Ancient Teachings Free Modern Hearts and Minds

How remarkable that a short text composed in Tibet some 750 years ago should carry such a recognisably authentic message of liberation in this age of social media. Of course, Jetsun Drakpa Gyalten’s ‘Song of the Eight Practices of Dreams’ goes far deeper than advising on how to deal with today’s world-wide monster, as Lama Jampa clearly showed us when he taught the the text last Saturday at London's Wetland Centre. For it shows how cunning and resourceful ego follows us all into our dharma lives - and, importantly, how to watch out for it so it doesn’t keep its hold.

The Wetland Centre, London

The Wetland Centre, London

These days it seems, especially in the Twittersphere, that we have to have an opinion about everything - about every little thing and every big thing that happens. And we have to come out on the side of the good guys or else we’re seen not to care. As Lama Jampa says in ‘Wisdom in Exile’, it seems like it’s the age of compassion now. The key is to check out which team, which tribe, to support as being on the side of good and revile the other.

Or is it?

What does Jetsun Drakpa’s teaching say about this? What does Lama Jampa himself actually say about this?

Explaining the Jetsun’s advice, Lama Jampa simplified the whole business for us last Saturday. One of the song’s liberating messages is that if we develop pride in our own side as being right, as being the side of the ‘good ones’ and if at the same time we are trying to practise the dharma, then we are making a mistake.

Realising this frees us up to have compassion for both sides and all sides. We can be totally free with regard to our dispensation of compassion. The Lama even put it like this, in answer to a question: “We are promiscuous in our compassion. It’s not us versus them. Not goodies versus baddies”. So truly freeing our hearts. 

A further aspect of the teachings from last Saturday, which seems connected with this, is that if we are seriously trying to practise dharma, then sooner or later we will need to live without approval from others with respect to what we think we think about everything that’s going on. This is reminiscent of a point made by Karma Thinley Rinpoche in his ‘Lamp that Dispels Darkness’:

“Since the ways in which beings experience a thing are various, what is non-existent for one is fully existent for another and there is no need for any similarity.”

In the afternoon, Lama Jampa gave an initiation that enables us to cultivate meditation on the principal bodhisattvas of the three Buddha families: Manjushri of Vairocana’s Tathagata family, Chenrezik of Amitabha’s Lotus family and Vajrapani of Akshobya’s Vajra family. This is very special as it provides a way to cultivate the three innate qualities that we need to sustain us on the path: wisdom, compassion and power.

Those of us who have embarked on this mode of meditation can see that such practice actually does help to turn us around in our hearts. Rather than seeing the kind of teachings we heard in the morning as an onerous giving up of what we really want to do, we gain a freer way into a lighter compassion which doesn’t need to carry a heavy heart.

What is Tantra? Removing the Mystique

To all outward appearances, Buddhist tantra can seem strange and mysterious as well as, perhaps, exotic and exciting. We could easily come to believe that the essence of its power lies in its inaccessibility to intellect and reason. So we could get the idea that for its very efficacy, any detailed understanding of its methods will always remain inaccessible, perhaps as some kind of divine mystery.  We could even think that the more we are able to manufacture faith in the mystery of tantra and throw ourselves into its practices, the greater our chances of emerging as an enlightened being.

Concluding his teaching this summer, at Changlochen Ling in France, of ‘The General Presentation of the Tantra Sets’ by the Sakya master Sonam Tsemo, Lama Jampa said it would be quite mistaken to maintain any such idea.

He issued a warning to beware of mystifiers. He explained that false mystification of tantra is quite a different thing from the secrecy that is necessary in the tantric system. Elements of secrecy are essential to protect tantric methods from their premature use and misuse in general, but this does not prohibit masters of Vajrayana from explaining what Buddhist tantra is and what the requirements are for its effective practice.

There is always a meaning, a point, that is accessible to understanding even though initially aspects of the path are presented in a covered way. Finally, everything is to be understood. This protects us from mystification and mystifiers. Genuine masters share the intelligence of the dharma with their students. Mystification of Vajrayana is a betrayal of the dharma. To know that all is accessible to our intelligence in the end is good for our confidence.”

His Holiness the 41st Sakya Trizin has offered presentations of what tantra is on a number of occasions, both in print and in teachings which can be found online: eg Melody of Dharma, issues 7,8 and 12. In his article in issue 8, His Holiness refers to misconceptions stemming from the esoteric nature of tantra. Before proceeding to clarify these, he says:

Since the time of the Buddha, the tantras were always taught secretly and selectively. For their correct understanding, they have always required the oral instructions of a qualified master; without such explanation, they can easily be misunderstood in wrong and harmful ways.

