Lama Tsongkhapa and Mönlam
We chant the Palden Lhamo prayer during the great prayer festival, the Mönlam Chenmo. Establishing the Mönlam Chenmo in Lhasa was one of Lama Tsongkhapa’s four great holy deeds in Tibet. Another was the construction of the Maitreya Buddha statue in the Dzingchi Monastery, which I have yet to see.86 Although now many different monasteries or organizations do mönlams at Bodhgaya, it previously referred to just the prayer ceremony initiated by Lama Tsongkhapa.
There were many thousands of monks in the six colleges of the three main monasteries of the Lama Tsongkhapa, or Gelug, tradition in Tibet: over seven thousand at Drepung, over five thousand at Sera and over three thousand at Ganden. Obviously the numbers are different now in India.
Anyway, these large monasteries, the very top monasteries where the monks do extensive study on Buddhist philosophy, are like huge universities. They resemble the huge factories that make all the different parts of a plane—every single screw, every single engine component, everything that is needed. Without missing anything, the monks learn the whole path to enlightenment, both method and wisdom sides, the qualities of the Buddha, the different levels of the Hinayana and the Mahayana sutra and tantra paths, the five paths to liberation, the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment and so forth. What they study is truly amazing; so extensive, as deep and as vast as the Pacific Ocean.
Besides studying the sutra path, the tantra they learn and practice is much more than just reciting mantras or doing sadhanas, as people with little knowledge might think. Even though reciting mantras greatly purifies the mind and prepares it for achieving enlightenment, the practice of tantra is so much more than that. It contains the entire path to enlightenment. In tantra there are many skillful techniques that are not found in the practice of sutra. The study of the mind in sutra lacks the great profundity of tantra, where we learn about the gross, subtle and extremely subtle mind, the pure mind.
When Lama Tsongkhapa organized the Mönlam Chenmo, all the main monasteries and many other monasteries gathered together, and this continued up until His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama left Tibet. Now we do it in exile. The festival lasts for fifteen days, from Losar87 until the Day of Miracles.88 Many people think it is just the Day of Miracles, but in fact it lasts the entire fifteen days.
Lama Tsongkhapa was extremely skillful. During the fifteen days of Mönlam Chenmo we start each day with puja. Lay people come from all over to ask for prayers for those who have died, are sick or have difficulties. They make food, money and tea offerings because during this period, the merit of offerings made to each monk is increased a hundred million times. Monks also come to ask for success in their Dharma studies and practice or for help in overcoming obstacles.
Then the monks debate on the Pramanavarttika, logical teachings on mind, reincarnation, the trustworthiness of the Buddha because his teachings are pure and so forth. Then there is another puja followed by debate on the Prajnaparamita or the Abhisamayalamkara. After another puja or meditation there’s debate on the Madhyamaka and in the evening there is another puja and then debate on the Vinaya or the Abhidharmakosha.
The debates are between geshes who have finished their study of these five major texts. Each day they gather in groups and two of them are chosen to reply to questions. They are also examined and their answers checked by somebody like the Ganden Tripa, His Holiness’s regent or the abbots of the monasteries.
After the early morning puja the Ganden Tripa reads the Buddha’s life stories in order to inspire the monks to follow the path he practiced, with the six paramitas of charity, morality, patience, perseverance, meditation and wisdom. Besides the famous story of when the Buddha gave his body to the tiger, there are many stories of how he made charity of his limbs, eyes and so forth for three countless great eons. Listening to those stories told by Ganden Tripa, the monks and laypeople are inspired to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha.
In that way Lama Tsongkhapa integrated so many things for everybody to collect merit. It was an incredibly skillful way to benefit sentient beings.
As with offerings made to the monks, on any of those fifteen days, reciting one Vajrasattva mantra becomes the equivalent of a hundred million Vajrasattva mantras, giving one rupee of charity to a beggar becomes the equivalent of giving a hundred million rupees, making offerings of one light becomes the equivalent of making a hundred million light offerings and so forth. This is also the best time to do a retreat or a nyung-nä, the extensive two-day lower tantra retreat on Chenrezig with many prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas and Chenrezig and extensive mantra recitation. All this creates the most unbelievable merit.
The benefits of prostrations
During a nyung-nä people generally do full-length prostrations, like a tree lying down, but it is also possible to do the five-limb, or half, prostration.
Doing prostrations correctly brings many benefits. As you go down onto the floor you must be aware that you’re prostrating to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, otherwise it just becomes exercise. Mindlessly going up and down might make you fit but it doesn’t become prostration. Prostration means purifying your body, speech and mind, wiping off the garbage, the obscurations and negative karma collected through the actions of your body, speech and mind from beginningless rebirths. I don’t know what the English word “prostration” means, but in Tibetan, chag has this meaning. If you think of the Guru, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and pay homage to them, it becomes a prostration. Otherwise you are just mimicking prostration and it doesn’t become purification.
After I’d had my stroke, a lady who came to the Aptos house didn’t know what to do. My stroke was a light one and the paralysis was not severe but it was difficult to walk. She asked, “What do you want? What do you expect?” She often asked that when she came. There was quite a famous man in New York who taught meditation by email or through a website that many people followed. I can’t say whether he is a realized person or not but he seems to have a connection to many people and had put his meditation on the Internet.
She got the idea of doing prostrations from him and told me to do them in order to get the movement back in my legs. When I said I would do prostrations to the Buddha she was a little bit surprised. I didn’t do them every day, but with the exercise I slowly got better.
For every atom of ground your body covers when you go down you create the karma to be born as a wheel-turning king a thousand times. Wheel-turning kings arise only one at a time; there can’t be two at once. They have unbelievable power. It takes infinite merit to be born as a wheel-turning king just once, yet with your body covering just one atom of ground you create the karma to be born as a wheel-turning king for a thousand lifetimes.
From your head down to your feet, when you do prostrations you cover so many atoms. Now, if you keep your ankle flexed so that the tips of your toes touch the ground, you lose covering many atoms, so when you do prostrations you should point your toes. In that way you cover countless more atoms. I need to explain this because if you don’t know about it you’re in danger of thinking prostration is simply a Tibetan custom and not prostrating properly. Then you fail to collect all that unbelievable merit. Due to ignorance, you cheat yourself.
