“In his illuminating introduction to The Six Dharmas of Vajrasanapada in Seattle on Feb. 18th 2017, H.E. Khondung Abhaya Vajra Rinpoche outlines the all-important preliminaries required before receiving higher initiations in Tibetan Buddhism, clarifying the essential aspects of the Mahayana path to be studied, contemplated and cultivated for a fruitful Dharma-practice.”
Firstly I’d like to welcome all of our dharma sisters and brothers here today. Personally I feel so fortunate to receive these teachings that we will be receiving this weekend from such an amazing teacher, who happens to be my brother.
For me when I receive these teachings, I don’t view him just as my brother but as one of my most important gurus. And when I receive these kinds of Vajrayana teachings, I always try to remember the key points of refuge and bodhicitta, and the other factors that qualifies us to receive these teachings, so that we can ensure that we have the right mind set. And just like our Guru His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Dorje Chang would always say to us that before going into these things, to first go through the preliminary teachings. So today I just want to share with you what I try to remind myself.
And doing these preliminaries doesn’t just help us with our practices or these teachings in particular. But they can change our whole lives really. They can make our lives much more meaningful, and if we really put them into practice, we can live happier and we won’t die with any regrets.
And I know that many of you might be quite seasoned Buddhists, even Sakya veterans. But I think it is important to constantly remind ourselves of the preliminary teachings, and not to neglect what could be thought of as “baby steps”. Because if you really feel you got this, that you are done with all of this, then congratulations, you’d be a Buddha.
And receiving these teachings is not just about the lama doing all the work, and us just sitting back and just believing in them. But we really need to put these preliminaries into our hearts and keep them in mind.
— Spiritual Family
The first thing I want to reflect on today is something called Spiritual Family. In Sanskrit we say ‘gotra’, and in Tibetan it’s called ‘rig’. Now what spiritual family means is basically the seed that all sentient beings have to attain liberation from samsara. The Buddha explained that everybody has the seed to become a Buddha, and that our basic nature is goodness. Now many people as we know may seem to be bad people. One might even think “oh, I’m a bad person”. But what we are trying to say is that everybody has the potential to change.
However, there are obstacles to developing this gotra—spiritual family. The main four obstacles are firstly having bad habits of afflictions and defilements, and feeding into them. Where, for example, if one has issues with anger or feels too attached to something, but they think, “well, this is just how I am, I can’t change” where they just can’t be bothered to change. Things like that.
The second obstacle is having negative associations, like having bad friends or even teachers who we may think are good but actually influence us in the wrong way, and lead us onto the wrong path.
The third obstacle to developing gotra is poverty or deprivation. We are not saying if you are poor, you can’t practice, because even monks are generally supposed to be poor. But it means not having access to reach the dharma. Also when people are in poverty and have overwhelming needs, they can only be just focused on surviving, and can’t practice properly with all the preoccupations.
And the fourth obstacle is being under the power of others, not having freedom. Like in some countries where people are oppressed and can’t practice properly. So these are the four obstacles to developing gotra—spiritual family, which we must overcome.
And then for people who have this gotra, there are normally four signs that would implicate its potential, which are naturally having great compassion for sentient beings; showing in interest in the Triple Gem— the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha; having strong patience; and then, being virtuous. So when one has these signs, it means one has gotra.
So each of us has the same potential to join this spiritual family and attain enlightenment. And gotra does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, caste or whatever you are born into. We are all equal in that way, which everybody already knows. But the fact that the Buddha said these things, that he taught and promoted social equality in ancient India, that was actually revolutionary. For instance, the Buddha once said that, “purification is the result of conduct, not of birth.”
So yeah, we all have the basic nature of compassion, of being good, even if one thinks that oneself doesn’t have. Like just as when we find something in ourselves, something non-virtuous, like just a little anger, but then we feed into it more and more, and then it becomes bigger, and then we do bad things. So just like that, if we look at ourselves and find something, find a sliver of compassion or some virtue, that can also be developed, if we just focus on that and apply ourselves. Everybody has compassion, even the worst people we can think of have some, like even if it’s just for their own mother or, if they can’t manage that, maybe just for their dog. Some people have it whereas some are still yet to develop it. Either way we just need to nurture the seed so that it can sprout into full Buddhahood.