He goes on to say that he is prevented from providing explanations which are only appropriate to be given to tantric initiates, but he is able to use explanations from Sonam Tsemo’s text, as Lama Jampa has done, to explain to us what Buddhist tantra is. Another place where we can hear His Holiness present an overview of what tantra is, is from a recording of a teaching he gave in Madrid in 2016.

So, a valid message for aspiring Vajrayana disciples would be: do not abandon your intelligence and ability to use reason. However, do learn, step by step, to understand and practise the tantric methods as taught and explained by your lama and vajra master in order to cut through the dualistic conceptualisation that traps us in samsara.

Upcoming Teaching Event

There will be an excellent opportunity in late September to hear Lama Jampa give teachings on Vajrayana based on his book ‘Rain of Clarity’. So, a trip to Bristol on Saturday 30th September will be thoroughly worthwhile for any serious dharma student who wants to understand what Buddhist tantra is and the benefits of practising it.  

The Essential Requirements for the Practice of Tantra

What are the essential requirements for effective practice of tantra? From the Lama’s teaching from Sonam Tsemo’s text, they can be summarized as:

  • One must begin by taking refuge in the Three Jewels and keep the moral precepts. Then one should study the Mahayana teachings on bodhichitta, since the only correct motivation for tantric practice is to pursue one’s bodhisattva aspiration.

  • One must find a vajra master who is qualified to give initiations and be accepted as a student by a lama who is able to explain details of sadhana practice and generally give one guidance on the detail of how to progress with one’s practice of the Vajrayana.

  • One should only attempt to engage in practice derived specifically from initiations one has received and then only under the guidance of one’s lama

  • One should be careful to understand whatever tantric vows one is taking as part of an initiation and be meticulous in keeping those vows in order to protect one’s practice from unwanted consequences.

  • It is important for the Vajrayana student to have confidence that his or her lama will reveal the meaning of their practice step by step and only according to their developing level of maturity in that practice. To look outside of that teacher-disciple relationship by, for example, referring to modern attempts to explain tantra or trying to study texts that are not recommended by the lama and hence are not appropriate, will only cause harm to one’s spiritual development.  

Why I Need to Tame My Mind

Reflections on a Dharma Talk By HH Ratna Vajra Rinpoche

Lama Jampa Thaye introducing His Holiness

Lama Jampa Thaye introducing His Holiness

One of the questions asked by a member of the audience at the public talk on The Power of Buddhism given by His Holiness Ratna Vajra Rinpoche in Bristol on the evening of Friday 26th May (full report here) was about anger. It is not easy to turn to love and compassion, the questioner said, when something has made us furious - how are we to deal with anger in such situations?

His Holiness began his reply by pointing out that for all of us anger and negative thoughts have been in our mind-stream for a very long time, not just in our current life but in countless lives before this. For that reason, anger is not easy to control.

He then went on to ask us to consider what purpose anger serves. If, for example, we have had something stolen from us, anger will not cause our property to be returned to us. Nor will it make us feel happy. Whichever way we look at it, anger does not help but only brings suffering for all concerned.

So, how should we view a situation when someone becomes angry? His Holiness referred to this as someone ‘showing us anger’. Anger, he said, can arise without any invitation, at any time and anywhere in our own mind or in another person’s mind, owing to all kinds of sudden factors, sometimes apparently quite trivial. What will be helpful for us when someone shows us anger is to remember that the person showing aggression is himself under the control of anger. We should think that it is not the fault of the person but of anger itself. This is a perfect opportunity for us to practise tolerance and avoid causing more suffering by returning aggression with more useless aggression.  

His Holiness gave the analogy of being hit by someone with a stick. We don’t get angry with the stick. It produces pain but has no intention of hurting us: it is the person wielding the stick who is in control. But is the angry person truly in control? No, it is anger that is in control of the person who can be likened to the stick, simply being used to act, physically or verbally, in a harmful way by this disturbing emotion.

In conclusion, His Holiness referred back to his talk, in which he had pointed out that it is mind that gives the orders for physical and verbal actions. They are merely the servants of mind. Mind is the boss. That is why, as he had earlier explained, we need to begin the task of taming our mind, so that we will be equipped to deal with situations such as those provoked by anger when they arise.

The key to success in the twin endeavours of overcoming negative emotions and taming the mind is developing loving kindness and compassion towards all beings without exception. In his talk, His Holiness emphasised the crucial importance of these long-term endeavours; which we undertake on our Dharma path with the guidance of our Lama, who provides us with more detailed explanations on how we can gradually extend the loving kindness that we already naturally feel towards those dear to us.

This, as His Holiness said at the conclusion of his talk, is The Power of Buddhism to tame our mind.

