How the Sangha Preserves the Dharma

How the Sangha Preserves the Dharma

Spring Teaching 2023 • Two Autobiographical Praises by Mikyö Dorje • Day 7

22 April 2023

For the seventh day of the Spring Teachings, the Gyalwang Karmapa spoke about the 29th and 30th verses from the Autobiographical Verses “Good Deeds,” by Mikyö Dorje. The Karmapa would continue to combine passages (v. 9–33) from the outline in Sangye Paldrup’s Commentary on the Meaning (Drepung manuscript) with the root text. On the three types of individual, he spoke about the path of the greater individual. This consisted of three parts:

  1. The intention: rousing bodhichitta (v. 9)
  2. The action: meditating on the two types of bodhichitta (v. 10–21)
  3. Training in the precepts of the two types of bodhichitta (v. 22–33)

The Karmapa would speak about the third: how to train in the precepts of the two types of bodhichitta.

The third part has seven subtopics. The Karmapa had previously discussed:

  1. how he trained in the six transcendences;
  2. how he trained in purifying one’s own continuum;
  3. how he trained in all the ways of bodhichitta.

Today he would speak about the fourth:

  1. how he acted in accord with time and place.

The Karmapa read the 29th verse:

In a degenerate age, few are they who serve
The Buddha’s teachings, and those to be served,
Have not entered the teachings properly.
Seeing that, I tried even harder to tame myself.
I think of this as one of my good deeds. (v. 29)

Mikyö Dorje’s Instructions in Training in the Liberation Story:

To discuss the 29th verse, the Karmapa referred to Mikyö Dorje’s Instructions in Training in the Liberation Story, a collection of spiritual advice and direction for those interested in following him as a guru to use his namthar, or life story, as spiritual advice. It said that in general there were many people who had not entered the Buddhist teachings, were not Buddhists at all, did not practice the Mahayana dharma, and among them, they didn’t seem to be practitioners. Mikyö Dorje qualified this by saying that from the outside, these people didn’t seem to be Buddhist and did not seem to be Mahayana practitioners. But it was possible among them there were those who did great things on behalf of the teachings. He said:

These are things that ordinary people cannot understand or see. When we look from the outside, these people don’t seem to be practitioners, but it was possible they could well be practicing the Mahayana teachings. Within the sphere of our understanding, it is difficult for us to understand this. They appeared to be Buddhist, upheld the teachings, and were generally accepted as upholding the Mahayana so were considered Buddhist.

The Karmapa then described these two types of people:

  • Those who uphold the teachings as they say they do. They do the true practice of the dharma and uphold it within our sphere of understanding.
  • Those who seem to uphold the teachings on the outside, pseudo-holders of the dharma but they don’t properly practice the dharma and do not uphold the teachings on the inside.

Both types of people, whether they upheld the teaching or were pseudo-holders, needed to be included as upholders of the teachings of the sutra and tantra, and the three vehicles, so both types should be included in the sangha. They were both considered important.

Among the upholders of the teachings, there were those who did things differently, but that did not mean they were not practitioners. For example, there were those who would pick up and put down their vajra and bell differently, or wore different colored, shaped, or styles of hats. In the upper and lower Vinaya, there are different ways of tying their robes.

Although there were these minor differences between Tibetan Buddhists, within Tibetan Buddhism as a basis, even within the Kagyu there were little differences, but that alone did not make them completely different or separate. When we think there are differences or discord between two different lineages, we only see the features of our own. When the great and courageous bodhisattvas see these variations, they see a way for the roots of virtue to increase. They strive very hard to make all the traditions flourish. When there were different views of conduct, for instance with styles of hats, this is because sentient beings have different views and faculties. Some people might like a Nyingma hat, and others like Kagyu hats. Some people don’t like the way the hats look, and it becomes very difficult, and creates an uncomfortable situation.

The Karmapa remembered when they held the first Kagyu Monlam meeting at Gyuto on reforming monastic conduct. At that time, Kyabje Vajradhara Tenga Rinpoche was present, and representatives from all the different Kagyu monasteries came, and during the meeting they discussed what types of hats to wear during the Monlam. The Karmapa said it would be good to wear the yellow-crested hats. During the time of the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Karmapas, there was a tradition of wearing yellow-crested hats and likewise, the earliest explanation of the yellow-crested hats was written about by the Fourth Shamar Rinpoche, Chodrak Yeshe. Even when the Gelukpa masters described how the hats were worn, they would quote the Fourth Sharmapa. The history of the yellow-crested hats was related to the revival of the Vinaya teachings in Tibet. Since it was related to that historically, the Karmapa thought this was a good idea, and no one made a comment.

