December 22, 2021
Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, shares some of his thoughts.
Karmapa hopes that these thoughts will be a useful resource for all practitioners, and indeed anyone else who might find them of interest.
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3 November 2020
My thoughts…on envy
Isn’t it curious to see how sometimes, almost out of nowhere, we may suddenly become envious of the most unexpected things? How, out of the blue, we may develop this emotion or feeling of “I wish I had that”?
And isn’t it equally curious to observe how that envy has the potential to transform into jealousy, which then carries the risk of turning into something even more malevolent and potentially destructive – the feeling that “If I can’t have it, nobody else should have it either”?
This human condition that we currently depend on provides a platform to feel an abundance of emotions – so it is safe to say that it is natural for us to feel envy.
When we explore the emotion of envy, we see that it has no limit in terms of how far it can extend – we are capable of envying almost anything, far beyond the obvious objects of envy.
And what we sometimes overlook, is that everyone experiences envy – those at the very peak of human existence (the ones who seem to have it all), just as much as those whom we consider to be the most deprived and underprivileged people.
In short, the poor and the rich, the wealthy and powerful, and the ones lacking in the most basic needs, all experience envy, simply because they all share the human condition. All beings in samsara (a cyclic existence lived in constant fear of losing control) continuously cycle through all of these states – nobody remains rich or poor, powerful or powerless forever.
The so-called liberation that Buddhists talk about means coming out of that cycle. In accordance with the shared experiences of the Bodhisattvas, the teachings advise us that as practitioners we need to learn to ‘work with our emotions’.
So, is it possible that the envy we experience is one of these emotions that we can tap into? Is it possible that so far we haven’t tapped into this quality – our envy – which is present in the most obvious, natural way?
Maybe the only ones who have tapped into it are the Bodhisattvas, so perhaps we can learn something from them.
What does ‘tapping into our envy’ involve?
It involves, first of all, seeing that being able to experience envy is not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with us. In a way, it’s quite the opposite – it means that we are healthy, fit, alive.
But at the same time this doesn’t mean that we have to give in to it. We might even try to go that way, and end up having the most amazing trip. We will find that wherever we go, there is no way to overcome envy.
If we become rich, we will envy the poor.
If we become poor, we will envy the rich.
So we will never find satisfaction by giving in to envy, no matter how far we manage to go – just like we will never be able to quench our thirst by drinking salty water.
So how, as Buddhist practitioners, do we go about envy, when for the time being we are dependent on this human condition?
We do it by taking our particular emotion of envy as a cue, knowing that it’s part and parcel of the human state.
At this point it might be helpful to remind ourselves of the practice of equanimity.
There is a good reason why we are encouraged to practice equanimity in Buddhism: it is because we all share a most basic, deeply rooted sense and conviction of ‘this is me, these are my feelings, this is my body’ – what we commonly refer to as ‘ego’, that which makes one feel that ‘this is me’.
And if we take the time, we come to see that just as we are feeling this conviction, so are all others in exactly the same way, and in that sense there is no difference at all. So we can begin by using this conceptual logic, but just as a sort of stepping stone, in order to help us gain the direct experience and realisation that this is no fantasy; this is as real as it gets.
Let’s take a very simple, everyday example: You are in the office cafeteria with a colleague and have ordered a cup of tea, whereas she is drinking coffee. You suddenly realise that you would actually prefer to have coffee, too, but it’s too late now, because your cup of tea is already paid for and standing in front of you. (Of course you could always trash the tea and buy a coffee instead, but I feel that this would be a way of giving in to envy, rather than working with it.)
So you don’t need to reject or push away the feeling of envy, but instead let it rise and face it, and use it as a cue to give rise to happiness and appreciation in this way: you can actually enjoy your colleague drinking that coffee, because you know that person has the same condition as you. On another day, she might have ordered tea, but today it just so happens that you have ordered tea, and she is drinking the coffee. And in a way it’s almost like a load off your shoulders: you don’t have to go out of your way to drink the coffee on top of your tea; instead someone else is enjoying it for you.
Once you get into that mode of practice, then you can actually pretty much enjoy anything. In this particular instance, you might not get the full enjoyment, because you don’t get to taste the full texture of the coffee. So maybe you get only half of the concrete enjoyment of having the coffee, but beyond that, the texture of the pleasure you enjoy is actually even greater, because it opens a part of yourself where you can begin to relax.
Of course, it’s not just about the coffee – it’s about much more than that: you have opened a door to a new source of enjoyment which can be applied to almost everything: a better car, a better house, a better family, a better lifestyle – all of the assets that we might think of as parts of happiness. All of these fixtures of enjoyment and happiness, all of the lives we couldn’t even imagine, – now, with the help of this new tool, we can enjoy all of them, simply by appreciating that others are living them for us.
So we simply continue doing what humans do: it is normal for humans to enjoy life, and we can now use the emotion of envy to enjoy almost everything, in a very lazy and a carefree way, without having to work for it.
In this way, if we learn to tap into our envy and use it as a cue, it is possible to live lives beyond our imagination, all within our single human existence.
27 September 2020
My thoughts…on living the pandemic
Dear dharma friends,
These reflections, just like all the previous posts that I have shared with you over the past few months, are just my own thoughts, rather than dharma teachings that should be canonised in any way. It is a wish of mine not to water down what the realised noble ones have shared with us already in the form of the Buddha dharma.
So I hope that all of you will understand that.
Like many of you, due to the pandemic I have had plenty of time on my hands to think. I have been writing down some of my concepts, and using the various digital platforms to share them with you – simply as a way of thinking out loud, and in the hope that it might comfort you in some way.
Someone once told me “I listened to a lot of what was said and I didn’t understand a word of it actually, but for whatever reason just listening to it cheered me up enormously.” I cannot even remember now who this person was, or whom he was talking about, but it’s in that sense that I hope my thoughts have cheered you up in some way.
I’ll try to continue writing as long as thoughts come to me. Your questions are definitely a great source of inspiration. They trigger my child-like thoughts in ways I wish to explore further and verbalise.
I would also like to take this opportunity to change the original heading for this collection of my thoughts, which so far has been ‘Meditations for our Times’, a title that came up spontaneously at the beginning of the pandemic. But now that I have had some time to reflect on it, it has become clear that what I am writing and sharing is basically just my own thoughts. So this is what I would like to call this collection from now on: ‘My Thoughts’.
To get back to the topic of this post – ‘Living the pandemic’ – it seems to me that this current viral pandemic is not the only one out there. Rather, we are living with pandemics of various kinds, both mental and physical.
We can outlive them in some ways. We can find cures for them in some ways. But no matter what we do, as long as life seems to exist, challenges like these will always seem to tag along with it.
From a Buddhist point of view, when I try to pray for an end to this particular virus-related illness, I try to think in this way:
May we not only find a way to end it, may we be able to make sense of it.
I consider this pandemic as an opportunity unlike any other calamity, in that it is not man-made, like a war for instance, where we don’t have any time to think or reflect, because we are too preoccupied with simply surviving.
In contrast, while the current crisis is indeed alarming and in many cases life-threatening, it nevertheless offers most of us some time to reflect and gain some understanding, if possible.
So I pray that we may find some meaning within this situation.
In this context, I would like to say something about the virus itself. Scientists and spiritual schools have their own ways of defining living beings or sentient beings. From a Buddhist perspective, there is a distinction between living beings and sentient beings. In the case of this virus, it’s a fine line as to whether it should be considered a sentient being or not.
But whatever the case may be, the virus does show some similarity with sentient beings, in terms of how it survives and thrives. So, although I am not certain about this, the virus may have a sentient nature – a consciousness like ours – and it might just be trying to find a way to live life in this universe – just like us. So we might just want to spare a thought for these beings.