Now I feel this gotra is very important to contemplate, especially for us in the modern world, where there is a lot of insecurity and lack of confidence, and even self-hatred. It’s been brought to my attention and I feel is more and more common. And it’s not just in the younger generation, but I noticed surprisingly a lot of adults go through it. They may just ignore it but don’t realize that it is actually a big obstacle. And I think it should be addressed. So keeping this in mind – that we all have the same amazing potential – really helps.
Sometimes this insecurity can be caused by not being able to express our thoughts and emotions properly, not being heard or understood, and a lot of loneliness. Sometimes people just want to be a part of something, to give some meaning to their lives. And this won’t last forever if we choose to do something about it. You see when we deal with this, it’s not about suppression, trying to push down these thoughts and feelings, or trying to force them to stop. Even if they seem wrong, like anger or attachment, we need to know how to respond to them rather than react to them. It’s about understanding them and standing under them, as we say. The Buddha said that these afflictions are all temporary stains, and the nature of mind is clear light. So self doubt and all these things fall into the category of temporary stains, not our true nature. We just need to have trust in our Buddha nature.
For example, when we do bad things, we shouldn’t judge ourselves as a whole, because that leads to guilt, which is an unhealthy affliction. Because guilt means “I am a bad person”, and that can lead to wrong view. But rather, we judge the actions that have been committed. We do need to feel some remorse or shame, but it doesn’t mean we need to beat ourselves up about it. We just need to learn from them, and respond accordingly, so that our morality and wellbeing develops. So then when we commit misdeeds, we need to lay them open and lay them aside before the Triple Gem, because the Triple Gem is the object of refuge that shows the proper way. Then we can purify our misdeeds by doing more virtues.
Also sometimes people might think that they are very hard done-by, that they go through so much suffering. And maybe they do. We’re not denying what people feel. But we need to remember that it’s not all about you. The Buddha explains that there are countless beings in samsara, beings suffering in the worst states of existence possible, which we can’t even conceive of. Maybe that is a bit hard to really imagine, but if we just look at other people in the world right now, like children in third world countries, who have nothing, no education, or people living in war-torn regions like Syria, who live in constant fear. So we must be a bit grateful, especially when we do have some education and social mobility. Those hard conditions for you can change. So it’s important, like I said, to have faith in our potential to optimize this human life, so that we can become enlightened beings who can free all other sentient beings from suffering.
One of the most important parts of the Buddhist life is having spiritual companionship. And the Buddha said that, “the first and most important spiritual friend is the goodness in yourself.” Also Shantideva once said that, “when we become aspiring Bodhisattvas, we become part of this spiritual family, and so like a family, we can’t cause shame to it, and we must represent it honorably.”
One way I feel is very important to motivate ourselves is to remember that all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, they all started out just like us, filled with afflictions. They weren’t born perfect. So if we just listen, contemplate, and practice and meditate, we can definitely become just like them. And you don’t need to be a monk or a nun to practice or meditate.
Another thing I feel can motivate us, which I use a lot, is to remind ourselves every day about death. Because everything in life is uncertain, except for one thing, and that is death. Just like Jetsun Dragpa Gyatsen, one of the five founding masters of Sakya once said that, “our whole lives, we all keep preparing and preparing, but only to meet the next life unprepared.” So we must think about the future, but not get caught up in it. We must be aware that we are going to die, so what can we do that’s really meaningful? Like, we might feel like we are enjoying ourselves right now. In our normal lives, we first go to school, we graduate, and then we get a job, raise a family, and so on, and that can be very fun for a time. We do enjoy ourselves. But then we grow older, we grow older, and then we retire, and then people around us start passing away, then our children grow up and they move on, and then we are just waiting to die. It’s true. It’s one of the things that made me choose this lifestyle— to become a Buddhist monk. And then before death, we get this kind of empty feeling and we feel regret and think about all the things we could have done, and it can get very depressing and scary. So when we recognize this, we naturally cultivate bodhicitta, and then we really become part of this spiritual family.
