask ourselves whether this is really and truly beneficial to that other being.  Of course, this is very difficult to achieve, so we do as much as we can. Even if we can’t have a pure, altruistic intention, we should go more than half-way tobenefit others, thinking that others’ needs are more important than our own.  That’s the causal motivation.   Then we need to evaluate our assiduousness, precision, and interest while performing the action.  This indicates our immediate motivation. 

Thus the crucial point determining the level of quality in our actions comes down to motivation. When great masters of the past taught, studied dharma, recited prayers and texts, or performed other activities, they would fix the intention to have a high-quality, virtuous motivation – and we need to do likewise.

The quantity of the action depends upon our minds, not external things

The quantity of action refers to the extensiveness or vastness or frequency of the actions that we do.  Does this mean that a person should do a life release every day for their entire lives? Not necessarily so. The reason is that the extent or quantity of the virtue does not solely refer to the external appearance. It also refers to the level of the action’s quality, the extent of the interest and assiduousness while you do the action, and how much you are thinking about the action.  There is also the effect of the action, the results to which the action leads, and so forth.  Merely doing as many life releases as you can is not necessarily a great and vast virtuous action. 

These days, the economic situation has improved to a certain degree in Tibet. People have money, so they are spending it on beautiful offerings and rituals, smoke offerings, prayer flags and so forth in vast quantities. They put up so many prayer flags that, in the end, they befoul the earth and water and pollute the environment. This can even cause animals to get caught in prayer flags and die. His Holiness expressed that he doesn’t think that our ancestors were unable to make such huge offerings because they did not have as much money as we do today.  Rather, our ancestors had a level of pure faith, outlook and belief which we don’t possess.  Today, the external quantity of offerings may be huge in terms of numbers.  But is it virtuous?  We need to examine our minds.  Is our motivation empty inside?  It's not how much money we may have spent; it’s how much sacrifice we are making mentally, and how much generosity we have that matters when gathering the accumulations.  When the Buddha spent six years practicing austerities and then sat beneath the bodhi tree, what did he possess? Nothing at all, not even food or drink.  It’s important to consider how the Buddha gathered the accumulations. The quantity of the action therefore does not depend on external things; it primarily depends upon our own minds.

Likewise, there are various ways of acting virtuously for different kinds of beings in accordance with the time and place. We should not cling to a single virtuous action or type of virtue due to tradition, then disregard or belittle other types of virtue. It is important for us to use various methods to benefit beings and to work from all directions to increase our virtue.

We can use nutrition as an example: it is important to balance the quantities and combinations of different types of nutrients. Legumes and tofu are a good source of protein and are helpful for providing calcium and vitamins. But, even though beneficial, if we only eat legumes, there is the danger of worsening rheumatism and aggravating gout. Thus we need to eat various types of foods, and not eat too much of any one kind. Similarly, when we work to do virtuous things that benefit others, we should not be too attached to only one method or only one class of virtuous actions. We need to do what is most beneficial and has the greatest effect, using our intelligence to be creative and examine before relaxing our mind and performing the action. Thus when we perform virtuous actions, we must examine things well with our prajna. 

Taking actions from good intentions as the path

According to the commentary, the next stanza of the root text addresses the seventh of ten topics, taking actions from good intentions as the path:  

To gain enlightenment to benefit oneself and others,
One must leave self-disparagement, despair,
Anxiety, and weariness far behind
And strengthen one’s unstoppable diligence.
How could I, in this life, let my practice fluctuate?
I think of this as one of my good deeds. (17)

During Mikyö Dorje’s time, most people who professed to have love and unbearable compassion would first study the scriptures from the sutra tradition. They’d spend a few decades studying basic logic and debate. Then they’d study the tantric tradition and spend a few years on rituals for the deceased, such as the wrathful and peaceful deities and Amitabha, and not the profound meaning of the tantras – merely rituals for offerings that would support their food. At some point, they’d say, “I’ve done some dharma practice and have internalized the meaning” and then go off to spend a few years in mountain retreat. They would forget their earlier debate logic and most of the rituals, becoming cocky, believing themselves to have a certain degree of experience, with prajna welling forth, and begin to teach dharma.  That which we should do and not do is clearly taught in the scriptures on the stages of the path for the three types of individuals. However, instead, they would downplay the Buddha’s words as expedient and not definitive meaning, teaching whatever they want as the guru’s pith instructions for achieving realization. To gain fame, reputation, and pleasure they would engage in teaching and debating.

