Transcendent Generosity and the View of Impermanence

Transcendent Generosity and the View of Impermanence

Spring Teaching 2023 • Two Autobiographical Praises by Mikyö Dorje • Day 2
22 March 2023

The current teachings are based on the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje’s Autobiographical Verses “Good Deeds” and the Praise “He Searched Thoroughly”. Both of the texts are in verse form rather than prose, and both were written by the Eighth Karmapa himself. They are not chronological records, giving dates and itineraries and so forth, but namthar — the liberation story of a guru— giving clear descriptions of his secular and dharma experiences, the development of his understanding and realisation, his resolve and commitments in this lifetime, and his thoughts and aims. He speaks vividly and clearly about how he practised the true dharma. Such namthar are a precious resource for dharma students who want to study the guru’s life story as spiritual instruction and are extremely beneficial.

The Gyalwang Karmapa paraphrased a Drukpa Kunley quote at this point. Drukpa Kunley describes some biographies, those that list everything in the smallest detail—in that year, at that age, on that date, he went to study with that lama, he made such-and-such offerings and so forth— as too narrow and too formal. They read like the contract for a loan, and Drukpa Kunley maintains that there is no point in writing a namthar like that: You might as well say, “Today, when the sun rose, I ate this sort of food, and in the evening I had this sort of crap.”

The Karmapa recalled his time at Tsurphu in Tibet, where he saw this type of log of a guru’s activities, detailing everything they did: the audiences they gave, who attended each audience, the offerings each person made, and so one. In his own case, His Holiness recollected, sometimes the attendants would come unstuck, when foreigners made offerings of things from abroad that they had never seen before, such as toys, and so they didn’t know what to write down.

A namthar should be much more than a mere historical record, listing events in chronological order. It should be something which has the ability to increase the faith, belief and pure perception of those reading it and exemplifies a meaningful life, which they can follow. If, instead of focusing on what really matters, it’s a mirror record of receipts, it’s pointless.

The Karmapa suggested that the Praise “He Searched Thoroughly” is the one most people would be familiar with because Situ Panchen Chökyi Jungne had included it in the Rabsel, the Kamtsang prayer book called “The Bright”. The Karmapa reminisced about his own experience as a very small monk.

I clearly remember how, when I was little, we had to memorise this praise He Searched Thoroughly. And the reason is that the words are really difficult to say and they’re hard to understand, so it’s difficult to memorise. Our teacher had to punish many of the students at that time because they couldn’t memorise it. It took so many days. He would come by with a stick or a cane or do various things. They have many torture devices in Tibet!
In contrast, the Autobiographical Verses “Good Deeds” is much less well-known because it is only found in Mikyö Dorje’s Collected Works, so very few people had seen it. Of the thirty-seven stanzas in the text, thirty-three end with the line
I think of this as one of my good deeds.
Hence the text became known as Good Deeds. But what does “good deeds” mean? The term refers to all virtuous actions. These actions can be divided into three categories: those of body, those of speech and those of mind. As is said in the Treasury of Abhidharma, they purify our body, speech and mind and are praised by the great beings.
The good deeds of body all cleanse the body; all the good deeds of speech purify the speech; and all the good deeds of mind purify the mind. Now, the reason why they’re called purifiers is that they purify the stains, the bad deeds of body, speech, and mind, whether they’re doing it temporarily or ultimately. In any case, they cleanse and purify all our misdeeds, all our non-virtues, all our faults and offences.
The converse is non-virtuous actions or ‘bad deeds’ of body, speech and mind. These are disparaged by the great beings, and produce unpleasant effects through the ripening of karma. Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva contains the famous warning:
One moment’s anger shatters all
Good deeds accumulated
In a thousand aeons, such as giving
Or offering to the buddhas. (Ch. 6, verse 1)
Of Mikyö Dorje’s thirty-three good deeds, the Karmapa said that today’s teaching would focus on how Mikyö Dorje trained in the precepts of the two types of bodhichitta, beginning at the twenty-second good deed, but first he briefly reviewed what he had taught the previous day about the structure and organisation of the text Good Deeds, and added a further comment about prajna. He explained that when the text talks about the six perfections or six transcendences, prajna is not dealt with explicitly, it is implicitly understood as part of ultimate bodhichitta.