Even though my body is short, when I do prostrations I still cover numberless atoms between here and the bottom of the earth. Even atoms that our fingers and toes cover are uncountable, especially for us beings who don’t have omniscient minds or even ordinary clairvoyance. So, for each atom of ground we cover, from the surface of the earth down to its bottom, we create the good karma to be born as a wheel-turning king for a thousand lifetimes. That is mentioned in the Lankavatara Sutra, where it says a “golden base,” but it means the bottom of the earth. The merits that the Buddha explained in that sutra are beyond comprehension.
People who are tall or fat cover even more atoms, as do people with long hair. If you have long hair, when you do prostrations you should let it loose so that it spreads out on the ground and covers even more atoms. Having long hair or being tall or fat has huge benefits when doing prostrations; you create so much more unbelievable merit, like generating a greater income. I have to do two prostrations for every one a tall or a fat person does! Americans tend to be tall, so they are very fortunate because when they do prostrations they collect unbelievable merit.
Reciting the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas while doing lots of prostrations purifies many eons of negative karma; for example, reciting just Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s name purifies eighty thousand eons of negativity. Students who come to Kopan and learn to chant Lama tön-pa chom-dän-dä 89 in the mornings are unbelievably fortunate. The lam-rim lineage lamas normally say that ten thousand eons of negative karma are purified, but in the Kangyur I have seen that number cited as ten million eons. Not only that, I have even seen it said that it can be a hundred billion eons of negative karma.90 That is how much negative karma is purified by reciting the buddhas’ names, Guru Shakyamuni’s mantra TADYATA MUNE MUNE MAHAHUNAYE SOHA or a few words of the Heart Sutra. It’s unbelievable. We are so fortunate that we are able to know this.
When Lama Tsongkhapa first did seven hundred thousand prostrations at Wolka he saw the Thirty-five Buddhas without their heads. This was because he had recited the Thirty-five Buddhas prayer omitting the words de-zhin sheg-pa, tathagata, which explains the qualities of a buddha. Afterwards, however, when he added de-zhin sheg-pa to the beginning of each buddha’s name, he saw them with heads.
So in the Lama Tsongkhapa tradition we include de-zhin sheg-pa, whereas some other traditions don’t. If you have seen this you might wonder why there are different forms of the practice, but it is not that they are different texts, it’s just that some omit the de-zhin sheg-pa.
There is also unbelievable merit in doing many prostrations to the Thousand-arm Compassion Buddha with the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM. The number of atoms of dust of this earth can be counted, the number of raindrops can be counted, the number of drops of water in the oceans can be counted, but we cannot count the benefits of reciting this mantra. It is so unbelievable, especially if you recite it with bodhicitta. Each time you recite the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM once, each time you recite one buddha’s name, you collect more than skies of merit. And besides powerfully purifying obscurations collected from beginningless rebirths and collecting extensive merit, it generates compassion within your heart for the numberless sentient beings: the human beings, the gods, the demigods, the hell beings, the hungry ghosts, the animals—for every sentient being, without leaving out even one insect. You develop the most amazing compassion.
Without generating compassion for sentient beings, there is no enlightenment; by generating compassion for others, there is enlightenment. That is one hundred percent sure. The benefit of generating compassion for even one sentient being—whether it is a mosquito, an ant, any kind of insect or whatever, no matter how big or small it is, even as big as a mountain—generating compassion for even one sentient being brings you to enlightenment.
I must tell you this. In Solu Khumbu, lay people quite often do nyung-näs at the small temples in the different villages but, although they have the text, the sadhana, they cannot read it at all, because they have not even learned ka kha ga nga, the Tibetan alphabet. Those who can read do so, but they are very few. What most people do is go there with great faith and recite OM MANI PADME HUM, OM MANI PADME HUM, doing the sessions with prostrations. They also take the eight Mahayana precepts on both days of the nyung-nä. Each precept you take with bodhicitta, you benefit numberless sentient beings. You are a great source of happiness and success, an unbelievable source of enlightenment for every being. Doing such practices combines many powerful things.
Chanting the Palden Lhamo prayer is an important aspect of Mönlam Chenmo. When Khadro-la and I are in different places we chant this prayer. Once she made the comment that the prayer actually makes Palden Lhamo come, which is why she likes chanting it.
Sorry! Again there’s a story. Palden Lhamo is a servant to Khadro-la. She serves Khadro-la. When Khadro-la was going to Mt. Kailash she rode on Palden Lhamo’s mule. That is just the essence of the story.
When Khadro-la first went to Dharamsala it took her a year to see His Holiness because, coming from lower Kham, Chamdo, so far away, she had the appearance of a villager, with very messy hair and so forth. Of course, that was just her external appearance and no indication of the level of her mind and the realizations she had. On the outside she appeared as a very ordinary Tibetan village girl, kind of disheveled, whereas in reality she was something else entirely. If I tell you some of her story—I don’t need to tell it all—that will show you.
She worked in a Tibetan government restaurant in Dharamsala but because of her appearance they made her clean the toilets. Not having any tools, she had to clean them by scratching the kaka off with her fingernails. That’s what she said, but I think maybe this is not public talk.
One day the manager of the restaurant was possibly thinking of having physical contact with her, maybe sex, I’m not sure, and she pushed him away—just a little shove—but he was flung really far. Then his mind completely changed. He said, “Now, whenever you want something from the refrigerator, Coca-Cola or anything, please take it any time you want.” Her wrathful aspect had so shocked him that his mind completely changed.
She tried to meet His Holiness for a year but a lay lama who was a religious head wouldn’t let her. That happened at the beginning of her troubles. She may have told me before not to mention this but anyway, she went to a place in Dharamsala where the water comes down—I don’t know what it’s called—and picked up a stone. After she touched the stone it became water, like nectar. She took this to offer to His Holiness. She often went into a trance, outside looking like a ten-ma,91 and then something like blood would come.
Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche was the one who helped her meet His Holiness. He told her, “I myself will make the golden bridge connecting you and His Holiness.” Once he had made that connection she was able to meet him. She told me that she went to see Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche a few times and he told her, “Even at the very end of my life, you are the object of refuge I rely on.”
From that time on she was given a house to stay in and an old lady to take care of her. Early one morning the old lady saw a lot of mule prints on the floor of her room. It seems that during the night Palden Lhamo had come to protect or serve her.
And similarly, in the middle of the night an old Nyingma lama—I can’t say whether he was enlightened or not but he was very highly realized—who had just passed away came to speak with her. The old lady who cared for her was in the next room and she could hear talking, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, so the next morning she scolded Khadro-la. “You have a boyfriend! You have a boyfriend. You are a complete liar!” I think she scolded Khadro-la for a few mornings, not only the one time. Khadro-la just said, “No boyfriend.” The lama came in middle of the night to speak with her, to give her teachings or something like that. He had other powers, so I think His Holiness also knew. But to the old lady listening from the next room it seemed that Khadro-la had a boyfriend so she scolded her, saying she was a total liar. Then afterwards she realized it wasn’t like that, that in reality Palden Lhamo was Khadro-la’s servant. That is what I wanted to tell you.
Benefiting sentient beings
At this time we have received not just a human rebirth but a perfect human rebirth. Each day, each hour, each minute, even each second, how many sentient beings from the intermediate state are reborn in the hell realm? It’s as many as the specks of dust of this earth. Each day, each hour, each minute, each second how many sentient beings from the intermediate state are reborn as hungry ghosts? It’s like the number of the sand grains of the Pacific Ocean. Each day, each hour, each minute, each second, how many sentient beings from the intermediate state are reborn as animals? It’s as many as the blades of grass growing on all the mountains and the ground everywhere—and of course there are numberless universes—so it’s uncountable. We have to think about these things really well.
There are so many kinds of animals in the oceans. Some, like whales, are as huge as mountains; others are so small that we can see them only through a microscope. I remember we were once crossing a short bridge on a beach overlooking the ocean. Due to a combination of sun and shade we saw so many incredibly tiny insects in the water under the bridge. Because of the way the light hit the water the number of creatures we saw was unbelievable. If you look at a drop of water under a microscope you can see all the small creatures you cannot see by eye.
As I have mentioned, although the ocean is very blue, very calm, very peaceful looking, just below the surface there are all kinds of sentient beings, large and small, swimming everywhere trying to eat each other while at the same time trying to avoid being eaten, all the time full of fear.
Like this, there are numberless animal realm beings in each of the oceans and numberless animal realm beings in the air and on and under the ground. Every time you walk on grass, so many tiny insects run away.
That’s why we recite the mantra to bless the feet in the prayers we say at the beginning of each day.92 Traditionally, we recite this mantra seven times and then blow on the soles of our feet, but because we all wear shoes I think we should blow on the soles of our shoes. This will help any insects, like ants, that we kill while walking around. When we recite the mantra and blow on the soles of our feet or shoes, any insect we step on will get reborn in the Heaven of Thirty-three. That’s the benefit of this mantra.
Before we travel by car we can also recite the mantra and spit or blow on the tires. That way, any animal or insect that is crushed by the wheels gets a higher rebirth. I have already mentioned the benefits of having the Namgyälma mantra in your car.
How to help somebody who is dying or dead
Whenever you yourself, a family member, a friend or an animal is dying or dead, one of the most powerful things that can be done is for a Namgyälma card to be put on top of the body for a little while. Then that being will definitely be protected from going to the lower realms and will definitely get a higher rebirth with the possibility of meeting the Dharma. That is a vital practice when somebody suddenly dies and you don’t know what to do.
When I was in France leading the Four Kadam Deities retreat at Institut Vajrayogini in 2003 the father of one of our German students died. She had been a Buddhist for ten years, but when her father suddenly died she didn’t know what to do. So I spent a few days during the retreat talking about how to help a dying or dead person. Some things were my own ideas and others were based on a book.
The Tibetan way of benefiting dead or dying people may be traditional but it is certainly not a meaningless custom. It really benefits. I explained ways of helping both yourself and others at the time of death. If you know how to do that properly you can help dying or dead people very effectively.
A book based on these talks at Institut Vajrayogini is now available.93 I also gave some teachings several years ago about the five powers near the time of death because I was getting so many messages about people who were dying, asking for advice.94 One person I mentioned this to was Linda Rose, in Hong Kong, who had cancer. I talked for more than an hour but I still wasn’t finished. I told her that she would die if she stayed in Hong Kong and that according to my observation, or mo, it would be better for her to go to America. So she went to California and lived for another three years.
Some years ago the FPMT created a “Liberation Box,”95 which contains all the things needed to help somebody who is dying or already dead. For example, if somebody is still capable of comprehending, you can give them advice, but if that is not possible, like with children and very old people, you need to help externally in order for them to not be reborn in the lower realms. When somebody is dying you can make all these things available to help that person, to guide the mind—all the mantras and other things, such as po-wa pills. This is very important.
The Liberation Box already contains all the external things to put on people to bless them, to save their consciousness from being reborn in the lower realms. Everything is explained; everything is prepared. I don’t think other organizations have something like this yet. The FPMT also has other books of practices, with different mantras, different pujas and prayers. Those who are familiar with these practices can do them. When a person dies you really don’t know about the dying person’s mind; you just know your own thoughts, so these practices can guide you.
It is extremely important to be able to help a dying person and, if you can, the dying person’s family as well. Like us, they are not yet dead but they are dying. There are only a certain number of in-breaths and out-breaths in a lifetime. Every day, every hour, every minute, every second, that number is constantly diminishing. In reality, we too are dying. The intuitive feeling we have, that the person with cancer is dying but we are not, is totally incorrect.
No matter how many days, how many hours, how many minutes, how many seconds we have left in this life, they are constantly finishing. Life is getting shorter and shorter. We too are dying and are therefore the same as the person we label as dying. We could even die before that person.
I’m extremely happy that the organization and the centers can provide such things. It’s really good. We should develop these tools even more, showing how to guide others to avoid rebirth in the lower realms and to gain a higher rebirth, in a pure land or as a god or human being, and especially to receive a perfect human rebirth and meet the Dharma. Most people don’t think in that way.
