Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings: 17th Gyalwang Karmapa on the 8th Karmapa Mikyö Dorje’s Autobiographical Verses
April 8, 2022
His Holiness began the ninth day of the Arya Kshema Spring teachings with an explanation on the seventeenth good deed from Mikyö Dorje’s Autobiographical Verses “Good Deeds.”
According to the outline from the commentary by the attendant Sangye Paldrup, the passage on meditating on relative bodhicitta has two parts:
(a) Exchanging oneself for others in meditation
(b) Taking adversity as the path in post-meditation
The second part has ten different sub-topics, and we have arrived at the seventh—taking acting upon good intentions as the path.
The stanza reads:
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.
Returning to Milarepa
Before explaining this stanza, His Holiness elaborated on the story of Milarepa from the previous teaching. He explained that although there are many liberation stories of Milarepa, the most well-known one written by Tsangnyön Heruka, the oldest and one of the best sources is The Twelve Great Students, prepared by twelve of his great disciples. He added that there was also one called the Black Treasury, compiled by the third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje.
When Milarepa passed away, he told his students, “I don’t have many important possessions to give away. Please give this black aloeswood staff, cloth hat, and piece of cloth to the Physician from Dakpo (Gampopa). If Rechungpa arrives on time, please give him these, and if he does not arrive, send him this walking stick and piece of cloth.” The flint and steel that Milarepa had used to light fires was reserved for Drigom Repa, and his tattered pandita hat was for Seben Repa. He also instructed his students to cut the cotton robe that he wore himself into pieces, and to give a bit to each of the repa.
Milarepa then explained, “These are not of great monetary value, but they will bring each of you siddhis (accomplishments). Now, I do have a little bit of gold that I have saved up. I’ve hidden it in the back wall of my retreat hut, so after I’ve passed away, you should take it out and distribute the gold amongst all of the students.”
There were various opinions regarding this, Karmapa elaborated. Some suspected that Milarepa must have had a lot of gold. Others exclaimed, “How could Milarepa have gold? He didn’t even have clothes that covered his entire body. Don’t listen to what others say; doing so will just end up in committing misdeeds.” Later on, when the disciples gathered together to look for the gold, they found something wrapped up in cotton fabric. They opened it up and instead of gold, there were three pieces of jaggery [unrefined cane sugar], a letter from Milarepa himself, and a special multipurpose flint that could also be used as a knife, spoon, fork, and awl.
Karmapa then showed us pictures of a flint and jaggery. He explained that a flint was necessary while traveling, but later became used as an ornament. The lumps of jaggery were of a hemispherical shape, as depicted in the image shown.
When the students read the letter, it said, “Cut the jaggery with the knife and there will be enough for everyone. Cut this square cloth with the knife and distribute it; the cloth will not run out until there are no more people. There may have been people who said that I, Milarepa, had gold; so stuff their mouths with shit.”
Everyone had been grieving and sorrowful after Milarepa’s passing, but at that moment everyone laughed at the funny joke and felt lighter, pointed out Karmapa. After they finished the rituals for his passing away, all the students and sponsors gathered and divided the jaggery and cloth as instructed.
“It was really miraculous,” explained Karmapa. “When they cut the pieces of jaggery in half, the two pieces did not get any smaller. They were further split into four, and then into eight, the eight into sixteen, and the sixteen into thirty-two, but they never ran out. There was no end to the sugar. Likewise, when they cut the square of cloth with the knife, the pieces of fabric didn’t get any smaller. Each of them was like a full square of fabric.”
Everyone there got a piece of jaggery and a piece of the fabric. They immediately started to eat the jaggery, as they felt it must have great blessings from Milarepa. No matter how long they ate it, the piece of jaggery never ran out. People took them back to their homes for their family members, but the pieces never got any smaller. Everyone in Dring and Nyanam, the region where Milarepa passed away, was able to eat the jaggery for a whole year. This became renowned and people exclaimed, “There’s nothing more amazing than these pieces of jaggery!”
There are many other events related to that. Karmapa said, “For a year after Milarepa’s passing, there were always beautiful melodies and rains of flowers coming from the sky on auspicious days at the cremation site. The little boys and girls ran off to catch the flowers, and the ones who caught flowers were chased by those who did not.”