I am not trying to imply that we should become overly pious or religious and go to the extreme of giving in to the virus and throwing all caution and care overboard. I’m just suggesting that we might spare a thought for these beings, for this form of life about which we still don’t know much, other than the spiky image that all of us have become so familiar with.
Although this virus seems primitive, and in many ways so completely different from us, we might be able to recognise at least a part of ourselves in it, by way of comparison.
Just like us, it tries to find a host where it can live and reproduce. We too try to find hosts to accommodate us, according to what we think is the right way to live. So this virus might be doing just the same.
That may be something to reflect on.
For whatever reason, however, the virus’ way of living is not yet harmonious with ours, and just like this globule-like earth tries to shake us off every now and then, we are trying to do the same with the virus.
And this shaking-off instinct or reaction is not purely malevolent, I feel. This shaking-off reaction could certainly be seen as a message that implies that how we try to live, or how the virus tries to live, is not necessarily harmonious with the earth – or with us.
Then, at some point, this stubborn virus will realise and understand this message and find a way to live with us.
Maybe I’m too naive. But at least that is how I feel.
I am not really making a point here. It’s just a reflection. And according to my reflection, what we expect in terms of life after this pandemic – to go back to the normalcy of the way of life that we knew prior to it – may come true or it may not.
It is possible that through finding a vaccine and through simply outliving this virus we can survive and overcome this challenge.
But if we can somehow learn from the variety of experiences that this pandemic has brought us – from life-ending experiences to everyday nuisances – then we will have lived the pandemic, instead of just surviving it.
21 September 2020
My thoughts…on peace
On 21 September 2020, the United Nations International Day of Peace, Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, shares some thoughts on the concept of peace.
On this year’s International Day of Peace, it might be interesting to reflect on what peace really is. Is there such a thing as absolute peace, or is it an illusion?
For me, the idea of an absolute peace that we have is somewhat similar to our idea of an absolute ‘good health’ – I can’t help drawing a comparison between our notions of ‘peace’ and its opposite, and our ideas of ‘perfect health’ and its opposite.
We often use terms such as ‘peace’, ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’, taking these terms for granted, as if they really described an absolute reality. And the reason why we take them for granted is because these terms are actually very vague, so unless we compare what they seem to describe with something else, we cannot really pinpoint what they mean.
For example, at the moment we are supposed to be living in a state of peace because there is no major war going on (in the vast majority of our countries), and so we take that state for granted and call it ‘peace’. But if we zoom in and take a closer look, we see that within this state of peace there are all sorts of chaotic things happening, both on an individual and a collective level.
So ‘peace’ is difficult to define, because although we think that we live in peace, there is lots of violence, pain and confusion. On an individual level, there are various forms of quarrels and conflicts, personal grievances, accidents and bad health, and on a collective level there are natural and man-made disasters; all around there is a constant dissolving of previous patterns and the emergence of new patterns.
It is the same for health. In fact, there is no such thing as absolute good health; there are just various repetitive patterns that are recognised and defined by us as ‘healthy’ or ‘not healthy’, and we have reached an agreement as to how to define and label them, and so we feel satisfied.
The idea of peace is similar, I feel. There seems to be a pattern of peace when compared to a pattern that isn’t peace-like, a pattern that we identify as somewhat violent. And so, when that non-peace-like pattern gets exhausted, then a new pattern emerges, and most likely we will try to engage with this new pattern by identifying it as ‘peace’.
In truth, this emerging pattern may not be calming or peaceful at all, but it gives us some satisfaction because there is a change. So while we are getting used to this new pattern we pray that this new pattern may stay for as long as possible and we do everything within our power to make it stay.
Of course, the very fact that this new pattern emerged based on change, began with change, should already imply that it will itself come to an end and make way for another pattern.
But because we are too overburdened by the past pattern, too preoccupied hoping for a change, we don’t really take the time to understand the emergence of this new pattern.
So we are always repeating our old habits. We are again starting to grasp on to this new pattern, just as we did with the previous ones.
This is a concern for Buddhists. Thus, rather than searching for peace, Buddhists concern themselves with how this new pattern is appearing and how the previous one got exhausted.
There is no real absolute peace – the clean, clear, pristine, conceptual peace we are looking for can never be achieved. And hopefully we can recognise this as good news, because it means that we can let go of striving for it; so there is no room for anxiety.
Peace is just a concept, and as long as this concept has credibility, as long as everybody agrees that we share this concept and gets in line, then it is probably a good thing to observe this day.
But our problem is that we think peace is really reachable – and that misconception abuses the beauty of concept.
Because, as I have mentioned before, temporarily we can use such concepts, including the concept of peace, as a breather.
Otherwise, if we believe that there is an absolute, permanent peace to gain, this creates the very ground for anxiety – simply because we can never get it.
As long as we think that there is such a thing as peace, utopia, a Pure Land etc, then no matter how fervently we strive towards it, all our good intentions will just continue to pave the way towards more anxiety and confusion.
Are there constant new patterns, peaceful or otherwise? Will new patterns continuously emerge? Yes, for sure. There is an endless line, an endless stream of new patterns, ready to burst into appearance.
So, while we will not find an absolute peace, what we can observe is different patterns, not in terms of separate things but in terms of how one pattern that gets dissolved lets another pattern be born in its wake, by creating a vacuum. And as soon as the dissolving of the previous pattern creates this vacuum and thereby leaves a space, for some reason that space immediately gets filled. If we drag our hand across a body of water, obviously it will leave a space in its wake, and immediately that space gets filled. This analogy may help us to understand the emergence of a new pattern.
We don’t really know what the nature of that new pattern is – all we know is that there is change.
However, during the time of the previous pattern we came to what in Buddhism is called the ‘degenerate time’, the end time, the finale of that pattern; and once we get to the degenerate phase of any type of experience, towards the finale of that experience – be it because we can sense the approaching end of that particular pattern, be it because we are tired of living that experience over and over again – whatever the reason, we begin to yearn for something new, for a change, and so therefore, when the new pattern emerges we don’t really bother to look closely into what this new emergence is really like.
We are like someone out of breath, deprived of and yearning for oxygen, so when we get a chance to take a breath we blindly identify whatever it is that we are breathing as oxygen and inhale it deeply, with blind faith, even though what we so readily breathe in might not actually be oxygen at all.
In the same way, we blindly associate this new emergence that we have been yearning for with peace, without really examining its nature, without looking closely at what it really is. So we blindly embrace it, without actually knowing much about it.
Then, in time, even this new pattern we call ‘peace’, because it emerged from change, it is inevitable that it will also come to an end. This is something so obvious that we don’t even bother to notice it. And so, because of the way we embrace the new pattern – because it is done out of emotion, out of raw instinct – it naturally follows that we want to cement it, make it a permanent one.
Having said all of this, how do we celebrate this day of peace?
By keeping silent, bowing our heads down and reflecting on certain things for a few moments?
Or, if we are spiritually inclined, by engaging in what we think of as meditation (even though what we are actually doing is more like taking time out to think)?
That’s a really interesting question, and of course how we observe this day is up to us, but one suggestion I would like to make, dear dharma friends, would be to use some of the thoughts that I have outlined here, and reflect on them a little bit initially (because we cannot do without a few thoughts at the beginning).
But after some time, once we have become a little more comfortable with them and got the gist of what I have been trying to say, then simply observe.
Look out of the window, look at the steam rising from your cup of tea, look at a sunset or a sunrise, look at some trees, listen to the sounds around you, the buzz of a train or a plane, the noise in the street… it could be anything.
Without using too much thought, try to focus on these experiences, and just look at them visually or mentally, in terms of how many patterns there are. From one or two simple patterns that you recognise, see how many patterns are emerging each second or each moment.