This section of the text describes how Mikyö Dorje trained in the way of the bodhisattvas. The commentary says there are six topics, but the Karmapa pointed out that, on closer examination of the actual topics, there are seven:
(1) How he trained in the six transcendences (v. 22–26)
(2) How he trained in purifying his own continuum (v. 27)
(3) How he trained in the ways of all bodhisattvas (v. 28)
(4) How he acted in accord with time and place (v. 29)
(5) How he acted in fruitful and fruitless situations (v.31)
(6) How he accomplished the two benefits through the power of devotion (v. 32)
(7) How the six clairvoyances gave him the ability to benefit others (v. 33)

The Karmapa then began to discuss the first topic—the six transcendences, which are generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, dhyana, and prajna—beginning with generosity.
The text reads:

Although inferior material supplies cannot be established
As wealth that can be grasped as “mine,” when the understanding
Of selflessness had permeated my being, to enrich my mothers,
I gathered all that could be desired in infinite amounts.
I think of this as one of my good deeds. (verse 22)
Referring to another of Mikyö Dorje’s writings Instructions in Training in the Liberation Story, the Karmapa paraphrased:

The primary cause for a bodhisattva’s virtuous roots such as generosity to become the path to enlightenment is whether they are imbued with the means relative bodhichitta and the prajna ultimate bodhichitta (resolve and the view of emptiness). In particular, if they are imbued with the prajna that realises emptiness, there is no attachment to any things as me or mine, so one can effortlessly achieve the infinite things that we and others need and want.

The text explains the reason for this:

If we have mastery over the meaning of the dharma being indivisible into the same or different, we will be able to, without any impediment, emanate and transform innumerable things that are phenomena that are the same or different. This is called “mastery over the samadhi of the treasury of the sky.”
In other words, it is possible because within emptiness there is no division of phenomena, and because the sky has no end, the ‘treasury of the sky’ cannot be exhausted. Thus, “If you’re able to gain mastery of the samadhi of the treasury of the sky, you’re able to give inexhaustible generosity,” the Karmapa explained. This was the practice of bodhisattvas, great bodhichitta. The text then explains what is most important for ordinary individuals to do in order to accomplish this:

For us to accomplish such inexhaustible giving, we must not hold any of the places, body, and possessions of our present samsaric phase to be the best or permanent. Instead, we should think that they are all a basis of dispute, that they are like honey on a razor blade, and train in giving up our attachment to them. Thus all these sensory pleasures are as insignificant as a water bubble and meaningless. Moreover, they are what produces all the faults, so we must work at doing whatever we can to have no desire for them and in training in having no ego-clinging.

The Karmapa commented:

If we look at the pleasures and wealth of samsara, they seem really wonderful, pleasant and fun, but the more we enjoy them and use them, the more our afflictions will increase, and the more thoughts we’ll accumulate. And so, for that reason, we need to do what we can to eliminate our attachment to the things of samsara…. In addition to being pointless and meaningless, we produce many faults from sensory pleasures. They increase our own afflictions and those of other sentient beings. They are a basis for people to feel jealousy, envy, and so forth, and create a lot of difficulties and problems. For that reason, we should have no attachment at all to any of the places, body, or possessions of samsara. We should think, “Well, whatever there is, that’s fine”, not even grasp at any of them as being “mine” or “ours”, and practise seeing them as having no self, and not being permanent. If we are able to train in doing this, then someday, we will be able to, like the great bodhisattvas, gain mastery over “the samadhi of the treasury of the sky”, and be able to give inexhaustible generosity to other sentient beings and benefit other sentient beings.

