E-letter No. 21: December 2004

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal 1973 (Archive #027)
Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe, Lake Arrowhead, 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.

Dear Friends,

Welcome to our final newsletter of the year. Not necessarily a great year from several points of view, but for those of us who have met the precious Dharma, a pure spiritual teacher to guide us along the path and wonderful Dharma friends, it is still the best of times.

I thought I’d share with you Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s card from the international office of his (and our parent) organization, the FPMT. 

And in the spirit of the love, kindness and compassion that are supposed to characterize this season, I thought I’d also share with you my recent experience of visiting the PETA website, at www.peta.org. I’m not sure exactly why it has taken me so long (I’ve been at this more than thirty years), but after viewing the various undercover videos showing the merciless beating of pigs bound for slaughter, little chickens having their beaks cut off, the barbaric “mulesing” of lambs in Australia, and especially the film taken at the kosher AgriProcessors plant, where they tear out the throats of live cattle, I have definitely gone vegetarian. I’m not going to describe the horrifying brutality these videos show—if you’re interested you can see for yourself—but for me they were the last straw. The topic of vegetarianism among Tibetan Buddhists is a hot one, so I’m going to leave it at that, except to say the following.

Earlier this year, Khen Rinpoche Lama Lhundrup of Kopan Monastery asked FPMT students to go vegetarian for as much of this year as they could and to dedicate the lives saved to the long life and health of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. He said that His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Private Office was encouraging all Tibetans to go vegetarian and to dedicate the lives saved to the long lives of their gurus, and that all the monks and nuns at Kopan were going to comply. As a result, FPMT students pledged tens of thousands of vegetarian days and some fifty students became vegetarian for life. So if, like me, you are finally moved by the dreadful suffering that slaughtered animals undergo to become vegetarian for so many days or for life, please dedicate the lives you save the long lives of your gurus. Thank you.


And thank you so much to those of you who responded to our end-of-year appeal, which we sent out by mail and in our previous e-letter. If you have not yet made a 2004 tax-deductible donation, there’s still time! Please go to our website and make your contribution to the free spread of Dharma throughout the world for the benefit of all sentient beings. It is only through your generous help that we can publish books for free distribution—some 250,000 in print so far; target: 1 million!

And leaving the best for last, as usual, we’re very happy to bring you another previously unpublished teaching by our great teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Thanks again for your kind support, all the best for 2005 and please let me know if I can do anything for you.

Love, compassion, bliss and wisdom,

Nick Ribush

Refuge and the Guru Omniscient Mind

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching in Singapore, 2010. Photo by Kunsang Thubten (Henri Lopez).At the moment, for us, it is more definite that we will be reborn in the lower suffering realms than in the upper suffering, but relatively happier, realms. And the actual time that we will be born in the lower suffering realms is not definite. We have definitely created the karma to be born in the narak, preta and animal realms—not just once or twice but in many previous lives. So, if we don’t do something about the negative karma we have created and don’t stop creating more, we will definitely be reborn in the three lower suffering realms.

So, as at this moment we are fortunate—fortunate that we haven’t yet met the time to be born there and suffer…let’s say that right at this moment the time to suffer has arrived: how strongly would we desire to find refuge, to avoid that suffering? But should that happen, nobody can rescue us, nobody could save us, because the power of karma and the power of Buddha are equal. So if the moment of death had arrived and we were about to start suffering in the lower realms, just imagine how strongly we would desire to take refuge.

But even if with such a strong desire to seek refuge, there’d be no savior; at that time there’d be nobody to save us from suffering. If at that time we suffering beings sought a savior or refuge in all ten directions, we wouldn’t be able to find one. Our time to practice the method would have finished; we’d have no means. At that critical time the method would be inaccessible.

Therefore, thinking of this, thinking of such an uncontrolled, miserable situation—even if there were the desire to seek refuge, there’d be no savior; the power of karma is very strong—before that time arrives, we need to be clever, skillful and careful. So the way to be careful not to be reborn in those suffering realms is to right now take refuge in the holy objects that can save us from the danger of rebirth in the suffering realms.

No matter how much power our family or government have, they cannot save us from such danger. Even if all the countries on Earth were to become one powerful country, they’d still not have the power to save us from such danger. The only holy objects that can save us from the danger of the suffering of the lower realms are the three holy objects of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Those holy objects will never cheat or betray us— when we follow or take refuge in them they will never cause us any problem. Another way of describing these objects of refuge is founder, method, and helper—Buddha, founder; Dharma, method; Sangha, helper to achieve the method. The way to be careful and clever is to seek refuge ahead of time, before the danger arises.