Observe in this way for however long you wish, without being completely spaced out.
Of course it is not really important that we do this on the International Day of Peace or an Individual Day of Peace or any Day of Peace, and in fact it doesn’t really need to be about peace at all.
But since we have agreed to label this particular day as the International Day of Peace we could use it to do something interesting.
13 September 2020
Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, continues to respond to students’ questions, this time with a teaching about Sangha and togetherness.
The meaning of ‘Sangha’, or ‘Gedun’ (a combination of ‘Gewa’ and ‘Dunpa’) in Tibetan, is something like ‘motivated in merit’.
‘Dunpa’ is often translated in English as ‘aspiration’ or ‘motivation’. ‘Merit’, ‘virtue’, ‘goodness’ or ‘kindness’ are common English terms we have for the Tibetan term ‘Gewa’. This Tibetan term may have some association with another Tibetan term – ‘Dewa’ – a translation of the Sanskrit term ‘Sukha’, which in English would translate as something like ‘sweetness’ or ‘pleasantness’. We don’t quite know what ‘Sukha’ really is, though, because this ‘sweetness’ is not defined by physical sensations alone.
But if we use these terms in the context of a contrast between ‘happenings’ and ‘doings’ then it might begin to make some sense.
When we talk about ‘happenings’ – as opposed to ‘doings’ – it is a way to describe something that is happening by itself – for example, the sun seems to rise and shine by itself, the heart seems to beat by itself, our breathing seems to happen by itself, and so on.
Whereas ‘doing’ is the opposite. ‘Doing’ suggests something that happens when it is done by ‘another’. Whoever that ‘another’ may be – when we talk about ‘doings’ it’s a way to say that it’s not happening by itself, that someone or something else is doing it. For example, something or someone is forcing oneself to breathe faster or slower.
So, from this perspective of contrast we can somehow relate to motivation – ‘Gedun’, which means ‘motivation in merit’.
‘Motivation’ is a term that belongs to the ‘doer’ (to the category of ‘doings’), in a way. The merit or the ‘Gewa’ leads to the state called ‘Dewa’ or ‘Sukha’.
So let’s say that the ones who are motivated, the ones who think that they are doing things, are us – although if we zoom out and look at ourselves from that perspective, we are ‘happenings’ too. It’s just that the human state is such that we have the opportunity to view the happenings as doings.
But when we don’t recognise that condition or opportunity inherent in the human state, we tend to view the happenings as chaotic and illiterate and degrade them to something to be looked down upon – as if the happenings were something that we need to subjugate.
And the doer – us – as superior and organised. That kind of limited recognition, then not only leads to the subjugation of nature, but of ourselves – humankind – as well.
Then, slowly and eventually, when that limited recognition settles into a habit, the understanding of ‘Sangha’ becomes strange too. ‘Sangha’ then becomes a kind of groupism, where we can feel a sense of belonging.
This need to belong arises on the basis of our strange and limited view of not seeing both ‘doings’ and ‘happenings’ as nothing more but concepts; and then moreover seeing one of these opposites as better than or superior to the other.
As a result, we as the ‘doers’ seem small against the might of the ‘happenings’, and so we feel the need to stand together against these chaotic happenings, shoulder to shoulder, in a group called ‘Sangha’. Of course, that kind of perspective gives us a romantic feeling that we are up against an overwhelming force.
But that is just a very emotional way of thinking.
How we would like that, wouldn’t we, staying shoulder to shoulder a little longer? Even if it were just for a few moments.
But the truth is that we can’t.
Not because we are not supposed to, but because it just can’t be done.
Those who understand what Sangha really means (the realised Sangha) make no effort to stay that way.
Since they realise that whatever comes together must inevitably part ways, they consciously let the appearance of a cluster or a group be.
Because they see that there is no essence; there is no ‘real group’ beyond the appearance.
As a Vajrayana Sangha, consciously letting that be seems to be the goal.
We don’t really know if we are part of any Yana, but if we like to think that we are, then all the more reason to at least strive to live according to the realised Sangha’s way.
Why? Why is it that we can’t stay shoulder to shoulder even for a little while?
Well, the benevolent thing in following the footsteps of the realised Sangha is that if we practice their way we stand a better chance to stay ‘shoulder to shoulder’.
If it were the nature of reality to be able to stay shoulder to shoulder then it would work that way, but because reality is not that way, or confined in any way, it’s in fact loving towards one another to let things be according to the reality – the reality of not being able to stay, even for a moment.
We try so hard to stay together, don’t we?
We grew up with our biological or non-biological groups or families, so of course there is a semblance, an appearance of being able to stay together, and so both we and our families and ourselves got carried away into thinking that that just seems to be the way, and we got stuck from nowhere until now.
That’s why when we hear or see someone who seems to be quite alright to let go, it confuses us.
As if that is not possible.
As if we are praying, “Please tell me that that isn’t so, please tell me that we don’t need to part.”
But if we allow ourselves to break out of that boundary of needing to stay together then in fact we are together.
So the real or the closest meaning of ‘Sangha’ is not based on groupism at all.
Instead, ‘Sangha’ is a way to let go consciously.
It’s almost like surrendering – but rather than submitting without choice, we let go consciously.
That’s a virtue, I think.
So if we motivate ourselves towards that virtue then maybe, just maybe, we can take comfort in being in a Sangha.
There isn’t a club or a group called ‘Sangha’ where all the enlightened ones are crammed together for eternity.
That would be unbearable, I feel.
Take the ‘happenings’ aspect of our solar system, for example: it orbits in the spiral arms of the Milky Way but it doesn’t try to attach itself to it, nor does it try to deviate from it.
But it’s there, in appearance at least, and that appearance is doing its thing. It looks like a group, but only in appearance.
In reality it’s neither a group nor the opposite.
But it has no hang-ups about appearing as a group.
When I say “Let it be” I don’t mean it in a way as if not to care.
But “let it be” in a conscious way, out of care.
If we feel like staying together, then let’s stay together consciously, with the awareness that the appearance of staying together is another way to go apart.
Let’s develop the awareness that being in a ‘Sangha’ is just a useful momentary comfort, just like having a breather, before accepting that there was really never any ‘Sangha’.
In that way, there is no real basis for anxiety.
30 August 2020
Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, continues to respond to students’ questions, this time on the proper understanding of all the colourful ‘forms’ and elaborate visualisations we have in Vajrayana.
If there is a purpose for these colourful ‘forms’, I see it as similar to child’s play, in the most genuine and respectful way.
Children do all sorts of things that don’t make sense to adults.
They pull funny faces.
They run and crawl like wild animals.
They produce screeching noises that are beyond our imitation.
We as adults, no matter how noble or sophisticated we think we are, deep down we are curious about children, as if they are some sort of aliens.
Curious about how these little beings can be that way.
Beneath our uptight demeanours, we would like to tread the children’s path.
But we dare not. No, no!!
That would be foolish, we think.
That would be embarrassing.
We would lose our dignity and divinity. How truly childish of us!
Granted, caring for the feelings of others is a code-like discipline for Bodhisattvas.
Bodhisattvas do respect society. That’s why, in general, Bodhisattvas carry themselves in society in a humble way.
It’s important not to mistake this point to mean that Bodhisattvas suppress their feelings in any way. They see that there is nothing inherent to suppress, so it is not a question of them feeling embarrassed if they were to express themselves openly. However, they behave respectfully and humbly out of care for others who may still have such notions and inhibitions.
But at least to themselves, the way they feel about themselves does not need to be restricted.
So perhaps the benefit of practicing Buddhism is that the methods of all of the yanas have the quality to liberate our own selves to be childish.
That’s the purpose of these practices, without a set goal.
That’s why, whether these colourful methods are colourful or not, to me they are interesting.