Sangye Paldrup’s Commentary on the Meaning points out that many of us grasp at the impermanent as permanent and give meaning to what is essentially meaningless. The Karmapa elaborated. We convince ourselves that if we use the things we have well, they will become meaningful, and then we can gather the accumulations. We say this when in fact, we are hankering after food, drink, wealth and possessions, thinking that even if we can’t use them now, we can use them in future. We harbour many hopes and fears, whether for external things or sentient beings and feel a lot of cravings and lust for them. We cling to them as permanent; we grasp at things we don’t have control over as if we could control them, and work hard to increase what we have. If we could be content with what we have, we would have the chance to gather a few roots of virtue, but it’s not like that. We are not satisfied and always want more or better. We become obsessed with the fear of losing what we have and are driven to accumulate more and more, discarding virtue to gather wealth and possessions, committing the ten non-virtues, even committing the ten heinous deeds, and sacrificing our welfare in future lives.
This can affect lamas and rinpoches too. As Sangye Paldrup writes:

For the sake of money, they have no compunction or reservations about discarding the higher realms and liberation. In this way, they make a strong commitment of thinking, “I’ll keep accumulating more until this aeon is finished.” They talk loudly, saying, “I will restore this monastery. I will build this statue that was not there before. I will completely eliminate the sangha’s poor livelihood.” If they give even a tiny amount, they get apprehensive about running out and are afraid they will be deprived—regret burns their mind, so all the merit of giving is wasted.
The Karmapa warned of the danger of regretting acts of generosity. “This strong fire of regret burns the mind, and it’s like all the virtue and roots of virtue from the action of giving are burnt up.”

After the break, the Karmapa continued the theme of the foolishness of clinging to samsaric phenomena as permanent with a story from Drukpa Kunley’s Collected Works.

Once there was a Lord of Garpa [a title given to the Lords of Tsang province who were known as Deva-Garpa because they were the primary sponsors of the Karma Kamtsang and the Garchen]. It was when the Tsangpa Desi Lords were getting stronger and stronger. This Lord of Tsang sent Drukpa Kunley a letter telling him to come immediately. When he received the letter, Drukpa Kunley dressed in the style of Kongpo—perhaps he had to travel through Kongpo region— and set off. When he arrived, he met a member of the Lord’s retinue, a layman, not a monastic. The man told him that as he could not control the lord’s guard dogs, he would send someone to hold the mastiffs back, if Drukpa Kunley would please wait. The man went first, and Drukpa Kunley followed behind, but two of the mastiffs, one all-black and one all-white, attacked Drukpa Kunley. Traditional Kongpo costume included a sword, so Drukpa Kunley drew his sword and cut both dogs in two. Then he joined the head of the white dog to the hindquarters of the black dog and the black dog’s head to the hindquarters of the white dog. The next moment they got up and ran up and down, playing together. Everyone was amazed at what Drukpa Kunley had done and professed great faith in him. He replied, “I’m Drukpa Kunley; I’m crazy. You can’t look at how I do things. There’s nothing amazing about that. If you think that’s important, there are many things that are much more amazing than that. So you shouldn’t think this is amazing…What is most important? It’s better just to recite manis, which is even more beneficial for you.” And he began to dance to the mani mantra and sing a song.

While he was dancing and singing, the Lord of Tsang arrived with all his retainers. They all started dancing with Drukpa Kunley. When he saw Drukpa Kunley’s accomplishments, the Lord, his sponsor, developed great faith and, simultaneously, revulsion for samsara. He collected all the keys to all the storerooms and treasuries and offered them to Drukpa Kunley, saying, “Choose one. Whichever key you choose, whichever room it opens, you can take everything in it. I will give it all to you.”

