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And speaking of India, I mentioned in our last e-letter that I was going to Dharamsala for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings on the Four Interwoven Annotations, four lamas’ commentaries on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo. Well, as you might imagine, it was wonderful to be there, my first time back in Dharamsala since 1986. His Holiness didn’t give that much commentary on the text—it’s huge!—but basically gave the oral transmission. And so that we non-Tibetans wouldn’t get too bored, His Holiness’s interpreter read the entire three-volume English translation of the Lamrim Chenmo, while those who had FM radios listened in and those who had the books followed along. After the teachings we celebrated His Holiness’s 70th birthday and he was offered a long life puja.
Anyway, a picture’s worth 1,000 words, so if you’d like to see some photos from the trip taken by my wife, Wendy Cook, please go to Snapfish, and log in with email address visitor@LamaYeshe.com, password dharma. [Note: these photos are no longer available for viewing on Snapfish.]
And speaking of Dharamsala, our teaching this month is excerpted from Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s “mind retreat” teachings given to students doing Vajrasattva group retreat at Tushita Retreat Centre, Dharamsala, June-July 1982, which took place right after the IMI sangha Guhyasamaja group retreat following the First Enlightened Experience Celebration (EEC1). If you’d like to read the whole teaching, please go here.
In this teaching, Rinpoche talks about his scorpions, and since I was there with him at the time, reading all this again took me right back. After EEC1 finished, Lama Yeshe took off for Tibet and parts beyond, leaving Lama Zopa Rinpoche in retreat, with me and the Kopan monk cooking for him the only two people allowed to talk to him. I was supposed to be doing some editing work with Rinpoche, but that’s another story.
Anyway, at some point a scorpion came into Rinpoche’s room, and he carefully rescued it and put it on his altar in a large bowl with slippery sides that the scorpion couldn’t scale. To make it feel more at home we stuck a couple of small rocks into the bowl. Somehow (probably my big mouth) the Vajrasattva retreat students found out that “Rinpoche was collecting scorpions,” and the great scorpion hunt was on. It wasn’t too hard; there were loads of them…under every rock. The first two were put into the bowl with the first but the next day the winner had stung the others to death, so after that each scorpion got its own bowl. And they had to be fed milk, as Rinpoche explains in the teaching.
What Rinpoche didn’t go on to say (and it might have happened after he gave this teaching) was that one day he asked his young cook to feed the scorpions. The cook thought that the best way to deliver milk to the scorpions was via a small funnel that he had. Unfortunately, it was the same funnel that he used for delivering kerosene to the stove, and the next day all the scorpions lay dead in their bowls. This was a little heartbreaking for Rinpoche, but he said that before we left Dharamsala for Kopan, which we were about to do, he’d do a puja to purify the scorpions, so they remained on his altar awaiting that.
As usual, everything prior to departure was very last minute and we were rushing down the hill to get the taxi to Pathankot to get the train to Delhi when Rinpoche turned to me and said, “Oh, the scorpions didn’t get purified.” I think I must have given Rinpoche one of those “don’t even think about it” looks, because he quickly said, “But that’s OK, I can do it from Kopan.”
I don’t recall if that happened either. In Rinpoche’s room at Kopan there was an ant situation. But that, too, is another story.
You should feel happy frequently that you have the opportunity to do this retreat. When you have some suffering such as a stomach or some other problem relate it to the suffering of others. You find even such a small pain unbearable and disturbing to your mind. Then think of others who are much worse off than you are. Remember the sufferings of the hell-beings, hungry ghosts, animals, and other human beings. Think of sick people in hospital who do not have one small problem but many problems and are experiencing great pain.
Think of a wounded dog, for example—a skinny dog with broken legs. You might not get much feeling if you think of a cute, pampered puppy. In certain frames of mind you might even feel, “I have too many problems as a human being. If I was a pup, I would have no responsibility, no problems.” It is possible to think this way. Or to think that you would like to be a beautiful butterfly.
Or think of lobsters waiting to be killed in a restaurant. Think of the crabs and lobsters piled up in shops; they are still breathing and moving round a little. Think of snakes or scorpions—you find many scorpions here. Think of a scorpion and ask yourself, “Do I want to become like that? If I had such a body, would I be happy or not? How would it be?” It would be disgusting, of course. You would not want to be like that for even a second. Without talking about other sufferings, just consider having such a terrifying body. Nobody wants to see or touch a scorpion. People even run away when they see a scorpion or kick it out of the room.
I now have three or four scorpions here, and I find them very helpful for my mind. These scorpions, these mother sentient beings, our own mothers in past lives, didn’t know that they were going to be born as scorpions. They didn’t plan to be born as scorpions. Taking a scorpion’s body is the complete opposite to their wish in their past life. It’s never what they wanted, but out of ignorance, without choice, they have been born like this. Either they didn’t know about karma or had no faith in karma, or even if they had some understanding of karma—perhaps they were a human being who heard some Dharma—they didn’t put it into action. They were careless and didn’t protect themselves from negative karma. Without choice, without the slightest wish from their side to be born like this, they then had to take the body of a scorpion.
Just by thinking like this you can see how incredibly pitiful sentient beings are. If they had deliberately taken their rebirth, that would be something else; but without any wish or control, they end up with such a terrifying body. The more ugly or terrifying the body, the more the animal becomes an object of compassion. Animals that look ugly or terrifying are objects that nobody wants; people, and other animals, renounce them as objects of compassion and kill them or throw them out. This makes the animal more of an object of compassion.