And when we are practicing, we must remember that there is nobody in the sky judging you, saying that you are a sinner, and you should do this, you shouldn’t do that, because in Buddhism, nobody can judge you. Not the Buddha, not your teacher, but only yourself. And we don’t promote the lie that you are intrinsically bad or you are destined for hell, because our nature is pure and good. The Buddha said that, “you can be your own savior or your own worst enemy.” “You are your own witness,” he says. So you don’t need to worship or surrender to some god or try to merge with some perfect being. It’s all about you realizing and recognizing your true nature, which always has been and always will be pure and good. All this imagery you see, it’s all there to represent that. The statues and paintings – sometimes it may seem quite remote, and exotic, wonderful, but it’s not for us to worship them as such.
You see the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, they are all there to help us on the path. Like the Sangha, which is the community of monks and nuns, they may sometimes seem to be like an elite group. But just like the Buddhas, they all start out just like you. And they can become a resource for merits, and they are always there to help you with your practice and answer your questions. Normally when we talk about the Triple Gem, we say that the Buddha guides us on the path; the Dharma is the path itself; and the Sangha supports us on the path. So if we can lead this kind of Dharma life, it can leave a great impact on not just others but ourselves in our next life, from all the merits that we develop.
Now since we are about to receive Vajrayana teachings, which are very deep and advanced, there are prerequisites to obtain an initiation. The main thing is of course refuge. So if you are wondering what is the definition of a Buddhist, it’s basically one who goes for refuge to the Triple Gem. Sometimes people say ‘take refuge’, but we really only ‘take refuge’ when we are done, once we are enlightened. So it’s better to say ‘go for refuge’. And it’s not about being a good or bad Buddhist really. It’s about whether we are going to be a Buddhist just in name or truly practicing Buddhists.
So with refuge, there are two main ways, which are the Hinayana way and the Mahayana way. The Hinayana, which means lesser vehicle, is where one recognizes the Four Common Foundations, which we will get to later on, that there is suffering and so on. And so they practice to be free from suffering and attain personal liberation. The Mahayana starts out the same, we first recognize the suffering of samsara. But then we remember that it’s not all about me, but that all the sentient beings in samsara suffer just as much, and even more than us. And just like us, they all want happiness. And they have the same right as we do, so how can we escape samsara alone and leave them to suffer? So that’s why we practice and meditate to free all sentient beings from samsara, for all of them, including ourselves, to attain full perfect enlightenment.
And here we are all Mahayana practitioners. At least we try to be. But being Hinayana doesn’t mean we are totally selfish. It’s just that they focus more on their own liberation whereas the Mahayana aspires for a greater goal, thus we say ‘the greater vehicle’. And we must remember that it’s all the Buddha’s teachings anyway, even though our motivations are quite different.
So then we go for refuge to the Triple Gem, because we know that the Triple Gem is the only source of refuge that can truly free us from samsara, the wheel of existence or cycle of life.
Then we have bodhicitta, of which there are two types, aspiring bodhicitta and engaging bodhicitta. Aspiring bodhicitta is the motivation, the aspiration to attain enlightenment; and then engaging is applying ourselves onto the path to enlightenment for that purpose.
— Four Common Foundations
And then what motivates us on the path to start with is contemplating on the four common foundations, which are 1) the difficulties of obtaining human birth, 2) the law of karma, 3) impermanence and 4) the suffering of samsara.
Now human birth alone is extremely rare, as told in the classic Buddhist story of the blind turtle in the ocean that only surfaces once every hundred years, and the likelihood of him popping his head through a randomly floating yoke or ring on the sea’s surface. So not only do we have this human birth, but we also have the 18 leisures and connections, such as having a healthy human body, access to the dharma, and so on. So this really is the perfect chance to practice the dharma. And we might as well say this is the only chance because once we die, there is no telling where we will be reborn and how long it will take for us to obtain a human birth again.