Later in the evening, someone came to the Karmapa and said that they shouldn’t have to wear the yellow-crested hat, and instead should wear the multi-colored red hat, because many people associated the yellow-crested hat with the Gelukpa order. But the Karmapa insisted, especially after reading what  Shamar Rinpoche had written. He felt more confident because he could cite the source. He also said:

If we want to be completely nonsectarian and spread the teachings, this is an excellent way to accumulate merit. If you can give the provisions for the sangha, the Sangha is an excellent field for practicing the dharma, helps preserve the teaching, and it is an even greater virtue than pleasing the Buddha with offerings. Among the Three Jewels, only the Sangha has the benefit of being an excellent field of merit for making and accepting an offering. When a person makes an offering to the Dharma or the Buddha, there is only the action of offering, but not the acceptance. Providing for the Sangha is an activity that supports the lineage of the Buddha, is extremely important, and is a great source of virtue.

The Karmapa then emphasized, “If we want the dharma to remain for a long time in the world, we need to make offerings to the Jewel of the Sangha.”

From one perspective, the Jewel of the Sangha, the people who naturally or truly uphold the teachings, and those who pretend to uphold the teachings, should both be considered important. The Karmapa would elaborate on that later for it was written in Mikyö Dorje’s Instructions in Training in the Liberation Story.

Sangye Paldrup’s Commentary on the Meaning

In his commentary, Sangye Paldrup said that this was an age when the five degenerations were rampant. These degenerations were: the degeneration of time, lifespan, beings, and afflictions. Likewise, there was a commentary by Vimalamitra on the Vinaya Sutras, where these were called the “five pollutions” (which could have been a different choice in words in translation), but the meaning was the same: they both spoke about a bad time when there was degeneration in the world.

Whether it was the basket of the scriptures or the three trainings, or whether they were the four types of practitioners: male and female laypeople or bhikshu and bhikshunis; or whether they were representations of the Three Jewels in the temples, and statues, or superior objects and sacred, it was important for people to see these as important. However, in the past, during the time of Mikyö Dorje’s life and even in the current day, many people didn’t take care of their temples, they let them become decrepit, monastics were forced to break their discipline, to plow fields, and sometimes monks were made to go to war. They put the sangha to work to build houses and fight in wars. Because it wasn’t a prosperous time, the sangha wasn’t seen as important or sacred. Some people seized the funds meant to support the sangha for themselves; they destroyed monasteries, caused disputes between the different schools, took land and money, destroyed temples, and moved good pieces to their own monasteries. Among them, people who actually practiced the dharma were as rare as seeing stars in the daytime.

The Karmapa then said,

Forget about true dharma, we were in a situation where it was almost impossible to find people who could remain impartial even in worldly affairs. Those who entered the teachings properly were rare. There was a great degeneration in Buddhism during the time of Mikyö Dorje, so he developed even greater courage, compassion, and resolve. He never wasted time on laziness. He had great resolve and devotion to the teachings, so he always worked very hard at preserving the teachings. He saw the best way to do this was for himself to practice the Buddha’s dharma properly as it should be practiced.

Since he was able to practice the Mahayana dharma himself and refrained from everything that was contrary to that, many people would train through Mikyö Dorje’s example and would be able to practice the dharma properly.

The Buddha said:

My disciples, if they practice the dharma and practice properly, then, in the future, when there is famine and drought,  when there’s not even a field the size of a fingernail that you can plant, even in such a time, monastics will not go without food or clothing to wear.

If you practiced the dharma properly, the Karmapa commented, you would not need to worry about the danger of running out of provisions to practice, because if you practice the dharma, even if there are no human beings around, there are nonhumans who could provide for you. You wouldn’t have to worry about freezing or dying of hunger or thirst. You didn’t need to have a lot of doubts or fears.

This completed the 29th good deed.

Next the Karmapa spoke about the 30th Good Deed in terms of the outline from the commentary.