Even though Milarepa, worse off than most beggars, did not have any possessions of value, he gave the jaggery and fabric as gifts to everyone with whom he was connected. It was like a souvenir, a support for them to remember him by. His Holiness remarked that from this, we can tell how Milarepa was kind and always thinking of other people. “This shows that being a practitioner does not mean having a rigid, inflexible character. Some practitioners are like that, but Milarepa was not,” he explained.
According to old liberation stories, Milarepa said, “After I pass away, don’t disturb my body for seven days. I will have something to say after that.” His students followed instructions and waited. When it came to the fifth day, some people could not wait and wondered what might have happened, but the disciples would not permit them to take a look. Eventually, they went in on the sixth day, and discovered that Milarepa’s remains had become very tiny, around one cubit in size.
At that time, many people had different visions; some saw it as Chenrezig, some felt it was a vase. Afterwards, they all thought, “If we leave him alone, there won’t even be any remains left, and we won’t have any relics or other supports for faith to worship.” So everyone decided to cremate the remains. Karmapa expressed that usually relics appear during cremation, but there was nothing left at all—the remains had disappeared, like rainbows. Neither was there the normal smell of burning flesh during the cremation. It seemed like Milarepa intended to not leave any remains or relics, and left the jaggery and fabric as a support for faith. His Holiness believed this is one reason for his leaving those objects.
When Milarepa said “I have gold,” it showed that he was no different on the outside or the inside. “He did not have any attachment to sensory pleasures, and that was the type of practice he did. After he had passed away, there was nothing to be found. Saying he had gold was a test to see how much belief his students had in him,” explained Karmapa.
Mikyö Dorje’s Genuine Practice
Returning to the seventeenth of the good deeds, Karmapa explained that the way Mikyö Dorje performed his activities was to give up doing things that were called “practice and study of sutra and tantra” but that in actuality harmed oneself and others. Leading by example, he became a cause for his receptive students to also stop doing non-virtuous or neutral things that outwardly appeared to be virtuous.
Mikyö Dorje himself also stated very clearly:
It is best to benefit sentient beings directly. If you cannot, then focus on benefiting sentient beings indirectly, beginning with not harming them. Do whatever you can to teach dharma, contemplate dharma, meditate on dharma, gather monks, sustain monasteries, and build stupas and statues. If you do all that you can, all your intentions and actions will become causes of achieving great enlightenment. If you do not have the thought to focus on the benefit of sentient beings from the beginning, or even if you do but your actions begin to harm sentient beings during the engagement, all your listening, contemplating and meditating on the dharma and seeming accumulation of merit will not be causes of buddhahood. It will not bring you liberation and omniscience, so you need to stop doing them.
Karmapa emphasized that Mikyö Dorje was not attached to things called by the name of dharma and virtue. “He was interested in genuine dharma and practice. When he was listening to and contemplating the sutras and tantras, his meditation practice on those points improved. When he was being assiduous about meditation practice on their meaning, the extent of his knowledge from listening and contemplation also increased. Basically, whatever he was doing worked together to increase his virtue,” he explained. These days, we have a separate monastic college for studying, and a separate section for doing pujas. Karmapa remarked that from another perspective, it is as if one person cannot do both well, so we had to separate the two.
Mikyö Dorje’s time was, in Tibet, a degenerate era; people were very difficult to tame or subdue. When he was keeping discipline, the virtue of generosity increased, and when being generous, the virtue of discipline increased. “They each benefit and contribute to each other; it’s not like you emphasize one and forget about the other,” explained Karmapa. Likewise, when Mikyö Dorje was practicing listening, contemplation, and meditation; giving pratimoksha or bodhisattva vows, empowerments, instructions, reading transmissions; reciting the seven branch prayer or other aspirations—no matter what he was doing, he would not procrastinate. He never felt discouraged and thought “I can’t do this physically or mentally,” but had the confidence and enthusiasm to accomplish them.
His Holiness explained that regardless of how many adversities had occurred, Mikyö Dorje had the patience and equanimity to face and overcome them. He dedicated all he did to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment; these were dedications free of the three spheres, imbued with the realization of emptiness. “Even when he was doing regular things like walking around and lying down, he was never free of the view, meditation, and conduct of great enlightenment. All his actions were focused on the sake of the teachings and sentient beings,” said Karmapa.
No matter what Mikyö Dorje did, whether giving teachings, writing, conversing and joking, drinking tea and eating meals, giving advice, or reciting prayers and meditating in the evenings, he performed them well without letting any of these actions interfere with one another. He made people understand the right and wrong ways to benefit others, and he himself never mixed them up in his practice. With writings alone numbering over one hundred volumes, Mikyö Dorje was incredibly diligent, working night and day to benefit sentient beings.