Having a perfect human rebirth is like a dream
The Buddha compared the number of human beings to the number of other beings. He said that if we scratch the ground, the amount of dirt we collect under our fingernails is like the number of human beings whereas all the dirt of this entire earth is like the number of animals.96 That there are so few human beings compared to even the animals is because it is very difficult to create the cause to be born human, which is to have not just morality but pure morality. Morality alone is not enough to be born as a human being or a god; it must be pure morality.
There are so many animals. There are uncountable gnats in the swarms that fly up when we walk on the grass; there are so many ants in just one nest. The number of human beings compared to the number of ants living in all the ant nests is tiny. We need to make such comparisons in case we think that the number of human beings is so huge.
However, we do not just have a human rebirth but a perfect human rebirth, this life in which we have met not just Buddhism but the Mahayana teachings, and of the Mahayana teachings, both sutra and tantra. We have this perfect human rebirth because in past lives we observed the pratimoksha, bodhisattva and tantric vows purely. Therefore in this life we are again able to meet all these different levels of teachings and have the opportunity to take these vows again. This is almost the only time we will ever receive such a perfect human rebirth. We have this opportunity now, but the future depends on what we do with it.
Having received this perfect human rebirth is like a dream. Achieving the eight freedoms and the ten richnesses seems impossible but it has happened. I don’t need to detail the eight freedoms and the ten richnesses here. If you are unfamiliar with the teachings on the perfect human rebirth, please study them. There are many lam-rim books that cover this topic. If you don’t know how precious this precious human body is you will not value it.
Besides seeing the rarity of this perfect human rebirth by comparing it to the number of other beings, we can also understand its rarity by investigating its causes and seeing that they are incredibly difficult to create. It is difficult to find even a human rebirth in general let alone a perfect human rebirth. Reflecting on such things over and over again dispels negative states of mind such as laziness, anger, attachment and ignorance, all those things that waste this life.
There is also this example.97 A golden ring floats on the ocean. It is not a wooden ring that would float easily but a golden ring, something that would normally sink. Somehow it remains afloat but not in one place. It is constantly moved about by the wind and waves.
The golden ring represents pure Buddhism, not corrupted Buddhism. I think without studying much Dharma it is difficult to understand what “pure” means, what is pure Buddhism and what is corrupted. If you study the world, however, and the Dharma you have been practicing, you will understand how other people suffer and how difficult it is to find the correct Dharma. Then you will understand the whole situation. Otherwise you can just run to anybody who teaches meditation and never check whether he or she is a meditator or not.
It’s like the quote from Panchen Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen that I have already mentioned. We should not be like an old dog looking for food in the street, grabbing it from anybody and gobbling it down as quickly as possible. This quote relates to finding a guru but it applies to the teachings in general as well. A dog sees somebody handing out food and just runs to him. Even if there are no other dogs around, he eats the food without first checking whether it is good for his health or not. You should not be like that dog, running to somebody teaching meditation without checking the person or the teachings. You need to learn more, especially Lama Tsongkhapa’s teaching, but also look at other teachings. Then you will know.
So, the golden ring represents pure, unmistaken Buddhism—not just the pure morality needed to get a higher rebirth but also the higher trainings of morality, concentration and wisdom required to achieve nirvana, liberation from the ocean of samsara. It also means developing compassion, bodhicitta, to achieve full enlightenment, the elimination of all obscurations and the completion of all realizations for sentient beings. This is what the golden ring signifies. Although the ring is somehow able to stay on top, it is moved back and forth by the winds and tides.
Anyway, in this example, swimming in the depths of the ocean is a blind turtle that comes to the surface once every hundred years. Not only does it come up rarely, it is also blind, so it cannot see the golden ring. This time we have received the perfect human rebirth with eight freedoms and ten richnesses, which gives us the opportunity to practice Dharma and achieve full enlightenment for sentient beings. But we have received this perfect human rebirth just this once. This is like the blind turtle coming up and putting its head through the golden ring. This is an example of something that seems to be impossible but has somehow happened. So, this perfect human rebirth that we have received this one time is like a dream—a seemingly impossible thing that has somehow happened.
We must not waste one moment
Therefore we must not waste this perfect human rebirth. We must not waste one day, one hour, one minute. We must not use our whole life to create nonvirtue, to create the cause to be born back where we came from, where we have been most of the time, the lower realms. Wasting our life means more than just leading an empty life; it means using our life to create the causes of the lower realms.
Without ever having met the Dharma, the Buddha’s legacy to the world, and without having developed a good heart, everything we do can only be the cause of the lower realms. Our education is solely for this purpose. We go to kindergarten, primary school, high school and then college and university just to create the causes of the lower realms. I don’t think I have ever put it this way before.
Unless our mind changes we are in no way different to the insects. We have the same attachment to this life, just working for the pleasure of this life. We are the same as the ants, the same as the worms, the same as the lice. How we spend our life is so poor, even if we are a billionaire, a zillionaire, a trillionaire. No matter how much power we have in the world, how many people we have working under us, in reality there is no difference in the motivation, in the way of thinking. It is just cherishing the I, just thinking of this life’s happiness.
We might be human beings, with a better brain and a better education, but even if we’ve been to university and have been extensively educated, unless we know and practice Dharma, in essence our way of thinking is the same as that of an insect. Mosquitoes need to look for blood, but we are no different, needing to eat meat, another being’s flesh and blood. If we kill and eat animals, how are we any different from mosquitoes? If we don’t practice compassion for the beings of the lower realms, how are we different from them?
Whether or not we eat animals is in our hands
While I was in hospital in Australia,98 I saw on TV that Australia was selling huge numbers of sheep and cows to Indonesia. They showed sheep all lined up, so tiny, going to the slaughterhouse. There was the shot of a cow with a rope tied around its horns being pulled down from the platform to its place of execution. The cow didn’t want to go; it was pulling back and a man was pulling it down.
I think this may have been the first time they exposed this and the Australian people, everybody, got so upset. The livestock company stopped selling animals to Indonesia. But then I don’t know what happened. Of course, everything in life is a dependent arising; one thing depends on another. So perhaps, because the big companies have all the power, the situation may have reverted again after two or three months.