So we must balance the fact that life is rare but death is also certain. And the worst part is that we don’t know when we are going to die. It’s one of the annoying things about impermanence. Some people live for very long time whereas some die before they are even born. There is no telling when it will happen.
Now we do talk about how everything is suffering. But then some might think “if everything is suffering, then why do I feel happy sometimes? Why do I feel happy when I listen to a nice song or eat cake or something?” We are not saying we never experience happiness. Life can be pleasurable. But all of the happiness that we experience is all reliant on these outer objects, our sense pleasures, whereas the uncontaminated bliss which we are striving for isn’t reliant on anything on the outside but comes from within. Like we can enjoy ourselves by going to a party one night, hanging with our friends. But then the next morning, it’s all over. It just becomes a memory. It’s like a dream that has been dreamt, as we say. So how does all the pleasure and fun we had affect our future and the next life? And since the cycle of samsara is beginning-less, we can assure ourselves that we have had all the pleasures in all our countless past lives countless times. We’ve had everything; we’ve been in the heaven realms; we’ve been kings and queens; we’ve been the richest people of all… So there really isn’t any worldly experience that we haven’t experienced any more. And we can’t even remember all those pleasures we had, so it won’t make a difference for the next life. But that’s why now we have the dharma. So we must take this rare opportunity to finally get out of this cycle of suffering.
There is also the Buddha’s life story, which many of you already know. But one important part we can learn from is when he was Siddhartha, he had everything really, he could’ve literally been the king of the world. And he had all of the money, power and fame possible. But he still wasn’t happy. And he saw that that was not true happiness. So the more we understand and see that we are suffering, the more we can deal with it, whereas by just ignoring it and kidding ourselves, we are only creating more suffering. And the suffering of samsara is evident even in the small ways, which we can see, like with wealth. When we are poor, we want what we don’t have, and we suffer to get it. But then when we do have wealth, we are in constant fear of losing what we have. That’s why the Buddha taught the Sangha to be content with what we have. Basically any kind of wanting for something or desire is suffering.
So it’s not about denying yourself pleasure, or forcing suffering upon yourself but it’s about facing the truth. Sometimes we say that the first and most important thing is to be dispassionate, disenchanted, and really just sick and tired of samsara, because we know that our whole lives and all our lives are bound by what these four common foundations are about. That’s why the Buddha saidthat we need to develop this sense of urgency to get out of samsara. And as Mahayana practitioners, we should want it even more, as we see that everybody is suffering.
— Four Noble Truth
Now this may all seem quite sad and gloomy, but this is only the first truth that the Buddha taught – the truth of suffering, because then the Buddha taught the second truth—the origin of suffering. Now most religions talk about the origins of human kind and universe, but the Buddha taught the origin of suffering, which is desire. Here desire means the basic affliction of attachment that conditions our lives due to the root grasping at duality, the mistaken idea of self and other. So it’s that conditioning that needs to be abandoned, because once the cause is gone, the result is also gone. So once we transcend desire, there is no more suffering.
And then the Buddha taught a way to end suffering as a whole rather than temporarily, and that end or cessation is nirvana. And how we get there is the path. There are many ways to explain the path, such as the five paths, the eighth-fold path, but today we can break it down into three main parts, which are view, meditation and conduct.
— View – Four Axioms of Buddhism
Now view covers so much, but the main thing is to understand the four axioms of Buddhism. Normally along with refuge, one who accepts the four axioms can be called a Buddhist. So the four axioms are that 1) all compounded phenomena are impermanent; 2) everything contaminated is suffering; 3) all things are empty and selfless; and 4) nirvana is true peace.