A Song of Mikyö Dorje
Returning from the intermission, Karmapa shared with us a song written by Mikyö Dorje:
If you look from outside, there’s nothing I do not do.
If you look from inside, I am free of doing anything.
If you ponder it, it’s not the object of mind.
Who can fathom the nature of Yangchen Sarma?
“The main point is that looking at the external appearance, there is nothing at all that Mikyö Dorje would not do,” His Holiness explained. “If you examine the inside, the actual meaning, he was free of doing anything. He was able to act without any thought at all. This was his realization, that he was always resting in equipoise. The way he performed his activities was amazing and unfathomable.”
Yangchen Sarma is one of the many different names of Mikyö Dorje. His own intent and thought is something other people would not be able to understand or conceive of.
Next, His Holiness gave an introduction on the two main points to summarize the seventeenth good deed:
- Practice is a twenty-four hour job
- We must be able to combine various types of practice
Practice is a Twenty-Four Hour Job
Karmapa introduced this by emphasizing, “Practicing dharma is something we need to do both day and night. At any time, we need to use our mindfulness, awareness, and carefulness.”
What do we mean when we say dharma practice? Practice should be understood as a system to habituate your mind, to make your mind familiar with something. What are we practicing? It is changing the way we act with body and speech and training our mind.
“We have to correct and edit our mind, that’s what we mean,” Karmapa explained. “Only doing it one time isn’t enough; we have to repeat it over and over again. That training or habituation of our mind must be continuous. Only then can you effect any change.”
If we look at a year, there are three hundred and sixty-five days, and there are twenty-four hours in a day. The mind never stops during this whole time; it is always working. As long as it is working, we cannot let go of the work of changing our mind. There is no time to rest. “Since our mind works for twenty-four hours, we need to train our mind in those twenty-four hours. We need to make our human life our practice, and make our practice our human life,” Karmapa instructed.
He clarified this with an analogy: “If we get really fat and the doctors tell us to lose weight, we need to put effort into it. We need to train our body, so we go to a gym and do a lot of exercise. We need to walk around as much as we can, for example, walking ten or twenty thousand steps in a day. In addition, we must limit and control what we eat. If we work hard at the gym for an hour, but for the rest of the time we sit without moving at all while eating fatty food, we will neither lose weight nor become healthy.”
Practice is similar. “Some of us sit on a square cushion practicing for a few hours, but when we get up from the cushion, we lose all feeling of the practice. Practicing like that is akin to doing an ordinary job or obligation. What we need to do is to fully involve our whole body, speech, and mind, and bring all that power into the practice.” Furthermore, His Holiness stressed that we need to be excited about and have the enthusiasm for practice. We need to have an aim and impetus, a strong desire to quickly accomplish the reason for our practice.
Karmapa elucidated with another example: “We often make New Year’s resolutions. If our plan is to not tell any lies this year, we need to always remember that and encourage ourselves repeatedly to keep that resolution. For example, if we are buying something in a store and the cashier miscounts the money, we need to remind ourselves of that aim. This includes times when we are drinking tea and having a conversation with a friend, or having a work meeting and so forth.”
Likewise when we practice, we should have that kind of thinking and feeling. “The example I just gave is only one aim, but when we say practicing the dharma, it is not that easy. It is much more complicated and vast than that,” he explained. When we practice, we need all three—listening, contemplating, and meditating—without separating them.
While we are practicing, we must have a special way of feeling and enthusiasm. Without this, there is no way we can practice the dharma, Karmapa emphasized. What is this attitude? We need to have the feeling that we want to improve ourselves, making ourselves better people. We always need to have the thought, “I’m going to work at this; I’m going to do all I can to improve myself.”
Improving does not mean increasing our knowledge or skills. “It means bringing our mind closer to the dharma and practicing continuously. We say the current of the river never ceases; just as the earlier water goes by, the later water flows. We need to practice similarly with continuous effort,” said Karmapa. We need to improve day by day, month by month, year by year. If we do that, we can become someone different than before. There can be a difference from the person last week and next week, last year and next year; there can be a change in the way we think.
But no matter who we are, sometimes we feel bored and lethargic, and want to relax and have some fun. Karmapa explained that it is important and necessary to give our body and mind some rest, when we have been working too hard and are exhausted either from work or practice. But he cautioned that we must be careful about this. “That rest can become strong lazy habits. We should never forget the thought that we are dharma practitioners. We should remember the things we should and should not do, and we need someone to teach and remind us of these.”