Hear His Holiness’s talk again (and again) at this SoundCloud link.

Rebirth Explained

Lama Jampa recently gave a talk in Stuttgart entitled ‘Death and Dying from a Buddhist Perspective’ and a recording of this talk can be found on SoundCloud here. This post provides a brief synopsis of the Lama's talk using much of his own introduction to the topic.

Lama Jampa (2).JPG

Learning how to live properly we need to learn how to die properly. In Buddhism, life and death are seen as twin faces of reality.

“In the modern world the sight and significance of death have been put out of view and we have come to see it as a fading away into nothingness or an abrogation of everything wondrous about life. That leads to embarrassment or fear about the subject as well as other emotions. This not only impoverishes our lives but is a foolish move, since we all will come to know death in the most intimate of ways.

“What Buddha discovered on the night of enlightenment was the state beyond birth and death, the clear light, unborn and unceasing, which is the fundamental nature of our mind. To experience this freedom from birth and death, we need to learn to pass through the gates of death.

“The way to do that is to become aware of how death and birth are woven into every moment of our existence. In this way we prepare for death at the end of this physical life. Every moment there is the opportunity to awaken to the space beyond birth and death. It is the space that is there between death and rebirth.”

The technical term for this space is bardo (intermediate state) and, in his talk, Lama Jampa goes on to describe what are known as the three bardos: the bardo of life, the bardo of death and the bardo of dream. It is possible to recognise the fundamental nature of our mind, the clear light, in each of these bardos. Hence it is possible to attain the deathless state in this life and great masters have done so throughout the history of the Buddhist tradition.

It is clearly difficult for us to awaken from the bewitchment of self into which we have fallen in this physical life but, as Lama Jampa explains, at the time of death, when the sense of physical identity dissolves, there is greater opportunity to recognise the deathless state.

We can prepare for that opportunity simply by the practice we do in this life and by knowing about the intermediate states. Lama Jampa emphasises that preparing for the bardo of death is the most natural thing in the world and not some extraordinary or esoteric excursion. In this, we are returning to the fundamental, simple state, the actual nature of mind as it really is.

In his talk, Lama Jampa delineates the processes of dissolution in some detail, including how, as explained in the Tantras, each of the dissolutions results in a kind of hallucination. Having described these bardo experiences, Lama Jampa then explains how the process of rebirth occurs. This happens through the force of karmic imprints, through which one’s consciousness is impelled forward into the ‘next life’ -  which, in the case of a human birth, is into union with the unifying male and female elements, the sperm and the ovum.

In summary, the Lama says that in his talk he has tried to highlight the parallels with our own experience in this life to show that the bardo, the intermediate state, is just an encounter with the true nature of reality, which is always there between each thought, between one moment and the next, between one emotion and the next. The bardo is always there.

No Self Found

It comes as a shock to us when we hear the Buddhist teaching of non-self. How can we deal with that? And what does it mean?

On YouTube, as part of his answer to the question “What is the Essence of Buddhism?”, Lama Jampa Thaye explains that it is the false notion of self that leads us into frustration, disappointment and suffering. Whereas if we learn to abandon this false belief we can awaken to our natural state and thus gain freedom from suffering.

Since the habitual belief in a self and our apparent need for one are so strong, we need to gain conviction that the notion of 'self' is indeed a fiction. Such conviction will not be gained simply by hearing someone say there is no self. A more effective way, one that has been taught by Buddhist masters for centuries, is to actually search for the existence of a self, using the power of reasoning.

How are we to understand the emptiness of self?

How are we to understand the emptiness of self?

In Bristol on Saturday 21st January, teaching from his book, “Rain of Clarity”, Lama Jampa carefully walked students through the classical Buddhist method of applying such reasoning. We will then be able to apply this in our  own study and practice of the Path, and hence in our own experience.  

What do we mean by self? We first need to be clear about what it is we are looking for. As Lama Jampa explained, a self is something or someone that is independent, autonomous and permanent. With this in mind we can then examine our experience to find out if such an independent, autonomous and permanent entity can be found anywhere within it.

The search takes us into our body and mind, to see if the self exists within them or outside them. Investigating the five aggregates of classical Buddhist psychology that make up all possible physical and mental experience, Lama Jampa showed that no such self can be found to exist.

Lama Jampa explains

Lama Jampa explains

It is crucial for us to learn from the teacher how to use analytical tools such as these, as it helps us move a step closer to the liberating understanding we seek. This was felt in a short period of meditation when we sat together on Saturday having heard the teaching.

Lama Jampa will resume his explanation from Rain of Clarity, looking at the second of the two kinds of non-self, that of all phenomena, on Saturday 25th March in London.