At that time I thought I cannot stop this, but now, whatever teaching I do, even tantric teachings, I announce to the world to be vegetarian, so that fewer people will eat meat and fewer animals will get killed and they will suffer less. If more people refused to eat meat there would naturally be less suffering for animals.
Not eating meat at all in the world—that is a dream. That will not happen. But fewer people eating meat can happen. So I thought to announce this to the world. It’s very simple. We ourselves don’t want somebody else to use our body, to be killed for food. We don’t want to suffer. In exactly the same way, why not all others? Animals, insects, they don’t want to suffer. We can see that when we touch their bodies, they have such fear.
Animals can’t speak. They can’t demonstrate in the road or proclaim their position on TV or in newspapers. They can’t parade with placards and loudspeakers. They have no power at all. Animals are powerless, totally in human hands, to be used like toilet paper. It’s so pitiful. People have little concern about their feelings. Their mind is not open at all. That is really so bad.
Learning the Buddha’s teachings makes people understand. It emphasizes the need to generate compassion for all sentient beings. People have to understand the suffering of other sentient beings as the teachings explain.
I’m thinking of writing a book about Western food especially for Tibetans, for their monasteries, including Sera. Generally Tibetans from Tibet are very used to eating meat because nomads ate it and that’s what we did before, with the Bön religion and with shamanism, or black Bönpo. Meat eating was common before Buddhism came. This book will explain how to make tasty, nutritious vegetarian food and will contain many photographs to make it easy for the monks and nuns to be vegetarian. If the food is not tasty they will go back to being non-vegetarians because they are so used to eating meat. And I will also explain the meditation to do while cooking, cleaning and so forth so that everything becomes Dharma.
This precious human life is more precious than a wish-granting jewel
Phagpa Pawo99 was a very famous, learned Hindu yogi, a sadhu who became Buddhist after going to Mount Kailash and then became a great, learned Buddhist pandit. He said,
Because of ignorance you fail to collect even a fraction of the treasury of merit and after this life enter the house of unceasing suffering. You are like a businessman who travels to the land of wish-granting jewels but comes home empty-handed.
Due to ignorance we do not collect even a tiny amount of merit and then, when we pass into the next life, we “enter the house of unceasing suffering.” Because we have not met the Dharma we create nonvirtue, which brings the result of suffering, instead of experiencing happiness, which is the result of virtue. Entering the house of unceasing suffering means being reborn into the suffering of the lower realms in general and the suffering of the hell realms in particular. This is the general meaning.
He continues that this is like a businessman who goes to a land of wish-granting jewels, where he could pick up as many wish-granting jewels as he wanted, but he is not aware of this and as a result returns home empty-handed. If we are ignorant of the Dharma, if we fail to practice the Dharma, it is exactly like that. We do not know the Buddha’s teachings exist in the world or we have a closed mind toward them, so we neither learn nor practice. That is just like arriving in the land of wish-granting jewels, not being aware they are there and returning home empty-handed.
In his Letter to a Disciple, Chandragomin said,
With this perfect human rebirth that you have received you can be free from the oceans of samsaric suffering and furthermore you can plant the seeds of virtue for supreme enlightenment. Because of this exalted quality, this human body is much more valuable than a wish-granting jewel. Knowing this, who would dare not make use of this precious human body?
We have not only a human rebirth but a perfect human rebirth. Without this great quality we would have to suffer not just once but numberless times in each of the realms of samsara: the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm, the animal realm, the human realm and the god realm. With a perfect human rebirth we can free ourselves from the oceans of suffering rebirths and also plant the seeds of virtue of supreme enlightenment, the total purification of all obscurations and the total actualization of all realizations.
Because our human rebirth has this precious extra quality that allows us to do all that, it is like a wish-granting jewel that allows us to obtain whatever material comforts of this life we want but is unable to purify the causes of the lower realms or create the causes for a higher rebirth. Therefore this human body is so special; it is much more precious than a wish-granting jewel, and not just one wish-granting jewel but the whole sky filled with wish-granting jewels. Even if we were to have all that it would be nothing special; it could not bring us all the benefits that a perfect human rebirth can. Therefore, Chandragomin asked, knowing this to be so, who would dare use this perfect human body for meaningless things?
Having been born at a time when the Dharma has spread, we must practice the unmistaken Dharma, otherwise we will be exactly like the businessman returning from the land of wish-granting jewels empty-handed.
When I check up on one day of my life, this is what I see: I get up with ignorance and attachment to this life, dress with ignorance and attachment to this life, go to the bathroom and wash with ignorance and attachment to this life and so forth. That is my motivation—not a Dharma motivation but a worldly one.
Attachment to this life is the main motivation for everything we do; we do not have a Dharma motivation. In the same way, we eat breakfast with the nonvirtuous thought, attachment to this life. We do everything with a totally nonvirtuous motivation. Eating breakfast becomes not holy Dharma but worldly dharma. In the same way, our motivation for going to work is attachment to this life. We have no Dharma motivation, not even to benefit our future lives or to achieve liberation from samsara. However many hours of work we do, because of our motivation, they all become nonvirtuous; our work does not become Dharma.
Eating lunch with the eight worldly dharmas, with attachment to this life, cannot become Dharma. However many hours we spend over lunch, every second of eating or drinking becomes nonvirtue, the cause of the lower realms. Similarly, we eat dinner with the same motivation, attachment to this life, and so that also becomes nonvirtuous. It does not become holy Dharma.
Going to sleep is the same; again, we do it for the pleasure of this life. At the beginning there’s no virtuous thought, no Dharma motivation, so however many hours of comfortable, deep sleep we get, it all becomes nonvirtue.
Even trying to do some Dharma activity like saying mantras or prayers fails to become Dharma. Our motivation is the same, the wish for the pleasure of this life, therefore our so-called Dharma activity actually becomes non-Dharma. Such motivation can make even Dharma study a worldly concern. Learning more Dharma in order to teach may not be to benefit others but for reputation and power.