The teachings often emphasize that we need to have carefulness, mindfulness and awareness. Karmapa explained that even while we are resting, we cannot stop practicing. When we look at the liberation stories of past masters, they were able to continue their practice while sleeping. Even sleep can be divided into virtuous and non-virtuous. If we have carefulness and awareness, we can continue with our dharma practice during sleep, he pointed out.
As a dharma practitioner, we need to always have a watchman over our mind to see what is happening. The responsibility is that at all times, we need to recognize and pay attention to what are the virtues to be accomplished and misdeeds to be avoided, and differentiate between self-interest or altruism. “No matter what we do—whether we are eating, lying down, chatting on WeChat or looking at a post on Facebook, or sending others pictures and messages—we need to have that feeling that we are taking responsibility as a dharma practitioner,” His Holiness explained.
In addition to not harming others, we must also think about helping others as much as we can, doing dharma practices, working for harmony in Buddhism, and putting effort into spreading the teachings. “Once we have that,” he added, “we can put effort into these activities.”
Combine Various Types of Practice
Speaking on the second point of the seventeenth stanza, Karmapa began by mentioning there are numerous different types of practice including listening, contemplation, and meditation, along with teaching, explaining and debating. He stressed that it is important to unify them all into one.
“If we were to spend all our time listening to many teachings and taking one empowerment or transmission after another, it is possible that eventually we would get bored and feel like there’s no point. That alone makes it difficult to improve our practice,” Karmapa pointed out.
He explained with an example of education in schools: If the teacher only talks and the students only listen without any thought or attempt to understand it for themselves, later the teacher will ask, “What did I just say, please repeat it,” and the student will be unable to answer. The teacher’s words will go in one ear and out the other. Furthermore, if the questions on an exam are slightly different and have changed a little bit, the students will not be able to answer.
“Similarly, when the guru teaches us the dharma, if we only hear with our ears and do not think about it at all, it is like teaching a parrot to recite mani mantras. The parrot can recite the words, but the meaning is beyond their level of understanding,” explained Karmapa. Thus, it is very important that we combine all practices of listening, contemplation, and meditation.
So what do we mean by listening, contemplating, and meditating and the three types of prajna that arise from them? Hearing the sound of the words spoken by the guru can be considered listening, but listening alone does not produce prajna. “In order to develop the prajna of listening, not only do we have to hear the words, we have to think a little bit about the meaning. Even if you do not get a good understanding, you must be able to at least get a general understanding. Only by doing so, will you have developed the prajna born of listening,” Karmapa explained.
Merely gaining an understanding of what the lama said is not enough. “If you leave it as something you just heard and understood, it is actually very dangerous,” he warned. When we think that we have read and studied so much, there is a danger of becoming proud. “It does not help to tame us, so we need to take whatever understanding we have gained, and continue to study. Ask the teacher questions, and use both scripture and logic to investigate it. What is it like? What is it not like? This is called contemplation,” said Karmapa.
After we have contemplated and developed some certainty in our mind that it is as our guru had taught, that is the prajna of contemplation. That stable certainty is very important. It helps us to not merely follow whatever other people or society says. We need to have this definite certainty that if we do this practice, we will give up these faults and develop these qualities, and that if we do not do practice, there will be no chance to develop these qualities. Having this certainty will allow us to develop the prajna of contemplation, he explained.
His Holiness then continued with the explanation on meditation. When we have developed certainty, in addition to having examined what the guru taught, we have the decisive feeling that “this is really it.” This decisiveness is not something that we leave as it is. Day and night, we need to mix our mind with the dharma so they become unified. Doing this over and over again is meditation.
Meditation is not thinking about something, but is actually habituation. There are two types, analytic and resting meditation. “When you have repeatedly tried to make your mind and dharma the same, then one day, you don’t really need to try too hard. Naturally, your mind and the dharma will be mixed into one. That is called the prajna born of meditation,” said Karmapa.
Thus among these three, listening, contemplation, and meditation, the first requires us to rely on someone else. But the other two are both something we must do ourselves. He pointed out that in terms of our practice going well or not, one-third depends upon the guru, and the rest upon ourselves. “Listening depends on the guru, but whether or not we contemplate or meditate is up to you. If the lama does the meditation in your place, it doesn’t help at all, right?”
