You can do large numbers of the preliminary practices that you have not finished in retreat. You can also continue to do some in the center while you study or work. It’s up to you, whatever you can do. However, prostrations or mandala offerings have to be done as a daily practice anyway, whether you have a commitment to do a large number or not. You don’t necessarily have to finish all these preliminary practices now. Just take it easy, and as you like, you can decide which preliminary practices you want to do. You can decide in your heart how you feel. This answer relates to the question from your letter about doing work at the center when you are there, along with study and practice commitments.
Regarding your question about how much time to spend on your own commitments, sometimes when there’s a good opportunity to study, then put more time into studying. At other times, put your main effort into doing deity or preliminary practice retreat. Then, when you are staying at a center or elsewhere, how much time you spend depends on the importance of your activities. Sometimes there are very important things that need doing. Sometimes there’s more benefit to that, so put more effort into those activities.
The whole essence to making decisions in life is to analyze according to the benefits. What brings you to enlightenment quicker? What brings more benefit to other sentient beings? Don’t get caught up in the words: “These are commitments,” “these are preliminary practices,” or “I don’t get time to do this because I have to work for the center.” Don’t get caught in these labels. You should put your life, and so your main effort, into whatever is most beneficial for sentient beings, what brings enlightenment quickly. That means you can only judge the benefit by thinking of the lam-rim. Without the lam-rim, there is no way to judge what is most beneficial for sentient beings or most beneficial for bringing you to enlightenment quickly.
Two important things in the lam-rim are bodhicitta and guru devotion. In my view, from what I hear and see in the texts, everything depends first on the practice of guru devotion. So, it seems your decision should be on that basis, because that is the root of the path to enlightenment. As you know, by meditating on the eight advantages of devoting to the guru and disadvantages of not devoting correctly to the guru, making mistakes, from that you can understand the beginning of the path to enlightenment. What the lam-rim and the lineage lamas emphasize is following the guru’s advice. This is what the texts say is the very first thing to think of when making a decision. They say this is the most important thing. Then, do other things on that basis.
It all depends on what is more beneficial for others. The first thing to think of in particular is fulfilling the wishes or following the advice that’s given by the guru. Otherwise, you may think you are missing out on some practice or study because you are doing a lot of work at the center. If you forget to think of the guru’s advice first, and try to do something that you feel you are missing out on, you can do it, but you may not get much result.
For example, Milarepa offered his body, speech, and mind to Marpa. He requested teachings and asked Marpa also to take care of his food, clothing, and so forth, because he had nothing. Then, for years, Marpa never gave him any teachings, only hard work, he even asked him to build a nine-story tower. Nobody was allowed to help Milarepa. He had to do it himself, and after building it, he had to tear it down and put the stones back where they had been before. Even the skin on his back became bluish and hardened like an animal that has carried a lot of baggage. His hands were worn out and his skin was dark. If it looked like Marpa was going to give a teaching and he saw Milarepa there in the midst of the people, he immediately scolded him and kicked him out. Marpa never talked sweetly to Milarepa. He only scolded and beat him.
Marpa’s wife couldn’t bear this, so without asking Marpa’s permission, she quietly sent Milarepa to Lama Ngakpa, a disciple of Marpa. There, Milarepa was given teachings and did only meditation, no work. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think he stayed in a hole in the ground and did meditation for six months. But, in any case, during this time, he didn’t have any positive dreams or other good signs. Milarepa explained this to Lama Ngakpa and Lama Ngakpa asked him, “Did you get permission from Marpa?” Then, Lama Ngakpa found out that he did not have permission. He felt sorry and decided to take Milarepa back to Marpa. Lama Ngakpa had nothing to offer Marpa, only a lame goat, and he handed Milarepa back to Marpa.
I remember not only stories among Buddhist students about relying on the guru, but Hindus as well. For example, an Indian student had a Hindu guru who taught him yoga. He developed the ability to bring the kundalini energy from the secret place to the heart, but then he found out that his guru had killed someone. Since that time, he lost faith in his Hindu guru, and was unable to go further with the practice. He lost faith, and was unable to bring the kundalini energy from the heart up to the crown. It got stuck at the heart. So, even for disciples of Hindu gurus, the mind affects students in that way.
There are many such stories. There’s another story from the opposite perspective. Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo had a servant, a monk, who didn’t know how to read. Pabongka predicted that in the near future the monk would be able to read the Guru Puja text without being taught it by anyone, just through doing service to Pabongka. Lama Lhundrup told me that after this monk escaped from Tibet and came to Buxaduar, although at first he was still unable to read, after some time at Buxaduar, he was able to read by himself. The understanding just came without anyone teaching him. That is the benefit from serving his guru, Pabongka.