If you are like me, when you check on your day you can see that because of your worldly motivation, all the activities of your body, speech and mind throughout the whole day and night have been completely nonvirtuous. And having collected no virtue in this life, only nonvirtue, the result is that in your next life, leave aside not attaining another human rebirth, you won’t even hear the sound of a human voice for many eons. Once your life in the lower realms has started, because your negative karma has not been purified, because you failed to practice Dharma, you will never hear another pleasant sound.
And if I commit no wholesome deeds (there),
But readily amass much wrongdoing,
Then for a hundred million eons
I shall not even hear the words “a happy life.”100
This time, with this human body, it should be different. We have a different body, a different life, a different way of thinking from the animals, so it should be different. But since there is no Dharma in our life, there is no real difference between the animals and us. Our mind is the same as that of animals and insects in that we are all only working for this life. The only difference is that this time we don’t have horns or a tail. But besides not having a tail or horns, we are no different at all from the animals and insects.
To use the traditional examples, if we have a boat capable of crossing a river or an ocean, we should use it. Or, if a group of heroes ready to help us destroy an enemy has gathered, we should use it. That of course does not mean to harm others, which is what normal people do in the world. Here it means knowing the Dharma, using it to subdue the mind. The enemy is the inner enemy; there is no external enemy. If we have anger, delusion and so forth in our mind—the inner enemy—we will always have external enemies. If there is no inner enemy, there can be no external enemy.
Killing the inner enemy of anger is like killing all external enemies.
When you have heat, water and fertilizer you must plant your crops;
When you have a skillful horse you must take the opportunity to travel to distant places.
Killing the inner enemy of anger is like killing all external enemies; if we have no anger we can have no external enemies. Therefore we must practice Dharma while we have the opportunity. This is analogous to the need to plant crops whenever the right conditions come together: heat and water and fertilizer.
There is also the analogy of the skillful horse. If we are lucky enough to have a skillful horse we should take the opportunity to travel to faraway places. Of course, these days we can go by car or plane. But anyway, this is really the time to do our best, to make our life most beneficial for sentient beings as well as ourselves by learning Dharma, knowing Dharma and practicing Dharma.
While our cow is giving milk, we must milk her. We must not just waste the opportunity by not taking it. Whenever opportunities present themselves we should take them, otherwise they will just be wasted. These are all examples. When in the land of wish-granting jewels, take them.
Due to past merit we have received this precious human rebirth, with its five senses intact. Furthermore we have met the Buddha’s teachings, we have met a guru, a virtuous friend, and we have every opportunity to practice Dharma. Now is the time. This is the time for us to make our mind free, to develop contentment and inner happiness, to overcome our confusion and problems. While at present we might be experiencing much disturbance and suffering because of our attachment, we can replace all that with peace and happiness. We must practice Dharma to achieve the happiness of all future lives all the way up to liberation and enlightenment. There is no other way.
We must prepare for the next life
To be able to practice Dharma we must decide we want to practice Dharma, and to do that we must think about death. Otherwise, we might feel that practicing Dharma is good but put it off until the “right” moment, until next year or the year after that or the year after that. We postpone it until we think we will have some free time or until we have earned our first billion dollars. I’m joking! But life becomes like that. We delay practicing Dharma until next year, and then it is the next year and then the year after that and so on. We think, “When I’m free,” or “When I’m well,” or something like that.
By thinking like this our fortune, our good luck to practice Dharma stops. We delay and delay and delay and then it is gone. We either have problems to deal with or else we are sick or there is some other hindrance and then…death! Then our opportunity has gone.
This sense that we have plenty of time before we need to think about death is common to all of us. We plan on living for many more years—forever, in fact. People are still thinking like that on the day they die, even five minutes before their death. For most people, death happens while they are planning on living for many more years.
Now our life is so good. However, it is like a dream. We are unbelievably fortunate that we have not died yet. We are so fortunate but, while we have yet to start practicing Dharma, our life is passing by in distraction. In order to persuade our mind to practice Dharma we need to think that we are constantly coming closer to death, all the time, day and night, morning, afternoon, evening and night, closer and closer and closer to death.
Like a condemned criminal,
With each step you come closer and closer
To your executioner.
A human being’s life is like that.101
We are like a convict who is about to be executed. We are in the custody of the police, being led to the place of execution, and each step we take is a step closer to death. All human beings are like this. This is a human’s life. There are only a certain number of breaths left, a certain number of seconds left until death. Life is constantly diminishing, constantly finishing; we are rushing so quickly to death.
We must not cheat ourselves. We really need to practice Dharma, to integrate the lam-rim into our life and practice the root of the path to enlightenment, correctly following the guru, and on that basis cultivate renunciation, bodhicitta and the right view of emptiness as a preparation for tantra. Then, when death happens, there will be no regrets; we will be happy.
If we can live with a good heart, living our life for other sentient beings, we will experience great joy and happiness when we die. Then, in our next life, we will be of even greater benefit to sentient beings. In that way, we go to enlightenment.
Which will come first, tomorrow or the next life?
If when I have a chance to live a wholesome life
My actions are not wholesome,
Then what shall I be able to do
When confused by the misery of the lower realms?102
If we don’t practice Dharma now, when death suddenly comes and we have gone to the lower realms, what can we do at that time? In their previous lives, even hungry ghosts or animals such as spiders or ants might have been billionaires in a rich country. From living in a house worth many billions of dollars they become crickets. Can you imagine it? This can happen.
If we were to be born in hell with the most unbelievable suffering, what could we do at that time? Nothing. Every hope would be gone, finished. Because we did not practice when we had the chance it would be too late. Our life and death would be over and our rebirth in the lower realms already begun.
A tiny fire spark from hell is sixty times hotter than all the fire of the human world put together. That is how hot it is. Compared to that, all the fire of our world is like an air conditioner, like snowflakes dropping from the sky. It’s nothing. This is also mentioned in A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.
One time I was walking up from His Holiness’s temple in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, to Tushita Retreat Centre when I saw many monkeys on the road. I thought that they have no freedom at all. They are totally under the control of karma and delusion; they have not the slightest freedom. For them, rebirth as a monkey has already happened and there is nothing they—or we—can do about it; nothing can be done to immediately change it. It has already happened and they have to finish their karma. They are dro-wa, transmigratory beings, under the control of karma and delusion.