I don’t know whether scorpions have ears or not. I know that they recognize milk, because the first scorpion came to drink milk many times. He looks very pitiful when it drinks milk, with his claws down in the milk. They might recognize the milk because I sometimes put some milk on their body. I asked the meditator Gen Jampa Wangdu what food scorpions eat. He said that they are classified as nagas, so they might eat white food. This is why I tried milk, and it worked. I haven’t tried it yet with tsampa.
You can think that by doing this number of weeks or days of Vajrasattva practice—or even one session—you have purified so many negative karmas that you have accumulated in the past, the results of which you do not wish to experience—for example, the suffering body of an animal body. If I hadn’t done this purification, I would definitely have to experience these results in the future. Feel happy at the thought that you have purified so many thousands, millions, of these negative karmas.
The main subject I planned to speak on from the beginning was mental retreat, the fundamental retreat, rather than on rituals.
I find the following quotation very effective for the mind. It is advice given to the great yogi Luipa, one of the lineage lamas of the Heruka Chakrasamvara teachings, when Luipa saw Heruka. It is a short verse, but it contains the essence of the lam-rim and of the tantric path.
Give up stretching the legs
And give up being a servant to samsara.
Vajrasattva, the great king, persuades us to do this again and again.
This is not saying that you cannot sleep during retreat; that you can’t lie down and stretch out your legs at night. This is not the advice that Heruka is giving the great yogi Luipa. The actual meaning of “give up stretching the legs” is to give up allowing the mind to be controlled by the evil thought of the eight worldly dharmas, which seeks only the comfort of this life. For example, when we study or meditate, we can’t stretch our legs if we are with other people, but if we are alone and we start to feel a little tired, the thought of the worldly dharmas, the thought of seeking comfort, arises, and because our mind follows that thought, we find it very easy to physically “stretch the legs.” We can very easily miss sessions or even our commitments, and spend our whole time sleeping, which is completely stretching the legs. This is a great waste of time, because in those hours we could have made our life highly meaningful. We have missed all that great benefit. The fundamental mistake is allowing our mind under the control of the evil thought of the worldly dharmas.
In our daily life the reason that the four actions—eating, walking, sleeping, and sitting—and all our other actions do not become Dharma is that our mind is under the control of the eight worldly dharmas. And even when we try to practice Dharma by doing a retreat or performing a particular Dharma action, it is very difficult for our action to become pure Dharma. Again, this is because of the evil thought of the eight worldly dharmas. Even when we try to practice Dharma purely, it does not become pure Dharma because of this thought. This is why our everyday actions of washing, talking, and so forth do not become Dharma, do not becomes ways to make our life highly meaningful.
In this way we waste our life. We waste one day, one week, one month, one year, until we have wasted our whole life. If we count up, like making a bill, all the time that we really made our life highly meaningful, the total is very small. Most of our life is wasted. Even when we try to practice Dharma, our actions do not become Dharma, apart from some exceptional actions that do become Dharma, but not pure Dharma. Our greatest enemy, the one that makes us waste our life, however, is the evil thought of worldly dharma, which is contained in the expression “stretching the legs.” Heruka’s advice to “give up stretching the legs” means that if we wish to have temporary and ultimate happiness, we have to give up the evil thought of worldly dharma.
Therefore, the very first fundamental retreat is retreating from the evil thought of the worldly dharmas. And this applies to whatever retreat we do, whether it is an Action Tantra retreat or a Highest Yoga Tantra retreat. Since we are doing the retreat to achieve this goal of temporary and ultimate happiness, we need to make the retreat we are doing a real cause for that result, which means it has to be a retreat from the thought of worldly dharma. If we do not make our retreat a retreat from worldly dharma, it doesn’t really matter what else we do in our retreat place. Even if we put hundreds of signs saying “Silence” and “Do not disturb” outside our retreat place, if we are not retreating from this very first thing, the eight worldly dharmas, we are not actually doing retreat. Even if we are experiencing no external disturbances from people making noise and other things, we are not actually doing retreat, and our recitation of mantra and other activities inside our retreat house do not become Dharma, since are not doing retreat from the worldly dharmas. And as I mentioned before, even our general actions do not become Dharma.
If we do just this very first retreat, however, not only the particular Dharma actions that we perform, but every action we do becomes Dharma. An effective way to give up stretching the legs, to give up the evil thought of worldly dharma, is to think about perfect human rebirth (the freedoms and ten richnesses; the usefulness of it, and the difficulty in receiving one again) and impermanence and death, especially that the time of death is indefinite. In other words, it is effective to meditate on the graduated path of the being of lower capability.
If you are doing a Guhyasamaja or Heruka retreat, for example, regardless of whether you are able to meditate in the clear light during sleep, visualize that you are woken by the sound of the four dakinis singing to you. During a Heruka retreat, you are advised to think that the four dakinis, who are embodiments of the four immeasurable thoughts, wake you by singing a short song about emptiness, which persuades you to practice Dharma. The four dakinis then absorb into your heart. However, you can also think that Heruka is giving you the same verse of advice that he gave to the great yogi Luipa.
From your side, you then make the determination not to waste your life by following the evil thought of worldly dharma, which prevents your actions from becoming Dharma. Think, “From now until my death, this year, this month, this week, and especially today, I will not allow myself to be controlled by the evil thought of worldly dharma.” Make this determination to accomplish this very first retreat, the retreat from the evil thought of worldly dharma.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave this teaching to students doing the Vajrasattva group retreat at Tushita Retreat Centre, Dharamsala, June-July 1982. Edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron. Read the entire teaching here.