It is also necessary not to make mistakes when seeking refuge. It is extremely important to find a perfect holy object in which to take refuge. It is necessary for our object of refuge to be perfect and holy and not a misleader. Misleaders lead us to suffering—misleaders lead and people follow with the expectation of peace, but what they receive is suffering. It should not be like that—our refuge object should not be a misleader, the founder of a wrong method or a wrong helper.

So first, it is extremely important to seek the right object, one into whose hands you can safely put your life. It is necessary to check how this works—does it release or guide you from such dangers as the sufferings of the lower realms? And it is important to check whether the method is perfect or not, whether the method has perfect power to guide you from those dangers. Discovering this depends on the founder—on whether the founder is perfect or not, on whether the founder has achieved that power or not, whether he is living in that power or not. Because whatever power the method has must come from the founder’s experience—does the founder have the power that the method has?

So before committing your whole life to and completely relying on that method, you have to check the founder—has he achieved the power to guide you from sufferings such as those of the three lower realms? You must check the founder’s qualities and achievements.

Anyway, to make it brief, with respect to a being such as Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, there’s not one tiny danger in taking refuge in or completely relying on an enlightened being like him because he is a true founder—he has achieved all power, knowledge and compassion and we can achieve the same things through practicing his methods.

How can it be proved that Guru Shakyamuni has achieved all power, infinite knowledge and compassion; that he has the perfect ability to guide us from danger—not only temporal suffering but also the great danger of the suffering of the three lower realms? This has been proven by his followers, those who achieved the same great power, knowledge and compassion as he did by correctly following the methods he showed. Furthermore, the third generation of followers also attained the same power, knowledge and compassion. So this proves that Guru Shakyamuni was a true founder—the third generation followers achieved the same things that the second generation followers—those who achieved enlightenment after Guru Shakyamuni—did. This is how it proven—through experience, not just through words. Therefore, Guru Shakyamuni is a true founder.

Why he is a true founder? It’s because his teaching is a true teaching; because the method he showed is a true method, a pure method. It’s not like, something is up there, buddha is up there, somewhere in the sky, without any explanation. It’s not that whatever is there has no explanation of how it came to be, how it happened, with no explanation of its qualities, something that we ourselves cannot become. It’s not like that.

The holy mind, Guru Shakyamuni, Buddha—so far these are the names we know, but actually, there are many epithets for the Buddha, such as those found in the Guru Shakyamuni Buddha prayer:

LAMA guru TÖN-PA founder
CHOM-DÄN-DÄ destroyer (of all ignorance, suffering), possessor (of all realisations), passed (to the other shore)
DE-ZHIN SHEG-PA tathagata (suchness realised) DRA-CHOM-PA arhat (every delusion destroyed)
YANG-DAG-PAR-DZOG-PÄ perfectly completed SANG-GYÄ Buddha
PÄL-GYÄL-WA magnificent king SHAK-YA Shakya (clan) THUB-PA LA controller
CHAG-TSÄL-CHING prostrate KYAB-SU-CHI-WO go for refuge CHÖ-DO make offerings
JIN-GYI-LAB-TU-SÖL please bestow your blessings

Lama means guru; tön-pa means founder; chom-dän-dä, bhagavan; tathagata, arhat, Buddha and so forth…. So, there are all these names, but they all start from guru.

What is the actual guru? The very first name, “guru,” what is that? The actual, absolute guru is the omniscient mind, the holy omniscient mind, which can also be called Vajradhara. So that holy mind, Vajradhara, appears as Guru tön-pa chom-dän-dä de-zhin-sheg-pa dra-chom-pa...and so on, and with this prayer we are prostrating, going for refuge and making offerings to the holy omniscient mind and requesting its blessings.

Some people might think, “He’s going on too much about Guru Shakyamuni; he’s too hung up on him. There are so many different manifestations, why he doesn’t talk about something else?” But Guru Shakyamuni is just one manifestation, just one different name. Like I have many different names in different places but I am just one person. I have the name given to me by my parents, that given by the lamas who ordained me, another according to the place I come from [Lawudo Lama]. There are different names and different ways of looking at people.