This is true of whatever animal we look at. It has happened. Tigers are completely under the control of karma and delusion and there is no freedom at all for them. The tiger rebirth has already happened because the causes of that rebirth were not purified before, and that is because the being that is now a tiger did not meet the Dharma before. To a tiger its life is the most precious thing, but karma forces it to eat other living beings—deer, zebra and other pitiful animals—that also only want happiness and do not want any suffering whatsoever.
We have been in this situation numberless times. We have been born as a tiger in the past numberless times and have been forced to eat numberless sentient beings. In the past we have eaten every sentient being. There is no beginning to our life in samsara; our rebirths are infinite. Being reborn as a tiger and eating those pitiful animals numberless times is just one type of rebirth we have had. We have been reborn as countless different types of sentient beings and have eaten every other living being numberless times.
There is no sentient being we have not eaten. In the past, you have eaten me numberless times; I have eaten you numberless times. This might come as a big shock but that’s what has happened.
This is the same rationale as when we meditate on the kindness of the mother, how the mother has been kind to us numberless times. It is very amazing. The only thing is that we cannot remember our past lives. We don’t even remember coming from our mother’s womb or the nine months spent in her womb.
During the one-month Kopan course we do a meditation on the continuity of the consciousness where we think about how today’s consciousness comes from yesterday’s and yesterday’s comes from that of the day before and how this year’s consciousness comes from last year’s and the year before that and before that, right back to childhood, right back to when the consciousness entered the mother’s womb.
After one of these meditations a nun from Israel said she remembered coming out from her mother’s womb. But most people don’t remember even that, so how can they say that past lives do not exist? Asserting that there are no past lives because they don’t remember them, they would also have to assert that they had not existed in their mother’s womb for nine months. How could they say that? That is completely wrong, completely stupid. Everybody knows they have come from their mother’s womb.
How can we assume something has not happened just because we can’t remember it? There are so many things from this life’s childhood that we cannot remember, so using that way of thinking we would have to assert that we had never done them. Using an inability to remember as proof of something not happening is very funny logic, very strange logic.
You cannot be sure which will come first,
Tomorrow or the next life,
Therefore, do not put effort into tomorrow’s plans
But instead it is worthwhile to attend to the next life.103
We just cannot be sure which will come first, tomorrow or our next life. Because of that it is unbelievably worthwhile to work for the next life, to attend to the next life by accumulating merit to not be reborn in the lower realms. Then, if we were to die tomorrow, our work would have been done. And even if we do not die tomorrow, our work has still been done.
This is what Lama Tsongkhapa said in Lamrim Chenmo: by practicing Dharma with the thought that we might die today, if we do die we have made the preparation, and if we don’t die then we have further opportunities to collect more merit. Therefore, thinking, “I’m going to die today,” and working for future lives, practicing Dharma to benefit our future lives, is most worthwhile.
One way that the Kadampa geshes defined Dharma was that it is something that benefits future lives; something that brings happiness in future lives. If what we are practicing does not do that, it is not Dharma. Another way they defined it was that if any action of our body, speech and mind becomes an antidote to delusion, it is Dharma; if it does not become an antidote to delusion, it is not Dharma. This is how the Kadampa geshes differentiated between what is Dharma and what is not.
Renounce this life
One day Dromtönpa, Lama Atisha’s translator, was walking in the forest near Reting Monastery when he saw an old man circumambulating the temple. When he asked the old man what he was doing he said, “I’m circumambulating.” Gyalwa Dromtönpa replied, “It’s good that you are circumambulating, but wouldn’t it be better if you practiced Dharma?” After a while the old man reconsidered and thought that reading texts might be what Dromtönpa meant, so he sat down and started doing that.
Dromtönpa came upon him again and asked, “What are you doing?” to which the old man replied, “I’m reading texts.” Dromtönpa said, “It’s good that you are reading texts, but wouldn’t it better if you practiced Dharma?” Then the old man thought that maybe meditating is what he meant by Dharma so he sat down and started meditating.
Again Dromtönpa came upon him and asked, “What are you doing?” and again the old man replied, “I’m meditating.” Dromtönpa said, “It’s good that you are meditating, but wouldn’t it be better if you practiced Dharma?” Only then did the old man ask, “What do you mean by practicing Dharma?” Gyalwa Dromtönpa replied, “Renounce this life!”
The meaning of “renounce this life” is huge. Not renouncing this life is where all our difficulties come from—all our negative emotions, all our breakdowns, all our relationship problems and all the rest. All our problems come from attachment to this life.
All the obstacles to practicing Dharma—delaying practicing Dharma, not wanting to practice Dharma, wrong concepts, laziness, all these things—come from the attachment clinging to this life. That is the root of all the disease, mental pain and other problems in the world; all the problems that people pay psychologists for. People go to see psychologists and it is so expensive. People pay and pay and build debt on debt. It’s never-ending.
The root of this is attachment; all the other problems spread out from there, like branches spreading out from the main trunk of a tree. Like this, from the root problem, all of life’s problems spread out—so many problems, all kinds of problems, anger, pride and so forth.
So when Gyalwa Dromtönpa told the old man to renounce this life he meant to renounce attachment to this life. That means renouncing the attachment that brings with it so many expectations, which in turn cause us to work so hard to try to fulfill those expectations. From that come worry and fear and all the diseases of body and mind. So when we renounce this, we renounce all the other problems. Therefore, if we are able to practice Dharma, to renounce this life, there is so much inner peace and happiness in our life.
When the root has been cut, all the branches stop growing. We see in Milarepa’s life story how he developed incredible peace and happiness from just this basic practice of renouncing this life, without talking about his tantric realizations.
Probably many people think that renouncing this life means throwing off your clothes and running around naked in the forest or the street. Then the police take you to prison. Of course, it’s not like that. It’s important to understand how renouncing this life means renouncing this life’s problems. If we can think like that, it is a huge solution. That is what Dharma practice is. If we practice like that, we are practicing Dharma purely; if we don’t, what we are doing might outwardly look like Dharma practice but in reality it won’t be. We’ll just be practicing attachment to this life. That is the first cause of all the confusion, all the fear, all the desire, all the problems of life.