Listening, Contemplation, and Meditation in Daily Life
“Generally,” said Karmapa, “these three words may seem like dharma jargon, but we can think about them in terms of daily situations.” For example, when many people first hear about America, and how wealthy, powerful, and developed it is, they think about the opportunities there and how they could earn a lot of money. Hearing this from our friends and acquaintances, that is listening.
Then, we get interested and read books or watch videos and Hollywood movies in order to gain a certain degree of knowledge about America. But can we actually experience what America is like just from that? It is unlikely.
“To really know what America is like, you first must go to America and spend a few years there working; then you’ll understand. But even that is not certain. I have acquaintances who have spent several decades in America who still can’t speak English and do not have much contact with society. Having your body there does not mean you have the experience of it,” explained Karmapa.
First, we hear about there being a country called America. Then, we think about it and take interest in it. Finally, we go there and experience it. This is the same as listening, contemplation, and meditation, he pointed out.
His Holiness gave another analogy: Many people have never eaten tofu. They hear about it and become interested, so they look it up. Only when they go to a Chinese restaurant and order a tofu dish can they have the experience of what tofu tastes like.
No matter what we do or how we gain experience in life, it is exactly the same as listening, contemplation, and meditation. “Listening basically means you have made a connection between yourself and dharma. Contemplating is thinking in your head about what dharma is like. In the end, whether the dharma is incorporated into our mind depends upon our meditation. We need to actually instill the dharma into our heart and mind and gain experience,” Karmapa highlighted. Meditation does not only mean sitting on a cushion and breathing in and out. It is the system for developing the experience of incorporating the dharma into our mind.
Therefore, once we have listened to the dharma, we must think about it. If we do not do so, we can listen to the dharma for the rest of our life, but without benefit. His Holiness reminded us that after thinking about it, we need to practice and gain experience. There is no benefit to doing one while not doing another. He emphasized that we need to be able to combine these into a single whole, and only then is there hope we can become someone different.
The Buddhas and the Karmapas
Not only must listening, contemplation, and meditation not be divorced from each other, we also need to have all the practices, including the six transcendences. “This is in order to achieve buddhahood, where benefiting others is effortless and spontaneous. Bodhisattvas can only benefit others if they put in effort, but the buddhas have the complete qualities of abandonment and realization. If we want to come to that level, then we need to improve in all aspects,” Karmapa explained.
In the Jataka tales, when the Buddha appeared as a bodhisattva, he practiced generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, dhyana, prajna, and so forth. Even in the life when he awoke to Buddhahood, he studied at a high level. He left the luxurious royal lifestyle for the life of a monastic. Then, he spent six years practicing austerities and then practiced dhyana meditation to awaken. He was generous in giving the dharma widely to others. He was also patient with the harm caused by Devadatta and so forth. This demonstrated that the Buddha practiced all six paramitas within that lifetime.
His Holiness then compared the similarities between the Buddha and the various incarnations of the Gyalwang Karmapa. He said, “Mikyö Dorje himself only lived to the age of 48, but he was able to do many things that amaze and inspire us. For example, when we read his liberation story, if we look at how he listened to the dharma from others, it seems as if he must have spent his entire life only listening to dharma teachings. If we look at his writings, it seems as if he must have spent all day writing. If we look at his travels to different areas, it seems as if he must have had little time to do anything else.”
In any case, Karmapa added, we cannot know exactly how many people he met every day, how many meetings there were, or how much time he spent writing, but looking at his activities generally, what we see when we read his liberation stories is amazing.
With pure and excellent intentions, Mikyö Dorje disregarded many hardships and obstacles to work for the sake of the teachings and beings. Without any resentment or complaining, without resting, he continued doing many activities, and this was not only teaching dharma; it also included teaching, debate, and writing; listening, contemplation, and meditation. He maintained innumerable large and vast activities. Karmapa expressed the need for us to look up to him as a model.
As it is said, “The liberation stories of the past masters is the practice of their followers.” We get a little courage for ourselves when we see these stories, explained Karmapa. Seeing their hard work and sacrifice, we should do what we can to open our minds a bit. It would be really disappointing if we let their efforts go to waste.
“We need to purify our intentions, come up with new ideas, and contemplate how we can do even more for the teachings and sentient beings. We haven’t really begun to look at that. At least we need to see what we are like, so as not to waste the kindness and efforts of the great masters of the past. Striving for this is very important,” His Holiness emphasized at the end of Day Nine’s teaching.