From Sangye Paldrup’s Commentary on the Meaning:

(5) How he acted in fruitful and fruitless situations:

(a) How he did what is fruitful

The Teacher himself highly praised acts of virtue
Done in the time of the final five hundred years
For the sake of the mere reflection of the teachings,
So I worked for the sangha of scholars and meditators.
I think of this as one of my good deeds. (v. 30)

Sangye Paldrup described this as the last five-hundred-year period. This was related to the discussion on how long the teachings will remain in the sutras and tantras. According to the Tibetan Vinaya it says the teachings would remain 1000 years but says nothing of remaining 5000 years.

In the Sutra of Noble Maitreya (in the Lhasa Kangyur not the Dergé, translated by the great Sakya Pandita), and also in Haribhadra’s commentary, the teaching would remain for 5000 years.

These 5000 years are divided into four main parts:

  1.  three periods of results, each of which are 500 years (1500);
  2. three periods for the three trainings (500 for each, and a total of 3000);
  3. three periods for each of the three baskets (total 4500);
  4. and five hundred years of merely wearing robes (total 5000).

Whether the teachings of the Vinaya remained or not, what was the dividing line? The Vinaya stated there was a threshold: whether the rituals of the actions are performed or not, and whether they are done assiduously in particular.

From the Uttaragrantha:

“Venerable One, how long will there be true dharma? When will it perish?”

“Upali, as long as the actions are performed and done assiduously. If the actions are performed assiduously, then the teachings are present. When the actions are not performed and are not done assiduously, then the true dharma will have perished.”

The Karmapa said this was primarily regarding the Vinaya. So long as there was interest in the rituals and some enthusiasm about practicing, then the dharma would remain. If there was no interest and not much desire to practice, then the teachings would perish. The Karmapa then asked:

So nowadays according to the teachings where are we? There are many different explanations. However, there have been over 2500 years since the Buddha appeared. We cannot settle with accuracy exactly when the Buddha was born, but basically it was over 2500 years ago. In terms of this, some lamas say we are already in the last period of 500 years—the period wearing the robes—but it is difficult to say it is, we are not at that last period. If one considers in terms of that, regarding the four main sections: there is 500 years of the period of the results; there is a last 500-year period for the three trainings; there is a last 500 years for the appearance of the three baskets; and a last 500 years of wearing the robes.

Sangye Paldrup spoke of the last five hundred years, the period of merely wearing robes. During this period, the basic rituals of the vinaya such as purifying offerings or making dedications were neglected and the rules for robes and monastic symbols were not observed correctly.

They did not recall the qualities of the Three Jewels even once a month or year. People went many days without hearing the words “the Three Jewels.” This is the situation of what we have come to now.  

For that reason, Mikyö Dorje himself always studied the sutras and tantras and kept the commentaries in mind, and because he understood them well, he thought that when the Buddha Bhagavan himself said that in the future, when there are not actual teachings, but merely a reflection of the dharma, then the mirror image or reflection of the teachings needed to be upheld. For even that mirror image of the dharma needed to be protected. He realized that there was no greater merit than that. This was because this even helped decrease people’s afflictions. If people couldn’t practice the actual dharma, it helped ripen their capacities. The Buddha said this, and Mikyö Dorje understood this. Mikyö Dorje established monasteries and nunneries, and he provided them with their worldly and dharma needs.

Mikyö Dorje also studied and taught dharma and had many students who traveled and established monasteries and established sangha communities. Through his activities of study and practice, the sangha increased in many different areas. He provided them with supplies and took interest, established sangha communities, centers for study and practice, and built many representations of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

His direct disciple and tutor to the Ninth Karmapa, Namgyal Drakpa, wrote a text on his own initiative called, A List of Lord Mikyö Dorje’s Accomplishments. Another disciple, Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa wrote Feast for Scholars, which describes how Mikyö Dorje built many statues and monasteries. The Karmapa quoted the extensive list of new monasteries established during Mikyo Dorje’s time found in the Feast of Scholars.

The Karmapa said he didn’t need to read the entire list, but Mikyö Dorje had many students who built monasteries and in particular, the King of Jiang sent five hundred new monks every year to Central Tibet.