It is easy to say that everything is impermanent and empty, but actually throughout all the years that we spend in colleges of higher Buddhist studies, like in Dzongsar, all of our studies essentially revolve around these four axioms of what they mean and entail. And it can take many more years to fully understand the depths of what they convey. So when we say compounded, it means that any kind of form that can be seen or anything that is heard, it is all perceived by our senses, so compounded really refers to how all these things are compounded of interdependent factors, of many atoms and molecules; and how nothing comes into being on its own, but is interdependent, produced by causes and conditions. So this is the part where you can brag to your friends on how Buddhism is just like science, because it is. And because phenomena are produced by causes and conditions, they aren’t permanent, as they are ever changing. Sometimes people feel that science is the enemy of religion, but for us, it’s actually the opposite. Buddhism is a science of mind, and it can complement modern science, which is why usually when I come back here, I take science lessons from Dr. Chris Rebohlz, who I’m very grateful to.
Then we say things are contaminated, because they all depend on the senses. So they can’t truly satisfy us by giving us only temporary happiness, because we always end up falling back into suffering.
And then we say things are empty and selfless. This doesn’t mean we are nihilistic, saying that nothing exists. The problem with self is our grasping to it, grasping dualistically, thinking that something has it’s own invisible and illogical identity. We are not suggesting that I’m not me, or you are not you, but it means that because everything is interdependent, nothing is on it’s own, thus it’s empty of it’s own inherent or intrinsic nature. So when we see things as permanent, it becomes a wrong view. Another mistake would be if people go for this idea of non-self, but only because they don’t like themselves. But it’s not about that. It’s about stopping the grasping that occurs when we don’t understand reality. So once we’ve destroyed this grasping at its roots, we then have nirvana, which is freedom, because nirvana means the end or cessation of all grasping or karma. And as a result, there is no more suffering.
Now it’s not enough to just know all of these intellectually or to just believe in these axioms out of mere faith. But we need to practice in order to realize them. These four axioms must become not just ‘a’ view, but ‘your’ view. And thus to make it our view, since that can’t be done with ordinary intellect or intuition, we go into meditation. There are many ways to meditate, but normally they all fall into two main categories, which are calm abiding and special insight. Although special insight is the main way to achieve the view, the two go together and are equally as important.
So why we need calm abiding is because if we don’t learn to calm our minds, and try to go straight into special even hear songs playing in my head, even ones I don’t like. So that’s why it’s important to train our minds to access a subtler awareness. So when you practice this, it makes the mind and body calmer, and blissful. As we develop it, the mind becomes clear and reduces negative emotions. Because if we just want to be just relaxed or just chilled out, we can just visit the local spa or go for a drink with our buddies. But things like that, drinking and intoxicants, they only make the mind dull and just indulge the senses, whereas calm abiding makes the mind clear and aware, which is much more blissful.
Calm-abiding meditation is not something you can just learn from a book. But to really meditate, you do need a teacher. So once you find the right teacher, you then listen, contemplate and practice. And so you start with short sessions, then progress to longer sessions gradually. And as we practice more, we’ll notice our negative emotions are fewer, and the mind becomes clear. So once we have this, we use that clarity and calm for developing actually realization. It’s like if you have a dirty telescope, and if the lens is dirty, we can’t see what we are trying to look at. But if we wipe away the dirt, everything becomes clear. So with a clear mind, it’s like having new eyes, as we achieve a kind of higher level of vision. So once you have this, you then go into special insight where you take a topic like impermanence or non-self. And so with these new eyes, you understand it more, and you see it in a whole new way without having to think about it.
There are many stages for calm abiding, but the foundation of it is to first establish the seven-point posture, to find a quiet place to practice, a comfortable seat and so on. But most important of all, calm abiding can only start when we cultivate mindfulness, which is being in the present moment. And not just in our formal meditation sessions, but in all of our everyday lives, to keep our negative thoughts out but keep in virtuous objects in mind. We practice mindfulness when we are walking or lying down, all the time in fact, so there really isn’t any time when you can’t practice.