There are no set goals to come into contact with the Divine – such as the Buddhas – through mystical means.
Such means are not even mystical – they are just playful, childish means, if you like, to let go of our self-clinging.
Just look at what the trees are doing, and at what the clouds are doing – you just can’t ascribe a purpose to their play.
That’s what genuine meditators see.
They see them as guidelines.
We don’t have to be worried that we will somehow lose our Buddhist essence if we open up to our own self.
Seemingly pleasant experiences are not goals to hang on to.
No children do that.
They look like they enjoy one thing, and in the very next moment they move on to another.
Even if we feel that we have gained an idea about what they like to experience, that idea can’t really be re-used to please them, because they aren’t dependent on those pleasant experiences as a set goal.
Palaces of light – aren’t such points of view interesting?
Palaces made of sand – or rather, ‘palaces of sand’, not ‘made of sand’, are truly palaces of light.
They are as bright and vivid as they can ever get.
Light and holographic, they can’t be grasped.
If you do grasp them, however, they vanish into miniature dunes.
That’s exactly what these visualisations and methods are like: they can’t be touched, even though they seem catchable.
That’s why or how we practice, gently guiding the sand into shapes, without fixed motives, letting them settle in whichever form they take, then letting them be.
To practice such methods in the comfort of our home or in our literal or symbolic caves.
Caves carved by this pandemic, if you will.
Boundaries that have no real boundary.
We meditate, we sync with the flow of our karma as day and night flows.
As the hours and the minutes and the seconds tick by.
To see how creative or fluid we can become.
Without the worries to save others and ourselves, yet saving nonetheless, by not saving as a solid set goal.
Maybe this is the way that you and I can understand these colourful means.
31 July 2020
Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, shares some thoughts on karma, as he continues to respond to students’ questions.
After a few days of experiencing a creative block, the other day my chair gave way under me. The instant I fell flat on the ground, I had a stroke of inspiration. I quickly jotted down a few paragraphs on my mobile phone.
However, when I got up to attend to something else, I accidentally deleted my note, losing it beyond recovery. In the first instant, a flash of shock and anxiety, almost like a blush, coursed through my being, as I realised that I wouldn’t be able to retrieve it ever again.
The very next moment, however, I tried to console myself by allowing the thought to arise: ‘It wasn’t meant to be’.
What a habit! How powerful this habit is, and yet it powers in ever such a passive way!
This habit where, when things don’t go according to plan, we comfort ourselves by thinking that ‘It wasn’t meant to be’ – as if there were a destiny for all of us. This is a misapplication of the notion of karma, I think. This kind of habit is no doubt comforting, but we should not underestimate its strength.
If we treat this kind of habit as something beyond a source of momentary comfort, then there is a risk of conceptualising something else entirely and setting up a trap for ourselves: that there is a fundamental place to belong and not to belong, a fundamental destiny that is meant to be or not to be.
I think ‘karma’ simply means it’s you. It’s me. It’s us.
It’s a delightful thing to realise that we don’t have to wait for a destiny.
On the other hand, if we say it’s ‘your doing’ of course it has a hint that it’s ‘your’ fault somehow, so feelings of guilt may arise.
Instead, we can simply focus on this understanding of karma: it’s you, it’s me, it’s us. We are this wonderful thing that flows as all of us, without a destiny.
We can see our past and future only as ways to arrive at this present moment, where we see that the idea of destiny was just a comforting thought. Nothing more and nothing less.
Maybe this is where I should have landed, and what I should have realised, when I fell flat on the ground – a ground where ‘destiny’ was not written somewhere, or anywhere.
25 July 2020
Karma is the subject of the latest meditation for our times from Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, as he responds to questions from students.
Thank you again for your questions.
Many of these questions were related to the subject of karma. I wish that there was an original karma – like a big bang – then in some ways it would be so much easier. Then we could somehow accept that we are all doomed. However, I get the feeling that this may not be the case. Nevertheless, I will do my best to share some of my understanding of karma with you, both in this reflection, and in subsequent ones.
Karma is a subject that we can rarely relate to when it is described in words.
As we try to describe it in paragraphs, sentences, verbs and nouns, the meaning of karma further eludes us.
Descriptions are like clothes. The moment we describe something, it’s initially like clothing it, but then, as we elaborate or define it further, the process of describing turns naturally into a kind of ‘unclothing’ process. It is the same principle as ‘what goes up must come down’. It can’t be helped.
When it comes to describing karma, I feel that this is essential to keep in mind from the start.
Peeling an onion or a banana tree trunk – peeling further and further, layer after layer – a sense of curiosity arises, to see if there is an essence or a seed at the centre of these layers. Of course, in the end there is nothing at the centre of the onion or the banana tree trunk.
Describing karma is something like that.
One might feel that, in that case, questions and answers about the topic are a waste of time and energy. But the subtle nature of the question and answer format has its own quality I feel.
Karma is there, in a way. ‘There’ in the sense that the appearance is there. Just like an onion or a plantain tree.
We too are ‘there’ – or here – in appearance, just like an onion or a plantain tree. In particular, our layers of character and personality are ‘there’.
At the same time, our appearance, and the appearance of karma, work or function flawlessly.
One of the ways of understanding karma is likening it to the function of a filter. There is nothing there to pinpoint, beside the appearance. So we ingest what is apparently there – just as our lungs ingest air. But we don’t actually hold anything. Naturally, as with our lungs and with trees, what is ingested is eventually – or simultaneously – exhaled, let go of.
In this sense, there is an owning of karma (of sorts) – yet it is never really owned by something or someone.
At the same time, the process of inhaling and exhaling gives what we call life.
Without having to truly own anything, everything is owned, without concern for duality or non-duality.
You see, we breathe every day. Yet the breathing goes largely unnoticed. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if we want to understand what karma is, then taking a little notice of the everyday pattern of breathing will bring appreciation – even a sense of a marvel. A sense of “My goodness! We’ve been breathing all of this time.”
As we get used to this practice of appreciating what might be called mundane, everyday patterns, we can then apply this kind of awareness to other patterns. Walking, eating, sleeping, rising, talking… all sorts of patterns. Living, dying, and in time, the repetition of life cycles. As you can see, this kind of practice or awareness meditation is not at all a spaced out state of mind.
In fact, this kind of practice or awareness meditation is active and alive, in tune with everything that’s going on around us.
This kind of living practice is fortunately still present in various forms to this day, such as the practice of TONGLEN, in the form of aspiration and dedication, which I mentioned in an earlier reflection. This is the most natural way to own karma, I feel.
In this practice, there is no sense of a religious mission to save the world, nor is there any political burden to put the world in order.
No guru is required, no parenting is required, and no teaching is required, either.
And in case you feel that you can’t breathe, and things seem to be dimming, know this to be the very sign that you are in fact breathing – breathing beyond this pair of lungs, breathing in the form of living and dying.
15 July 2020
Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, reflects on the pandemic, and introduces his responses to questions from students, which will be published on this page in the coming weeks and months.
Dear dharma friends,
I truly appreciate your candid and sincere thoughts and questions, and over the coming weeks and months I will do my best to answer some of your questions. Please bear with me, as I am still learning myself.
I also hope that you will all understand that this conversation, and all of my reflections over the last few months, originated in the context of the pandemic.
Hopefully this conversation has helped us to let go of trying to perfect what is the true spirituality, true temporal life etc. So therefore, let us not let this conversation slide into matters such as politics and religion, and continue on this journey together.
Yes, we are going through challenging times, but we have gone through such patterns before, so this type of experience is not really new to us. We might call these current patterns fresh, but not necessarily new. So that is one thing to focus on.
Another thing to focus on is this:
Without knowing each other, we have found ourselves in these common challenges, and in a way we have to be thankful for these challenges, because it is due to them that somehow our thoughts have been brought together.