For example, when a certain person used to sweep the floors of a hotel he was called a “cleaner.” Then he began to work in the dining room and became a “waiter.” Eventually he became the “manager.” As a person gets educated she’s called “student,” “tutor,” “lecturer,” “professor” and so forth, according to her occupation. So it’s the same person but the name changes according to her occupation and the way people see her. But it’s just one person, it’s all one person.

So anyway, Guru Shakyamuni is just one manifestation of the holy mind, appearing in this aspect to subdue, or control, sentient beings’ negative minds and delusions in order to enlighten them. There are numberless manifestations of the omniscient mind—their number is beyond our conception.

Some people may think, “How can I become Guru Shakyamuni, achieve Guru Shakyamuni? It is ridiculous talk, an impossible thing.” It’s not like that—it’s definitely possible. But that doesn’t mean that when you become Guru Shakyamuni he then ceases to exist. For him there is no change; there is no such time that he stops being buddha, that he passes from that stage. Even if all sentient beings were to achieve Guru Shakyamuni, he would still be enlightened. When we achieve the holy omniscient mind, we achieve Guru Shakyamuni.

However, there are many other different aspects of buddha—wrathful, peaceful and so forth. Achieving the holy omniscient mind means achieving all the buddhas, all the enlightened holy beings, because there is no such thing, no such Guru Shakyamuni, that is different from the holy omniscient mind. There is no such other enlightened being that is different or separate from the holy omniscient mind.

So, the originator is the holy omniscient mind. That appears as, or takes the manifestation of, Guru Shakyamuni. It also works for sentient beings by manifesting as Maitreya or the other future buddhas. There are four great eons in the evolution of a world system—the great eons of evolution, existence, decay and emptiness. Our world system is in the great eon of existence, during which 1,000 buddhas will descend to Earth. Like Guru Shakyamuni, the fourth, they come to reveal the teachings to sentient beings. But even though the thousand buddhas have different names, they are all simply manifestations of the holy omniscient mind. So, too, are the various deities upon whom we meditate—the holy omniscient mind manifests as peaceful and wrathful deities, different buddhas, female deities, bodhisattvas, arhats, gods and goddesses (dakas and dakinis) and protectors.

Seeing the guru in this way—as the omniscient mind—we can better understand the meaning of the prayer we often say: Lama sang-gye lama chö, de-shin lama gen-dün te, or “Guru is Buddha, guru is Dharma, guru is also Sangha…” etc.

All the buddhas that I have just mentioned are created by the guru omniscient mind, the omniscient mind that is the guru. In addition, all the different Dharmas—the realizations in the minds of the countless aspects of buddhas, bodhisattvas, arhats and protectors—are also created by the guru omniscient mind. When talking about Dharma, there are two things—scriptural Dharma and realized Dharma. Both originate from the guru omniscient mind. So, too, does Sangha, because Sangha helps us receive enlightenment by following the path. All the qualities of Sangha without exception also come from the guru omniscient mind.

The holy omniscient mind takes the manifestation of ordinary human beings as well. It shows itself in the ordinary form of human beings. Not only that but also as different kinds of animals and even spirits. It shows itself in these different forms according to the needs of different living beings, whose only way to see the holy omniscient mind is in such manifestations. Anyway, these aspects are taken or shown by the guru omniscient mind as suits the level of the particular sentient beings’ level of mind.

When manifesting in human form the guru omniscient mind can appear as a king, a beggar, as a crazy person, male, female, greedy, angry…whatever is necessary, whatever it takes to bring sentient beings closer to enlightenment. There are many examples and ancient stories illustrating this point. The ignorant sentient being may see the guru omniscient mind as a dog, a fearful spirit or a greedy person but it’s not a dog, spirit or greedy person—it’s just the enlightened being appearing like that for the benefit of the sentient beings that see it; its purpose is to release sentient beings from suffering and lead them to enlightenment.

How do those different manifestations lead sentient beings to enlightenment? Fortunate beings see the guru omniscient mind as a teacher giving teachings. Less fortunate beings see it in such a way that causes them to stop creating certain negative karmas under the influence of delusions such as pride, jealousy and so forth. If somebody is creating bad karma the guru omniscient mind can manifest a way that can cause him to lose the delusion that’s making him create that particular negative karma. The guru omniscient mind can do many things—give different influences, examples or teachings—to stop sentient beings creating negative karma, to help them diminish or lose their negative mind.