And we don’t do this just for our own benefit, it’s the way of practice that we need to keep loving-kindness and compassion in our minds. One method we can employ to keep a stable, proper loving-kindness and compassion is to first think about your most loved one, the person you love the most in your life. Not like how you would love Taylor Swift, but somebody you feel personal love for, that who has been the most kind to you. And then you extend it to somebody you feel neutral for, someone we don’t know, like a person you see walking down the street. Then we extend even further to somebody who is harming or has harmed you the most, who might be hard to have a compassion for, and might be termed as an enemy. So in that gradual process, we then recognize that just as our mothers in this life has been so kind, so every single sentient being in the samsara has at one point being our beloved mother, father or partner, friend, child and so on. So then we can spread that immeasurable loving-kindness and compassion throughout the world.
Now it won’t work if we just sit down, think about compassion and call that Buddhist meditation, when we just punched somebody in the face earlier on. That’s why we go into conduct. In our conduct, we are accumulating merit by living a virtuous life, so that our practice becomes stable and focused, and our mind isn’t flooded with negativity or guilt. So with the proper conduct, the main things to refrain from are the ten misdeeds, which are killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, deceitful speech, abusive speech, divisive speech, malicious gossip, ill-will, covetousness and perverse views. So we refrain from these behaviors, because we recognize the results it has upon ourselves and others. And then the ten virtuous deeds come into being when we live a life free from the ten unwholesome deeds. So on that basis in the Mahayana, we then practice engaging bodhicitta through the Six Transcendent Perfections, like generosity, morality, patience and so on, as well as the Four Matters of Gathering. Like for generosity, the Buddha said that, “if everybody knew the karmic result of being generous, nobody would not give at least a little of everything they had.” And the Buddha didn’t say these things like commandments, where he gave a list of rules that we need to abide by whether we like it or not, but he explained the results of these actions which we can see for ourselves, and so we choose whether we want to live by these virtues or not.
So this is all the accumulation of merit, and this is combined with the accumulation of wisdom. Now one can get rid of negative emotions with just the accumulation of wisdom to an extent. But with both accumulations combined and completed, we can be rid of all mental blocks and poisons, even the most subtle imprints in our consciousness. And only then we can become fully complete Buddhas. And we need to manifest as complete Buddhas in order to be of optimum benefit to help free all sentient beings from suffering, which is why we cultivate the two bodhicittas as diligently as possible.
— Resultant Mahayana
So all these things I say are in the category of causal Mahayana, which is needed for the resultant Mahayana, which the Six Dharmas of Vajrasanapada are in the category of. The resultant Mahayana is more commonly known as the Vajrayana, and with the Vajrayana, we take initiations to bring about much quicker transformation of body, speech and mind, and become Buddhas much quicker than is possible in the causal Mahayana alone. And we call it causal Mahayana because we are cultivating the cause of enlightenment in our practice whereas in the resultant form, we take the actual result of enlightenment as already present in our continuums and cultivate it. We are allowed to do this advanced form of practice once our continuums have been ripened through initiation, which is why the Gurus who bestow these upon us are so amazingly kind.
So in that way, we are all so incredibly fortunate to receive not just one but six very special initiations and the profound instructions on how to practice them from Avikrita Rinpoche. So I hope that we can all keep these points, especially on love and compassion, and then have every confidence that we can make the most out of this special weekend. So whatever merits may have come from these reflections I have sharedwith you today, and from your diligently listening and contemplating, let’s now conclude by reciting the dedication prayers together.
有时这种不安全感的成因可能是无法恰当表达自己的思想和情绪、不被聆听或不被理解，以及强烈的孤独感。有时人们只是想要成为某些东西的一部分，以赋予人生些许意义。如果我们选择采取行动，这种情况就不会一直持续下去。当我们处理这种情况时，这无关乎抑制。不是试图压抑这些想法和感受，或试图强迫它们停止，哪怕它们看起来是错误的，比如嗔怒或贪执。我们需要知道如何“回应”而非“反抗”它们。这关乎所谓的“理解并立于其下”（understanding them and standing under them）。佛陀曾说这些烦恼都是客尘（暂时染污），而心的自性是澄明的光。自我怀疑等所有这些，都属于客尘的范畴，并非我们的真实自性。我们仅仅需要相信自己的佛性。