Another thing to understand is how the fundamental suffering of this life comes from the eight worldly dharmas. There are four desirable objects—receiving comfort, receiving material things, receiving reputation and receiving praise—and four undesirable objects that are the opposites of those. The four undesirable objects are what we don’t want to happen.104
When the four undesirable objects happen or the four desirable objects do not happen, we get angry and many problems arise. We become unhappy and our life goes down. Then when we get the four desirable objects, our life goes up—we feel happy, but in reality it is the suffering of attachment. Our mind has a very uptight quality. Just as we cannot remove oil from paper once it’s soaked into it, when our mind gets attached to an object it’s almost impossible to separate the attachment from it. This causes a sickness of the mind that brings much mental pain. And we have suffered from this chronic disease since beginningless rebirths.
So, whatever happens, we suffer. We feel elated when we get the four desirable objects but suffer with attachment, with so much pain. When we experience the four undesirable objects, our life goes down and again we experience great suffering.
Renouncing attachment to this life means having neither attachment to desirable objects nor aversion to undesirable ones. In our mind, both desirable and undesirable objects have been equalized and we have no expectations. At present, our life is full of the expectations that arise from the eight worldly dharmas. Working for this and working for that keeps us busy all the time. However long we live, even a hundred years, our whole life is spent like that, creating countless expectations and fears.
By renouncing this life we renounce our attachment and confusion, which are in the nature of ignorance. We see the pain that attachment for desirable objects and the wish to be separated from undesirable objects brings and, not wanting that pain, we free our mind from it. Like that, we have neither the ups nor the downs of having one of the four desirable or four undesirable objects. So, you can see how much peace we can have in our heart when we really practice Dharma.
Also, practicing Dharma is not only for the shrine room or the temple; it’s not only reciting mantras. Practicing Dharma really means having the huge determination to give up attachment to this life, which brings incredible peace. Renunciation of this life is the basis. All other realizations naturally come from this: renunciation of samsara, realization of bodhicitta and direct perception of emptiness, followed by the realizations of the tantric path. So this is just to give you an idea what Dharma practice actually means.
It is inappropriate to enjoy myself,
Thinking that today alone I shall not die,
For inevitably the time will come
When I shall become nothing.105
When we think we’re not going to die we become very lazy. We sit back comfortably and do nothing. That is not practicing Dharma; that is not worthwhile, because, as Shantideva pointed out, at some time we will be gone, we will no longer exist. This will happen without doubt and it can even happen today. So, it is much better to practice Dharma—to purify negative karma and collect merit; to work to actualize the lam-rim and make preparations for all happiness up to enlightenment; and to become enlightened in order to free sentient beings from the oceans of samsaric suffering and bring them to full enlightenment.
86 The festival (the third great deed) was established in 1409. The Maitreya statue (the first great deed) was renovated during Tibetan New Year in 1400, during the time Lama Tsong- khapa was doing his long retreat at Wolka ; Dzinchi is not far from there, in the general region of Lake Lhamo Latsho. The other two great deeds were giving an extensive Vinaya teaching with Jetsun Rendawa and Kyabchog Pal Zangpo at Namtse Deng in 1402, thereby revitalizing the monastic tradition (the second great deed), and constructing Ganden Monastery, which was completed in 1410 (the fourth great deed). [Return to text]
87 Tibetan New Year’s day, determined by the lunar calendar, it usually falls in February or March. See fpmt.org for more details. [Return to text]
88 Tib: Chö-trul Dü-chen. [Return to text]
89 A prayer of prostration, offering , refuge and a request for blessings containing several epithets of the Buddha: La ma tön pa chom dän dä de zhin sheg pa dra chom pa yang dag par dzog pä sang g yä päl g yäl wa shakya thub pa la/chhag tshäl lo chhö do kyab su chhi wo/jin g yi lab tu söl. [Return to text]
90 Tib: trag-trig. In the Tibetan system the large numbers are as follows: 100,000, bum; 1 million, sa-ya; 10 million, je-wa; 100 million, dung-chur; 1,000 million (US billion), ter-bum; 10 billion, ter-bum-chen-po; 100 billion, trag-trig; 1 trillion (Euro billion), trag-trig chen-po. See Teachings from the Vajrasattva Retreat, p. 531. See also “Tibetan numbers” at LamaYeshe.com. [Return to text]
91 The ten-ma goddesses are the twelve guardian deities of the Gelug tradition, associated with Palden Lhamo. [Return to text]
92 OM KRECHA RAGHANA HUM HRI SVAHA. [Return to text]
93 How to Enjoy Death: Preparing to Meet Life’s Final Challenge without Fear. Also available as a free download from fpmt.org as How to Help Your Loved Ones Enjoy Death and Go Happily to Their Next Rebirth: A Handbook by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. [Return to text]
94 Published as Practicing Five Powers Near the Time of Death. [Return to text]
95 Available from the Foundation Store as the Liberation Box: Tools for a Fortunate Rebirth. [Return to text]
96 See also The Perfect Human Rebirth: Freedom and Richness on the Path to Enlightenment, p. 115. [Return to text]
97 These are the three ways to understand the rarity of the perfect human rebirth: by numbers, by cause and by example. [Return to text]
98 Rinpoche is referring to his stay in hospital after manifesting a stroke in Bendigo, Australia, April 2011. [Retun to text]
99 Also called (Tib:) Lobpön Pawo, (Skt:) Ashvaghosha or Aryashura, a second-century Indian master renowned for his scholarship and poetry ; author of Fifty Verses of Guru Devotion. [Return to text]
100 A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Ch. 4, v. 19. [Return to text]
101 The Tibetan Dhammapada, Ch. 1, v. 14. [Return to text]
102 Ch. 4, v. 18. [Return to text]
103 Also quoted in Liberation, p. 311. No source given. [Return to text]
104 See Rinpoche’s How to Practice Dharma for extensive teachings on the eight worldly dharmas. [Return to text]
105 Guide, Ch. 2, v. 58. [Return to text]