Once there was a king who thought he was the best violinist in the world and was completely crippled by pride, so Guru Shakyamuni manifested as a beggar and came to the palace playing much better violin than the king. The king then realized that he wasn’t the best, his pride subsided, his whole mind changed and Guru Shakyamuni was then able to give him teachings. As a result, he followed the path and received nirvana. This, then, is just one example.

The virtue and merit of any and all sentient beings are the action of buddha, the action of the omniscient mind. The creator of these actions is the guru omniscient mind, which manifests in different ways, shows us what we need to see, like in the example above, and treats us in different ways, according to our level of mind. The creator is the guru omniscient mind. How? It appears to us in various guises, the final aim being our attainment of enlightenment.

As soon as we complete our accumulation of merit and transcendental wisdom, we completely purify all our delusions and their imprints; when we have finished creating good karma—creating good karma does have an end—all our obscurations finish at the same time. All that accumulation and purification is the action of buddha. Like water, drop by drop, fills a big pot, in the same way, merit by merit, we fill our mind with virtue, complete our accumulation of merit and wisdom, completely purify our gross and subtle obscurations and reach enlightenment.

As the virtue we create at the present time is the action of the guru omniscient mind, similarly our future omniscient mind—the buddha we will become—is also the action of the guru omniscient mind, the action of Guru Shakyamuni and the guru omniscient mind. It is also the action of the omniscient mind of Maitreya and all the other buddhas, who are called by different names.

At present we are in the process of accumulating virtue through the kindness of the Buddha’s actions, the actions of the creator, the guru omniscient mind manifesting in different ways, in different forms, at different times. Even for the one person, it may appear in different aspects, such as animals or ordinary human beings, at different times, according to that person’s level of mind. As the virtue in the mind of the object to be subdued increases, as that person’s mind develops, his or her obscurations get thinner and thinner and at the same time the manifestation of the guru omniscient mind to that person changes; its appearance gets better and better. At first it might have been seen as crazy, ignorant and foolish, but slowly, as the object of the action of subduing—according to his or her practice and development of realizations—gets higher, the manifestation of the guru omniscient mind, the creator of that living being’s virtues, changes. Gradually it can be seen as the nirmanakaya or even the sambhogakaya, as an actual aspect of buddha. Once we reach a certain level of realization, even what appears to us now as a statue can be seen as a living enlightened being. There are many stories illustrating this.

So, as I mentioned before how the creator of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is the guru omniscient mind, in the same way, talking about ourselves, our future realizations and our future omniscient mind—our own future buddha, our realization of the meditations we do, our Dharma understanding, all our virtue—are also created by the guru omniscient mind. When we achieve the path of seeing, we attain Sangha; just as our Dharma is created by the guru omniscient mind, so too is our attainment of Sangha.

Thinking from our own side as individuals, our Buddha, Dharma and Sangha—for instance, my Buddha, Dharma and Sangha—are created by the guru omniscient mind. So just as they are created by the guru omniscient mind, in the same way they are created by not only Guru Shakyamuni but also all those different buddha manifestations. This is because without depending on the holy omniscient mind, there’s no such other buddha; there’s no way that any such other buddha can exist independently without depending on guru omniscient mind. So looking at the end result is another way of understanding how the omniscient mind guides us.

Of course, some people might find this subject very complicated, like noodle soup—long noodles, not short ones—something going here, something going there, all tangled up. But I think that if we can understand this topic it will help us make some kind of arrangement to fully realize the way things are; to clearly see, to fully recognize, reality.

At the moment, our biggest problem is that we do not fully recognize the way this evolution works. To attain enlightenment we have to solve this problem; no being has reached enlightenment without solving this problem. Therefore meditation is necessary—to solve this problem we have to meditate. Through continual meditation and purification we will eventually be able to see things fully as I have described, according to the way this evolution works.

Working sincerely to attain enlightenment is itself taking refuge, the actual way to take refuge—taking refuge in the result. There are both resultant refuge and causal refuge: resultant refuge object is our individual future buddha, the buddha we ourselves will become; causal refuge object is Guru Shakyamuni or the other manifestations of the guru omniscient mind—the creator of our virtue, knowledge and realizations of the path.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave this teaching during the Fifth Kopan Meditation Course, Kathmandu, Nepal, November 1973. Excerpted and edited by Nicholas Ribush. The entire course transcript may be found on our website.