So Drukpa Kunley took one of the keys and opened one of the storerooms. On the one side, there were a lot of tea bricks and rolls of silk, and on the other, many boxes of gold. And on top of these boxes of gold lay a heavier box. Inside this box were all kinds of gold, silver, coral, turquoise and various articles of jewellery, and so forth. Drukpa Kunley took all of the jewellery. At the side of the room, there was also a fine, old lute, so Drukpa Kunley took that too. He adorned himself in the jewellery and wore it all day.

And then, in the evening, when everyone was about to leave, Drukpa Kunley returned everything to the Lord, insisting that he take them back. “You have to do this so I can gather the accumulation of merit,” he said. Although the Lord of Tsang protested, Drukpa Kunley returned everything before he left, saying, “ I have worn them for a day, but no one can keep them forever.” Then he sang another song, played the lute and danced. The point of the song was that though all the gold and silver jewellery were so attractive, there would come a day when you had to leave it all behind and die, and then it would cause you great sadness. Listening to the song, everyone gained great experience and realisation.

At that time, the Lord of Tsang was extremely rich and powerful, basically like the king of Tibet. Most people showed tremendous gratitude for the Lord’s generosity. They would join their palms and say “Thank you!” then carry the gift away held above the crown of their heads in respect. Some people pretend not to want gifts, commented the Karmapa, but Drukpa Kunley was authentic in his rejection of them. He accepted the gifts for just a day and then returned them, pointing out the futility of being attached to wealth and possessions.

Previously the text talked about making the meaningless meaningful. The Karmapa added, “If you know how to use wealth and so forth, then you can gather the roots of virtue. It can be used to accumulate virtue.”

If you consider Gyalwang Mikyö Dorje, the Karmapa continued, he had developed the view of emptiness within his being. So he saw that there was no “person” enjoying things; there were only things being used, none of which were true or permanent. He had no sense of “this is mine”; he had almost nothing he thought of as his own. He also understood the critical point that whether you have possessions depends on your good and bad karma. With all that he did with his body, speech and mind, he gathered virtue for the sake of all other sentient beings achieving buddhahood. Whatever activity he was doing, even when going to bed at night or sleeping, he never ceased gathering the roots of virtue. Every part of his life became part of the path to achieving great enlightenment, and he avoided pointless or meaningless activity. This perspective of doing everything for the sake of sentient beings was not just limited to this lifetime; in order to achieve it, he had gathered great merit in previous lifetimes.

What are the signs that he behaved in this way? One of his students wrote that without relying on mundane sources of income, such as farming, business, receiving offerings and so forth, Mikyö Dorje naturally accumulated all the finest riches of the world because of his previous great accumulation of merit. Merely by being his student or attendant, because of Mikyö Dorje’s merit, one would get whatever material wealth one wanted spontaneously and effortlessly as if they were rocks scattered on the road. Likewise, wherever he stayed, there were never any threats of famine, epidemic, and so forth, and there was prosperity equal to the gods. This is why there was the saying in Tibet, “There’s no one like the Karmapa in wealth. There is no limit to his wealth.”

Many people would come from China, Mongolia and Tibet to make offerings to him, and he had many students from those regions. During the Garchen Monlam, they held the Audience of the Gandola, when a great exhibition displayed all the offerings the Karmapa had received from the rulers of China, Mongolia and Tibet. When they saw the riches on display, people would be amazed and compare it to the treasury of Vaishravana.

At that time, there was also a tradition of making vast offerings to the Three Jewels, and another saying said, “Don’t rival the Karmapa in wealth.”

No matter how much material wealth Mikyö Dorje had, he had no attachment to it and gave it all to others without reservations. Also, some people felt free to take the Karmapa’s things without his permission. For example, when the Ming emperor sent his envoys to invite the Karmapa to China, he sent an inconceivable amount of offerings. In the end, the Karmapa didn’t go to China, and the envoys withheld the offerings, but through guile, the Karmapa’s Changzö was able to acquire and steal some of them. Most of the offerings sent by the Ming emperor were stolen or lost in other ways.