The monasteries that Mikyö Dorje directly built and sponsored were important. Quite a few were shedras and meditation centers. From his List of Accomplishments:

New monasteries founded in the region of Do:

  • Trak Suru Dong Shedra with 250 permanent members of the sangha.
  • Karma Gatsal Shungluk Ling, a shedra with 120 sangha members.
  • In Topgyal, Karma Vinaya Center, a shedra with 250 sangha members.
  • Karma Gyurme Ling in Gokur, Dakpo, he did not say the number of sangha members.
  • Karma Shedrup Ling in Kurap, Dakpo, a shedra that taught both sutra and tantra with 300 sangha members.
  • In Rati was Ganden Ling, at the request of his student Rinchen Lekpa, a shedra with 300 students.
  • In Tonggo Rinchen Ling, at request of Jabjampa Tsuondru, a shedra, without number of sangha.
  • n the Karmapa’s encampment: Gargi Yang Riwa, those who did mahamudra and six yogas, 250 meditators.
  • Gargi Sur Riwa, 100 meditators—the Karmapa would give an explanation about that later.
  • At Tse Lhagang in Kongpo, retreat center, over 200 sangha members.
  • At Trak Tsagong, retreat center with 100 sangha members.
  • Kongpo Nakpur, retreat center with 100 sangha members.
  • The Chuwo Ri Practice Center, without the number of retreatants. In the old days, the Karmapa Kyabje encampments, and there were secondary encampments in the Thamar and Gyaltsap encampments that also had a Yangri retreat center.
  • Mountain retreats at Shamar Rinpoche’s monastery
  • In particular, his student Jatang Tarpa Gyaltsen and his nephew established a retreat center in in Uma Drakkar to once again follow the examples of the Karma Kagyu. This became a great field of merit for faithful students from the north.Moreover, in the Karmapa’s encampment, he started a monastic college where there was established a Tantric college Karma Rikdzin Khachö Line and Shokar Tantra College with over 100 sangha members

These shedras and meditation centers mostly had no fewer than 100 sangha, and several had 300 or 400 meditating more, a few were larger. The Feast for Scholars also said that Mikyö Dorje was like the union of all the activities of all the previous Karmapas:

…He was prophesied to spread teachings in Dza Ngom, and took birth there. He was prophesied to establish teachings in Tsang, and he founded the first Karma Kamtsang monasteries in Tsang where the teachings spread. With the prophecy the teachings would appear in the south, he spread teachings there as well, establishing more monasteries than twice or thrice all the previous Karmapas combined.

In thinking about his Collected Works, Mikyö Dorje had the most influence from his speech:

… only 16 volumes of Karma Pakshi’s works are extant, but there are over 30 volumes of Mikyö Dorje’s works….

As mentioned before, the List of Accomplishments documents the great masters Mikyö Dorje met, the connections he made, the accumulation and purification with them, the teachings he received on the scriptures, how many students he had from teaching and writing, along with the particular qualities of each student, the statues he created and so forth, and his very vast activity.  

The Karmapa felt this was a crucial document to understanding Mikyö Dorje, so it would be good to read his Collected Works. Some people would criticize Mikyö Dorje’s accomplishments, saying he was only spreading the Karma Kamtsang teachings, and this was a sign he had impure actions and intentions.

From the Commentary on the Meaning

Sangye Paldrup disagreed. He said that people who made such criticisms were only thinking of their own traditions. But what did “their own tradition” mean? Mikyö Dorje considered all sentient beings throughout space were on his side, and among his friends, his own school, and as his own mother. However, some people acted out of attachment and aversion with resentment toward other teachings and would destroy temples and representations of body, speech, and mind. But instead of only thinking of his own side, he saw that in this degenerate time, bad karma was powerful, people resented Buddhism, and even the word “Buddha” was disappearing.

Mikyö Dorje said it was best if there were true teachings, even if it was difficult to uphold the teachings—then one should try to uphold a reflection of the teachings of the Buddha. He did not believe there was only one true school—his own school. If it were believed that only some teachings were the true teachings and others were not, that would create attachment and aversion and was sectarian. If everyone believed this, then all the actions of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas were also at fault for only teaching their own views and not upholding the teachings of the Buddha. Most importantly, the teachings need to be preserved. Because Mikyö Dorje thought all sentient beings were his friends, he upheld, preserved, and spread the teachings of the Buddha.

If there should be time in the next few days, the Karmapa would speak about the first part of Mikyö Dorje’s life. Mikyö Dorje founded many monasteries but today people do not hear about them anymore. What happened to them? In the long period of Tibetan history, many of the monasteries that were founded no longer remain, and those that do are in a different situation than before. He would like to explain what has happened to them to give a broader understanding.

The Karmapa concluded the teaching and announced there would be a twenty-minute break then close with the Tara prayers and dedication.