It is a curious thing: the human condition is such that we always seem to need a common purpose, a common challenge, in order to bring us together. If we look at history, we can see that more often than not this challenge appears in the form of ‘someone’, some kind of antagonist or villain. This is quite unfortunate in a way, because this ‘someone’ is a sentient being just like ourselves, someone who has thoughts and feelings.
At least the present challenge doesn’t necessarily have a face that we recognise. This pandemic, this virus, is a strange challenge because it doesn’t appear in the form of ‘someone’ – it is not ‘you’ or ‘me’ or ‘they’. This virus feels completely ‘out of the world’ and we cannot communicate with it. In some ways, we don’t know very much about this virus yet, but we can probably say that it doesn’t look like humans or animals.
In some ways this virus challenge may be a blessing in disguise, as it has come in a form that brings us together globally. Unlike most of the challenges in history, which appeared in the form of antagonists that brought some of us together, but never on a global scale, in this case we are all together, no matter our race, caste, gender, background or religion.
So from a certain perspective, one could almost say that we have to be thankful – though of course this is a sensitive issue and could sound callous, because so many lives have been lost, and so many individuals face all kinds of peril because of it. However, the point I am trying to make here is that it has brought us together, and in that sense this pandemic brings almost a sense of unity that we haven’t felt in a long time, and which comes from the fact that emotionally and mentally we are all in this together. For once, we are able to forget what race or religion we belong to – and that, at least, is something to be thankful for.
Now when I talk about ‘being thankful’, I am not encouraging us to have a thanksgiving dinner – I am talking about using what is already there in the dharma, which shows us ways to turn obstacles and difficult conditions into friends. This is one particular opportunity, one particular chance that we all have, and in order to realise it we don’t have to be scholars or rocket scientists. We can relate to this no matter how sophisticated or unsophisticated we are.
We don’t have to focus on whether this challenge is man-made or not – we simply make the best of this moment. What matters is that we are all in this together. Therefore, we can be thankful and we have to make the most of it.
From my side I will try to share my reflections with all of you, and hopefully this will amount to something. From your side, please continue to share your questions, and hopefully that will amount to something, too.
So, without having to sit down and formally say, “Let us meditate, let us say this prayer, let us do this recitation together,” through this simple, understandable process of questions and answers we will be able to understand something, to make the best use of this moment. In this way, it will contribute something to us as practitioners: we will find meaning again in terms of why we practice, meditate, recite these sutras, and why we reflect on what the enlightened ones have shared.
5 July 2020
Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, invites us to wake up every day with a slight zest that today might be the day that we will wake up.
Rather than thinking it’s an endless Monday that we wake up to, wake up every day with a slight zest that today might be the day that we will wake up.
That’s why Buddhists celebrate birthdays or any other celebratory days at sunrise.
Of course, there isn’t anything wrong with celebrating at midnight.
Yawn and stretch like a baby.
Hum and buzz like a baby.
And rise to the possibility of waking up.
Sleep is a natural interval.
It’s a velvet death, not a stark death.
It’s a velvety interval that has the zest to wake life.
The sun comes down to tuck in a brilliant day.
Slumber away, like a baby.
Without caution or warning.
Isn’t it just marvellous that this stream of days and nights goes on and on, the same, indefinitely?
Is there anything to be frightened of in witnessing this stream?
I don’t think so.
One can wonder about the possibilities of how we will wake up, as each of us sleeps a little differently.
Tummy up, tummy down?
But that wondering is never frightening.
So do wonder, but don’t fear.
Close your eyes only to open them later.
The sun sets only to rise.
26 June 2020
Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, explores the phenomenon of nostalgia for troubling experiences, in his latest meditation for our times.
Trauma, crises and troubling experiences are parts of human life.
We dislike them, but when that type of experience has been with us for some time – for example, having been trapped in a cabin due to a long snowstorm – strangely enough, an unexpected bond with that experience develops.
Due to the development of that unintentional bond, once the experience is over, we somehow miss it.
Normally, no further explanation or interpretation would be required here, but if we try to tag on a reason why this might be the case, then it would be something like this:
Although the bond formed with the troubling experience was not something we desired to begin with, nevertheless it was an intimate one in the end.
Due to the situation, a strange friendship has formed. In a way, this friendship can be something we come to know more intimately than any other relationship.
However, everything must and does come to an end – well, at least the appearance of it.
Then, for some peculiar reason, we miss it.
The troubling experiences echo far further than our so-called good experiences.
This kind of nostalgia could be seen to exemplify the curious nature or state of human beings: ‘good’ experiences are in a way overrated – though it is also possible, of course, that a pleasant experience might have an equal potency to bring about that nostalgia.
But to me, this statement sparks my Buddhist habit, སྐྱོ་ཤེས། – sKyo Shes. ‘Revulsion’ is the translation that I found in a dictionary, but I might translate it as ‘recognising sorrow.’
You see, this ‘recognising sorrow’ is an essential part of Buddhist practice.
This is not because Buddhists love sorrow.
Instead, recognising sorrow involves first of all seeing that sorrow is a chaotic phenomenon, and then equally acknowledging that this chaotic phenomenon is a necessary spice, which introduces a kind of completion or wholesomeness to life.
This is the reason why Buddhists utilise this method.
Good food is food that has a punch or a dash of potent spice.
In our lives, that spice is, strangely enough, none other than this sorrow.
It’s a spice that makes for a good life.
A life with some sorrow in it is a well-spiced life, if we can say that.
So, a Buddhist is not necessarily a chef, but someone who likes interesting food.
This nostalgia for the crisis may come about due to the fact that our usual so-called ‘normal’, good and peaceful experiences are somehow bland – that is, lacking in spice.
Having said that, it doesn’t mean that we have to start searching for trouble, or that we should relate to practice as a method to search for trouble. (Although I will admit that practice has indeed something to do with looking for problems – but that is not the main purpose of practice).
We live in the midst of problems; in fact, this very human experience is a problem.
So we don’t have to look for them.
However, recognising without piety that that is the case, has a quality.
That is the real meaning of སྐྱོ་ཤེས། (‘recognising sorrow’) I feel.
Also, realising that the practice of སྐྱོ་ཤེས། is like a cane that will no longer be required once we are able to walk on our own two legs will help us let go of the practice once we have recognised what we want to recognise.
20 June 2020
In his latest meditation, Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, shares a teaching on the subject of guardians.
Once again, I’m taking this occasion to share a little of my knowledge of Buddhism.
The subject today could be guarding or being a guardian.
I don’t know for certain, but it seems to me that Buddhism is such that one can pick up practically any topic from pretty much anywhere. In this way, Buddhism is useful for starting a conversation – not that this is its only use of course.
One of the reasons for this is that Buddhism itself doesn’t really have any topics that are off-limits or considered as provocative, even though due to various cultural factors such taboos seem to exist.
For instance, in some Buddhist countries talking about death is superstitiously avoided or considered as blasphemy.
Sometimes, the more provocative the subject, the more Buddhism has to contribute, meaning that even if the topic of conversation may be taboo, Buddhism often has this quality that it won’t let the conversation become awkward.
If you let an enthusiastic and passionate Buddhist join the chat, in fact Buddhism can give meaning and life to the previously off-limits discussion.
Humour – of a kind – will complement the conversation and end it without awkwardness.
Now, just like the notion of time, the notion of a ‘guardian’, the image of a protector – whether that notion is visualised as a person or not – is a concept that has been deeply ingrained in us ever since we were first able to think.
Without going into an endless debate of who or what a guardian is, and the related questions of why, when or how, it might be simpler to delve right into the Buddhist perspective of this guardian.
The guardians of the four directions or the ten directions are both metaphysical and practical perspectives of Buddhism.