It seems that someone who had spent time with Mikyo Dorje would frequently make off with his things. When people stole from him, the Karmapa never tried to hunt them down. Those around him would protest, “It’s not right to take so much of your stuff. It’s inappropriate!” Mikyö Dorje would reply, “It’s really excellent that they have taken so much stuff. If, after they had served me, they went away as beggars, that would be terrible.”

Many people told him, “These horrible people should be dragged before a king and sentenced to death.” Others said, “They’ve wasted the possessions of the guru who is the embodiment of the Three Jewels. So they have committed the offence of stealing from all the buddhas and sentient beings. They’re headed for the incessant hells and nowhere else.” Some criticised him, saying, “The Karmapa gathers people and gives generously, but that is not good because giving impure generosity to impure retinue is no help at all.”

They were unable to comprehend even slightly how bodhisattvas gather their retinue. The actions and intentions of bodhisattvas are to free all sentient beings without bias. They want to free them all from the temporary suffering of deprivation, lacking food and poverty, and they want to protect them from the suffering of being deprived of liberation and omniscience. In order to do this, they practise aspiring and engaged bodhichitta. Someone such as Mikyö Dorje had practised these over many lifetimes, so he acted with skilful means for all his students. He would teach dharma to those who wanted dharma; he would give whatever they wished to those who wanted material things. He acted in accordance with their wishes, with a bodhisattva’s intention. He viewed everyone, whether his student or not, whether they stayed or not, as a mother sentient being. Whatever their condition, he worked to free them from that state. He never thought in terms of “my own body”, “my possessions”, “my things”, or “my life” are being wasted; everything is being wasted. He never took offence. Not only that, no matter how much more of his things and riches people wasted, the more compassion he would feel for them. It became a circumstance for him to feel more compassion. It never became a circumstance for him to feel offence or anger. At this point, the Karmapa commented that sometimes to act skillfully, you do have to punish others, but if there was no need for punishment, Mikyö Dorje never punished anyone.

The great bodhisattvas dedicate their bodies and possessions for the sake of other sentient beings. The more people use a bodhisattva’s body and things, the more it becomes a cause for achieving the happiness of liberation and omniscience and a circumstance for bodhichitta to increase. However, the Karmapa continued, when we ordinary individuals begin to practise generosity, we tend to make distinctions on the grounds of better or worse, between whom we should give to and what we should give. But for bodhisattvas, there are no such distinctions between the recipients or the things given. The reason is that they recognise that whatever virtue is attributed, such as generosity, it’s imbued with relative and ultimate bodhicitta or with the relative resolve of bodhicitta and the vow with the view of emptiness. So it’s imbued with both prajna and means. So, whenever you give, there is ultimately no recipient of generosity established as valid and permanent. But relatively, to gather the accumulations to achieve buddhahood, there is no difference between a Buddha and other sentient beings. There is no distinction between them, as one being better or worse than the other. For this reason, despite the discomfort of those around him, Mikyö Dorje was unconcerned when others took his things. His lack of reaction benefited many of his students as they began to understand the defects of wasting the lama’s things and enabled them to develop compassion for those who did this. They also witnessed how Mikyö Dorje was never disturbed or angered when people around him behaved badly, and it increased their devotion.

In brief, many thousands of people benefitted from Mikyö Dorje’s wealth. He provided food, drink, and everything they needed for everyone in the Garchen. He gave all the shedra and tsokdra monks excellent food, clothing and bedding, and other necessary requisites. In particular, he was especially compassionate towards the sick. Whenever he saw someone who was ill, he would help with medicine, help them find doctors or caregivers, and give them food. If they needed to travel, he would provide pack animals and horses; he helped the ill a hundred times more than even their parents would.

These accounts illustrate how Mikyö Dorje had the practice of transcendent generosity, the Karmapa concluded.

He then spoke about upcoming topics within this cycle of teachings.

2023.03.23: Transcendent Generosity and the View of Impermanence