Or some might think, “I can’t do work like teaching, debating or writing. Either someone will kill me or I’ll die naturally before I finish all that work! There’s no point in doing it”.  So instead of doing all that work, they would go someplace where they could get all the food, clothing and conversation they might want.  They would go where a few women would sponsor them, believing “I’m doing great things for the vast benefit of others”, while generally doing neutral or even unvirtuous activities. Others would think they had a nice life, “This lama has a way of doing good deeds. Maybe it would be great if I were like that?” And so, more people would be attracted, and a large gathering of students would be assembled.

Mikyö Dorje didn’t think such people were important, didn’t aspire to be like them, nor was he swayed nor influenced by them.  Mikyö Dorje performed his activity so that if something might cause harm instead of benefiting others, he would stop such actions, as they are not virtue. Consequently, the people had faith in him.  As indicated in Mikyö Dorje’s own One Hundred Short Instructions, he didn’t consider pseudo-virtues to be important and significant:  

At root, it is best to benefit sentient beings directly. If you cannot, then focus on the benefit of sentient beings indirectly.  Begin by not harming sentient beings, and do whatever you can to teach dharma, contemplate dharma, meditate on dharma, gather monks, sustain monasteries, and build stupas and status. All your intentions and actions to increase merit will become causes of great enlightenment. If you do not have intentions that focus on the benefit of sentient beings or if you do but in your actions harm sentient beings, all your listening, contemplating and meditating on the dharma and seeming accumulation of merit will not be causes of buddhahood, and they would be brought there by mere luck.

We must examine ourselves to evaluate whether we are practicing the dharma in a true way or not.  This reminded His Holiness of a story about Jetsun Milarepa, deferring the remaining discussion of the 17th good deed to the future.

The example of Milarepa

Before his passing, Jetsun Milarepa left a will and testament with his students.  He didn’t have important or sacred things, merely a staff of aurura wood, a hat, and a cotton robe which he sent to Gampopa as mementos.  There was another staff and another cotton robe which he sent to Rechungpa.  He only had these few things which he left to his important students. He didn’t have a computer, or an iPhone, or many things as we do today.  

However, Milarepa said something strange, “I’ve kept a little bit of gold.  Behind my retreat hut there’s a little spot in the wall – I’ve hidden it there.  After I’ve died, get that gold and divide it amongst yourselves”.  

When he said this, his students thought, “Milarepa said he had gold!  We never thought Milarepa had gold.  He must have some gold… maybe his sponsors gave him some”.  Others thought, “How can a lama like Milarepa have gold?  Don’t say such ridiculous things”.

After Milarepa passed away, his students got together and did what Milarepa said – they went to look for the gold behind the retreat hut.  When they went behind the hut, there really was something hidden there.  There was a bundle of tied-up cloth.  And so the students took it out.  They opened it up where everyone could see. 

When they opened up the bundle, there was no gold.

There were three lumps of jaggery, a letter, and a knife in a square of white cloth.

When students saw this, they exclaimed, “Milarepa said he had gold!  Where’s the gold?  We’d better look at the letter…”

The letter read, “Take these cubes of sugar, cut them with this knife into little pieces, and give a piece to everyone who is here.  Then cut this square of cloth into little pieces, until the cloth is all used up, and give a piece to everyone present.

“I think there’re a few people who said that Milarepa has gold,” the letter continued.

“Tell them to eat shit”.

This was a few days after Milarepa had passed and everyone was grief-stricken.  When they heard “Eat shit”, they burst into laughter.

We think of Milarepa as a great master who practiced the dharma purely, undergoing many hardships.  He’s a better person than we are, so we think he’s probably very serious.  But actually Milarepa was very relaxed.  He enjoyed himself.  Even after he had been poisoned and was in physical pain, he was still enjoying himself – right up until the time that he died.  He still played jokes, to lighten things up for the people left behind.

Another aspect to consider: Milarepa was testing his students.  Usually, Milarepa had absolutely no attachment or desire for worldly things. However, some of his students heard “Gold!” and became suspicious. However there was no gold.

Mila was completely fine if there was gold or no gold.  This is an example that we should think about. What are the most important things in our lives?  We really need to consider this.