The practical perspective may be surprising, because Buddhism is often seen as nihilistic, due to its heavy emphasis on emptiness, and so the notion of a ‘guardian’ seems like a contradictory subject to introduce.
Why do we talk about guarding something if everything is empty?
Actually, to satisfy those who have a habit of thinking that everything is here and everything is real, Buddhism agrees with them by accepting the idea that there are guarding entities.
Metaphysical, because in parallel with the practical perspective, Buddhists know well enough that accepting and agreeing with the idea of having guarding entities creates an opening to introduce emptiness for those who are more fixed in their habits of reality – those who firmly believe that everything is real and that there is something to guard.
And the way it is introduced is in the form of asking questions such as:
Who guards the guardians?
And if there are guards for the guardians, who guards them?
What is it that the guardians guard?
These questions are intended to bring out the fallacy of being stubborn in believing that there is something to save.
In other words, the skill of the metaphysical method is to have a little peek at the marvel of emptiness, rather than seeing emptiness as frightening.
For example: a doctor is a form of guardian.
The obvious purpose or the function of a doctor is to keep his or her patients alive.
But if one stubbornly believes that staying alive indefinitely and never dying is real, in other words that immortality is real, then right there and then the doctor has become obsolete. Because that just can’t be done.
In that respect one might wonder then why one should try to cure, why one should try to guard? Because it looks like it can’t be done.
Well, funnily enough, the Buddhist understanding is that actually one can attempt to guard – if one accepts that it can’t be done, meaning that it is just to comfort the patient and stop him from over-worrying.
It’s like a kind, starving mother who tries to soothe her equally starving child by assuring him that tomorrow food will arrive in abundance and describing how they will enjoy it, even though she knows that there is no certainty.
Somehow, due to that white lie, she is able to comfort the child and get him to sleep.
This shouldn’t be taken literally, as it is just an analogy..
So, in other words, guards, cures, protections, safety nets, are all just temporary measures – ཐབས། (THABS) in Tibetan, UPAYA in Sanskrit, and usually translated into English as ‘skilful means’.
Skilful means are not necessarily a means to get somewhere, as if there was a destination to reach – rather, they are a way to make the present experience free of worries.
When we take the term ‘skilful means’ too literally and understand it as a means to actually get somewhere, it builds up pressure, as if we had to put up with this white lie forever.
Whereas, if we relate to it less literally, then we arrive at a sweet spot and understand that it’s just a way to free the current moment of worry or anxiety.
In this manner, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas appear in myriads of forms to guard sentient beings.
At first, they don’t deny sentient beings’ beliefs, even though these beliefs have no essence.
At the same time, that very act of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas creates enough doubt in those who have stubbornly held beliefs, by asking them questions, as if they didn’t know the answers and letting sentient beings arrive at the answers by themselves.
Finally, when sentient beings do find the answers, they no longer need guarding.
And the Buddhas just disappear.
Meaning the Buddhas take no claim for their merit.
11 June 2020
Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, shares the following meditation on 11 June, the anniversary of the parinirvana of Mipham Chökyi Lodrö, His Holiness the 14th Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche, according to the Western calendar.
The awakened ones never ventured anywhere else.
The unawakened ones never came from anywhere else.
The string of endless beginnings is just a figment.
The string of endless finales is just a figment, too.
If it’s comforting to accept this, then one can do that.
What is in-between the endless beginnings and the endless finales?
Is it not that the in-between is also just a figment?
So, nothing really goes or comes.
All there is is just cycles of figments.
The awakened ones set sail on this beginningless current of the ocean.
They have no purpose for themselves to sail.
To them ports are as relative as islands or lands. Islands and lands are as dynamic as the ocean – they only move slower. So it makes no sense to the awakened ones to believe ports and shores to be static.
They just sail.
If a purpose is truly required to be shown in their sailing then that is that they sail only for the benefit of unawakened ones.
The unawakened ones are sailing too, in a way. However, due to their slumber they aren’t aware or they aren’t certain that they are sailing. They feel more of a drifting sensation, yet at times, every now and then, a sense of sailing appears in flashes.
Maha Bodhisattva Shantideva said:
“Just as a flash of lightning momentarily brings a pitch dark and stormy night into view, due to the awakened ones’ force (Buddha Nature) meritorious wisdom can originate in this world on extremely rare occasions.”
During those momentary flashes, which are almost like disturbed sleep, some awareness that the unawakened ones experience is most of the time ignored and passed by, and therefore forgotten.
Sometimes, the excellence of these mini-awakenings is understood to a minimal degree, so that they either sail with immense fear and pressure to find a port, or cling on to any shore they find and blindly believe that there is a static quality both in sailing and in finding the promised land.
So they go in circles for ever more.
and then doing it all over repeatedly with this desperate chase-like hope and fear.
Life after life sailing indefinitely in all forms of vehicles.
Some slower, some faster.
All the while not knowing that their hopes and fears were just figments, which means all this boundless journey is just a dream.
It’s a kind of debt that they bring on to themselves, and it becomes impossible to forgive.
That doing, that karma, further deepens their dreaming.
Because of it, the awakened ones can’t wake them up just like that. Instead, they sail with them, consciously, all the way through.
As captains, as first mates, as sailors, as passengers.
They learn with them, they unlearn with them, they succeed with them, they fail with them.
They live and die together, reborn consciously and unconsciously as teachers and students.
As fathers and sons, as mothers and daughters, as close relations and distant relations, as strangers and acquaintances, as friends and enemies.
Over and over again, as if the awakened ones were truly as lost as the unawakened ones, even if it means that the awakened ones have to journey seemingly for an eternity.
May supplemental tidings of such a kind wear out the dreariness of our hearts from journeying.
From the dreariness of ‘to’ and ‘from’.
From the dreariness of seeing ‘to’ and ‘from’ as separate.
May we wake up to the inseparability of ‘to’ and ‘from’.
May we wake up to the passing and the returning of the awakened ones as their benevolent display.
28 May 2020
What will life be like after the pandemic? Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa reflects on this question.
That’s a question of the future, isn’t it?
Well, it is a mystery.
The future has always been a mystery. ‘Mystery’ not in the sense of foggy and unclear, but rather brightly uncertain in how it plays out.
In a cheerful sense, the future has always been a magical thing – an unknown thing that we have been trying to capture since time immemorial.
In a practical sense, there will be similar patterns of experience, such as mornings and evenings, sunrises and sunsets.
The predictable practical challenge will consist of basically struggling to capture our past memories, what we think was normal and nice.
That challenge has been repeated over and over so many times by now that it is not a mystery any more.
Hopefully we are somehow tired of that habit: the habit of seeking opportunities for our future to recapture the past days of the good times, like carrots being dangled in front of us, and yet they are attached to our back.
But if we want to do something different for a change (a new challenge is something we might perhaps enjoy, because a new challenge is always uplifting), then it might be interesting to see the future as an opportunity to let the past normality overwhelm the future a little less.
Of course, we need the compass of the ‘past’, but using that compass is the trick, rather than overusing or underusing it. If we master this trick, we needn’t be frightened to look at the future.
The complementary trick is the acceptance that there is no guarantee. We as humans have lived for as long as we can remember with concepts of guarantees of unimaginable proportions. But if we look at it calmly, not once did we really believe in these guarantees: in the end, when it came to going through hard times or making a decision in life, we didn’t really depend on laws and promises, because deep down we knew that no number of laws or promises would ever provide us with a real guarantee.
For the longest time we have lived with that contradiction: we feel comfortable with the promises, we are soothed by the concept that there is some kind of safety net, but at the same time we know that none of them have ever been fulfilled and that there is no absolute guarantee. And because we are humans, we cannot really change that fact – we cannot fix that. We only have to accept that that is the case.