I’m sure you have heard many times what Ribur Rinpoche always used to tell Ven. Roger Kunsang, my secretary, to remind him of this point. When Lama Atisha was in Tibet, one of his disciples, a Kadampa Geshe called Gompawa, used to do a lot of meditation. Dromtonpa, another disciple of Lama Atisha, didn’t meditate because he was always so busy translating and neither did Lama Atisha’s cook, always being busy cooking. Gompawa thought, “I might have higher realizations than them. They are always busy.” So, when Gonpawa thought this, Lama Atisha knew because of his clairvoyant powers, and he called Gompawa along with Dromtonpa and the cook. Lama Atisha had all three of them sit together, and then he compared to see who had the highest realizations. There was no way to compare the meditator Gompawa’s realizations with Dromtonpa’s realizations. Dromtonpa’s were much higher, and even the cook’s realizations were higher than the meditator’s. Ribur Rinpoche always tells Roger that story. I think what Rinpoche meant by using this story was to show an example of a very good and extremely obedient disciple. This is one story, but there are many stories like this, positive and negative stories.
Whatever collects the most extensive merit, whatever becomes the most powerful purification is what brings higher realizations and transforms your mind. Whatever brings enlightenment quickly and brings the greatest benefit to sentient beings is the most powerful practice. It doesn’t necessarily always have to be sitting and closing your eyes for many hours. One shouldn’t get caught up in that label.
Of course, I understand nothing is easy – study, retreat, work for the center, especially dealing with people at the center. From the stories, one can also see that when practicing sutra, the path of perfections, it takes 600 great eons to create merit. But one can also look at the case of the bodhisattva Tak Tu Ngo, the Always Crying One, who sacrificed himself for his guru, cherished his guru more than his own life, and served his guru for seven years. Even before he ever saw his guru Chöpa, he cleaned outside the temple where his guru was doing retreat and offered a lot of service. This bodhisattva was able to complete the first countless great eon of merit within seven years by doing service for his guru, Bodhisattva Chöpa, and by cherishing him more than his own life.
Then there’s also the story of Kadampa Geshe Cha Yul Wa. He is held up every day by the lineage lamas as one of the best disciples, like a world champion, the best example of devotion to the virtuous friend. As soon as he heard that his guru Chengawa was talking to him, even if he was offering a mandala, he immediately stopped in the middle of what he was doing and offered service. He offered service every day, cleaning the guru’s home. One day he collected dirt from his guru’s room in his robes, and was carrying it down some steps to take it outside. When he took the third step, he saw a number of Buddhas in the nirmanakaya aspect. His mind reached the third level on the Mahayana path of accumulation.
You have to understand from these stories that the realizations, the benefits to the mind, don’t just have to come from retreat, from sitting meditation, from study or prayers. It doesn’t necessarily have to be done that way.
It was the same with Dromtonpa. At one point, Lama Atisha showed the aspect of having sickness with diarrhea. Excrement and pee-pee were on the bed, and Dromtonpa cleaned it without any hesitation. He cleaned it with his hand. He served like that day and night, and while doing that, so much purification occurred. Dromtonpa achieved clairvoyance and was able to read the mind even of tiny insects, of ants at a distance that would take an eagle 18 days to fly. This happened suddenly.
There are many, many stories like that. Even from personal experience, when the guru is very pleased with you, you’re doing whatever the guru wishes or asked you to do—retreat, service to the guru, helping other sentient beings, anything that pleases the guru—when you do meditation during that time, it is much easier. When the connection is very good, whatever the lam-rim subject you are meditating on, it is very easy to feel it in your heart. That’s a sign of heavy purification. That’s why the mind becomes soft and you feel that if you continue, you can actually achieve realization in the topic you are meditating on, because you have already had a strong experience of it. Those are the signs of receiving the blessings of the guru.
The main thing is deciding what is the most important benefit, as I have mentioned. On the basis of that you make decisions. As I normally say, if you can, do what brings great benefit. If you cannot be of great benefit, offer what is of middling benefit. If you cannot do what is of great or middling benefit, do what is of small benefit. It doesn’t take a lot of skill. Skill depends on wisdom. The basis is two things: a good heart and guru devotion. Between these two, devotion to one’s virtuous friend is the key thing. If you don’t have this, even bodhicitta generally doesn’t happen. Everything becomes blocked.
On occasions when there are many important things to accomplish at the center, it’s not possible to expect to find time for everything, unless you can manifest like arya bodhisattvas who can perform one hundred different activities, meditate, or go to pure lands to receive teachings with one hundred or one thousand bodies. With only one body, one can’t expect to do everything.
Along with work, one can do one’s commitments. When you are doing your job, if you don’t need to speak, then you can chant or recite prayers while your body is doing the work. When there important things to do, or when one is traveling, one can make prayers then. Many disciples—not myself—but many other disciples who are good practitioners do that. Life is so busy. If you don’t have time that you can set aside for practice, whenever there’s some time or space, you can do your commitments. Some high lamas meditate whenever there’s a break or space.
It also depends on what’s more important. For example, when somebody is sick or dying, needing help, if you don’t offer help but instead go to your room to meditate or make prayers, that becomes selfish. There is something very important to do for others, but you don’t do it, and instead think of your own benefit.
Even if one misses out on one’s prayers and meditation through working for the guru or for others, there is no regret, because making prayers is supposed to be for others, to bring them to enlightenment. If you don’t practice because you’re lazy, then that’s a loss. In the other case, there’s no loss. Also, one can reduce daily practice commitments when there’s something very important to do, because the aim is to do what’s most beneficial for others. Analyze in this way. Think of what is the most important thing in life. That way you won’t have much confusion.