Our anxiety comes from the non-acceptance of this state of uncertainty. But when we look at history, we see that ironically enough, it has kind of worked. We have somehow got by, and if we want to make the ride a smooth one, we have to accept the fact that there is always at least a 1% factor of uncertainty.
Our strange habit of holding on to the idea of a guarantee is deeply ingrained in us because we have lived with it for so long and because it is soothing to us. Maybe, this time round we can slightly alter this habit and get closer to our deep-down knowledge or hunch that rules and promises are fabricated; that cures of any kind may be 99% guaranteed, but a 1% factor of uncertainty always remains.
Without that small factor of uncertainty, life would be intolerable. It is that speck of uncertainty, of that 1 % of no guarantee that makes for the freshness of the present moment that presents us with healthy challenges and opportunities.
An acceptance of this dash of uncertainty lifts the present moment up and gives spice to our life.
24 May 2020
In this meditation, Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, reflects on the importance of not seeking a quick fix in the midst of change.
If we try to view this pandemic from a spiritual perspective and see spirituality as somehow separate from this ever-changing world, it will be very difficult to make sense or find a meaning.
No spiritual lens is required to see the obvious, and just how dangerous this disease is. Everyone can recognise it.
But somehow we are taken aback by it, gripped by it to a point that when we experience and witness countless cases and an ever-rising mortality rate, the arising of non-acceptance emotions compel us to look for meaning somewhere else, somewhere other than acceptance. That’s when spirituality somehow gets overused like suddenly following an extreme diet or going over the top with medications due to health reasons.
This approach tries to force spirituality to somehow fix the symptom in one go, which is sadly not possible. This kind of attempt, which sees spirituality as separate from health, casts out the healing benefit of spirituality.
This applies to all forms of spirituality I feel, and particularly to Buddhist spirituality.
Actually health is a fine line between feeling well and feeling unwell. Meaning those two are interdependent, or they rise and fall in a symbiotic way.
If we can see this then a composed approach will take place within us.
Taking care will take place together with letting go of trying to find a quick fix or finding an absolute cure.
17 May 2020
Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, shares a meditation on concepts and human nature.
We don’t have to take on the burden of trying to predict the future.
The mysterious nature of the future can’t be grasped in any way.
The future will always remain in the future.
Therefore, we can only rely on predictions and take precautions.
It’s even meaningful to look into the future then.
To see that the future is uncertain and mysterious.
We then dare to look into it without any decision, meaning without worry.
This concept of the future is a mirror to the past.
Thinking of what has happened already stimulates wonder.
That’s the future.
Obviously our eyes and sensory doors can’t see the past or the future.
Only our conceptual mind can.
Time is a concept, and only a conceptual means can perceive concepts.
If we understand that, we can come to realise that concepts don’t really have much to do with reality.
Yet, daring to use concepts to look at reality can be seen as the most human thing to do.
What is human?
Is it this body?
Is this external and internal environment human?
Humanness is a force of nature that desperately tries to relate to reality or life with concepts like time.
This attempt is neither good nor bad.
That’s just how humans are.
But if we view this human pattern in a caring way, we can find unimaginable beauty – humans are trying to do something that can never be done: we are trying to fix life by using concepts.
Picking up the courage to witness that – that is a spiritual practice.
6 May 2020
Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, shares the following meditation on the eve of Vesak 2020.
སྨོན་ལམ། (smon lam) – MONLAM, Aspiration
When it comes to becoming a Buddha, when it comes to blossoming into a Buddha, aspiration is a beautiful way to seed this state of Buddhahood.
To be a ‘Buddha’ is to be awakened.
To be more precise, if we split this method or vehicle of aspiration in half, the two parts can be understood as:
The 1st half is སྨོན་ལམ། (smon lam). ‘Monlam’ is the Tibetan term for aspiration, ‘praṇidhāna’ in Sanskrit.
The 2nd half is བསྔོ་བ། (bsngo ba). ‘Ngowa’ is the Tibetan term for dedication, ‘pariṇāma’ in Sanskrit.
‘Monlam’ is like inhaling and ‘Ngowa’ is like exhaling.
Just like breathing, it is most natural.
This path is known as becoming a Bodhisattva, a child of the awakened one – not to be taken literally, of course.
Right now, we are most probably dreaming.
This state of being human is a balanced dream.
Because we aren’t absorbed in ecstasy.
A being in a higher state, a god being, is in a constant state of rapture so that they cannot see reality (like a life in luxury).
A being in a lower state, a tormented being, is in a constant state of agony so that they equally cannot see reality (like a life in poverty).
Both luxury and poverty are examples that are just relative.
A human state is what is known as a middle state, where we are on the verge of waking up.
Dreaming still as ‘you’ and ‘me’.
But every now and then we doubt, in a way questioning who you are and who I am, or whether we are dreaming or not.
A stream of curiosity pushes us to check.
The appearance of birth and death, and various states of changes, are the cues for our curiosity, which leads us to doubt whether we are really here or not.
So, human birth may not be ideal for pleasure, but it is ideal for waking up.
So, this smidgen of curiosity is a perfect and fertile ground for planting the seed of awakening.
This is done not by forcing something onto the human condition, but by implying that it’s not wrong to doubt whether we are dreaming or not.
And to imply that waking up is not frightening at all.
Either a spiritual guide can do it for us, or we can nudge ourselves to go a little beyond our habitual norm of being content with this dream.
At the same time, we have a kind of knack or instinct to always want to be different from the norm or from others, to stand out, like for example in the realm of fashion. In this case, we shouldn’t fight this habit of wanting to be different, but go along with it.
If we want to be really different and do something ‘out of the box’, it is most interesting to set out on the adventure to wake up.
That’s what Buddhas are saying actually.
Now, coming back to seeding awakening (Buddhahood): being content with dreaming this human dream is alright, but sooner or later this dream will cycle and there is no real guarantee that it will come full circle to reach back to this human state.
That’s why waking up is sensible.
After waking up we can dare to dream any dream we wish.
So, when it comes to seeding awakening, aspiration is the simplest seed.
Because it’s something we do all the time.
It doesn’t require any kind of effort.
All it takes is to aspire continuously, just like breathing or beating your heart.
That’s not an effort, it’s just a rhythm, like dancing.
Lungs dancing in and out, hearts dancing up and down.
Likewise, aspire away day in and day out.
Aspire to wake up, and from time to time look around and see who is still dreaming, and aspire for them to wake up.
Right now their dream is too real, to the point that we can’t really force them and splash water on them to wake them up even if we wanted to, but we can aspire for them.
Most of them are too captivated by their dreams of being themselves, the way they are, the way others are – it’s just so real that if we say it’s a dream they will think we are insane.
Since we aren’t fully awake ourselves, it’s hard for us to convince others too.
So instead we aspire.
Mind you, aspiring is not like empty words or thoughts.
These feelings of ‘Oh, it is just empty words and thoughts’ are habits that have got stuck over time, when we took the easy route for ourselves and demeaned curiosity by saying that it’s just child’s play.
For example, we may do this when someone is enthusiastically in their own rhythm, but we can’t get it, so we say he or she is like a ‘machine’.
Or when someone is taking things easy, we say he or she is like a ‘child’.
This kind of habit of not having understood something or someone completely, and labeling it as a machine or something, is making it easy for us, but it can stick with us, and plant seeds for us to dream deeper and not wake up.
So, aspire in a way that you breathe in, inhale, take in every act and thought, of yours and others, that are in alignment with waking up – namely, virtues and merits, such as kindness.
This has a quality that is not associated with slumbering, and instead it’s associated with awakening.
So take that in, breathe that in.
Now that your lungs are full of the oxygen of virtue and your miracle-like human body has transformed it into CO2, you have to breathe it out.
Give it away.
Let it go.
Of course, you have to let it go without any real prior decision, just as the lungs do.
Without any religious or political decision, just dedicate.
The best example is that of a child breathing in a more profound way than an adult.
Now, that’s karma well owned.
So, dear dharma friends, on this eve of Vesak, please aspire.
And all your dreams will become awakened!
26 April 2020
Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, examines the idea of ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ in his latest meditation for our times.
When we try to apply the Bodhisattvas’ methods, to think of others and benefit others, we might feel overwhelmed.
We might get the sense that we are too ordinary.
If we are ordinary, what is wrong with that?
Weren’t all Bodhisattvas in that position at one point? They must have felt utterly helpless and useless.
Nevertheless they achieved their extraordinary qualities – simply by accepting their ordinary state.
How did this happen?
First, they tried in ever so many ways to find this extraordinary state, just as Prince Siddhartha had done. But in the end, when all hopes had been dashed, they accepted their ordinary state.
They finally saw that aging is natural.
They finally saw that it’s also natural to get sick and to die.
It’s not at all wrong to experience age, sickness and death, no matter how ordinary they may seem.
Such experiences have taken place countless times.
These ordinary experiences have never stopped other experiences from happening.
It’s not as if these ordinary experiences are like a finale, cutting short any extraordinary experiences.
After all, this present experience is still possible.
So it is this simple acceptance, which stopped the quest to save everyone from dying and all of the other natural, ordinary experiences.
Instead, the quest to save everyone from dying transformed into the quest to help everyone embrace the acceptance of this ordinary pattern.
That’s how the Bodhisattvas became Bodhisattvas.
We too are in exactly the same position as the Bodhisattvas.
If we compare ourselves with the Bodhisattvas, we won’t find a single shred of difference.
So, let’s not burden ourselves with climbing a pinnacle-less mountain.
That’s no mountain at all.
When we climb mountains, we climb down.
That’s not inauspicious.
That’s most natural.
The descent of the mountain is essential to our enjoyment.
If there is such a thing as an advantage, then ours is that we can make use of the Bodhisattvas’ realisation that we do not need to look for a separate, extraordinary state.
Buddhahood is not separate from the ordinary state.
It was never meant to be.
If you superstitiously believe that the ordinary state is, in fact, ordinary, then consider this: pristine lotuses are born out of mud.
This is not just a saying.
It is a reality.
That is exactly how we are.
Ordinary-like compositions of physical and mental mud have produced a pristine experience like this one: Us. Or you. Or me. What’s wrong with this?
If there is anything wrong, it is our resistance to this natural way.
We can’t separate this pristine wisdom from this mud.
If we try, all we will get is either a lifeless statue or an idea of who we are.
That’s all we will get.
But it is that lifeless statue or idea that is the real death.
So this is not what we want. At least, if we are sane.
Therefore, my dear dharma friends, if you wish to benefit others, try to accept this ordinary state.
When I say ‘accept’, I do not mean in the sense of ‘take on this burden’ or ‘do nothing’!
Instead, accept it in a way that there is no other way.
There is no extraordinary way.
There never was.
We have that advantage.
We don’t have to try and flatten every mountain for the sake of all beings, in the name of finding this extraordinary way.
If there is an even path, we walk it.
If there is an uneven path, we walk it accordingly.
Our feet do not burden themselves that they have to walk the ground.
The ground does not burden the feet to walk on it.
There is just walking.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Yet, if viewed in a theatrical manner, it is extraordinary because we can’t find words to describe why these feet are walking the ground.
Left. Then right.
From beginning-less time.
Now that’s extraordinary.
19 April 2020
In his latest meditation for our times, Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, reflects on the courage of healthcare workers, and all of those on the front lines and behind the scenes.
There is no (absolute) cure.
In a spiritual context, to say this may seemingly contradict the whole purpose of spiritual practice. We may ask ‘then why should we practice?’
The purpose of spiritual practice is actually a way to realise, for certain, that the very attempt to find an absolute cure is futile. There is no way. Realising this, the patient will paradoxically pick up courage. In addition, we are able to make sense of the fact that, in a a spiritual context, finding cures is only an expedient method, like telling a child that keeps asking ‘Are we there yet?’ ‘Yes, we’re almost there’ – as if there were a way to cure death.
But that’s all there is to this thing called ‘a cure.’
Once again, from a patient perspective, does that mean that we should start being stoic and practice fatalism?
A blunt answer is ‘No!’
A natural answer is ‘There is no answer.’
When we look at the countless doctors, nurses, janitors, the systems that back them, the entire healthcare system – in short, all of the people who are on the front line and those who are behind the scenes – we witness their courage and selfless acts. When we ask them why they do what they do, no matter how much their individual answers may vary, we will find that they will ultimately converge into one common response: essentially, they don’t really know. And when we see that they go ahead and do it nonetheless, it melts our hearts and moves us to tears.
So, besides the bare truth of spiritual practice’s purpose to show us that there is no cure, such acts of care offer a most natural view of compassion. Reasons and logic of an absolute cure that we grew up with in our various cultures don’t apply. If we portray that in a mundane setting it’s like a mute person trying to muffle a message: even though that muffle may not be eloquent in any way if we listen carefully the message can be heard and understood.
Compassion is a simple term, yet it could help us to explain why we are moved when we witness selfless acts from the people on the front lines and those behind the scenes. These medicine men and women know that for those who survive this pandemic, a cure may be found, but the pattern of human existence is such that we will soon come across another challenge. Moreover, for the critically ill, they know that their efforts and courage are futile.
Still, the unbelievable rhythm of their hearts continues to beat for a causeless cause. If their example isn’t enough reason to have confidence in spiritual practice, particularly for us as Buddhists, I don’t know what else there is. It’s so vivid and clear. No language is needed to be able to relate to their courage.
So, dear dharma friends, kindly practice with no pressure to find an absolute cure. Simply practice like these heroes.
Then, better than a cure, every moment we live will be a tribute to these warriors. These warriors without a cause.
Then, however long we live, it will be a life well lived.
9 April 2020
Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, offers this meditation on the importance of practice to accept change
But we should practice with the attitude that it’s essentially a way to realise that we can’t overcome change, meaning that we are not an entity other than change or separate from change.
We are change.
So it’s a skilful way, and equally a caring way, to realise that.
We can try and think that everything is fatalistic, or that we have to be stoic and there is nothing we can do about it and let it be, so to speak.
But that will only numb our senses for a while and eventually bring panic.
So, practicing has a kind of charm to ease us into accepting change, without alarming us too much.
Owning our own karma is not based on clinging to the method of causality and rebirth.
These methods are just to roughly find a cue to flow with the current of change – just like waiting for a traffic signal before entering the highway.
Once we have entered into the traffic we naturally feel still.
That’s the point.
A disease like this is never evil.
It never was.
It’s just nothing in its essence.
But if we have courage this nothing can be transformed into something.
2 April 2020
28 March 2020
A meditation from Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa:
A recitation of the Six Syllables is like a few simple lines of musical notes, or a melodic ringtone.
More elaborate practices are like complete orchestral scores, such as those created by Studio Ghibli.
Music doesn’t carry any real purpose, and it’s the same for meditational practices.
But, amid fear and anxiety, meditation can help us to find calm and gain focus.
So, kindly practice.
Even taking precautions is also a practice.
But practice that too like playing music.
26 March 2020
Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, shares the following meditation:
24 March 2020
Karmapa offers a new teaching on accepting change
18 March 2020
Karmapa’s teaching on change, karma and COVID-19 – in Tibetan
18 March 2020
Chenresig Practice – Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa
The text for the Chenresig practice can be downloaded here.
18 March 2020
Karmapa’s teaching on change, karma and COVID-19 – in English